San Ildefonso Tultepéc, Querétaro -- Every time I go back to La Barranca, I have a different kind of experience. I teach at a summer school in this pueblo, where, on my time off I sometimes walk down the barranca, Spanish for a ravine or small canyon, to relax and explore.
One July day I took an afternoon hike here with two fellow volunteer teachers, my friends Yulma and Antonietta, who hadn't been before. We walked down a side street in the pueblo, passing little stores and a group of men drinking beer and pulque, to where the corn fields begin, only a block or so from the highway. What looks like the results of simple erosion, tiny rivulets that can be stepped over, quickly deepens as the terrain suddenly drops. We walked and slid down a steep but passable crevice in the rock, and in moments found ourselves in a different environment, completely hidden from the houses of the pueblo just a couple of minutes' walk away.
Cactus, maguey and other plants adapted to arid lands loom over the rim of the barranca above our heads, while around us on the damp bottom, water flows even in parched weather. Ferns and moss luxuriate in the shade of verdant trees, which keep the temperatures noticeably cooler than in the dusty, sun-baked open spaces above. In places, water seeping out of overhanging cliff faces drips in a perpetual shower onto hikers passing below. Dark algae contrasts with orange and lime-green lichens that grow in the microenvironments of shaded rock faces. There are many organisms living here that are not seen just a short distance away, straight up.
As we descend, the high cliff walls spread apart and the view expands. Here the floor receives more sun, beginning a slow transition back to the drier state of the environment outside of the barranca. As we mount a trail that hugs the right side of the widening gorge, suddenly a yawning, black cavern, overhung by the cliffs, comes into view. Under this roof we enter an ancient potters' workshop. The cavern is stacked with hundreds of half-finished clay comales, flat platter-like utensils used for heating tortillas over a fire.
I once met an elderly man working here. He digs his own clay from the walls of the cavern, hauls water from the stream below to moisten the clay to the right consistency, and forms his comales on the dusty floor of the cavern. When the clay has dried out, he then fires the ware in a rock kiln, using brushwood he has cut in the nearby forest. This man hauls the finished products on his back, up the narrow trails to the rim of the gorge and back to the highway. I've often wondered how many generations of local clay artisans preceded him. The thick accumulation of discarded, time-worn pottery shards on the paths approaching this place indicates to me that people have worked here for a very long time.
Although the scenery is beautiful, I usually find the most interesting things to be the small or unexpected. I have seen at least three species of hummingbirds in this place. The wildflowers are fabulous. I've noticed evidence nearby -- scatterings of artifacts -- of an ancient settlement.
On several occasions over the years I've been startled as I suddenly find myself looking into the dark faces of solemn, silent Otomí women as we cross paths, I with my high tech daypack, bottled water and digital camera, they with their herd animals, dogs, many children and enormous bundles of firewood. The realities of our different worlds brush past each other for a moment, but just barely intersect. In the evening I will be in a dry, clean, cozy house, uploading photos online in order to write my blog post. They return to the laborious and sometimes grim business of survival.
Antonietta, Yulma and I had a meeting of this type, although we'd heard a dog barking down the path so weren't completely surprised when a pair of indigenous women appeared as we rested in the shade. After glancing furtively our way they looked at the ground as they walked silently, which is normal behavior unless the stranger says something first in greeting. I think Yulma spoke, wishing them a good afternoon, to which they replied in kind, in accented Spanish, "buenas tardes." To my surprise, they slowed and made further eye contact. Perhaps this was because, accompanied by these women I was no longer the lone, foreign male on their path. I'm not sure.
The women took a breather as they shifted their loads. The older one who was in the lead did not smile, but her expression softened as she looked at us. After a few seconds, she tilted her head up and directed her gaze ahead, as if to say, "goodbye, we've got to get on with it," and they started up the steep trail.