travelog 90

David & Goliath on the Road in the Golden Triangle

The so-called "Golden Triangle" also exists in Mexico. It lies in an extremely difficult to access and sparsely populated area of northwestern Mexico, more or less where the states of Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa meet. It's this area that attracts our interest for a trip during the dry season. April and May are ideal for trips into this region because the few dirt roads receive almost no maintenance and many roads lead through river beds that are passable only at low water-levels. Our travel companions are Jean-Marc Chalet, known from other travelogs, and his companion Lupita. They travel in a Chevy Tracker that we immediately name David after its size comparison with our Goliath Unimog.

Our meeting point is Canatlan, Durango, and there we properly celebrate Martin's birthday with a bottle of champagne and "Camarones al mojo de ajo" (Garlic shrimp). Then we're off to a little side-trip to Coneto de Comonfort. Jean-Marc is interested in flowers of Mammillaria theresae and we'd like to see Graptopetalum pusillum. The potholed road leads past two lagoons. Trees reflect on the perfectly smooth surface of the water. We are only partially successful. Mammillaria theresae are drawn back into the ground and almost invisible in the dry weather and we only find one single plant with buds. Our Graptopetalum pusillum doesn't fare better. The plants are only visible because of the dried inflorescences, they're completely shriveled back and are waiting for better times.

We pass Santiago Papasquiaro and beautiful Agave parryi to Los Altares. A few miles west we visit the only known locality for Graptopetalum saxifragoides. There's a good dirt road down to the river which certainly attracts many visitors on a weekend. The red flowers of Echinocereus acifer shine brightly in the cliffs. Graptopetalum saxifragoides is suffering from lack of water and the small cushions of plants that we find in cracks and crevices are shrunken back. In contrast Echeveria chihuahuaensis adorns itself with many pink flowers, visible from far away. This is about the southernmost location where we have found this species. Back in Los Altares we stock up with the bare essentials and try to find ice cubes. Young men are all armed and bare their arms openly visible on their belts, although this is completely illegal but no police or military control comes by here unannounced, so who cares about the law. You'd hate to meet these guys at night! They don't seem to have anything else to do than to loaf around and to observe who's coming and going. David and of course Goliath definitely stand out! There seems to be no ice in this place. Finally a woman in a small restaurant gives us what she has frozen in a flat pan in her freezer. Then a store owner magically comes up with more ice from his freezer. Now we have enough to cool the beer, a necessity for survival with the very summery temperatures.

Now we're on our way south. Our distant destination is San Miguel de Cruces, a place that can also be reached via a paved road from El Salto. Our dirt road is smooth for only a very short time. As soon as we turn in on to the lesser used road towards Cardos, the rocking and rolling begins. The road consists mainly of sharp stones and we make only slow progress. The landscape is pretty boring. For the longest time we drive through conifer forests where there's not much interesting stuff to see apart from bright green ferns and the occasional red flower of an Echinocereus acifer. A lonely wild turkey patters along the road and disappears in the forest again. The thing that makes the road interesting are the 30-40 ton (66-88,000 pounds) heavy trucks carrying timber. The few encounters require the one’s whole attention and driving skills of both parties to pass each other on these narrow roads. Huge rocks balancing on gypsum pillars look like enormous mushrooms. Unfortunately, imitators of the famous Swiss sprayer Naegeli got as far as this place and left their ugly traces. Faithful have cut stairs into the rock and hollowed one pillar to place a statue of "San Martin de los Pobres". Plastic flowers and burnt down candles give evidence of other travelers who made a short stop here. Lupita asks "San Martin" for a safe trip and we have (almost) forgotten about the heavily armed men in Los Altares. In the midst of the forest we set up camp. At night we sit under the starry sky for the longest time and listen to a supposed bird that starts with his monotonous song at night and gets on our nerves until early the next morning. Later we come to the conclusion that it must have been a frog that simply sounded like a strange bird.

At 2700m altitude (8860 feet) we wake up to 9.8° Celsius (49.6 Fahrenheit). We come through Nuevo Provenir with its "Cafe El Buen Sabor" where one can buy "cerveza fria", cold beer. We pass several small settlements, or better collections of shacks where we are normally asked "oiga, que estan vendiendo?". People want to know what we are selling. It's absolutely incomprehensible for the locals that someone would take on such rough roads without at least having a financial gain from it. Besides, the flower decoration of our Unimog seems to show that we must have plants for sale for the small front garden every women tends to around here. There's no traffic anymore. We only meet one pickup truck whose owners transport rock samples to a laboratory. They say that the road down to Cardos is even worse than what we're on now but that it's not that far away anymore. Typical Mexican, they always want to be nice! Shortly before the road drops down steeply into the valley of Cardos, we find Graptopetalum saxifragoides, 70km (44 miles) south of the previously only known locality. The road really gets worse on the way down. It's extremely rocky, steep and with narrow curves, after all we drive down 700m in only 7km (2300 feet in 4.3 miles). A small, extremely filifer agave attracts our interest. Then finally Cardos comes into sight. It even has a landing strip. When we pass the "Minas de Bacis", the sole employer in the area, we make a short stop. They're mining materials containing gold, silver, lead, zinc, and other minerals. The workers at the entrance certainly have not seen such a fair-skinned woman in a long time. They let me choose a beautiful rock from their special collection. We continue down to the river where Jean-Marc and Lupita put up their tent under the watchful eyes of two young boys. Our bath in the river is observed meticulously too. Later they tell us that their grandfather told them to observe everything to be able to learn something for their future life. We enjoy dinner under the bright light of the moon. Finally, the nasty "barrillitos" (tiny wasps that cut pieces out of the skin which become inflamed and itch terribly) have disappeared.

The road now leads along a beautiful river to climb up in a narrow valley between gigantic cliffs. We enjoy the view onto rock thrones and vertical walls the color spectrum of which varies from white to green and red and purple. A large truck creeps past us and far above we see it disappear in a vertical cliff. Even if it does not seem like it, there must be an exit somewhere way above us. At the most spectacular place, a vertical orange wall, we take pictures. Our Unimog sticks in the rock like a spider. This is nothing for weak nerves or people with fear of heights. It's not far to San Miguel de Cruces, a cute village with colorfully painted wooden houses, satellite dishes on the roofs and flowers in the front gardens. There's even three hotels, a small supermarket and a gas station in this town. We drive on towards Puentecillas through a spectacular landscape. Soon we start the descent down to Carboneras. Under huge trees and accompanied by the screeching of little green parrots we stop for lunch where only the nasty "barrillitos" bother us. A young woman with three children comes by with a donkey. They carry a delicious looking cake with tons of filling and frosting. Half of it has already been eaten. Until they will reach their little ranch it will take many hours more and with the summery temperatures their cake will not survive much longer. We go down, down, and down, and when we're finally down somewhere, the road goes up the mountain again, only to drop down again past La Soledad. Then it goes up again until we finally see Tayoltita more than 1000m (3280 feet) below at the valley bottom. The hairpin bends past Tastito are something else, especially with such a big vehicle as our Unimog. Many times we don't get around in one try and have to make several attempts. Without four-wheel drive and during the rainy season we would not really recommend this route. Almost on the last pass we find a beautiful form of Agave multifilifera growing in the cliffs with hechtia and a red-flowering echinocereus species. A little further down the road we see a lonely Echeveria dactylifera. We drive past the picturesque cemetary of Cinco Señores with its incredible view into the "Quebradas del Piaxtla", the deep canyons of the Rio Piaxtla. The rock massifs glow in the last rays of the sun. We all have never seen such a spectacular landscape! The last descent into Tayoltita is even narrower, steeper and riskier than everything before. It's a miracle that the road withstands our 13 tons (28'000 pounds), that we don't touch the rocks on one side or plunge down into the valley on the other.

Tayoltita is a small town with about 8000 inhabitants working almost entirly in the GoldCorp mines. The best way of transport is small airplanes. It only takes about 45 minutes in the air to reach either Durango or Mazatlan on the Pacific coast. It's cheaper with the public bus which manages the road from Durango over the mountains to Tayoltita in about 10 hours. Of course not on the road we took, but over the "normal" route through San Luis Villa Corona which can be pretty tricky too. By the way, this bus also operates during the rainy season, it just takes longer. If you'd like to have a great adventure, you should definitely plan a bus drive in this area! Not only the gold mines are employers, but by now rival gangs dealing with drugs, arms and cars they steal from innocent travelers have established themselves in the region. People crowd in the narrow streets of Tayoltita, there are small stalls where there's enough room, and it's pretty tricky to circulate through town in a car between all the other parked vehicles. On a Friday evening one also must go through a police control against driving under the influence. Seat belts are not yet enforced around here. By the way, don't even try to get into town with a vehicle such as a Unimog. Better park it under the eyes of a watchman at one of the mine entrances. There's everything here from restaurants to fashion boutiques, bakeries, gift stores and Internet cafes. Communication with the outside world works best via cell phone or expensivly, from an office where a young lady establishes the connection to the phone you want to call.

An absolute must is the visit of San Dimas. San Dimas is the capital of the municipality and with 5600 square kilometers (3480 square miles) one of the biggest "municipios" of Durango. You reach San Dimas either over the mountains along a narrow dirt road, or downriver and through a narrow canyon via Contraestaca. The official buildings have slowly fallen into disrepair. Plaster flakes off the small court house, black painted letters fade. Apart from a couple wooden benches the church is completely empty and not the best place to be during rain. The antique church bell hangs outside. The small houses are hidden in enchanted and overgrown gardens. Often only the facade is left standing. Where you turn your eyes steep, dark, craggy mountains surround the tiny village. San Dimas would be the perfect film set for every western movie. Right now there's a pickup truck on the main plaza. Whatever people need here to survive is sold from its payload area: Cola and Fresca, fruits and vegetables, rice and beans, toilet paper, soap and cleaning agents, but also t-shirts in bright colors and trendy jeans. Two men load a donkey with a 50 kilo (110 pounds) bag of flour. Everyone is watching us curiously. For us, this place with its few inhabitants at the end of the world is exotic. For them, we are the exotic with our pale skin and cameras around our necks.

From Tayoltita we take the road west to San Ignacio. This route is passable only during 2-3 short months in the dry season because you have to ford the Rio Piaxtla about 90 times. First, the road snakes through a beautiful narrow valley between vertical mountains way above the river. It will take centuries to complete an ambitious project of a road above the river. Considering the terrain and the costs associated with it, this will certainly not happen during our lifetime. Soon the road goes down to the river. Without taking notes you lose track of how many times you have already forded the river. Somewhere here we cross the border between the states of Durango and Sinaloa. Sometimes we see the remnants of an old path and tunnels about 15 meters (50 feet) above the river. Earlier it was probably used by donkey caravans transporting the gold to the coast. Now it's only us and some cows who use it. Towards noon Echinocereus subinermis opens its bright yellow flowers. Echinocereus aff. koehresianus bears brilliantly red flowers. Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum populates the steep mountain sides. Pilosocereus alensis is another columnar cactus in this subtropical landscape. Most ranchos are abandoned, and if not they don't have electricity. Nonetheless people party on the weekends. How they cool their beer remains a mystery to us! We camp about halfway to San Ignacio. The swim in the river is refreshing. Collectors get there money's worth because in the river bed of the Piaxtla you can find perfectly rounded river rocks in all colors. Under a starry sky we open a bottle of champagne and enjoy perfectly ripened Mexican cheese from our cheese maker in Jalisco. The deafening concert of frogs sounds more like heavy machinery working than croaking of frogs.

The next day we drive on to San Ignacio. The river valley slowly widens. Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and a Bare-throated Tiger Heron are fishing in the river. Chachalacas, huge chicken-like birds squat high up in the trees screeching. Other scandalous screechers are the beautiful blue and white Black-throated Magpie Jays with extremely long tail feathers. Cormorants and hummingbirds search for insects along the river. An extended family of coatimundis, relatives of raccoons, roam through the bushes looking for breakfast. We have now left the narrow parts of the valley and the road leads through small settlements above the Piaxtla river. The journey to San Ignacio goes on and on. We drive through a monotonous landscape of low hills and yellow grass. The vegetation is tropical, the trees tall. Various palms grow along the road. Of the best examples, only the crowns are left visible, gasping desperately for air, each with its trunk long overgrown by a strangler fig and the entire tree slowly being suffocated. Shortly before San Ignacio we reach civilization in the form of a paved road.

During the entire trip from Los Altares to San Ignacio we have not seen one single police or military control, although this, as is well known, is the homeland of "Chapo Guzman", the most wanted drug lord Mexicos, who, by the way, made it to number 701 of Forbes's list of the 1000 richest men in the world. Nor have we knowingly seen him or his people but we're quite sure that they always knew exactly where we were, but who wants to deal with plant freaks?

We certainly have not been to the "Quebradas del Piaxtla" for the last time. This area belongs to the most spectacular places we have seen so far in Mexico. The bad reputation of the "Golden Triangle" with foreigners and Mexicans alike is certainly a reason why not too many tourists adventure into this neck of the woods. This definitely makes a visit all the better. When we can't get behind the wheel of a car anymore, we might take a bus ride to Tayoltita, of course during the rainy season!

May - June 2009