Escaping to the Sierra Gorda

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.

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the virgin looking over us at the start of our adventure

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.

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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!

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Visiting the Mariposas

Last year in mid-February Germán and I took a trip to Macheros in Estado de México to see the monarch butterflies in their winter home in the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of México. The butterflies make the 3,000 mile journey from Canada or the U.S. to México in the fall and spend the winter in warmer temperatures before returning in the Spring (they’re in México from mid-November until mid-March). What blew my mind when learning about the butterfly migration is that they will literally return to the same tree except that it’s not the same butterfly; their lifespans are so short that from one year to the next four generations have passed! Seeing monarch butterflies in México is different from seeing them in the U.S. or Canada because they only come to a few spots in México and even then only to small sections of the forest so the concentration of butterflies is incredible. There are a few different places in México to go see the butterflies, all of which are protected as butterfly reserves:

  • El Rosario
  • Piedra Herrada
  • Sierra Chincua
  • Cerro Pelón

The reserves are mostly in Michoacán although Cerro Pelón, where we decided to go, is over the border in the Estado de México. We chose to go to this reserve because Lonely Planet describes it as the most pristine of all the reserves. As a traveler who doesn’t like being a tourist and a nature enthusiast, I will always choose the most pristine option so we went to Cerro Pelón.

We rented a car and head out on a long weekend to Macheros, about two and a half hours drive from Mexico City. The drive to Zitácuaro is on main highways and easy to navigate, from there to the town of Macheros the drive changes to a paved but bumpy small road. We lost service so had to rely on the printed out directions from the B&B which included pictures of the forks in the road where we should turn. When we got to the town we went first to JM´s Butterfly B&B to check in and drop off the car. No one was there to check us in but we were able to leave our things in the living room and head out to the edge of town to start the climb to the butterflies. The B&B provides English-speaking tours but they are quite expensive for Mexican salaries so we opted to head to the beginning of the trail where a line of local guides are waiting. They probably don’t speak English but that is not a problem for us and they are much cheaper. You also have the option to rent a horse to climb up for you but being young, reasonably in shape people we scoffed at the idea. About halfway up the climb we wondered to ourselves if maybe it would have been better to get the horses as it is quite a steep climb at times and the ground was loose and very dusty, provoking slips and frustration (as well as extreme dirtiness). We marveled at how our guide (wearing dress shoes) was able to scramble up easily and never slipped once. When the terrain finally leveled out at the top the trees opened up as well, showing some pretty incredible views of the forest and mountains. An issue in this area that is threatening the butterflies is illegal logging. The lack of economic opportunities means people take advantage of the forest to make a living for their families but the loss of winter habitat is a problem for the butterflies. Luckily, in this reserve that hasn’t been too big of a problem so the views had trees in every direction.

I didn’t really have an idea of where the butterflies would be but I was slightly confused when our guide led us along a path that went into a dense section of forest and pointed to trees where the butterflies supposedly were. It actually took me a few minutes to figure out that the giant brown beehive shapes hanging off the branches of the trees were masses of monarch butterflies. On a warm day you can see them flying all around but it was chilly the day we went so they were huddled up together in the trees with the dull backside of their wings showing. If their sheer amount of them weren’t so impressive I would have been a little disappointed to find them like this. But it is very impressive, the weight of all those almost weightless creatures making the tree branches sag. A few times we saw brief clouds of butterflies rising out of the trees and that was really incredible to see, it would be amazing to be there on a warm day with them flying all about. After struggling (and ultimately failing) to take a picture that really captured the scene, we headed back out the path to the clearing where our guide was now waiting. All along the sides of the path were dead or dying monarch butterflies (which is how we got the pictures of us holding them), creating little orange mounds. The trip down back into the town was even more slip-inducing than the way up and we arrived in the afternoon to the B&B with our shoes full of dirt and our legs a dark shade of brown.

JM´s Butterly B&B is owned by a couple made up by a Mexican man and an American woman, Macheros being the man’s home town. They came back to this place to run the B&B and try to encourage ecotourism in the area (promoting the preservation of the butterfly habitat and using tourist dollars to spur the local economy and hopefully then preventing illegal logging). Their prices are a little expensive for México but they really make most of their money for the whole year during the butterfly season (they talked to us about trying to set up mushroom tours during the summer rainy season to have more year-round income) and they are being responsible tenants of the reserve. Our room at the B&B was actually a casita (a separate little house) owned by Joel’s parents (the J in JM Butterfly B&B). It was on the other side of town than the B&B (but it being a very small town it was only maybe 5 minutes walking) and on the edge of a ledge that dropped down to a river. It was a a very peaceful spot that had a nice view of the town and surrounding mountains. That evening we went to the restaurant next door to the B&B (where breakfast is served) for dinner and chatted for a bit with the B&B owners. We admired their coffee table made out of a slice of tree trunk with a live edge and they told us that they had bought the slice of wood from someone in Zitácuaro and made it themselves. I had always wanted a table like that and Germán was equally impressed with it so we got the man’s number and they gave him a heads up that we would be calling him the next day once we got service. Once back at the casita we were visited by our tour guide who tried to sell us some homemade fruit liquors that his mother made (made from rubbing alcohol so we declined) and little trinkets that his sisters made (which we bought because we felt bad for refusing the alcohol). The night was quite chilly, being at such high altitude and next to the river. In the morning the sun warmed everything up and we spent some pleasant time on our mini deck overlooking the river.

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the view of the town and the mountain range surrounding it

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After breakfast we set off for Zitácuaro, enjoying the last of the fresh mountain air on the drive there. We were able to get a hold of the man who had sold the wood slices to the B&B owners and we met up with him on a corner in the city. We followed him to a house on the outskirts that didn’t seem to actually be his but where he had stacks of trunk slices piled up. He assured us that he had sustainably sourced this wood (apparently there are rangers who mark the dead trees and check to make sure that those are the ones you’re cutting down). We picked out one that was a good coffee table shape and loaded the very heavy slice into the rental car and headed out.

On our way back to Mexico City we stopped in Toluca to eat lunch and spend a few hours of the afternoon. Toluca has a cute downtown area with nice restaurants and cafés and a central square with a botanical garden called Cosmovitral. It was originally constructed to be a market and the walls are made up entirely of stained glass. The combination of amazing colorful artwork and the different plantscapes make for an incredibly beautiful place to explore. The garden is broken up into different ecosystems, with desert plants together surrounded by sand and ponds filled with aquatic plants that you cross over on cute bridges. It is definitely a great place to visit and relaxing to spend an hour or two wandering around.

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With that we drove the hour and a half to get back to Mexico City and were home by Sunday evening. It was a long weekend so we even had the next day to do all the “adulting” weekend activities but it felt like we had been out of the city for much longer than two days and one night. Overall, this was a great trip, even though the butterflies kept their colorful splendor to themselves it was great to get up in the mountains and to experience being in a rural town for a night. Plus Toluca really was a fun place to visit and now we have a beautiful coffee table which is one of my favorite pieces in our home and a great conversation piece 😉

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