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Driving the scenic 120 through the Sierra Gordas

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Actually, "scenic" does not begin to describe the road to Jalpan and through the Sierra Gordas to the city of Queretero. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with a very real danger that you could drive right off the road admiring the views.

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If I could offer one piece of advice to the road engineers of Mexico, I would ask that they provide numerous lookouts, more guardrails, and the odd bit of signage to assure drivers that they have not driven over hairpin roads for 45 minutes in vain. (this was our quandary today on the way to Queretaro - we just kept fingers crossed we had chosen the right turn-off - but let's back-up two days to our drive to Jalpan).

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Queretero is a tiny, perfect state - safe, clean, pretty capital city, quirky small towns, rich in agriculture, Franciscan missions, the extraordinary Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve with endless outdoor opportunities, and much appreciated from our perspective - roads in decent repair, largely populated by courteous drivers. Which brings us back to driving the 120. Hwy. 120 is the only road that cuts through the Sierra Gorda mountains, connecting all the small towns and larger centres. Therefore, you may find yourself stuck for miles behind a convoy of gravel trucks, a flatbed hauling a tractor, or a large truck. We trailed this fellow for a while, but for most of our drive, we had the road to ourselves.

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We chose Jalpan as a base to visit the Sierra Gordas, and to learn a little more about the mission churches that were founded in the area. Jalpan is described as being "tropical and humid", and by the time we arrived, the temperature had climbed to 36 degrees. We stayed in one of the chain of Mision hotels (there are also hotels in California) - largely because it offered a pool. As we checked in, we were offered a glass of aqua fresca - an extremely refreshing slightly sweetened cucumber drink. It's funny the things that stick with you. I was so frazzled and sweaty by the sudden heat, and that simple glass of juice is something I appreciated so much and will remember.

Our hotel and courtyard

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Jalpan is compact and attractive, built on hills, with a large plaza and of course, the Mission church. The five missions that were established in the area in the 1750s by Franciscan monks have been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The facade has tremendous detail in the carvings, while the interior does not stand out in comparison to many of the churches and cathedrals we've seen.

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This was something we have not seen in any other churches in Mexico. Beside the candles, there were a few large bulletin boards, filled with photos, small toys, pieces of clothing, hair ribbons. There was no-one to ask about the significance of this - if the belongings and photos belonged to people who were sick or deceased. I'm so curious, but my Spanish is not adequate enough to find out without offending or confusing someone. If any of you know anything about this custom, please tell me.

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The Sierra Gorda Reserve was established in 1997, and is described as "the green jewel" of central Mexico. It is the most ecosystem- diverse protected area in the country, and groups in the area have developed a number of tours to some of the more remote areas. If we had been more organized, we could have booked a hike to caves where swifts, and/or macaws live, and at dawn and dusk can be seen flying out by the hundreds. There are a large number of other sights one can visit without a guide, and so we headed out to the Cascada El Chuveje - a 150-ft. waterfall. After leaving the highway and bumping down a rough road for a few kilometres, we arrived at this little homestead.

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A woman came out to direct us to a parking area. She was extremely friendly and helpful, and had a few cold drinks for sale. A little further up the road, we were stopped by another woman to pay our admission fee, and Steve snapped a photo of this pig that stepped up to the fountain for a drink.

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As we were driving into the waterfall area, we noticed this cow by the side of the road. Two hours later, it had moseyed up the road to home. We wondered how these families survived in this extremely remote area. Obviously, they have their meat, milk, eggs, and vegetables, and possibly a small income from collecting money for the park.

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As if all this animal activity was not diverting enough, our path to the waterfall was accompanied by ear-splitting music that seemed to come out of the hills and follow us, in a most disturbing Deliverance kind of way, for the first 15 minutes or so.

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We turned a corner, and it stopped, and we found ourselves in an enchanted forest. Beautiful, quiet , a "dappled glade" if I may use that cliche. We walked along a creek, past a number of pools that appeared to have been encircled in concrete.

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Finally, we reached the waterfall, and sat for several minutes enjoying the view. We watched the water for a pattern, much like we watch waves breaking on shore to see if we can predict a sudden change in volume or force. We wondered about the signs warning us against trying to swim in the "very dangerous water - muy frio (very cold). Muy frio indeed - this water shoots straight out of the mountain streams - it is icy.

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We keep forgetting that Mexico has four seasons as well - and being in the mountains is a good reminder of that. We have been in many places where the days are spring-like and the evenings are quite chilly. Many trees and shrubs have a spring-like appearance as well - these are two examples:

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We could have stayed in this stunning part of Mexico for much longer, but we had booked a couple of days in Queretero (the city). We drove today on another scenic stretch of Hwy. 120, (we made the right turn after all), arrived in Queretaro, and just got back from exploring the city a bit.

See you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 19:20 Archived in Mexico

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Comments

Great photos, (per usual). Of course, I especially love the pig getting a drink and the stunning water fall.

by Marilyn Horn

The "dappled glade" picture is my favourite, with the waterfall running a close second. What a blessing for two people looking out their window at grey skies and a mixture of rain/snow coming down. Thanks for cheering us up!

by Heather

I believe the memorabiliia pinned to the board in the church are connected to the candles in the same picture. All Catholic churches I know have votive candles the public can light for a small fee to honour the deceased, pray for guidance etc. Keep up the good work!

by Peter Hohenadel

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