travelog 101

Rancho El Puerto, a second time

Slowly we are getting the impression that we are on a nostalgic trip through northern Mexico. In our last travelogs we have (almost) exclusively written about plants, places and landscapes that we had already visited 10 or more years ago. With this travelog we will stay true to the nostalgia and drive back to the little ranch 'El Puerto' from where we had reported for the first time in April of 2001.

We leave Creel heading north past the Basaseachi waterfall. The road is newly paved and there are only a few kilometers missing for its completion. From the junction in San Juanito we start seeing blue signs that announce the Basaseachi waterfall and the village of the same name. In the beginning we almost don't notice the signs and of course we do not count them. After a while, though, you start to have the idea that an overzealous civil servant of the tourism office was at work because there are incredibly many signs posted along the road. Then you start making jokes about another sign behind the next curve. And finally you start to calculate and reach the conclusion that every 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) there's a sign saying "Cascada Basaseachi / Poblado Basaseachi" at the side of the road. That sums up to the impressive total of about 40 signs distributed over a distance of about 80 kms (50 miles). We don't visit the waterfall this time around, instead we plan for a cup of coffee in the "Poblado Basaseachi". There are many signs announcing restaurants but it is only a couple of miles outside of town along the main highway do we find an open eatery. There are lots of signs along the road but it certainly does not look like this village has much to offer. After some coffee we continue on.

From 2500 m (8200 ft.) in the conifer forests around Basaseachi the road now goes down to about 1500 m (4920 ft.) near Yecora and Maycoba, already in the state of Sonora, leading east towards Hermosillo. There are many interesting plants growing along the road but we really want to get to the Sierra Matape. Near Tepaco, at only 650 m (2130 ft.), we stop to search for Sedum lumholtzii. The Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Carl Sofus Lumholtz (1851-1922) spent many years in Mexico. In his famous work "Unknown Mexico" he described the Cora, Tepehuan, Pima and Tarahumara, indigenous peoples living in the Sierra Madre of northwestern Mexico. He not only described their cultures but also archaeological sites as well as the flora and fauna of the area. Many plants were named after Lumholtz, for example the above-mentioned Sedum as well as Pinus lumholtzii. The common name of this Mexican pine is "pino triste", sad pine, and it's easily distinguishable from any other pine tree by its extremely long, pendant needles. It also has one of the smallest cones of all the Mexican pine trees. But back to succulent plants. We find the Sedum lumholtzii with its tiny rosettes almost completely shriveled up, waiting for better times. Only the Sedum's subterranean corm, some kind of fleshy underground stem looking like a thick carrot, is fat and well-fed for the long dry season ahead. At Tonichi we cross the Rio Yaqui and head north on a well-graded dirt road. Soon we reach Soyopa from where the road is newly paved. At a small village some men prepare "Bacanora", a special kind of Mezcal typical for the area around the village named Bacanora, for the Christmas holiday. Agave hearts are piled up high, a donkey waits to be put to work, in a deep hole volcanic rocks are heated with a fire and the men drink beer in the last light of the day. The Agave hearts will be put into the hole heated by rocks and then covered with dirt. After cooking they will be removed and crushed with the juice collected for fermentation. It's December 22nd and their "Bacanora" will be ready for December 24th to celebrate in style.

On to Mazatan where we turn towards Villa Pesqueira, better known by the name Matape. In 2001 we took the wrong road looking for an old dirt road towards the dam at San Jose de Batuc. That's how we suddenly ended up at the small ranch 'El Puerto' where the well-traveled road ended. Martin can remember the turn-off from the main road very well because of a bright orange sign saying that all collecting of "chiltepín", a small wild chile, is forbidden for strangers. I have my doubts about that sign still being in the same place after 10 years but, lo and behold, we drive up to the turn-off and there's the sign albeit considerably faded. We follow the dirt road and our nose, passing many turn-offs, until we get to a new and locked metal gate. According to our GPS we are only about 1 km (0.62 miles) away from the small ranch. We park, shoulder the backpacks and march off. Soon we reach another gate and then the entrance to the farm. Broken cars are parked left and right of the entrance. A small pickup truck looks fit to drive. Three obviously pretty hungry dogs greet us with wagging tails. A beautiful Siamese cat joins them quickly. Cows moo in a fenced-off corral. The door to the house seems to be locked. We shout and yell for Don Roberto, the farm's owner, but nothing moves. It's December 23rd and it's very possible that the family went to Hermosillo for Christmas and only shows up occasionally to look after their animals.

On a small path we climb up the mountain, followed by one faithful dog. Soon we see the first Agave shrevei ssp. matapensis in the undergrowth. Further up we come across the tree-like Nolina matapensis, Yucca grandiflora of which we find a 15 cm (5.9 inch) long dried fruit, and Agave ocahui var. longifolia. Of course there are also hechtias, mammillarias and an echinocereus. The sky is cloudy which makes for a spectacular view down to the lake. Suddenly we hear loud voices down at the ranch. Someone must have come to look after the animals. The higher we climb up the mountain, the better the view to the lake and the more beautiful the plants. But since we absolutely want to meet Don Roberto and his family we start the descent in the afternoon. On the way back we stumble over "chiltepín" bushes. The small, red, round chiles are easily visible in the leafless undergrowth of the forest. One bush is covered with red chiles and our harvest is plenty.

Back down at the ranch the dogs greet us again. The Siamese cat instantly prowls around our legs. Everything looks as it did in the morning. The pickup truck was not moved, there are no new tire marks in the sand and there's not a living soul to be seen. Again we call for Don Roberto, again we don't get an answer. Finally we give up, write a note and stick it into the door frame. After passing the first gate we suddenly hear a loud voice calling after us. A small man comes running behind us in his socks. It must be Don Roberto! Flustered he asks who we are and at the same time excuses himself for being a little bit drunk. That happens to everybody from time to time, we assure him, and introduce ourselves as the Swiss with the large truck that visited 10 years ago. He instantly remembers Julia and is visibly touched to see us standing in front of him alive. Our postcard had arrived, he tells us, but after that they had heard about a terrible incident "over there" and assumed that we had died in it. He repeats the terrible event again and again and it almost sounds like he thought Europe was hit by an atomic bomb. It later dawns on us that he could have been taling about 9/11 in the US, but he never mentioned any more details about the event. In any case, he can't believe that the two of us are standing on his ranch full of beans and ready to go. He invites us into his house and even offers a bedroom for the night.

In the kitchen, Martin is trying to be as comfortable as possible with Don Roberto. In the meantime I head back to the truck and drive to Matape to get something for dinner. When I come back, Don Roberto is asleep as a log in his bed and Martin sits in the dark kitchen trying to get a fire started in the fireplace to warm the humble adobe a little bit on this cold winter evening. He has fed the cat in the meantime with soup from the stove. The kitchen looks like after a bomb attack. We shove everything aside on the kitchen table. Outside, in front of the door, we find more fire wood. A "comal", some kind of flat frying pan to heat tortillas and quesadillas, hangs on the wall. I prepare a few quesadillas that we enjoy with onion and tomato slices and of course fresh, hot chile peppers. Don Roberto sleeps blissfully and we never do cook the meat that I brought back from the village. It probably ended up as dog food. In a back room a generator makes a terrible noise but that's the only way to power the single light bulb in the kitchen. Soon it's pitch-black outside and we collect our stuff from the car in the glow of a flashlight. Don Roberto assigned a back room with two beds for us. With our sleeping bags and many woollen blankets we are soon very warm and as comfortable as possible. Don Roberto startles us in the middle of the night when he suddenly stands in the door wide-awake, asking if everything's ok. A few hours later he obviously wakes up again and turns off the noisy generator. And then morning is here, thank heavens. You loose all sense for time in these darkened rooms. Don Roberto who's sound asleep in his bed next to the entrance door can't be awakened with the loudest noise.

We start another fire to warm the kitchen a little bit. Unexpectedly Don Roberto gives instructions on how to light the gas stove to heat water for coffee from his bed. We feed the cat again from the soup pot. After a steaming hot coffee we already feel a lot better. The small window glasses have not been cleaned in many years and there's almost no light coming into the kitchen. The shutters are closed in the entrance room where Don Roberto's bed is. He lives in constant twilight. Heaps of clothes pile up on the few chairs. Dirty dishes pile up in the kitchen sink. Food leftovers from the last week - perhaps a month - stand on the kitchen table. It's a sad sight and somehow we have the vague feeling that Don Roberto was not only drunk the day before but that his intoxication is more like a permanent state of affairs. His wife Graciela now lives with her daughter in Hermosillo and is ill. The daughter comes to the ranch from time to time to bring food for her father. There's no electricity or hot water available up here. It's a tough life and we suspect that it was all too much for Graciela. Our photos from 2001 show a bright, tidy kitchen with yellow curtains on the windows. Nowadays Don Roberto ekes out a miserable existence, alone on his ranch, gets up once a day to look after his animals and seems to be permanently drunk. The small ranch is situated idyllically but it might well be that after a while and completely alone you don't like your own company anymore. Perhaps we are wrong and Don Roberto was just melancholy over the Christmas holidays, alone on his ranch, and that's the simple explanation why he had one too many.

Since our host does not seem to be able to get out of bed let alone to drive his car down to the locked gate we take the key to the gate. From his dark corner he dictates the address of his wife in Hermosillo and says goodbye. We agree on a rock next to the metal gate to leave the key, always hoping that he'd still remember the next day. We leave this beautiful place, a little bit sad and drive on toward Hermosillo to continue with our nostalgic trip.

Our next destination is Agave pelona and Agave zebra in the Sierra del Viejo. But this will have to wait for our next travelog.

March 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen