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Tabasco: The Other Hot Sauce - February 2009

Written by Tone Garot.
Edits by C. Brian Smith.
Maps and minor edits by Vickie Siegel.

Tabasco, Mexico

Introduction

A trip report generally tells the tale of a particular, well, trip.  This trip report will indeed do so; however, being that the adventure was a multi-week trip in Mexico makes it rather special (at least to me); for this reason,  I have distilled events based upon my perceptions.  A trip to Mexico is more than just a caving trip.  It is an embarkation to a different world.

Mexico can mean many different things to different people:  food, a place to practice Spanish, natural beauty, ingenuous natives, and plentiful solutional caves.  A typical project day might consist of the following: meet a guide, go to a site, scout, survey, and then return to camp.  There might also be lead pushing/digging and ridge walking.  Data may entail collections of insects for biological research, photos, and data collection of archaeological specimens.

A significant reason for me going on these multi-week Mexican adventures is the people.  Cavers are, in general, good people, and these longer trips really give you a chance to get to know people.  You might brush elbows with biologists, hydrologists, archaeologists, geologists, ecologists, paleontologists, and enthusiasts; and even if they hail from another country and might not speak your language, there is still a common thread between you.

The people you meet on a trip like this aren't limited to people interested in caves, though.  At one point we were stopped by Federales who asked us to get out of the vehicle to search it.  Standard procedure . . . I've gone through checkpoints like this one dozens of times.  The Federales were polite but rather stoic.  As one guy rummaged through Mike's bag, he came across a small bottle of aguadiente (caña).  He held it up, laughed, showed his friends who also laughed; and said a few things in Spanish. Then shortly after the inspection, he let us go.  These are human beings with thoughts, feelings, and even a sense of humor.  One difference: they carry machine guns.  You gotta love Mexico.

This particular Tabasco trip had us doing a significant amount of survey, while other Mexico trips I have attended also had us ridge walking, digging, and clearing entrance brush.  It doesn't matter what the task at hand is—I go to enjoy myself.  The mechanics of survey is serious business. You want precision and accuracy. However, there is also time for fun—jokes, singing, and laughter.  There is no reason why you can't do good science and still have a good time.  I find that my best experiences are when a survey teams works well together. The survey points go quickly, and the hours melt away.  Of these Tabasco peeps I can say that I would readily travel with them again, and it is comforting to know that this trip is not the end of the project.

Above I mentioned food. Mexican food is utterly tasty.  There's meat, there's heat, and there's "can't be beat."  The food, alone, is reason enough to go to Mexico.  When traveling as far south in Mexico as we did, it is highly probable that you will see the ocean, and that means seafood!

As a last introductory note, 3.5 days of driving (I had an extra day because I came out of Tucson) is a lot of driving.  You get road weary.  I find that audio books really help pass the time.  Vickie and I listened to history, comedy, and a light kid's story.  It helps.

Protagonists

Vickie Siegel
Eladio Terreros
Mike Pugliese
Laura Rosales Lagarde
Joel Jiménez Pérez
Peter Lord
Tone Garot


Trip Protagonists - © 2009 Tone Garot

Pre-Trip

Mexico's National Congress of Speleology was to be held in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico in early 2009.  Vickie was planning to attend, and as long as she was at it, she thought a dose of caving was in order.  Vickie has taken over the lead of the Caves of Tabasco project.  She cited that Peter Lord—who lives in Villahermosa—had at least seven new cave entrances, and there were several leads left over from the previous year.

My schedule allowed me two weeks if we caught the Congress first; Vickie and others interested were okay with that; the trip was planned.  There were three of us heading down from Austin, and we would meet Laura in Villahermosa a few days later.

We were prepared for either camping or hotels.  We were also equipped for vertical caves, even bringing a hammer drill.  The trip was taking form.

2009 Jan 27 Tuesday

I headed from Tucson to Austin.  I have done this drive quite a few times in the last two years.  This particular leg of the trip was fairly quick, only about 13 hours.  I tried to get as much of I-10 done during daylight as I could.  I left around 6 a.m. or so, and arrived around 8:45p.m.  I stayed at Crash Kennedy's place.  Upon arrival, Jim gave me a dram of tequila to take the edge off.  I chatted with Alex, his girlfriend Christina, and Del for a bit.  Jim's parents were in town for a visit and were watching a movie.  Alex and Christina took off, so I crashed in his room.  I was to meet in Del Valle early the next morning, so I crashed early.

The weather was bitterly cold.  It was cold all the way to Austin, and the forecast did not improve.

2009 Jan 28 Wednesday

The morning started cold.  I couldn't believe how cold.

I drove over to Vickie's place where Mike was already waiting.  We assembled and loaded gear into Vickie's Toyota pickup truck.  Our plan was to go through the border crossing at Matamoros, but at the aduana (customs) Vickie learned that we had to go to Reynosa to cancel her expired vehicle permit.  Apparently, Reynosa had computer capabilities that Matamoros did not.

At the Reynosa aduana, the paperwork was handled and were on our way.  Unfortunately, we had to then drive through the city of Reynosa to continue, and we were flagged down by a squirrelly traffic guy who told us that we missed stopping at a school crossing.  There was no sign, no other vehicles stopped.  In short, he was looking for a bribe.  This scenario isn't a speculation on my part.  He said it would be more expensive if he had to write out a ticket.  After some conversation with Vickie, he said, “Is it too much?”  She replied back with an emphatic affirmative.  So he lowered it from 300 pesos to 200 pesos.  He received this money low and quickly pocketed it.  This move was textbook extortion.  We felt quite certain that we were targeted because of the Texas license plate.  Both Vickie and I are reasonably sure that we did nothing wrong.  Considering that we didn't even want to go through Reynosa in the first place (issues with the vehicle permit), we were a little miffed about this violation.

Later in the trip (on a different day), we drove by two uniformed men.  One half-heartedly tried to flag us down with the same pointing gesture as the squirrelly guy in Reynosa.  There was no one around, no other traffic . . . just us.  We kept driving.  In a third town, an officer actually chased us on his motorcycle.  He said that we went through a crosswalk.  I remember the crosswalk distinctly, and I had just moments earlier mentioned that we should go really slowly here because of the confusing nature of the road.  I didn't understand all of the Spanish between him and Vickie, but his claim was that there was a man with a flag there— entirely untrue!  We think he only gave us a warning because he knew we would contest it.

Lesson: be very careful driving in Mexican towns.  If anyone flags you down—and you did nothing wrong—you might consider not stopping and letting them come to you.  It's probably better to accept a ticket rather than pay them off.  Insist upon their name and badge number, and if you feel comfortable, take their photo.  Of course, if you don't want the hassle, just pay them.  You can always offer them less.  In all of my travels to Mexico, this adventure was the first (second and third) time I have run across this kind of corruption.  Mexico is big. Don't miss a trip to Mexico just because of a little extortion.

Continuing with our story . . . Vickie stopped at a Pemex to get air in the tires, as one of them looked rather low.  Two vehicles—driven by ambitious Mexican women—came from opposing directions and nearly ran Vickie down in their attempt to get to the open gasoline pump.  Neither woman was backing down.

As frequently happens in traffic-filled border towns, some guy on the street selling wares came up to our vehicle at a stoplight and started up a conversation through the window.  His enthusiasm suggested that, again, we were targeted because of our Texas plates.  He tried to be extremely friendly, put forward his fist such that I might knock knuckles, but I had an allergic reaction on my hand from the previous week (it looked bad, but it was no big deal). I said, “Hey, look at this [contagious disease on my hand].”  My words got him to move along, and Vickie laughed and laughed at my ploy.

Note to self and readers, too: avoid Reynosa.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful and devoted to driving.  We at dinner at Taqueria El Paisa in San Fernando. Then, we crashed at the San Fernando Inn.

2009 Jan 29 Thursday

We started off the day with a fine breakfast in Aldama.  As we were driving along, we happened upon a building that looked interesting.  Not in any extreme hurry to get to Villahermosa, we decided to stop and check it out.  It was an old water treatment plant that was being refurbished into a fish hatchery and ecological tourist area.  People came out to talk to us and give us a brief tour.

Continuing our long drive, we eventually made it to the Gulf Coast.  We stopped for lunch at Restaurant Marysol  for seafood.  Vickie pointed out that any restaurant that has drawings of the food on the building is probably going to be good.  Apparently this venue was a touristy spot because a young man asked us for money, then walked around the vehicles in the lot.  We kept an eye on him.

Dinner was camaron (shrimp) soup for me.  Vickie ordered chicken soup, but didn't eat any.  In La Tinaja, we stayed at a No-Tell Motel.

2009 Jan 30 Friday

After quite a bit of driving, we finally arrived in Villahermosa around 1:00p.m.  Our room was booked in advance by Laura at the Howard Johnson Hotel.  This hotel was fairly swank, with valet service (for the parking was not on site), and it was located in the historic heart of downtown Villahermosa.  Since Laura was still working upon her presentation, Mike, Vickie, and I explored a bit.  We stopped at a coffee shop, and soon after we ordered, it started to pour.  It wasn't really the rainy season, but try telling the clouds as much.  After waiting awhile, we decided to take our chances walking back to the hotel under canopies and building ledges.

Later, Vickie and Laura went to the opening presentation of Mexico's National Congress of Speleology.  I believe the opening presentation was given by Peter Lord, whom I later met.  Mike and I opted to skip the Congress since it would be in Spanish. Instead, we walked around Villahermosa taking photos of the cathedral, statues, architecture, and other such things.  Dinner was at a place where a mass of meat rotated on a vertical spindle.  Delicious!


Villahermosa Restaurant - © 2009 Tone Garot

2009 Jan 31 Saturday

We left Villahermosa in the morning. Vickie was okay to move on without seeing other presentations of the Congress.  Laura stayed behind to give two presentations.  Her plan was to meet up with us later, and she gave us some of her gear to take with us.

Along the way, we stopped at Cueva de Coconá—a show cave.  Mike and I went in while Vickie decided to remain at the vehicle.  The cave was interesting enough for 25 pesos (about $1.75) per person.

We made it to the town of Tapijulapa, which was a bit touristy, having buildings of similar design and color and nicely cobbled streets.  The town square was well kept: clean with pruned bushes.  There was a Tyrolean line across the river, which we vowed to try; however, we never did get around to it.  We decided to stay at a nicer hotel that Vickie knew from a previous trip.  The price per day was 468 pesos, which split three ways equated to about $11 per person, per night.  Although the room was small, the hotel hosted many attractive amenities.  486 pesos entitled us to a hot shower, air conditioning, and Sky TV.  Sky TV is digital satellite television.  You see the dishes everywhere in Mexico these days, even in small towns off the beaten path.  Satellite TV meant that we found movies in English, or, at a minimum, movies with English subtitles.  On our first night we happened upon "The Scorpion King" starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.  Another night, we happened upon the "Mummy 2," also with Dwayne Johnson.  Later in the trip while surveying, I was heard to say "I'm really hoping for another Rock movie tonight."  "The Rock" became a common theme, and we even named a room or passage in his honor.  Look on the included maps to see if you can find it.

There was an upper area to the hotel in which we did some work on laptops.  Also, there was a porch with an amazing view where we sometimes cooked our dinners.  Since the weather was clement most of the days we were in Tabasco, the porch got much use.  The last amenity of the hotel worth mention was locked parking.  Although we didn't leave much gear in the truck (we kept the hammer drill in the bathroom!), this luxury added peace of mind.
 
One of the oddities of the hotel—perhaps a negative feature even—was this: most days when we returned from cave survey, the door was locked, and no one was there.  We would sit outside the entrance waiting, and generally the woman would come down from the upper part of town to let us in.  Our speculation was that someone would pass us along this common route then tell the woman that we were waiting.  One day a boy intent on making a few pesos sat near us while we waited.  He had that sort of español that was more mumble than information, and I couldn't understand a word he said.  Being resourceful, he made gestures indicating sleep. I nodded, and he went to the upper part of the town.  He soon returned with the hotel woman, and I gave him 2 pesos—he earned it.

Mike's nickname was soon established, which I won't mention here.  If you want to know, ask him.  Laura also got a nickname, but the same rules apply.

Mike and I split a whole chicken that evening.  It was 60 pesos (about $4.25), including side dishes.  Being a tourist town, there was much disparity in pricing.  Some tiendas (convenience stores) charged you tourist prices while others gave you good value.  One example in particular comes to mind where I bought two bananas and a good sized mango—price 13 pesos.  Two doors down, I bought an entire bunch of bananas, two mandarins, and several small mangoes for the same price.  
 
Speaking of fruit, the bananas and mangoes down south taste amazing!  Bananas in southern Mexico are nothing like the mealy, large, pasty bananas I get in Tucson.  Mexico also has some interesting fruits—like mandarins that are sort of like oranges, but easier to peel and more tasty.  There are also guanábanas, which make a sweet, tasty drink.  I don't buy apples in Mexico because, well, I don't particularly like apples; but also because they often import them from the USA.  My philosophy is that if I can buy it at home, then there's no reason to add it to my experience.

2009 Feb 01 Sunday

Around 4:30a.m., I heard a strange squeaking sound.  We later found that right below us was a machine that made tortillas.  It was more interesting than detrimental; that is, it never woke me up.  Later that morning, a local market formed in the street below us.

We headed to the small town of Oxolotán to meet with Eladio and Joel, two archaeologists with whom we were to spend some time in caves.  They didn't speak much English, and I didn't speak much Spanish, but our goals mostly overlapped; in short, we had fun.  Waiting for our guide, Mike, Vickie, and I walked around the town a bit.  The name "Oxolotán" comes from the native tribes prior to the Spanish language.  You see all kinds of interestingly named towns in southern Mexico.  I was told that the pronunciation of the 'x' in this word is like 'sh', so it's oh-sho-la-tan.
 
Small coins are really useful for small towns like Oxolotán.  The smaller shops simply don't have change for large bills.  
 
When our guide arrived, we headed to Cuitlahuac (another great name!).  Once there, a map was spread on a vehicle hood, and Eladio and Vickie discussed cave locations as well as our goals with the guide.  Soon after, we started an ascending hike supposedly toward caves.  Along the way, we met up with another guy who somehow switched roles with our guide.  Many sweaty hours later, we found that we weren't going into any caves today.  I didn't understand the conversation between Eladio and the guide, but apparently Eladio was fairly irritated because the guide brought us nowhere.  Vickie got a nasty blister that would haunt her for several more days.  Then the guide brought us down through jungle to the river where we found possible cave leads across the river.  We got GPS points for those, then headed out.

It wasn't all bad.  I saw some fantastic jungle plants that I had never seen before.

2009 Feb 02 Monday

Today was our first real day of caving!

Our plan was to meet Peter Lord who would show us some cave leads he knew around Cueva de Villa Luz (Cave of the house of light).  Laura dropped by our hotel in the morning, then we met the Villa Luz expedition (a trip set up for persons attending the Congress) who were eating breakfast.  There were perhaps 12 to 15 of them.  Vickie, Mike, and I decided not to join them for breakfast;  rather, we started the hike to the cave where we would meet them.

Once in the park, we met a park official who had us wait until Laura showed up with the permit.  This didn't take too long, and soon the group arrived, got ready, and went into Cueva de Villa Luz.  Once they were underway, Peter showed Vickie, Mike, and me some cave leads.  Mike went into one such lead and was stung multiple times by fire ants.  He went into another lead that actually dropped down nicely, and because of the sulfur smell, we postulated that this lead might connect somehow to the main cave.



Laura's Villa Luz Cross Section - © 2009 Laura Rosales Lagarde

After looking at cave leads, Mike and I went into the main cave to check out the interesting formations known as snottites.  Vickie decided to stay behind.  We met some of the returning cavers, including Laura who said she would exit the cave then return shortly to show us around.  Laura had a gas meter that kept beeping, but indicated that we were okay as far as breathing was concerned.  Although Laura had some difficulties due to having broken her glasses, she gave us a first-rate tour of the cave showing us snottites, fishing spiders, selenite crystals, and half a dozen dead bats.


Snottites in Cueva de Villa Luz - © 2009 Tone Garot

Cueva de Villa Luz requires walking through water, which meant that our socks and boots were soaked.  Mike, interestingly enough, had his cell phone charger in his leg pocket.  Why?  Well, that's something you should make a point to ask him.  After about a week, his charger dried out and seemed to work again.

Nothing dries quickly in southern Mexico because of the high humidity. I learned this truth on a previous trip to Oaxaca, a nearby state.  Therefore, the best bet for clothing was synthetic over cotton.  I had spent some time sifting through clothes at a Tucson Goodwill to find apparel suitable to this peculiar and particular requirement.  Note that although synthetics dry more quickly, they still take some time to dry, and you can find yourself wearing clothes with a musty smell.  Since we were staying in a rather comfortable hotel, I tried to use the air conditioner to effect a quicker drying time.  One night the air conditioner actually started leaking water down on my head!  My caving clothes smelled quite musty after the trip. When I returned home to Tucson, I needed to double wash my caving clothes.

After Cueva de Villa Luz, Laura, Vickie, Mike, and I surveyed Cueva de Las Albercas (Cave of the ponds).  This was of interest in Laura's research project.  There were many bottles at the entrance including broken glass.  There was one tight squeeze inside the cave that we dug a bit to get through to a largish room below.

Fun happens where you find it.  At a bridge over a white sulfur-enriched water, we had a lovely game of Pooh Sticks.  Don't know what Pooh Sticks is?  You had better re-read A.A. Milne.


Mike looking at white water - © 2009 Tone Garot

2009 Feb 03 Tuesday

We hiked up to a conglomerate rock area to a cave called Cueva Cerro San Antonio that needed survey.  The hike to the cave was through lush jungle terrain.  The weather was a bit ominous, but the sporadic rain didn't soak us too much.  The group consisted of Joel, Carlos (the guide), me, Vickie, Mike, and Laura.  The survey required only some 11 points.  The entrance spilled into a largish room, then continued northeast.  There was a second parallel passage back.  There were some nice formations in these tighter passages.  When we reached as far as we could go, we tried to dig our way further.  Laura was almost able to get through to what appeared to be another room, but we left that lead for another day.


Map of Cueva Cerro San Antonio (Profile removed)

On the way back to the truck, we stopped at an amazing cliff side that was all conglomerate rock: breakdown waiting to happen.  We poked around in some holes nearby.  I found one that twisted and turned some 5 or 6 meters, but it was only breakdown . . . not solutional.

That night we cooked out on the balcony at the hotel.  Laura and I cooked up macaroni then mixed tomato sauce and salsa into it.  It was pretty good, although Laura got a bunch of noodles without sauce.  Although there was plenty, she refused to toss it and take a fresh batch!  Vickie made beans and onions on tostadas.  Quite delicious.  Tostadas are one of my staples while in Mexico

After dinner, Joel dropped by to exchange digital images.  Mike and I arranged the picture transfer to laptops using my SanDisk Sansa Fuze (w/ Mike's 8G micro SD chip).  The transfer worked really well.

2009 Feb 04 Wednesday

Laura awoke early to pack her gear and get a start on her trek back home.  Such is the life of the Ph.D. student.  We dropped her off at a Pemex laden with all her equipment.

Joel joined our entourage, and we met the comisario of the area, Fidensio.  We found him on his bicycle in the fields.  The first cave we were shown, Cueva de Don Tilo, took only a few survey shots.  Joel found interest in some pottery shards.  The cave also had a few vampire bats and an abundance of mosquitoes; I was actually bitten three times, although I don't recall getting the bites.  Vickie mentioned that she was bitten quite a bit.

Heading back, Fidensio showed us another cave entrance from which he said fish exited.  That entrance was too wet to check out that day.  Fidensio was extremely gracious.  He pointed out many interesting fruits and trees.  He also pointed up to black forms in a tree, which turned out to be howler monkeys!  We later heard their eerie cries.  Sometimes you forget that you are in another world until you hear something so strange, singularly unique, so different to what you are accustomed.


Map of Cueva de José Hernández

The comisario then brought us to another cave, Cueva de José Hernández, named after the land owner I believe.  This cave was amazing!  First, we saw some cool formations and a room with vampire bats.  Then Mike and I scouted one section that seemed to be a dry, sandy riverbed for maybe 150m.  This particular day (for we returned other days), the water level was high enough to see a little catfish and snails.  There were also many fish heads three to four inches in size.  In my mind, I was calling this cave Cueva de Los Pescados Muertos; and I think Mike was calling it Jose Cueva, a variant on the real name and the famous tequila brand.

Survey was really sloppy muddy survey.

We headed to Tacotalpa, which is a larger city, because Vickie and Mike were running out of cash.  After an infusion of pesos from an ATM, Vickie led us to a restaurant she knew that was off the town square.  The food was delicious, and we realized that horchata  (a sweet rice based drink with cinnamon and vanilla) can be bought in a pitcher.  Mmm!

2009 Feb 05 Thursday

Peter Lord met us in the morning at an agreed upon place, the same Pemex where we dropped Laura.  After Vickie and Peter got permission, we headed on a hike along a creek. 

As a side note, it is supremely important to obtain permission to be on someone's property.  This practice is not only good form, but also it may keep you out of jail.

We checked out some sinks where we felt the water from the creek was going downward, but there was too much water to delve deeper.  We continued onward, checked a few other leads, then came upon Cueva de Don Cosmè that Peter had known about before . . . a big cave.  There were interesting formations, fossils, insects, bats, crawly areas, etc. 

There was an upper section with some interesting formations that Peter and I scouted.  Then Vickie, Mike, and I did some survey while Peter scouted another lead in a crawly area that very much reminded Mike and me of Airmans Cave in Austin, TX.  We eventually caught up with Peter to survey to that crawly section.  Being able to get into crawls that Peter and I could not, Mike scouted further and found an alternate way out of the cave.  Through trip!

On the way back to the truck, we saw a rather largish obvious cave entrance that we hadn’t seen on the way to Cueva de Don Cosmè.  Apparently, we were all looking at the vines to the left instead of the hill face on the right. Therefore,  Peter and I—soon followed by Mike—popped inside to take a look.  It definitely needed survey (so much survey, so little time), and it had the unique feature of a "bat catcher" snake.  Fantastic!


Bat Catcher - © 2009 Tone Garot

Returning to the hotel, I meandered to the local store to find something for dinner, and I came across mole (a spicy sauce flavored with chocolate) in a jar.  Both Mike and I had terrific mole at the restaurant just off the town square a few evenings back, but when we returned the next night, they were out.  Here it was in a jar.  It seemed like an interesting possibility for dinner.

Meanwhile, Mike was procuring large amounts of hot peppers at the store next to the hotel for his own purposes.  When we later met to make dinner, he asked if he could add some hot peppers to the mix.  Sure.  Since there wasn't a knife handy, he just tore the peppers up with his hands.  No problem there.  Then he rubbed his eye.

Ouch!

Mike was in a lot of pain.  He did his best to wash out the capsaicin with running water from the sink (bacteria be damned!), but this wasn't doing much good.  He was in agony for a good hour, I think.  The mole, unfortunately, didn't turn out too well either.  It was a bad night all around.

2009 Feb 06 Friday

Joel, our Mexican archaeologist friend, had asked me a few days ago if I could drive.  At the time I didn't understand what he was getting at, but later I learned that he doesn't have a driver's license.  Eladio was elsewhere on other business, but he left his truck with Joel.  Joel wanted us to take Eladio's truck to a cave site, possibly because it was more comfortable than sitting in the back of the Toyota pickup; or perhaps he wanted to contribute to the project.  It might well have been a combination of the two.
 
So I ended up driving.  We picked up our guide at a predetermined place.  He then directed us up and South into the mountains.  The weather was fine, but the road was not.  There were frequent stretches of potholes and sometimes stretches of mud.  After two hours of bad road, we arrived in a small town in the state of Chiapas.  I parked the truck while Joel and our guide sought a local guide from the town.  It is always interesting—perhaps a little uncomfortable—to enter a town that hosts few outside visitors.  Soon a small swarm of men gathered around to see what was going on.  We passed a few words between us, and they mostly left us alone.  Mike had an opportunity to buy some breakfast at a local shop.  Shortly thereafter, Joel and our two guides returned.  We moved the truck to a better location, then started our hike.

Passing through the town toward the mountains, we saw townsfolk lay out coffee berries on tarps to dry in the sun.  Nearby were the remains of the berry shells . . . the remnants after the two coffee "beans" (or stones) were removed from the berry.  

This hike was one of the more scenic hikes with regard to interesting plants. Hiking up and into the jungle, we saw wild coffee plants, banana trees, a host of interesting flowers, huge elephant ear plants, fungi, mosses, and other cool sights.  The hill was very steep, and although the temperature wasn't prohibitively hot, it was hot enough.  Coupled with the exertion and humidity, I began to sweat bullets.
 
Soon enough, we reached a shelter cave, which was apparently our goal.  The guide's estimate on the time to reach the cave was a bit high, but I guess it is hard to estimate such distances and hike times.  The view of the city below and the mountains beyond from this vantage were spectacular!  The shelter cave itself was fairly small. It took only three shots to survey.  Joel's interest was less toward the cave's size and more toward the three piles of human bones.



Remains of human bones - © 2009 Tone Garot

I don't know why the human bones were in piles like this one pictured.  I suspect that this was a ceremonial burial ground for the native tribes of Mexico before the Spanish invasion.  I have seen piles of bones with a pot on top in Oaxaca, a Mexican state further south; but those bones were from a single human under the pot.  Perhaps the larger piles suggest the bones were collected and deposited after-the-fact.

Vickie, Mike, and I finished up survey rather quickly, but Joel needed much more time to photograph and categorize the piles of bones.  There were also a few pottery shards.  Since the three of us cavers were done, we left Joel and the guides to finish up their detail work.  That was our mistake.

Heading down the mountain and back toward the town, we picked up a shadow.  At first I thought that he simply wished to pass us, but when we moved out of his way and beckoned him to pass, he said no, but he continued to follow us.  I guess his curiosity was strong.  Eventually we reached the town again where we left our shadow behind.
 
As mentioned before, I find it strange, and not necessarily comfortable, to be in a town that sees few outsiders.  The people were too curious about us and stared at us as we walked through the town -- due, in part, to Vickie's blond hair.  We stopped at a little store to get a cold drink then sat outside while children came near to look at us.  After a while, we went to sit near the truck to wait for Joel and the guides to finish their work.  As luck would have it, we didn't have the keys to the vehicle; so we sat outside the truck while more children gathered around.

As time progressed, a group of adults also gathered around us, and a few of the town's leaders began to ask questions.  There seemed to be two leaders who were doing the talking, sometimes at the same time.  Vickie, who knew the most Spanish, handled the conversation.  Between phrases, she said "I think we're in trouble."  I wasn't too worried because the conversation seemed to be more discussion than argument.  A young man brought us a pitcher of something made from ground corn called pozol with three glasses.  After further discussion, Vickie told us that we were going to give a little presentation.  She started to empty her cave pack while explaining what each of the items were: kneepads, helmet, compass, clinometer, etc.  When she was done, Mike and I followed suit.  The townspeople were, I feel, more interested than angry.



Local boy wearing my helmet - © 2009 Tone Garot

As I understand it, the leaders wanted to know why we didn't ask for permission to go to the cave.  Joel, being the lead for this the cave, should have done so, but—at that moment—he wasn't there to explain.  The leaders told Vickie that other people had come to this area and had taken dolls, rather largish, from the caves.
 
Eventually, Joel and the guides came down from the mountains, whereupon a meeting between the town leaders, Joel, Vickie, and the guides ensued.  While this meeting of the minds was transpiring, I played "touch your nose" with some of the kids outside, and Mike dealt with a town drunk.  The kids laughed as the drunk pantomimed concepts such as house and sleep to Mike.  I got the sense that this was not the first time this man was inebriated in front of those kids.
 
Eventually the meeting finished, and as I understand it, we were to drive an hour to get a permit . . . then drive back to this town with this permit. One of the townsfolk—I think the young man who gave us the corn drink—was to accompany us.  Before I was able to start the truck, the inebriated man jumped into the back seat!  Apparently, he wanted to go along for the ride.  A few minutes later he was extricated, and we commenced our drive.

On the outskirts of town, the young man accompanying us had us stop the truck, and he got out.  Vickie later explained that he said that if we wanted to go into the cave again, we would need the permit.  Thus ended our possible infringement of the law.  We headed back to our hotel without worrying about the permit.

2009 Feb 07 Saturday

Fish Cave survey, day 2.  I don't remember a lot about this day.

2009 Feb 08 Sunday

On this Sunday, we were supposed to join Joel and Eladio to investigate another cave lead.  We had been getting up early several days in a row to meet guides to take us to caves.  The mood of our group (Mike, Vickie, and me) was such that we just . . . well . . . didn't want to.  I lobbied for waking up late, having breakfast at a restaurant, then a leisurely day of survey at Cueva de José Hernández (AKA Jose Cueva).  Vickie and Mike were okay with this idea.

We had breakfast at a restaurant near the town square.  We all got the same thing, a sort of breakfast pizza made from a huge tostada covered with beans, vegetables, tomatoes, etc.  It was pretty good, albeit pricey.

We had a good day of survey finishing up the cave.  There was a lot of sand and a lot of fish heads.  The water level was much lower.  Mike took some professional photos in the fish passage.

Returning to the hotel, and after dinner, we relaxed by watching the tail end of Gladiator followed by the Chronicles of Riddick.  Sometimes the best way to relax is not to think, and any Vin Diesel movie will grant you this boon.

2009 Feb 09 Monday

We awoke early because of pounding on the building.  We speculated that the owners of the hotel wished to expand their business.
 
We went back to Cueva de Don Cosmè to continue the survey.  The upper passage, Nosferatu, was first on the docket.  I did the rigging, then Mike and Vickie came up.  This passage was nasty, hot, humid and sloppy.  There was sticky clay and some guano.  Add to that the two spooked bats who were pinned at the very end, and you can see why I didn't want to be there.  We finished up this passage quickly.  Back to the climb, and before derigging, Mike took a few more professional photos.

Mike had a novel, interesting technique for diffusing the light from his slave flashes.  His idea was to put the slaves into his smelly sweat socks.  These same socks had been stinking up the closet in the hotel for days, and I dare say that the cleaning woman will never get the smell out.
 
Vickie wasn't feeling too well, and while she relaxed a bit in the cave, Mike and I did some more photography near the entrance.  

Once Vickie was a little better, we went back to where we had left off when Peter Lord was with us.  We did a few shots, got close to the back door, but then Vickie wasn't feeling well again, so we left early; and I drove us back to the hotel.
 
After some discussion, we decided it was time to head home.  We also decided that we would take an alternate route so that we might see Sótano de las Golondrinas.  Some months back I had been invited to drop Sótano de las Golondrinas, but due to those pesky matters that arise in life (work, funds, etc.) I didn't go.  When it was suggested that we go look at the cave, I thought sure, why not?

2009 Feb 10 Tuesday

Thus, we started our drive home.  One never really looks forward to 2.5 days of driving, but it wasn't really too bad in my opinion.  There are always things to see, speed bumps (topes) to swear at, gas stops, and hassles with zealous traffic cops.
 
That night we crashed on the beach in Veracruz.  Having lived just off the Pacific Ocean for a number of years, I always find it a treat to come back to the ocean.  Mike and I set up tents while Vickie crashed in the truck.  I didn't sleep well, awaking several times in the night.  I was in that light dream state . . . close to sleep, close to awake.  As I looked out of my tent, I realized that the tide had been rising, and I somehow fancied that the waves might actually reach my tent.  This state of affairs made little sense considering how close I was to the vegetation.  The roar of the waves lulled me back to sleep.

2009 Feb 11 Wednesday

Since we had a higher goal than just "driving home," we took an alternate route from the one we took down.  The route meant some deviation from paved roads.  This yielded a bumpy ride, but we went through some visually stimulating country.  Along the way to Aquismon, we happened upon a vehicle ferry to cross the river.  A ferry is just the sort of random thing you find in Mexico that makes it fun to be there.  This particular one was powered by an old tractor engine.  I hadn't been on a ferry in years, I think 1998 on a trip to Brazil; but that is another story.  For a cost of 10 pesos and 10 minutes of our time, we floated the truck and ourselves to the other side of the river.

 
Ferry across the river - © 2009 Tone Garot

Eventually we arrived at the largest cave shaft in the world.  It is the second deepest pit in Mexico and the 11th deepest in the world.  We parked the vehicle and agreed to have two young boys watch it for 10 pesos each.  The price of admission was 10 pesos, and we "hired" a guide who walked with us the 15 minutes to the entrance.  Once there, we met another man who donned a harness, attached it to a nearby rock with webbing, and bid us to look over the edge after tying a rope around our respective waists.  Thus adorning myself with a rope, I looked down the shaft and snapped some pictures.  So this was the famous pit.  It would be more fun to rappel than to simply look over the edge, but now I can say that I have been there.


Mike getting ready to photograph Sótano de las Golondrinas - © 2009 Tone Garot

Sometimes you see the most remarkable sights in Mexico.  As we were driving along, Vickie and I spotted a broken-down armored truck pushed by a uniformed guard.  
 
Finally we ended our day at a horse-themed hotel.  At this point I was struggling with Montezuma's Revenge, which can make travel uncomfortable.  Everyone has heard of Montezuma's Revenge, but I have been fortunate in that I have only contracted it once in my many and varied trips to Mexico.  It just so happened to be on this trip.  I felt like I was smuggling parasites across the border.  There are plenty of resources that discuss preventative measures; I won't mimic them here.  I will say that it is probably a good idea to wash fruit before you eat it, even the kinds that you peel.

2009 Feb 12 Thursday

We finished up the drive to southernmost Texas, crossed the border with little difficulty, and continued our trek through the state back to Austin.  After being in Mexico for two weeks, one acquires a taste for non-Mexican cuisine.  Vickie was jonesing for a Subway sandwich, and Subway is where we stopped.  As for me, I was on a strictly bland diet of Marias cookies.  If you have ever been to Mexico, you have probably had them.  They lie somewhere between a cookie and a cracker.  They are almost like animal crackers, except without the animal shape.  They are readily edible when one has an upset stomach.

Arriving in Del Valle, Texas, the trip was complete.  We unloaded the truck, ensured that gear went to the respective owner, and chatted briefly with Bill. I was later to meet with Alex and Christina for pad thai at Java Noodle, but that is another story.

Conclusion

Two weeks seems about the right amount of time for a caving trip to Mexico. Any longer and the trappings of work, money, and relationships can no longer be ignored.  It becomes time to go home to handle all of the post trip details, like labeling images, handling GPS points, writing trip reports, drafting maps, and other data related activities.  I'd say that it takes me a good three to five days to feel "caught up" from a trip, and maybe a month before I have finished all post-trip tasks.  The days after a trip bring a time of contemplation—travel does indeed broaden the mind, but it takes some time for this broadening to sink in.

All in all, it was a good time.  I saw some great caves, hung out with great people, had a lot of laughs, and got Vickie to laugh hysterically.  What more could you want from a trip?