This Inexhaustible Mexico!
My impressions from multiple travels across Mexico were formed during the visits to extraordinary cities, interaction with its kind and friendly people, and acquainting with their extremely rich culture and history as well as with immense natural treasures. Mexico is a country of pleasant surprises and excitement. Those unfortunates that think they truly experienced Mexico while staying in "all included" hotels in Cancun, Rivera Maya, or even Puerta Vallarta, deserve sympathy akin to people that, well into their grey haired age, think that children are delivered by a stork. In order to be able to form a valid opinion of Mexico, it is important to tread the country up and down, stay for at least a couple of days in the cities belonging to a treasury of world culture, taste the dishes of delicious Mexican cuisine in little roadside restaurants, and mingle with the natives of the country. The main goal of me and my wife's recent voyage to United States of Mexico was a visit to the state of Hidalgo and an in-depth personal acquaintance with an amazing natural creation-the canyon of river Tolantongo.
In this state, located in the heart of Mexico some 140 km from the capital of the country, the Cordilleras are streaming with warm (38C - 40C) water. Streams and waterfalls run down the mountains covered with lush vegetation, forming rivers and caves filled with warm clean water. The white limestone basin makes the rivers a beautiful shade of sky blue. There are plenty of blue rivers in Mexico, for example Tampaon in a state of San Luis Potosi, in a still little known to the tourist Huasteca Potosina, although the Tampaon is filled with relatively cold water (~23C), while here it is considerably warmer.
Teotihuacan. So, let's go. Our travel started in a rental car right at the Mexico airport. The GPS that we took with us was set for Teotihuacan. This city located 50 km from the capital got its world fame due to the pyramids of Sun and Moon, located on the outskirts. They are connected by the Road of the Dead and were erected by pre-Aztec civilizations. Even though we were quite familiar with Teotihuacan, a hot air balloon flight over the pyramids was still on our to-do list, so with the opportunity knocking on our door, it would have been blasphemous to pass it up.
So off we went to the pyramids under the direction of our trusted and tried navigation and...we missed our turn to Teotihuacan. It appears that there is a break in a time-space continuum in Mexico, so our GPS gave us a command to turn right when we, passing the tollway, were already racing down the highway towards Queretaro. We are not novices in Mexico, but this was out first time going to Teotihuacan on our own, and has cost us extra two hours. However, we did not regret it: our navigation was serving us just right afterwards, and using local roads leading through little quaint towns and villages, we finally reached our destination. Here is where I have to detour a little and tell about Mexican roads. In this country there is a chain of beautiful tollways. The cost of the tollways in Mexico is pretty high-from 3 to 26 dollars, which is quite understandable-the country is very hilly, so building roads is a very costly task. For example, the trip down the tollway Autopista del Sol ?95 from Mexico to Acapulco costs 60-70 dollars, which is around 400km. The cost includes the insurance, so "in case of anything" you won't have to pay for the damages to the road, its landmarks, and the labor required to clean up the remnants of the accident. The other type of roads - free ones - are also very nice, but...if a road runs through a populated location, or if there is a school nearby, it will be covered with speed-bumps (topes), located within 30-100m from each other, spoiling the experience. Those speed-bumps vary in width and height, which adds to the excitement of going over them-in order to keep your car in one piece, it is important to make a full stop at the top. In large cities, there are signs warning about topes, and the topes themselves are decorated with yellow stripes for better visibility. In smaller cities, you are running the risk of going airborne, hearing the engine roar on wild turns, and a bang of the suspension-especially during the nighttime. That is why it is important to anticipate the topes in advance, or to use the tollways at all cost. It is important to note that it is impossible to completely rely on a GPS in Mexico for a simple reason that authorities there have a passion for changing the direction of traffic on a daily basis. During the weekends and market days it is not uncommon for them to close entire blocks without detour directions. In this case you can always expect help from the locals. During this trip, for example, we were guided several times by the local people to the road we needed (we followed their cars). When it comes to help, the altruism of Mexican people knows no borders. There is, however, one requirement-you have to know Spanish language. Thanks to my wife, we didn't have any problems in that area. Mexican people are always ready to give you the right directions, but they always communicate with you like you are a local, and are very familiar with the locale. So, if they tell you to drive straight, be prepared to find the road ending with a fork, and to look for another "navigator". However, their desire to help out is astounding and admirable.
Now, its time to get back to our travel. Teotihuacan-a small town famous for its pyramids of Sun and Moon, which yearly bring masses of tourists from around the world. It is considered to be very important to reach the peak of a Sun Pyramid and stand on top of it with your arms open wide, soaking in the history of the epochs. It is even better to lay on top of it, although you would be running a risk of someone stepping on you...
At this time, our goal was not to get to the top of the pyramid, but to fly over it in a hot air balloon-over overgrown with fruitful cacti land, little houses belonging to the locals, and fields covered with nutritious vegetation. Yours truly, armored with photo and video equipment, was picked as a designated "flyer". After all the necessary preparations, which were done right in front of us, and instructions not to stick out of the basket too much or get out before the transport comes to a full stop, the balloon with a basket, filled with 8 daredevils and an instructor, slowly started moving in a direction of the pyramid of Sun, which was closer and seemed larger (it actually IS larger, than the pyramid of Moon).
Our balloon was rising higher and higher, lit up by the sun and accompanied with an exciting bark of local dogs, greeting the brave heroes of air exploration from down below. Eight passengers were enjoying the beautiful sceneries from a bird's eye view. After the dogs stopped barking, it was a complete morning silence, occasionally interrupted by the noise of a gas burner, operated by our brave pilot. A thin veil of fog was covering the valley, predicting a pleasant day, and a slight breeze carried our crew past the pyramid of Sun, inspiring thoughts of frailty of human civilizations. Far away we could see an active volcano-Popocatepetl, and its quiet brother Iztaccihuatl.
Their tips were covered with snow, distinguishing them from other mountain tops. Here I can allow another diversion from the main topic: it is amazing how easily the locals pronounce Indian names, which make our tongues twist and get forgotten right after reading them. For example, to get to San Cristobal, where Tolantongo is located, we had to head toward a little town with a charming name Ixmiquilpan. Only the fact that I have been there made me remember its name, but before that I had a really hard time. So, let's continue: five or six hot air balloons were floating in the air, transporting us into the times described by Jules Verne. The participating balloons came from different companies, varying by colors. Ours was red and yellow, which beautifully contrasted with a bright blue sky and dark-green mountains.
This flight brought us multiple regular and panoramic shots, as well as several minutes of a very unique video, which was impossible to take from the ground. The landing was in a very formal, yet celebratory manner - all balloon travelers got a reward in a shape of a buffet breakfast, while people who were lucky to have a birthday on that day also got a birthday cake. Besides that, all passengers got a certificate, proving the fact that the flight took place for any doubting friends in the future, and making a great keepsake. The day was just beginning, and we had to keep moving - we were heading to the state of Hidalgo and its basalt prisms, with a one night stay in a luxurious hacienda.
Pachuca. Road to the prisms lead through the capital of the state of Hidalgo- Pachuca. It was Sunday, which is all I can say...Moreover, it was an upcoming holiday week-September 16th, 2012 - 202 years since the fall of Spain's rule. It seemed that the entire population of the country gathered in Pachuca. It is a known fact that people in Mexico are masters at Brownian movement in the streets and squares, but I have never seen anything like that before. People were leaping from one store to another, buying something at one stand, then another, moving around each other, then coming back, getting into cars, parking them if they were lucky, literally shoving them in-between other vehicles...There was nowhere to stop. We, equipped with some knowledge about this city, rushed to see a city landmark-the clock (Reloj), gifted to the city by Cornwell native Francis Rule in honor of 100 years of Mexico's independence in September 15th, 1910. There is a bit of curious history in this city-at some point, when Europeans found out about endless resources of silver hiding in the pits of these areas, many English miners rushed here at the invitation of a head of a local government and settled here, planting their roots. However, they were overtaken by nostalgia. They couldn't move back and forth between two worlds, so they decided to create a little part of good old London (and other parts of England) in this area. They started erecting buildings in a style of their familiar architecture, and in time there became a cemetery Pantheon Ingles in a very typical Anglican style. I'll remind you that these people weren't exiled from England, nor were they ever persecuted - they were coming here to earn money and make living, so they had every reason to be nostalgic for their homeland. To construct that clock, they invited the same company that constructed London's Big Ben.
Real Del Monte (from the list of "Magical Cities") - founded in 1824, it is an even more English town in the state of Hidalgo. Immigrants from Cornwell brought with them new technologies of silver mining, drastically increasing production and improving work conditions. This very pleasant town with winding streets and colorful houses, often in European style, welcomed masses of Cornwell miners at some time.
Huasca de Ocampo. We couldn't skip this wonderful town, which is included in an international registry "Magic Cities"- first one in the state of Hidalgo. Huasca was founded between 1760 and 1780, when Pedro Romero de Terreros, a first count of the government, opened silver mining in these areas. Mines, laid by him, made the count one of the wealthiest people in the world. He also founded 4 largest haciendas, in one of which - San Miguel Regla - we have stayed for a night. Here I should put a clarification - a hacienda has several identifying signs to be qualified as one:
1. An hacienda must include living as well as manufacturing quarters, or buildings associated with production.
2. An hacienda must occupy a large area and have a lake on its premises.
3. The territory of an hacienda must be surrounded by a stone fence.
4. An hacienda must have a church, accessible by locals from neighboring villages.
5. An hacienda is not an hacienda if there are no pheasants walking around its premises.
A Mexican revolution of 1910-1917, just like a revolution of 1917 in Russia, took down business owners, and thus-knowledgeable masters of haciendas. As a result, the haciendas became dilapidated and were ruined by a class of talentless lazy charlatans that came to power. The economy of the country was damaged, and with it, gone into nowhere was a notion of an hacienda as an industrial venture, responsible for giving jobs and income to thousands of workers. In a second half of XX century the remnants of some of the haciendas that were left intact were given to private hands in order to create hotels, since their territories previously had many quarters occupied by families of owners and servants.
In around 16 kilometers from the hacienda San Miguel Regla there are famous Basalt Prisms. Those are volcanic formations of geometrical shapes that form walls of a small picturesque canyon, on the bottom of which there is a river, running with waters of several waterfalls, carrying in its turn water from a small lake nearby. It is a very pleasant cultural location, where the locals enjoy their rest, celebrate holidays, and participate in various sports. We really enjoyed spending 3 hours there and took tons of beautiful pictures and materials for a future film.
However, we still had to get to Tolantongo. We started out the next morning after final goodbye taping in the background of ducks and a beautiful park with a pond, surrounded by a stone wall. Now our route laid through Ixmiquilpan down Highway 85 covered with topes - probably to keep you alert and on your toes. It took us 3 hours to drive 135 km, and after exiting Ixmiquilpan, we headed to Cardonal, where the road #27 branches out, and the right branch leads towards San Cristobal. But this San Cristobal is not to be confused with San Cristobal de Las Casas, which is in a state of Chiapas near the capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, famous for its amazing canyon Sumidero of the Grijalva river.
Our San Cristobal - is a different San Cristobal. It is also a place where we saw real Cordilleras! They were surrounding us from all sides, and the road was winding down their sides, leading us into the depths overgrown with cacti and perennial and deciduous trees growing from the cracks, to where the turquoise hot river Tolantongo is rolling its warm waters in this land filled with unknown.
Tolantongo. All the following narration about this unique land is based on our communication with local residents and workers in a customer service sphere, and contains firsthand information. People of Indian Otomi tribe, who inhabit San Cristobal and its surrounding areas, has decided to change their lives for the best, declaring the lands in the canyon area their own property and starting building of quaint hotels down the southern shore of a sky blue river and down the sides of the mountains. They raised as much money as they could, and with their own efforts started building a road to the river, and erecting hotels on its shore. They didn't receive any funds from the government or banks, and didn't pay any taxes. In several years in the area of the caves, where the river Tolantongo starts its journey, they have built a modern hotel, and two more nearby.
All property on these lands belongs to an Indian commune, and all profits from its use get distributed among its own workers. The public council takes care of organizational and economic issues - they distribute financial and human resources. A separate attention is given to safety of the tourists, since this is vital to the whole community. In 8 years of its existence, there not only hasn't been a single case of an accident, but also any criminal case. All necessary construction works in the cave and the tunnel are done incredibly fast and with high quality, without any financial loss - and we were witnesses to that. The river Tolantongo in the area of the hotel is divided into pools by horizontal stone dividers, so you can pick an individual pool for swimming. The bottom of the river is covered with rocks - it is important to wear rubber water shoes - but they are flat and don't cause any trouble. It is very pleasant to stretch out in this pool along or across the stream, and enjoy the springy blue warm streams envelope your body, lulling and healing you in process.
The cleanliness around is astounding. The amount of garbage cans surpasses any other part of this country. The restaurant treats to magnificent diverse Mexican meal, and on the territory of the hotel are wonderful accommodations for changing before and after swimming in the warm river. A second hotel is located a little higher in the mountains and offers relaxation in smaller handmade clay pools - pozas - with equally warm river water. We spent hours in those pools, moving from one to another, like some people move from one restaurant to another, enjoying the warmth, surrounding us, and the view of marvelous welcoming mountains, radiating tranquility and power.
Between the hotels there is a kilometer and a half long tourist path, winding between tall cacti, reaching into the skies like small ballistic rockets, banana palms densely covered with fruit, papaya trees, and beautiful multicolored flowers. Little lizards rush back and forth right by your feet, and enormous butterflies of incredible colors boldly flutter right above your head. Right nearby there is a bubbling transparent stream, radiating warmth and bliss...It seems that warm water oozes from every rock, every cavern, creating little streams and rivers that fall into a rapid river Tolantongo.
But it is time to say goodbye to the cascades of little pools and a huge sky blue Tolantongo river.
We got into our bizarre transportation - a hybrid of Dodge and Hyundai - and started moving on our way to Tula de Allende in hopes to meet the famous Tula Atlases. On the way there we were again treading through the market rows of the city of Ixmiquilpan and, after some research with a help of local residents, successfully got onto one of multiple roads leading to Tula de Allende.
Tula de Allende. A charismatic place, a path to which will never grow over, it is a former capital of Toltecs - a destination of pilgrimage of all tourists. It is similar to Teotihuacan, but there are well preserved remnants of a temple - pyramid, a roof of which was supported by four different in appearance from each other 4- meter tall stone figures - Atlases.
I can only assume that those are figures of some local celebrities that wanted to eternalize themselves in stone. Nearby was a place of gathering of representatives of the people and executive authorities in a shape of a small stadium, divided into sections. Each section was designed for members of local parliament, the council of elders, and a group of local military members. For a better convenience, there was an execution spot right nearby, where the unfortunates would periodically get beheaded in a ritual manner. Some people mistakenly assume that this action was designated for the top of the pyramid, but that is not exactly the case. The pyramid was a sacred place, which is closer to God (or, to be exact, one of the Gods, since the Indians were pagan), and the blood could not even touch it. Not far from the execution place stood another pyramid, which evidently was used as a backup when there was no more space on a main one. By the way, a lot of this information was obtained from the first mouth of the representative of these people, which was selling souvenirs at the main entrance to the pyramid, and told us a ton of interesting information, which not only added to our ideas of Indian culture, but also shook some of them up. For example, we found out that the pyramids, including the ones in Teotihuacan, were faceted with colorful hand painted ceramic tiles, which were supported by numerous stones sticking out from the surfaces. With time some of these tiles were stolen and used for domestic purposes and some were taken to the Anthropological Museum of Mexico, so now the pyramids are flaunting bare rocks on their surfaces. This is why it is very useful and important to communicate with the locals-they know the traditions passing from generation to generation. His knowledge and fascinating storytelling were generously rewarded - after all, science requires funding. And now - it is time to travel...
Tepoztlan. Road to Tepoztlan leads through the capital of the Mexican state, and we decided to have a break from the abundance of impressions and savor an incredible cocktail made from mamey. This is the most delicious cocktail in the world, and I can attest to it 'til the end of times. I have developed a ritual, according to which my every arrival to Mexico City is being accompanied by multiple trips to a magical cafe, where they make this fantastic drink. I have to warn you that it is an invention of either state of Mexico, or the Federal District, since nobody has heard about this drink anywhere else to their own demise. On this trip to Mexico we have decided to use a most available method of transportation - the subway (metro). The first line 11.5km long started running September 4th 1969, two years after the beginning of the construction, and after that the metro system started rapidly developing, which couldn't be more timely - the population of the city grew from 4 to 21 million. The price of the ride is laughable - 3 pesos, or 25 cents for the whole experience. The train's cars run on rubber pads, which make them completely silent. The builder was a company Ingenieros Civiles Asociados - one of the largest construction companies in Latin America. The names of the stations reflect a rich heritage of the country. We took metro to get to the Southern bus station, in order to go to Tepoztlan. This city is located in a state of Morelos, whose capital is Cuernavaca - a city of eternal spring. In a timely manner we arrived to Tepoztlan in a comfortable bus.
Tepoztlan, which carries a title of a "Magical City of Mexico", is considered to be a birthplace of the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, and is famous for its cathedral tower and a pyramid-temple, built high up in the mountains presumably by Aztecs. This pyramid was built specifically in a way that it wouldn't be visible from down below. It was erected long before the arrival of Hernan Cortes, and its unusual location was not connected with the appearance of malevolent Spaniards. That is why, when we were climbing up a 2km long path, disorderly laid with rocks, at the 1.3km difference of height we didn't know what it looked like. Somewhere halfway up we started getting overcame with thoughts that we haven't done enough with our lives to recklessly say good bye to them in this manner, and maybe there is no pyramid up there, and these manuscripts about them don't even exist...The only comforting sight was a large amount of Mexicans quickly moving up and down, many of them with little children in their arms and heavy luggage. This gave us energy and strengthened our fighting spirit.
We understood that it would be faint-hearted and improper to turn back, and moreover than that - we would have no material to report. So we continued on going up, hopping from one rock to another. Our enjoyment lasted about 2 hours. At the top we found a lot of people, and I suspect that a lot of them flew in a Carlson- like manner, instead of crawling up like us. They looked fresh and satisfied. Besides that, we were greeted by panhandler - pezotes - bold furry creatures, familiar to us from Costa Rica, with pointy snouts, long tails, and an insatiable desire to steal and eat something. They are able to grab ka plastic bag or a purse, holding it with their front paws, and run on their hind ones with an incredible speed, which caused mad laughter from the passersby, but of course not from the victims that had their items stolen.
Not too far stood a legendary pyramid. After gaining some valuable experience at climbing, we started discussing the problems with delivery of some of huge boulders, which the pyramid was made of, as well as delivery of enormous boxes with drinks to a kiosk located at the top. We finally came to a conclusion about an elevator, hidden in the bushes, or at least a labor force of pezotes used as a traction power. Meanwhile, the skies got covered with heavy clouds, and we decided to withdraw.
We tumbled down in only 45 minutes, hastened by the experience of climbing up 1.3km, and also by incredibly beautiful views of a river cavern, which we just visited. It was already far past noon, so we decided to dine in a little local restaurant, in which the hostesses were already cooking various viands on an open fire. The fact that our meal of mind-bogglingly delicious is a given in these areas. I could tell you for hours about the delicacy of Mexican "outdoor" cuisine, but that is not the aim of this narrative. I just have to say that it is extremely inexpensive. While we were enjoying our food, we became witness to a tropical downpour in a mountain town. Little streets momentarily turned into rapid rivers, that swept everything in their way, and lightning kept striking the mountain tops. Thankfully to a considerate slope of the streets, these rivers weren't deep-approximately up to the top of a wheel on a car, but everything roared and bubbled, demonstrating the power and temper of the elements. All you could do is commiserate with people that were either caught in this storm walking down, or were still stuck on top of the mountain by the pyramid. Approximately in about an hour and a half the nature stopped its rampage and we were able to get to our bus in Mexico, but you could still see lightning flashes everywhere and hear the roars of thunder well into the night. We considered it our farewell salute as the next day we were saying goodbye to the capital.
Mexico is an amazing country. With each trip, and I have lost count to them already, I discover new nuances, qualities, nature's treasures, unexpected facets of Mexican culture and human character. Mexico is truly inexhaustible.
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