Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Palenque, Chis Mexico to Columbus, NM

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Copyright (c) 1997-2000 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution forpersonal use permitted. Distribution for other uses withwritten permission.

Van Tales Chapter 50 - Feb 28 to March 30, 1998

Palenque, Chis Mexico to Columbus, NM USA

I never cease to feel awe and amazement at the extreme diversity of the Mexican terrain and environment. Within unbelievably short distances onecan go from the flat dry jungles of the Yucatan peninsula, climb up atwisted nightmare of a road through wet, green jungles, to finally arriveat the a small plain at the top where dry plants appear more like anArizona desert. Then, back down along another twister pine lined narrowroadway to the low dry hot desert surrounding Tuxtla. All of this withinjust a few 100 miles, a few 100 miles that takes a good 12 hours to drivethat is. One thing you learn about Mexico is you can never, ever expect toget anywhere fast unless you plan to spend a lot of money taking theautopistas. Roads that snake their way up and down mountain sides, passthrough towns with their ever present topes (speed bumps the size of smallmountains), and usually need a bit of TLD (tender loving driving) simplyare not for high speed traffic. You'll be lucky to make 250 miles in along day's travel.

After climbing the mountains at the center of the state of Chiapas we began our journey back north in the town we grew to love the previous year, San Cristobal de las Casas. Little had changed in the city, the beautifulcolonial buildings still stoically guarded the central plaza, theindigenous women still pushed their colorful woven bracelets, belts, potholders, glasses cases, small Zapatista, indigene, and donkey dolls,huipilis, and yellow bug ridden amber, or plastic and glass as the fakestuff really is. There was nothing to indicate the level of unrest thathad settled over the state over the previous few months, ever since themassacre of women and children in one of the nearby towns. The onlyindication was a slight increase in military presence, especially duringthe short lived, and peaceful I might add, student demonstration wehappened upon one night. They weren't so interested in the seconddemonstration we happened to see a bit later as this one was composed of abunch of 2 ft tall kindergarten aged students, dressed in white, holdingposters that urged parents to get their kids vaccinated. Ah yes futuretrouble maker demonstrators getting their training at an early age.

We spent our 2 days in San Cristobal essentially doing nothing, justwandering the streets of town, sitting in the plaza, and relaxing. We'dseen all the highlights before and had no interest in repeating everything. I did decide to conduct an experiment that proved to have quiteinteresting results. In October I'd begun a little sewing project that Ianticipate will take many years to complete, hey I've got the time. It's avery, very tight cross stitch banner that will eventually show the world,in planar form, all the different countries in a vast array of brightcolors. I will eventually include a black stitch line that represents outbiking routes, flag patches and pins from each country we've biked, andperhaps a bead for each nation's capital we've visited. At this point South America was complete and I was busily working on Canada. So Idecided to take the entire work with me to the plaza to work on while wewere relaxing. Now, normally the native women will spot new arrivals tothe plaza, zero in on them, and immediately start their hard sell push toget you to buy something. "Compra la, diez pesos.", "tres por cinco" wehear again and again. This time the reaction was quite different. Theyall came over not just to sell, although they did make sure to ask us tobuy before leaving, but more to find out what this gringa was doing. "Quees?" they'd ask. "Es una mapa del mundo", or "El pais de Mexico, Canada,Estatos Unidos, or Sud America." "y esto?" "La bandera de Mexico." "Tanbonita." they'd all compliment. Some wanted to know if I was going to sellit or would be willing to trade, no way. Other's wanted to know how longI'd been working on it and one asked Brian which flag he thought was prettier, Mexico's or the US. Now talk about being put on the spot. Whatwas truly unique about this was for once these women could see that theyreally do have some things in common with these extremely alien beings whoswarm to their villages year after year. So often it seems we are looked uponOur next stop along the tortured, twisted route back north was the highcity of Oaxaca. It was a journey of no less than two days to wind our waydown out of those high Chiapas mountains, through Tuxtla Gutierrez where westopped for the night, and then snake our way back up the mountains to thedesert valley of Oaxaca. We discovered a wonderful little trailer parkjust on the east side of town in perhaps one of the most convenienttlocations we've found thus far. There's a Gigante grocery store 2 blocksaway, a laundry just around the corner, and easy bus access to town centerin front of the grocery store. We quickly settled in, making ourselvesquite at home, for a good 6 day stay.

First order of business was to meet the neighbors, and what a pair ofpistols they were. Emerson and Regina from New England, a pair of the mosthigh spirited retirees we've seen in quite a while. They are spendingtheir second winter traveling through Mexico, not in one of those monsterRVs that would be so hard to manage buuuut in a VW Westfalia like ours onlynewer. Now these were people made of the same stuff we're made of. In hiscareer life Em had climbed the ladder of success arriving at the positionof VP of recruiting for such companies as GE and Ratheon. Upon retirementthey'd purchased a trailer park at Williamsburg which they kept for 3 yearsbefore finally truly retiring. Now they spend summers at home in NewEngland and winters down south where the weather is more tolerable.Swapping tales we found we were as much excited about them as they wereabout us. We find it's just so delightful dealing with people in the retirement age who are willing to do without the microwave, TV, airconditioner, and other trappings that serve only to place more distancebetween you and the people you're trying to get to know. If we had beengoing in the same direction I think we could have thoroughly enjoyedspending a few weeks traveling together. But, we were headed north andthey, south.

We quickly found Oaxaca to be a town one could become quite comfortablewith in just a short period of time. The old town is neat, clean, verycolonial, with a central plaza with large overhanging shade trees and a bigcentral band stand in which some sort of musical presentation is held everyevening.. The citizens include a very large proportion of highly educatedpeople giving the community an air of sophistication. There are manytourists yet there simply was not that heavy push from the vendors for thetourists to buy their crafts. One simple "no gracias" and the vendor moveson. Very low key, very relaxed. It reminded us a lot of Merida both inambience and architecture without being as oppressively hot. It's easy tosee why Oaxaca attracts so many gringo snow birds each winter.

Opportunities to explore Oaxaca and its surrounding area presentedthemselves to us every day. One day we spent wandering through townlooking into each church and cathedral, checking out the large muraldepicting Oaxacan history in the state government building, and finallyending the day sitting in the plaza watching the balloon salespeople withtheir multicolored array of mylar floaters, round rubber bouncers, andcartoon shaped danglers. Our favorite church was the Iglesia de SantoDomingo. Of all the churches we've seen in Mexico and Europe this one hasperhaps the most lavishly decorated interior of any we've seen. It startsright at the door with a huge gold gilded representation of Santo Domingo'sfamily tree carved in high relief across the ceiling. Stepping further into the church, the ceiling opens up to great heights as you pass theoverhang of the choir gallery. More gold gilding adorns the ceiling withdiamond patterns surrounding flor de lis. The walls are also adorned withgold carved pillars. Toward the front alter, the ceiling becomes a highdome with paintings of various saints and more gold. The entire frontalter is one huge mass of glittering gold vines, pillars, flowers, saints,and whatever. Taking a turn into a much smaller chapel, the Capilla de laVirgen del Rosario, and you find, if it was even possible, an even moreelaborated gold gilded ceiling and alter. It was all so much as to benearly overwhelming. You could sit for hours and hours, your eyes tracingacross each line, each delicately carved flower, each brush stroke of goldpaint, each face or each saint and still not be able to take it all in.The profusion is so mind boggling it's hard to imagine this as a place forquiet contemplation, unless of course you want to contemplate thedecorations.

There are also several museums of which we selected just 2 to visit. The first was the Museo Rufino Tamayo, they guy who painted the mural in the government building. Upon his death, this famous Mexican artist donatedhis house and his extensive collection of preconquest art to the city.There are a total of 5 rooms that house many fine pieces of pottery andstone works from many of the different ancient cultures. All are presentedin a manner to emphasize their artistic qualities and to show contrastingstyles from the various regions. Some very famous articles are housed here.

The second museum was once the home of Benito Juarez. He was one ofMexico's more memorable and famous presidents. The orphaned son ofZapoteca Indians he came to the town of Oaxaca in 1818, speaking only a fewwords of Spanish, to become an apprentice book binder for AntonioSalanueva. Fortunately for him Salanueva recognized the boy's lust forknowledge and intellect. He helped Juarez enter school first in trainingfor the priesthood and later in law. He advanced in public service postsbecoming a member of the Oaxaca city council, then the state government,and then from 1848 to 1852 he became the governor of Oaxaca. His leaningswere mainly liberal which caused him to be expelled from Mexico on twooccasions, 1853 to 1855 when the conservatives and Santa Anna were incontrol and again from 1861 to 1866 when the French put Maximillian on the throne. But with the help of US troops he finally returned to take the presidency for an unprecedented 4 terms, passing away in 1872 just one yearinto his last term. He is noted for many liberal reforms including aconstitution that greatly reduced the power of both the church and militaryas well as to make primary education theoretically free and compulsory, agoal that even today hasn't quite been achieved. Throughout Mexico thereare towns, streets, buildings, statues, paintings, theaters, you name itthere is at least one dedicated to Juarez somewhere in Mexico.

This unpretentious colonial style house with its front door bordering righton the sidewalk, in the usual 2 story square surrounding the central openair courtyard was where Juarez had his humble beginnings. There are roomsfurnished to recreate the bookbinding shop, business office, kitchen, andone bedroom as well as a multipurpose room housing selected specialexhibitions. Not having any emotional connection with Juarez the museum tous just represents a typical upper class house from the early 1800s. Weattach no special significance to its existence. However, I imagine to theMexicans a visit to the house must carry much the same symbolism as a visitto Lincoln's house does to a US citizen. Both men doing what they could toalleviate the suffering of the less fortunate and eventually ending upgreat icons for their country.

Oaxaca is also a great place to unload the bikes and head out into the countryside. A short ride out of town and you can explore several smallvillages with interesting old colonial style churches. Another directioncan take you up into the hills past small indigenous villages to pointswith fantastic views of the valley below. There are miles and miles ofdirt roads criss crossing across the valley going from one small village toanother that, if you only had about 3 months, could take you to some of themost remote unique places. But, you'd have to explore without knowingwhere you're going as good maps for other than the major paved roads arevirtually nonexistent in Mexico.

As with everywhere else in Mexico there are many ruins in the valley, some worth exploring others not. Mitla, a small set of ruins that wereinhabited at the time of the conquest seemed a bit overrated. The stoneconstruction is of the very primitive style found in most of the latepreconquest sites. They just seemed to have lost the creativity theirancestors of the classic period had. Any decoration on the walls wasmerely geometric designs made by various combinations of squared off rocksand even that was quite simple. The nearby site of Yagul, a site datingfrom just a bit before Mitla, is a bit more interesting as there are pathswinding through the cliffs behind the site that climb to a good view point. Also, there is a very fine, reconstructed ball court which, along with atleast a few others, claims to be the second largest in MesoAmerica, secondto the one in Chichen Itsa. There seems to be a few too many making thissame claim to make it believable.

The creme de la creme, the ruins worth making a special trip to Oaxaca to visit are those at Monte Alban. These are believed to have been built bythe Zapoteca tribes and date from the great classic time. Consequently thelow relief carvings, exquisite pottery and stone works, and other artifactsare all of a high level of artistic expression. But, beyond these, themagnificence of the site itself is stunning from both a beauty perspectiveas well as a display of just what man can accomplish if he sets his mind toa task. It's located on top of a mountain that must tower some 1500 to2000 feet above the valley. Hence views from every point on the site arestupendous. Yet, what these folks did is amazing. Not satisfied withusing the geography of the mountain as is and molding their temples to fitthe landscape, they decided to perform a major alteration of the entiremountain. They quite literally leveled the entire mountain peak, fillingin the valleys, cutting down the peaks, creating two large plazas at twodifferent levels. Each plaza was surrounded with a series of temples, manyof which contained tombs, and palace or buildings housing government orpriestly officials. They amount of dirt they must have had to move wouldhave been enormous. And yet we have to remember this was all done without the horse, without the wheel, and as far as I can tell without evensomething resembling a shovel. Just digging sticks, stone axes, andprobably cloth bags in which the dirt was carried. I can't even begin toimagine the shear number of slaves that must have been needed to completethe effort.

Oaxaca is located at just about the southern most tip of the high central Mexican plateau, meseta. To go in any direction, other than north, entailsa long snaking winding path over one of the mountain ranges and down to thecoastal lowlands. We headed west, toward the Pacific Ocean. This happenedto be directly into the very center of where the hurricane of October 1997came ashore and the roads in all directions still bore the scars. As wewound down the switch backs toward the coast we found each and every turnwhere a small creek may have crossed under the bridge was now a pile ofrock, dirt and debris. A path, just wide enough for a car, had been plowedacross each one and work crews were busily building new culverts. But theystill had a long way to go before the road would be anything close to beingput back in one piece. So the drive, which would normally take 6 hours togo the 150 miles, now takes closer to 8 hours. To our utter astonishmentwe found even the large buses were managing to come across this road. But,hey, Mexican bus drivers are possibly some of the gutsiest we know.

Once down from the mountains we settled into a leisurely passage back upthe coast. No hurry, we still had several weeks before our Mexican carinsurance ran out. We'd drive one day, stop for one or two, and then driveanother day. Stops included the small enclave of Puerto Escondido, a majorhangout for surfers, the huge resort cities of Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta,and Mazatlan, and the smaller, slower paced communities of San Patricio -Maleque and Playa Azul where you could just sit and soak in the sun andbeach. Each site has beautiful white sandy beaches, coconut trees swayingin the breeze, and incredible aquamarine colored waters having temperaturessometimes as warm as a bathtub. Grab a hammock under a frond coveredpalapa, a cold soda and you're set for the day. Such a tough life.

The small beach towns were great. They were still very Mexican, havingtheir small mercado that bustled with activity during the day and theirclean center plaza that became the center of social life at night. SanPatricio - Maleque was particularly appealing as the trailer park waswithin 2 blocks of both mercado and plaza and still located right on thebeach. The town was just big enough to have all the facilities one coulddesire yet still small enough to have that laid back attitude. The onlyproblem was, we happened to arrive just in time for their St. Patrick's daycelebration. Yes, this odd Mexican town actually goes all out celebratingthe Irish holiday. We understand it all started many generations ago withbunch of crazy Irish who decided they'd had enough with US policies. Theyfled to this Mexican pueblo where they tried to help the locals hold outagainst the US imperial expansionism. They were all eventually done in, but their ancestors live on in the US and other places. Each year theyreturn to San Patricio for a week long celebration leading up to March 17th.

It was an odd sort of celebration. Each night at about 7 PM a small, and Ido mean small, parade would wend its way across town, circle the plaza, andhead into church. By small, I mean there were about a dozen dancers in atraditional Indian costume shaking rattles in front. a priest leading 2orderly rows of men, women, and children all dressed in their Sundayfinery, and one of those dreadful brass bands bring up the rear. Two largeloudspeakers from a car rolling along with the group would sing out thewords to a chant that the crowd would repeat to the noisy beat belted outby the band. That's it, the whole parade. Once inside the church thepriest would begin the mass celebrating St. Patrick with what was more likea college football cheer. "San Patricio, San Patricio, San Patricio, Rah,Rah, Rah" the whole crowd would cheer. Then he'd get down to the businessat hand. All the time this was going on one guy carrying a hand full offire works, would set them off at odd intervals. These are not your fireworks designed to make beautiful sparkling patterns in the sky. Thesewere just the bang, boom noise makers that cause you to jump out of yourskin each time they went off.

There also was one of those mini carnivals set up in a vacant lot touting bumper cars, a tiny Ferris wheel, haunted house, a mini train, cotton candy vendors, one of those throw darts at balloons to win a prize games, tables covered with electronics, jewelry, cassette tapes, and other gadgets forsale, big tables laden with those unique Mexican sweets and some mightytempting looking hot dogs, corn on the cob, and beautifully decoratedcakes. Most unusual was the painter we found in the center of the plaza.Using just cans of auto spray paint, newspaper, cardboard, sponges, a smalltrowel, and a cylinder he was able to take a plain sheet of paper and turnit into an exotic scene. Out of blank white an eerie blue, black, andwhite night scene looking across black waters reflecting an eerie moonunder the branches of a silver tree, black mountain ranges framing thesilvery water fall would magically appear. Or a yellow morning sunreflecting across a still pond where a ghostly ship floats on the greenwaters. They were so vivid, so colorful, and yet so otherworldly I had tocomment to one of the other onlookers that they belonged on the cover ofsome science fiction magazine. The painter worked miracles with rusticequipment. But he did not take any safety precautions. Someday his lungsmay suffer horrible damage from breathing in the toxic paint fumes eachnight. With any luck he'll be rich and famous long before it catches up.

Night time was when the town really came alive for the celebration,midnight that is. Out in the bull ring or in the plaza's band stand aminimum of 2 bands would set up for what was described as a band duel.Each band would take a turn playing a tune, at top volume of course, thenthe maitre-D would introduce the next band's tune. I wonder if there wassome sort of award for the best. This went on until about 2 AM at whichtime we figured we could finally get some sleep. Five AM started of withanother bang. Once again that dreadful brass band was up and about makingits way around town playing music while that guy with the fireworks boomedout a salute of well over 40 or more bangs. He'd stop for about 5 minutesand we'd think he was done only to be jolted out of our sheets with anotherrattling bang. It was sort of like that "one hundred bottles of beer onthe wall" song. You finally get down to the last one and some idiot beltsout "You run to the store to buy some more, one hundred bottles of beer onthe wall." Sleep, yeah right. Not in San Patricio when St. Patrick's dayis approaching.

The resort communities along the west coast seemed to be just a bit toohungry for the tourist dollars, especially Acapulco. Each of these citieshas a hotel zone that does not resemble anything else in Mexico. They areliterally recreations of Miami beach just a few miles further south. Also,you are continually encountering English speaking Mexicans who are tryingto drag you into restaurants, tourist junk shops, or off to one of thosetime-share hard sell presentations. They'll start off with "where are youfrom, my friend" as if you've ever seen them before in your life, orperhaps the odd beginning we found in Puerto Vallarta of "Are you ready fortomorrow?" What's that supposed to mean? you ask. Who knows. We didn'tstop to find out. The one thing we have discovered throughout all ourtravels through Mexico, the only place these pushy salesmen inhabit are thegringo tourist resorts. They are not at the Mexican resorts, which is whywe much prefer the Mexican vacation spots.

Acapulco counts among its most interesting attractions an old Spanish fort named Fuerte San Diego. It's a 5 pointed star shaped fort originallycovered in whitewashed stucco and surrounded by an earthen moat.Originally it was mounted high upon cliffs overlooking the Acapulco harbor. Today the landfill along the coast has added a road along the bottom ofthe cliffs where waves used to crash. Rooms that once housed the militia,guns and powder, and kitchen now house an interesting museum of Acapulco'shistory. They have the usual stuff from preconquest days through theconquest. But what is perhaps most interesting is all the relics obtainedfrom Acapulco when it was a major trading center with the orient. One ofthe items we have a tendency to forget is that the primary reason for thatColumbus' first voyage was to find an easy trade route to the Orient. Weget so caught up with what he found here we simply forget the big picture.But, just as soon as Cortes got finished with his conquest he immediatelyset about looking for that trade route. Never finding a water route, hecreated a land route. One of the first ports on the pacific coast wasbuilt at what is now Acapulco and one of the first roads went right toMexico City. An enormous amount of Oriental trade goods passed throughthis port. Silks, spices, wood products, ivory, slaves, and I'm sure opiumfound its way to Mexico in exchange for silver, gold, copper, and otherMexican resources. In the beginning one and only one ship was given acomplete monopoly on the Orient trade route. By the description of the 3week long trade fair held whenever the ship docked it must have been quitean occasion for celebration. Later the monopoly was broken and tradebecame more frequent. Even today Acapulco remains an important port as attested to by the 4 or 5 trucks carrying brand new cars we saw werewaiting to load their cargo on ship.

Puerto Vallarta has almost nothing of sight seeing interest within thecity. There's one tiny museum, which happened to be closed, and aninteresting church with a replica of empress Catherine's, Maximillian'slooney wife, crown built into the church tower. Beyond the city arefabulous pine covered mountains making for perhaps some of the mostbeautiful coastal scenery in all of Mexico. If you have one of those allinclusive hotel packages you can partake of a variety of water sports,diving, snorkeling, boating, for free or if you have money to burn you canpartake of one of those parasails, guided tours to the outlying islands orvillages, or some evening entertainment. All of these simply are not thekind of activities we enjoy or feel willing to pay big bucks to do. So forus other than sitting by a pool, window shopping the restaurants and fancystores, and walking the beach, there just isn't that much to do. We werequickly bored and ready to move on. I couldn't imagine spending a wholeweek just sitting by the pool as many of the hotel guests do. In fact theone time we tried that, about 15 years ago in Mazatlan, we got so boredwith pool sitting after just one day we rented a car and got out of town.

Mazatlan was a surprise. It seemed so much more modern, cleaner, newerthan I remembered from our previous visit. We found a great campsite righton the beach and spent our last days on the coast exploring the town andtrying our hand at body surfing the waves. Much of the town is flat, lyingon what seems to be a coastal plain. Except for the one large peak in thecenter of town that now supports a wide array of antennas and the secondpeak sitting just offshore on an island connected to mainland by a manmadecauseway. The island supports the second tallest lighthouse in the world,second only to the one on the rock of Gibraltar. By tallest I think theymean distance from the light to the water rather than building height asthe building itself doesn't seem all that high. Downtown is a nicecolonial square and church as well as the mercado. Unfortunately thismercado seems to be undergoing a shift toward catering to the touristmarket rather than just being for the locals. Even though it still contains numerous meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetable stalls in its interior,the exterior is surrounded by stalls selling tourist junk, all withMazatlan boldly emblazoned in multiple places. We had to wonder how longit would be before the fruit and veggie stands give way to tourist junk.

Out north of town was a teeny, tiny version of Seaworld Mexican style.Inside were perhaps 50 tanks containing species of fish from salty, briny,and fresh water most native to the waters around Mazatlan. One tankcontained about 8 nasty looking sharks swimming round and round. The tankseemed way too small for the number of animals it contained. Another tankcontained several species of sea turtles, species that US and Mexicanenvironmentalists are trying so hard to save all the while developers buyup their nesting beaches to build more luxury resorts. And a couple moresharks and other fish. Fortunately for the diver who had to jump in forthe diving exhibition the sharks were harmless for humans. He'd grab onebig one by the fin, haul it of the floor where it was obviously quitehappy, and pull it in front of the window for the audience to see. I told Brian I'd like to see him try that in the other shark tank. Another halfhour show included 3 sea lions, lobos marinos, doing the usual balancingballs, catching rings, dancing on flippers, jumping through hoops, andauking out some sea lion turn all on command. Commands were given to thesea lions in English making me suspect they were trained in a place likeSea World. The trainer would tell the audience he was going to get a besoand then turn around and say "kiss" to the sea lions. The final show was abird act where 7 beautifully colored tropical birds pushed carts, rollerskated, skate boarded, lifted weights, played basket ball, and squawked,barked, and meowed. It certainly was no where near the size or grandeur ofSeaworld. But for an entrance price of $2.50 it was a pretty good deal.

Having but a week remaining it was time to leave the warm Pacific coast to once again climb one of those torturous roads into the Sierra MadreOccidental to reach the Altiplano. We soon discovered what we consider tobe perhaps the prettiest and most spectacular paved road in Mexico. Afterclimbing from sea level to the dizzying heights of 3000 meters in no morethan about 70 miles the road from Mazatlan to Durango precariously twistsalong a ridge crest along the tops of the mountains for mile upon mile uponmile. Views along either side extended for miles in either directionacross the tops of those ragged mountain peaks that seem to define so muchof Mexico's landscape. The road was well paved, lightly traveled, and hada few, albeit not many, towns having rudimentary services. It's a perfectroad for a biker and I determined right then and there that someday I wouldreturn to ride it. Maybe not for many years, but someday.

The road soon left the spectacular mountain scenery to drop into the relatively flat altiplano and the dry desert scape surrounding the rather uninteresting city of Durango. From there we turned north heading towardour final planned destination for this winter's trip, Copper Canyon. Itwas a full 2 day's drive away along a road with only the rugged rockydesert landscape to keep us occupied. Buildings were scarce, towns evenmore so. This northern region of Mexico even in the preconquest eras neverhad a very high population. Only the mining operations begun by theSpanish in the 1500s brought somewhat larger more stable towns.

When traveling along any of the north/south routes in western Mexicowhether along the coast or in the altiplano you have to be prepared to bestopped by several police or military blockades for some questioning andpossibly even a search through your vehicle. Sometimes they just want toknow where you've been and where you're going. Sometimes they want to knowif you're carrying any fruit, veggies, or animals. At one stop a coupleenterprising young military men took the opportunity to learn a littleEnglish. We were asked to get out of the vehicle, which we obligedthinking this could take a while. But they quickly lost interest inlooking at what we were carrying and instead wanted to know how topronounce such words as nationality or what the various forms of English greetings mean. They actually had a small notebook they were using to make comments and to get gringos to write words on.

Several of the inspection points were for drugs and gun searches. In an effort to stem the tide of drugs flowing from Mexico to the US, the USgovernment has been sending money to the Mexican government, some of whichgoes to fund these road blocks and vehicle searched. What I find ratherironic is this type of search without warrants or cause is totallyforbidden by the constitution of the United States. Searches like thesewould quickly be denounced by civil rights leaders, Senators, Congressmen,radio talk show hosts and would likely find it's way to the Supreme court. Yet the government feels no regrets in paying another country to doexactly what our constitution prohibits. Double standard I'd say.

Just west of the city of Chihuahua, capital of the state of the same name, tucked away in the high Sierra Madre Occidental is a spectacular series of gaping canyons known collectively as Canon de Cobre, Copper Canyon. It isa rugged land just crying out for exploration by foot, horseback, orvehicle. It is deeper, wider, and longer than the Grand Canyon in the US.However, since it has much more vegetation the vivid color layers of therocks are mostly covered making it not appear quite as spectacular atsunrise or sunset. There is one view easily accessible by car over the newroad still under construction when visited. Called Divisidero it consistsof about 2 small view points each having a hotel perched at the edge. Thetrain from Los Mochis makes a 15 minute stop for the passengers to gettheir one glimpse of the canyon. We discovered not only is the view notvery large or extensive, it is also far, far from being the best.

The absolute best and most spectacular road to see the canyon is definitely not for the faint at heart. It's 70 miles long, first paved then roughdirt, switchbacking down the side of the canyon all the way to the bottom.The road, more like a wide trail, is just barely etched into the nearlyvertical rock cliff face of the canyon wall. For more than a mile of depthyou wind your way back and forth across the cliff face, vertical walls onone side and shear drop off on the other. Views are wonderful, but theroad a bit nerve racking. Meeting a vehicle coming in the other directionalways is an exciting time. The only thing I can compare the experience tois to take the Bright Angle trail that wends its way to the bottom of thegrand Canyon, add just a couple feet width, and then let cars drive it.It's just hard to imagine anyone wanting to put a road into such a difficult place to reach, but they did. Amazingly not only do carsregularly wind their way up and down the cliff, but so do small trucksloaded with cargo and passengers and even those school bus sized secondclass buses. Meeting one of these along the cliff face takes a lot ofmaneuvering to avoid.

After some 7 to 8 hours traveling along this treacherous and dusty dirtroad you actually come to a small town. Batopilas is one of those gems ofMexico that one only finds if one is willing to drive to such way out ofthe way places. It's a long skinny town lined along the bank of the riverat the bottom of the canyon. Originally a mining town it is now graduallybecoming more dependent on the tourist trade. Fortunately due to the verynature of the passage to the town it hasn't yet been ruined by the lust forthe gringo tourist dollar. In fact, it proved to be one of the friendliesttowns in Mexico we've ever seen. We set up our camp by the river's edgeand within just a few hours we'd met one of the town's school teachers andno less than 5 very inquisitive kids. Two boys aged 11 and 12 came by tosee what we were about and ask a whole series of questions. They wereparticularly interested in the inflatable boat we told them we had. Theykept wanting us to get it out and blow it up so they could see it. "Nottoday" we said. Actually since we don't have a ladder it'd be realdifficult as the pump is in the Thule box on the roof, out of reach. A bit later three sisters, Olivia, Guadaloupe, and Aurar came by selling whatlooked to be some very good bread. We showed them our little casa onwheels which they thought was "bonita", shared water and a soda, andanswered a huge variety of questions. Guadaloupe wanted to know what wedid when it rained as the spring rainy season was coming soon. "It's waterproof" I told her. These were kids who still behaved like kids, curious,playful, not shy, and not continually asking for pesos or money. Weabsolutely loved Batopilas and wished we had more time to stay. As long asthat road remains as difficult to traverse as it currently is, I can'texpect to see Batopilas change very fast. We just hope they never, everpave that road.

Throughout the cliffs and mesas of the Copper Canyon live perhaps the most peaceful, pleasant, happy, and shiest indigenous peoples we've seen inMexico, the Tarahumara. They tend to be short in stature, the women ratherplump and the men quite skinny, and very, very dark skin and hair. Thewomen dress in full, full calf length skirts whose form reminded me much ofthe skirts women in the US wear to square dances. They usually have aloose blouse worn over the skirt, a scarf wrapped over their head, andalways one of those blankets/shawls used by most Mexican Indian woman tocarry babies of all sizes, amazingly without suffocating them. The skirts,shirts, shawls, and scarves all were splashed with the wildest array ofbrilliant colors as if they go to the fabric store looking for the mostbrilliant and clashing pieces of fabric they can find. Some of the menalso wear their traditional costume which, upon first glance, looks a bitlike a big baby diaper. They'll have a baggy and very colorful shirt verysimilar to the one worn by the women. They wrap their loins in not muchmore than a long strip of white cloth serving as a form of underwear. Overthis they'll wear a short white skirt like cloth having a point towards thefront. There are no other coverings for their legs. Considering how coldit gets in these regions during winter I was surprised they hadn't givenentirely over to western trousers.

The women sell all sorts of interesting crafts in the town of Creel and outat the view point Divisidero. These include tree bark carved into shapesof people and animals, necklaces made from dried seeds and corn, woodendolls dressed up to represent their form of costume, and some absolutelystunning baskets. They have accomplished an extremely high degree ofartistic basketry. One example is a nest of some 10 small baskets thatstart with one the size of a small soup bowl, gradually getting smaller andsmaller to the smallest one the size of a thimble. They are woven to fitperfectly one inside the other. Another basket I spotted was more tightlywoven and unbelievable had an inside and outside layer. The inside layeris woven and then the grasses are bent at the basket rim and a secondoutside layer was woven. They were utterly stunning and I was wishing I could buy a few. But, no place to put them.

Before finally having to leave the Copper Canyon area to head back to theU.S. we stopped the van on the rim for one last picnic lunch with afantastic view. Out of nowhere comes running these two energetic boys.The cutest little things with their dark skin, short black hair, greatsmiles, and big, big black eyes. They were as curious as could be aboutus, the van, the bikes. One was quite a little show off, climbing high upinto a tree not much larger than an over grown stick having no low branchesat all, swinging with feet dangling for a while, then jumping back to theground. The other was so shy he just stared and smiled when I smiled athim. We shared lunch with them, which they seemed to enjoy, and showedthem our camera and the bell for the bicycle. All the while they only chattered a few Tarahumara words between themselves, I don't believe theyspoke Spanish. They were adorable.

Throughout recorded and unrecorded history the northern reaches of Mexicohave only been very sparsely populated. This is primarily due to the drydesert conditions which make an agriculture lifestyle very difficult tomaintain. Despite this there were a few settlements that not onlyprospered but thrived. One of these was the prehispanic pueblo of thePaquime Indians, the remains of which can be seen just west of the moderntown of Nuevo Casas Grande. The Paquime lived in the region from about 200to 1300 AD, reaching their zenith at around 1000 AD and rapidly decliningthere after. As with all tribes in Mexico and the American Southwest theextended drought occurring around the turn of the millennia caused a greatdecline and change in this pueblo. Believed to be relatives of the othersouthwest Indian groups, Anasazi, Otoomi, and Hopi, they share much incommon in both their building methods, religious culture, and artisticendeavors. They use the same ceremonial subterranean Kivas, lived in multistory adobe pueblo style buildings, made similar polychrome paintedpots. They used the Atatl for hunting but also had the bow and arrowwhich was an Asiatic invention. Being within reasonably easy tradingdistance to the great Mesoamerican cities they also adopted some moresouthern characteristics such as the I shaped ball court, the raising ofMacaw birds for their ornamental feathers, and occasionally the oddpractice of cranial deformation as a form of beauty. It is not knownprecisely what happened to the Paquime Indians following the final fall ofthe city, a fall that came about violently at the hands of some unknownenemy that sacked and burned the city. It is likely they joined with the more nomadic Chicimeca Indians who later moved into the regions furthersouth to create the great Aztec society.

The ruins that remain consist primarily of a honeycomb of partial wallsthat have been reconstructed and hopefully stabilized to prevent furthererosion. There are several small buildings from earlier periods scatteredaround and one large central structure that looks like a veritable maze ofred dirt adobe walls. Unlike the pueblo ruins further north, the wallshere seem to be very straight and planer. Although this may be due more tothe reconstruction than the original design. They generally just appear tobe red mud piled and shaped to form the walls, post holes, and familiar Tshaped doorways. It's easy to see why the effects of wind and rain wouldquickly reduce the walls to nothing but dirt. It was interesting to seeboth Kivas and the ball court in one place indicating the level of overlapthat did exist between cultures to the north and those to the south.Remains of the extensive water and aqueduct system used to drain water awayin times of storms and store water for drinking and irrigating crops are still evident. They used a system of rock lined culverts running around, through, and under the pueblo and leading to rock lined reservoirs wherewater was stored. In addition they had one unusual water reservoir featurethat is believed to be unique in all the Americas. Under one of thebuildings was constructed a stairway leading down a tunnel directly to theunderground water table which could help to ensure a constant water supply. Unfortunately this chasm is now blocked off for visitors, I suppose forboth preservation and safety reasons. The small but well appointed museumhouses contains some excellent artifacts of not only the Paquime group butof their more northern relatives as ell, allowing for a direct comparisonof style. There is also a model of the Paquime site, smaller modelsshowing cross sections of several houses and buildings, and a model showingthe steps to that water chasm. The museum leads you through the earliestnomadic hunter gather stages following the crossing It was time to head on back to the US. Our Mexican insurance was runningout, spring was coming, and it was getting to be time to get back to bikeriding. We drove north, dropped off the paperwork for the van, andprepared ourselves for the cultural shock of returning to the Americanlifestyle. We'd accomplished much more exploring through Mexico havingvisited nearly all of the major tourist highlights. Yet there is so muchmore to see and experience. We know that once we settle down from ourworld wide wanderings we will probably spend many more months visiting our southern neighbor.

 

Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Acknowledgements

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We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.

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Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site, http://outthereliving.com


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