travelog 37

Over the Sierra Madre Occidental

The 200 miles between Mazatlán and Durango are well known as one of the most spectacular and beautiful trips in the whole of Mexico. Every travel guide highly recommends this road, nevertheless you don't see many tourists. It's easy to manage the whole trip in one day but we took 14 days for it. The road climbs from sea level up to 8800 feet and ends in Durango at 3000 feet. From the Pacific with its cool breeze and the almost tropical rainforest the drive takes you through the "tierra caliente" where there is not the slightest breath of wind, where the heat is exhausting and your body sweats profusely. As soon as you are a little higher up, cooler temperatures and a pleasant breeze refresh your body and you'll probably need a light jacket at night. At 8800 feet there is hoar-frost on the meadows in the morning and the landscape with its pine forests and wooden houses with bull's-eye window-panes reminds us of the European Alps. As you reach Durango, the climate changes again. It's now desert-like, hot and dry, and the vegetation reminds us of the US Southwest or Texas.

We start early in the morning after a few days at the beach and a little commotion in Mazatlán ("spring break", spring vacation of American schools which attract thousands of young people to Mazatlán every year where they enjoy happy hour all day long, get a sunburn, and do all kinds of stuff which would otherwise be impossible under the strict eyes of the community - "sex, drugs and rock&roll"). Our first stop is in Copala, a little village with a nice church from the 18th century, a shady Plaza, cobbled little streets, roaming pigs and little boys who let you sit on their burro (= donkey) for some money. A young Mexican approaches us after a short time and asks if we're the owners of PocoLoco. We brace ourselves for what is sure to follow (anything but the usual questions...), a surly comment already on the tips of our tongues, when he invites us into his garden. He tells us to pick as many vegetables and fresh herbs as we want, all organically grown, he proudly assures us! (We couldn't quite possibly pass up the opportunity) and that's why we end up staying for practically an entire week with Luis and his family. Rossana is from Italy, Luis from Mazatlán, and together with their 1 1/2 year old son Emi they travel half of the year with the money they earn during the winter months in Copala. In a small shop they sell craftwork: leather masks which remind one of the Carnival in Venice. Little ceramic angels, brooches and mermaids decorated with leather accents. This stuff sells very well with the American and Canadian tourists who want to take a little souvenir home with them from their excursion to Copala on the cruise ship. Under palm trees and banana bushes the leather is processed while we laze about, read, and work on the computer. In the mornings and evenings we get fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden to prepare delicious meals for all of us. Their chickens provide the eggs; honey, tortillas and cheese come from farmers in the village. A tiny black and white bunny is the newest inhabitant of the vegetable garden where it regales itself on fennel greens, basil, lettuce and melon flowers. It's a quiet paradise. Electricity only arrived in the 70s and there is only one telephone for the whole community in the village store. There is a small fireworks ceremony in honour of the village saint San José. Village musicians already play before noon for a couple of beers, and at night there is loud dance music for everybody. If only the heat and the mosquitoes weren't so annoying! Otherwise this would be the perfect place to settle down!

Behind Copala the road climbs in steep curves and sharp bends into the mountains. When the first big truck approaches you in one of those curves in your lane, you learn the laws of this route: keep your eyes open and look for oncoming trucks - if you meet a truck in a curve, stop immediately and wait until the other has made a wide turn. There are even signs which warn you that it's possible that oncoming traffic is merging into the opposite lane (which also happens to be yours). It's advisable to keep your eyes on the road for other reasons as well: without a shoulder the road is really narrow and it often drops into the depths for several hundred yards. The many crosses along the road, decorated with plastic flowers and colorful wreaths, mark the passing of unlucky souls. We are constantly overwhelmed by fantastic views towards Mazatlán and the Pacific. Unfortunately we can't enjoy this part of the trip very much, since one of our front tires is losing air. By now we're very happy that this road is so well frequented by trucks! This means that there is a "Llantera" or "Vulka" in practically every tiny settlement. All of them advertise with a sign that says "open 24 hours". Our garage owner needs a little persuasion before he's willing to help us repair our (in his eyes really huge) tire. We are already experienced at this because two weeks ago we had a hole in this very same tire. That time it was a big screw and the hole was repaired very quickly. This time the same job requires more work as Martin, with the help of the mechanic, pulls out an identical screw (not even 4 inches away from the old hole). From the outside you would never believe it but this garage is very well equipped and the repairs are done in no time. Of course we pay the usual tourist price but it's still a lot cheaper than a new tire!

On our search for a nice place for the night we discover a small trail which leads away from the main road. It's not long before two boys have spotted us and they show us some century plants (Agave maximiliana var. katharinae) that we want to photograph. For their guide services they don't want any money but real Swiss chocolate. Finally we're invited to their nearby Rancho where we are stuck for a couple of days. It's another occasion to enjoy the Mexican hospitality. But we will tell you about that in our next travel report.

We spend the next few days searching for different plants. Beautiful specimens of Echeveria dactylifera and Echeveria affinis grow along the roadside. Gray-blue rosettes of Agave pedunculifera cling to the vertical cliffs. In more accessible places there are beautiful Agave maximiliana var. katharinae plants with tall, yellow flowering inflorescences. The higher we get the more often we see the perfectly symmetrical rosettes of Agave schidigera. In shady and somewhat moist canyons we look for Sedum, although usually without success. However, we find Graptopetalum amethystinum which grows almost without exception in totally inaccessible and vertical cliffs. Here we have to use our heavy telephoto lenses and converter to be able to take full format pictures. In one of those shady bends we meet other plant enthusiasts. They are looking for a rare Mammillaria. We engage in conversation and soon it's obvious that we have common acquaintances - indeed, this very friend had already told them about us and of course PocoLoco, our truck!

We spend our nights in little settlements. This road is well known for attacks and 8 days ago a tourist was threatened with a gun on one of the outlook points, so we don't feel very comfortable parking somewhere a little way away from the road as we would normally. In the little villages which live from the wood industry, we do not get much sleep. Aside from the roosters which crow all night long (in Spanish they "sing"), barking and howling dog packs, and braying donkeys, there is always the cheerful welcoming honk of a horn that wakes you up with a start. These truckers love to let everybody in the settlements know that they're on the road tonight. But the worst thing are the trucks which have engine breaks without silencers - and that's the majority. They just drive through the whole village with their brake on, and as the deafening "farts" hit the cliffs, they return in a cacophony of screeches and roars. You can really tell how certain Mexican truck drivers enjoy this noise as well as the pleasure they derive from honouring others with it.

During the day we are rewarded with fantastic sunrises with pale pink wisps over blue mountain ranges and deep canyons that stretch until the horizon. An endless number of little side trails lead down the steep mountains in hazardous hairpin bends into tiny timber communities. From far below we can hear chickens, music, and the noise of children screaming. We venture a short way down these trails on foot, always in search of plants. In the area of the "Espinazo del Diablo" (= Devil's Backbone) the views and panoramas become more and more spectacular. The road hugs the cliffs and at point these cliffs drop vertically down into the depths on both sides of the road. Exactly at this point there is a little food stall where the locals from La Ciudad, a timber town 14 miles away, take turns selling food to passing motorists. Today they have "Gorditas": thick tortillas which are cut in the middle like pockets and filled with cheese and "nopalitos" (the leaves of the Opuntia/Prickly Pear), beans, chicken stew, or ground beef with red or green chili. Culinary pleasure is combined with a breathtaking view, as we marvel at endless mountains chains and deeply carved canyons in every direction.

Then, suddenly, we're on the Central Mexican Altiplano, the high-elevation plain between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental. There are long stretches of more or less dense pine forests which are being cleared slowly but surely. We camp in Buenos Aires at 8300 feet on a beautiful clearing. The children of the small settlement - there are no more than two to three huts and a restaurant for the truck drivers - find us very quickly, and after the first approach and some candies they are not at all shy anymore. They want to sell us tiny white puppies because they have to put them down since there is not even enough food for the family. They have a bad cold and their clothes and shoes are falling apart, but when we bring them apples, eggs, tortillas and beans, we realize that there is nevertheless enough for a TV. The mother of the six children is speechless and says that God will pay us one day for all this - that's what we hope too... The next day the kids visit us again and this time they want to learn some German words. I show them on a world map where Switzerland is and how far away Mexico is. It's unimaginable for them how we could come from so far away with such a huge vehicle, to Buenos Aires of all places. Very interested, they observe and comment on our barbecue skills. The son of the local restaurant owners says that we should come and eat in the restaurant instead, but we enjoy our dinner of tortillas, grilled onion slices, salad and chicken breast from the "comal".

La Ciudad and El Salto both are timber towns where there is a sawmill in practically every backyard and the trees are stripped of their bark. The corrugated metal roofs blaze in the sun and the traffic is alarming, but once you reach the open pine forests and, closer to Durango, the grassland with tall tree-like yucca trees (Yucca decipiens), that is all quickly forgotten.

Suddenly the city of Durango (population 600'000) looms before us and we're back in civilization with all luxuries. Here you can buy BMW Z3 convertibles and Chateau Petrus wine. There are classy boutiques and huge shopping malls. Even Wal Mart has found its way here. Thus we are relieved that the "Mercado Publico" is still a huge bewildering maze of narrow passages where you can find everything from a screw to a radio, from jeans and sexy evening dresses to a pig's head, local cheese, honey, pickled chiles and sweet-smelling guayabas and mangoes. In a word, you can buy everything your heart desires.

It took us 2 weeks to travel the 200 miles between Mazatlán and Durango. We have promised our new-found friends that we will return in the new year because there is still so much to see and discover.

March 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen