travelog 35

On Almost Forgotten Trails

I always thought of "Sonora" as a flat and very desert-like land. Hot, dry, dusty. Covered only with annoying shrubs with many very well-placed thorns sticking out in every direction, preventing you from advancing deeper into the bushland.

Wide of the mark!

The Mexican state of Sonora has many topographic facets. In the Northwest, just adjacent to the US state of Arizona lies an extensive volcanic landscape with many old craters. The land is very sparsely covered with plants (full of contrast with many bright yellow chollas - Opuntia bigelovii - on black sand) - the Sierra Pinacate. A chain of coastal mountains which are believed to have been offshore islands in earlier geological eras stretch towards the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). Here live the few surviving Seri Indians. It continues as a hot, dry, and dusty strip of land which stretches from the US border all the way to the state of Sinaloa. Only the last part of it is very fertile and green thanks to the water from the Sierra. And finally there is the Sierra Madre Occidental which covers the entire eastern part of Sonora onto the border of Chihuahua. A gigantic mountainous region with sheer cliffs, high and practically inaccessible slopes and peaks.

We carry two books with us to help us search for "our" plants: Howard S. Gentry's "Agaves of Continental North America" and his earlier treatise on Sonoras century plants "The Agave Family in Sonora".

Within the first days of our search we find out that (since the publication of Gentry's first book) things have changed a lot in the past fifty years concerning traffic and road construction. We try to reach the Sierra del Viejo south of Caborca by driving on the current trail and end up somewhere completely different than we expected. The trail goes around the Sierra on the western side instead of the eastern. After three days of driving about and a complete circle around the Sierra, some 120 miles on bad roads, we finally end up at the destination where we originally wanted to go. Then of course we easily find the century plants we are looking for.

Most of the time the Mexican road maps are not very helpful. First of all, they don't show all the available roads and trails, but on the other hand show roads which are not yet built or still under construction. Never rely on the roads as shown on maps! Only a combination of different road maps can help you anticipate any problems you might come upon. We carry a relatively detailed road atlas (scale 1:1'000'000 - "Guia Roji" 2000 series) with us, as well as a map in a handy format by an unknown Mexican company at the same scale. Finally, we also carry the official Mexico road map of the American Automobile Association (AAA). None of these maps coincide with reality but all of them are very helpful in finding out the names of places for the locality data of our plants. It goes without saying that these names greatly differ from map to map!

We experience a second big surprise before we leave Tonichi for Bacanora. Residents tell us that the road mentioned in Gentry's books was abandoned some 30 years ago because they built better roads (it is also important to note that they changed the route through the mountains). Asking around, we find out that the old trail still exists and many people insist that it would be passable without any problems. Our questions concerning low hanging branches of trees and very narrow or slanted terrain only get answers in the negative. So off we go and, sure enough, we get lost. We end up at a little Rancho where we buy a fresh cheese (10 pounds for $12 - there was no smaller size of cheese available!).

At the Rancho Tecolote Julia learns from the Seņora how to make "Sobaqueras" with her hands (paper-thin, huge tortillas which are only known in the northern part of Sonora), and we can't leave without a jar of "Chiltepin"-Salsa (Chiltepin is one of the hottest chiles in Mexico - it's a wild tiny little chile native only to the country around the Sonora River). After this Rancho the trails becomes unpredictable. Despite the assurance of the farmers that there would be no low-hanging branches, we're busy for the next 12 miles, sawing our way through the bushes. Here a branch and there a bush. The trail is completely overgrown and everything scratches our little house. Not only this but the road also becomes narrow and winds its way up and down steep mountain sides. You can imagine our enthusiasm! But the best part is a 2 (metric) ton rock in the middle of the road. There's just enough room for a pickup to graze past it. No chance for our Unimog. Even our huge ground clearance is not high enough. There's nothing else to do but back up into a curve and winch away the rock. We're very happy to have a strong vehicle! Finally we make it through and learn another lesson. As a consolation: We did find some rare plants (eg. Yucca declinata and Sedum alamosanum - see the pictures) on this special tour...

Immediately after this experience we encounter another pleasant surprise. From Sahuaripa we want to drive to Mazatan - of course not on the paved road but north around the Presa Plutarco Elias Calles on roads which (apparently) exist according to one of our maps. Gentry took those same roads back in 1956. After asking farmers we're on our way on a road northwest which is very wide and appears to be new. It's a busy road, after all it's Sunday and the residents of Sahuaripa drive to the reservoir for a little picnic. Not even close! Suddenly the road ends and we're with all the others at a precipice. That's as far as we can go. They're still working hard on the bridge over the Rio Yaqui. We keep our cool and wonder why no onew told us about this. At least we can observe the Sunday afternoon pleasure of the Sahuaripans: a spin with the whole family to the end of the road, unpack the chairs, fire up the bbq and fry up some tacos.

Our second try will surely be crowned by success. Once again we ask around in Sahuaripa and this time they send us north. We find a dirt road which worsens with every mile. Finally we end up at a little ferry over the Rio Yaqui. The murky brown water flows sluggishly. We have a little conversation with the ferryman on the other side of the 90 foot wide river. We shout back and forth and the ferryman advises us against ferrying over. Not only because he's afraid for his ferry (our vehicle looks a little big and heavy to him) but also because the road from here to Badesi is "good" for a pickup and better for a horse. So we turn around and take a little detour into the nearby mountains on a dangerous path which is only scratched into the bare rocks. We're lucky and find another rare century plant (Agave ocahui var. longifolia).

Now that we're accustomed to surprises we're off for the next one. This time we want to drive from Matape to Batuc and are surprised that the road (despite of all our maps showing it differently) turns north instead of continuing northeast. Since we have learned our lesson from previous adventures, we quickly realize: a new route again! So we're looking for the "camino viejo". Not maintained but still in use by the local farmers. We find out that in the sixties a reservoir (the above mentioned Presa) was built and most parts of the old road to Sahuaripa (and with it three villages) disappeared under the water. No wonder that we could not drive from Sahuaripa to Mazatan as was planned.

In the maze of tracks we finally end up at the Rancho "El Puerto" where the farmers astonish us with their hospitality, giving us a really guilty conscience. But this is another story that we will save for another time.

January 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen