Nov 19 – Dec 3, 06
It’s always amazing to cross a border and not be checked. In Mexico, one simply drives through and nobody even talks to you. I had no great difficulty getting a tourist permit for 180 days (cost $22) and a temporary vehicle importation permit (which is mandatory for Mexico except the Baja and if one stays within a short distance of the border). It is cheapest to bill to your Mastercard ($33) or else it costs $400 cash! The permit is to prevent you from leaving your vehicle in Mexico and must be turned in along with your tourist permit before you leave Mexico. Thankfully the clerks had rudimentary English and Spanish has a lot of words that look like English. I had written out the important things that I needed to know so that helped. Smiling and being polite also helps a lot (yes I can do that). It feels great to be back in Mexico – the people are very warm and pleasant. Nobody wears seatbelts and most trucks have somebody sitting or standing in the box, often children.
After driving through Juarez and only getting hassled by two people when stopped at street lights, I had a good drive for the 370 km to Chihuahua, a city of half a million (Chihuahua means ‘dry and sandy zone’). I passed through the Chihuahuan desert, basically a wide flat plain covered with low brush and sand dunes and surrounded by rugged mountains. The road is a four lane divided highway with bumpy pavement. There are no shoulders or rumble strips so it still feels like driving the thin line through Baja. There were two tolls costing 159 pesos (about 11 pesos to the dollar) and shoulders appeared for about 50 km after the tollbooth. The white line is the shoulder and there is usually a drop off. One must concentrate completely. It’s reassuring to see many Green Angels – guys in green and white trucks who are there to help people who have car problems. Diesel is 6.1 pesos to the liter and is the same price all over Mexico. Thankfully I don’t have a 2007 truck that requires low sulfur diesel that isn’t available in Mexico.
I found a good parking space on the street one block from the cathedral in the downtown area and am presently sitting in the lobby of a very nice hotel mooching free internet (skyping) and electricity. November 20 turned out to be a national holiday commemorating the 1910 revolution when Pancho Villa rebelled against the government. There was a huge parade in the next street that seemed to go on forever. Every school around was represented with often 100 or more students in dance groups following trucks with speaker systems powered with generators. All teachers were very smartly dressed with the men in suits and ties. I think that we should develop a dress code for teachers in Canada. There were floats full of mustachioed Pancho Villas, ambulances, sport groups (boxing, WWF type wrestling, martial arts, gymnastics, soccer), fire engines, ambulances, police, folk dancing (which is huge down here – they wear wonderful costumes), and horses. People were packed 10 deep and I had the fortune to stand near a Mexican who had immigrated to Kansas City 20 years ago and spoke good English.
After the parade I played tourist and visited the cathedral with its magnificent baroque façade, the Museum of the Mexican Revolution (Pancho’s mansion including the Dodge car riddled with bullets when he was assassinated in 1923, and lots of guns) and the Palace of the Government with many murals depicting the State of Chihuahua’s history. This is a nice city with good shopping especially if one is looking for shoes and wedding dresses.
Rather than catch the copper canyon train in Chihuahua I drove the 123kms to Cuahutemoc where the train arrives 2 hours later. The police on the corners all have submachine guns slung over their shoulders. Cuahutemoc is the centre of the Mennonite population of northern Mexico. This sect was founded in the 16th century and take no oaths of loyalty other than to God. As they were persecuted, they moved from Germany to Russia to Canada, the US, and post-revolutionary Mexico (and many other places like Belize and South America) where thousands settled in the 1920’s. They present a curious image – men dressed like ranchers and women in American Gothic dresses and black bonnets speaking a dialect of old German. Most are blonde. They are famous for their cheese (queso menonito).
The Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico (Copper Canyon Railway) is considered one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys. 655 kms long, it has 36 bridges and 87 tunnels connecting Chihuahua and Los Mochis on the Pacific coast. It is a considerable feat of engineering taking decades to build and was finished in 1961. I took the first class train to Los Mochis and the slower class economica on the way back the next day. The second class train costs half as much (618 pesos), stops more, takes 2 hours longer, is more crowded and has no dining car. Both trains have only one stop where you can get off at Divisadero for 15 minutes. This is the only place where one can get a glimpse of the actual Copper Canyon on the whole trip. There were many food vendors and I loaded up with delicious burritos and gorditos. In retrospect I should have driven to Creel, further on the line to get on the train and gotten off in El Fuerte, 90 minutes from Los Mochis, which is the best part of the canyon. El Fuerte is a nice colonial town and Los Mochis has little to offer, plus the end of the trip is in the dark and passes through flat uninteresting countryside. The two trips took 12 and 14 hours respectively. The landscape is beautiful with pine forests, sheer canyon walls, and a river with pools and boulders. One of Mexico’s most numerous indigenous people, the Tarahumara, still retain a traditional lifestyle in the depths of the canyon.
I drove to Creel on Nov. 24th in a blizzard. I was not particularly worried about my ability to get there, but was much more concerned about the other cars, many of which I doubt had snow tires and a few cars did not have windshield wipers and could not see out of their windows because of accumulated snow! The temperature is hovering around 0 C at this high elevation of 2300 m. Creel is the main jumping off point for most trips into the canyon. Copper Canyon refers specifically to the canyon of the Rio Urique and generally to the many nearby canyons carved out of the Sierra Tarahumara by at least 20 different rivers. Together these canyons are four times larger than the Grand Canyon and nine of them are deeper than it is. The Tarahumara in town are walking through the slush in sandals.
I went to the hot springs with 3 young Germans (who had been studying Spanish in Monterrey, Mexico for the last 4 months) and a young Englishman. There were 6 cemented pools with 30°C water running off the rocks above the pools at the bottom of a canyon 35 km from Creel.
Leaving the cold of Creel, I took the five-hour bus ride 143 km to tropical Batopilas dropping 6000’ to the bottom of the Copper Canyon. The bus was a Chev Suburban with 2 bucket seats and 2 bench seats. Starting with a full load of 8 adults and a 10 year old, 3 more adults and a baby were soon packed in. I admired the woman who sat on the plastic console for 3 1/2 hours. After 75 km of pavement the road deteriorated to high clearance dirt and made a breathtaking descent down the canyon wall. I was the only guest at Casa Monse (120 pesos/night), where the elderly owners spoke English and made me feel very welcome. I ate most of my meals with them and we spent many hours chatting. I walked the 8 km to Satevo, the location of the Lost Cathedral, where I watched the excellent craftsmen plaster the cathedral that had been exposed brick. The splendid Shepherd Hacienda is now ruins but was the home of the American who developed the very productive silver mines in Batopilas from 1880 to 1920. My poor Spanish resulted in getting hot milk instead of spicy enchiladas for the one meal I ate out. There are many men simply standing around, unemployment is high, and Carlos believes most are involved in the marijuana business (sounds like the Slocan Valley).
The indigenous Tarahumara were most common around Batopilas. They stand out because of their traditional apparel – women in full, pleated skirts and blouses made of brightly colored, patterned fabric and men in white loincloths and ample, colored long-sleeved shirts. Their sandals are cut out of tire tread. They subsist on basic agriculture and their beliefs ate closely tied to nature. They are famous for running long distances, up to 160 kms, through rough canyons, kicking a small wooden ball ahead of them (they have since been profiled in the excellent book ‘Born to Run’). Their religious leaders use peyote in their ceremonies.
Returning to Creel after 3 nights in Batopilas, I discovered that the chain and rear derailleur had been stolen from my bike (I hadn’t thought of putting my cable lock through the chain). I drove south to Lake Arareko, the Valley of the Mushrooms and Frogs and to the Tarahumara village of Cusarare, the location of the Loyola Museum with its 46 large religious oil paintings.
Leaving Creel, the winding, narrow road went through the pine-covered mountains and canyons to Basaseachi, the highest waterfall in Mexico at 1,067 feet. The thin ribbon of water was barely visible through the heavy fog and rain. Arriving back at the truck in the dark, I camped in the parking lot as it is rarely wise to drive at night in Mexico. Storming all night with huge rain and winds, the river had swollen from a tiny stream to a raging torrent, conservatively a thousand times larger in the morning. Back down at the lower viewpoint about 400 feet above the bottom of the falls, I was completely soaked in ten seconds from the spray. I climbed over 1000 feet up to the upper viewpoint for marvelous views of the now massive waterfall. It was raining heavily and by the time I returned back to the truck, I was one wet puppy. Clearly this was the highlight of the trip so far. I met an American who advised me to buy gold, which I eventually did.
I started to drive west for the 415 km to Hermosillo across the spectacular mountain landscape of the Sierra Madre. Pine forests, deep canyons and eroded granite cliffs and pinnacles were the views from the incredibly twisty narrow highway. It took six hours to drive 265 km – truly the thin line. There was virtually no traffic and certainly this was off the tourist track. There were lots of rocks on the road, many curves peligrosa, and topes (speed bumps). Exhausted, I camped on the side of the road.
Hermosillo is a large city in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. I visited the Museum of Sonora in the old penitentiary, the beautiful Cathedral Metropolitana, the Palacia de Gobierno, watched a baseball game, and cruised the entire downtown in the evening. The Plaza was packed Sunday night with people of all ages and there was live music, clowns, and vendors. The snack food consists of corn chips smothered in everything imaginable and corn (on the cob or kernel) covered in crema, powdered cheese, lime juice and hot sauce. Few people smoke and the girls dress conservatively with no cleavages, bare abdomens or piercings visible. All women, no matter their figures, wear skin-tight pants. If there are homeless, they are invisible. Only the many dogs are visibly homeless. I climbed the hill in the middle of the town for sunrise and looked after some business before leaving for Guaymas and San Carlos (the beach) on the Sea of Cortez.
After traveling for a month, I am getting used to being alone, the camper and truck are working flawlessly, and I’ve spent $2700 (with about $1000 of unusual expenses including $650 on the truck). It is a relatively cheap lifestyle and a camper is the ideal vehicle for my style of travel (great mobility and the ability to stay overnight anywhere). I still have not seen one other recreational vehicle. I have 23 days to get to Puerto Vallarta where I am meeting Terry on the 26th to travel inland to visit the central highlands north of Mexico City.