A river runs through it

A river runs through it

A young woman stands at the edge of a wooden diving platform and contemplates the intensely turquoise river below. Her partner has just leaped from this perch 17 metres above the fast-flowing El Salto River in Mexico, and has momentarily disappeared from view.

Like this couple, I've come to the region of Huasteca Potosina primarily to experience its watery delights. There are no beaches here, but there's also no shortage of water. It springs from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, sometimes gushing from the hillsides into rivers that are already full. Those rivers run every shade of blue from aquamarine to azure and are endowed with spectacular waterfalls like the one near the diving platforms on the El Salto.

Seeing the man jump has suddenly sparked memories of a much earlier trip I made to Mexico. During spring break one year in the early 1970s my parents took me on a family vacation to Acapulco, where La Quebrada cliff divers – made famous on ABC's Wide World of Sports – were enthralling tourists like us. We watched them perform spectacular swan dives into the narrow gorge below and marvelled at their fearlessness.

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Huasteca Potosina is a long way from Acapulco. It's north of Mexico City in the state of San Luis Potosi and closer to the Caribbean coast than the Pacific. It feels as exotic to me now as Acapulco did when I was a teenager. There's also another big difference. Now, instead of merely watching others do feats of daring, I'm doing them, too.

Adventure tourism began in this region in the mid-1990s. The story goes that an American, Grant Amaral, started bringing whitewater kayakers here from Canada, the United States and Europe. When Amaral's novice clients were too timid to kayak over a waterfalls, they would push their kayaks over the edge, then jump over and climb back in. Eventually, Amaral and others realized that simply jumping the waterfalls was a sport in itself. And it was something just about anyone could do safely with a helmet and a life jacket.

And some nerve, of course. Standing on the lip of the first of seven waterfalls that punctuate a one-kilometre stretch of the Micos River, I'm questioning my initial enthusiasm for trying this sport.

The guys in our small group have already jumped and are floating in the frothy water below, waiting for me and two other women to join them. This first waterfall is only a few metres high – puny compared to the eight-metre one we'll jump later – but it's still intimidating. The ledge is covered in green algae and looks slippery. My only comfort is that this is one of the prettiest rivers I've ever seen.

It's a wide ribbon of liquid green with lush jungle hugging its shoulders. Black cormorants fish from overhanging branches. Mountains rise up sharply on either side.

"In April, all the mountains are pink," says Steve Melendez, our soft-spoken guide, when I ask later about the rosewood trees that dot that slopes. "It's like in Japan, the cherry blossoms. It's beautiful, more than beautiful."

But at this moment I'm thinking more about safety than beauty. Water rushes past my ankles and plunges over the edge. Then I remember what another guide told us on our drive here from Ciudad Valles, the regional hub and our base for four nights.

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"Don't think about it, just jump," was her advice. When it's my turn, I hesitate briefly, then leap as far from the wall of rushing water as I can. When I plunge into the natural pool below it's not with the hard force I feared. Instead, it feels like I'm swimming in Champagne. (I learn later the physics behind our fun: falling water breaks surface tension, making entry softer.) We float from one waterfall to the next, giddy with adrenalin and gaining confidence with every jump.

Still, I'm too chicken to go rafting on the Tampaon River, where narrow canyons channel the strong current into Level 4 whitewater. Instead, I paddle a quieter section of the river in a traditional panga, a long, shallow-bottom wooden boat that can hold up to 20 or so people. With our guides chanting loudly to get us to paddle in unison – "uno, dos, tres" – we look more like a war party than tourists paddling upstream to see Tamul, a waterfall that's about twice as high as Niagara Falls.

The waterfall, pool and and surreal stone architecture of Las Pozas in the jungle of Xilitla.

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Another day we stay dry and visit La Pozas (the pools), a garden of surrealistic sculptures set in the rainforest near Xilitla. One of Mexico's designated "pueblos magicos" for its mix of history and culture, Xilitla's particular claim to "magic town" status (a designation by the country's tourism authority) is due to this garden. Edward James, a wealthy and eccentric English artist purchased the former coffee plantation in 1947 and first set about growing orchids. When an unprecedented frost in 1962 killed them, he turned to something a little less fragile: concrete.

Locals considered him a crazy gringo but they were happy to turn his fantastical sketches into something solid. "He paid his workers five times more than normal," Steve tells us as we wander past concrete tulips, candles and a pair of hands – all larger-than-life – as well as abstract structures that leave us puzzled. Some of the structures are so odd that when we see a woman wearing nothing but a bikini and leather boots pose for photos, she appears to fit right in.

Before returning to our hotel at the end of the day, we stop to see something else that's otherworldly. Hundreds of birds are beginning their descent into El Sotano de las Golondrinas – Cave of the Swallows – where they find shelter in crevices in the walls. It's one of the deepest pit caves in the world – so deep that clouds form inside. We watch in wonder as green parakeets and white-collared swifts spiral downward to their nests for the night.

Driving back to San Luis Potosi on our last day, Steve tells us to keep our bathing suits handy; we'll stop for one final swim. The way he says it, I'm not expecting anything more than a quick dip by the roadside. But when we reach the small town of El Cafetal, we hear the thundering Tamasopo River before we see it.

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Descending a long flight of stairs, we come to a delightful pool carved out of the moss-bearded rock walls. Water tumbles through a narrow gap in one wall, while numerous small streams plunge from the tangled jungle overhead. Backlit by the sun, these falls are like shimmering curtains. We jump repeatedly into the cold, turquoise water until we tire, then float lazily with the current through a dimly lit grotto.

Pulling ourselves from the water one last time, we cross a span of rock that gives this place its name – Puente de Dios, the Bridge of God. Locals have built a small shrine by the sign, reinforcing the feeling that this watery wonderland is a little piece of heaven here on earth.

United and American Airlines fly from Dallas to San Luis Potosi. From there, it's about a 3 1/2-hour drive on a good highway with tolls to Ciudad Valles, the main town in the region of Huasteca Potosina. The inter-city bus is comfortable and clean with individual TV screens, bottled water and snacks.

Do

The adventure tourism industry in Huasteca Potosina is booming with close to a dozen tour operators based in Ciudad Valles. I went with Huaxteca.com. It offers two- to six-day packages that can include rafting, canoeing, rappelling, waterfall jumping, stand-up paddle-boarding, as well as visits to Xilitla and the Cave of the Swallows. Huaxteca.com will also book your preferred accommodation from a selection of hotels in Ciudad Valles. A five-day, four-night guided adventure package, including accommodation with breakfast at Hotel Valles, is $700. At Huaxteca.com you can see aerial videos of the spectacular landscape. It also has a live chat line. huaxteca.com/en/

The city of San Luis Potosi: It's worth spending at least a day in the state capital, once the most important city in northern Mexico because of its valuable gold and silver deposits. The historic city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Easily walkable, there are magnificent churches, public squares with fountains, and several good museums, including the National Mask Museum and the Regional Museum, the latter housed in what was once the country's largest Franciscan monastery.

Stay

Hotel Valles in Ciudad Valles offers clean, comfortable rooms along with an outdoor swimming pool, large garden and three restaurants. The buffet breakfast is particularly good with regional Mexican cuisine. Rooms start at $76 for a single; hotelvalles.mx

Huasteca Secreta operates two higher-end hotels, including one overlooking the El Meco river with its diving platforms. The website is only in Spanish and staff who answer the phone have limited English. Rooms start at $155 per night for two people, including breakfast; huastecasecreta.com

The writer was a guest of adventure tour Huaxteca.com. It did not review or approve this article.

Source : https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/destinations/a-slice-of-heaven-on-earth-in-mexicos-waterywonderland/article36662099/

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