Xilitla and La Cuerva de los Riscos

In the morning, Clem and Emilie joined us in Xilitla. They had managed to go and see the other sinkhole, a short distance from the one we had gone too, good example of the complete lack of logic applied to Covid regulations. They had needed to book separate timeslots for the garden though, as Lu wasn’t allowed in there either. Thinking it would be pretty unfair to leave Emilie to go by herself, we opted to wait in the camper and have coffee and lunch while Clem and the others went. Around an hour and a half later, they returned soggy but happy and it was our turn. They said they had been given a great tour and had requested that we have the same guide; he met us at the entrance after a short while.

The story of Edward James is not one I knew until this point, but an interesting one. It seemed he was quite the eccentric. A wealthy Englishman who, amongst other things, decided to build a surrealist garden in the mountains of Mexico. It was interesting for me to find that he inherited the family fortune which was West Dean House in Sussex, a place not far from my hometown and somewhere both Lee and I had previously visited. Our guide told us of how he had grown up in this very garden, and had personally known the man. We started off our tour on a path to right through an entrance like a giant ring, inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

As he walked us through the concrete statures being overtaken by the jungle he explained that was how it was supposed to be, and as Edward had wanted nature to decorate his work and saw it as part of the sculpture rather than a detraction.

He walked us through the interesting sculptures and rooms without walls. On a wet and rainy day it seemed like an odd thing to want, but having known the heat of the Mexican summer I can see how this would be rather nice for most of the year.

Many of the sculptures had a story behind them, of why he had chosen this particular shape for his workers to build. These two in particular I remember. The one on the left featuring white orchids is a tribute to the time it snowed in the garden, killing the several thousands orchid species he had collected. The leaf on the right, was on he found pressed between the pages of a book and was taken with the shape that he asked his worked to sculpt one.

We wandered through the bright green plants and orchids, concrete sculptures rising out of the moss around us. This is the kind of thing I really like, so I was having a great time. What made it even better was Covid. It’s a blessing and a curse, for travelling. There are restrictions that affect us and laces we can’t see which is always a shame, but here the limited numbers made for a great experience. Our guide told us how several thousands of people a day come through here normally, there is a four-hour long queue outside the gates. Tour groups consist of around 50 people, ours was just us three.

One other group was in the garden, a little behind us. We got the chance to take some brilliant pictures which weren’t full of tourists, have a more personal experience with our tour guide and enjoy the sounds and tranquillity of the garden. This is one of the few advantages.

The final stop was Edward’s studio, the only inhabitable building in the park. It sits perched on the hillside, surrounded by the jungle like everything else.

As our tour came to an end, we looked forward to getting back into the camper to dry off and warm up. Today was cold, not that Aimee could tell you that, snuggled up in our duvet with the heating on. As we had spent two days roadside, we were keen for a nice spot for the night. We opted to head south towards the famous springs at Tolantongo, but it was still around 8 hours to reach them. We had the choice to loop around to the west or the east to get there, the west offered more parking spots and things to see, so we chose this direction. We planned to drive to the lake in Jalpan, we should just make it there in daylight as it was a good two hour drive. What better thing to do with a rainy day though, than knocking some time off the route.

Once again, Bruno was the first one there. No camping they texted us, the lake is closed for Covid. We had caught up with Clem and Emilie and were busily restocking our wine selection in the local supermarket. The next stop from there was around a 40 minute drive out of the town, not too far, but we would arrive in the dark so we hoped it was open and suitable. With Jaro and the others ahead of us, we left next, followed by Clem and Emilie. As we turned down the final section of dirt road we hoped no news was good news.

We spied Jaro and Bruno parked up and then for a second thought that the Swiss couple had come too, but it turned out to be a different, and even bigger, Spanish camper. I honestly can’t remember their names, we only met for a few hours, but they shared their campfire and parking spot with friendly smiles. They had been on the road for twelve years and covered a large part of the world. They also recommended a few spots for us as we headed further south, can’t beat first-hand knowledge. In the morning, they left to continue their travels in their absolute monster of a truck. Clem and Emilie too have decided to press on. They were on more of a deadline than us, only having till March before they needed to be back in the States and wanted to get to the hot springs.

That left the three of us with a decision, should we go to another ‘Puente de Dios’ that was here, a nice hike up the river to a waterfall, or should we go an explore a cave. In the end we did neither. I took a look at our front beam as our steering had been a little wobbly, and was horrified to see that the beam had rusted through so much that the wheel was barely connected. One pothole and that was us on a tow truck. Hanno and Kikki wanted internet and a supermarket and Jaro was jealous of the rug we had bought there yesterday. In the end we all headed back to Jalpan, we were in search of a welder.

We tried driving around vaguely without seeing anyone offering welding. Then we tried the welder that was shown on google. In normal fashion, it didn’t exist. We pulled into the next garage and asked if they did welding. They didn’t but they directed us to an exhaust shop that did. We spent the afternoon there with a pleasant guy who spent a long time patching back together or completely knackered beam. He also welded the other engine mount and replaced one of our exhaust flexible sections at the labour costs of £25 an hour. While he made a pretty strong job on the beam, the damage was done. It had rotted so much that it had changed the entire angle of the front suspension and was nor wrecking the tyre. The beam has never been good. I have re-welded it myself twice in England and would have replaced it if it had been possible. Mexico though, that’s the place to fix your VW, we already had our hearts set on Puebla for parts.

Feeling a little more confidant the front end of our van wouldn’t disintegrate now, we headed back to our riverside camp. In the spirit of being proactive we cleaned out the toilet. Tomorrow we could now do something fun, we waited on the weather to tell us what that would be.

With it still rather grey in the morning, we opted for the cave. Sunlight isn’t going to do much good down there anyway. This is around a twenty minute drive back the way we had come. We parked up in a small village and walked down the road to the start of the trail. The first section was a steady uphill climb, left me realising how unfit I was. We climbed through an odd mixture of jungle plants. The air was humid, airplants, orchids and bromeliads grew in the trees. While vines and creepers trailed fought with Spanish moss for a place too. In between this green jungle, large cacti and Aloe Vera plants sprang up too, not seeming to mind the damp humidity of it all.

We continued on. The trail was not particularly long, but the last section is a steep downhill descent from the ridge of the hill to the river in the valley below. We bemoaned the fact we needed to go back up as we scrambled downwards. Jaro was a way ahead of us at this point and we lost him completely. At the bottom we ran out of path at the river. A fairly non-descript pile of rocks was to the right. Climbing around these a bit revealed a bit of an entrance, still nothing particularly interesting.

“Is that really it?” I shouted up to Hanno as he climbed over the last rock. “Did we really climb all down here for this?? Is there even a proper ca-“

“Oh wow”. He said, cutting me short. We clambered up the rocks behind and looked down into the abyss. A huge cave lay in front of us, stalactites hanging from the ceiling and the path a river had cut through the middle clear to see. It was huge and empty in the middle of the jungle. A little figure emerged below as we located Jaro.

A steep scramble down the side landed us in the heart of the cave. It vast size is impossible to capture well on a photo, mainly because it is all in the dark. We walked from end to end, the measly light from our camera phones barely making an impression. It was definitely worth it.

Photo by Kikki

It had taken us only an hour to reach here, so after having a good look around we climbed back out and began the ascent. Around halfway up the hill we heard a shout of “OH SHIT!” as Jaro nearly put his hand on a snake a few feet away. Fortunately I could tell him that it’s a Mexican vine snake and not particularly venomous, having met one a few months before. He didn’t seem reassured. Perhaps he was still upset from being bitten by a mouse he had tried to rescue from Aimee a few days before.

Before too long, we had retraced our steps back to the van. I bagged myself a cute little orchid on the way too.

We were now around 6 hours from the hot springs, which none of us fancied doing in one go. We decided to follow a recommendation from the Spanish campers and stop at Bernal. It nicely separated the drive in two and we would camp at the foot of the third largest monolith in the world. With plenty of time left in the day, we set off.

The drive for the most part was steep mountain roads. We climbed up and up, from leaving the cave at ??? we reached the alpine village of ?? at ?? as we went above the clouds and into the sun. Ruby behaved well on the long slog upwards, but she couldn’t keep up with the others. It didn’t matter though, I enjoyed driving the road. As we clear ?? the road wound along the tops of the mountains for a while before we began our long descent down the other side. I was glad we had the time and a nice day, this was no a road to rush. For one the scenery was beautiful, but from a more practical point of view it was just a series of unending hairpins. We rarely left 2nd gear. Towards the bottom, we saw the others pulled over. They had stopped for a break from the never-ending bends. This was it though, and the last section to Bernal was a straightforward drive.

We found the free car park easily and it was at this point that Kikki told us Bernal was famous for its wine and cheese. Aimee had already done a runner, so we left her to explore while we, rather excited, we headed into town. Here, we’re back to Covid downsides. The town was a ghost town, although I’m not sure we can attribute all of this to the pandemic. The town appears to only open at the weekend, surviving soley on tourist trade, it was still pretty to look at however.

This meant everything was shut, everything except the restaurant that serves these rather excellent blue corn gorditas. They had a pretty impressive vegetarian selection too, and for the first time we got to try huitlacoche, a Mexican delicacy that is basically a fungus that grows on sweetcorn. Sounds and looks pretty disgusting, but actually just tastes like a mild mushroom flavour.

Win some lose some. I wanted more gorditas tomorrow. But for now we needed to head back and check on Aimee, as we were losing the light and she’s not the sharpest tool in the box.

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