Sunday, July 18, 2010

Our First Time...

Our First Time... México was a crazy road trip, with 3 of us crammed into a Datsun King Cab pickup, in March, 1980. 
This post is about caves, but it's also about food, but most of all, about our first vist to the impressive area of Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico.

We motored down over several days from Mountain View, Arkansas, to join up with cavers renting a mouse infested house in the traditional Sierra Norte town of Cuetzalan, Puebla. The rent per person per day was 50¢ US. Or maybe that was for the two of us.

En route we visited La Ventana de Jabalí, an enormous natural archway high in the limestone escarpment of the Sierra de El Abra, near Tamuín, SLP.

Cuisine wasn’t figuring too large during our drive down. We did eat some really bad tortas in a small, poorly ventilated joint on the plaza of Cd. Victoria, after fleeing another restaurant where I'd seen saw a large rat scurry from the kitchen into the lav. We also made an obligatory stop at La Condesa, the “caver’s restaurant” in Cd. Valles. I think I had the enchiladas verdes. The logbook was more interesting.

The food got better near the Veracruzano coastal town of Nautla where I had my first coctel de camarones. It was instant love, in spite of the garrulous borracho at the next table. But the baños behind the marisquería were truly horrifying.

The real culinary efforts took place after we arrived in Cuetzalan. Doña Cuevas and I had brought a foot locker full of kitchen equipment, including a crock pot.

The house was very primitive, with eaves open to the outside air and what my faulty memory recalls as a packed earth floor.

The cooking fuel was smokey butano, and the shower was a barely curtained cubicle at one corner of the back of the house. The beds were wooden bunks, built by the far more experience team of cavers preceding us. The sanitario was a canvas lean-to outhouse out in the thicket. A local trail went by in front, but the fog made for good concealment.

Cuetzalan is on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, and is noted for its high rainfall. Although we were there in the dry season, we were blessed by thick morning fogs and some pretty good rains. The combination of high precipitation, thick, sloping limestone beds and warm climate with plenty of vegetation have combined to make this area thoroughly riddled with large karst features and an extensive, dendritic network of river caves below the surface.

Our objective was the pursuit of underground thrills, and we had no lack of them. The first cave we visited, Sumidero de Jonotla, is an enormous borehole starting at a large stream sink and continuing past numerous challenging obstacles to emerge after several miles at an even bigger stream exit. This cave almost killed me, or to be more precise, I nearly did myself in. I was carrying an excess of vertical climbing gear and a longish canal swim was too much for my limited endurance. Luckily, my salvavidas were close at hand to rescue me, and we continued on through for a total time of 12 hours. We emerged afer midnight, and had to climb over a high intervening ridge to get back to our vehicles.

The second cave, Chichicasápan, is the main drain for the area under the town of Cuetzalan and its suburbs. It’s multi-entrance, dendritic and wet.
Here's a partial map.

Our mission was to resurvey a simple side passage off the main entrance hall. (It's on the map, off the Main Entrance hall. Can you find it? It's a very small part of the overall system.) When we looked under a low ledge, we found a wide bedding plane crawlway along a fault, which in 100 feet opened up into a walking gallery. This in turn led to a larger subsidiary stream passage, plenty of scenic passageway, as well as a jewel box of an upper level room, a “Caverna de Sonora Chica” covered with glassy helictites and orange crystals. 

The main stream continued after a short dig in a sand sump, with several hundreds more feet of black water washed maze before reaching a true water sump.
More caving in the Cuetzalan area here, in a 1993 report by Tim Allen.

The caving was really almost secondary to “Discover Mexico: 1980”. The town is very picturesque and traditional, on a steep hillside, connected by stepped streets and houses with deeply overhanging eaves. The eaves allow one to walk dryshod, if at all possible, even during the heaviest downpours. At the time, although I hate to say this, the streets were strewn with dog poop. In recent years, Cuetzalan has become an off the track tourist destination, with pleasant accomodations, and I hope a better awareness of street cleaning. This is a slick video by Rincones de Mi Tierra. I would have shown it here, but embedding was disabled.

Calle de Cuetzalan. (From the Internet)

On Sundays, the indigenous people from all around come to the famous Sunday mercado, dressed in striking traditional traje.

It was in Cuetzalan that I had my first tastes of regional antojitos, such as bocoles (tlacoyos) and great ¡Tacos al Pastor! Also, 3 peso tortas chicas, about the size of tea sandwiches, like at an elegant ladies' tea, sold in a humble little shop.

The most elemental and important discovery for me was pozole. We'd arrived in town after dark and a long day of mountainous driving.

The hilly, rain washed streets were poorly illuminated, and we were saved from driving downhill into the mercado street of puestos and toldos only through careful scouting on foot. Once securely parked on the plaza, we went into the only place that seemed open, the Hotel and Restaurante Las Grazas. The eponymous icon of Las Garzas were the many large "storks" crafted from traditional local materials. They watched us with dark and baleful gaze from the walls of the dining room.

Old men played dominoes while we ordered and ate our simple supper. There were frijoles and tortillas, of course, but I tried the pozole, served with a plate of dried chiles, a small mound of moist sea salt and sliced radishes and coarsely shredded cabbage. Pozole, I discovered, is a great dish to eat at times like that, when you are tired and hungry and damp.

We later had a couple of comidas caseras in the dining room of a private house/restaurant, where at one meal, there were not quite enough pork chops to go around our group of six or more, but something was worked out. I recall that frijoles negros were the favorite there.

I also went into a cantina with my caving buddies and had some "caña verde", a distilled cane spirit flavored with green syrup to help get it down. This was a classic, hombres only Mexican cantina, with swinging wooden doors, a rough plank construction bar, various tipos with machetes (some with huingaros, machetes with a menacing hook on the end.) An old woman cantinera was in charge, and in one corner, semi-shielded by a wooden partition. was a mingatoría (piss bucket, with sawdust scattered around.) I struggled to make the cultural adjustment.

Doña Cuevas and I did the in-house cooking for the group, having brought with us a ridiculously large amount of kitchen gear.

I recall that we made Carbonnades a La Flamande (beef stew in beer) in a crock pot. That required my first visit to a very primitive and rather aromatic carnicería stand, where I waited while another customer was beng served. The carnicero was hacking away at the furry shin of a defunct bovine. I bought a large lump of gruesome looking beef. Hours of simmering in the crock pot made it palatable and tender enough. We also had some unusually tough green beans with it.

Another meal was Mu Hsu Pork, a Chinese classic, of dried mushrooms, tree fungus and lily flowers, stirred together with savory shreds of pork and scrambled eggs, rolled up in sesame oil scented flour tortillas. 
We drove home without our amiga, who was spending some extra days in Mexico City.
We made a stop back in Tuxpan, Veracruz, a Gulf Coast town, where I indulged in an oyster cocktail, much to my regret a couple of days later and a few days and weeks after that.

In Tampico, prior to the ah, emergence of dire symptoms, I’d also over indulged in a truly bad comida Cantonesa, and then later that evening, a dinner of Carne Asada a La Tampiqueña.
The Works: thin grilled beefsteak, frijoles negros covered with a slab of melted cheese, a couple of enchiladas sencillas, a blob of gacamole. I think there may have been another coctel de camarones for an entrada.

Fortunately, we were staying at a modern, American style motel, with good beds, and most of all, excellent bathroom facilities. The way home was long and difficult, but we made it back to Arkansas and our jobs. The bug had been planted in our brains (and in my belly) to eventually return to Mexico. Ten years passed until our next visit, and fifteen more until we moved here.

The following video gives a good sense of what rainy Cuetzalan was like back when we were there. Just try to ignore the American folk-rock song accompaniment.


Calypso said...

(i)But the baños behind the marisquería were truly horrifying.(/i)

This remains true today - we like to stop along Coasta Esmeralda for shrimp cocktails and beer - but those bathrooms - yikes!

Calypso said...

Forgot to mention how much I enjoyed the report/story - duh!


David Haun said...

Great story! Thanks, David

Tancho said... wore me out! Your description of your cave trek sounds like some zeal and stamina. I'll opt for reading about it and admiring the fortitude of conviction to the sport!
Have you checked out the cave in Michoacan? I understand that there are several on the way to the coast and Dos Rios area.
And here I thought that you were a lawn bowling kind of guy.

Don Cuevas said...

Tancho, I am no longer the same guy as in the story. Now my favorite sport is muchacha watching. ;-)

Don Cuevas

Cooking in Mexico said...

Our first trip to Mexico was in 1976. We saw sights and had experiences that are no longer possible in the new century. Memories of a Mexico that no longer exist....