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Banding & Bounding sortie #2, Cuetzalan whiteout

             The first five hours we drove under the classic cloudless blue winter sky of Oaxaca. After hearing Linda and me talk so glowingly about the magic towns and magical views of the  Sierra Norte of the State of Puebla, Matt and Abby hankered to see the Pueblo Mágico of Cuetzalan and spend a couple of nights in don José María Simón Ruiz’s cloud forest retreat.

Leaving the Valley of Etla, we climbed through the parched, eroded hills of the Mixteca that separate a few high, dry valleys like Nochixt

lán, still reeling from the faceoff with government troops two years ago that left six people dead. North of Nochixtlán the road plummets suddenly into a vast canyon, dropping 1,400 meters (about 4,700 feet) in less than 15 kilometers. Anywhere else it would be a national park, and here it serves as a vivid visual explanation of why the northern civilizations like the Aztecs exerted so little influence over the Zapotecs of Oaxaca and the Mayas of the Yucatán.

As we climbed up the other side toward Huajhuápam and the vast plane of Puebla and the chain of volcanos that form its northern border, the blue faded as clouds thickened over the peaks. No view today of Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain. At the junction we left the cuota, the toll road, and headed north along the western flank of Volcán Perote, the likewise massive volcano that is dwarfed by its snow-covered neighbor.

At Aljojuco we turned off the secondary road and drove up a low volcanic hill to its church, a building of no particular artistic merit; its tower is sheathed in scaffolding that is testimony to October’s earthquakes. The attraction is the view of the crater on whose edge the church optimistically stands. he circular crater is a kilometer in diameter, and filled with a blue-green lake, 200 meters below the rim.

  1. Google says the lake itself is 600-meters deep. The dots on the surface of the lake, our binoculars tell us, are small boats, each with a couple of fisherman hoping to catch enough to feed lunch to the family and have a few left over to sell at market. A narrow, dirt road serpentines from the church to the lakeshore. Another time, perhaps.

From here  we drove through flat corn country and dusty ancient lakebeds on tertiary roads, straight enough to invite speed, and in poor enough condition to make that foolish. It was Abby who first spotted the smoke.

“Over those low hills, where it looks like the pines begin. A forest fire? Burning corn stubble?”

The closer we got, the thicker the smoke appeared. It was clearly advancing, for the pines were disappearing in the thick gray cotton. It looked like we were approaching Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. As we reached the first wisps the road cut between two low hills, and dipped sharply down and we were enveloped in white. Cold, wet, white, with no smell of smoke. We had left the Plane of Puebla and were starting down the Atlantic slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental.

With every turn of the tires the cloud thickened. Soon we could not see the hills on either side. The tops of the roadside pines disappeared. Then their trunks. Our speed dropped to 10 KPH, our eyes —mine anyway— were riveted on the road. I gave up blinking. The grayer patches sometimes indicated potholes, so we slalomed around them. One large gray patch, thoughtfully marked by a stone cairn, resolved itself as void: half the road had disappeared into the valley whose edge the road was skirting.  When headlights approached we stopped dead and pulled to the side, at least in the places where there was a side to pull off onto.

Driving was actually fun, in a high adrenaline, white-knuckled sort of way, and I never heard one gasp of “Watch it!” from either of my passengers.

After two twisty hours, during which we descended from 2,200 meters to about 1,400 meters, we turned up a cobbled road to the Aldea San Francisco, the little patch of the eastern slope that don José María has preserved as a showpiece of the extraordinary biological diversity of the cloud forests. Cloud. Forest. No further explanation needed.

His holding isn’t enormous, a few hectares at most, but it is gorgeous and lovingly stewarded. [For more about Aljojuco and the Aldea and don José María’s San Francisco, see “Vacation!” of June 27, 2017.] A wide variety of trees, many of them giants, some covered with flowers or fruit, all covered with epiphytes and bromeliads.

Their upper branches, at least those we could see in the occasional thinnings of cloud, form a tight canopy. The branches of middle story, which we could mostly make out, harbor whole ecosystems of ferns, funguses, and parasitic plants of every imaginable shade of green. How enough light gets through the upper layer to sustain them seems a mystery. The lower story, likewise light deprived, copes by sporting enormous leaves the size of Volkswagens. Palm trees –or are they ferns, or palmettos?—all of them in their whimsical improbability seemingly designed by Dr. Seuss, fight for space. Everywhere vines creep up, roots trail down, and every flat, postage-stamp-sized patch hosts growth. What they are anchored to is likewise improbable: a vast, varied field of lava, in shelves, funnels, corkscrews, columns, and pinnacles. Many of the holes are filled with water; in the larger ones fish swim slowly among the aquatic plants.

Over the years José María has built a half dozen cabins, most of them two story, with kitchenettes, single and double beds, sitting space, an balconies covered to keep the drip off the heads of the tenants peering out into the green jungle.

It was nearly dark, so after a brief hike among the barely visible trees, a delicious dinner at the restaurant, and an hour of sobremesa conversation with José María about politics, ecology, innovative kitchen architecture, and the state of this and other worlds, we squished back to our cabins.

Up on the Puebla plain we had been comfortably warm, even at 2,400 (nearly 8,000 feet) meters, but here at 1,400 meters (about 4,600 feet), soaked to the skin by the wet cotton fog, we were freezing.

Our cabin had a couple of extra beds, so we stripped them and wrapped ourselves in the heavy wool blankets. And after quick warmish showers, early to bed.

            About 6:30 in the morning, waked by chirping in the trees just outside our windows, we decided to greet the dawn. Dawn didn’t get the message. The thick cloud, h

appy in its mountain residence, was putting down roots. Matt, the wisest of the three of us, pulled his covers, and Abby’s, up over his head. Abby and I clothed ourselves as best we could, grabbed our binoculars, and headed for the jungle trails. The birds were mostly high, and the visible world stopped at the mid-low.

We did spot a few hummingbirds and a noisy tribe of black-throated green warblers, but that was about it. Our best view was of the turgid fish in the muddy pond.

            So we changed plans. Scratched: hiking to some of the regions spectacular waterfalls and the caves that burrow into the karst landscape. Instead, we doddled for two hours in Cuetzalan, Abby and Matt traipsing up and down the narrow, cobbled streets in their newly-purchased rain ponchos, David sleeping snugly in the car. Then they woke me and I joined them for an hour in the regional Anthropology museum, one of the nicest I’ve seen in Mexico, at least in a pedagogical sense, and in explaining and championing the Sierra’s diversity.

No mention, though, of the Rafael car, an icon of diversity, parked on the street outside the museum.


Then we drove down (i.e., another 500-meters of cliff-side, mostly intact road) to the area’s most developed archaeological site, which Matt and Abby enjoyed while I completed the second half of my nap (I’d seen the site before).


            All in all, despite the weather, a delightful and thoroughly satisfying visit.


But wait, there’s more . . . You’ve never seen anything like Cantona, appearing in sortie #3!