Hello, friends! Jess and I recently spent a week in Huasteca Potosina, a picturesque region in central Mexico known for its rolling hills and brilliant, blue waters. We had been living in Mexico City for a couple months and we wanted to spend a little time outside the city for the holidays. We were really craving some fresh air after our time in the beautiful, but smoggy, city. A friend suggested Huasteca Potosina, which Jess and I had never heard of. We Googled some pictures and were sold on the idea pretty quickly. The rainforests, the waterfalls, and the thatch-roofed huts on the river were exactly what we needed.
Huasteca Potosina is a popular vacation destination among Méxicanos, but it hasn’t quite caught on internationally. We knew we wanted to go, but it was hard to find information in English. We also weren’t sure how we were going to get around since the region is a 7 hour drive from Mexico City and many of the attractions are in remote areas. We ultimately decided to take a bus from Mexico City and book a 5 day tour package since, other than the pictures we saw, we knew nothing about the area or what to expect. If you’re thinking about going to Huasteca Potosina (you should!) read on and you’ll be a little more informed than we were.
Geography and History
The Huasteca region extends through several modern Mexican states and stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range. The area is named after the indigenous Huastec people that have inhabited the region for centuries. There are still people that speak the native Huastec language and follow ancient traditions, but their influence has waned since the Spanish colonization.
Huasteca Potosina is the part of the Huasteca region that lies within the state of San Luis Potosí. It’s a mountainous, rainforest zone with several winding rivers whose beauty attract tourists from all over Mexico. The limestone of the Sierra Madre Orientals causes the rivers to glow a beautiful, radiant blue in the sunlight. The area is temperate most of the year, but temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) at the height of Summer. Agriculture is the most important part of the economy here and as we navigated the mountain roads we saw mile after mile of sugar cane fields and trucks loaded with harvested crops.
Transportation and Accommodations
The city of Ciudad Valles lies in the heart of Huasteca Potosina, so this was the first stop on our trip. Mexico City bus stations are hectic places, and schedules are pretty loosely followed, but after some jostling and bit of a wait we were on our way. We bought our tickets on Busbud, which is a great resource for finding and buying international bus tickets. We arrived in the evening and grabbed a taxi (no Lyft or Uber here) to a little hotel near the tour company office. English speakers are few and far between this far from the big city, so getting around and getting checked in tested our Spanish abilities. There was some confusion, but we managed.
We booked a 5 day tour package through Ruta Huasteca, and once we got to town all the details were taken care of for us. I’m really glad we went this route. Our Spanish isn’t great (yet) so getting around solo would have been difficult. Also, the attractions are spread out and difficult to find so it was helpful to have guides to show us the way and provide safety equipment. We spent the majority of our evenings at Aldea Huasteca, an ecological lodging complex run by Ruta Huasteca. The area was pretty, meals were included, and the tour vans showed up right on time each morning.
We didn’t really know what to expect when we left Mexico City so packing was difficult. If you’re considering a trip, here’s what I recommend: A bathing suit, water shoes (you can buy these in Huasteca Potosina if you don’t have any), a towel or two (We spent a lot of time in the water, and only had 1 towel each, so they were wet and mildewy pretty much all week), hiking shoes, beer/wine (There was none for sale at Aldea Huasteca, so pick some up in town before you head over), and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
Many of the area’s attractions are in and around the beautiful waterways that twist through the Sierra Madre Orientals. There are calm areas for swimming, rapids for rafting, and numerous waterfalls for jumping. We spent a lot of our time in and around the Río Tampaón, the Río Valles, and the Río Gallinas. There are many natural formations along these waterways that provided a multitude of fun activities.
The Tampaón is excellent for rafting, and there are several tour companies that plan daily outings. The most turbulent areas are class III, but the guides are skilled and there are plenty of attendants in kayaks waiting to help if anybody falls out. I had never been rafting before and I felt perfectly safe. The walls of the cavern formed by the river were breathtaking, and would be worth the trip even for those not interested in rafting.
The rivers of Huasteca Potosina are full of waterfalls, big and small. The tour companies in the area offer excursions to appreciate their beauty and jump down them (for those that are feeling brave). I admit that the idea of jumping off an 8 meter waterfall was scary to me at first, but once I built up my courage by jumping from some smaller ones I was able to relax and enjoy it. It was perfectly safe and I recommend giving it a try, even if you’re nervous like me.
Located near the town of Tanchachín is Tamul, the largest waterfall in the area and perhaps the most beautiful in Mexico. It has a 105 meter (344 foot) drop and is formed where Río Gallinas meets Río Tampaón. As with all the rivers in the area the water is a beautiful blue due to the limestone in the mountains and riverbed. We got on the water several kilometers upstream from the falls in an area with many waiting canoes. The river was full of similar groups all struggling to paddle in sync. Thankfully every boat was managed by some experts who handled the steering. Our arms were sore by the end of the day, though.
The canoes converged at a cluster of rocks about half a kilometer from the falls. There was a line as groups waited their turn to get photos with the falls in the background. This seemed to be pretty standard. The wait was a good opportunity to do some swimming and to jump from the rock formations. The water became turbulent closer to the falls, so this was as close as we were able to go.
Also along the river is the cenote Cueva del Agua. The calm water and the cavernous surroundings made this a pleasant place to swim. It was considerably warmer than the river water, so it was also a nice chance to warm up.
Puente de Dios
Outside the town of Tamasopo lies Puente de Dios, or the Bridge of God. Waterfalls cascade into a beautiful natural pool that is surrounded on all sides by vines, ferns, and other jungle vegetation. The water has formed channels in the rocks, and these watery caves glow with a natural radiance that has to be seen to be believed. Ropes crisscross the pool to help swimmers get from one side to the other. The current was surprisingly strong when we jumped in so the ropes were helpful for getting around. This was perhaps my favorite natural formation that we saw on the trip.
Huasteca Potosina is full of natural caves that offer opportunities for spelunking and rappelling. Among the most famous is the Cave of Swallows in the municipality of Aquismón. This open air pit has a 333 meter (1092 feet) drop to the cave floor. The main draw of this cave is the multitude of birds that emerge every morning and return every evening like clockwork. Be sure to time your visit right so you get to see this spectacular site. Despite the name, the birds are primarily swifts and parakeets, and there are very few actual swallows in attendance.
For our trip we explored the Gruta de Xilosuchico outside the town of Xilitla. We scrambled over, under, and between rocks from one chamber to the next and admired the beautiful natural formations and the chittering bats overhead. We saw a spider or two, so we were careful where we put our hands. Stalactites hung from the cavernous ceilings and dripped continuously, creating an eery melody. At one point the guide asked us to turn off all of our helmet lights. Standing in the complete darkness listening to the sounds of the cave was an interesting experience that I recommend everyone try.
Edward James & Las Pozas
The town of Xilitla is a 2-hour drive from Ciudad Valles, but absolutely worth the drive. This is the site of Las Pozas, a series of surrealist structures designed by Edward James in the heart of the rainforest. James was an eccentric art patron with a lot of money to burn. When he visited the area around Xilitla in the 1940’s he was overwhelmed by its beauty and decided to build a private retreat for himself and his friends (mostly surrealist artists), away from the complications of the big city. He employed many local craftsmen and continued to add to the site until his death in 1984. Since then the area has been open to the public.
The structures blended beautifully with the natural landscape and in true surrealist fashion it was easy to get lost as we navigated the twisting, bizarre architecture. I’m glad we visited Las Pozas through a tour company for a couple reasons. The first is that the guides were full of interesting stories about James and his motivations for building various sections of the garden. The second is that the line to get in to the complex stretched on for hours, but our tour company had a set reservation time so we walked right in with no wait.
Edward James is a fascinating character and I encourage you to learn more about him. “The Secret Life of Edward James” is a charming documentary from 1978 about his life and his Surrealist Garden. It’s available in its entirety on YouTube.
Huasteca Potosina is a lovely and oft-overlooked part of the world. If you’re seeking adventure and want something outside the normal tourist circuit you should give it a look. I recommend learning at least a little Spanish since English speakers are rare around here, and I also encourage you to take advantage of one of the tour agencies in the area to get the most out of your experience. Ruta Huasteca had a handful of English speaking guides so we were able to get buy with them acting as translators. Getting to the area can be a chore if you’re not familiar with the region, but the tour agencies will take care of everything once you arrive.