General Questions

Is this trip open to beginners?

Yes. Some caves require more caving proficiency (i.e. vertical) than others, but there are a lot of caves in the area. You don’t even need to be caver to enjoy this area. But you do have to be flexible and careful, as this is a very primitive and remote area with health care, banks, gas stations, and other amenities a long ways off.

How much will a typical week-long trip cost?

With food, gas, and tourist visa, we estimate between $200 and $300 total per person leaving from Austin, Texas. If you want souvenirs, or are buying food and adult beverages outside of the group purchases, bring more.

It seems like a long way away. Is it easy to get there?

There are several ways to get to the Project area. Most people on our expeditions drive from Austin, Texas. It is about 8-9 hours, not counting time spent at the border crossing. In general, you will be on toll roads (Cuota) most of the way. They are much faster than the free roads (Libre), but will take about $40 USD in tolls total. But it is so worth the cost. From Austin, head south on I-35 to Laredo. Cross there and continue south on Mexico 85 just north of Monterrey, where you will turn west on the Periferico (Highway 100) towards Saltillo. If you miss the Periferico, you can still turn west on Highway 40, but you’ll likely be stuck behind a lot of tractor-trailers most of the way. Just before Saltillo, you will turn south on Highway 570 towards Matehuala. Follow that up into the mountains to the Los Lirios exit. You will take that unnamed road towards Los Liros, eventually getting on NL20 at a weird “Y”. The left goes to El Tunal, but you don’t want to go that way. The right says “Jame”, which is what you want. But just a little further is the turnoff for Jame; don’t take that. After passing through Los Lirios there is really only one paved (sort-of) road that winds back and forth up and down over several mountain passes until you get to a “T” at the tiny hamlet of San Isidro. There, you will see the sign to the right for Laguna de Sanchez. Follow that up a lot of narrow, winding road until you pop out in the central square of the village. Alternate transportation schemes could include flying in to Monterrey and taking buses to El Cercado and Laguna de Sanchez, or even busing from the U.S.

Can I hitch a ride with someone?

We will try to fit as many people into whatever rugged, off-road vehicles that we can get, but it depends on drivers and vehicle availability. Your best bet, of course, is to have your own caver vehicle that you take down. Keep in touch with the Project coordinators about ride availability to make sure you aren’t left behind.

I understand that this will be primitive camping. What about bathroom facilities? A shower?

When there are just a few of us we usually simply take a long walk away from camp when we have a “nature call”, burning any paper and burying our “business”. But with a larger group, we have some sort of a latrine to concentrate the wastes. We will also build a little shower area with a solar shower and a privacy screen. Water is precious up there, so we recommend bringing baby wipes for general cleaning, and only showering every few days or so, when you and your friends can’t stand too close to each other any more. Near La Camotera, there is an icy cold mountain stream with some suitable pools for cleaning up, but please wear something (the locals are very conservative) and don’t put ANY soap or shampoo in the water.

How should I dress?

I’m not your mother, but I will give you some advice. You will be in high desert mountains at around 5000-7000 feet in elevation. Temperatures can get low, and rain occurs at different points of the year. Typically the weather is sunny and clement, but there have been stretches of rain, cloudy skies, and cool temperatures.

For Winter Trips:
A fleece coat with an additional outer shell is the bare minimum. Also bring a warm winter hat. Thermals are often nice for sleeping, especially if your sleeping bag isn’t rated for low temperatures. Note that even on the winter trips, the cave temperatures are generally warm, unless there is a breeze. Bring some kind of outer layer for that condition.

Remember that “Cotton kills!” Simply stated, you need to wear synthetics for moisture management in cold and cool temperature conditions. While cotton is fine in dry conditions, cotton does not wick moisture, gets heavy, and can quickly lead to hypothermia. Wool is often acceptable, but is not as good as synthetics. Also note that natural fibers take much longer to dry once wet as compared to comparably weighted synthetic fibers.

Bring long sleeved shirts! Flying insects called jejenes may be around during the day. Their bite is almost unnoticeable when you get it, but the result is a welt and an itch that can last several days. And beware of sunburn at these higher elevations.

What is the modus operandi (method of operation) of the day?

In a typical day:

  • Get up around 7:00 to 8:00 a.m.
  • Breakfast is cooked, eaten, and dishes cleaned up.
  • Assemble groups, plan, and prepare for caving for that day.
  • Go caving, hopefully before 10:00 a.m.
  • Dinner is usually started around 5:00 to 5:30 p.m.
  • Eat, do dishes.
  • Entertainment.

Entertainment might be sitting around the campfire enjoying vino or beer and conversation. Sometimes a movie is shown (yes, in the middle of nowhere). Sometimes a “slide show” of images taken during the trip is shown. There has even been an instance of an ’80s dance party. We take our caving seriously, but we enjoy kicking back too.

Poison Ivy???

Unfortunately, there is poison ivy around much of the area. Be aware of how to identify it. If you know you are allergic, bring topical and oral antihistamines as necessary. Before going into a cave, look for poison ivy and remove it with gloves. Watch where you put your packs and gear.

If you are not allergic to poison ivy, please be aware that several people are! Please try to avoid it as your gear or person might come in contact with other gear or persons.

There are also the usual hazards of camping in the outdoors in Mexico. Scorpions (check your boot, zip your tent), lightning (don’t be near cave entrances, lone trees, or standing out in the open), and injuries. We can be on a lot of steep and unstable terrain; act appropriately.

What kind of caves can I expect?

Virgin, for sure. We keep finding new caves and karst features on every trip. There are hundreds of karst features in the area. If you start pulling rocks out of a hole, you might find a 30+ meter pit, or you might find that it ends after 3m. Some caves are simple fissure cracks; others are solutional; some are great pits. Few are multi-drops, and fewer still have water.

Be cautious when rappelling into caves. Some of the fissure crack caves had bad air. And just assume that every virgin cave has some loose and unstable rock. Take your time to garden the lip.

What about returning to U.S.A.?

Cross at the big bridge (Puente Juarez Lincoln, or Puente #2), where southbound I-35 ends. It is directly over the immigration office with the big Mexican flag. You can get all of your paperwork canceled there if you wish (at Modulo CIITEV and the immigration office), or just get in line and cancel your vehicle permit just before you cross the border..

Tourist Visa: you can cancel your tourist visa if you wish, but in the dozens and dozens of times we have gone into Mexico, we have never canceled, nor turned in a tourist visa , expired or unexpired. A tourist visa is usually good for 180 days, and you have already paid for it, so let it be an enticement to go again. We have heard that at least one other person has had difficulty with not having an exit stamp in his passport on one trip, but that is highly unusual.

Vehicle Permit: generally there is no reason to cancel this until it expires. If it expires, you will have to cancel it before getting a new one. In some cases you might want to cancel right away. For example, Jim thinks he might be selling his vehicle soon, and doesn’t want to make an extra trip to cancel his vehicle permit. Be careful: you can never get another vehicle permit until your current permit is canceled. Sometimes you can also get it canceled at your local Mexican Consulate office without driving back to the border, but that is really hit or miss. To cancel at the border, there is a line for cars outside the immigration office that you just drive through without needing to go into the building, or do it in the line of traffic while waiting to cross back over the border.

Alcohol: The following is typed verbatim from a flier given to Tone at customs on Dec. 31, 2009.

  • Texas Resident: 1 quart of distilled spirits, 3 gallons of wine, and 24 twelve oz. containers of beer.
  • Non-Texas Resident: 1 gallon of distilled spirits or wine (or any combination of the two), and 24 twelve oz. containers of beer. Must have identification to prove out-of-state residency.
  • State Law: All alcoholic beverages and cigarettes imported from Mexico shall be taxed by the State of Texas.

Now, we are not ones to ever advocate breaking the law, but those regulations only apply to unopened bottles of alcohol. And the TABC doesn’t really have a category for a quart of locally-made mescal in a reused rum bottle. Just sayin’.

Do NOT, under any circumstances, try to bring back live animals, and meet that is not dried, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, live plants, or any kind of illegal drugs. For the full list, go here.

And remember, when asked what you were doing, simply answer “camping and hiking with friends in the mountains near Monterrey”. Try to avoid providing unnecessary information, which just leads to more and more questions. And always be polite. Sometimes, if your vehicle is extremely dirty, we recommend stopping in a nearby stream to wash off the mud. Cavers have been hassled for potentially transporting seeds in the soil on their trucks.

Pre-Trip Preparation

Do I need any immunizations or anything else special?

You don’t need any vaccines. There is nothing weirder in Laguna de Sanchez than you would get from visiting Texas.

What’s the best way to change dollars to pesos for my trip?

If you have the time, you can try getting pesos at your local bank. But if not, you can get money changed at any one of a large number of places in either Laredo or Nuevo Laredo. Check the current exchange rates online before you leave (I use www.xe.com) and then look around for the rates closest to that. Google will give you rates. Just type in 1 dollar in pesos. You can do the math right in Google by changing the numbers or words around. For example, 3000 pesos in dollars will convert pesos to dollars.

You can also get money changed in the Aduana (CIITEV Modulo) building [see next question] at competitive rates. This is probably your most convenient method. Finally, you can just use your debit card in any ATM you see in Mexico, including larger grocery stores, to make a withdrawal from your bank account in pesos, with a likely small surcharge from your bank. Except that there are no ATMs anywhere near Laguna.

Note: In the mountains and many smaller stores, restaurants, and gas stations along the way, NOBODY accepts credit cards or debit cards, so have adequate cash for the time you are there, plus a little extra for emergencies. You can always change pesos back to dollars, or sell them to someone who will be visiting Mexico again soon.

Note that smaller bills and coins are better than large notes in smaller Mexico towns like Laguna de Sanchez. Pro tip: Break large bills at the numerous toll booths you go through.

How do I get from the U.S. side of the border to Mexican Customs?

I-35 south to Laredo dead-ends at one of the bridges across the Rio Grande. Cross at that bridge and pay the small bridge toll. Do not take any other bridges or crossings, or you will likely be confused and get lost for a while. As soon as you go across the river, look to the right. That big white building (“Aduana” or “CIITEV”) is where you need to go for a tourist visa and temporary vehicle importation permit. To get there, go about a block from the toll booth on the Mexican side of the bridge (through the red/green traffic light that tells you to proceed or stop to get your vehicle searched), turn LEFT, then follow the blue-and-white signs, which say something like “vehiculos importadas”. You’ll get to a traffic light, cross over a major street, and make a hard, hard left (there are usually street beggars here) back along the river toward the bridge. Park in the large parking lot (lock the doors) and go up the steps and get in line. Lots of people waiting there will speak English, so if you don’t know what to do, just ask around. It is pretty easy and painless.

What do I need to do to cross the Mexican border?

Basically, everyone needs a Tourist Visa, which requires a Passport and a small fee. You will also need to have a Passport to return to the United States. As of 1 June 2009, U.S. Customs rules require a Passport, Passport Card, Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL) or Trusted Traveler Program Card. See this site for specific rules. You can get an application or renewal form at the Post Office or online. All the rules and regulations regarding Passports can be found here: http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html.

When filling out the tourist visa form, put “Monterrey, NL” (“NL” for Nuevo León) as the destination. Tourist visas are good for 180 days and cost roughly $30 USD. Tip: Bring a pen (or two) with you when you enter the building!

In the same building you can get a vehicle permit. This is required to bring a vehicle into Mexico, but only the driver/owner of each vehicle needs to do this, not the passengers. You will need a copy of your driver’s license, the vehicle registration and/or title, your tourist visa , and again, your passport. You will also need a credit card or check card. There will be a one-time charge of approximately $45 USD. ALSO, as of May 2011, you will need to leave a cash or credit card deposit of $200-400 USD (depending on the year of your vehicle). You get that back as you return to the US and turn in your vehicle permit. They used to issue a windshield sticker, but everything is digital these days. This permit is good for a six months, like your visa. However, if you don’t plan to take the same vehicle back to Mexico within that time period, I suggest stopping back at the Aduana on the way back home and having the permit canceled (and get your deposit back). If you don’t, you will never be able to get another vehicle permit in your name, no matter what vehicle you are driving (i.e. no driving your vehicle back into Mexico) until you go back to the border and get it canceled or find a Mexican Consulate somewhere and get it canceled. All these records are now computerized, so you can’t bluff your way in with an expired vehicle sticker any more. Pro tip: If you get in the right line as you are crossing the bridge to return to the States, Banjercito has a couple of booths set up where they will cancel your permit right there, with no need to go back to the CIITEV building.

Should I buy my Mexican vehicle insurance in advance, or does it matter?

Some people like to buy it in advance through AAA if they are a member, or online at any one of a number of websites (Sanborns is one popular site. as is BahaBound). There are also many places on either side of the border–just look for signs saying “seguros”. It is an extremely good idea to buy vehicle insurance for the time you are in Mexico, since most U.S. policies do NOT cover travel in Mexico. We usually get it right at the CIITEV building after getting our permits. It takes about 10 minutes, and prices are competetive. Pro tip: If you go to Mexico more than three times a year, it is cheaper to buy an annual policy than paying for each individual trip.


Finding Supplies

Where should I buy food?

We usually do group meals to save time, fuel, water, and cleanup. Under this scenario, breakfast and dinner are provided; lunch is not. Be sure to bring granola bars, beef jerky, and other cave/trail snacks for during the day.

During travel to and from the destination, there are numerous little convenience stores such as OXXO and 7-11. In the town of Laguna de Sanchez, you can find all the necessities that we might run out of during the week, like toilet paper, bottled water, beer, eggs, meat, tomatoes, onions, chilies, usually ice, etc., but the quantities and selection are limited.

We typically provide a vegetarian option at mealtime, but this is not always the case. If you have any special dietary needs, you’ll have to take care of that yourself. If you a picky eater, you had better bring a big jar of peanut butter or something.

We often stock up at H.E.B. before we leave Austin, especially for things we know we can’t get in Laguna. For bigger trips, we pre-buy in bulk at Costco.

Where should I buy gasoline?

At any Pemex station you see. Prices are the same at every Pemex. Be sure to fill up before heading up into the mountains. Remember to make sure the pump is zeroed out, and that the operator doesn’t try to charge you for more fuel that you know your tank can hold. Some stations still don’t take cards, only cash. Beware of money-changing scams.

Can I get diesel?

Diesel is no problem, and can usually be had at any Pemex station. Fill up before heading up the mountain, and you will be good for the whole week. Note the warnings above.

Where should I buy alcohol?

On larger trips, bottles of vino manzana and Indio beer are procured and provided. Other beverages, such as tequila and mezcal, are sometimes available. You will probably want to buy a few bottles of vino manzana, apart from the group, to take home with you.

The big grocery stores in the major cities (Monterrey and Saltillo) have the best selection of spirits, but you can buy beer and even tequila and other liquors in almost any convenience store or mountain tienda. Selections and quantities will be limited, though. If buying bottles, you will often have to pay a deposit; make sure you return the bottles back to the same place. My favorite beer, locally available, is Indio. The town of Laguna de Sanchez is locally famous for the excellent apple wine “Licor de Manzana” and quince wine “vino de membrillo” made there from locally-grown fruits. They are just the thing to “take the edge off” after a day of caving, digging, ridge walking, or just laying around camp! There are also some fine local mescals, smooth and slightly smoky. Buy some big bottles of Squirt something similar (look for the word “toronja” meaning grapefruit) as a mixer for a delicious Camotera Sunrise.


Is it safe to eat the food and drink the water?

Generally, the only water you want to drink is bottle water labeled “aqua purificada.” As an alternative, see the question immediately above. Most food is fine, but please use common sense when purchasing from street vendors. Be vigilant about checking for cleanliness with food preparers, and wash your own hands frequently. It’s a good idea to carry and use a small pocket bottle of hand sanitizer, e.g. Purell. When buying fresh fruits and vegetables, peel before eating. In 25 years of running trips to the LdeS area, we have never had anyone get sick from anything they ate or drank.

Is the campsite safe?

There is very little traffic up in the mountains, but the area is becoming increasingly touristic, with rental cabins popping up all over the place. A sad byproduct of that is the proliferation of rental ATVs (“quatrimotos”) in the area. Nothing is more annoying is such a peaceful, rural place and some city folk driving a Razor around the community at high speed while blasting obnoxiously loud music from their built-in speakers. But thankfully, we don’t get that up on Mesa Colorada or out on La Camotera. Out there, the landowner (Geraldo) and his family are very gracious and give us our privacy. Essentially, you are in the middle of nowhere. In the multiple trips that have occurred, there has been no loss to us due to stealing.


Do phones work there?

Ha ha ha ha ha!

The quick answer is no. The town of Laguna de Sanchez has a satellite phone near the Conasupa, but it costs a couple of bucks a minute to call the States. There is no cell coverage in the area due to it’s remote mountain location. Even when we were trying to figure out how to get back to the States from Hurricane Alex in 2010, we had to hike to the top of a mountain (not recommended!) to get any kind of signal. Note that the camping area at La Camotera is a good hour or so from town. Pro tip: You can now buy wi-fi cards at La Mirador, La Guerra, and the main grocery store in La Camotera itself. You at least you can check messages and let loved ones know you are still alive.

Is there electricity?

The town of Laguna de Sanchez has electricity, but there is none at the campsite. If you are bringing a laptop or something else that needs recharging (like a camera), then bring a power inverter for your vehicle, or solar panels, or charging cubes, or something. If we stop by Crash’s house in town at any time during the trip, you can also power-up there.


What kind of camping equipment do I need?

Bring a tent (or arrange to share one with somebody), a groundsheet, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad, and a SMALL pillow if you must have one. A lower rated sleeping bag in winter, e.g. -20F, is nice for the colder evenings. There is lots of nice grassy space for camp at Camp Geraldo, and it is inside a fenced area that keeps out the cows, horses, and burros. But not the pigs! Bring ear plugs if a bunch of exhausted snoring cavers (or wide-awake cavers around the campfire) will keep you up. Bring your own plate, bowl, cup, and eating utensils. Bring (or buy in town before heading up into the mountains) at least 5 gallons of water per person (figure at least 1 gallon per person per day). Bring a camera and binoculars, and a journal if you are into that. Bring a musical instrument if you can play it well. Bring a jacket and hat for cool evenings. Bring a camp chair for sitting around the fire or eating dinner. Bring baby wipes for “dry showers”.

For clothing, I often take my rattiest stuff, wear it caving during the day, and then burn it in the campfire at night. Remember that you won’t be washing clothes that week, so plan on wearing everything a couple of times. Long pants or jeans are fine for the caves, and a lightweight fleece pullover or long-sleeved shirt will keep you warm in the caves. Make sure you have good hiking boots. A pair of polypropylene tops and bottoms don’t take up much space, and can add an extra layer if needed. You will probably want to throw in some kind of poncho or other rain gear. Bring insect repellent or a long-sleeved shirt. The insects are not really bad, but we went up there some years ago right after a forest fire, and the gnats (“jejenes”) were so horrible that we had to cut our trip short by a couple of days. Trekking poles are also useful, especially if you have bad knees (like me).

Pack lightly since we may be cramming 4-5 people and gear in each vehicle, using soft packs and duffel bags rather than rigid tubs and milk crates. But make sure you have the essentials. Don’t forget to have your passport and other necessary papers, cash, personal medications (including Pepto-Bismol, just in case), and a Spanish dictionary if you want to expand your vocabulary. It’s a good idea to have a small daypack or something similar to carry these things with you at all times (and your camera, a small light, a pocket knife, Purell, something to read, earplugs, etc.).

If you are a driver, you will want to make sure you have good tires and a good spare (or two). Make sure all of your belts and fluids are good. Make sure you have a good jack, and a can of fix-a-flat, a tire plug kit, and maybe even a battery-powered compressor. A good-quality inverter is also useful, and jumper cables. Drivers may also want to have one medium-sized cooler per vehicle for drinks on the way down and back. Pack cave gear, chairs, etc low and to the back of your truck, keeping tents and sleeping bags near the top for quick access.

If you are unsure about whether or not to pack something, just ask us. Space will be limited, so you don’t want to bring the kitchen sink.

Should I bring firewood?

Heck no. There is plenty to be found around camp. A bag of charcoal can be very useful, however, for grilling meat or cooking in the Dutch oven. It is available in the big grocery stores as well as the little tiendas in Laguna de Sanchez.

What kind of caving equipment do I need?

Bring your basic cave gear (boots, clothes, gloves, kneepads, pack, helmet, headlamp), and enough batteries/carbide to cave for a week.

Bring your personal vertical gear, but no ropes. FYI, we rig things Euro-style, since Texas cavers universally use the Frog system. If you can’t pass a rebelay or redirect, you should probably practice in advance of the trip, so you don’t miss out on some really nice caves. If you have a big battery-powered hammer drill (like the Bosch Annihilator) that you can bring, let us know, as we might need an extra. Bring your own survey gear if you have it, especially if you have a Disto or DistoX. Bring an extra shirt for the cave. Bring a GPS if you have it. Also bring a rock hammer or small crowbar if you have one. Most of the caves we visit will be virgin, and can often be easily pushed by moving some rocks or fill. Temperatures in the caves are about 14-16°C (58-60°F), and the caves are usually dry. We tend to cave there with just jeans, a T-shirt, and maybe a polypro shirt if it is a really breezy cave.

Note: you are responsible for food during the day. Bring enough cave food (granola bars, etc.) to last the duration of the trip. Bring a water bottle large enough to carry a day’s worth of water. If you are digging or doing other hard activity, you will need more. We highly recommend sports-drink flavor packets to put in your water that provide needed electrolytes.

What kind of equipment will the Project provide?

We will provide all ropes and vertical hardware (bolts, hangers, and maillons). We will have at least one hammer drill, and extra batteries, and bits. We will also have some larger rock-breaking tools (sledgehammers and bars) and a rock-shaving kit. We will have multiple sets of survey gear and a couple of dumb Distos. The Project will provide survey books to all teams that must be returned at the end of the week. We will have a couple of GPSes available with all cave locations, sinks, and tracklogs pre-loaded, so you can see where we haven’t looked, or know the name of something you just stumbled upon. We will also provide the camp shower and set up some kind of toilet area. We provide a complete camp kitchen, with tables, pots, grills, stoves, skillets, cutting boards, cooking utensils, and wash basins. We will have a chain saw or some other saw to help with cutting firewood. We’ll have a couple of lights for the kitchen area. We will provide several very large ice chests for group food and beverages. Most perishable food not in the coolers will be stored in the vehicles to protect it from pigs and other animals. We’ll also try to have some kind of tarp or tent to cook under, especially if it looks like rain.