travelog 84

Over the Mountains from Durango to Mazatlan

We first drove from Mazatlan to Durango in March of 2001 and planned to be back to this beautiful country soon to visit newfound friends. We needed a long seven years to finally end up here again.

This time we set out from Durango and drive the route in reverse direction to spend a few unforgettable days in the mountains. The city of Durango has grown considerably since our last visit. Roads have been widened, shopping centers erected, squares brightened up. In a word, one feels at home in the city as a pedestrian. On a stroll through downtown we pass many buildings that we know from our first visit. In a new fancy quarter we treat ourselves to a wonderful meal in the Fonda de la Tia Chona restaurant. The restaurant is located in an old house. It's very cosy with huge windows leading onto a tranquil street planted with much greenery. The decoration is rustic, the menu unusual, and the prices absolutely acceptable. We're delighted by Chiles rojos rellenos con queso Cotija en salsa de piņa, or stuffed red chiles with Cotija cheese in a pineapple sauce. In the twighlight we stroll back to the Zocalo, the main square, a place that in northern Mexico is frequently called Plaza de Armas. The streets around the main square have been brightened up recently. Lights that are embedded in the sidewalks are lit up at night, bathing streets and squares in a romantic light and inviting us to sit and linger.

The freeway is another new thing in Durango. It still only goes to El Salto and will reach its final destination, Mazatlan, probably in a few more years. Nevertheless, we take the Libre, the old road, that is free of charge because there one can drive a lot more slowly and it's easier to look for plants. At the canyon of the Rio Chico it gets interesting for us. We see the first populations of Agave parryi. Yucca decipiens is flowering everywhere. At some more stops we take pictures of bright red flowering Echinocereus sp. growing on boulders. A police car honks the horn driving by, letting us know that we parked too close to the road on a curve. This time the gentlemen have decided to leave the tourists alone.

We almost can't remember El Salto but it looks as if this city too has changed considerably in the last seven years. For adventurous tourists who once want to experience a very interesting Mexican hotel, we warmly recommend the hotel Diamante in downtown El Salto.

There's everything written on the room key that you need to know: "Habitaciones Amuebladas Comfortables", meaning that you will get a comfortable and furnished room. Such a room goes for 100 Pesos ($9.70) for two people. You get a room with a bed whose mattress sags so that two people will inevitably meet in the middle. The wooden floor creaks cosily. There's something like a rack cobbled together from plywood with a few wire clothes hangers and a chair under a small table with a mirror. You have to share the toilet and shower with the other guests. Of course the toilet is of the kind where the flushing works manually, meaning that you fill a bucket with water and flush it yourself. We don't even take a closer look at the shower, preferring to use deodorant spray. There's a TV in the hallway and two comfortable looking sofas with a worn down, dark red velvet cover. The next morning we realize that the last guests spent the night on these sofas. Of course the TV is working all night long. Guests come and go at all hours too. Now we don't think of the creaking wooden floor as cosy anymore. It's extremely disturbing to our night's sleep. Finally, when a big dog starts to bark at 2 in the morning on a roof opposite our room and doesn't pause until 5 AM, we would become dog murderers if we only had the necessary tools at hand.

From El Salto we drive past huge boulders standing in a meadow like gigantic tents, to La Ciudad, a small city living from the lumberjack business, like El Salto. The colorful small wooden houses are covered with shingles or corrugated iron. A pipe carries some of the smoke from the kitchen to the outside. Wooden fences enclose small green flower gardens. Even the roadside memorials for the traffic accidents dead are erected as small brightly colored wooden houses. There's a little road going to Mexiquillo from La Ciudad. You have to pay a small fee at the entrance to the grounds to get in. Some Cabaņas are already there and more are rapidly being constructed. The business, with guests spending their Easter holidays or the weekend up in the mountains, is booming. We want to see the tunnels of a railroad from Durango to Mazatlan, that was planned and started in 1928 but never finished These tunnels were featured in a travel magazine. The dirt road is now on the bed of the original railroad tracks, along a beautiful but completely inaccessible canyon, passing a waterfall that is apparently famous in all of Mexico, but at this time of the year it's as dry as a popcorn fart, as a friend of ours would say. We soon give up because the road really looks and feels more like a hiking path than a road. On our way back we climb around the Jardin de Piedras, the rock garden. Huge boulders, most of them rounded by wind and weather, lie all over the place. Gnarled pine trees grow in between and you feel as if you're in a labyrinth. If you loose your orientation, you simply climb on top of a rock to have a good view of your surroundings.

Past La Ciudad we enter really interesting terrain, at least for us. The Seda are completely dry and invisible at this time of the year, but at the Puerto Buenos Aires we nonetheless finally find Sedum quadripetalum, a species that we searched for in vain the last time around. While I look around the higher parts of the cliffs, Martin climbs down on a mule track and finds this species below the same cliffs. It's completely dry and identifiable only by its dry flowers with the four petals. At a first military checkpoint we need a little patience. The soldiers have a new toy. It's a plastic club with an antenna, looking like a computer gaming console. Everybody looks serious and important as one of the soldiers walks around our car. We have seen this toy before and are really curious now. Proudly, one of the soldiers explains that this wonder is able to detect drugs, arms and explosives. That really strikes us a pretty odd (or Mexican) because cars and arms consist of a lot of metal. Besides, it remains a complete mystery to us how such a magic wand can locate drugs. Perhaps the soldiers only want to see if someone reacts nervously and has something to hide. In any case, they don't find anything suspicious about us.

Further along the road we spot the first flowering Echinocereus huicholensis in the rocks. There's also Agave inaequidens ssp. barrancensis and a tree-like Nolina. Graptopetalum amethystinum hangs inaccessible in the cliffs. To find the dark rosettes of Echeveria affinis you need a good eye and some patience too. Only the large, mostly bright red colored rosettes of Echeveria dactylifera are easily visible. Late in the afternoon we finally reach Revolcaderos where we had planned to spend some more hours looking for plants. Because it's already late and we're tired too, we decide to spend the night in El Palmito to return the next morning for more plant hunting.

Soon we reach El Palmito. We can't believe it when we find out that the two only hotels are completely booked! The reason for it is the construction of the Puente Baluarte, apparently to be the tallest bridge in Latin America - provided that the work is ever finished. It looks as though the engineers have made themselves at home in El Palmito and have booked all the available hotel rooms for some years. The super bridge of the super carretera from Durango to Mazatlan is planned to be 1224m long and 390m high (4015 feet long and 1280 feet long). They say that you will be able to save up to 3 1/2 hours of driving time. But until this monumental construction is finished, some more years will pass by. The locals are pretty sceptical about it too, most of them saying "they're crazy, those engineers".

After another 30 minutes of driving we leave the cool oak and pine forests and reach warmer areas. We find accommodation in Potrerillos at the hotel La Pasadita. This turns out to be another experience. We get a good dinner and cold beers at the restaurant. When we ask for the price, the lady says like a shot 170 Pesos. That seems pretty expensive. According to the waitress the meals cost each 35 Pesos and the four beers are 12 Pesos each, summing up to 118 Pesos. Finally it dawns on her that we speak Spanish pretty well, don't like to be ripped off, and don't believe her arithmetic. In the end we all agree on our total of 118 Pesos. This restaurant is open 24 hours, a fact in evidence all night long. Besides, the village lies on a mountain side. Mexican truck drivers love to use their unmuffled engine to break on theyr way down the hill, especially at night, and this makes a terrible noise. The village youth gather in front of the restaurant to drink beer and the jukebox blares at full volume until the sun rises again. Then there's the hungry truck drivers, stopping quickly to eat something, not shutting down the engine. No wonder we almost get no sleep at all.

Our last stop before reaching Mazatlan is Copala, a quaint little village where we spent some days with Rossana and Luis seven years ago. Their shop, selling leather masks and wood carvings, is still closed but when we knock on the door of their house Luis opens the door quickly. He almost instantly recognizes us after seven years as the owners of "that huge vehicle". We tell stories back and forth about what happened in our lives in the meantime and say goodbye with the good intention of not to letting another seven years pass until our next visit.

May 2008

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen