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Part I: Going South (of the border)
by Dennis Melko
(This article first appeared in the Loyalhanna Troglodyte)
Just over a year ago Paula (Grgich) and I spoke of going to Mexico for caving and exploring deep pits. We had no idea who we’d go with nor of any particulars (particularly how to afford it), but come November 2001 I chose my vacation dates for December 2002 / January 2003 with Mexico in mind. Christmas and New Years in a foreign land. How exciting!
By and by we spoke to various persons and Paula had conversations with Mel Eady about Mexico. Mel actually wanted Paula to go the year prior, but Paula could not fathom embarking on such a trip yet. Certainly we would review and practice various vertical concerns a great deal beforehand, and we did.
I had practiced with a series of high drops culminating with Whitesides (750’) in North Carolina in 2001 (thanks Megan and Mr. Akers), then with Paula repeated Whitesides and experienced Bridge Day in 2002. We studied various rope concerns, took NCRC level 2, and set up good vertical systems for long ascents. We diligently prepared for a year performing various vertical drops. (I had wanted to go to Mexico with my Mitchell system, but decided to mimic Paula’s Ropewalker.) We made several rope purchases over a year’s time, including 900’ and 1200’ lengths.
Mel, planning on going to Mexico again with Gordon Birkhimer and Mike "Tiny" Manke, invited us along too. Unfortunately my vacation was to start the week before Christmas and end the weekend after New Years while Paula needed to return for classes. Mel and company wouldn’t be driving down until after Christmas. Oh, not good.
We were faced with the possibility of going ourselves and meeting the others in Mexico. Driving that distance with time constraints would be hard for only two persons and spending less than a week caving seemed not enough time. A fortuitous meeting with Bill Stone, whom Paula arranged to lecture at the University of Pittsburgh in November, informed us of a mutual friend facing a similar situation.
Frank Abbato, whom I first met at Hurricane Ridge cave during an "extended" photo shoot and who we know through WVACS, was intending to journey to Mexico but was encountering problems. He and his girlfriend, Shruti Mantri, had planned on traveling with Kristen Matak and Tim Bleech. Kristen and Tim had to beg off. Frank and Shruti were looking at canceling their trip until we contacted them. Things were amazingly falling into place and this trip would have Paula and me with the finest of traveling companions we could hope for.
With Frank and Shruti coming from Washington DC we arranged to meet in Blacksburg, VA. Graciously, Tom Malabad and Pam Tegelman offered their home as a meeting/sleeping place even though they would be away. We began our trip from Blacksburg Saturday morning, throwing all our gear into the voluminous space of Shruti’s new Chevy Avalanche pickup, plus a compressor that needed to be dropped off in Austin for one of Bill Stones deep Mexican ventures this spring. Everything packed and rope bags tied to the top of the bed and covered, we headed towards Texas. Yee Haa!
What follows is an account based on my own recollections of events that transpired. (The names have not been changed, to expose the guilty.) I hope to convey with accuracy what was personally experienced as well as give helpful information for possibly your own future trip.
First, a prelude regarding distances and driving times. (Ask an American how far something is and you always get a response in units of time, or so a cousin of mine from Slovakia tells me.) Our mileage for the trip was about 5000 miles overall. Estimated driving time from Pittsburgh to Brownsville is about 26 hours non-stop. It took us longer because of detours to Blacksburg and Austin and some several hours spent in Austin.
From the border at Matamoros plan on less than 9 hours driving to Aquismon, with Ciudad Valles 45 minutes less than that. Plan on additional time at the border crossing if: you arrive during a busy time; your paperwork is not in order; your vehicle is thoroughly searched. Plan on additional time if you take a wrong road enroute!
Driving down is fun. The Avalanche is a very comfortable vehicle and after a while we take turns sleeping in the back seat area. Along with a great music selection we have brought along Spanish language tapes, to which we greatly exaggerate an accent. I can’t say we learned much except to say so in Spanish. Between the tapes, a phrasebook and a Spanish/English dictionary, it is enough to get by.
For my companions, a highlight of the drive is me sitting in the front passenger seat for the first time and trying to adjust the seat. My sleeve, unknown to me, kept pulling the wrong button and the seat would keep moving forward with every attempted correction until I said "It’s crushing me, it’s crushing me," much to the merry amusement of the others. This was to become a heartless running joke throughout the trip, applied to various situations with appropriate rephrasing. (Ha ha ha, very funny. Bastards.)
In Austin we drop off the compressor to Marcus Grady, a Texas cave diver and Grad student. We then call Mike Walsh, who expects our arrival, and arrange to meet him at an oil change place. (I recommend changing oil just before crossing the border.) He would prove to be a vital source of information for the caving area we are visiting.
Mike is president of the Texas Cave Conservancy and owns land in Aquismon . We follow him to his apartment nearby. There, he shows us books, maps and materials related to our destination and we discuss possibilities. He shows us an aerial photo of two sinkholes along the road to Golindrinas, Quilas and Puente. Quilas would be our first vertical drop. After obtaining a wealth of good beta from Mike on various concerns, we make arrangements to meet him again in Aquismon the next week and depart.
When we reach Brownsville we pick up last minute necessities and fill up two 7 gallon containers with water. Paula has brought a case of bottled water for use while on the road. We pull up to a Comfort Inn with a Shoney’s next door to get a room for the night. Driving for 30 some hours has taken a toll on all four of us, even though we took turns sleeping. We are weary, but the idea of soon crossing the border does excite us.
The Brownsville/Matamoros area has three border crossings. It is decided that we will cross over the "International Bridge", which is open 24 hours, very early in the morning. This will be in order to avoid a lengthy and possibly confused wait when the border crossings are full of travelers during the day. It is also desired to get an early start so as to cover as much road to Aquismon or Ciudad Valles before nightfall, when we heard it is not wise to drive. We would end up driving at night quite a bit on this trip.
Premonition of things to come: "What’s with this garbage can by the toilet?" I ask. The Comfort Inn room is very nice and the bed inviting as I lay me down for a decent but "oh too short" sleep. "It’s for toilet paper", someone replies. "What?"
Well, it seems that the majority of sewer systems in Mexico aren’t viable enough to flush toilet paper down them. This is Texas you say? Well, a lot of Mexicans come to Texas. I’m then informed that toilet facilities will leave something to be desired and that I should prepare myself. The trashcan by the toilet is one thing; squatting without a toilet seat and lack of toilet paper are possibly other concerns. No problem, I say. Have "Scott" (tissue), have shovel, will travel. I drift off to sleep in mid-thought. Seatless toilets pursue me throughout the realms of Hades. AHHHH!
Coffee can be good in the morning. Damn good. At this time, 4:00am, there are very few vehicles crossing the border. We become confused as we pull up to the check booths, but a polite border patrol officer directs us to back up and approach the Mexican office from the right to enter a rear parking area. This is where the Mexican border officials will check out your vehicle and paperwork then apply an import permit sticker on your windshield if all is OK. The permit is good for 6 months.
We park the vehicle next to a long table, used for inspections of vehicle contents I guess, and walk inside the building. The interior is well lit and there are many chairs, now empty, for long waits. Nature calls and I answer. The urinal is a long recessed area along a wall. The toilets have low walls, no doors and no seats. It’s not clean and bring your own paper and soap. ‘Nuff said.
You should have two forms of valid picture ID’s, and photocopies in case they are lost for your return. The vehicle owner will need the title (important), registration, special car insurance and bring a credit card for the roughly $400 deposit for the permit, which is refunded upon return except for a $26 fee. Frank heads to a window to deal with paperwork and then we go to another counter for visa approvals. It seems confusing at first and not everyone speaks English, but it works out. The workers are professional, yet relaxed. I understand that President Fox replaced many of these border officials.
A man applies the sticker to the windshield and without any searches we’re on our merry way. We drive the same way we came in, pass the booths, and enter Matamoros within 45 minutes of our approach. Fairly painless. For further information, find a ten page article on the internet by Texas caver Cathy Scanlon which details things nicely.
Matamoros is the border town opposite of Brownsville, bustling and crowded during the day, thus difficult to drive through, something Mike Walsh and others advised us of. I’m not sure about the relative safety here, but we were explicitly warned to stay away from Mexico City and its’ environs. The level of crime against tourists is just too great there with banditos along roads near archeological sites around Mexico City and even fake taxi cab drivers that take you on rides into back alleys with waiting compatriots that you’re lucky to come back unhurt from, minus your wallet of course. We were told that Mexico City has engaged former New York City Mayor Giuliani as a consultant. The rest of the country is supposed to be fairly safe except for approximately the southern Mexico area of Chiapas, where rebellious groups exist and tourists aren’t welcome.
We do not linger here except to find a bank machine to get pesos. The streets for the most part are empty as we drive around a few quiet blocks off of the main road. There are occasional pedestrians and we notice several persons sitting outside of an open government run Pemex gasoline station. Frank locates a bank with an enclosed ATM and parking lot. We are glad to find it so easily. I take out $100 with the idea of getting more in Valles once I know what prices are like.
Along highway 101 the landscape we pass varies from open plains to sparsely vegetated rolling hills as we travel south. Dwellings range from humble one room structures to clustered tenements to the occasional superior abode. Indeed, the stark separation between the haves and have-nots really hits you hard at times. It is disheartening to see the volume of trash existing along the highways. At places along the road conducive enough for toilet use it was obvious they were utilized as such. Be careful where you step.
The availability of gasoline seems not to be a problem as the Pemex stations occur often enough, but perhaps not often enough for toilet stops. These stations are similar to their American counterparts with snacks and drinks although the conditions of their restrooms will vary. We don’t know why we are sometimes stated a charge for using these restrooms and other times not.
The highway is generally a "3-lane road" with passing except where prohibited. Occasionally it is a real 4-lane highway. With 3 lanes, the driver in front of you turns on their left turn signal and moves towards the right side of the road as a signal for you to pass him. (Do not confuse with an actual left turn!) You must be careful not to pass at the same time as another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. With accidents, the police usually jail all involved until fault is determined. Surprisingly, the most common vehicles we see are American made pick-up trucks. The drivers we encountered were generally very polite although almost no one heeds speed limits, except near police checkpoints.
These roadway checkpoints consist of roadside structures where you have to pull off to be carefully looked at. There are sandbag barricades and the police are now backed up by Federal Military Soldiers. All police in Mexico seem to carry M-16 semi-automatic rifles, except in rural areas like Aquismon. Our experience is to be waved through once the sticker on the vehicle was observed, all occupants eyeballed and a quick visual of the vehicle was made. These officers behave very professionally, although I understand much corruption existed prior to federal involvement.
Along the way we also encounter speed bumps in the road at bus stops and through residential areas. They are everywhere we go and seem to appear so fast even though they’re (mostly) all marked. They can give a vehicle quite a rattle. We eventually reach Ciudad Victoria, lunch on real "Mexican fast food" at a small restaurant and then move on towards Valles… well, that was the plan, anyway.
The scenery is spectacular. We climb up a huge mountain and witness marvelously contoured limestone contacts along the distant mountain ranges. We spy a new 4-lane roadway being built far below. We see huge cave entrances in the mountainsides. We have our first real hint that we’re on the wrong road when we see the sign for the small desert town of Tula. Oops.
Oh well, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. There is a big market and the girls take us all shopping. I manage to buy a 2 foot long machete and file for $4.00. We heard that in more rural areas people do not wear shorts, even in the summer. It is culturally looked down upon. Shruti’s shorts got quite a lot of looks. Also, even though her parents are from India she is often mistaken for a Mexican native during our visit.
We eventually figure out that we need to shortcut across the mountains from 101 to 85 along what the map indicates as 101A, only that’s not what the road signs read. 101 and 101A on our map are marked as "90-something" in reality, something to be cautious of as we believe that was the reason for our mistake. We situate ourselves, interpret the map properly and are off again. It is now 5:00 P.M. and I’ll drive next. I am still leery of driving at night and we have hours to go before we sleep.
We eventually reach Ciudad Valles just after nightfall with Frank at the wheel. We first go to the Hotel Valles, a first-rate "tourist" hotel with a large compound and a great restaurant. Unfortunately holiday rates (double) apply and we decide to go to the Hotel Quintamar for a less expensive rate. Wherever one stays, it would be best to find a place with secure parking for a vehicle, as thefts are not unknown.
In the morning we go to the Hotel Posada Don Antonio along our route. We are able to park in the central courtyard without problem. It is difficult to find parking close by otherwise. The breakfast buffet is highly recommended in a guidebook Frank has and we attest to its’ accuracy. After breakfast we go to a bank a short distance along and I take out $200 more in cash (2000 pesos at 10 pesos to a dollar). It is important to get smaller denominations for more rural areas. This is enough for the rest of the trip, minus the cost of gasoline, as Paula and I split the cost of lodging. Very affordable considering that we’re traveling two and a half weeks.
We take 70 West towards San Luis Potosi and turn left onto a dirt road at the second sign for our first adventure, the upper reaches of the Cascada de Tamul, a 300+ foot waterfall in the mountain forest. Along this road we pass through a village, then several cattle gates that need to be opened. At the first a little girl no more that 4 years old runs to open it for us. One of us gives the shy, hesitant girl a peso for the favor. Her deep, dark brown eyes look on us with seeming surprise. We begin to discuss various opinions we’ve heard about paying locals for efforts. We understand that the parents don’t care for the children to be given money in such a manner, that it is considered tantamount to begging. One also needs to have an idea of the fair "going rate" for services: guides, porters, burro rental, etc. and negotiate fairly. We know nothing about any of this, and really feel like stupid Gringos.
At one point I hear water and we see some dry streambed. Frank parks and we all rush out to an area of overflow for the upper river that is presently dry. There is a great variety of plants here, among them giant four leave clovers and I genuinely feel so lucky to be here. We cross the streambed following the sound of water and find the most azure colored stream I’ve seen in my life. The karst landscape has turned these waters such a brilliant blue and it’s wonderful to see. The small waterfalls create a rhythm of sound that is very pleasurable. Some pictures are taken and we head back to the truck to find the trailhead to the falls, taking care to avoid the poison ivy we now notice.
Arriving at a place where the vehicle can go no further, we park on the near side of the river. A branch, thatch and mud bridge (yes, that’s right) about 10 or 15 feet across spans the water and we walk over it. Vehicles go over this, but how I don’t know. I wouldn’t trust it that way. What’s more it’s easy to see that the whole area gets washed out occasionally. It’ll take a lot of work to repair that.
There is an information post and a private residence with outbuildings further on the opposite side. Some lucky people have quite a nice place. We easily find the trail and alight upon it. It winds down gradually along the right riverbank, which grows further apart from the opposite one. After about 20 minutes of walking you begin to near the waterfall area.
This is beautiful. The water is low so we can actually place ourselves nearly in the center of the river somewhat close to the waterfall by carefully jumping rocks. It makes for some great photos. The water is so blue. We cannot get close enough to actually see the waterfall, but wait… there is a trail on the right into the woods. We clamber up a crude stick and vine ladder and follow the trail over a rise and down into a secluded area alongside the waterfall with a large pool and tree in the center of it. A lot of water must move through here when it rains. What a spectacular view. We can see the valley below and the water cascading down into it. The edges are dirt with some rock and trees and one must be so careful, but it is fantastic. The mountain opposite the waterfall reveals its jungle like appearance to us. Mist rises everywhere from the depths. The sun is shining. It’s a great day.
Further to the right there is a very steep trail with crude ladders that we begin to follow and reason that it leads to the lower canyon. We stop when we decide that it would be too much time, and be somewhat risky, for all of us. We linger in the upper river a bit more before heading back to the vehicle. Other people come, Mexicans, and we attempt conversation, but mostly rudimentary sign language and smiles.
We head back and I linger for photos. We’ll try to reach a place of smaller waterfalls called Micos before it gets too dark. Passing through the last gate we give the beautiful, shy little girl another peso.
Driving back towards Valles we reach the turn for Micos but spend some time being confused as to where exactly it is along the canyon. Hint: there is a tremendous waterfall coming down under the left side of a bridge. It is near a bus stop some distance after passing an intersection with a downhill right turn. This is worth seeing, but you have just passed the final turn to Micos. Turn and go back to the prior intersection.
Once along the road to the waterfalls of Micos, there is an upper parking lot for crowded days, but there is plenty of parking in the lower one this evening. Yes, we got here too late to even take good pictures. Footbridges lead us to walkways through woods between the water all around and to a boardwalk where you can get a beer and some food. Food vendors are now packing up for the day, but there seems to be a lot of them. There is a large pool of water and swimming is allowed as well as kayaking in the small rapids and waterfalls. There is a power plant run by the force of water via an aqueduct and it provides electricity to at least the nearby village, further up the previous road. There are campsites up that way also. It would be good to come here earlier. Ah well.
We’re not far from Valles now and we head into town to try and get dinner and then continue on to Aquismon. It is Christmas Eve and this is not thought out well. We are lucky that a number of restaurants are still open and we settle on one next to where we had such a wonderful breakfast. The waiters are very friendly. Although they only have one special dinner for Christmas Eve, they make an exception when Shruti explains she cannot eat the pork and prepare for her chicken instead. It’s all very good. After studying the phrase book and dictionary, I go up to the wait staff and cooks who are standing together and thank them for staying open later for us and treating us so well. They are very gracious in response.
We continue on, although it’s getting late, but we’re not far from Aquismon. At one point we come to a road on the right and blinking lights at the intersection for it. "Aquismon" states the sign and we turn right into the last leg of our drive and towards what will be our "base of operation" for the coming week and a half.
Christmas Eve in Aquismon. The main road takes us past one hotel and to the town square. The square is surrounded by shops, has a central gazebo and everything is well lit. It is easy to find the Hotel San Cosme, located on the leftmost corner opposite of our approach, where we will meet Mel and company in a few days. It is about 11:00P.M. and there are few people about, most probably at home or at church for midnight mass.
We pull up to the hotel and park under the balcony (only two spots). The owner’s son, Louis, greets us at the main desk and we work out room availability and fees with our poor Spanish. It is only 110 pesos (eleven US dollars) per night for a room with a double bed, shower and toilet. I know where we’ll be staying the rest of this trip.
We pay, receive keys, go upstairs to check out the second floor rooms surrounding a large balcony area, then commence unloading gear from the vehicle. It all just fits in nicely. We walk over to the balcony edge and take in the view of the village before us. The cool air is pleasant and all is quiet. The church that dominates the skyline is beautifully lit up. I hug and kiss Paula and then we head for bed. Quickly I check the bathroom. There’s a toilet seat. Bonus!
Part 2: It’s the Pits
Part 3: Walking On the Moon