Monday, October 29, 2007

Even more spectacular than Naolinco

To approach Pico de Orizaba on the route chosen for our drive on October 28, 2007 we went south from Xalapa to Coatepec and then continued generally south, passing through the villages of Tuzanapan, Tlaletela, Pinilla, Ohuapan and Tutula, which barely appear on the Guia Roji map. On our single minded way, we sped through some famous river rafting country Veracruz promotes to tourists eager for a thrill. Although my camera shutter finger twitched to go into action, we did not pause for pictures -- we pressed on. As we left Xalapa, the prospects for a cloud-free day had looked remote, but we hoped the afternoon might see a break in the cloud cover.

Our goal now was the pretty little town of Coscomatepec, where a branching road runs straight east to the skirts of the mountain. Before making that our route, we needed more information from the locals. Eventually, the tertiary road system we were on spit us out at Totutla, where we joined a major highway that runs between the coast and the town of Orizaba.

We arrive at Coscomatepec

Before setting out, Eric had identified at least three possible routes to explore, but after some impromptu discussions with a few residents in Coscomatepec we decided on the route west out of Coscomatepec. This put us on a mostly paved road that ends at about the 9,000 foot level in the village of Nueva Vaqueria. But the pavement runs out for the last few miles.

After experiencing the mirador at Naolinco I didn't think any other place in Veracruz could be that spectacular. Boy was I wrong. Climbing to the faldas of Pico de Orizaba takes you on a magical tour of jagged peaks and steep sided, apparently bottomless canyons.

A camera simply cannot capture the sweep and grandeur of the landscape. But, since these photographs were captured at high resolution (3264 x 2448) you will get a much better appreciation of the views if you double click the photographs so that they completely fill your computer monitor (and then some).

(The Google Earth image below is an exception, it will not enlarge by much if any). By the way, I turned this image 90 degrees so that the view is from east to west corresponding to the almost due west heading we are traversing from Coscomatopec. Unfortunately the image resolution is poor. Otherwise this shot would present a spectacular sight. Nonetheless, you can get a better idea of the deep canyons radiating out from the peak and can appreciate how the road must try and follow the crests of the canyons. In Mexico, roads built on top of a ridge are often called "the devils spine". I would have to agree this road is devilish.

The good thing is a tall ridge top affords a view for miles in all directions. Peaks stud the horizon whereever you turn. Many peaks sport a twin spired church, standing alone in mute testimony to the people who cleared the rugged land and raised their vision rock by rock and plank by plank. Because of the high altitude and difficult farming conditions, the flanks of Pico de Orizaba are lightly populated. People who scratch a living here lead simple lives without many of the comforts of modern life.

Another surprising thing to see was the scale of human effort evident in the landscape. Everywhere you look, great swaths of hillside have been cleared. Of course this work was unaided by machinery until chain saws came along, so what you see is basically the result of men and women wielding axes and machetes. The plots of cleared land provide cash crops to sustain the population. Of course this work must have taken many, many years. Nonetheless who can fail to be impressed by the human dedication and muscle power.

Our destination the village of Nueva Vaqueria

This is as far as we should drive because the track gets steeper and more rugged as you climb on up the mountain. The locals tell us that to drive any further you need a "quatro por quatro", and apparently there are drivers in town who have such vehicles for hire. Eventually, at some point if you want to go to the top of the peak you will have to put on your pitons, shoulder your ropes, load up your carabiners and other gear and climb the rest of the way on foot.

From the picture of Nueva Vaqueria below you can see why we were unable to capture a photograph of the peak, which must be spectacular from this vantage point. Perhaps we will return another day when the weather is more favorable. Our current plan is to drive up Sierra Negra another extinct volcano a few miles away from Pico de Orizaba. This fifth highest mountain in Mexico now sports a huge radio telescope that is due to go into operation next year. It took 10 years, and 116 million dollars to build this Mexican (70%) - American (30%) bi-national project of the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The project puts Mexico at the forefront of radio astronomy where it will remain on the cutting edge until another larger telescope in South America goes into operation in 2012. The scientists running the project hope to add important new insights into the very early moments of our universe after the big bang occurred. You can read a report on the project here:

Here is another way to go up Pico de Orizaba.

Coscomatepec and the road to Nueva Vaqueria