By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher
Would we be fit enough for our “adventure challenge”?
It was our sole concern as we flew to Mexico in the American Airlines plane out of Toronto.
We’d signed up for what was billed as an exhilarating 15-day Veracruz Adventure Challenge with Esprit Rafting of Davidson, Quebec. The package includes rafting the rapid-filled Barrancagrande River in the Sierre Madre Mountains, horseback riding, mountain hiking, and hiking through remote and lofty villages.
We soon found we were suitably fit. The trip was an excellent balance of physically demanding activities along with “free time” for cultural exploration of museums and galleries in Mexico City and Jalapas. And you can possibly imagine the flamboyant gaiety of the Mardi Gras celebrations we found in the port city of Veracruz!
Upon our arrival in Mexico City, Jim Coffey, owner of Esprit Rafting, personally greeted us and whisked us off to our hotel by taxi. Attentive and extremely well organized, Jim is no “hands-off” operator. Au contraire, he is always ready to answer even your most detailed questions.
The first night, Jim dined with us at one of his favourite restaurants, La Opera Bar. Mexican hero Pancho Villa once disliked the service here so much that he unloaded his pistol into its walls and ceilings! Or, so the story goes… These days the service is just fine!
Mexico’s like that full of colourful legends. And so, inspired by tales and the banter of our guides, we traveled in Esprit’s bus to its Mexican “headquarters,” the village of Jacamulco. The congested streets of the city slipped away to reveal the source of the river we’d be rafting on: the snow-capped peak of Mount Orizaba. As Jim drove – yes, all guides take their turn – we were regaled by his personal insights into the culture we would soon experience.
“We’ll be hiking through the most amazing villages,” he enthused. But he reflected, too, on the rapid changes even the remote villagers are now embracing, such as television. “Villages that had no electricity now have it. They don’t want to live in the nostalgia I like to see.”
We empathized with Jim’s nostalgia, hoping that we would still be able to see some of “the old Mexico.”
We need not have worried. Jacamulco was electrified, but its residents are genuine, and amazingly friendly. Even though we couldn’t speak much Spanish, Eric and I were often welcomed into people’s homes: they’d simply beckon us in.
One night, as a part of their Mardi Gras celebrations, the townsfolk dressed up in costume and thronged the streets in a village-wide party! We joined the swarm of dancing villagers on the cobbled lanes. The Grim Reaper darted here and there, touching people’s shoulders with his scythe. Kids squealed in mock fear, parents smiled indulgently: mirth and merriment were everywhere in evidence, despite the ambience of muerte!
It was hard to leave the throng, but we returned to eat and sleep at Expediciones Tropicales, the Mexican partner of Esprit Rafting. It offers hostel-like accommodations and scrumptious, plentiful quantities of food. Naturally, there’s cool “cervesa” (beer) to be enjoyed, too, as well as exciting videos of Esprit Rafting’s various conquests of rapids all over the world.
The physical exertions started the following day. Our destination was a rare Cloud Forest at a ranch called Las Cañadas (The Little Gorges), where we rode horses, hiked and camped for two days. Vegetarian owner Rocardo Romero created a sensation when he turned his father’s beef ranch into an organic farm. His organic produce, including milk, cheese and butter from Jersey cows, is winning the respect of neighbouring campasinos, or farmers, who are starting to realize that Ricardo is on to something economically and environmentally sustainable.
It’s intriguing to witness the ripple effect of ecotourism. As we rode out of Las Cañadas through a nearby village, Eric asked why the schoolchildren were pointing at his horse.
“Oh, they’ve just recognized yours! It belongs to one of their fathers,” laughed Ricardo. The mounts we rode did not belong to Ricardo but were rented from local campasinos. Suddenly, the kids were aware that their fathers’ horses were useful to these strange foreigners who want to explore their world.
Everywhere we rode, rafted, hiked or hiked, we found lots to discover and we realized that locals were equally as intrigued by us as we were by them. In our self-baling rafts, we bobbed through thousand-foot canyons with walls that were undercut by swirling currents. We heard jungle birds call, and surprised donkeys as we rounded a bend in the river. Campasinos paused from their labours, machetes in hand, to wane as we white-skinned, be-hatted rafters coursed past.
“Hola!” we shouted, smiling and waving in response to their greeting.
How I loved these days on the river. At night, tucked into our tents, we fell asleep under the canopy of stars. Always, always we were awakened by a cacophony of noise which started at 3:50 a.m. most mornings. Yes, braving donkeys, cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters and the chimes of morning mass conspired to raise us from our slumber!
It was difficult to say goodbye to Jacamuko but the day came for us to peddle to the coast. Eric and some others cycled the entire 50 kilometres to Chachalacas Beach, north of Veracruz. I only rode for an hour or so before boarding Esprit’s van to the coast, where beaches, waves and peaceful fishermen welcomed me.
Esprit’s logistical infrastructure is excellent. If you don’t want to participate in a scheduled activity, you can simply tell one of the guides and ride the bus or van that transports Esprit’s tents, food and gear from one night’s stop to the next.
Veracruz itself was delightful. So much colour, great music and, to top it all off, we stayed at the El Mocambo Hotel – the very first beach resort in the area, built in the 1930s. It has all the Spanish Colonial grace you could ask for, with a wonderful pool and good food. A great spot to end up after all our physical challenges.
We love Mexico: this was our fourth visit and it won’t be our last. We were never sick, we ate well, explored new terrain, and can strongly recommend that you investigate Esprit’s many inspiring adventure vacation packages. Jim is always expanding his horizons: he also offers trips to India… Guess where we want to go next?