The Gringos Burn a Calorie in Copper Canyon (5/12/96)
...3,500 more of those and we'll lose a pound.
April 17 - May 12, 1996
Hey, how are you? But enough about you, don't you want to know how we are??
Welcome to our third fact-filled, error-prone, gossip-laden, half-truth-bursting newsletter, where our motto is, "So what if it's not true, it's funny and I know how to spell all the words." I'm starting to write this today from the beautiful little town of Sayulita, 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. We're staying at this semi-deserted RV park/camping place where last night we watched an episode of Rawhide on satellite TV. It was the one where Clint Eastwood got in a fight, and there was a stampede. True story.
When we last wrote, we were sort of stranded in La Paz (in Baja) because the ferry was on strike. We didn't know how long it would last, so we took a field trip for a few days to wait it out. We went to a hot spring in the surprisingly named town of Agua Caliente. As we drove up to the spring, we came onto an encampment that looked a little like something out of a Mad Max movie: two old cars, draped parachute cloth that defined the "house", scattered cushions for sleeping, a ring of stones for the fire, and two blond-haired wild-children. We met an Irish guy named Shamus who looked to be about 50, had dread-locked hair, a wild bushy beard, was deeply sun-tanned and had leather bracelets running up and down his arms. As it turns out, he's lived there for four years with his Mexican wife and their two little kids, and supports himself by selling leather bracelets and handbags. Shamus says each bracelet comes with a wish, and if anyone is giving you trouble, you just look hard and intently at the bracelet (he even demonstrated this for us) and your problems go away. We think he has a story or two that he chose not to share, because he mentioned that he came to Mexico on a cargo ship, and he doesn't have a passport, so he can't leave. When he tried crossing into the States and told immigration that he was from Idaho, (since that's where the plates on his car were from), they just about took him and his car apart. The funny thing about this crazy-looking guy who looks like the bums at home is that he is intelligent, articulate and friendly. It's people like him who make it hard to indiscriminately judge people. I think Einstein's theory of relativity proved that you can't like everybody, so it sure mucks up the works when somebody with dread locks and leather bracelets turns out to be a really good guy.
When we got back to La Paz, we found that the strike was resolved, and we took the nine hour trip to Topolobambo (wasn't that a Barry Manilow song?) It can be a pretty rough crossing, but it was incredibly calm and pleasant the day we went. I was scanning the horizon with binoculars for whales and seeing some quite a ways off, when a massive whale surfaced right next to the boat. We think it was a finback, which are up to 85 feet long. Later, one passed right in front of the ferry and had to move to avoid being hit. We also saw a group of seals, lots of small rays swimming slowly on the surface, and a turtle.
When we arrived in Topolobambo, I followed the truck drivers into the hold where all the trucks were packed in like sardines, with only a foot or so between them. It was dark as night in there, about 95 degrees, and the fumes from the engines made it hard to breathe. As I squeezed in further and got more claustrophobic, the less I could see and the tighter it got, but I still couldn't see the ramp leading down to our van. I finally reached the back wall, still with no sign of the car, but I was afraid to go back out because I was sure I'd be squashed by one of the trucks going out. I finally escaped by climbing through the staff stairs, and after waiting for the trucks to leave, a huge motor raised a floor panel sideways, exposing the ramp leading down to the cars below.
NEWSFLASH: We just took a break from writing this to watch a pinata smashing birthday party, and it is definitely not OSHA approved. There's about 40 kids here ranging from toddlers to 10 year-olds standing in a tight circle, and taking turns wildly swinging a five foot long broom handle at a Big Bird pinata, missing other kids by inches. When an older kid hit the pinata with such force that the end of the stick broke off, leaving a sharp point, no one even suggested getting a different stick or having the kids move back.
While we're on the subject of pinata parties... we traveled with an American named Brent who teaches bilingual kindergarten in Oakland. He attended a Mexican kindergarten field trip and picnic here with dozens of kids, maybe 18 mothers, two fathers, and three school teachers. When it came time to string up the pinatas, they discovered that someone had taken a, um..., shall we say, dump, right where they wanted to put the pinata. First they suspected a kid, and went one-by-one through the class, "Was it you? Was it you? Was it you?". Then they suspected that it was one of the mothers, then a teacher, but ultimately they concluded that it must have been the gringo. In any case, Brent, too, was horrified by the violence and near-misses of the ensuing pinata-bashing. The fathers were holding ropes attached to the pinata, and the kids weren't blindfolded. As the kid swings the stick, the men jerk the rope. One kid missed badly, fell forward and the pinata came crashing down on his head; he burst into tears, and the teacher says, "Next".
But, as usual, I digress. The main reason we took the ferry north to Topolobambo, rather than south to Mazatlan, was to visit the Copper Canyon area, Las Barrancas Del Cobre. It's frequently compared to the Grand Canyon, and justifiably so, I suppose. Though not as wide, it has four canyons over 5,900 feet deep, compared to the Grand Canyon's 4,650 foot depth, and the combined volume is four times that of the little Grandito Canyon. It's a pretty spectacular train ride through incredibly rugged terrain (86 tunnels and 37 bridges) from Los Mochis to Chihuahua (we insist on pronouncing it Chi-hooah-hooah), some 400 miles to the northeast. We left our car in a hotel parking lot and took the train about two-thirds of the way to Chihuahua, starting at sea level and arriving nine hours later at the town of Creel, which sits at 7,600 feet. Creel is a sleepy little town of a few thousand people. The big industry is timber, and it's the largest pine-producing region in the world, though it's slowing down due to over-logging. They're trying to develop tourism to generate jobs lost in timber.
We stayed at a nice little backpacker joint called Margarita's, and it was a great meeting place, full of travelers from all over the world. It's the first place like that we've come across in Mexico. It was startling how many people we met on LONG trips, one and a half to two and a half years. We also met "Carlos" there -- Charles has recently moved to Creel from Brooklyn, obvious from the gold chains and the "Yo, Vinnie!" accent. Very nice, very clueless, doesn't speak a word of Spanish and not much intelligible English. He's planning to teach English to the staff at Margarita's, and we imagine going back sometime and hearing the locals say "Hey!! How ya doin'? Welcome to Mexico!" in a thick Brooklyn accent.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Copper Canyon area is the Tarahumara Indians, who frequently live in the most remote regions of the canyons, sometimes in caves or log cabins. They've chosen to live an isolated existence, which has allowed them to keep many of their traditions alive, and you can tell by their demeanor toward visitors that they prefer their privacy. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century, they lived in the plains to the east, but migrated into the canyons to escape the Jesuit missionaries and Spanish exploitation. Their name in their own language translates to "The Runners", and at this point it's hard to separate myth from fact. They play a game where runners kick a small wooden ball up and down these steep canyons and across streams, never touching the ball, and they do it for two DAYS without stopping! They used to hunt deer by tracking them and running them to death. It sounds like a joke but it's not, even though it's not funny, just like a lot of my jokes. We read that they used to carry the mail 300 incredibly rugged miles from Batopilas to Chihuahua (are you pronouncing it correctly?), in six days, rest for one day, then return. In spite of their apparent robustness, we read that a nurse who lived in the area said that every Tara Indian she tested came up positive as a tuberculosis carrier. You're not supposed to share cigarettes or water with them for that reason, which we regretted not remembering after sharing our water bottle with one.
The town of Batopilas that I mentioned above turned out to be a fascinating place to visit. We shared a car with some other folks for a beautiful six hour drive through pine forests and rock outcroppings, twisting and snaking our way for the last couple of hours on a single-lane, switchback-infested dirt road that dropped 6,000 feet in elevation to the bottom of one of the canyons. The difference in temperature between Creel, where we'd worn fleece in the morning, to Batopilas, where it was probably 100 degrees, was hard to believe.
We spent three nights in Batopilas, and what a fascinating place it is, on a lot of levels. It's very relaxed, with several hundred people living there, but at one time it had a population of 5,000 and was one of the richest towns in Mexico. It was founded in 1632 by the Spaniards after silver was discovered, and they mined it for the next 200 years or so until they abandoned the mines. Around 1880 an American named Grant Shepherd (former mayor of Washington D.C., purportedly run out of town on a rail) bought the rights to the mines and over 20 years pulled out 20 million ounces of silver. The current horrifying dirt road into town was only completed about 20 years ago, but in those days all the silver had to be packed out in monthly mule trains of 30 to 100 mules, each carrying something like 120 pounds of silver, traveling 185 miles in 5 days. Shepherd built a fortified hacienda that contained his house, along with smelting facilities, vaults, and the like; we visited the ruins and it's an impressive sight. Shepherd also built an aqueduct to bring water into town, as well as a generator for electricity, both of which are still in use today (in theory anyway - the generator, along with the only telephone in town, was broken when we were there). As incongruous as it seems, Batopilas was one of the first towns in North America, and the second in Mexico (after Mexico City) to have electricity.
The current Batopilas Big Industry is growing marijuana. It's the worst kept secret - all the guide books refer to it, and anyone you ask confirms it. There are Federales checking cars as you come into town, and periodically the government (supposedly using U.S.-supplied helicopters) sprays diesel on the crops and lights them on fire. I'm sure the world is a safer place as a result. One result of the illegal crop of choice is that there's guns around, and when there were bars in town, too many people were getting shot. Maybe it was just the wrong ones were being shot, but anyway, the mayor declared it a "dry" town, making alcohol illegal, so the only way you can buy booze now is by asking just about anyone, then paying a premium behind closed doors. We didn't see anyone get shot, but we sure saw some people who were shtinking drunk.
We heard about an American guy who was doing some mining up one of the canyons, so we hired a Tarahumara kid to take us up there. This kid looked about 16 but turned out to be 19, married and had a 10 month old baby. As we walked the hour and a bit up to the mine, we thought anyone doing this mine couldn't be in it for the money - it must be some kind of lifestyle thang. Ix-nay. He was definitely in it for the money. His name is Chris, he's maybe late 40's, and he somehow got misplaced into this century. He had a cowboy, no-bullshit/full-of-bullshit way about him, and was full of twangisms, most of which we couldn't repeat in a letter. The mine that he had claim to was originally dug by the Spaniards, then expanded by Shepherd, and then had been dynamited shut during the 1910 revolution to keep it from falling into the hands of Pancho Villa. (There's a total of 70 miles of tunnels in the area.) Just a couple of years ago Chris was able to first, find it, (the entrance had been lost), then open it up, drain out the chest-deep water, and start building the infrastructure that they need to mine it in earnest. They brought in a rock-busting machine (technical term) that weighs close to 1,000 pounds, that required them to cut the machine into pieces, strap it on mules, haul it up the canyon, and reassemble it. The mules needed to be blindfolded to keep them from bolting under such a heavy weight. It gave me a backache to just think about how much work there was to do on this place. Meanwhile, he's living in a tent, has about 10 guys working for him that he's sure are all lazy good-for-nothin's, and plans to be there full time for the next two years.
Meanwhile, Chris's assistant, Larry, was an old family friend of Chris's, and had a small piece of the mine. He spoke fluent Spanish, and though he'd only been there six weeks, he was completely filled-in on the local gossip. We had breakfast with him at the small dirt-floor house that was next to the mine. "See the woman with the wandering eye? Her old boyfriend wanted to marry her, she didn't want to get married, so he shot her in the head," he said. "The old woman by the door? She's 105, and should be the powerful matriarch of the family, but she ran away with a man when she was just a girl and was gone for years. He finally left her, but when she came back, she'd lost so much status that her job now is to keep the animals out of the house." Larry was quite the philosopher, and says he's writing a book, the first three chapters of which are on the evils of instant coffee. "Do you know why it's called Nescafe? Because No Es Cafe." We also heard about the blind man with the Elvis sunglasses who lives 10 miles further up the canyon, and makes his way up and down the canyon by himself. He's sort of a local hero, because coming into town once, he found a man who'd fallen and couldn't walk, and he carried the guy three miles into town.
We went back to Creel by public bus, leaving at 5 a.m., two hours before sunup. The advantage of leaving so early is that you can't see over the cliffs you're squeezing past, plus if you careen down the cliff, it would be cooler while you wait for the jaws of life to extract you from the wreckage. Back in Creel we took a trip to some natural hot springs that feed into a river. We walked from the rim of the canyon down 1,700 feet to the river below. The river was low enough because of drought that the gushing hot spring warmed the entire river and made for a really pleasant swim. The trudge back up the hill wasn't quite as pleasant. You'd think we'd have been more fit after sitting on our butts for two months, sleeping 10 hours a day, and eating a diet of fish tacos and beans. Fit, fat, whatever. But no, we weren't in shape, and ended up being sore for the next few days.
We took the train back to Los Mochis, got our car from the hotel, and started heading south along the coast. We drove about 600 miles in three days, staying one night in Teacapan, one in Mazatlan, three in Sayulita, and then coming to Puerto Vallarta, where we are now. We've driven about 3,800 miles and been gone 69 days, for a whopping 55 miles a day average.
Whitney and I were walking down the main drag in Puerto Vallarta and went into the "Sierra Madre" store that purports to be about conservation. There's a giant picture of a resort that dominates the space; we were told it was there because the resort sponsors the conservation efforts. A guy approached us and was chatting us up about giant manta rays and the next thing we know, we've agreed to take three t-shirts, six postcards, free breakfast and a day pass to a hotel in exchange for sitting in on a sales presentation about timeshares. We walked out of there sort of stunned, like, how did that happen? Very slick operators, these guys. We weren't sure we wanted to go through with it, but we went out to the Westin Regina and sat through a sales presentation, making it clear the whole time we had no interest in the product. He said why are you here if you're not interested?, and I said I'm wondering that myself. (Collecting t-shirts on a budget, maybe?) Our charming salesdude really turned up the heat at the end, but he gave up abruptly and in a huff when his long pregnant-pause-and-glare routine didn't make us wilt like he wanted. I'd love to know more about this "conservation" group, with its slick brochures and high-priced retail frontage. It's my strongly held, uneducated, yet stubborn and unyielding belief that the whole thing is just a front to sell timeshares. Hey, you in the back, pipe down, I'm jumping to conclusions here. Anyway, the bank that owns the resort also owns the conservation group, so you decide.
Hey, guess what? Thanks to our amigo in the north, Frank, we now have a web site! It's being updated with these letters, plus there's a few things we wrote before we left and some old letters from other trips. You can find a link to it from Frank's site at http://backtalk.com/, or go directly to it at http://backtalk.com/mexicanodyssey/. If it's easier to get the letters from the Web, just let us know and we can take your name off the e-mail distribution. Want to know what's weird? We can't slam people with impunity because they may go home and read it on the Web! It's kind of an interesting phenomenon to be writing stuff on the road and know that it's accessible by people all over the world. We rented a computer at a stationery shop here in town and were able to see our site for the first time. It was pretty fun.
We're leaving Puerto Vallarta (pronounced "porty balardy" by those in the know) in a few days, heading south about 150 miles, then inland to Guadalajara. Keep those cards and letters and most importantly, donations, rolling in. If you've haven't e-mailed us lately, then this would be the appropriate time.