Thursday, January 10, 2008

Driving to Huasteca

Right after a fine Christmas spent with the family, the wife and I drove south to the Huastecan region about 300 miles south of the border down McAllen way. Most folks I know willing to drive 12 hours to go Somewhere Else head to the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. Contrarians by nature who by and large embrace Mexico’s contradictions and foreignness, we go south. Mountains are great but Mexico’s got them plus exotic scenery and a whole other language. Having to practica and aprende mas espanol is a bonus as far as we’re concerned and the dialect far more musical than the flat semi-Cali accent common to the Western United States.

Three years ago, with another family along for the adventure, we did El Cielo, the northernmost cloud forest in the western hemisphere, sixty miles south of Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, a six hour drive from McAllen or Brownsville. It was a great adventure in wild high country in suitably primitive accommodations eating deliciously simple food. This time we were going farther south, beyond Ciudad Mante to Ciudad Valles, where my friend Joe King spoke of waterfalls and springs and clear limestone rivers like the Hill Country, and to Xilitla, home of Las Pozas, Edward James surreal sculpture park in the jungle. Kayakers told me there was good whitewater around Valles. The deepest caves in the world attracted cavers from Austin. It was prime rappelling territory too.

We bought our Mexican insurance at Dan Sanborn’s in McAllen ($70 for full coverage for the week), an historic source of knowledge about driving in Mexio as well as a dispenser of coverage, which publishes travelogs of Mexico’s regions with mile-by-mile guides to the main highways ($8) . Alas, Mexico Mike Nelson, Sanborn’s best travel logger, is no longer with the agency and it shows in the log’s writing, which is spotty in its coverage but useful nonetheless. We changed money near the Pharr bridge – 10.86 to 11 pesos per dollar, paid the $2 bridge toll, and and paid our $32 plus credit card deposit for our auto sticker and got our tourist visas on the Mexican side of the Pharr bridge, a newer, more lightly traveled port of entry. The urban clutter around the maquiladora plants on the edge of Reynosa seemed confusing at first, but the four lane highway was big enough to accommodate us and regular traffic and some amazing old trucks and rickety vehicles puttering in the slow lane. We followed the signs directing us to San Fernando and the city soon peeled away, leaving us jetting at 65 on a mostly shoulderless two-lane blacktop like a good Farm-to-Market Road, cutting through irrigated wheat, sorghum and corn fields that except for signage and roadside construction could be Nebraska.

Near San Fernando the road joined the Brownsville-Matamoros road and opened up to a wide two-lane that expanded to four lanes on and off to Victoria with most cars going between 65 and 75 with trucks the wild card – some kept up with the small traffic, others trudged along as if this were off-the-beaten path path.

Most traffic in both directions straddled the broken line defining the paved shoulder, leaving the middle open to passing, solid yellow stripes being beside the point. Signage for posted speed and striping that is regarded as the law in the US is more like a recommendation here, meaning the driving sometimes seems a little more chaotic accompanied by heavy dashes of macho. Driving requires a head’s up most of the time on the driver’s part. Whoever’s riding shotgun gets to do the looking around. But it seems to work

Three and a half hours in, following a few miles of hairy switchback in the dry hills south of Victoria, the going gets good. .

It started back before Victoria with clusters of stands selling oranges in eighteen pound sacks for ten pesos lining the highway, followed a few miles later by a strip of stands selling machado (dried jerky-like beef) and camaron seco (dried shrimp), then more naranjas and limones.

Below Ciudad Victoria and the Tropic of Cancer, marked by a much grafittied metal globe by the side of the road, lowlands landscape at the base of the Sierra Madre Oriental turned jungle-y with bananas, mangos, and tropical fruits, vast expanse of sugar cane fields defined by their feather cane tops, and the same thick tangle of vegetation common all the way to the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala and beyond. The roadside merchandise of choice became miel, molasses, mangos, wicker cane chairs and rockers, and farther south orchids, palms and tropical plant nurseries, and café puro as the merchandise of choice worth stopping for. Everything was greener, el aire denser, thicker and moister. The arid ranchland dominated by yucca and agave that defines the Mexican borderlands had given way to plantations and ejidos, farming cooperatives unique to Mexico.

The pavement changes, too, from the almost four lane wide double highway with paved shoulder to a tight two lane blacktop with zero wiggle room and more bends and curves and wicked topes that force any speeder of any nationality slow down or lose their transmission. The road is sufficiently congested and populated with speeders passing on curves they shouldn’t be passing to remind me of the stretch between Buffalo and Streetman on the old Highway 75 between Dallas and Houston before Interstate 45 bypassed it in 1971. A sign at both ends informed motorists how many road fatalities had been recorded that year along the next 18 miles of roadway. You can’t slack driving these highways. In exchange, you get a stronger flavor where you’re passing through and a whiff of Neil Cassidy and Jack Kerouac motoring down this same route in “On the Road.”

Seven hours after leaving McAllen, we reached Ciudad Valles, where we found a room for two at the Mision Don Antonio, a charming Spanish Colonial with a parking lot courtyard for $55 a night and spotted two car loads of kayakers from Houston about to run the Rio Micos. The Mision was nice with a pleasant courtyard, large pool and jungle landscaping, although the mattress was sketchy and the sheets short.

New Year’s Eve was low-key, like the town’s overall vibe. A few firecrackers went off outside our window which faced the town’s main north-south drag. We skipped the events at our hotel and at the Hotel Valles, where we had a beer at their lovely jungle patio bar, tried enchiladas huasteca and found them the masa too dough-y like Yucatecan tamales and the dried beef accompaniment too dry, checked for email utilizing the hotel’s wireless connectivity, watched American movies on cable, then went to sleep.

Valles, less than 300 feet in elevation and 60 miles from Tampico and Gulf, is the heart of the Huasteca region, a land of tropics, mountains, rivers, springs, and – especially - waterfalls. All the cafés I walked into in the region had pictures of either waterfalls or Edward James’ surreal art park in the jungle, Las Pozas. The Huasteca are the indigenous people here, and their presence and traditions remain prominent long after the Spanish, the Mexican and the rest of the world have entered their lives.

A cold spell gripped the entire Republic on the first day of 2008, according to the female weather forecaster on television. The temperature was 67 at 9:30 in the morning, a drop from 88 degrees the afternoon before. It dropped and hovered around 55 accompanied by a steady rain in the almost two hours it took to drive to Las Pozas, our destination of the morning. Below Valles, the average driving speed dropped to 40 if you’re lucky, less if the winding, shoulderless road was clogged with trucks, buses, beaters and mopeds. Topes in the villages along the way, the only protection pedestrians have, sometimes required slowing to a near complete stop. Some towns had gradual topes, with increasing heights the closer to the center of town you were driving. Most topes were made of concrete. A few were small metal topes. Most were marked by signs. All required a sharp eye.

The road is still the lifeline here as it has been since the 1930s when it was designated the Pan American Highway through the 1960s “tourist crisis” when the official route was moved west to the Altiplano Central on the other side of the Sierra. People (and animals) walk along the road, build along the road, live along the road, which is why trash mainly in the forms of plastic, courtesy of our post 1970s global economy, litters the sides of the road. What lies beyond the road remains a secret to us travelers passing through.

Somewhere around the highway settlement of Xolol the majority of people along the road appear darker, stouter (but not fat), with distinctively indigenous facial features not unlike the broad noses, thick lips and wide eyes of the Maya.

After turning off the Highway 85 to Tamazunchale, we picked up the Fray Junipero Sierra trail, a string of missions in the highlands of the Huasteca towards Xilitla and Las Pozas, the art site that inspired the trip. Oddly, once off highway 85 to Tamazunchale, the road to Xililtla turns smooth and modern, although there is little shoulder. Despite the pavement’s condition, there are other obstacles to dodge, such a freshly dropped boulder from an overhang above the road, pushed over the edge by the rains, whose drumbeat grows steadier the deeper we get into the mountains, and plopped on half the pavement’s width. It is part and parcel of the more lawless approach to driving that factors in other realities beyond double stripes and posted signage. When there’s a broken down Nissan pickup full of passengers in front of you, puttering along at 30 mph, you’ve no choice but to follow until you find a stretch long enough without oncoming traffic to pass – as long as the bus or to BMW with Chilango license plates behind you don’t go first.

And finally, after turning onto a cobblestone road and a short two mile ascent into denser wild, following behind a Toyota pickup with a Compost Happens bumper sticker and a framed bed which is full of locals hopping a ride, we arrive at Las Pozas, whose distinctive concrete statuary pokes out of the lush jungle, a visual surprise comparable to the first sighting of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona created by Gaudi, inspiring a similar reaction: Who did this? And What on earth were they thinking?

Thirty pesos gets you inside. (For 300 to 500 pesos you can rent one of several cabanas with bathrooms and spare furnishing in the lower part of Las Pozas.]

Stairs lead to towers, platforms, houses, bridges, and organic structures surrounded by concrete statues that mimic the banana fronds, the giant bamboo and orchids around them. Some stairs lead to nowhere. The clash of manmade and nature is both subtle and startling. What is the Spade symbol doing here? Why this?

It is an adult playground for the nimble footed (especially in rain) with no guard rails, no precautions, and no wheelchair access.

The cold, wet weather kept the crowd count down to well under 100, judging from license plates mainly gringos and Chilangos from the DF, who dress and drive like gringos, all the better to savor the this unusual place imagined by an Englishman with vision and wherewithal. After about an hour of exploring while sharing a single umbrella, the rain chased us away too and into the mountain town of Xilitla, four kilometers up a dirt road in the Sierra Gorda, 3,750 feet above sea level.

The vegetation was vaguely familiar. Callow lilies. Corn plants. Vermiliads hanging from ceiba trees, coffee plants, ferns growing out of cracks in walls.

The coffee grown in Xililtla is the world’s finest, according to advertising written on the side of a coffee truck, but try to find in the local restaurants. Coffee here in almost all its forms save for one joint we found in a new strip mall one block north of the Hotel Valles and a shop on the main shopping street in downtown Valles. Otherwise, watered-down café rules.

On the other hand, cell phone connectivity is great. Even in remote mountain towns such as Xililtla, which one does not stumble upon by accident, cell phones are omnipresent and signals strong. Land lines, once hard to string up in the rugged mountains, are beside the point.

Cars and trucks are everywhere in Xilitla, the mountain town three kilometers beyond Las Pozas, although one cannot use them in the same manner as back home due to the steep streets, some so steep they are walking streets, not driving streets, and the omnipresent topes, which in Xililta are decorated with stones embedded in the concrete. The beauty of topes is, no two are alike. Some are built high enough to scrape a sedan’s oil pan, even if approached at a crawl. No matter what gringos may think of the natives, the natives obviously take pleasure watching a hurryhurrydingding with low clearance try to clear the topes and still hit bottom.

Restaurant Cayo is the main eatery in town, with a warm wooden barn interior, a fireplace, and a DVD jukebox and solid food including sopa azteca for $3 and shrimp in garlic for $7.

Xilitla is the town of barking dogs, not quite idyllic but still interesting with its steep streets on a hillside, 3775 feet above sea level.

Its plaza fronts the convent, established in 1557 as one of a string of missions in the Sierra Gorda established by Franciscans under the guidance Fray Junipero Serra, who went on to establish missions in modern-day California. The convent is a beautiful, remarkably solid structure. The market is authentic in its food offerings and like every other street market in the world otherwise, with most merchandise Hecho En China. The artisan shop a few doors down from the Restaurant Cayo is the exception. Huastecan cotton shirts, dresses, caps, and blankets are made in the back of the shop by real Huastecans.

We toured the Museo Edward James behind Posada El Castillo, the bed and breakfast built by Edward James’ Mexican collaborator Plutarco Gasteluml

We read about Edward James and the history of his art project, and viewed photographs, statue molds, works by Lenora Carrington, the Mexican painter, Picasso, and other luminaries, and soaking up James’ response to his unusual circumstance. Then we got lucky. On the way out, we saw a woman leaving the grounds of Posada El Castillo, which is closed to visitors who are not guests. The wife asked about any cancellations in the eight room inn, which is always booked up. She went back inside and returned with El Castillo’s maestra Gaby, the daughter of Plutarco, who rented us a splendid room on the third floor for 980 pesos, plus 100 pesos for a portable heater for the exceptionally chilly night, and 50 pesos each for a continental breakfast the next morning with fresh fruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and sort of decent coffee.

The hike up the narrow steps to our room was almost as much an adventure as the stairs at Las Pozas but the reward was a spacious tile bath, a sweeping balcony view, and a warm bed. (Plus an enlightened attitude: no phone, no TV, no internet).

I had a solid chicken mole and the wife enjoyed excellent sopa veraduras at Restaurant Cayo for dinner, a few bottles of Indio, and slept very well despite a dog nearby that howled into the wee hours.

If we couldn't book Posada El Castillo, Hotel Guzman, a neat three story hotel across from the restaurant and near the plaza, would have been our choice. Rooms were priced from $40 - $60 a night. Or, if it was warmer, we would have checked for any availability at the rustic cabanas on site at Las Pozas, which rent for $30-50 a night.

The rain had stopped even if the skies hadn’t completely cleared the next morning. We could finally see the mountain ridges above us, particularly the distinctive thumb of the Sierra Gorda above Las Pozas, and the valley below us.

This is a verdant land where epiphytes flourish on trees; feeding off the rich air.

At breakfast, we visited with two couples from Webster on Galveston Bay, one of which takes annual bus trips into Mexico every Christmas, and nodded at a foursome of young people from New Zealand. After eating, we watched a DVD produced for the BBC about the man behind the Casa de Ingles de Eduardo on a TV beneath the same Fleur de Lis symbol above the fireplace that is also found in Las Pozas.

In the video, we learned Gaby, her sister and her brother, Plutarco, Jr., called James Uncle Edward. He grew up in a 300 room estate in England, adoring his father, despising his mother, who asked the nanny which child would best match her green dress when she went out.

He was the godson and maybe illegitimate grandson of King Edward VII

His time with nanny was his greatest pleasure as a child. Before she arrived, he would play under his bedcovers in his bedroom, entering a fantasy world, making up places and people.

Money was never an object, given his family’s wealth. He became a poet, a creative sort, and friends with and a patron of Dali, Picasso, Balanchine, and a producer of Stravinsky, Berthold Brecht, Kurt Weill and promoted Dali’s “Dream of Venus” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose topless underwater mermaids were forced to wear covering after numerous protests.

With Dali, he interviewed Freud. There was some debate whether James was crazy, eccentric, or twisted? Always on the cutting edge, having bought works of Magritte and others when they were broke and needed help, he eventually built the largest collection of surrealism in the world. He lived in Malibu in the early forties where he ran with Aldous Huxley, Stravinsky, and Man Ray. before moving to Cuernavaca where he met Plutarcho Gastelum, his collaborator with Las Pozas.

He’d already been working out his surrealistic ideas at Monkton, his father’s hunting lodge, in 1937, which he transformed into a surrealistic space with three dimensional footprints, a red sofa in the shape of Mae West’s lips, and the lobster phone he commissioned Dali to create. Seeing the Watts Towers for the first time sealed the deal.

He purchased 80 acres in 1948 and got busy. He lived on eight acres and started an animal sanctuary and began cultivating orchids which were wiped out by three days of snow. Las Pozas contained 36 statutes over 80 acres of jungle including stands of mock bamboo, concrete leaves, the “Homage to Max Ernest” and the “Temple of Ducks.”

Achieving an aesthetic ecstasy took 35 years and more than $5 million; for four years, he employed the town of Xilitla “over 100 families” according to Carlos Barbosa who works for Plutarco, Jr. The project continued until his death in 1984

“I have to admit,” he said. “It was pure megalomania.” He acknowledged he was an overgrown child. He had a fetish with cleanliness, obsessed with burning tissue, washing his hands, never touching anything that had touched the floor.

He told Plutarco he had to be nude if he was going to be a secretary, something James never asked of his previous secretaries. Plutarco married a local, raised his own family. Leonara Carrington showed up to oversee construction. He cultivated parrots and monkeys and voiced the sentiment, “We’re not necessarily superior to animals.”

Back at Las Pozas, the line between real and artificial is markedly thin.

Soaring trees with bright pink puffballs hanging at the end of long vines like Christmas tree ornaments. Rarely has the organic blended so effortlessly with the manmade, which stands out but doesn’t intrude. James provided the design. Huastecans provided the knowhow. European ideas meet Mesoamerican craftsmanship in the jungle. The stonework differs little from the stonework around the municipal building and the church in town. Rocks and concrete meet the natural world.

Real plants grow out of fake plants, such as the vermiliads topping the twin arches of a stone gate near the entrance, two concrete tree trunks under the canopy of a ceiba tree.

Leaves are engraved into the sides of a wall.

Columns flank crystal clear pools of water that define Las Pozas, pools that climb to the sky.

Something like this could lonely come from the imagination of a child who grew up in a 300 room house with no concept of money but a creative mind. Although he passed away in 1984, Eddie’s fun house remains very much a trip and a joy to play along with him under his bed covers.

Marfa is a minimalist’s playground. The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria in New Mexico celebrates the abstract spiked by nature. James Turrell’s crater is his own private land art. I’ll take the surrealist.

The painted colors are fading and the jungle slowly but surely retaking the site, but until then, it’s there for the exploring. Snakes, swans, Dali cartwheel, and all.Orchid season is February-March.

Be warned. Play at your own risk. The rock steps are slippery, the angles sharp and there are no guardrails, much less wheelchair accessible. A faded sign posted near the entrance lists the telephone number of the local Cruz Rojo, but that’s about it.

Admission 30 pesos. Guides and maps on site.

After a second day at Las Pozas, hanging mainly around the pools, we drove another hour south on Highway 85 to Tamazunchale, a bustling trading center lacking in charm and booked at the Hotel Tamazuchale, a remodeled 1930s hotel with a modern façade where we booked a decent room for $70 and enjoyed surprisingly tasty pollo tingua, a spicy but not too “pica” shredded chicken stew at Restaurant Huasteca, as part of the comida corrida for 40 peso, accompanied by twenty peso Bohemias. The waiter gave us calendars when we paid the bill.

Tamazunchale reminded me of other slapped together commercial centers for surrounding native communities found from here to Guatemala and beyond, where you get the sense the indigenous people still run the show. The spirit pervades in along the road, the twisty, congested, crazy, tope-laden road, the lifeline of commerce for people to emerge from the jungle to do their trading before fading back into the lush green wall. Soon, when cuotas bypass these routes in the name of speed and efficiency, American-style, this will be gone, like the pie lady in La Grange and Lad Kovar’s Place that manages to convey a sense of place to the traveler passing through. Here, it is the nurseries north of the turn to Xilitla, the coffee kid who sells a kilo of beans roasted yesterday for $3.50 and two cups to go of the first honest coffee we’ve had on the trip. They grow it here but don’t savor it here like city folks do. Or the brightly painted cemeteries, the colors decorating the simple palapa and cinderblock dwellings.

The ride up from Valles to Tamasopo is an ascent of 1,000 feet made more dramatic by the tight two lane main highway that inevitably requires passing at least three tanker trucks across yellow lines to get ahead of the line of twenty cars behind you.

The reward for an hour of intense motoring is the first sight of the water at the Casacadas de Tamasopo (admission: $2) - as clear as a Hill Country stream, only behind waterfalls wherever you look.

Limestone water pools in plateaus tumbling from higher elevations of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Tamasopo’s spring water felt about 80 degrees, tepid warm considering the air temperature was in the low 50s thanks to a cold spell that covered the whole country. We swam in a private upper pool large enough to swim a few laps 25 yards in length, ending at two small waterfalls

Lunch was at a two table hole in the wall in the town of Tamasopo with a hand-scrawled sign out front advertising gorditas and licuados where the older woman behind the counter patted individual gorditas and asked what filling we wanted and shared a recipe for a piquant “pero no mucha pica” salsa she made that morning. We got lost in a maze of unmarked dirt roads in a valley of sugar cane, often trailing trucks stacked with cane three times as high as the top of the truck bed, so we missed checking out the Rio Micos and Tamuil.

But we did get a room at the Hotel Valles, a grand old road motor hotel whose roots extend to the 1930s, for our last night. $89 got us a firm mattress, a warm room, and a good night’s sleep. The food in the restaurant was very good with lots of fresh fruit for breakfast, a pleasant to prepare for the 13 hour haul back to the house.

Hotel Valles was built in the tradition of the American motor lodge. The spacious grounds, Olympic pool among a maze of rock buildings reek of tradition dating back to 1935 and the establishment of the old Pan American Highway that ran through Valles from Laredo to Mexico City and the hotel was known a beacon of comfort. It still is.

The drive back was weary, with a brief stop to turn in our auto sticker on the Mexican side of the Pharr Bridge followed by an hour and a half wait to clear customs due to it being Friday at the end of the holidays. We celebrated our return to the USA by eating a Whataburger and enjoying the smooth ride of US 281 all the way home.

Some solid sources: Adventura Azteca (, and on You Tube: for adventure travel. for the lowdown on Las Pozas and Xilitla for local waterfall info

Hotel Valles

Mision Valles

and this Lonely Planet discussion thread on traveling in the Huasteca.