Monday, June 28, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 6: Weird rocks and fresh trout

"Felix the Cat", one of the strange formations of Valle de Piedras Encimadas. About 40 minutes outside Zacatlán is a fascinating park called Valle de Piedras Encimadas, literally "valley of piled rocks." Christopher, Mary Carmen, and I spent several hours there one morning wandering among an amazing array of weird rock formations. The 15 foot tall monolith shown above wearing a sly grin was nicknamed for a famous cartoon character.

Christopher and I perched upon El Pavo ("The Turkey") for this photo. The turkey's head forms my stool, while the tail spreads open behind Christopher. Valle de Piedras Encimadas is easy to find. We drove out Carretera Federal #119, the same "libre" (non-toll) road on which we had entered Zacatlán when we had originally arrived. About 20 minutes out of town, we came to a sign on the right directing us to Valle Piedras Encimadas. Another 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) down a 2-lane asphalt road brought us to the entrance of the park. For a map, click here. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo

"The Kiss" shows a tender moment frozen for all time. Not surprisingly, there are many indigenous legends related to this strange and mystical place. In one such legend the rocks were originally giants who acted badly, and were transformed into stone by the gods as punishment for their misdeeds.

Christopher contemplates a formation silhouetted against the sky. The Valle de Piedras Encimadas covers an area about 4 kilometers square. Most of the Valle is open grassy meadow, dotted with rock formations, and surrounded by a pine forest. A small clear stream runs through the meadow. The formation shown above resembles a family, and even includes the family dog.

A small dinosaur, or a large Great Dane? This rock had the appearance of an inquisitive animal about to rise and investigate something that has piqued its interest. The rocks in the area belong to the Tertiary Era, about 65 million years ago. This was the era of mass extinctions when the dinosaurs disappeared. Perhaps some of them were transformed into Piedras Encimada's formations?

A giant stone snake rises from the meadow. This one appeared to be contemplating a lunch of fresh tourist. Geologists speculate that volcanic action produced chemicals in the atmosphere that, along with rain and humidity, gradually shaped these rocks into their current fantastic appearance. The process has taken millions of years, and continues to this day.

Mary Carmen passes through "The Keyhole." We found a number of formations that created narrow passages, barely wide enough for a small person to pass through. This passage had the appearance of a keyhole. Mary Carmen could squeeze through, but Christopher and I couldn't make it without doffing our packs.

Shark's fin cruises through the stoney waves. This rather ominous formation was atop a rolling mass of rock that could have been an ocean wave frozen into stony eternity. I pondered what this Great White Shark may have done to miff the gods.

Missing only the "oink!" El Puerco (the pig) was the moniker of this large stone. Its long, blunt snout and small pig-like ears gave it the name. The young Mexican atop the head was one of the lookouts at the bottom of the tirolesa, or zip-line.

Zip-lining is not for the faint of heart. In one of the side valleys, some local entrepreneurs had set up a zip-line. For the uninitiated, a zip-line is a long cable strung between two points, one considerably higher than the other. In this case the upper point is near the top of the rocks in the background of the photo. Mary Carmen and I climbed up some rickety stairs to a platform where we harnessed up, and then clipped to the cable. After a deep breath, I stepped off into open space and went whooshing down the line, finally landing on another rock about 90 meters (100 yards) away near El Puerco. Above, Mary Carmen clings to her hand-hold as she shoots down the cable toward me.

A reclining stone horse peers at me from an empty eye-socket. Some of the formations simply cried out for the participation of the onlooker. From the evident wear on the rock, many people had mounted this little steed for a picture.

The eternal and the ephemeral. Looking up, I happened to notice the symmetry between the 65 million year old rocks and the wispy and highly ephemeral clouds drifting overhead.

Christopher, the tree-hugger. Mary Carmen told us that, according to a local legend, if you hug one of the trees in the forest you gain energy from it. We each gave it a try, and did indeed gain a spring in our steps, at least for a bit.

The Profile. This formation resembled the profile of an aged indigenous man. Perhaps he was a shaman whose activities perturbed the gods, winning him an eternal place among this hillside grove of pines. In addition to the fun of wandering among the rocks of Piedras Encimadas, and riding the zip-line, there are horses for rent and areas for camping. Guides can be hired for those who desire them.

Mary Carmen enjoys a snack. At a large building in the middle of the meadow, we found a place to enjoy a rest and a snack. Mary Carmen is eating a treat called memelita. She persuaded us to try some pulque, the white drink in the plastic cup at her elbow. Pulque is a mildly alcoholic drink made from the heart of maguey plants. The milky and slightly tart drink used to be one of the most popular in Mexico until the large scale introduction of beer. Pulque is still popular among rural people and can often be found at roadside stands. In addition to edibles, we also found souvenirs and bottles of excellent liqueur in the large covered terrace of the building.

Restaurant el Manantial overlooks a trout farm. El Manantial means "the spring" and the name refers to a sparkling cold spring which emerges in a tiny valley and provides the water for trout farm. Not surprisingly, trout is the main course at the restaurant. Below the restaurant, you can see some large boulders which were being landscaped by the 7 brothers who owned and operated the restaurant and trout farm. The rock overhangs contained a surprise for the workers who dug the terraces seen above.

Christopher chows down on steamed trout. It was lunch time when we finished at Piedras Encimadas, and just outside the entrance we encountered the sign for Restaurant El Manantial, advertising fresh trout. This was too much to resist. We each enjoyed the steamed version, which came wrapped in aluminum foil with onions, peppers, and other good things. Christopher made trout tacos from the nopal tortillas provided by Martín Hernández Garrido, one of the brothers who acted as chef. Restaurant el Manantial was simple but immaculately clean and had a wonderful view down the small wooded valley. The 7 brothers had all worked in the US to raise the money with which they bought the property.

An archaeological find, right under our noses. After lunch, another brother named Fernando Hernández Garrido took us down to visit the trout farm that had provided our delicious lunches. On the way, we passed the rock formations seen in the previous photo, which are embedded in the hillside below the restaurant. The workers had just found a beautiful obsidian (volcanic glass) arrowhead. We joined the search under the broad rock overhangs where we found many more obsidian fragments. Much of the obsidian had clearly been shaped by human hands. Looking up, we saw that the ceiling of the overhang had been blackened by countless campfires over the centuries.

Clay pottery fragments littered the ground near the rock overhang. What the workers had stumbled upon appeared to be an ancient obsidian factory. This site may have been used for many thousands of years to shape arrow heads, axes, jewelry, and other items valued by the indigenous people of the area. The rock overhang would have provided a shelter from rain and sun, and the adjacent spring would have made for a perfect camp. Mary Carmen urged Fernando to save the artifacts and create a small archaeological display in their restaurant as an added tourist attraction. She never misses an opportunity to promote the local people's interests, one reason for her popularity.

The trout farm was a simple affair, but effective. From the spring on the side of the hill, the water is collected and directed downhill through a trough made from a split and hollowed out log into a series of cement tanks which contain the trout.

Ready to eat. These trout swam serenely in the circular tank at the bottom of the series. Fernando told me that when El Manantial is in full production, the tanks contain over 1000 trout.

A leap of faith. Some of the children of the 7 brothers frolicked around the rocky hillside as we toured the trout farm. One of their favorite games was to leap off the giant boulders, at a higher level each time. I watched with my heart in my throat, but their parents seemed more amused than concerned.

This completes Part 6 of my Zacatlán Odyssey series. In my next posting, we will visit a small village where a local artist is training a whole new generation of children to paint pictures of their world. The result is remarkable. I hope you have enjoyed Piedras Encimadas and El Manantial, and can visit them yourself sometime. If you'd like to leave a comment, you can do so either by using the Comments section below, or emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. These posts are just marvelous, Jim! You could be reporting from a couple of hundred years ago -- or more. What a varied and little-understood country...

  2. TO: Ava's Dad
    Thanks for your comment. I really do feel like I'm stepping back into history when I visit some of these little pueblos or other historical sites. And yes, Mexico is little understood, and much misunderstood, because of the the US media's thirst for bad news in general and spectacular violence in particular. Mexico is nothing like what the average American thinks it is.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim