Friday, May 9, 2008

Monterrey & Mexico City

I made my last entry just before leaving Texas City. Since then I've driven to Monterrey, Mexico.

My trip to Monterrey was fairly uneventful until I arrived at the northern outskirts of the city. At that point the Buffalo began to falter. At first it lost power, and shortly thereafter the engine died, refusing to restart. After waiting for 20 or 30 minutes it started again. I'd drive for a bit, then it would die again. I slowly crawled through the city by repeating this cycle multiple times. At one point, while in the city center, I found myself pushing the Buffalo down a six lane avenue in rush hour traffic. I was making slow progress to the south side of the city, where my aunts and uncles live. Darkness was coming, and I gradually realized that I'd likely be spending the night somewhere in downtown Monterrey. I called one of my uncles to let him know that I'd be arriving late. It turns out he was out driving around looking for me. He found me and convinced me to call a tow truck. I finally arrived at his house in the evening. The Buffalo was fixed the next day. It needed a new fuel pump.

I spent my first few days in Monterrey catching up with the many relatives I have there. In addition, my mom had asked me to take care of some matters related to a property she has here. Once I'd gotten the ball rolling on my mom's property I began to explore the areas around Monterrey.

Monterrey is a big city. The city and the surrounding metro area have a population of around four million people. It's Mexico's third largest city. In terms of GDP per capita it's also the wealthiest city in the western hemisphere south of the US. Anyone who's visited other parts of Mexico will notice the difference in wealth. It wasn't always this way. The big change seems to have come with NAFTA. The city's reputation as an industrial center and it's proximity to the US border placed it in a good position to take advantage of the trade liberalization introduced by NAFTA.

One of Monterrey's nicknames is "La Ciudad de las MontaƱas" (The City of the Mountains). It's an apt description. The Sierra Madre range rises like a wall south of the city, just a few miles from downtown. To the east rises Cerro de la Silla (Saddleback Mountain), an oddly shaped mountain that is a symbol of Monterrey as well as the state of Nuevo Leon. Another mountain, with great craters on its side (a result of blasts used to dislodge limestone for cement production) rises to the west. I was born here. Growing up on the gulf coast of Texas meant that the mountains of Monterrey were the first mountains I'd even known.

I've traveled many times to Monterrey, most often while growing up in Texas City. During previous trips I'd mostly visited family. Although we often took excursions to the surrounding countryside, we'd always visited easy to reach places that were frequented by locals. This visit was my first opportunity to check out some of the more remote spots that don't see many visitors.

My visits only deepened my admiration for the place of my birth. As with Las Vegas, I found a variety of opportunities for the outdoor enthusiast, in some cases just a ten or fifteen minute drive from downtown.

The closest is the Sierra Madre Oriental. This range stretches from its northern terminus at Monterrey southward for 2000 miles. It's a natural wall which limits the city's southward expansion. I visited this range several times during my stay, including once when Al Nagao (a buddy from Oregon) flew down for a few days. Scrambling along the jagged ridge line you see the metropolis of Monterrey to one side and the wilds of the Cumbres de Monterrey (Mexico's second largest national park) on the other side. The terrain in and around the park offers all kinds of hiking, backpacking, and climbing opportunities. It's a vast area that (speaking from personal experience) is easy to get lost in. Water can be a problem. Monterrey itself is arid and desert-like. The rock, however, is porous limestone, and contains underground water. I came across a couple of springs while exploring the Sierra Madre, and also found a few isolated pools and cisterns. The limestone and underground water produces some spectacular caverns, the most famous of which are Grutas de Garcia, just a dozen miles or so outside of the city. During my explorations I found a few caves and abandoned mines. The rough roads within the Cumbres are best explored on a mountain bike. I managed to get the Buffalo stuck on one occasion and had to call on a farm tractor to pull me out.

There are some large rock walls within the Cumbres, which are climbed using big wall techniques. Someone had just finished a new route in the Cumbres when I was there. It had taken four days to complete and required the use of a portaledge. The best technical rock, however, was in El Potrero Chico. This place is just outside of the small town of Hidalgo, about 15 miles northwest of Monterrey. I climbed there with Al for a couple of days. El Potrero is arguably the most well known technical rock climbing area in Mexico. The reasons are obvious once you visit. It's a two hour drive from the US border, or a 30 minute drive from Monterrey's airport. A paved road takes you, in some cases literally, to the bottom of several routes. Many more routes can be found within a two minute walk from the car. There's a pool right next to the road where you can refresh yourself after a day of climbing. Plenty of free camping can be had just off the road, and the quaint town of Hidalgo is just a mile or two away. If you want to do some wilderness climbing there are plenty of opportunities further inside El Potrero.

The routes were typically sport routes. Closely spaced, modern bolts that are in good condition encourage you to push your leading skills on harder routes. When I asked a woman from Colorado what kind of rack I needed she said simply "20 quickdraws." Some of the lines are huge. I found a 6000 ft long, 50 pitch 5.9 in the guide book. It's no wonder El Potrero is sometimes referred to as the "Yosimite of Mexico." The routes tended to be juggy, with lots of natural buckets of varying sizes. I'm guessing you can climb here during most of the year due to the dry climate and relatively warm temperatures. Summers would probably be the least desirable season owing to the furnace-like desert temperatures, but even then you could probably find routes that are in the shade.

Further away from Monterrey, but still within an hour's drive there's a lake, a large accessible spring you can bathe in, and (at higher elevations) forested regions where many Monterreyans have weekend cabins to escape the heat.

Besides Monterrey I also took a short side trip (via airplane and bus) to Mexico City to visit family. I'd never been to Mexico City, but many people had warned me about traveling there. The picture they painted was a densely packed, crime infested and polluted place that no-one likes. Happily, that picture was a bit exaggerated. Certainly, there are a lot of people there, and traffic can be awful, but there are also a lot of parks and greenery spread throughout the city. What I liked most about Mexico City was the climate. The city center is 7300 ft above sea level. This results in a cool, relatively wet climate, very different from Monterrey's more extreme desert environment. There were often thunderstorms in the afternoon. Trees grow easily in such a climate, making it a naturally green city.

Mexico City has a lot of history. Originally founded by the Aztecs as Tenochitlan, the capital of their empire, the city became known as Mexico once the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs. It served as a colonial capital until Mexico's independence in the early 1800s, and Mexico's capital thereafter. Today it's the world's second largest city. While visiting the city's central square (called the Zocalo) I found some interesting contrasts. Ancient Aztec ruins were sandwiched between the colonial era Presidential Palace and modern glass office towers. Shaman performed ceremonies to ward off evil spirits just outside the city cathedral. Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed into the square to protest against a wide variety of policies (notably, recently proposed reforms of the state owned oil company) in return for a free bus trip, lunch, and a few pesos. It was an odd mix of sights, and a reminder of Mexico's blend of indigenous and Spanish culture. Owing to time constraints I didn't get to explore the outdoor recreation opportunities near Mexico City, but I know that there are a couple of 18,000+ ft volcanoes nearby.

Accompanied by a cousin, I returned to Monterrey via overnight bus with stomach problems. My stomach problems lasted for a week. I've recovered now, it's getting hot here, and my business is finished, so I'm thinking it's time to start the return trip back to Oregon. On the way back I'm going to stop in Denver to visit some friends. Ann will be there as well with her family over the Memorial Day weekend. I'll likely pay a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. Other than that my stops will depend on what other interesting places I encounter along the way.

Photos from Monterrey and Mexico City are here.

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