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Road trip through mountain ridges to find the surreal

We took a couple of days of for a family vacation / road trip through the hills of Central Mexico. The overall trip does not look like anything out of the ordinary…

…Other than the fact that Google forecasted we’d take approximately 15.5 hours driving for 852Km — that is, an average of almost 55 Km/h. And yes, that’s what we signed up for. And that’s what we got. Of course, the exact routes are not exactly what Google suggested (I can say we optimized a bit the route, i.e., by avoiding the metropolitan area of Querétaro, at the extreme west, and going via San Juan del Río / Tequisquiapan / Bernal).

The first stretch of the road is… just a regular, huge highway, with no particular insights. The highways leaving and entering Mexico City on the North are not fun nor beautiful, only they are needed to get nice trips going 😉

Mexico City sits at a point of changing climates. Of course, it is a huge city… And I cannot imagine how it would be without all of the urbanization it now sports. But anyway: On the West, South, and part of the East, it is surrounded by high mountains, with beautiful and dense forests. Mexico City is 2200m high, and most of the valley’s surrounding peaks are ~3000m (and at the South Eastern tip, our two big volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, get past the 5700m mark). Towards the North, the landscape is flatter — and much more dry. Industrial compounds give way to dry grasslands. Of course, central Mexico does not understand the true meaning of flat, and the landscape is full with eh-not-very-big mountains.

Then, as we entered Querétaro State, we started approaching Bernal. And we saw a huge rock that… looks like it is not supposed to be there! It just does not fit the surroundings.

Shortly after Bernal, we entered a beautiful, although most crumpled, mountain ridge: Sierra Gorda de Querétaro. Sierra Gorda encompasses most of the North of the (quite small — 11500Km² total) state of Querétaro, plus portions of the neighboring states; other than the very abrupt and sharp orography, what strikes me most is the habitat diversity it encompasses. We started going up an absolute desert, harsh and beautiful; we didn’t take pictures along the way as the road is difficult enough that there are almost no points for stopping for refreshments or for photo opportunities. But it is quite majestic. And if you think deserts are barren, boring places — well, please do spend some time enjoying them!

Anyway… At on point, the road passes by a ~3100m height, and suddenly… Pines! More pines! A beautiful forest! We reached our first stop at the originally mining town of Pinal de Amoles.

After spending the night there and getting a much needed rest, we started a quite steep descent towards Jalpan de Serra. While it is only ~20Km away on the map, we descended from 2300 to 760 meters of altitude (and the road was over 40Km long).

Being much lower, the climate drastically changed from cool and humid to quite warm — and the body attitude in the kids does not lie!

In the mid-18th century, Fray Junípero Serra established five missions to evangelize the population of this very harsh territory, and the frontispiece for the church and monastery in Jalpan is quite breathtaking.

But we were just passing by Jalpan. A short visit to the church and to the ice-cream shop, and we were again on our way. We crossed the state border, entering San Luis Potosí, and arrived to our main destination: Xilitla, the little town in the beautiful Huasteca where the jungle meets surrealism.

Xilitla was chosen by the British poet and patron of various surrealist artists He was a British noble (an unofficial grandson of King Edward VII), and heir to a huge fortune. I’m not going to repeat here his very well known biography — suffice to say that he got in love with the Huasteca, and bought a >30ha piece of jungle and mountain close to the Xilitla town, and made it his house. With very ample economic resources, in the late 1940s he started his lifelong project of building a surrealist garden.

And… Well, that’s enough blabbering for me. I’m sharing some pictures I took there. The place is plainly magic and wonderful. Edward James died in 1984, and his will decrees that after his death, the jungle should be allowed to reclaim the constructions — so many structures are somewhat crumbling, and it is expected they will break down in the following decades. But for whoever comes to Mexico… This magic place is definitely worth the heavy ride to the middle of the mountains and to the middle of the jungle.

Xilitla now also hosts a very good museum with sculptures by Leonora Carrington, James’ long-time friend, but I’m not going to abuse this space with even more pictures. And of course, we did more, and enjoyed more, during our three days in Xilitla.

And for our way back… I wanted to try a different route. We decided to come back to Mexico City crossing Hidalgo state instead of Querétaro. I had feared the roads would be in a worse shape or would be more difficult to travel — And I was happy to be proven wrong!

This was the longest driving stretch — approximately 6:30 for 250Km. The roads are in quite decent shape, and while there are some stretches where we were quite lonely (probably the loneliest one was the sharp ascent from Tamazunchale to the detour before Orizatlán), the road felt safe and well kept at all times. The sights all across Eastern Hidalgo are breathtaking, and all furiously green (be it with really huge fern leaves or with tall, strong pines), until Zacualtipán.

And just as abruptly or more as when we entered Pinal de Amoles… We crossed Orizatlán, and we were in a breathtaking arid, desert-like environment again. We crossed the Barranca de Metztitlán natural reserve, and arrived to spend the night at Huasca de Ocampo.

There are many more things we could have done starting at Huasca, a region where old haciendas thrived, full of natural formations, and very very interesting. But we were tired and pining to be finally back home. So we rested until mid-morning and left straight back home in Mexico City. Three hours later, we were relaxing, preparing lunch, the kids watching whatever-TV-like-things are called nowadays.

All in all, a very beautiful vacation!