As I find myself enjoying the aroma of a freshly-pressed cup of coffee from Xilitla, I am reminiscing about my trip to this hidden gem in the summer of 2014.
During that summer, I visited La Huasteca Potosina as part of my trip to San Luis Potosí. It had been more than a decade since the last time I visited. At the time, I had recently experienced the sudden loss of an extended family member and felt a deep yearning to reconnect with my place of origin. This trip took me back to where I was born, and even some of the nearby places I had never visited before.
I have a number of blog posts dedicated to San Luis Potosí. I invite you to learn more about this beautiful city and its culture. You can access all the posts by clicking here
La Huasteca Potosina, or the Huastec Region, is an area comprised of several towns or municipalities in the state of San Luis Potosí, the town I visited is called Xilitla. Xilitla is nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains at exactly 676 meters (2,218 ft) above sea level. This means the weather there is humid and it rains a lot; similar to the weather in a Caribbean island.
Driving distance from San Luis Potosí International Airport to Xilitla is about five to six hours, sometimes seven hours depending on traffic.
The very name of Xilitla might look and sound exotic to a non-Mexican. Xilitla is a common word in the Nahuatl dialect, deriving from the Maya language. Xilitla is not pronounced /csi-lit-lah/ as in Mexico the X is pronounced like the letter J in Spanish. For an English-speaking person, this pronunciation would be equivalent to the sound for the letter H. The right way to pronounce Xilitla for an English-speaking person is /He-lit-lah/
Xilitla became renowned thanks to the artistic works of Edward James. James began building a surrealist garden in the 1960’s and continued its construction for the next 20 years, until his death in 1984. To read more about Las Pozas and the works of Edward James visit my blog post Las Pozas of Edward James.
While the amazing works of Edward James and Las Pozas have become the must-see attraction in Xilitla, there are other interesting sites to see and experience that a lot of visitors are unaware of. TripAdvisor has done a good job at promoting different off-the-path attractions in Xilitla, but there is still a lot that remains unseen to the typical tourist or visitor to this beautiful area.
The best way to truly experience Xilitla and La Huasteca Potosina is to know a local from the area and tour it with their help and knowledge.
My 2014 trip lasted six days. I stayed with relatives in the area who provided me with great hospitality. For those visitors who would like to have a similar experience, I recommend staying at a local inn or hotel in Xilitla.
In the last ten years, and thanks to a marked increase in tourism in the area, Xilitla has opened a number of inns and hotels. Many international and domestic tourists travel here to see Las Pozas of Edward James. There are more than ten inns and hotels available just in the town of Xilitla, not counting additional places to stay in nearby towns. Prices at these accommodations are reasonable, ranging from $20 dollars a night at a place like Hotel Posada el Paraiso all the way to $100 dollars a night for a pricier, more luxurious locale like Hotel Camino Surreal Xilitla.
The first thing I did when I arrived to Xilitla was to go see the Sótano de las Golondrinas or the Cave of the Swallows. Located in Aquismón, another town close to Xilitla, the Cave of the Swallows is an open-air pit cave or sinkhole. The entrance of this sinkhole is elliptical in shape, 49 by 62 meters wide, and is undercut around all of its perimeter, widening to a room approximately 303 by 135 meters (994 by 442 ft) wide. The floor of the cave is a 333-meter (1092 ft) freefall drop from the lowest side of the opening, with a 370-meter (1,214 ft) drop from the highest side, making it the largest known cave shaft in the world, the second deepest pit in Mexico and perhaps the 11th deepest in the world.
To get to the Cave of the Swallows, I had to get up at 5 a.m. and be ready by 5:30 to be picked up by my tour guide and group. It took about one hour to drive from Xilitla to Aquismón. To get exactly to the cave it’s a whole new journey as we had to go down a steep path of a total of 509 steps. This part of the trip requires endurance and patience.
The reason why hundreds of international and domestic tourists come to see this cave is because of the amazing experience that takes place here every morning and evening. More than 2 million birds (some sources say 3 million) exit the cave every morning by flying in concentric circles as if they were making a spiral in the air. They continue this flight pattern until they reach the entrance of the cave. We were told by our guide that these flocks of birds go out to find food and, in the evening, come back home, which is another amazing experience to watch. In the evening, the same flock of birds return to the mouth of the cave, swiftly circling above it. Then, at a rate of about once each minute, a group of about fifty birds breaks off and heads straight down, plunging into the opening of the dark cave.
I did not have the opportunity to watch the flock of birds while they descended back to their home in the evening, but even just witnessing their morning exit was a breathtaking experience. I was offered a glimpse into how majestic and amazing nature truly is. If you get the chance to witness this spectacle, it will certainly be an experience that will remain in your memory for years to come. The view of hundreds of birds flying out of a dark cave along with the thundering sound of their voices singing in unison sounds like a beautiful live orchestra.
After the Sótano de las Golondrinas, I went to visit the Cascada de Tamul or Tamul Waterfall in Tamasopo. Tamasopo is another nearby town or municipality in San Luis Potosí. It is about one hour and forty minutes driving distance from Aquismón where Sótano de las Golondrinas is located. Tamasopo is known for its big and majestic waterfalls. I remember visiting Tamasopo when I was young girl and I can still remember the thundering sound of the water forcefully falling and hitting the river, along with the earthy smell in the air that permeates every corner of these majestic waterfalls in La Huasteca Potosina. Tamul is the biggest waterfall of San Luis Potosí, measuring 105 meters in height.
I, along with a group of seven people were part of a tour, which I purchased through Mundo Extreme. Mundo, owner and lead guide for Mundo Extreme, is my favorite tour guide in the area. He is a certified professional diver, swimmer, mountain climber and rappeler. La Cascada de Tamul is located in an area designated as highly sensitive due to its ecosystem. A number of butterfly colonies live by the river that lead to this waterfall. There are fish and other ecosystem in the water, which just like the butterflies, are very sensitive to outside influence. Motor boats that run on gasoline are not allowed in this river only canoes and kayaks. The water is very calm, but as one gets closer to the waterfalls the currents begin to gain speed. This is why is important to purchase a tour from a knowledgeable tour guide who is certified and properly trained in these types of activities. I highly recommend Mundo Extreme. As they are a tour company that specializes in extreme sports and the owner is originally from Xilitla and knows the area very well.
The last place we visited was la Cueva del Agua or Cave of the Water. La Cueva del Agua is a cenote or natural underground pit and it’s in close proximity to la Cascada de Tamul. That’s why a lot of tour companies make this the first or the last stop as part of their tour package. This natural underground pit is ideal to take a dive and a swim.
For our last stop we enjoyed traditional local cuisine from La Huasteca Potosina, including acamayas, which is a type of prawn from shallow rivers endemic to this area. Tourists and visitors can choose among the many delicious dishes prepared by local women in this region. One of the things I love about coming to La Huasteca Potosina is their local cuisine. That’s because this region’s cuisine is well known for their elaborate, spicy, and delicious dishes, many of which include ancient culinary practices and unique such as zacahuil, a giant tamale made of maize and meat. The indigenous peoples who lived here centuries ago invented this dish and their descendants continue preparing it even to this day.
To learn more about my experience eating zacahuil from La Huasteca Potosina I invite you to read my blog post Zacahuil – an Ancient Culinary Tradition of the Huastec Peoples. I also created a video that shows the basic process of making this delicious dish prepared by women from Xilitla. You can access the video here
This concludes my one-day trip to Sótano de las Golondrinas, Cascada de Tamul and la Cueva del Agua including lunch and dinner. It might seem like a lot in one day, but all the places are nearby and within driving distance. I began my trip at 5:00 a.m. and the tour guide brought us back around 7 or 8 p.m., that’s fifteen hours of extraneous exercise, but if you have a great tour guide and good company, the hours will fly by while having fun! If you make this trip you will be exhausted by the end of the day, desperate to take a shower and go straight to bed. It will be an eventful day, but the memories made will be cherished for years to come.
I will be posting more blogs about other attractions in Xilitla, stay tuned!