We make one last stop before leaving the Huasteca Potosina region at the Sotano Golindrinas, or Cave of the Swallows. Falling just six feet short of being 1,000 ft wide at it’s widest point, this air pit cave is over 1,200 ft drop from its highest karst ridge overhead, making it (according to wikipedia) “the largest known cave shaft in the world.” Although swarms of birds are reported, we are there during nesting season, so not much activity is taking place. Still, the cave offers some pretty impressive scenery.
Our final leg of the circuit brings us over the beautiful Sierra Gorda mountain range where we reach over 9,000 ft in elevation. It’s a twisting, narrow road up and over the mountains. The rugged scenery is beautiful, lush and green on the east side, thick with indigenous pine and cedar trees across the ridge line, and dry arid scrub brush on the west side. This is due to the mountains blocking moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
We get an early start up over the mountain range because our guide, Eric wants us to sample the Zacahuil, a three foot long tamale, specialty of the Huasteca region. This giant tamale baked in a banana leaf, chocked full of pork and chicken is the breakfast of choice at the roadside stand near the local bus station. Here, a line waits for the steaming hot meat-infused masa to be scooped out, served with a piping hot cup of Avena Caliente, a drink made from ground oatmeal and milk. It sounds dreadful, but it is actually quite good, as the sweet warm milky broth of the oatmeal helps extinguish the heat of chilies in the tamale.
In addition to the scenic mountain drive, our route is also going to take us through two more “Pueblo Magicos,” or Magic Towns, designated as such by their historical or cultural significance. The first of these is towns is Jalpan de Serra, the center of the area known for its Franciscan Missions built in the 18th century, designated as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.
The founding of the five missions in this area is credited to Father Junípero Serra, a priest of the Franciscan order. You might recognize him as the same priest who founded the majority of the missions in Southern California, most notably San Juan Capistrano, the oldest standing building in California. Father Serra was credited with founding nine of the 21 missions from Baja to San Francisco, though they were built on the backs of the indigenous people. In the case of the Missions of the Sierra Gorda, it was the Pame Indians who did the building through forced labor.
The second Pueblo Magico town that we visit on our circle through the Sierra Gorda, Bernal achieved Magic Town status for a completely different reason. The third largest monolith in the world behind Rio de Janerio’s Sugarloaf Mountain and the Rock of Gibraltar, La Peña de Bernal is made from a single stone rising up 1,421 feet.
This “thumb” serves as the center of the town, complete with legends and myths that have earned status as an acclaimed pilgrimage site. A well known rock climbing destination, Peña de Bernal has hiking trail halfway up the rock (we didn’t hike because time was limited) where a tiny one-person cavernous chapel marks the end of the pilgrimage. Climbing gear and a permit are required to continue on to the top.
Bernal is known for its blue corn gorditas, and I can attest they are worthy of acclaim. The most interesting version is the “Nopales en Penca,” or cactus cooked inside a cactus. They split open the giant cactus “paddles” and fill them up with chopped cactus, tomato, onion, then wire them shut and cook on the grill, then use this as filling for the gorditas and tacos. I had to pass on the nopales, though, as I just can’t get past the slimy texture.
This last stop, Bernal, concludes our circuit through Huasteca Potosina, as we soon rejoin the freeway through Queretaro and on for our two hour drive back to Guanajuato. I am grateful for this opportunity to visit a little-known region of Mexico which would have otherwise been difficult to visit independently. But I am also grateful for the new friendships I made, even if it meant riding over a thousand kilometers and even more topes in the back seat of a bumpy van!