GRUTAS DE CACAHUAMILPA
Continuing our tour north from Taxco along the western surroundings of Mexico City, we took a day trip from Taxco by bus to the Parque Nacional Grutas de Cacahuamilpa. “Gruta” means cave. I had never been there before, but our friend Eugenia from Cuernavaca highly recommended it.
Carlsbad Caverns, step aside. You have nothing on this place. This is not spelunking. The caverns are a series of massive chambers over 200 feet high and nearly as wide; the smoothly paved path, as wide as a double lane highway with rails on both sides, leads 2 kilometers into the caverns, and the caverns are 1.2 kilometers beneath the surface. The path is lit, and they have dramatically illuminated certain spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. Halfway in, there is a concert venue with fixed auditorium-style seating. There is a small fee to get in (and we get half off beyond that because we have senior discount cards). The tour into the caves is guided as a group at hourly intervals, but you can walk out a separate path at your leisure. We were in the caves for about two and a half hours. It is a little slippery and there are lots of stairs, but vendors sell inexpensive carved wood walking sticks at the entrance; buying one helped me a lot.
Deep within the caves, they showed us a cross on the cave floor, marking the place where an Englishman in the early 20th century was buried after he died while exploring the cave with his dog. His dog, the story had it, came out of the cave seeking help for his owner but no one paid attention to the dog’s incessant barking until it was too late.
As North Americans, we get lots of different reactions from Mexicans, ranging from disdain to enthusiastic engagement. Rick is so friendly and kind that he seems to attract the latter. A young man who had spent some time in the US was visiting the caves with his family and started up a conversation with Rick while we were waiting for our turn to enter the caves. The family stayed with us the entire time. The young man clearly wanted to practice his English. He is a truck driver, but was looking to change careers, and was interested in perhaps teaching English some day. He spoke English quite well, and with some training, we encouraged him that teaching English could be a viable option. However, he explained that with his job and his family to support, he just didn’t know how he could find the time to study too. I felt like he was looking to Rick for advice, as if he were speaking to an uncle or grandfather. When I told them I was planning to give away my cane at the end of the tour, they asked if they could have it as a momento of our meeting. Por supuesto!
IXTAPAN DE LA SAL
Continuing north from Taxco, we headed to Ixtapan de la Sal. What I remember of this town was arriving by motorcycle with Isabel, choosing a free camping spot from acres and acres of well-maintained national park grounds that were almost uninhabited, with a steady stream of hot mineral water naturally flowing into the park and filling large pools easily accessible to the public, indoor and out; people lavishing themselves in light brown mud from head to foot and then dipping in the warm mineral pool to wash it off, all intended as a cleansing ritual; private rooms with a Roman bath available by the hour; and affordable massages of every type booked at the baths. I was totally transformed by my first acupressure massage, received at this very location.
So you can imagine my anticipation at returning to this town after some 30 years. Furthermore, it had since been designated a “Magical City” by the Mexican government, as if to confirm my memory.
Well, the private Roman baths were still very nice. They were still available by the hour, and luxurious they were. The hot baths were a welcome remembrance of our own hot tub at home, and knowing the water was fresh from a hot mineral source was comforting. The bath was clean and so were the linens; it was clear that the numerous workers completely sanitized the baths after each use, and replaced the water. The building and the individual rooms had been renovated and modernized but had maintained the original style and architecture of what had been there before, including the soft lighting behind translucent glass at one end of the bath, and the copies of Roman sculptures in recessed shelves built into the walls. The private bath also had a private shower and toilet, and two individual beds in quiet alcoves for relaxing, just like I remember.
Unfortunately, not much more of the grounds or the town resembled my memory. The expansive national park grounds where Isabel and I camped 30 years ago were now inaccessible to the public as best as I could tell. The outdoor pools were gone, and the indoor pools were so old and outdated that they reminded me of the Sutro Baths ruins on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. That dilapidated, they couldn’t possibly be sanitary, I thought. And the magical massage I was hoping for didn’t happen – the massages were no longer run by the park and very expensive – and my massage was given by just another average massage therapist going through the motions without having her heart in it. Fortunately, Rick’s massage was better – it was the first time he had a hot rock massage and he really enjoyed it. And the indoor pool, for massage guests only, was really quite nice. We were the only ones in it.
The town was really pretty boring. After the charm of Taxco, we just didn’t see the magic. It is flat, has wide streets with not much vegetation, and not even the town square has much charm. Rick did notice that pickled veggies seemed to be in every store window; it must be their specialty. We were sorry we didn’t buy any. But the market where we ate breakfast was infested with flies, and none of the restaurants even on the tourist strip were alluring.
Sometimes you can return to your past and relive some of your fondest memories, and sometimes you cannot. Places can change. This one did. I have had better massages with much less hassle than getting to this remote town to have one; the only reason I might return would be for the Roman bath, if I were really jonesing for a private hot tub. The nothing-special pension we stayed in was clean, secure and quite reasonable so it could be a cheap weekend away, if we were in the area again.
VALLE DE BRAVO
I have to admit I had never even heard of Valle de Bravo when I lived in Mexico 30 years ago. But several people recently, mostly from the Mexico City area, told me we should go there, including my niece and her husband, who spent some time in Mexico City starting up a branch of their US business. In fact, I think his words were something to the effect of “get yourself out of Mexico City as soon as you can and visit Valle de Bravo instead!”
Valle de Bravo is another adorable Pueblo Mágico built alongside a mountain, but this one is nestled on the shores of a large lake and has only 27,000 permanent residents. One of the things about towns built on hills that adds to their charm is that all roads, sidewalks, paths and other surfaces are paved, usually with interlocking bricks or cement, because otherwise the ground would wash away in the rains. The hill down to the lake from the Zocolo was steep but only a short walk. Valle de Bravo is known for its well-maintained colonial buildings throughout the center of town. We thought it was just charming.
I was glad to be going to a place I had never been, because it is really more fun when both Rick and I are discovering a place for the first time together. I don’t have any preconceived notions so our first impressions are more in tune with each other, and we can take joint responsibility for our good fortunes and disappointments.
One of those disappointments was our first night hotel. Either Lonely Planet is outdated or their idea of a decent hotel is different from ours, because the place we booked on the Zocolo was a prison. We hated it. But we arrived in the rain at dusk and really didn’t want to deal with finding somewhere else that night, so we cuddled up together on a hard bed in a cold room with no windows and no internet, and suffered through the first night as best we could.
The next morning, we woke to a whole new world. Right around the corner was a lovely hotel with a room with a balcony overlooking the pedestrian street cornering the main square. We moved in as early as they would let us. The bed was so comfortable and the linens were top notch. Our hotel budget was starting to inch upward at this point; it is amazing what one night in a bad hotel will do to your financial priorities!
Here are a few pictures that tell our story of our few days in Valle de Bravo. Definitely a place to go back to.