We woke up to a good start, with the local police cruising through the empty parking lot behind AutoZone and giving us a friendly honk. With expectations low and hopes high we parted ways with our asphalt abode and cruised south towards our uncertain future. With every finger in the car crossed we continued south on Highway 85 in relative silence, the only sound being the accustomed roar of our unmuffled motor. For the next hour we each contemplated the demise of our trip, knowing that if (when) the car died we would have exhausted all possible options with the exception of either 1. blowing it up in sadistic delight, or 2. selling the broken down piece of shit to some poor soul. Two hours down the road and to our surprise and tentative delight the car was still functioning.
As we crossed south across the Tropic of Cancer there was a sudden and dramatic shift in landscape and vegetation as the road headed towards the mountains. Semi-arid agricultural landscapes almost immediately changed to heavily vegetated tropical valleys surrounded by massive clouded mountains. Military checkpoints also increased along the windy road and nearly every half hour we were stopped and inspected. Inspections were more or less out of curiosity and only at one stop was there any genuine effort put into it, albeit by a very young and clumsy drug sniffing German Shepherd that was having way too much fun smelling our food and stinky clothes. By the 5th stop in two hours it had almost become a joke to us as every car in front of ours would cruise through the checkpoint without stopping and we would get an immediate wavedown. The faces of the inspection agents were priceless each time they first saw us coming down the road…Complete boredom, squinty eyes as that saw Arnold, a flash of interest once they saw gringos, big smiles as they flagged us off the road.
Along the way to Cuidad Valles we stopped at a small roadside vendor with an assortment of unique dried plants and goodies for sale. Among the more interesting things for sale were what looked like your classic popsicle shaped bird feed with a variety of nuts and seeds. Elliott asks the vendor, “Oh, are these to feed to the birds around here?” and the vendor responds with a slightly confused and humorous smile, “No these are for eating.” “Great, we’ll take three.” We also bought ¾ of a liter of the best honey we’ve ever tasted for a whopping $7.
Later in the day we found our way to our final destination of the day, Cuidad Valles, to buy groceries and supplies for the next jaunt of the trip. I think we all agreed that it would have been nice to be able to spend more time in the town of over 100,000 people but it was getting late and we had to head out of town to find camping. We guerilla styled on someone’s pig farm and after a midnight soaker we woke up, dried out, and head to the mountain town of Aquismon where Elliott and I read there were some amazing caves and soltonos to explore.
Heading east off of Highway 85 through a mixture of cow pastures and palm trees we drove into Aquismon, undoubtedly in my mind the most beautiful town I had seen on the trip thus far. At the base of towering tropical mountains obscured by dense clouds sits this Corvallis sized town, charming in so many indescribable ways. Elliott hopped out of the car to inquire about guided tours of the famous caves of the region as the rest of us navigated the narrow cobblestone streets to find parking. We found Elliott at the tourism office in perfect Elliott form, having already befriended the tourist agent as well as a local guide and negotiated an all day caving tour for a total of $14.
Our easygoing and softspoken local guide Cesario climbed into the front seat of the Burb and we were off. For 45 minutes we climbed one of the gnarliest roads we had been on, bumping and bouncing our way farther away from civilization as we knew it. Cesario explained to us that the majority of people living in Aquisom were of Temic descent and as each mile ticked by on the odometer it became very apparent that the majority of people we were seeing were indigenous. While a road to access these rural mountain communities had existed for some time it was only in the last 15-20 years that electricity had made it this far into the mountains. After what seemed like a very uncomfortable eternity we had finally arrived at the trailhead to Cueva Linda, Cesario’s favorite relatively accessible cave. We hiked through dense jungle seeing unfamiliar trees and plants and listening to the calls of unfamiliar birds. Eventually we made it to the cave entrance, an impressive 30 by 30 foot foreboding black hole with vines dangling over the entrance like icicles. Being vastly underprepared for the endeavor we galloped into the subterranean vastness with a few questionable flashlights, a handful of extra batteries, and a water bottle apiece. For nearly a mile we slowly made our way from room to room, admiring the otherworldly geologic formations. By far the most impressive room in the cave was called the Marimba Room where stalactites came down from the 40 foot ceiling to the ground in formations resembling the pipes of the massive organs of European cathedrals. Cesario took a stone from the cave floor and while we stood in the oppressive blackness of the cave he began to tap his rock against different sized stalactites creating a haunting and beautiful sound fit only for a place as special as this cave. As if we hadn’t got our money’s worth from Cueva Linda Cesario attempted to guide us to another cave even more inaccessible to the average tourist. For nearly an hour we trudged along an ancient stone trail used by the indigenous to bring fresh coffee beans to Aquisomon before the Mexican government built the existing road to the mountain communities. In the sporadic yet drenching tropical rain we made our way up the mountainside to Cueva Oscura. Although less impressive than Cueva Linda in size and formations, the hike to Cueva Oscura through unfamiliar flora and fauna was well worth the hard work.
Cesario insisted that we drive to his hometown well up in the mountains where in the morning we would be able to watch a massive daily migration of the “Golondrino,” a small and speedy bird that resides in the many local limestone sinkholes of the region. We spent the evening cooking and sleeping under the roof of a well kept thatched roof hut Cesario had on his property. Waking up at midnight to the sound of pouring rain put smiles on all our faces, knowing we were very lucky to have such an awesome guide. In the morning we woke up in the dark and hiked down the hill to Soltono Golondrino where we would be able to watch the birds leaving their cave. In the early morning light before the surrounding mountains had taken on a green color we peered into the hole, over 500 meters deep, and listened as thousands of birds prepared to fly out for the day. We watched as groups of Golondrinos numbering in the hundreds flew out of the cave in a spiraling formation, gaining speed as they rose, until they reached the top of the hole and sped out at blurring speed to avoid the predatory hawks.
|Cesario's guest house near Soltono Golondrino|
We parted ways with Cesario later in the morning deeply grateful for his guidance and hospitality. Back in Aquismon we wandered around the Saturday market for hours sampling various food and bargaining for our groceries. If we weren’t as pressed for time we could have easily stayed another week in Aquismon but as things were we needed to get on the road again and make time.
|Delicious food at the Aquismon Saturday market|
The going was slow as we made our way south along a curvy highway littered with “topes.” After navigating our way through two large and confusing mountain cities we finally were on the road towards the Gulf Coast. Towards sundown we began looking for camping. A promising technique lately has been to cruise down a dirt road until we see someone and then hopefully luck out with a campsite on their property. As it happened we lucked upon a farm hand who directed us down the road to a hotel where we should ask for Margareta. An older gentleman with nearly unintelligible Spanish let us into an open grassy area behind a closed gate at what appeared to be an old auto hotel. He kept a curious eye on us while we unpacked and prepared dinner. Seeing four young gringos cooking was the most interesting thing he had apparently ever seen, so he went into the house to grab is aging wife so she could meet us and watch the shenanigans.
Margareta was an adorable old lady, hardly 5 feet tall, reminding me a lot of Yoda. She greeted us with a warm smile and immediately walked over to our large pot where she had to get on her tippy toes just to peer down into it. We sat down and drank our beers while we chatted with them about our adventures thus far and what we were planning down the road. After stuffing our faces with what we had prepared Margareta came out with a plate of mole enchiladas for desert. So good.
|Margareta and the fam in the garden|
The next morning we were invited to have breakfast with them and their two daughters. We ate like kings, each filling up with an assortment of chorizo mole enchiladas while we drank their homemade coffee. After our stellar breakfast we toured Margareta’s tropical garden where we she stopped at each edible plant to pick some for us. We made out with dozens of ripe oranges, lemongrass, pepper-like leaves used for teas, frozen mangos, an indigenous liquor, and homemade chocolates made from their cocoa tree. After saying our goodbyes and giving Margareta the biggest hugs possible we headed down the pothole strewn road towards Tuxpan with Margareta’s husband in the front seat guiding us through the confusing country roads. We dropped him off in Tuxpan, again said our thanks, and continued south along the Gulf Coast towards Nautla where we found a great campsite next to the river.