Rio y Montaña – From Tree Tops to Jungle White Water
by David Simmonds
You mention a Mexico vacation to most people and they think sunny beaches, shrimp cocktails, five-dollar umbrella drinks and the opportunity to dust off the old high school Spanish to show the locals just how smart and worldly we gringos are. Of course, you could do the same thing in Miami but you wouldn’t be as safe. And you would have to train your ear to decipher New York-Cuban accents while eating fried-pork bagel sandwiches. Are they still wearing those gold chains?
Now I, too, have planted myself on many a Mexican beach over the past 35 years doing nothing more exertive than bending my elbow at precise one minute intervals while laboriously screwing my neck slightly in order to follow the passing scenery. After all, there are almost 6,000 miles of beach in Mexico and I have made it a life-goal of seeing them all. Besides the natural beauty (try Nayarit for the best), the surfing, fishing and diving can be in the world’s-best category with the small coastal fishing villages producing the friendliest and most self-sufficient people I have ever met, Cancun and Acapulco notwithstanding.
The interior of Mexico has always been an incredibly diverse region, and one I have explored with equal enthusiasm. From the Copper Canyon to the Chiapas rain-forest, from 16,000 foot Mt. Orizaba to the furnace they call the Sonoran desert, it is a country of unparalleled beauty and mystery that never fails to teach and humble me in ways that I can’t explain.
It was in this spirit that I recently joined a small group of travel-related folks on a trip that took us from the steamy jungles of central Veracruz to Valle de Bravo, by a lake in the mountains north of Mexico City. My hosts were the entrepreneurial partners of Rio y Monta_a, Waldemar Franco and Alfonso de la Parra, who hatched their concept of luxury adventure travel while working as riverguides in Veracruz in 1993. They are both very fit, engaging men and take a very hands-on approach to their business. Alfonso is one of a few Mexicans to have ever successfully climbed Mt. Everest. Waldemar is a talented architect who designed their two signature properties, Picocanoa and Rodavento. One of the things that most impressed me with the entire operation, besides the brand new Cessna that they own to take you between properties, is the quality of their employees. Everyone, from the river guides to the kitchen help, was extremely helpful and, really, unusually bright. Maybe I’m just accustomed to the arrogant, entitled dolts who now cleverly disguise as employees in many businesses in the U.S. these days. (try to get a smile and thank-you from the dude who sells you a Slurpy at your local 7-11). The Rio people tend to smile a lot and if you want to know something about the local flora and fauna, they’ll have the answer.
After flying into Mexico City from the States, we were loaded onto a comfortable van to Toluca, just west of Mexico City, whose airport accommodates most of the private planes in the area. From there we flew to Xalapa in central Veracruz, followed by a one-hour ride in an open-air safari-type vehicle to their signature lodge, Picocanoa.
I have spent a fair amount of time in the jungles of Mexico, sleeping in my van or in a less-comfortable hotel with fewer amenities. The inherent challenges have always been worth the obstacles as raw nature travel takes you to a level of awareness not found in the city or all-inclusive resort.
When you enter the gate at Picocanoa, on the shores of the Pescados River, you immediately sense that this will be a unique adventure. The lawns are lush and manicured and the 24 adobe casitas with the palm-frond roofs look like a Hollywood creation. Then you notice the custom-tile pool right next to an open-air bar where a blender is stirring up some cold margaritas and you know that this is going to be a different trip. But can you really experience the jungle, get dirty, sweaty and exhausted in such a setting? The answer is absolutely you can, and will, but at the end of the day you will be dining river-side eating gourmet food while kibitzing with your fellow travelers. Back in your bungalow, ready for bed, you can enjoy a hot shower, crank up the ceiling fan, and be fairly certain that you won’t be sharing quarters with anything that crawls, jumps or slithers – unless you want to.
Most guests go to the lodge for white-water rafting, where class III and IV waters snake through gorges and mango orchards of uninhabited, gorgeous terrain. The views and serenity become dream-like, until you hit the whitewater. This is where one of our boat members (OK, it was me) bravely tried to keep the boat upright as we hit a hole while his three cowardly boat-mates and the boatman incredulously looked on, dumbfounded, as he tumbled, as in slow motion, overboard. We had been advised to immediately grab the “Oh Sh*t” line that encircles the perimeter of raft when this occurs, making a re-entry to the boat fairly simple as your friends, between convulsive laughter, drag you back aboard. Should this happen to you, expect to be barraged for several days with ridicule and derision. You will be best prepared if you are naturally a smart-ass with a ready repertoire of snappy comebacks.
The raft trips can last for just a couple of hours to a full day, depending on the run and the water level. The winter months can produce low water, resulting in a swift ride, but in many places too shallow, diminishing the necessity to row. The summer rainy season brings the water level up, but be prepared for hot, humid days with afternoon showers. The perfect season is Fall, when the terrain is lush, the rivers full, and the rains are on the wane. Personally, I like the rainy season, which produces sky and foliage colors rarely seen back home in SoCal. I like the bugs, the mud, the contrast and the challenge. I even enjoyed the unexpected river swim.
Another favorite offering is the “Tirolesa,” or zip-line. This is a system of steel cables running from wood platforms high in the tree tops. On the platform (there are seven) you are hooked up to a couple of pulleys while you sit in your canvas seat that will hurdle you to the next platform. In most cases you can’t see the next platform so you pretty much have to trust the system. As I said, I do like the rain, but the storm that blew in just as we were beginning the zip-line was not welcomed. For one, thunder and lightening aren’t the best conditions to be hanging out in tree tops. Also, there is really no braking system as you fly from tree to tree except for a rope that attaches to the back pulley you can pull on to slow down a bit. This, however, is useless when wet.
As you approach your platform destination at a high speed, the pulley runs into a roadblock on the cable about 20 to 30 feet out. The pulley comes to a sudden halt and the passenger’s momentum sends his/her legs flying upward. That’s how you stop. Someone on the platform has a rope to pull you the rest of the way in. It is a safe and consistent system, except, of course, for one of my flights. For some reason, the rope that would pull me in the last 30 feet on one of the longer runs (maybe 100 yards) became entangled in some lower tree branches, leaving me dangling 100 feet above the floor. I was able to propel myself manually by a hand-over-hand-on-the-cable technique, slowly toward the platform. However, after a short time the cable was tilted uphill and I was running out of gas. My main concern at this point was that the next person in line would be sent not knowing that I was hanging on the cable, and if they were sent I was hoping that they weighed about 50 pounds. I’m yelling, “don’t send the next guy,” who we can’t see beyond the tree branches, while the operators have a whistle system of communication. Hmmm, should I jump or get slammed? Not confident of surviving a 100 foot fall I opt for the possible collision, preparing to protect my head and maybe just breaking some ribs.
Fortunately, these operators are a smart, capable group who were able to untangle the necessary rope and reel me in, with the help of Chris Lowenberg, who toils in Phoenix for the United Dairymen of Arizona. Much to the delight of our adventure group, particularly Lowenberg, they had another reason to needle me for the next few days, piling on particularly hard during pre-dinner tequila concoctions. Did I mention that you laugh a lot on this trip? Camaraderie is an infectious by-product of a shared experience, even for one who thrives on independent, solo travel. We had a very good group.
Although remote, there is a small village, Jalcomulco, just upriver from the lodge where you can get an authentic cultural view of life in rural Veracruz. You can walk into town, explore it from end to end, and be back for breakfast in an hour’s time. As I did this the first morning with Scott and Melissa, I asked them what the first thing was that they noticed different about the town as we strolled down the center of the street. No cars! There are a few in town, but certainly more chickens.
The grounds also offer a temescal (sweat lodge), a kids club playground, an open-air restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an adjacent compound very similar to the one where we were staying in a more rustic setting.
The next stop on our journey was another Cessna flight back to Toluca, then an hours van ride to Rio y Monta_a’s other lodge, Rodavento, near the lakeside town of Valle de Bravo, an old town built primarily in the 19th century, though the areas inhabitants date back many centuries. The Valle de Bravo lake was created in 1946 as a result of the Miguel Alemán Hydroelectric System, built to provide electricity for an ever-expanding Mexico City. The central part of the valley was flooded, relocating hundreds of families to higher ground to grow their crops, leaving their homes and land that they had cultivated for generations. But hey, they could now fish, water-ski and go yachting.
Since the town was in place before the lake was created, the doors of the older houses face away from the lake, designed instead to face the village center. The area has developed into a favorite destination for the wealthier residents of Mexico City, who have built expensive vacation homes, a couple of golf courses, fine restaurants, and some luxury hotels, creating a desirable escape away from the big city smog and traffic. For the most part, the gringos have not yet descended on Valle as they have Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende, so it has retained a pure Mexican flavor to it. I doubt that it will stay that way forever as more and more gringos flee the U.S. looking to make their retirement incomes provide the lifestyle that they envisioned while working their entire adult lives. It is unknown how many have already made the move, but the numbers are growing rapidly. A couple can live very well in Mexico on $2,000 a month, and you can get good, basic health care for around $300 per year. Real estate taxes are nearly non-existent.
Rodavento is located on its own private lake, in a pine forest, just a couple of miles from Valle de Bravo at over 5,600 feet elevation. Also designated as an adventure resort, it is primarily the luxury that you notice. With just 14 well-appointed suites – I want to call them cabins, but that doesn’t nearly convey the quality – are well spaced overlooking the lake. The restaurant, housed in the main building, is a nearly all-glass architectural masterpiece located on the lake shore, where the food is as high quality as you will find in Mexico. The large grounds offer miles of mountain bike and hiking trails, more of the zip-line “Tirolesa” runs, kayaking, yoga, a rappel platform, a climbing wall and a full-service spa. You can also horseback ride in the area, golf, take an ATV into the mountain trails, or just walk the streets of Valle de Bravo.
The weather is generally cool in this area, and usually sunny. Like Picocanoa, the team at Rodavento will make you feel very welcome, especially the general manager, Jose Carlos, or JC. He’s a smart and personable guy who you will discover is an artist at heart, but has years of experience in the luxury hotel market, having also run Hotelito Desconocido, the well-known boutique hotel on the coast south of Puerto Vallarta.
Both of the properties owned by Rio Y Monta_a are ideal for corporate retreats as well as individuals. They have hosted Motorola, Citibank, Philip Morris, Microsoft, and Banamex in their teambuilding program, where they focus on teamwork, strategic planning, group risk-taking, leadership, trust and mutual support with the goal of teaching the values required in overcoming obstacles.
The company also offers off-site adventure trips including mountain climbing the two highest peaks in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America, and Nevado de Toluca, at over 15,000 feet, and a Oaxacan mountain biking ride that links artisan villages for over 100 miles of trail. I didn’t do either of these, but if they run them like they do the lodges that I have written about here, which I am sure that they do, I can safely recommend them.
Rio y Montaña Info
Mexico’s premier adventure travel specialist with luxury lodges in Veracruz and Valle de Bravo. Offering Whitewater Rafting, Zip line “Tirolesa,” Mountain Biking in Oaxaca, Mountaineering. To learn more about Rio Y Monta_a and to book a trip, contact Melissa Chiaro at Essence of Mexico: Melissa@essenceofmexico.com 760 485 7028