This is a trip diary for a Georgia Tech caving trio to northern Mexico. You can see photos from the trip here.
We left Georgia Tech at 0920 and took I-85 to Montgomery, Alabama, where we picked up I-65.
We arrived in Brownsville around 0400 and slept for a few hours in the Marriott parking lot. We woke up again around 0700, ate breakfast at Shoney's, and headed to the border. We stopped along the way to change money at 10.5P/USD.
All of the drivers had obtained their temporary import permits in advance, so we only needed to get tourist visas at the border, which took about an hour. We then crossed into Mexico without getting searched and headed south on M-101 S to Victoria. The police waved us through every single checkpoint. In Victoria, we switched to M-85 S and drove through Mante and Valles, where we hit a parade for Semana Santa. Getting around the parade involved poking around Valles for about 30 minutes looking from a detour. After that, we continued on to Huichihuayan. There are signs everywhere pointing the way to the nacimiento. We arrived around 1830, which was after the folks charging 20P/person for admittance had left. The camping area was filled with locals, but we did find space for our vehicles and tents on the far right. The water was chilly but clean and refreshing, and the temperature dropped into the 60s at night.
We paid 7P/liter for gas from the Pemex stations. They've become very common, and Mante to Valles was the only significant stretch without them.
The roosters started crawing early, and we ate breakfast and packed our tents by 0830 for drive to Huahuas. From Huichihuayan, you drive north on M-85 to El Limoncito, where there's a sign telling you to turn left for Sotano Huahuas. Another fifteen minutes of driving on a paved road brought us to the village at the trailhead. Several signs indicated that we were at the right place in both Spanish and Huasteca. A man showed us where to park next to a long building with a loading dock. There's a registration both where visitors to the sotano pay admission, which is 10P to look and 35P to enter.
The trail was different from ten years ago and consisted of a stone pathway that made a few turns but was relatively easy to follow. A guide came along with us to the sotano, and we gave him a few extra pesos. We arrived at the edge around 0930. The rig point has moved a few meters to the right from the traditional one, which is now intended for tourist viewing and includes a large stone platform set back a few meters from the lip.
We easily rigged two 600' ropes and a 45' hand line to natural anchors. This rig point still gave a 140-meter free-fall drop. There was a large bee hive 15–20 meters from the rig point, but we did not have any run-ins with the bees. The high side is also available for rigging but requires more than 600' of rope as it's a 202-meter drop.
We kept a person or two at the top owing to the visitors milling about, descended into the soutano, and climbed back out without incident. We only explored the area accessible after the first drop and did not descend further into the sotano. We headed back to the vehicles around 1500 and drove back to Huichihuayan where we purchased gas, ice cream, and a 20-liter bottle of filtered water. The water cost us 13P and we avoided the deposit by pouring it into our container on site. We then returned to the nacimiento to swim and clean up. This time, we were charged 20P/person to enter.
After drying off, we drove to Aquismon and followed signs to Golondrinas and other caves. Before leaving town, we stopped at an Internet cafe to send a few emails. The first 5 km or so of the road is paved, after which it becomes a bumpy dirt road recommended only for vehicles with high ground clearance, although four-wheel-drive is not needed in dry weather.
We were astounded to see at least forty cars around the hairpin turn where we normally park and a solid line of tourists from the parking area to the sotano. There were several security officials with radios trying to tend the crowds. Prices were the same as Huahuas: 10P to look and 35P to enter. We inquired about entering the sotano the next day and were told that we could go in after the swallows had left (0900–1000) and had to have our ropes pulled before they returned (1500). We arranged everything with Thomas, the lead official, who was friendly and helpful.
We inquired about staying in the palapas by the sotano when a man named Alberto offered to let us stay for free on his property in Union de Guadeloupe. This is the next town you reach if you continue up the mountain from the hairpin turn. He also mentioned that there's a trail that descends to Golondrinas from that town.
A teenager hopped in the vehicles with us and directed us to parking spots in the village, which were about 100 m from the turn to Tamapatz and across from a small tienda. The camping area was a short scramble down the hillside to a nice flat area. Camping was free as advertised, and they're planning to build a parking area and hotel to capitalize on the throngs of tourists now visiting Golondrinas. We later learned that 2000–3000 had visited on Monday! Later in the trip, we also learned that Golondrinas had been included on a highly publicized list of the thirteen wonders of Mexico.
We shared this camp site with numerous farm animals and their deposits and had to watch where we stepped or pitched our tents. However, the locals were all very friendly, and the children helped us carry our gear down to the camp site. We bought a few drinks and snacks from the tienda and learned about a baño in the apartment above the tienda.
We arranged for three fellows to guide us and help carry ropes to the sotano the next morning.
We got up around 0600 local time and unspooled the rope onto four duffle bags. The three fellows were there by 0700, and we drove to the trailhead around 0730. Driving was not necessary, as it's only about 100 meters from where we parked, but we did not know this at the time. The trail drops down about 100 meters to the sotano and takes about 20 minutes.
There were already a few dozen tourists watching the birds come out of the pit. We found Thomas and paid our fee. We were initially going to rig the middle side but were not sure if our 1200' ropes would work, so we decided to rig the low side, which gives a 333-meter drop. Later in the day, we noticed that the low side yields a much shadier climb to the top, as the middle side would put you in full sun towards the top. The opening measures 50 m x 60 m, and the sotano opens up to 130 m x 270 m.
The guides suggested natural rigging points that we used for our two 1200' ropes and 45' hand line. Many of the guides have bounced the pit—one has done so thirteen times.
At 0930, we lowered our ropes into the pit and began rappelling down. There were only a handful of visitors at that time since the birds had left. We all climbed out and pulled the ropes by 1500. We all frogged out, and one person climbed solo in 54 minutes. The tandem teams climbed in 70, 80, and 90 minutes. The only incident was a leg burn from the rappel rack.
Two of the fellows from the morning returned to help us carry our ropes back to the camp site. We paid 30P/person to carry the ropes down and 50P/person to carry them back up, which is more than we should have given. We then spent a leisurely evening in camp and respooled the ropes for transport. We purchased a few additional drinks and other items from the tiends, and one of the Golondrinas guides came by for dinner and we gave him some spaghetti and sauce.
After a leisurely start (after dawn), we continued up the road to Tamapatz, which was about a 20-minute drive. We parked by a school next to the town square. The school was closed for Semana Santa and is probably not always a good parking spot. We found a friendly man that was walking home in the direction of Cepilla to guide us there. Cepilla can be seen from the town square as a clump of green trees across the valley. The walk there took about 30 minutes and we rigged our two 600' ropes at two different spots. A trail goes right by the entrance, and backing up the primary rig points requires running the rope across the trail to karst features. It's important to keep the rope low to avoid tripping people or livestock. In addition, it's a good idea to leave someone at the top to watch the ropes and gear. The sotano was beautiful as always, although the pool of water was quite low. Everyone bounced the sotano and we were back at the car by 1530.
We then drove to Huichihuayan and cleaned up in the spring. This cost us an extra 20P/vehicle for parking, which some of the group thought was a scam. Afterward, we drove to Los Pozas, where we hoped to camp for the night.
We arrived at Los Pozas just before dark and landed in the middle of a paranoid metal concert in the field below the road. This is normally a free camp site. We walked down the hill to assess the situation and were frisked by police who told us that they would have to search our cars if we tried to bring them through. This inspired us to search for an alternate camp site.
We asked a vendor that was packing up his wares at the turn-off to Los Pozas about alternate camp sites, and he told us that he had one that we could use with electricity and a bano. He said that he would return in 20 minutes to show us the way. Half an hour later, we followed him and his wife down the hill to the camp site. It's the first driveway on the right after you come down off the mountain and cross a bridge.
It's a field about 70 m x 30 m with the long side against the river. It has two roofed huts with lights, electricity, and patio furniture; a flush toilet; a small boat; and a swimming pool; but no running water. The field is very quiet for Mexico. Evidently, they purchased this land to use on weekends/holidays and for getting together with friends. We agreed on 1,200P for the eight of us for two nights.
We arrived at Los Pozas about fifteen minutes after it opened at 0900 and had our choice of parking spots. Admission is 30P/person. We had company while exploring the grounds, but it was not packed full of people. However, by the time we left at noon, tour busses were unloading people in the parking lot and the crowds were growing heavier. Los Pozas seems to be better maintained than in past years and has docents and security guards. Many of the concrete sculptures had been freshly painted.
We then drove into Xilitla and ate lunch at Restaurante Cayo's near the town square. We parked in a lot down the hill from Cayo's. If you are standing in the town square with your back to the church, the road on the right side of the square runs straight to the parking area.
After lunch, we touristed around for a few hours and sent a few emails from an Internet cafe. Some of us visited the Edward James museum adjacent to the Castillo, which has many of the concrete forms used to create Los Pozas on display. Additional items include preliminary sketches and models as well as numerous photographs.
While we were eating dinner, Ophelia's cousin Hector, who speaks fluent English, stopped by to make sure that everything was okay and that we had everything we needed. They invited us to stay a third night free of charge and mentioned that the place was ours to use since we had paid for it. They also invited us to return any time and to call in advance to reserve a space.
We had the cars packed and were on the road by 0900 to visit Sotano Huasteca. To reach the sotano, we drove back through Aquismon and started on the road to Golondrinas. There's a right turn marked "La Linja" a few kilometers after the pavement ends. This road is much rougher and definitely requires a vehicle with high ground clearance. Normal street vehicles could potentially make it to Golondrinas but not up the road to Sotano Huasteca.
We parked at the crest of a hill (UTM: 14 Q 0490456 2392914) and followed a footpath to the sotano (UTM: 14 Q 0490499 2392350). It's easy to get turned around in the network of trails. The trail eventually leads to an appealing lip that has two bee hives a few meters down from the lip. Following a trail counterclockwise around the opening leads to a much better and bee-free drop that includes a sturdy tree leaning out over the sotano. We rigged one rope there, but it could accommodate two. The opening measures 30 m x 40 m and opens up to 80 m x 100 m. The drop is 128 m.
The guidebook mentions a waterfall, but it was down to an occasional drop of water when we visited. We saw nobody on the trails or around the sotano the entire day. The locals walking on the road did not seem to care that we were there.
We made our way back to M-85 and headed north to Mante, where we camped at the nacimiento. We arrived after dark and were told that we could camp for free provided our vehicles were out by 0800, as they were expecting many people the next morning. Some sort of festival had recently concluded and there was trash everywhere and the bathrooms were the most disgusting ones in all of Mexico. Several people visited the cave before going to bed and found vampire bats and spiders. It was fairly quiet by 2100.
We got started around 0630 and a cleaning force descended on the trash shortly after dawn. After a brief frisbee rescue from the roof of a building, we hit the road at 0800 and drove to Victoria where we visited the mercado centro. It's two blocks from the road by the canal.
We crossed the border into the US around 1500 via the new international bridge without a problem. US Customs searched all of our vehicles. We then headed towards Houston to drop off one of our group members.
We stopped by the George Bush International airport around 0230 and continued on towards Atlanta via I-10, stopping for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel soon after crossing into Louisiana at dawn. We took I-12 to skip New Orleans and save a few miles, and then headed up I-65 to I-85 for the final stretch. We finally arrived back at ORGT at 1500.