Meet Me at the Oasis
In the face of forces destroying other parts of Mexico, the Sierra Gorda reserve holds its own--a miraculous, biological melting pot unmatched on the North American continent. Black bears mingle with jaguars and macaws, and stands of tropical trees, draped with orchids, abut hills dotted with cactus.
Yet if Valle Verde seems far off the beaten track, our final stop is so remote that until recently, there had been no track at all. Or, more correctly, there was one, if you were determined enough--a torturous footpath climbing 2,000 feet up the steep mountains to the community of La Trinidad, where 15 Huasteca families live in some of the finest old-growth cloudforest left in Mexico.
The state recently built a small four-wheel-drive track to the village, which has opened a modest ecotour venture much like San Juan de los Duran's. Tucked among head-high fingers of limestone, four rustic cabins sit at the edge of a forest of oaks and pines draped with ghostly tendrils of old-man's-beard lichen, their trunks furred with moss and heavy with orchids and enormous, bright-red bromeliads.
As the wet air flows in from the Gulf of Mexico and rises over the mountains, the peaks of the Sierra Madre squeeze the moisture from it--and Lord, how they squeeze. We no sooner stow our gear when the rain begins, gently at first, then with rising intensity. Beto wants to show us an exceptional stand of old growth, and because he isn't deterred by weather or terrain, he shrugs on a raincoat.
"Well, it's not going to stop, so I guess we'd might as well go," he says, and we set out in what soon becomes the kind of deluge that floats arks. The trail is now a stream. We have to repeatedly ford knee- and even thigh-deep, bracing ourselves against the current. Yet to see the cloudforest ripe with the rain that nourishes it, lush and green and dripping, noisy with the roar of rushing water, is well worth the hours of slogging in sodden boots. The immense firs and sweetgums soar above our heads, their crowns disappearing in the fog--the "fat boys," Beto calls them for their tremendous 13- to 20-foot girth. Rivers of water cascade over their moss-covered bark, and orchids and bromeliads cling to their branches.
The cabins are snug, though, candlelit with wood-fired water heaters for very welcome hot showers. Nearby is a small kitchen and dining room that will eventually offer wraparound windows--once the glass arrives, that is; our visit is a bit premature, and not everything is ready for tourists. No matter. We cocoon ourselves in fleece and windbreakers for dinner as the candle flames sputter in the rain-swept breeze, and tuck into plates of steaming, traditional food of the Huasteca region, including gooey, lightly toasted squares of pungent local cheese and mugs of hot, sweet tea made from wild mint that drives away the cold.
By the next morning the rain has stopped, and the landscape is alive with birds--a wonderfully disconcerting mix of the temperate and tropical, resident and migrant, east and west. I stand in one small clearing for half an hour as a seemingly endless flock of songbirds flit through--western migrants like Townsend's and hermit warblers with their bright splashes of yellow, eastern species like black-throated green and black-and-white warblers that might have passed through my Pennsylvania yard a few weeks earlier, and resident birds like tufted flycatchers, which with their small crests look like cinnamon-colored titmice. We see orange-billed nightingale-thrushes and black thrushes, the latter a close cousin of the American robin, though coal black with a bright-yellow bill. Mexican jays give their musical chink calls, and Beto excitedly points out a strong-billed woodcreeper, a rusty-brown, foot-long bird with a curved, outsized beak nearly a third its total length.
Heading back toward the distant village for lunch, we take a different route for a change of pace. Soon Beto stops and admits it is a path he doesn't know. Beto, you must understand, loves to find a path he doesn't know, and he cocks a mischievous eye at us.
The trail strikes off to the north and east, away from the village, and we abandon any thought of lunch, caught up in the spirit of adventure, mesmerized by the beauty of the forest, narrow grottos festooned with wild begonias, the flocks of riotously colored birds. It is hard, sweaty going, the footing treacherous, the trail muddy and steep, as we climb out of one joya and immediately begin sliding down a half-vertical slope into the next. And again. And again.
But often at the bottom of a valley we find a sotano, each lovelier than the last. One is a shaft 30 yards wide, on a narrow shelf on which grows a tall, orchid-bedraped oak overhanging the main pit of the sinkhole. "I can guarantee you that no one except the Huasteca in La Trinidad have ever been back here," Beto says.
By now it's late afternoon, and we have to turn back soon if we are going to make it to the village before dark. But Beto urges me to go just a little farther. Climbing quickly--the man is a mountain goat--he shouts to hurry. I can see light through the trees ahead, hinting at a great space beyond. "This isn't another joya," I think to myself. "This feels like the edge of the sierra."
And it is.
Below us, the mountain falls in a sheer, thousand-foot cliff to the crumpled foothills and the tropical plains. If only it were a clearer day, we might be able to see the silvery glint of the Gulf of Mexico more than 100 miles away. What we can see--all too clearly--is how the lower hills have been stripped of their forests for cornfields. We are standing on a million-acre island in a sea of agriculture and development.