Page 2 - Finding Nature in Mexico Near the Mega Metropolis
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

hiking near Corral de Piedra Amanalco camp

After breakfast with some fresh-squeezed orange juice and strong Mexican coffee, we geared up for a long hike to Valle de Bravo. It was supposed to be a 28-kilometer (17.4-mile) hike through fields and forests to our destination. After lots of recent rains, however, the fields had turned into marshes. Without knee-high waterproof boots, the original route would have been an uncomfortable slog. So we took a shorter alternate way on a dirt road part of the way and hiked 12 miles instead.

Along the way, the trees alternated between native pines and agricultural ones, free-growth forests and tree plantations. These communities with shared resources seem to manage the land in a more diverse way than the average short-thinking private landowner would. They make money from carbon offsets from trees planted randomly, or get offset money then timber money when the pines or cedars can be harvested on a rolling schedule in 15-20 years. Meanwhile, corn grows in other areas, vegetables in different parts, and sheep graze the grassy areas that aren't well-suited to farming. We stopped for lunch in one spot beside a field of oats.

hiking to Valle de Bravo in the state of Mexico

We walked through shady evergreen forests that again reminded me of where I grew up in the eastern USA, the smell of pine needles, lichens, and cedar bringing back a flood of memories. I grew up in the forest, by a river, and as a kid spent as much time outside as in. We only got one TV channel out in the mountains in those days before the cable from the city stretched out that far, so we had to make our own fun outside. I still get a rush of good feelings when I hear the wind whispering through the trees. I felt more alive and alert looking at big mushrooms and carpets of moss than I ever really do in a city.

We occasionally heard thunder clapping then dealt with a sprinkling of rain, but compared to a day in front of a computer screen, the 12-mile hike still felt like bliss. Not a fired-up, exciting, sensory stimulating bliss, but rather a peaceful, all-is-well bliss.

Fittingly, it seemed, we ended at a Buddhist temple with a giant stupa. All by itself in a forest, it was an improbable site that nobody would expect to see in Mexico. There aren't a lot of Buddhists in this strongly Catholic nation, but this is supposedly the largest Buddhist stupa in the Western Hemisphere, at 36 meters tall. The Dalai Lama visited this spot when he came to Mexico.

We walked past the prayer flags and went inside what turned out to be an incredibly serene space with an open hardwood floor. We took off our shoes and almost involuntarily, people struck yoga poses or just started stretching, trying to loosen up sore muscles that were too distracting to ignore. After a long walk in the woods, I think the Buddha would have been okay with that.

Buddhist stupa near Valle de Bravo in Mexico

Soaring Through the Clouds in Valle de Bravo

Our adventure trip ended up on an epic note, seeing nature from the clouds instead of on the ground. All my life I've said I had no desire to go bungee jumping or skydiving from an airplane. Soaring across the landscape in a hang glider was a different story, however. It's not just out and down. It seemed like if you ran off a cliff and started soaring, you would get to feel what it was like to be a bird.

"If your instincts are telling you to go left but then you see a bird to the right," said Ivan, "follow the damn bird!" That was the advice from the owner of Very Muy Epico, the hang gliding company with the epic name. The pilots in Valle de Bravo enjoy some of the best conditions in the world, with thermal currents coming up from the ground reliably around 360 out of 365 days a year.

I like to think I'm a "Go for it!" adventurous traveler, but I do get that sinking feeling in my chest when I'm way up high and my caveman brain is telling me I'm about to die. Sometimes I wonder if a fear of heights is really just a fear of being in an unnatural place for humans. This one tested that feeling bigtime. After a few test runs on dry land with me holding onto my tandem pilot in the right place, passing the test, it was time to do it for real.

We clipped in, strapped on, put hands in the right places...and waited. A hang glider moves three times faster than a parasail, so it requires a stronger wind for takeoff. Once the wind was strong enough, my pilot Pony asked, "Ready?" and we took off running down the hill.

hang gliding near Valle de Bravo takeoff spot

Like a cartoon character whose legs keep moving after it's in mid-air, we kept running until we were above the trees. The instinctual part of my brain was more than a little freaked out and I was hanging on for dear life. "You need to put your feet on the bar!" Pony shouted, but I was having trouble even moving my legs. Eventually I got my feet onto the bar that was to stretch out behind us, but my knuckles were white from gripping the straps I was holding, by instinct. This is the real definition of trust, I thought to myself. I just met this guy and I'm a half mile above the ground, my life completely in his hands. All that's keeping us afloat is a steel frame with some fabric on it. And him.

Then my nose started running in the high winds and I faced a dilemma. Should I let that GoPro camera I'm facing show snot running out my nose, or should I get over my fear and move my sleeve up to wipe it off? I went with the latter and didn't die, so I realized it was okay to relax. I smiled into the camera, gave a thumbs up, and started admiring the scenery instead of freaking out.

For 25 minutes we soared with the birds, seeing the countryside like they see it, and riding the winds with no fossil fuels required. After dreaming about this experience for decades, I finally got to see what it was like to be a hawk, or a condor, or a vulture waiting for the right scent in the wind. Ivan told us you can ride these thermals for hours, going vast distances if you can catch them right. Several world champions take off from this area near Valle de Bravo and one of them went more than 700 kms before needing to return to Earth.

hang gliding near Valle de Bravo with Very Muy Epico

Eventually we made our way down to the landing zone, banking in ways that seemed certifiably insane to me but were probably just another landing for my pilot. With hang gliding there are wheels built into the structure, so the idea is just to stretch out your legs and land like an airplane would. Ours landed at a speed that seemed insanely fast, but it was smooth. A friend who came in later had his wheels get stuck in the mud and he did a face plant at the end.

Very Muy Epico has a glamping area here, with yurt-type tents and a treehouse. Their goal is to get people out into nature, away from the glowing screens and the constant social media updates.

You don't have to go very far from the biggest cities in the world to get into nature and disconnect. It's usually just a matter of having the will to make it happen.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who lives in Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running blog here.

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Related Features:
A Vintage Roadtrip: Butterflies, Blues and VW Buses - Lydia Carey
Tourism as a Force for Change in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere - Tim Leffel
Four Weeks Unplugged in Remote Canada - Julia Hubbel
Mexico City's Island Life: Enchanting and Endangered - Lydia Carey

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