The Bird Cave - Sotono de Las Golondrinas a.m.

Trip Start Nov 22, 2011
Trip End Apr 07, 2012

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Hotel Dolores

Flag of Mexico  , San Luis Potosí,
Monday, April 2, 2012

In 2011, the town of Xilitla was named a Pueblo Magico (Magic Town), in the State of San Luis Potosi. It is in the Huasteca Potosina region, the northeast part of Mexico, and home to the Huastec people.

Xilitla, pronounced Hee-leet-la, is a laidback, little mountain town, perched on the top of a hill and surrounded on all sides by the green slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The climate is temperate and the setting, breath-taking. Xilitla is surrounded by semitropical forests and mountains filled with caves, dozens of waterfalls, orchid sanctuaries, rivers and exotic wild animals. I read somewhere that this area of the Sierra Gorda 'holds every species, save one, that was there when the Spaniards arrived, from tropical animals like jaguars, margays, military macaws and emerald toucanets to temperate creatures like black bears and American dippers". We even learned from Juan that there were cacomistles (ring tailed cats), a cross between a cat and a raccoon.

Walking through Xilitla was a treat. Only three main streets that were lined with elegant old house from the old days when money was made from the coffee farms. The church square is at the top of the hill and when we were there, it was a lively place to be. Sunday is market day and it was also Easter. Lots to see and do.

Even though Xilitla is best known for Edward James' fantastical gardens and concrete sculptures, a huge, natural sinkhole, filled with birds and just north of the village, is another amazing place to visit.On Monday morning, we once again woke up early and headed out to see the Sotono de las Golondrinas or the Cave/Basement of Swallows. This time the weather and road co-operated and we arrived at Aquismon in about 1 hour.  

In order to get to the cave, we had to walk down about 850 stairs through a forest and then follow a rocky path to the brink of the sinkhole where a viewing platform has been built. At 1,220 feet from top to bottom, the Sotano de las Golindrinas is the largest cave shaft in the world and the 11th deepest in the world. This vertical abyss is a karst sinkhole, formed by water erosion in a limestone fault. If you were jump into the hole, it would take you 12 seconds to reach the bottom.

Following the path and getting closer to the cave, we saw local men with rapelling harnesses. People (like us) could choose to be tied up, crawl to the edge of the abyss and peer over the edge of the cave. But it is not just a hole.  It is home to tens of thousands of white-collared swifts (not swallows) and green parrots who exit from the deep cave every morning as the sun rises.

And what an exodus!

 We walked a little further around the rim of the cave and sat on huge boiulders, waiting for the magic moment. The big red sun was rising. Then the birds began to stir and even though we could not see them, we could hear them making quite the racket which got louder and louder. Then a group of about 10 green parrots shot noisily out of the cave. Then another group and another group, flying directly over our heads.

Finally, as the drone got louder and louder we started to see an amazing sight - the swifts coming out. For the next 45 minutes, the birds rose slowly to the top of the pit by circling faster and faster as if climbing a circular staircase. The sound from their wings and chirps reminded us of a wind whipping up and the blur caused by the birds flying so fast, looked like a tornado emerging from the hole.Once the birds get near the top of the pit, they circle a few more times and then in spurts of 50 or 60 (hard to count!) birds at a time, whip out from the whirling mass and take flight into the open sky, trying to avoid the raptors cirling above, waiting for an easy meal They flew right over our heads. One bird actually bumped into an awed spectator!

We heard that every day these birds fly to the coasts of Veracruz, more than 100 km away, in seach of food. At sunset the birds return home, circle the cave and about once a minute a group breaks off from the flock and heads straight down into the opening. When they cross the edge, the birds pull in their wings and freefall, extending their wings and pulling out of the dive when they reach their nests.

Apart from the birds and a few spectators, the cave has been used by crazy base jumpers who leap from the lip of the cave and free fall into the hole before opening their shoots. UTube has several videos of this wild sport. We heard that the President of Mexico rapelled down it and once the bottom of the cave was reached by a hot air ballon. We read in the local paper that this type of activity was going to be stopped as ornithologists are concerned about the decrease in numbers of the bird population.

The indigenous town of Aquismon has turned into quite a centre of eco-tourism and numerous local people have found a new source of income without leaving their home country. Women were selling hot coffee, offering their services as guides and security people, and selling handicrafted items. Others were insuring that the area was kept clean and that garbage was not thrown into the pit. Tourists are usually not the most caring.

Seeing the birds coming out of the cave at 6:30 a.m. was awesome. This was another highlight of our wonderful trip to the Sierra Gorda. Thank you Margarita for including this in our itinerary and thank you Juan for getting up really early in the morning, not once but twice, to take us to this wonderful place.  It is something that we would have been sad to have missed!

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