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Mexico won’t stay undiscovered forever

The mashup of diverse landscapes begins rolling past your car window within 30 minutes of departing San Luis Potosí, the capital city of the Mexican state of the same name. Sturdy pines grow tall beside desert cacti, poking through a blanket of fog adorning the Sierra Madre mountains.

Passing through the towering peaks as you drive east and committing to at least a few scenic road-trip hours is the only way for international visitors to reach the surreal land and waters of La Huasteca Potosina in east-central Mexico.

It’s no wonder why this mountainous region – a collection of roughly 20 municipalities and small towns – has evolved into an epicenter of outdoor adventure in an area traditionally inhabited by the Huastec people (also known today as the Teenek).

The remote landscapes of La Huasteca Potosina – part of the larger La Huasteca region spanning multiple states – include vast desert, lush mountains and rainforest nooks with turquoise rivers and waterfalls. And the attractions within remain unknown to most international travelers – for now, at least.

Renting a car in the city of San Luis Potosí provides the most flexibility for visitors to chart their own paths through the state’s La Huasteca region. Bus or private van tours are also available for a guided and curated journey. Corazón de Xoconostle and Auténtico San Luis both offer customized excursions from the city.

Or from Ciudad Valles, the central hub of the region about four hours east of the state capital, day trips are available to the gems of the region. One favorite is paddling the Tampaón River to the base of the spectacular Cascada Tamul, the area’s largest waterfall, which is typically flowing during the second half of the year.

Here are more of the dreamy sights and wonders tucked into this landscape.

Media Luna Lagoon

Traveling about two and half scenic hours east of San Luis city can drop you into the otherworldly spring-fed lagoon of Media Luna – or 100 feet (30.5 meters) below it, if you’re an experienced diver.

That’s right, one of Mexico’s most unusual diving hot spots is more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the ocean.

It’s near the town of Rioverde in the state’s Middle region. Although not technically part of La Huasteca, it’s the perfect pit stop for a swim and a fabulous meal at Don Juan Merendero, a restaurant that’s been wowing visitors since opening in December. 

Inside Media Luna, six springs maintain warm water temps just above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (about 28 degrees Celsius) year-round. The steady flow recycles the water every 24 hours, making for spectacular clarity, especially early in the day before splashing visitors stir up sediment.

The thriving ecosystem supports loads of turtles, birds, unique vegetation and giddy humans. In-the-know scuba divers have been flocking here for half a century, thanks to Juvencio Martínez Flores.

Divers can explore the underwater cave in Media Luna lagoon near Rioverde. Erich Schlegel/Alamy Stock Photo

“Media Luna wasn’t really known,” says the Ríoverde local, who became a founding father of diving in Mexico when he opened his dive shop about 50 years ago. “The shop started attracting people.”

Today, you can still find him behind the desk at the shop, Vamos a Bucear, along with his son and co-owner, Saul Martínez Ramírez, whose own children are third-generation divers. The business is attached to Hotel Media Luna, also owned and operated by the family.

Ask about the prized 20,000-year-old mammoth skull and dozens of pre-Hispanic figurines on display beside the scuba gear. The elder Martínez said he discovered the ancient artifacts in the bottom of the lake in 1971 and recovered them with the help of archaeologists.

Puente de Dios

About an hour east of Rioverde, Puente de Dios warrants several hours of exploration for a proper introduction. Or maybe a night in the cozy town of Tamasopo on the western edge of La Huasteca Potosina.

Translated as “God’s Bridge,” the name of this natural wonder actually seems too modest. “God’s Playground” feels more fitting to any water lover who plunges into its depths.

After paying the admission of about $5 (about 83 Mexican pesos) and descending hundreds of stairs, there’s a ring of waterfalls bursting out of the mountains to fill a churning sapphire pool. And that’s just the start.

The waterfalls of Puente de Dios make for an intriguing tourist attraction. ferrantraite/E+/Getty Images

The park’s namesake land bridge leads to another entry point upstream in the river. Plop in and float through a cathedral-like cave, spotting silvery fish below and dark tunnels in the limestone walls. Follow the current and slip between a small opening in the rocks to enter the vast main pool.

Safety lines in the water help stabilize swimmers against the current. You can swim your way from one torrent of water to the next, feeling the energy of countless gallons of water surge through rocky channels and the surrounding forest.

The crystal-clear pool exceeds 60 feet (18 meters) of depth in spots. Brave visitors step onto the ledges of the rocky perimeter for cliff jumping. Life jackets are mandatory for all swimmers and are available to rent.

Sótano de las Huahuas

An hour’s drive south of Ciudad Valles and less than an hour north of Xilitla (one of Mexico’s lauded Pueblos Magicos), you can hike to the crater-like spectacle of Sótano de las Huahuas.

Words, photos and video all fail to capture the daily phenomenon of thousands upon thousands of birds descending sheer cliffs into the massive circular hole in the forest.

Primarily white-breasted swifts along with green parakeets put on the daily show at dusk and a similar spectacle each morning with an epic ascent from the sótano (basement).

Miguel Galarraga of Corazon de Xoconostle Tours descends into a sinkhole known as Sotano de las Huahuas. Mark Johanson/Chicago Tribune/Newscom

Witnessing this ritual from the rocky rim is a full-body experience that floods the senses with awe – and a bit of vertigo for those sensitive to heights.

You can book the experience with a Teenek guide at the entryway to the site. A moderate hike of about 30 minutes leads you to the dizzyingly large cavern.

“At the bottom of the cave, it’s the size of a soccer field,” says Estela Martínez Santiago, a Teneek guide from the local San Isidro community in the municipality of Aquismón.

For context, that “bottom” is some 1,500 feet (about 460 meters) below when you’re standing at the rim. With extra planning, you can pay to repel down the side. The rugged cliff walls between the top and bottom offer secure nooks for the countless swifts, parakeets and other critters.

“It’s an ocean of birds,” said Elena Nilova, a first-time visitor from Chicago. This sea-like sensation speaks to the sound of their wings as they pass overhead at dusk. Cutting through the air like lightning, they generate the sound of waves washing across a distant shore.

If you want more, you can access a similar, more developed site, Sótano de las Golondrinas, less than 30 minutes by car from Sótano de las Huahuas.

A surreal garden

If the idea of crawling inside a Salvador Dali painting sounds fun to you, you just might fall in love with the Edward James Sculpture Garden, Las Pozas. It’s located in Xilitla, just under two hour’s drive south of Ciudad Valles and arguably the most magical town in the region.

The merger of wild jungle and sculpted material was the brainchild of English poet and surrealist artist Edward James in the mid 1900s. The garden is now touted as one of the most important surrealist monuments in the world.

Fittingly, James was a friend and financial backer of Dali while sculpting his secret garden in this “magic town.” He designed and crafted his surrealist buildings and structures on-site for many years, between the 1960s and 1980s, with the help of local workers.

Las Pozas is a surrealistic garden tucked into the jungle in the city of Xilitla. fitopardo/Moment RF/Getty Images

“He studied literature, not architecture. But he was an architect of the imagination,” says tour guide Obed Zumaya Márquez

A guided visit – which should be booked in advance – leads you up and down massive stone staircases, below walls of concrete bamboo imitating the forest vegetation and through other fantastical indoor-outdoor creationsOf course, those include more Instagram-perfect waterfalls.

As a testament to just how photogenic this place is: Actress Tilda Swinton once visited for a mesmerizing photo shoot, published by W Magazine in 2013.

Within a two-hour drive of Ciudad Valles, there’s a whole other buffet of adrenaline-fueled adventure options: whitewater rafting, zip-lining and rock climbing or rappelling. Even the more relaxing paddling trip up the turquoise Tampaón River offers a stop at a gorgeous cenote (sinkhole-like cave) for swimming inside a mountain. It’s well worth the excursion even when Tamul waterfall is dry.

Exploring the city of San Luis Potosí

Most visitors will set out for La Huasteca, or return from it, via the bustling capital of San Luis Potosí, where the international airport offers frequent flights to Mexico City and beyond.

While the edge of La Huasteca starts nearly three hours drive-time to the east, the charming capital is worth exploring at the start or end of a trip.

The historic downtown is packed with ornate plazas, stone streets and Old-World architecture.

The city of San Luis Potosi is worth exploring and is a jumping-off point for a trip to La Huasteca to the east. Glow Images/Glowimages RF/Getty Images/Glowimages RF

Elements of the deep religious roots and the city’s long history of mining gold, silver and other materials sprinkle the urban center with wow-factor, starting with the baroque towers of the opulent municipal cathedral.

Next door, the historical municipal building from 1602 is open for free weekly tours. One room features five ornate ceiling murals that are framed with hundreds of pure gold eggs, each worth more than $5,000.

Down the street, Mexico’s National Mask Museum is a hidden golden egg in its own right, featuring bedazzled and historical creations from the ancient and modern world.

The city touts an evolving culinary palette, starting with numerous artisanal chocolate shops, such as Costanza, selling irresistible travel gifts.

The budding craft beer scene includes Callejon 7 Barrios, serving up the citrusy José Gosé and summer ales. And at El Rincón Huasteco, dishes include 10 varieties of the regional enchiladas Huastecas and the famously gigantic zacahuil, aka the biggest tamale that you ever did see.

The flavors offer a small tease of all that awaits in the mountains to the east.

Currently based in La Paz, Mexico, Tree Meinch is a bilingual writer pursuing stories about travel, science and sustainability in a rapidly changing climate.

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