Caves and summits
Mexico - a little bit different !
Text and Photos by Fred Vnoucek
Not very far from Mexico City centre - seen from the Mexican capital during good weather - the Popocatepetl, a snow-covered volcanic cone, is located. It needs just a few hours to drive to a hut called Tlamacas which is located on four thousand meters above sea level. However, there are still another fifteen hundred meters in altitude up to the summit. The hut is different to those from our mountains. Large, cold and impersonal but it is a shelter which is almost essential for overnight accommodation in this altitude. Before you climb the Popocatepetl, it would be sensible to "train' at the somewhat less higher neighbour mountain Ixtachihuatl.
You should be well trained for this mountain tour. Within the thin air at an altitude of four thousand meters the effect of a common cold is impressing. The author of this story, troubled by a cold, makes it scarcely to 5000 meters and thus gives up far below the summit. Showing solidarity the companions descend as well and alternatively all drive to "silver city' Taxco in order to insert some recovery days. Here the cold is cured, the group visits the interesting city and of course goes shopping. Taxco should not be missing in any travel itinerary is the unanimous judgement of the small group.
The recovery process brings back the hearing ability as well. One companion picks up a conversation that up in the mountains near Taxco a cave leads through a massif rock which is partially accessable through a mountain torrent and lies in eternal darkness. The Mexican guide is sent out for further investigation and suddenly the weakness of the last days is wiped away. Indeed, this cave is said to lead through the mountain for over twelve kilometres.... and doesn't lie far away from Taxco.
In the morning the group leaves for the new destination. The native guide Jorge is ready to lead the group through the underworld. The group hikes two hours through the mountain forest to reach the 'entrance', a foaming mountain torrent which disappears in a hole in the rock. A jump into the cool wet and the strong current already continues to carry the companions. After a few seconds they disappear through a crevice in the mountain. Here the torrent widens itself and flows slower. The companions catch their breath on a sand bank and prepare the flashlights for operation.
They start to apprehend that due to the strong current there is no way back. The temptation to pass this adventure gives away the certainty to spend the next hours in this rock labyrinth. The next hours in absolute darkness go by the slogan 'out of the water - into the water' - the group brought waterproof cans with dry cloths, spare batteries and food supply. Nearly without any interruption and rest they move, partly marching or climbing, partly swimming through the eternal darkness. After exhausting and exciting hours they reach daylight at the other end of the cave. The crossing took five hours. Some days for recovery are spent in Mexico City before the second attempt to climb the Popocatepetl is prepared.
It is scarcely before midnight when the vehicle is already loaded with equipment. Due to the newly gained experience the group decides to pull through the ascent on the volcanic summit as rapidly as possible this time. Therefore the vehicle parks at Tlamacas and they decide to do without a night of acclimatisation. The ascent begins in pitch dark night. The backpack rests heavily on the shoulders of the mountain climbers when they pass the four thousand meter mark and begin to tackle the lava sand field covered by hoar frost. It is quiet and civilization is far away. They don't talk in order to save breathing air. Only the rattling/clinking of the spurs fastened to the backpacks can be heard. Thus the lonely hours until sunrise pass by.
More than half the way is made already when the sun comes up over the horizon. The group takes an extensive rest and enjoys this incomparable view: a seat in a loge to watch a nature miracle. All are in high spirits and now they can see the glacier flank. Far underneath the ruins of the old Texalco hut can be recognised. There exist several routes to the summit of the Popocatepetl. Although the usual route passes through Las Cruces, the group decides to take the route across the glacier. All are exhausted by the lava sand where it often goes 'one step forward, two steps back'. Then rather walking across the glacier. Now an area with mixed surface follows. Rocks, ice and lava sand alternate. The dogs of the Tlamacas Lodge which followed fall behind. After the icy chill of the night the temperature becomes tolerable, at the most a few degrees below zero. The sun burns from the sky; without good sun glasses everyone would be lost. Now short rests occur more often in order to catch breath and drink. Close to the five thousand-meter mark it is important to supply the body with much liquid.
During the last rest ropes, ice axes and spurs are prepared in order to be ready for the access and the crossing of the glacier. Suddenly the summit is no more visible and the clouds carry threatening dimensions. The ascent route can not be recognised clearly any more. This happens quick and without preliminary warning or indication. The summit (5452 meters) is still one or two hours away. The hand before the eyes can hardly be recognised. It is rapidly decided to take no risks and turn around despite being so close in front of the desired destination. Holding visual contact with the companion in front the descend progresses rapidly.
After a short time the sight improves; just the glacier underneath the summit is still invisible. Although the summit was not reached, all are very content. It proved to be good teamwork and under normal circumstances it would have been possible to reach the summit. In addition, the way is the goal and it was a great experience for all who took part. Still in the hut the companions talk about returning to the Popocatepetl sometimes and conquer the summit. Unfortunately this wasn't possible until today, since the volcano took up its activity again and the mountain was closed for all activities.
The next destination is Merida on the peninsula Yucatan. Before it goes to the caves and to the caribbean coast an excursion to the cultural highlights of the Maya culture is worth while. Chichen Itza and Uxmal are the highlights of every Yucatan round trip and are missing in no travel itinerary. What a difference to the high country of Mexico City! The peninsula lies a few meters above sea level only and is covered with jungle. Several days are necessary to visit the city of Merida and the ruins of the two Maya cities. It takes only a few hours to drive to Cancun, the principal town of the Mexican caribbean coast. Dazzling white sand beaches, blue water, sunshine and an active night life.
Cancun is the Mekka of all night owls and sun worshippers. However a quarter of an hour outside the city the isolation of the tropical jungle starts. Many ruins of the Mayas are located in this jungle. But there is still something else - the Cenotes, holy wells of the Mayas. Underneath the entire peninsula Yucatan there is a large system of caves which is sometimes connected with daylight through these wells. Since primeval times life centres around these water reservoirs. It is the realm of Chac, the water god of the Maya. Already before the Indians came the Cenotes served as habitat for mammals, birds and reptiles.
The strains of the mountain tour are forgotten and the anticipation of new experiences let the blood pressure rise. Not very far away from Cancun there are the Cenotes, which carry as pictorial names as 'Temple of Doom', Skeleton Cenote or Mayan Blue. Cave-diving is an extremely dangerous occupation. It requires profound training, good nerves and above all knowledge of the own abilities. Carelessness and self over-estimation could have fatal consequences. Although there are all degrees of difficulty available for snorklers as well as for excessive cave divers.
Carefully the group climbs into the water and enjoys the pleasant temperature while they constantly descend into the darkness of the limestone cave. The light of the entrance becomes steadily smaller because the sunlight doesn't reach far. The light of the lamp tears rock formations out eternal darkness, as well as petrified trees and stalaktites. Instinctively you try to keep an eye on the light spot of the entrance while you float through this underwater world. It is not very deep, therefore everyone can use the compressed air available and explore this dream world intensively. The feeling is indescribable when coming to up the surface again at the end of this trip into Chacs' realm and to feel the sunbeams in the face.
The last days can be spent at the caribbean coast for recovery. The view from the balcony reaches to the opposite island called 'Isla Mujeres'. Pleasant tiredness strikes the travellers and nobody can decide whether to dream about the fascinating underwater world or the ice-covered summits of Mexico.