Monterrey to the Colonial Heartland

The journey south from Monterrey to the Colonial Heartland is commonly assumed to pass through Saltillo before arriving, several hundred interminably boring kilometres later, in fabled Zacatecas. This is one option, but a far more interesting one passes from Monterrey to the southeast, making for Ciudad Victoria, Tampico, Tamazunchale and Ixmiquilpan. From here one can head due south towards Mexico City or west towards Querétaro and from there to the other colonial cities.

Cities like Ciudad Victoria and Mante are still redolent of their past, while Tampico is one of the few coastal stops in the region. Tamazunchale and Ixmiquilpan will hold much interest for those interested in Mexico's flora and fauna and indigenous civilizations, respectively.

Ciudad Victoria

The capital of Tamaulipas state and 263 km southeast of Monterrey along Route 85, Ciudad Victoria is a quiet, clean, unhurried city with a shaded plaza. The city is a centre of citrus fruit and
henequen
fabric production, made from the agave plant. At the centre and all worth a look are the
Cathedral of Our Lady of Refuge
, the
Shrine of Guadalupe
, the
Alamada Central
,
the
Hidalgo Gardens
, the
Teatro Juárez
and the
Palacio Municipal
. The
Parque Siglo 21
is the same end of town as the bus station. The centrepiece is a
planetarium
, which looks like
a huge red ball that landed on the banks of the Río San Marcos. The
Museo de Antropología e Historia de Tamaulipas
, also on the plaza, has a good section on the Huastec culture.

Reserva de la Biósfera El Cielo

http://elcielo.tamaulipas.gob.mx.

Halfway between Ciudad Victoria and Mante lies the great Reserva de la Biósfera El Cielo, a protected cloud forest covering more than 144,530 ha. The three distinct forest ecosystems are a paradise for the great quantity of species that inhabit it. There are 430 distinct species of birds, 225 local fowl, 97 amphibians and mammals, as well as white tail deer, jaguar and black bears. This density and diversity is due to El Cielo's unique climatological, biological and topographical conditions: the area is a rare transition zone between tropical, temperate and semi-desert ecosystems. The biosphere's infrastructure is first-rate, with six accommodation options, guides, and a designation from UNESCO as a biosphere reserve (MAB) of international significance.

Infrastructure in the reserve is well developed for research and guided walks, although free-form recreational activity is discouraged due to fragile ecosystems. Lodgings and meals are available at cost at several hotels near the reserve.

Mante and around

After crossing the
Tropic of Cancer
the road enters the solid green jungle of the tropical lowlands. Mante (Route 85), 141 km south of Ciudad Victoria, is almost exactly the mid-way point between Matamoros and Mexico City and makes a convenient stopover despite being a grubby city.

Most of Mante's attractions lie outside the city itself. Amongst them are
El Nacimiento
(The Birthplace), 11 km to the south. This magnificent spring in the
Sierra de Cucharas
is a fantastic place to break the journey and picnic, swim, or take a boat ride. At the mouth of the cave the view of the light entering above the waters colours them with an emerald tint.
La Aguja
(The Needle) is another popular swimming spot, approximately 7 km from town. It was formed as a result of the construction of a nearby dam on the Mante River in 1927, then used to irrigate the large sugar cane plantations of the region. From here one can navigate upstream by kayak or small boat, arriving at El Nacimiento. The riverine beaches of
El Limón
are 12 km to the north. The crystalline Guayalejo river here is navigable as well, and two other rivers, the Sabinas and Frío, join it near the beach. The caves at
El Abra
, 10 km south of Mante, and another at
Quintero
closer to town, are popular draws as well. Neither have been fully explored. At the entrance to the Quintero cave, thousands of bats emerge every evening in search of food.

Some 45 km north of Mante is the village of
Gómez Farías
, the jumping-off point for visits to Reserva de la Biósfera El Cielo and an important centre for ornithological research: the highlands above the village represent the northernmost extent of several tropical vegetation formations. Many tropical bird species reach the northern limit of their range. Gómez Farías is reached by turning west off the main highway, 14 km over a paved road to the town plaza. From there, an easy 2-km walk provides excellent views of bird habitats.

Tampico

The port of Tampico, on the Gulf of Mexico, is definitely not a tourist attraction, although fishing (both sea and river) is excellent on the nearby rivers of Tamesí and Pánuco, and on Lake Chairel. Tampico is reached by a fine road from Mante, in a rich sugar-growing area. Tampico was founded in 1522 by Gonzalo de Sandoval but was sacked by pirates in the 17th century and refounded in 1823.

While Tampico's primary attractions are nautical, its historic centre, the
Plaza de Libertad
, does have a few interesting sights. Amongst them are the
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
, the
Vieja Aduana
(Old Customs House) from the days when Tampico was second only to Veracruz in imports, the
Museum of Huasteca Culture
and the
Palacio Municipal
. Although its beaches are vastly inferior to those found further south or on the Pacific coast,
Playa Miramar
offers waterskiing (rentals available);
Altamira
, 10 km north, is considered the best stretch.

Ciudad Valles

Ciudad Valles, on a winding river, is a popular stopover with many hotels.
Museo Regional Huasteco Rotarios y Artes
(or
Peñaloza
)
, is the centre of archaeological and ethnographic research for the so-called Huasteca region.

Tamazunchale

With riotous tropical vegetation, Tamazunchale, 175 km and three hours south of Ciudad Valle along a phenomenally serpentine portion of Route 85, is perhaps the most popular of all the overnight stops on this route. Now heavily promoted by the Mexican government as an ideal tourist stop (see www.tamazunchale.gob.mx), the town retains a strong indigenous influence, and is a centre for birdwatching and local crafts (amongst which are its hand-crafted guitars, which take between two to four days to fashion). The Huasteca attend a weekly market in town, famed for its unique handicrafts.

Ixmiquilpan and around

An area of 23,300 sq km north and south of Ixmiquilpan (206 km south of Tamazunchale in the state of Hidalgo, at Km 169 from Mexico City, just off the highway), is inhabited by 65,000 indigenous Otomí. The beautifully worked Otomí belts and bags may sometimes be bought at the Monday market, and also in the
artesanía
shop in the main street. Early indigenous frescoes can be seen in the old Augustinian ex-convent of
San Miguel Arcangel
, one of several 16th-century battlemented Augustinian monastery- churches; the monastery is open to the public. At sunset each day white egrets come to roost in the trees outside the church; it's worth going up on to the battlements to see them swoop down. The church of
El Carmen
has a lovely west facade and gilded altars inside. There is a 16th-century bridge over the river and a great walk along the ahuehuete tree-lined banks.

About 158 km south of Ixmiquilpan, Route 85 winds its way through the
Parque Nacional Los Marmóles
('The Marbles'). Rarely visited, this is one of Mexico's oldest parks (created in 1936), where several different landscapes combine to provide a microclimate for trees rarely seen this far south, such as pine, fir and evergreen oak. Its name is due to the presence of rocky formations of marble, another rare sight in these parts. Camping and rock climbing are permitted, and the park is home to a wide variety of fauna, mostly felines and birds.

The
Barranca de Tolantongo
(also known as the Oasis of Mezquital)
, is about 1500 m deep with a waterfall and thermal spring; camping is permitted and at weekends there is a small eating place and horse rentals. The area is an important microclimate zone and is in stark contrast to the arid environment that surrounds this verdant spot. To get there take the road towards El Cardonal, then an unpaved (but marked) turn-off about 3 km before El Cardonal (there is a bus from Pachuca).

Actopan to Tula

Actopan
(89 km southeast of Ixmiquilpan on Route 85 at Km 119 from Mexico City), a pre-Conquest city in southern Hidalgo state, has another fine 16th-century Augustinian church, an impressive open chapel with paintings by Fray Martín de Acevedo and the astonishing
Convent of St Nicholas Tolentino
(1550-1560), considered one of the finest examples of viceregal architecture in all of Mexico.

From Actopan, Route 17 runs west for 56 km to one of Mexico's great archaeological sites: Tula, capital of the Toltecs . On the way to Tula there is an interesting co-operative village,
Cruz Azul
, where there are free Sunday morning concerts at 1000 in front of main market. At
Colonia
(Km 85), a road runs left for 8 km to Pachuca .

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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