One benefit of travelling slowly is that you have time to make friends with the locals. Often these new friends are eager to show you all the things they love about their country, and I far prefer these private tours to those organized by a tourism office or found in the Lonely Planet.
This weekend, my new friends Ernesto, Francisco and Francisco’s cousin Antonio took me on such a weekend trip to Hidalgo. Hidalgo is a Mexican state two hours’ drive north from Mexico City or the full S&M album by Metallica, depending on how you measure time. (I was the car DJ!)
Our first stop was Tulancingo. The city gave me a familiar and uncomfortable feeling, but I couldn’t remember where I had felt it before or even what it was that was bothering me. I figured it out when Francisco showed me his old family home and I saw the inner courtyard garden. That was it! The gardens were on the inside!
I’ve seen this before in Spanish and Spanish-influenced Latin-American towns. They generally have a grid-system layout where each block is like a little fortress, guarding a garden for the private enjoyment of those living in that block. From the street, however, all you can see are endless whitewashed walls. There are no gardens, driveways, front-yards, lawns or white picket fences separating the pavements from the walls of the houses. This gives the streets a claustrophobic and labyrinthine quality, perfect for making the Minotaur feel right at home, but not me.
Hacienda and Los Prismas
After checking into our hotel at Tulancingo we drove to Hacienda Santa María Regla, a gorgeous hacienda built 1762 during the silver rush. Had we read up on it in advance, hired a guide or consulted an oracle, I’m sure that we would have learnt the most fascinating stories about family feuds, corruption, love, betrayal and sex. However, the lack of history didn’t stop us enjoying the beauty of the place.
Very close to the hacienda lies Los Prismas Basálticos (The Basalt Prisms). This is a large ravine with a river running through it, fed by two waterfalls. There is a ropey bridge crossing the ravine and from there you have a stunning view of this majestic scenery. But the really cool thing about this place is the tightly packed and very large polygonal columns that make up the ground. Close to the ravine, where there is no dirt covering them, you can clearly see these strange columns.
Allow me to digress. There is a board game called Lemming. In it, each player controls a group of suicidal lemmings running along a hexagonal board towards a ravine. You can’t stop them from plunging to their deaths, only slow them down, and the objective of the game is to die last. If you want to play this game in real life, Los Prismas Basálticos is the ideal place to do so, with its hexagonal-like ground and lethal ravine. The game is a lot of fun and I bet it’s even more exciting in real life. In the words of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas:
It’s much more fun, I must confess,
with lives on the line.
Not mine of course, but yours old boy,
now that would be just fine.
Back in the good ol’ days, I am informed, Mexicans had two kinds of alcohol to enjoy: tequila and pulque. Tequila needs no further introduction, but the poor pulque has lived a life of obscurity. Why? It is not because it tastes bad — although it sure doesn’t taste of nectar — or because its unsightly appearance (It is milky-white and viscous, a little bit like if a man had… never mind.) In a universe featuring the Sourtoe Cocktail, where a human toe is the key ingredient, everything can apparently be forgiven in the name of alcohol. No, the problem is that the drink separates and becomes undrinkable within a couple of days, making it difficult to mass-market.
I tasted my first pulque from a clay jar at a random farm somewhere in Hidalgo. The pulque was expertly crafted by a man in a shed. We paid 80 pesos ($8) for 10 litres, enough to wipe the memory from twenty strong men.
With our pulque in the boot, we drove to the lush green valley of El Campanario. Antonio looked up at the remarkably high side of the valley and made a joke about climbing it. We didn’t get the joke and agreed to do it. It wasn’t until we were halfway up — exhausted, dirty and committed — that he let slip that he had meant it as a joke. But this random expedition turned out to be the most fun part of the whole trip. It was much steeper, longer and harder than we had expected, but that was what made it fun. Our hard struggle was handsomely rewarded with some truly terrific views once we reached the top.
Francisco’s family had gotten wind of the fact that he was out adventuring in the wild and rallied to his assistance. By the time we returned to the valley camping ground, there was a full kitchen set up and several earth-mothers were busy stirring a plethora of pots and dishing out delicious Mexican food to the fifteen or so relatives that had turned up. The uncle in charge of the pulque was like a parrot that only knew one word — Salud! — which he called out every two minutes, making us all take another swig of the milky-white poison. In short, we had a great time!
Driving back to Mexico City, we stopped for petrol. Normally, that is no problem, but with the charmingly creaky car we drove, this meant that the car quickly filled with petrol fumes. We had to crank the windows in order to not pass out. To escape the bitter cold wind that now blew through the car, I wore every piece of clothing I had and lay down in the back seat. I lay there, looking out the window at the passing streetlights and listening to Francisco and Ernesto singing along to Amy Winehouse at the top of their voices.
Last time I was huddled in the back seat of a car, I was crossing the Sinai desert avoiding detection from Al-Qaida kidnappers, but that is an entirely different story.