Exploring the Huasteca Potosina Region of Mexico

Río Tampaón.
Río Tampaón. Roberto Gonzalez
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Standing on the precipice of a 26-foot waterfall, cool water rushes past my calves.

I peer nervously over the edge along with a couple other women. We’re wearing lifejackets, helmets, and nervous frowns.

We’re trying a sport I’d never heard of until I came to Huasteca Potosina, a region in the Mexican state of San Louis Potosi, about 300 miles north of Mexico City.

Locals call it ‘jumping waterfalls’. I’m silently calling it foolhardy, but the guys in our group have already jumped and they’re happily swimming in the frothy water below. If they can do it, so can we.

The second I surface I can’t stop grinning. I had no idea that jumping into water oxygenated by bubbles feels luxuriously soft, nothing like jumping from a diving board into a pool of flat water.

Swimming in a natural cave at the base of Puente de Dios.
Swimming in a natural cave at the base of Puente de Dios. Suzanne Morphet

Huasteca Potosina is part of the bigger geographical region of Huasteca that spreads over six states and is known for its tropical jungles, limestone mountains, and numerous caves. Three rivers also run through this small corner of the bigger region, providing good opportunities for whitewater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, rafting, as well as the nerve-wracking activity of jumping off waterfalls. It’s these rivers where we’ll play for two of our three days.

Based in the regional hub of Ciudad Valles, we head out each morning on a new adventure organized by Huaxteca, one of almost a dozen local tour companies. Business is booming, but 90 percent of the tourists are Mexican. Most of the rest of the world has yet to discover this destination, no doubt in part because the closest major airport is in the state capital of San Louis Potosi, a 3.5 hour drive away.

Gothic arches in the garden of Las Pozas.
Gothic arches in the garden of Las Pozas. Suzanne Morphet

If you’ve heard of the region at all, it’s likely because of Las Pozas, the surrealistic garden of Edward James near the town of Xilitla. James was an eccentric British art collector who travelled around Mexico for two years looking for a place to create a garden. Arriving here in 1949, he was dazzled by blue Morpho butterflies and colorful orchids. “We have orchids everywhere, that’s why he loved this place,” says Steve, our guide, when we arrive.

When an unprecedented frost killed many of the orchids in 1962, James began designing concrete sculptures. Today, the garden is more like a modern art gallery in a jungle, with a riot of tropical vegetation pushing up against giant candlesticks, gothic arches and enormous tulips that appear to hold up buildings. When we see a woman wearing nothing but a bikini and leather boots and posing for photos it seems strangely normal.

Las Pozas, Edward James garden.
Las Pozas, Edward James garden. Suzanne Morphet

Heading back to our hotel later that afternoon we have another other-worldly experience.

After hiking for half an hour up a mountainside, we reach El Sotano de las Golondrinas—Cave of the Swallows—where birds are beginning their daily descent into the enormous natural pit where they spend the night. Looking down from the edge, we can’t see the bottom. At 1,680 feet, it’s so deep that clouds form inside. We watch in wonder as hundreds of birds—mostly white-collared swifts and green parakeets, despite the cave’s name—spiral downward to their nests in crevices in the walls.

After a day of exploring on land, it’s time to get wet. Some of my more adventurous colleagues go rafting on a challenging nine-mile stretch of whitewater on the Tampaon River while I opt to paddle a calmer section. When we arrive, a dozen or more colorful pangas line the shoreline. These traditional boats can hold 20-some people. But even with many hands, paddling upriver against a strong current is still a grunt. “Uno, dos, tres,” yell our female guides from the bow to get us to paddle in unison. When we come to a section of rapids the guides line the canoe through them while we wait on shore.

Back in the panga, we round a bend and see the reason we’re working so hard. Torrents of water plunge off a cliff up ahead and flow through the narrow river channel towards us. Tamul waterfalls is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. We get as close as we can before the current overpowers us. Our return trip is fast and fun, especially when some of us we dive into the river and float through the rapids we passed earlier.

The Tamul waterfall is more than twice the height of Niagara.
The Tamul waterfall is more than twice the height of Niagara. we are the others 2013

Our final day is the best of all. After jumping seven waterfalls on the Micos River in the morning, we drive for another hour past fields of sugarcane where men are harvesting the crop by hand using machetes. Arriving at yet another gorgeous set of waterfalls—Minas Viejas—we don rappelling harnesses and helmets for a spectacular descent. Then, still wearing our helmets, we swim in the natural turquoise pool at the base of the falls, reluctant to leave.

The next morning we’re packed and ready to drive back to the capital city of San Louis Potosi, from where we’ll fly home. But Steve has a surprise in store; he tells us to keep our bathing suits handy. I’m not expecting anything special, but one last swim would be nice.

When we arrive at the town of Tamasopo and walk down to the river, we’re blown away. Multiple waterfalls converge in a pool of turquoise water. Moss-covered rocks and a jungle dripping with vines surround it. We jump from the steep embankments into the cool, clear water, then float through a natural cave. A stone bridge—the Puente de Dios (Bridge of God)—leads us back to where we started.

Now we are truly sated. Some places simply exceed expectations and Huasteca Potosina is one of them.

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