There are so few truly wild places left it’s easy to feel the world is mapped, conquered, predictable. Yet tucked away in Mexico's western Sierra Madres is a protected area which rivals the likes of Yosemite, Denali and Uluru for sheer spectacle, but whose name is virtually unknown. Basaseachi National Park holds some of the most magnificent natural wonders and treks in Mexico, but its location thick in the middle of a drug-cartel turf war keeps out all but the hardiest of travelers.
"Place of the Coyotes" in the Rarámuri language, Basaseachi’s hidden jewel is Mexico’s tallest continuously running waterfall, a gargantuan 246m drop which turns from a wispy shower in the spring to a thunderous torrent in the monsoons of late summer. A pristine high desert pine forest clings to the precipitous gorge, and stone towers thrust out from impossible angles like silent sentinels along the rim. Coyotes, rattlers, black bear, vultures, bobcats and mountain lions call this inhospitable place home. And although many footpaths and viewpoints are well placed on the cliff, the best way to breathe in the vistas is as the golden eagles do – perched on the edge of a rock spire. Basaseachi is a mountain climber’s paradise.
It’s not the best quality rock in the world: the volcanic tufa of Basaseachi is crumbly and prone to breakaway, but it’s also extremely porous, with fantastic hand-holds and other-worldly shapes providing millions of potential routes. It’s a remote place for training new climbers and a horrid place to break a bone – your only way out is to be carried up to the parking lot then driven or choppered to a mid-level hospital hours away.
Trained in traditional climbing (wedging metal rods and grips into cracks as opposed to drilling in anchors), Chito from Umarike Expeditions guided me up an 80m stretch unconquered by human hands. Traditional climbing’s purity is that it leaves less imprint on the land, but the challenge is that its anchors can more easily pull from the stone. As if putting my hand in a scorpion hole, grabbing a cactus, having the rock break away, or harness malfunction weren’t enough to worry about. Better not to think, grasshopper. Climb on.
The scramble from the trailhead to the rock face made me wish I’d ported a machete and a suit of armor, then things got way more vertical, fast. The first stretch was a 20m belayed face directly abutting the void, dropping away immediately to the impossible chasm which holds the churning falls. It’s hard to ignore the reptilian reaction in your brain, that sickening "being sucked into the gap" sensation, even when you know your harness and ropes aren’t going to melt down (even if you do). On the next 20m stretch, I was encouraged to lead-climb, placing my own anchors as I ascended with my partner below, increasing the danger of my fall by a factor of two since the rope belayed from below the fulcrum, not above. On the last stretch, precarious scrambling led to an impenetrable pinnacle whose puzzle was more of a chess game than a power-lifting competition. Four vultures circled above as we vaulted to the top of the spire and soaked in the sun, suspended in space over a jaw-dropping panorama. Being first to conquer the route, we named it "Siempre en Domingos" (Always on Sundays), a Mexican TV-show title and my name in Spanish. It was gratifying to leave my mark on the Sierra topo map, but real travel leaves its mark on you in more ways than one. The scrapes on my calves will fade, but the rugged beauty and sensation of freedom I experienced that day are forever burned in my brain.
Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Mexico on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.