We finally got into our cars this past weekend and drove away – to see some sights, get out of town and explore (mostly courtesy of some local friends with lots of Mexico-exploration experience via car). We would not have had the courage to try this just ourselves. Not only that, but we also found that sharing adventures such as these adds to the fun, including meeting new people. Two new friends, in particular, are Mexican-travel guide books in and of themselves, one of which is fluent in Spanish. So we were excited to travel with them, and more than comfortable to do so.
We left town on a Friday afternoon and got on the local highway (with tolls just like back home). I especially enjoyed the highway driving for several reasons, the main one of which being this was our first drive out of our daily area so I was excited to see some new views (we pretty much have our same routes to school and work – nothing new to see there). Also, unlike back home, our highway drive was not inundated with annoying billboard advertisements every couple of feet – and I’m happy to share that I didn’t see a single sign for McDonald’s. No Dairy Queens at the exits, no hillbilly fireworks sales, no creepy Christmas stores (you totally know the ones I’m talking about). What we did see was pretty cool: lots of farms (horses, cows, chickens), small stands selling fresh fruit, hand-made furniture, tropical plants and colorful chotskies (yes, we are from Chicago), No store signs, no hours of operation, no “open 24 hours” establishments – just some folks on the side of the road selling their wares (or approaching our car offering cheese – which we never bought). Small quaint villages with a center square for congregations, churches, stores. Some of them seemed poor to our standards, but the people I saw in them were all smiling, holding hands, the kids were pedaling down the dirt roads on tricycles, so honestly, it’s not for me to say if these places were poor or not. The land itself we traveled through was beautiful, called a “tropical savannah” (thanks for the term, Aleisha!) It was a very lush landscape filled with every shade and texture of green imaginable, and since we were traveling inland and away from the coast, it always had a beautiful mountain backdrop in most directions.
The only thing I can complain about the drive were the potholes. They are everywhere here (be it in the cities or the country) and I thought I was getting pretty good at avoiding and maneuvering safely around them here in our city, so much so that I’ve been seriously considering trying-out to be a stunt-driver in the Fast and the Furious franchise when we go back home.
I’m thinking now I’m not going to get that job.
Hitting potholes driving around town around 30 MPH is one thing – accurately hitting them going 50 to 60 MPH is violently jarring, and I think I may have hit every single one on the particular highways we were on this past weekend. Besides my own discomfort and concern that these camouflaged, bottomless crevices to the underworld were going to take out a tire or two (and I’m pretty positive AAA Roadside Assistance doesn’t include Mexican roadsides) I also had to contend with my 10-year old’s complaints from the backseat that our brief moments airborne were messing with her Nintendo game (but honestly she shouldn’t have been playing anyway – she should have been looking out the window, which we kept reminding her the entire drive).
We initially drove west and spent the night in Ciudad Valles – at the Taninul Hotel, a colonial-style building with lots of charm. The rooms were rather bare but comfortable – our room having strange artwork (is the dude flying on a Popsicle, over a forest of other Popsicles?) Anyway, the food was fabulous, authentic Mexican cuisine and the service very quick and friendly. Mostly having the restaurant just about exclusively to ourselves, we were all able to play a fun game of charades (a reference here to the fun of sharing adventures – coupled with the fact that it was fun to learn just how good at charades our 7 year old is – we had no idea). Our favorite part about this hotel, however, was its hot springs for swimming, and doing so at night with minimal lighting to highlight the steam coming off the water is a tad magical. For an extra fee we could have had our bodies covered in mud for some sort of treatment, and then rinsed off in the hot springs – but we declined this service. That night was pretty chilly, so unless you were in the hot water you were pretty cold, and none of us figured this mud-treatment was worth it. But it was a little strange that the folks who apparently are a lot braver than us that did partake in this service rinsed their mud off in the same springs the rest of us were swimming in, so that was slightly yucky (although in their defense they all rinsed near the pool’s drain – but still). Also enjoyable was exploring the hotel’s grounds, which were filled with huge vine-covered trees with exposed roots, rock-paved paths, horses and a cave to explore (although I’ll admit we didn’t go spelunking – we just walked in a bit before the smell, the droppings and the small scurrying sounds made us all scurry out back into the light). I would recommend Taninul Hotel and we would stay there again.
After Taninul Hotel, on Saturday, we drove a bit more Southwest to the weekend’s main destination: Xilitla.
Xilitla was magical. Before we came to Mexico I envisioned visiting quaint, rustic Mexican villages filled with color and culture and mariachi bands and dancing in the streets and… well, I’ll stop there, except that Xilitla was pretty much what I had hoped for and had all of those things (no mariachi band but we did pass an open bar where the performer was playing some sort of interesting horn that had a deep-twang I would associate with The Down Under… but it was late, and it was a bar so we passed by with the kids). We stayed at the Posado El Castillo, which was small with only eight rooms, the caretaker being a really nice lady named Luisa whose grandfather had lived at the hotel at one point. This hotel was easily like an adult’s jungle-gym / fun house: spiral staircases, wobbly ladders, balconies, open rooms, a pool on the roof, a wooden swing near the garden area, lots of doors and places to explore, several different levels with access to all the rooftops, colorful tropical birds in cages (one of which bit a hole in my shirt but that was my fault as I got too close to his cage), and a pretty friendly little cat who would let you pet her for awhile before she bit you. We all (kids and adults alike) had fun just running around like a bunch of hamsters in a new-tunnel enclosure. The rooms were all very quaint, huge windows that offered beautiful views of the town and mountains around us, and included fresh cut flowers, candles for us to burn; were quirky and filled with lots of charm and personality (although it was missing art work featuring frozen treats).
Now as enjoyable as our travels had been to this point – it was soon to get even more amazing as we went to the location that was the main reason for these travels: Las Pozas. It will be hard to describe Las Pozas but I’ll do my best:
Imagine a tropical forest filled with waterfalls and streams. Make sure to add the sounds of the water, all the different birds and the breeze through the leaves. Now imagine in this forest a huge garden that flows through and between the waterfalls, up and down the hills and throughout the foliage – now imagine large structures and concrete art haphazardly strewn about the entire area: concrete structures and art that look like a cross between artwork from M.C. Escher, a Dr. Seuss book and a Lord of the Rings movie set. You walked on, climbed up and maneuvered through all of this art. Some looked like buildings, some gates or doorways, some window frames, some that looked like giant flowers; but mostly they had no particulate shape so each viewer drew their own conclusion at the builder’s intention. Winding paths that take you nowhere, staircases that go up and up and then simply end, enchanting doorways and windows that do not lead to any buildings. We got lost pretty quickly but that was part of why it was so enchanting: do we climb the stairs and see what’s up there? Do we go straight and crawl through the doorway to see what’s beyond? Or do we venture downwards along that path to find the waterfall we can so clearly hear through the trees? If you are having trouble imagining the charm and beauty of Las Pozas (or I’m just not describing it well enough) – check out these images. Las Pozas was built by Edward James, an “eccentric English poet and artist”, who in the 1960s and 1970s spent millions of dollars and employed hundreds of masons, artisans, and local craftsmen to create his sculpted gardens. “By the time James died in 1984, he had built 36 surrealist inspired concrete sculptures, spread out over more than 20 acres of lush tropical jungle.”
In my opinion Las Pozas should be added to the “Wonders of the World” list.
We had a wonderful time at this wonder and look forward to visiting it again (hopefully in warmer climate so we can swim in the streams and slide down the waterfalls – which is allowed – can you believe that?). As an American coming from a very litigious culture, coupled with my own years of experience working for personal injury lawyers, I had a hard time believing how open, free and hazardous Las Pozas was. There were no caution signs anywhere indicating you had to climb at your own risk, no yellow signs which depicted stick-figures falling down the mountainside, we didn’t even have to sign any waivers to enter; none of the edges of the steps had florescent painted edges to draw your attention; no handrails or guard rails existed anywhere; just art and beauty and nature and these fabulous designs that drew you in to explore around every corner, up every step, through every gate. I found that to be very freeing (and a tad nerve racking – we did have our two kids with us, the younger of which being very accident prone herself even when she has the caution signs and the bright yellows lines and handrails to keep her safe). But you know she did very well, which maybe was also a lesson to us not to worry so much.
We ended our Xilitla trip with a great dinner that night in a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel in the city center, on the restaurant’s back balcony, filled with candles and breathing in a beautiful view of the mountainside village at night, dotted here and there with small, twinkling lights. It was very quite but we could still hear roosters in the distance, cars laboring up the steep streets occasionally and the soft hum of insects. And thanks to very little light pollution, we’ve never seen the stars so bright.
So, to recap our weekend: we highly recommend the Taninul Hotel in Ciudad Valles, swimming in hot springs (day or night), exploring caves (make sure you know how to access your cell’s flashlight app), the Posada El Castillo (don’t get too close to the birdcages and only pet the cat for about 10 seconds), Xilitla (watch out for pot holes if you are driving) and visiting Las Pozas (of which I promise you don’t need to be a Dr. Seuss or a LOTR fan to be enchanted with… you clicked on the images link, right?).
In fact, if you are planning on going to any of those places – let us know. We’ll meet you there.