It was never part of the original itinerary to start our cycling tour with a road trip Northeast of San Miguel de Allende, exploring Sierra Gorda. Likewise for Lars’ brother Lucas and his girlfriend Ashlee who were originally planning to meet some friends in Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast. However, the night before they were planning to depart, Lucas became really sick and simply couldn’t face the epic 18 hour journey on three different buses.
Fortunately, Ashlee is extemely resourceful. Her extensive research led her to discover the Sierra Gorda, a beautiful ecological area with waterfalls, caves, canyons, leopards and bears. Her storytelling soon had all of us excited so once Lucas was eating again, we were ready to hit the mountains.
After a game of find the rental car shop in Querétaro, we boarded our gold 1.6 ltr Hyundai Ascent… or was it a Dodge Attitude? (apparently Hyundai is now supplying cross branded Dodge Attitudes in Mexico). Oh never mind! Onward to the foothills of Sierra Gorda!
A couple of hours of mountain switch backs with breathtaking views, arid rough landscape started to change. Further North forests of White Cedar, Pine and Oak were emerging.
This otherwise unsung part of Mexico is an important ecological site. There is some eco tourism, but not nearly as much as we had expected to see even though we were visiting during the off season. The four of us were getting pretty excited to have the place to ourselves for three days.
After climbing miles of steep, winding switchbacks to the summit pass, we began descending as the sun was going down. Soon it was getting dark but we were lucky to have a bright, full moon to guide us as setting up camp was going to become increasingly difficult.
We arrived Jalpan, the largest town in Sierra Gorda, which sits in a deep valley surrounded by peaks on all sides. We discovered a water park near the river where camping was allowed for 25 pesos per person (approx £1.30 each!).
The population in Jalpan has been decreasing (currently at around 10,000) due to lack of work. Over the years, restrictions have been put in place to keep the preserve the natural beauty and richness of the region, thus limiting agriculture, forestry and extraction of natural resources. This is great for the preservation of Sierra Gorda, but the impact on the economy for this community is made clear by the dramatic decrease in population.
Around 15km away from Jalpan is Chuveje Waterfall. After a short walk along the river through beautiful old growth forest, we were able to enjoy swimming in the clear, chilly water without spotting a single other person.
Life certainly appears idylic here in this tranquil setting but looks can be deceiving. We heard stories from several local men who had crossed the US border to work on tobacco farms or any other manual labour leaving their families for months at a time. We spoke with four local men who had all worked in different areas of the States in order to send remittances home to support their families in Jalpan and surrounding smaller townships. It seems bizarre when they are surrounded by mining potential of gold, silver and semi-precious stones. The biosphere reserve in this area is too precious; these eco-systems need to be protected.
On the hunt of our own little gem, we drove onwards the next day to Cañón del Paraíso (Paradise Canyon). The low water level of the dry season allowed us to wading waist deep between the high canyon walls. We were rewarded after a scramble up the bank into a cave. Quartz mineral glistened over the rocks; Ashlee and I turned into little magpies and pocketed a few pieces 🙂 Perhaps I’ll make some jewellery on this trip after all!
As dusk encroached, we drove back down the winding mountain road to Bernal, a small town 50km Northeast of Querétaro. Luke and Ashlee were to fly out of Mexico City the next day, so the location was ideal for getting back on the road on time in the morning.
When we rolled into town, we headed straight to Tom’s Pizza just off the main highway. Not exactly authentic Mexican, but perfect for our empty bellies after a full day of hiking.
After gorging ourselves, we asked the Pizza Tom (perhaps not really Tom) if he knew someplace to camp nearby. He seemed to think we could camp half way up the base of a mountain called La Peña. This turned out to be an amazing end to our trip, because La Peña de Bernal is the 3rd tallest monolith in the world!
We grabbed our hammocks and sleeping bags and trekked up the trail at around 11pm using only the light of the full moon. It was certainly a first for me and one of the many highlights I will take away from our Sierra Gorda adventure.
Stealth camping in the moonlight with our hammocks slung in a tree and awaking to an amazing sunrise was the best way to end this trip. Thank you Luke and Ashlee for a great start to our adventures in Mexico and beyond.