A trip of this scale is not easy. It challenges me daily. Scott and I are a study in intimacy, tolerance, and growth these days. I have been forced to let go of the iron fist of control over my life. Or at least loosen my grip a bit. As humans, we are, by nature, selfish creatures. Even those of us who would be described as having generous dispositions have their limits. We like it when things go our way. When two people live in close quarters (like a truck) they rub up against each other a lot. And not always in a good way. We both like to have our way. The biggest fight we have had on this trip was over how to best cook potatoes. It got heated. In the end, we realized that it wasn’t about potatoes at all. That would be silly. It was about expectation and respectful communication. It has been a few thousand miles since the great potato row of 2018 and we haven’t really had a noteworthy spat since. There is a reason. We’re growing. We’re letting go of our attachment to expectation. Our unofficial mantra has become, “It just doesn’t matter.” We now just allow each other the space to do things wrong. The soymilk can go into the coffee cup before or after the coffee. I can say left and point right. Photos can be taken vertically or horizontally. We can break camp quickly or take our time. No biggie. I can only speak for myself but I feel really good when negativity evaporates under the realization that most of the little things that can drive me crazy don’t matter. I’m adapting. Not that I don’t have my moments, but they are becoming fewer and further between. I am the designated navigator on this adventure. I am a big fan of efficiency and connecting dots with the shortest line possible while still getting to experience as many of the things as possible. We are headed to Argentina. This is a trip south. But for now, we are headed north and that is A-Okay. It just doesn’t matter.
Our drive north instead of south was crazy. Crazy in a good way. Well, it started out kind of boring. Dusty, dry countryside passed outside the windows for a whole day. Dry grass, cinderblock buildings, tire shops and hazy air for a whole day. We ended up in a medium-sized town called Tequisqiapan. If it weren’t January we would have camped out at a vineyard that will let you camp on their property if you drink their wine. We spend our Januarys as teetotalers. I guess we could have bought some wine and tucked it away until February but we opted to stay at a public swimming pool instead. Central Mexico is full of these pools that are usually filled with thermal water. They are called balnearios. In this case, it wasn’t hot enough to entice me to swim but the tepid water is, apparently, warm enough to entice many Mexican families to splash about year-round. It was a pleasant enough place to call home for a night. When we left there the crazy part started. We headed into a full-on desert that we weren’t really expecting. It was like we were suddenly back in Baja again. Cacti and ocotillo plants lined the road as we crossed the Mexican Plateau and headed into the eastern Sierra Madre mountains. The road was steep and full of hairpin turns that afforded fabulous views of the valley we had left below. We spent a couple hours driving up, up, up through that desert landscape. When we neared the top, it started to look like Northern California. Quite suddenly we were looking out at oak trees and not much later the forest had morphed into conifers. The road continued to be quite twisty and we wove our way through charismatic mountain towns. The air was clean and crisp. The mixed conifer woodland lasted about an hour and then we started to dip down the other side of the mountain. As fast as we had transitioned from desert to forest we were now headed into a lush jungle. The air got thick with moisture and the vegetation lining the road began to favor giant ferns and cycads. The twists and turns remained constant but the change in the landscape was drastic. We were edging close to sundown as we arrived at our destination, the town of Xilitla (Hee-leet-la). Cabañas La Huerta was our home sweet home for our time in Xilitla. Well actually, the parking lot at the cabañas was our home. They allowed camping and provided hot showers, flush toilets, and a community palapa. It was lovely.
The reason we were in Xilitla was to visit the Edward James Surrealist Garden. We are suckers for strange art installations and this one did not disappoint. Edward James was originally from Scotland and he saw fit to sell two significant inheritances and a substantial art collection so that he could create this surrealist garden in Mexico. I’m glad he did. It was really wild. Making his dream come true in the jungle ended up employing a huge portion of the population of Xilitla at the time. To wander around the garden is to feel like you have stepped into an M.C. Escher work. Stairways materialized in unexpected places and lead to nowhere. Arches and pathways lead through the tropical landscape and drop you off at a waterfall that pours into fancifully constructed pools. The structure of the sculptures emulates the organic shapes inherent in the jungle. We wandered through the grounds and soaked in the strange vibe for a couple of hours and then we found ourselves in the little café there. We are often guided by our stomachs I had tortilla soup and Scott had a sesame veggie stir-fry. Our meals were delicious, petit, and expensive. We drank some lovely americanos with our meals because it was January. After lunch, we did another lap of the garden to see if we missed anything. We hadn’t. Our camp was a 10-minute walk away so we wandered back slowly enjoying the warm moist weather.
We were interested in washing some laundry while in Xilitla and had seen a laundry service on the map. We decided to walk into town and check out their prices and see how long the turnaround would be and maybe pick up some groceries. It looked like a short walk on the map. It was a short walk. What the map didn’t fully illustrate was the vertical nature of the roads in Xilitla. As we got closer to the town square the roads gave up trying to be roads and turned into stairs. Lucky for us there was a tortillaria about halfway up the hill so we were able to rest a moment while we bought a fat stack of fresh tortillas. Energized by our brief respite we made the summit of Xilitla with little further struggle. The town square was still decorated for Christmas. We aimed ourselves toward the apparent epicenter of hustle and bustle hoping to find some groceries. Success was immediate. We bought all we could fit in Scott’s backpack. It took three transactions because we kept seeing more things we wanted on our way out of the tiny store. Spacey gringos. Satisfied that we had enough provisions to last us a few days we wandered town to take in the sights. Sightseeing lead to the purchase of shampoo and conditioner. Further sightseeing lead to the purchase of sweet pastries from the panaderia. These particular pastries were swarming with bees. We figured the bees knew best and decided to buy some to go with coffee in the morning. Then we wandered by a store selling coffee. We didn’t even need coffee. But we bought some anyway. On our way back down the hill to our camp we stopped in at a laundry place and inquired about the turnaround time for a load of laundry thinking that we may come back on our way out of town and have lunch while the laundry was being done. A 24-hour turn around made that plan moot. We had already begun to abandon the idea as the notion of walking back up that hill toting a mountain of dirty laundry was becoming more unappealing with every passing moment. In the end we inquired at the front desk of the cabañas. They had same day laundry service for a couple of pesos more per kilo. Problem solved. The next morning, we started to pack up to head to our next destination, Grutas Tolantongo. Scott was uploading a video to our burgeoning YouTube channel that morning. Have I mentioned that we have begun depositing this overland saga on YouTube? We have! Our channel is aptly named Sporadic Sojourns . Give it a look-see and subscribe if you like. It would warm our hearts. The internet at Cabañas La Huerta was plenty strong enough to stream Radio Paradise or scroll through the social medias but uploading video was an arduous process. As the morning waxed into the afternoon I had to delve into my recently acquired store of perspective and realize that the Grutas would still be there if we waited another day. I was a little grumpy because I had already packed up a good amount of camp that would need unpacking only to be repacked the following morning. I am a work in progress. I exiled myself to the tent with a book I had been wanting to finish and didn’t emerge until my attitude had improved. It was right around dinner time that I turned that frown upside down. I don’t remember which of us mentioned the option of going out for a meal first but it takes no more than a whisper on the wind to get us excited to go out to dinner. We first tried the places close to our camp. They were either closed or completely carne-centric. We were then faced with the decision of either unpacking the kitchen and whooping up something delicious and nutritious or walking over the river and up the hill to town for some dinner. We chose to make the trek. We found a restaurant with a view overlooking our side of the mountain that looked promising in the vegetable department. Scott got some form of veggie fajitas and I made the mistake of ordering chicken before I remembered that I don’t really like chicken. Live and learn. We started our evening out on the patio under the raucous cacophony of a hundred or so grackle type birds coming to roost for the night in the palm trees overhead. It was more the icy breeze than the noise that drove us inside. Good thing too, because moments after my giant plate of deep-fried skinless chicken breast appeared the sky let loose with serious rain. We lingered as long as we could over our meals hoping that the rain would let up. Eventually, I could pick at my chicken no longer and I tried to convince Scott that maybe the rain only seemed heavy. Maybe it was just a light sprinkle. We left the restaurant and it was pouring. The streets were empty of everything except running water. If it weren’t January we probably would have ducked into the bar pumping out the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s. Instead, we stood under an eve watching the rain come down. We probably only waited two or three minutes before I got to practice my Mexican taxi-hailing skills (a low wave, down by your side). We were so happy to be avoiding the steep walk home in the rain that we talked that guy’s ear off in our broken Spanish. He let us know that this was not really a rainstorm.
The next morning, we left Xilitla. We were in for another crazy twisty drive day. It was really slow going as the prior nights not really a rainstorm lingered on in the form of low clouds and mist. We spent much of that drive breathing exhaust of large trucks because we lacked the visibility required to pass safely. The mist lifted right about when we turned off the main road to cross through a tiny mountain town with narrow streets paved in cobble worn smooth by centuries of use. It was another one of those abrupt changes in our surroundings. For hours we had been traveling through the misty jungle only to emerge into a dry rocky desert with the swiftness only beat by a tour through a botanical garden or exhibits at a zoo. Soon the desert left us for a moment in a verdant productive valley. It felt like we had been transported to the wine country of California. If only there were vines in the place of the corn and tomatoes. I got us a little lost so we ended up crossing through the valley on single-lane unpaved farm access roads. Everyone we passed just smiled and waved. No one balked at having to move their donkey out of the road to let us pass nor did they intimate that we were not welcome. I can’t imagine too many gringos passing through those far corners of the fields but we were greeted with a disinterested graciousness. I did eventually get us back on the right road and we left that valley abruptly. The road out of there was a glorified sidewalk barely wide enough to span our tire width. Not much time had passed before we left that cement paving behind. It was actually a relief to be on the dirt track as we would be able to anticipate oncoming traffic by the rise of dust in the distance. We really did not want to meet oncoming traffic. This road was definitely not big enough for the both of us! We traversed countless single lane hairpin curves until they started to look familiar. Have we turned this corner before? No, there were just really that many curves.
We twisted and turned for hours until we crested out of the canyon. To our right was the Grutas Tolantongo and to our left was dry fields of a fat leaved agave used for making a local fermented beverage called pulque. More on that in February. We stopped to take a picture of the vast canyon before us. Frequently when we find a suitable place to pull over it is apparent that we are not the first people to have pulled over. This is evidenced by the ubiquitous piles of garbage found in convenient turnouts. This time the immediate foreground was comprised of hundreds of rotting oranges. Not the worst thing we have parked next to. Once the photo was taken we were off to check out the Grutas. We paid our entrance fee for the following day and the camping fee for the present night at a kiosk at the top of the hill. They wrote our departure date on our windshield in neon paint-pen and wished us a buen noche. Gravity and Scott’s braking foot did the most of the work from there. 2000 feet of descent led us to a sweet spot directly adjacent to a warm river. It was unreal. The calcium in the water colored the riverbed white and lent an opacity to the river creating a surreal Aquafresh toothpaste colored scene. Since we had arrived so late (per usual) we lacked sufficient light to explore that night. We slept through the most peaceful night we have had yet. There were no roosters, no dogs, no jake brakes. Just the rush of the river.
In the morning we sipped our coffee watching the steam rise off of the river. Once fully caffeinated, we set off to explore. We followed the riverbed upstream. It was Friday and the place was fairly mellow. Rumor has it that the weekends are packed. At the top end of the stream was a warm steaming waterfall. Behind the waterfall was a natural tunnel. We hadn’t thought to bring flashlights so we were only brave enough to explore the first twenty or so feet in. There were a couple sleepy guys with flashlights working the entrance who would shine them in the right direction every now and again. Inside the tunnel flowed a stream of the warmest water. There was a rope affixed to the wall of the tunnel ensuring that you would find your way out in the event that the flashlight shiners were sleeping. Once we were satisfied with our tunnel experience we joined about 50 of our closest friends in the grotto behind the waterfall. Warm water gushed from openings in the ceiling creating punishing natural showers. We did our best to stand beneath them. It was not an easy task. We frolicked until our stomachs coaxed us out of the water and towards a restaurant. We ate more food than we needed and then set off to find the pools up on the cliffside. We ran into our neighbor from the campground who, coincidentally, we had camped next to at the Laguna de Santa Maria del Oro a few weeks prior. He knew the way and didn’t mind pointing us in the right direction. The pools built into the side of the cliff were visually stunning. The minerals in the water had covered the cement and given them a natural hot spring kind of look. If they were a wee bit warmer I would have been in heaven. They were warm enough that I was comfortable when underwater but the slightest breeze was chilling. We dipped in pool after pool but did not find any with warmer water. Our tickets would be expiring at 8:00 pm and we needed to be out of there in time to set up camp elsewhere so we left the beautiful tepid pools and got busy whooping up a splendid dinner before breaking camp. We joined our neighbors again outside of the park in the parking lot at the top of the canyon for some free camping. It was less peaceful thanks to a barking dog who was tireless in his pursuit of home security. There is a common adage, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” I’m not going to follow that anymore. Those furry menaces are only sleeping because they were up all night barking! From now on I am going to give them a taste of their own medicine. There will be no dogs sleeping on my watch, that is for sure! I digress. The following morning at first light we were joined by bus-loads of tourists standing next to our truck taking selfies with the beautiful canyon in the background. They served as motivation to be an early riser. That and the little stand serving hot café de la olla on the other side of the parking lot. We sipped our coffee on the tailgate and shared a scone while we chatted with our neighbors about routes and planned out our next adventure.