Mexico - Las Cascadas


R
North America




Rancho Las Cascadas combines Swiss attention to detail with Mexican exuberance and color to offer its international guests impressions of the real Mexico and the spectacular Mexican highlands as experienced from horseback.


By Rod Lopez-Fabrega and Mary Ashcraft



Mexico has a tradition of horsemanship that goes back to the reintroduction of the horse into North America by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. This tradition is alive and well as may be seen in country charreadas or Mexican-style rodeos and in the country's fine equestrian team that performs internationally. Considering this long-standing tradition, it is surprising that there are few opportunities for the well-traveled visitor to experience the thrill of exploring Mexico's magnificent highlands from the back of a caballo criollo, a disciplined but spirited Mexican horse.






This oversight has now been challenged by the recently inaugurated Rancho Las Cascadas, offering the adventurous traveler a view of "Old Mexico" from the saddle as well as outstanding accommodations and notable cuisine. Visiting riders experienced in horsemanship enjoy the excellent horses and the superior amenities offered by Rancho Las Cascadas, but so do guests who have never been on a horse before.



Located less than 50 miles to the north of Mexico City, halfway between the rural towns of Jilotepec and Tula off Highway 57 to Queretaro, Rancho Las Cascadas is the newest of a small handful of ranches offering equestrian vacations in this colorful and friendly southern neighbor of the United States. The property is situated in a stunning valley, several miles from the main highway, in what can truly be describes as the old Mexico, sparsely populated Big Sky back country with rolling hills and great wild flower-carpeted savannahs, yet accessible to several fascinating towns and the important and spectacular ruins of ancient Tula, seat of the Toltec empire. Private transfer from Mexico City airport directly to the ranch is highly recommended and can be arranged by Rancho Las Cascadas. It is a pleasant ride of from one to two hours, depending on Mexico City traffic, which is a nightmare on Friday afternoons and heavy every day at going home time.




Rancho Las Cascadas:



Rancho Las Cascadas, owned and operated by Swiss-born Ursula Wipraechtiger, offers riders of all skill levels as well as non-riders the comforts of her small ranch that include all the color and imagination of Mexico's country interiors plus five-star quality service, marvelous cuisine, and a stable of spirited but disciplined horses, all supervised with Swiss efficiency and attention to detail. Las Cascadas can accommodate up to 20 guests, though ten visitors or less make up the average complement, making for an unprecedented amount of personal attention to the interests and wishes of individual guests. The guest log includes comments from pleased visitors from Europe and North America, among them this commentary from American Kimberley A. :

"I'll never forget sipping a margarita on the terrace and watching the sun set after an amazing day of riding! I can't wait to get back."
I




True to its name the Ranch of the Cascades sits on the edges of a ravine crowned by a spectacular waterfall that feeds a secluded swimming hole. The water is often on the cool side for the timid wader as the daytime air temperature in this Mexican Eden averages between the mid 70's to mid 80's year round, rarely uncomfortably warm and frequently requiring a light blanket for comfortable sleeping at night as evening temperatures drop in this Big Sky countryside.



La Cocina:



Meals at Las Cascadas require special mention. Supervised by an amazing young chef, Valentín Tolentín Sanchez, three square meals daily are a feast for gourmands. Vale in close collaboration with Ursula prepares an international cuisine with a definite Mexican accent. Extraordinary attention is given to protecting guests from Toltec Tummy, and this includes the universal use of bottled water even for the preparation of soups. A typical supper might begin with a delicate cold avocado soup, continue with a savory chicken in chocolate mole sauce and end with a refreshing dessert of lime sorbet in vodka. Complementary wines accompany lunches and dinners. Vale's artistic talents are not confined to the kitchen. The table setting for each dinner is splendidly appropriate to the menu and to any special feast days that may coincide with a meal. As an example, chicken in chocolate mole sauce is served as the main course on the Day of the Dead (All Hallow's Eve)--a tradition in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs--and Vale decorates the table with colorful traditional offerings of the holiday as well as American-style carved pumpkins, along with the ranch's fine crystal ware and china settings. The same attention is given to other holidays.





After dinner entertainments might include an evening of folk songs and old Mexican ballads sung by talented guitarist, Jesús González Magallanes, a local artist. The evening very likely will include an exhibition of Mexican folk dances performed by Eduardo "Lalo" Gonzalez Corona, general manager of Las Cascadas, master of quality control, right-hand man to Ursula and a former dancer in the internationally acclaimed Ballet Folklórico de México. Lalo will bring along a former partner in the Ballet Folklórico to give guests a sampling of authentic folk dances from different regions of Mexico. A perfectionist in everything he does, Lalo takes great care to see that his and his partner's costumes, the music and the intricate steps of the dance are absolutely authentic in every detail.



Los Caballos:


Then there are the horses. Amigo, Machete, Petrush, Sultan, Merlin, Apache, Ambar, El Duque and Dalí are the animals most often used by guests. These and the other horses in Las Cascadas' stables are all gelded Mexican quarter horses mixed with criollos, the small native animal. A firm admirer of "Horse Whisperer" training for her horses, Ursula has a stable of well-mannered animals that are remarkably responsive, tolerant of beginners, yet spirited enough to satisfy the most experienced rider. Ursula or one of her assistants accompanies every group ride, keeping an eye on progress all the way and making firm rules that include assuring everyone's preparedness before a group canter or gallop is initiated.





Gear includes comfortable Mexican saddles with high backs and lots of handholds for beginners. You may run into such terms as: la silla (the saddle), la campana (the pommel), el freno (the bit), la teja (the cantle or rear portion of the saddle tree), la cincha (the belly band that holds the saddle on the horse), or el estribo (the stirrup). However, all the horses speak English, Swiss, German and French in addition to their native Spanish. Everything is provided, and all you need to bring along for the rides are your boots or hard-soled shoes, long pants (blue-jeans are best), a long-sleeved shirt, a hat and sunscreen.


All-day rides are punctuated by wonderful picnic lunches, spirited in to shady glens and scenic corners by Las Cascadas' staff, always a welcome surprise for hungry and tired riders halfway through a full day in the saddle.
With more than 7,000 acres to roam around in the valley, trail rides vary from open savannah to small climbs up rolling hills to rocky descents into heavily wooded ravines and across gentle streams and can vary from several hours to all-day excursions to local villages and special scenic destinations. Several working ranches as well as the ruins of haciendas dating back to pre-revolution times are in the area and are available for Ursula's riders to explore. Trail rides are not nose-to-tail, single file events, and free rides are encouraged, except when descending steep and rocky inclines.



Excursiones:

For both riders and non-riders, multiple side excursions can be arranged to interesting locales for sightseeing, shopping and experiencing some of the many traditional feast days for which Mexico is so famous as well as visiting one of the oldest and most important archaeological sites in Mexico.



Archaeología: TULA

A short twenty-minute drive from Rancho Las Cascadas to the city of Tula and its famous Toltec Ruins is a fascinating morning well spent discovering ancient Mexico before the arrival of the Aztec culture. As visitors enter the complex, the first stop will be a small but interesting museum where Toltec artifacts are displayed and a history of this pre-Columbian culture is explained. There is a modest entrance fee. A short walk leads to the complex of temple ruins.

The old Aztec histories claim the Toltecs as their admired ancestors. The analogy comes close to the high regard and admiration the Romans had for the Greeks and their culture. The vast Toltec empire extended from what is now New Mexico in the United States to Costa Rica in Central America. There is a legend that Tula, the Toltec capital, was a city of grand palaces decorated with gemstones of Jade, turquoise, of gold and the brightly colored feathers of the Quetzal bird. Unfortunately, these trappings of empire have disappeared along with the more humble abodes that dotted the land surrounding the site.



For the visitor today, the first sight of Pyramid B capped with towering columns sculpted in the form of giant warriors silhouetted against the incredible Mexican blue sky is instructive of the sophistication of this ancient culture. Called Atlantes after the atlatl dart thrower weapon they carry, each stone carving depicts a warrior wearing head feathers, a breastplate to resemble a butterfly, and he wears a decorated breechclout covering him to the thigh, with its strings held in back by two discs representing the sun. His right hand carries an atlatl and the left hand the spears or arrows. Other ruins in the complex include two ball courts, the "Burnt Palace", a plaza where religious and military ceremonies took place, and the Coatepantli or serpent wall. Some color remains on the wall where replicas of snakes are shown eating human skeletons, an indication of how the Toltecs eventually became a brutal military empire.



Fiestas: Tepotzotlán

Mexico likes to celebrate, and many folklore events as well as religious holidays take place year round with much color and festivity. Guests of Rancho Las Cascadas are encouraged to visit all that take place in the area. Guests are in for a special treat if their visit coincides with the celebration of Los Días de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Some countries call the event that takes place late in October and early November All Souls' Day, others Halloween. A short drive away from Las Cascadas in the city of Tepotzotlán, Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration full of life and color. In and around the Zócalo, a tree-shaded plaza in front of the cathedral, it is a festive, three-day occasion with masses of orange Marigold flowers everywhere clustered along pathways, encircling lighted votive candles and scattered on tree trunks and branches. There are skeletons at every turn, life size ones made of terra cotta, grinning bony grins from under large sombreros, playing guitars and drums, doing all the fun things they did as living beings, while other twenty-foot-high giant skeletons made of wire and cloth stand guard over the park entrances. Hanging from tree to tree on strings are brightly colored red, yellow, blue and purple papel picado, those traditional Mexican cutout paper banners.

There are memorials for deceased family members and even one for the famous Mexican painter Frieda Khalo. Booths are set up around the Zócalo chock full of candies, nuts, pottery, clothes (traditional or functional), straw hats for ladies or for vaqueros. There are sellers of balloons in the shape of Spiderman or Superman, pink cotton candy on the verge of melting in the heat, and food, food, food. In the center of the Zócalo is a stage where dancers in costume perform many of the typical Mexican dances to music booming from loud speakers. All in all it is a fitting and happy way to remember the lives of the departed loved ones.



Tepotzotlán is a fascinating city not yet overrun by turistas. Tepotzotlán is a Nahuatl word meaning "Among the Hunchbacks", referring to the mountain peaks that surround the city. In the 1500's, this thriving provincial town was one of colonial Spain's most important cultural centers with Franciscans and Jesuits establishing schools for teaching the Indians reading and writing, instructing them in Christian doctrine and bringing young novices into the church. San Francisco Javier church is one of the New Spanish 15th century churches that has preserved its original architecture, paintings and sculpture. The amazing façade is a riot of carved angels, saints and medicinal indigenous plants used decoratively. In the center of all is the Virgin Mary and on the very top with wings outstretched is an archangel guarding them all. After its many lives through the centuries, the church has now been converted into the Archeological and Historical Institute, housing some of the finest artistic and cultural artifacts and displays of Mexico's formative Colonial period under the aegis of Spain. There are period paintings by prominent Mexican artists, gilded sculpture, delicate carvings of altarpieces and saints and virgins, and ivory sculpture from the Far East. From China, one image of Jesus follows the curve of the elephant tusk from which it was carved

Las Cascadas' driver will drop off ranch guests for a half-day or full day of exploring this celebration of the "real Mexico" and pick them up later for a short drive back to the ranch for rest, a special Day of the Dead dinner and preparation for an early morning ride the following day.



Fiestas: Jilotepec



There is another face to El Dia de Los Muertos and it's not far from Rancho Las Cascadas in a town called Jilotepec. It is an event that, normally is not advertised widely to the tourist trade. However, Ursula and her staff are knowledgeable about the customs, people, and celebrations in the surrounding countryside and are happy to open these doors for their guests. The Aztec Indians in Mexico celebrated the circle of life and death hundreds of years ago. Each autumn they played their musical instruments made of turtle shells and gourds, lit candles, and left food as an invitation for their relatives to visit them. They dropped zempasuchil or Marigold petals along the path to the graveyard so the dead could find their way because the Aztecs considered orange a sacred color and Marigolds were flowers of the dead.

In early morning on the second of November, the flower sellers arrive at the cemetery. Thousands of orange Marigolds, purple Cockscombs, white Baby's Breath, and violet Iris line the road to the entrance gate, but the preferred flowers are the bright orange Marigolds that represent the sun. Stalls along the way sell sweet Pan de Muertos--bread of the dead--decorated with flowers or names, men have brought sugar cane wands in from the fields, there are mounds of pecans, almonds, sun flower seeds and walnuts, the pungent aroma of tamales and enchiladas tingle the nostrils and excite the stomach, and there are candy coffins and chocolate skulls for the children.


Inside, the cemetery is bustling with families placing flowers on the graves while others bring water to keep the flowers fresh. Some of the favored food and drink that the returning dead liked are also placed on the grave. You will see family photographs and little dishes of breads, sweets, and perhaps a bottle of Tequila. Also, there could be small jars filled with water and salt that are the essences of life. At night, the graves are prepared and familiar and loving stories of the departed begin as hundreds of candles are lit and the quiet strumming of guitars is heard.



El Mercado, the Friday Market in Jilotepec:



Every Friday, the nearby town of Jilotepec puts on a major street market where the shopper can find anything and everything--from cowboy boots to ceramic dishes, plastic dishes to finely embroidered blouses. Rancho Las Cascadas drivers will take interested guests to town for several hours or a full day of shopping.



La Patrona, the Owner and Hostess:
Multi-lingual, Swiss-born Ursula Wipraechtiger has lived and worked in many countries throughout her adult life. Rancho Las Cascadas represents for her the realization of a life-long dream to find an idyllic spot to settle that combines her love of horses with her interest in people from all over the world. While the challenging duties of building and managing a guest resort in the Mexican backcountry have restricted her
ability to travel, the international guests she welcomes to her home--and a satellite dish antenna--keep her in touch with the outside world. So, when Ursula says,"Mi casa es su casa", she gives real meaning to this traditional Mexican phrase with the memorable hospitality and interest she extends to her guests. That is when her house becomes your house

Contact Information: E-mail= uschi@ranchomex.com / Web= http://www.ranchomex.com
Photo Credits: Rod Lopez-Fabrega, Mary Ashcraft, Rancho Las Cascadas


© 2005 ROMAR TRAVEL GUIDES