“Nothing good ever happens after midnight.”
You’ve probably heard that phrase, and maybe even believe it to be true. It certainly was not true in this case.
It was 1:00 am at my home in the Hill Country of Texas in early 2018, and I was planning yet another trip out to the Big Bend country. The prospect of making another 8 hour road trip out there was becoming less appealing. I opened a tattered old road atlas I had, and measured the distance on a ruler. I then traced a circle, with my home as the pivot point. Finding little that I hadn’t already investigated within the northern part of the circle, my curiosity pointed me toward the lower half: Mexico.
I didn’t know very much about the geography of Mexico, but I saw mountains on the map. For months after, my curiosity would drive me to find more information. I stumbled upon a Facebook post from a 4x4 group from Monterrey which was within the circle I drew on the map. The photos I found there were stunningly beautiful! This is what I was looking for–high mountain trails which were closer than the distance to Big Bend!
Using Google Translate (since my Spanish is not very good), I contacted the group’s organizer and explained that I was interested in visiting the area. His English was on par with my Spanish, but we had established a rapport which eventually led to my first of many visits in 2019 accompanied by the late Roger Redmond.
Rather than just driving through the scenery, I wanted to meet the people and experience their culture. We therefore decided to tag along on one of our host’s annual adventures in March, known as Ruta Epica (Epic Route). Its description is on point.
We returned to join them again in March of 2020. It was during this trip that my vehicle blew a head gasket. It had to be towed into Monterrey, Nuevo Leon and–because of the pending border closures due to the pandemic–had to be left behind with our hosts while we rushed to exit the country. Some six months later, I finally repatriated my fully-repaired vehicle. This potential disaster turned out to be merely an inconvenience, thanks to my friends in Monterrey.
The decision to seek out and join the local club on their trip continues to be wise. Through their relationships with the landowning communities, known as ejidos, we are able to explore roads and trails that we do not have access to on our own. More importantly, we built connections with our hosts that blossomed into deep friendships.
Taking fewer vehicles is a wise choice. Every driver has a co-pilot/navigator/radio operator. This year there were five of us in two vehicles (myself and Giovanni Conrado in his Toyota 4Runner, and Jake Bickham, David Alejandro Gonzalez, and Jacob Rivera in Jake’s Suburban).
Ruta Epica begins on a Friday and runs through Monday. We crossed the border on Thursday, got groceries in Monterrey, topped up our fuel, and headed to the AirBnb we rented close by Friday’s meetup location of Presa Rompepico, in Parque Nacional de Huasteca.
After greetings, photos, drivers meeting, and a prayer, nineteen vehicles set out at 11:00 am on Friday. Others would join us during the route, and some would drop off as necessary.
Day one is characterized by a steady ascent from the dusty, arid canyon floor to the sub-Alpine forests of fir and pine. We started in the morning at around 2,200 feet and camped that night at 10,368 feet.
Day two began by descending into the high valley of Mesa de Tablas and on to Cascada El Salto on a road which was as technical and scenic as Black Bear Pass in Colorado. On this route, our leader’s vehicle suffered damage to its front axle which necessitated his return to Monterrey for repair. This delayed us a few hours, during which some of us swam in the falls. We had the time to get a cooking fire going, and grilled some meat for lunch.
Full of food and tired from swimming, we got back on the road to meet up with our leader J. Miguel Ramirez (known as “Vikingo”) and his repaired vehicle four hours after his departure. They certainly made quick work of the repairs. By this time our group had dwindled to just nine vehicles and it had begun to get dark. Our oldest driver, Don Poncho (86), does not see well at night. Since we were another three hours away from our planned campsite, we all chose to stay instead at a hotel in nearby Rayones.
Rayones is a small town in the Rio Pilon valley, surrounded by tall mountains. It is very quaint, and the streets and buildings are tidy and well kept. Its location reminds me of Ouray, Colorado except without the tourists and commercial activity.
After checking into the hotel around 10:00 pm, we walked several blocks to the only restaurant that remained open. The proprietor manned a charcoal grill on the sidewalk, while his wife made up the orders in the kitchen. The only tables were on the porch, where we mixed with the locals who came and went. It was good food and great company.
We arose early the next morning–day three–and checked out of the hotel and loaded our things in the vehicles. I’m not lying when I say that a hot shower was very welcome. Before leaving town, we stopped at another restaurant for breakfast.
Our morning was interesting as it involved visiting three different natural landmarks in the vicinity of Galeana. We first stopped at El Puente de Dios, a natural bridge with the river flowing through below. On the other side of Galeana lies Pozo El Gavilan, a cenote (a deep natural well or sinkhole formed by the collapse of surface limestone that exposes groundwater underneath). Our visit to Galeana was completed with a stop along the shore of Laguna de Laboradores, a natural lake. From here we again proceeded onto ejido land.
According to the land distribution system of Mexico, an ejido is a large parcel of land which is used communally by the members of that community. The members of the ejido control access to the land, and gaining admission is usually difficult. We were likely the only Americans to ever drive the winding shelf roads and steep switchbacks in these particular mountains.
We continued to climb into the clouds, eventually arriving at our mountain campsite. It definitely had a “Gorillas In The Mist” feel. It was moist, but not rainy. Much of the moisture had formed ice in the treetops, which fell like sleet with the wind gusts. Nine vehicles–eighteen persons–remained to commemorate the final night of Ruta Epica 2023. Warmed by a roaring fire, we enjoyed the camaraderie and fellowship until late in the evening.
Dawn arrived on day four, followed by a large breakfast. Our route down the mountain consisted of a narrow, winding shelf road through the trees and canyons. A long wheelbase vehicle could not have negotiated the tight turns of this trail.
We stopped at a location where a Jeep had once slipped off of the edge of the road and tumbled into the canyon below, killing a passenger and seriously wounding the driver and one other. We honored them with a prayer.
Three hours later, we arrived at the village where many of the members of the ejido reside. To show our appreciation to them, we gave them all of our remaining food to be distributed among the families there. Our hosts have spent years carefully cultivating a relationship with these mountain communities, and it shows. Shortly thereafter, it was time to bid farewell to all of our friends as we made our way back to the border while reliving yet another amazing experience on Ruta Epica.