At the beginning of 2020, this video about the Grutas de Xajhá appeared on YouTube. A still totally unknown nature reserve, which was ‘discovered’ by these two YouTubers. It sparked sudden interest from tourists; the community was more or less forced to turn things around. “I worked here in the mines and drank all the money I earned. There was just no prospect of better times, until now”, explains our guide Rodrigo. The caves are located on the border of the states of Querétaro and Hidalgo, near the lake Presa Zimapan.
To get here is quite a task full of steep U-turns and dozens of wild donkeys that block the road every once in a while. Rodrigo is waiting for us with a jeep: from here it is impossible with our Honda City. We descend to enter the real valley.
,,At first we had perhaps two bookings a week, now sometimes fifty at one weekend. We had to organize ourselves all over again.” Rodrigo is part of the community that has lived in this inhospitable area for decades. And apparently, nobody really noticed that it has gold in its hands.
For 50 pesos we have a spot, for 100 pesos we rent a tent. This is six dollars in total and we get an amazing view of the valley where the Grutas de Xajhá are located. There is room for five or six tents. There is a restaurant, a shop and a toilet block. Everything is run by the community.
Yolotzin, ‘they call me Yolo’, is a girl of about 17 and our hostess. She does everything for you. Our evening meal is basic; a piece of chicken and rice, but very well prepared and tasty. Including some drinks, this also costs 100 pesos, for two people.
Our tent is set up in no time and is much too small for my 1m86. It starts to rain and soon the tent also feels wet. Touching the tent creates moisture, so you should do everything you can to avoid that. It makes the tent even smaller, even Tania can’t stretch. It makes sleeping almost impossible. At half-past five in the morning, a donkey runs through the valley. The sound reverberates on all sides and wakes us up. The loud, elongating sound is admittedly beautiful; all part of the adventure, shall we say. Fortunately, there is café de olla, a sweet coffee. A perfect start for the day.
Together with our guide Cristo we walk via a fairly steep footpath to the river, until we come to a boat that transports us about three hundred meters. This is where the journey really begins. We have to cross the water about eight times, so shoes that can withstand water are a must. It has to be, otherwise there is no passage. Then a climb begins, which actually feels irresponsible. The chance that you will fall is high, absolute caution is advised. The bit of mud doesn’t help, let alone the loose small stones.
We reach the enormously massive mountain with the robust Grutas de Xajhá in it, which we climb. First with a shaky staircase up, only to end up in a horrific stench full of bat poo. It is sweltering hot; Christo shines his lamp on the fluttering bats. “They are now here, previously more downstairs. That may be the downside of increasing tourism.”
We go down the stairs again and go deeper into the cave. It may also stink here, but there is also a breath of fresh air: this is a tunnel. There is a second exit: a very narrow passage up there, at a height of about ten meters. My heart is beating now; I’ve been convinced all my life that I’m claustrophobic. I knew this moment was coming. Face your fears is my motto. But we all succeed, the claustrophobia is not that bad. Once out, a new amazing view of the valley appears.
Once we’re back down to the water, Cristo points out the hot springs. The water measures 40 to 45 degrees and is therefore delicious. The natural stench, call it rotten eggs, you take for granted.
It is the wonder of the undiscovered. From the adventure. The utter amateurism of the community is pure romanticism. Nothing has been built in the valley. The paths are unmistakable but in places only passable with difficulty. Only when wading in a strong current is a rope stretched over the river. The Grutas de Xajhá are now such a barely trodden gem in the mountains. Impossible to capture the magic on photo or video, because that ultimate feeling simply cannot be captured.
It is hoped that savvy tour operators will leave the place alone for a while, although the first offers are already here. ,,They earn much more from it than we do”, grumbles the somewhat naive Rodrigo, who sees these operators as a threat rather than an opportunity. The focus is still on the community, on the fear of outside influences. Soon they will find the partnership. For the good of the community, but whether the valley and the Grutas de Xajhá themselves will be so happy? The balance between tourism and nature conservation is always a fragile one. However, the caves are so remote that mass tourism here is probably a no-go. Good thing, too.