In Mexico, between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental, an immense high plateau sprawls out, the Mesa Central. At an altitude of between 6,000 and 7,500 feet, it is sometimes dry as a desert and at others, thanks to volcanic activity that has blocked rivers, it holds shallow lakes. In the middle of the Mesa, at almost the exact center of Mexico and 60 kilometers east of Querétaro, rises the monolith, Peña de Bernal, sticking up like a sleeping monster.
Peña de Bernal is the world’s tallest monolith, and the second largest in mass, after Ayers Rock. It beckons to my wife Mary Ann and me, and on New Year’s Day, 2020, we plan to climb it. We find we are not alone. The small town of San Sebastián Bernal is filled with a jumble of cars, all searching for the same parking spot we hope to find. We drive up the hill and see a sign directing us to someone’s backyard, converted into a space for a dozen cars. We pull into one and pay our host. Then we walk the quarter-mile or so up to the registration office, on the cobblestone street, filled with tiny booths selling cheese, bread, and sausages. The smells of hot food envelop us, but we don’t dare buy any of it—we know that climbing on that kind of food would definitely produce problems. We pass shops with cheap mementos, too—postcards, jewelry, and key chains with dangling photos of Bernal. We’ll take a closer look on our way down. Cars slowly thread their way between hundreds of families making their way up to Bernal.
At the registration point, we wait in line behind about fifty people, then find ourselves on the man-made rock stairs leading to the path upward. Soon the stairs give way to an irregular rocky path, sometimes wide but often narrrow, lined with cacti and small trees. It wends its way upward, a mishmash of boulders, smaller rocks, and even smaller stones. The rocks are strewn haphazardly, like some giant emptying his trash. I find it hard to decide where to put my feet.
Swarms of people accompany us. A mother carries a small child in one arm while her own mother leans on her other arm. Adolescent boys leap from boulder to boulder, yelling enthusiastically. Joy explodes from the laughing faces of young children, free to go at their own speed up this exciting rocky hill. A young couple with love for each other bursting from their eyes holds hands as they jump from rock to rock. An older man gives a hand to his wife to help her up the boulder.
It’s sunny, with a hint of a warm breeze, and we stop to catch our breath—the high altitude surprises us with its thin air. A family sits next to us. The husband wishes us Feliz Año Nuevo, and we wish them the same. When my water bottle drops off the stone ledge I am sitting on, their nine-year-old son bolts over the side to retrieve it, fifteen feet down the steep ravine.
The boulders are too much for Mary Ann and she bows out midway to the end of the path, but I push on, stopping every so often to gaze out at the town below and the miles of semi-desert plain stretching out before me. The higher I go, the greater the step up. I let my hiking poles dangle from my wrists and grab for the sharp edges of boulders to pull myself up. A half-hour later, the path becomes easier, once again a human artifact with rocks hewn to make level stairs. A flimsy wooden guardrail prevents hikers from tumbling down the steep drop-off. Then I’m at the end of the trail, a little over halfway up the pointed peak. Some people try to scramble over even larger boulders, but soon they stop because after that it’s a vertical mass exclusively for ropes-only climbers. I look up to see two climbers, roped in, inching toward the top, like little insects crawling up a rocky wall. They must have begun hours before we did.
* * *
I stand at the end of the path, catch my breath and stare out over the vast plain toward Querétaro. Everyone has been so friendly toward us, smiling, wishing us Feliz Año Nuevo. I’m reminded of the evening before in Querétero, on New Year’s Eve, when we met so many other friendly people. Mary Ann and I wandered the pedestrian-only streets of the old town beside young families pushing strollers, celebrating the end of the year. We saw no other American tourists. On one narrow street, we discovered an old hotel, its thick hob-nailed wooden doors, probably fifteen feet high, a sign indicating something interesting must lie inside. When we entered and began staring up at the glass ceiling, the woman at the reception desk offered to take us on a tour. Eager to see more, we accepted.
“It was built in the 1750s when Mexico was still Spain’s colony,” she said. Since its beginning, it has been the home of large and wealthy Spanish families as well as a convent.”
Murals covered the walls, and stained glass ceilings sheltering courtyards allowed in light from the sky. Rooms ranged around several courts, and a tiny chapel that would seat no more than ten people was almost hidden on the top floor. Now we understood the reason for the thick hob-nailed doors—they protected the elite families and the virgin nuns from the hoi-polloi outside.
After we’d satisfied our curiosity about the hotel, we walked on, wandering through several parks, watching the Querétarans stroll along the paths. Men perched on high thrones to have their shoes shined. People stood in line, waiting to take their photos before a ten-foot-high neon “2020” sign, tiny silhouettes in front of the intense glow of the numbers, but they would have a souvenir of 2020 New Year’s Eve. A young man played his guitar, producing a Bach melody. In the cathedral towers above the park, two bell ringers pulled on cords every fifteen minutes to ring the time, their bottoms sticking out from the open towers each time they pulled downward.
At around 7 o’clock we heard loud drumming coming from farther inside the old town and we followed the winding streets in the direction of the sound. We were astounded at what we saw—a group of about thirty dancers, half of them in elaborate Indian costumes with feathered headdresses and animal skins, the other half dressed in military outfits with swords in their hands, representing, I assumed, a war of indigenous people versus colonists. I learned later that this dance, at least the indigenous part of it, is called la danza concheros.
They danced non-stop in the middle of the street, the indigenes twirling, feathers flying, the soldados threatening them with their swords. The booming drone of the drums created an emotional energy that opened my heart to the suffering of Mexico’s colonial past. It was a sad but telling dance, describing the history that for many must still be an open wound. As I watched, I wondered how the dancers felt about what they were dancing—had it become a lifeless ritual, no more than a chance to dance, or were they actually feeling that pain of their ancestors?
After the danza, we searched for a place to eat, but all the restaurants were filled with people who’d made reservations, probably local Querétarans. After a long hunt, we found a crèperie and indulged in both savory and sweet treats. As we left, a huge stage was being set up and musicians were tuning their instruments. They would probably play late into the New Year. We were way too tired to stay for that. Since no cars were allowed into the old town, we walked the mile or so back to the newer part of town, found a taxi, and by 10:30 were back at our hotel, excited about the week we would spend in the Sierra Gorda, a national park east of the Sierra Madre Oriental. We would search for Junipero Serra’s string of Mexican missions, get up at four am to watch as over two million swifts flew out of a deep cave at dawn, watch eighty pairs of endangered colorful macaw couples fly past us to roost on perches above a deep canyon, and swim in a warm aqua cenote.
“It’s the perfect way to spend the first week of 2020,” I thought, as I drifted off to sleep.
* * *
I think about New Year’s Eve and the biosfera a minute more, then pull myself back to the present—01/01/2020—an auspicious number! It is time to climb down. I meet Mary Ann where I left her and we retrace our steps, wishing Feliz Año Nuevo to all those we pass going up as we descend. Everyone is so happy! Near the bottom, we stop again at a rest point. Another family is also resting there.
“Why are there so many people today?” I ask.
“It’s the end of our holiday,” the woman responds. “And besides, we believe that climbing Bernal on New Year’s Day will give us good luck for the rest of the year.”
We leave, thinking that such a round number as 2020 must be a good year. A leap year. A hopeful election year. The year I will travel twice—once, to the French town of Calais, to chop vegetables for a month with an organization that delivers food to refugees waiting to find a way into Britain, and another month of Spanish immersion in San Miguel de Allende.
Now that we’ve climbed Peña de Bernal for good luck, what could possibly go wrong in 2020?