A downside to working in Mexico is that when holidays fall on the weekend you don’t get the next Monday off in celebration. What makes up for that though is that Semana Santa, the week before Easter, is pretty much a national vacation. You’re guaranteed to have Thursday and Friday off and a lot of workplaces will give their employees the whole week off (this also happens around Christmas-time for a week or two so I guess I can’t really complain about working the random holiday). In my current job I only get off Thursday and Friday and we’re planning this year on going to Parque Nacional El Chico, I’ll definitely write about that once we go. But last year we both had the week off so we set out early in the week to beat the crowds to the Sierra Gorda de Querétaro. For those who do not know any Spanish, sierra means mountain range and gorda means fat. Querétaro is a state whose capital is about three hours to the north of Mexico City with the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda in the northeastern tip, taking up about a third of the state’s landmass. I had been living in Mexico for about six months at this point and had yet to go camping so I was ready for an outdoor adventure. So Germán called up his outdoorsy cousin and asked for some recommendations. His dad’s side of the family lives in Querétaro so this cousin is very familiar with the Sierra Gorda and was so excited that the normally urban-minded Germaán was interested in camping that he and his girlfriend came along.
Despite having a local expert as our guide, I nevertheless made an immensely detailed itinerary, complete with GoogleMaps of the route for each day. We ended up modifying the itinerary a fair amount to accommodate our travel partners but we made it to all the major spots I had been excited about. First we went to Querétaro on the bus to meet up with Germán’s cousin and the next morning we drove off towards the Park. After a few stops for gas and cash at the ATM we finally got on the road. We stopped for lunch on the way at Bernal, a small adorable town known for the rocky peak rising up behind it, called the Peña de Bernal. Fully fueled in every sense, we set back out and approached the park. An amazing quality of this place is that there are at least three different ecosystems that you pass through. If you approach heading toward Pinal de Amoles it starts off as dry hills covered with brush. As you continue ascending the mountain range the landscape becomes a green lush forest prone to cloud cover and in other areas the forest varies from almost tropical to high and dry. With all these changes, it’s amazing to just stare out the window and notice the differences in the landscape in each twist and turn.
Due to our slow start that morning we made the decision to camp that night at the Cerro de la Media Luna (also known as Mirador de Cuatro Palos). The road to get here was a little rough and since we were not traveling in anything resembling a 4WD vehicle we had a little difficulty getting in an out. At the base is a tiny town, we parked right in front of the trailhead (a very open and visible ascent), grabbed our gear and hiked up the short but occasionally steep path. When we got up we were unable to see the view of the mountains in the shape of a half moon (hence the name) due to some low cloud cover but there was an area with firepits and some latrines and a fair amount of street dogs (can you call them street dogs though if they live on a mountain?). There was a family up there selling firewood and the woman even offered to bring up breakfast for us in the morning, which we declined. We ventured back down to the little town in search for some beer, eventually finding someone who sold us some warm cans and we watched a pack of teenagers walking around trying to look cool with music blasting from the boom box they carried. Once back up to the Cerro the clouds cleared out for a moment and we had a fun night around the fire with our warm beers. The night, however, was not quite as pleasant as the wind ripped across the unprotected peak and for the first time in my life I was fearful of my tent breaking. We woke up in the morning to find that the stray dogs wandering around had taken advantage of the noisy wind and had gotten into our food which was right next to but not in our tents, strewing whatever they hadn’t eaten all around the campground. They had even chewed through the tent of a fellow camper to get at their pan dulce. It made sense then why so many of them had decided to live upon this open hill.
After packing up and heading back down to the car we set out for Pinal de Amoles, where we found a little roadside restaurant that served a delicious breakfast. Pinal de Amoles is a cute town, seemingly clustered all along the ledge of the road that runs through it so as not to fall down into the valley below. We passed by a sign for homemade liqueur and thinking of our warm beer predicament the night before we decided it was better to be prepared and stopped by to stock up for the night. We walked down the steps and into a house which had the front area set up as a tasting room. An older friendly man appeared and offered us tastings of whatever flavors we wanted. He had a wide varieties of fruit and other flavors like coffee which we also quite delicious. We got a few bottles for around $7 each and continued on our way. We kept twisting and turning on the mountain pass until we started to descend a bit as we got to Puente de Dios, a natural rock formation dripping in stalactites that bridges over the River Escalera. You can park your car at a tourist-friendly area complete with restaurants and stands selling beer and quesadillas. From there you need to hire a guide since it is a protected area to go with you on the trail along the river to get to the Puente. Our guide had his dog with him, who was so accustomed to this hike that he could climb up and down the primitive ladder by himself. It’s not a particularly difficult or long hike but you definitely need to be able to climb up and down ladders and be comfortable on uneven rock. When we got to the Puente we were quite warm so left our things with the guide and got into the water to walk under the rocks. It is a pretty amazing phenomenon but I think I just loved being in a river with lots to explore. The others thought the water was too chilly so got out and ventured up the river on the rocks but I forged upriver half swimming through pools and scrambling on submerged rocks. I really really love exploring rivers in this way so I was in my glory and by the time we returned back to our guide I felt physically and emotionally refreshed. We took advantage of the food stand next to our car to grab some quesadillas and drove back up out of the valley towards Jalpan de Sierra. We didn’t stop on our way through since we were trying to get to Las Adjuntas that night to camp. We got to Campamiento Los Sauces after night had fallen and chose the campsite that seemed as far away from the action as we could get, right next to the Ayutla River. In true Mexican fashion, the campground had a restaurant so we had dinner there and then retreated to our isolated campsite to try the liquor we had gotten in Pinal.
The next morning we lazed around our campsite, enjoying the sun and the water. In the afternoon we got out to explore the actual junction where the rivers meet, seen best from the bridge up above. The two different colored rivers coming together is really a sight to be seen though I was disappointed in the carnival-like atmosphere down on the banks of the rivers here. I feel like the outdoor culture here hasn’t gotten to the point where families want to truly escape into nature but rather appreciate having entertainment and convenience when they get away. We kept going north until we arrived at Concá, another small town with one of the Franciscan missions which are scattered all throughout the Sierra Gorda. We parked in town and went to the church, where an outdoor mass was being held. This mission is the most mestizo of all, incorporating artistic compromises to the indigenous people in an effort to get them to worship there. After we had our fill of the mission, Germán’s cousin Hector told us that he knew someone that lived a little outside of town and that he had an amazingly beautiful piece of land along the river. After walking for awhile, Hector realized he didn’t completely remember how to get to this friend’s house but we didn’t really mind because we had arrived upon a stunningly beautiful view from a bridge overlooking the river with the mountain ridge behind. The water looked amazinngly turquoise and clear so we scrambled down a little path to the river where Hector and I took a dip. This was definitely the most isolated and maybe the most beautiful spot of the whole trip, I’m so glad we agreed to go find this mysterious friend.
When we got back to our campsite that night we found we had new neighbors filling in every spot along the river on both sides. At this point it was Thursday night so all the people who only had Thursday and Friday off were arriving for their vacation. It’s really a positive and a negative in that sense that the Sierra Gorda is so accessible, it’s easy to get to but in popular vacation times (like the end of Semana Santa) you may want to find a more isolated area if you don’t like crowds. The next morning we packed up early and went back to Jalpan, this time stopping to see the Jalpan Mission. Both of the missions I saw were of similar style, their orange hues and elaborate carvings a sharp contrast to the green mountainous backdrops. We kept going along our return drive, this time stopping at El Chuvejé Waterfall. It’s a very short hike to get there and again in true Mexican fashion, entrepreneurs have set up food and coffee stands in the woods along the way in case you are seized by the need for food and drink. I always laugh about the fact that in Mexico you don’t really need to be prepared when you set off somewhere as there will always be someone on the side of the road, or in this case the forest, selling you whatever food or beverage you might need. The waterfall is impressively tall and narrow but like our campsite, it was filled up with families swimming and even trying to camp in the middle of the trail. On our way back through Pinal de Amoles we stopped in again at the liqueur place to get our only souvenirs from the trip, a few more bottles of the flavors we had particularly enjoyed (we later dropped one in the parking lot of the bus station in Mexico City, I was so sad). Feeling content with our trip and filled up with fresh mountain air we went back to Querétaro, where we took the bus back to Mexico City. Overall, I really loved the Sierra Gorda. Mexico is not really a country known for its mountains but the Sierra Gorda offers amazing high altitude views all within reach with a semi-decent car. If you’re more interested in culture, there’s the missions and all the history that goes along with the Franciscans converting the indigenous people, though the indigenous culture is still maintained in some areas here. In this trip we only explored about half of the Park, there’s much more I want to see like the Swallow cave and Las Pozas, a surrealist garden nestled in the forest. I’ll definitely be back, hopefully soon rather than later.
And since I had trouble identifying places on GoogleMaps as I was planning this trip, here’s an itinerary of my trip with the destinations marked, feel free to use it!