Adventures Along The Silver Trail
Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
31Trip End Mar 27, 2007
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Much of northern Mexico consists of a high plateau varying between two and two and a half thousand metres. Interspersed by mountain chains, it's dry unforgiving country populated by cattle, cowboys and cacti. The city of Durango sits on the plain at some nineteen hundred metres. On a morning of clear blue skies I set off in a south-easterly direction on a long straight road across golden ranges of the type frequented by the late John Wayne. After an hour or so the flat ran out and the road climbed over a low pass to a parallel valley, narrower and more undulating. After a couple of hours of winding my way across a series of grassy inclines I swept down from the hillside and into the majestically named settlement of Nombre de Dios, having covered a modest but creditable fifty-five kilometres.
Los Alegres de la Sierra - norteño music
Nombre de Dios is a small agricultural town of a few thousand souls, it's long main street, lined by stalls crammed with mysterious jars of colorful local produce. I had a quick look around the dusty main square, dominated by a large baroque church, and went off to look for some tacos.
The long straight highway which I followed towards the hills next morning was littered with death. The sweet sicky stench of decaying bovine and canine flesh polluted the air at regular intervals encouraging me to pedal faster. A myriad of roadside memorials topped by white crosses bore testament to the human toll exacted by Mexico's highways.
I recieved my own personal warning on the subject of moratality when I looked up to find an overtaking bus hurtling stright towards me. The strange chimney-shaped formations of the Sierra de Organos were certainly eye-catching but they weren't worth dying for. Even so, a toot of the horn would have been appreciated.
The highway climbed into hills covered in nopales, the bushy cacti comprising of long chains of broad flat nodes resembling glued together table tennis bats. The dangerous sounding township of Villa Insurgentes faded behind me as the air thinned and I continued to ascend towards the rock pinnacles atop the ridge.
On the far side of the pass a group of bored soldiers at a military checkpoint welcomed me to the state of Zacatecas. I wished them luck and pedalled on in anticipation of a descent which failed to materialise. A patchwork plain of gold, brown and ochre spread out to the east, bounded by a line of knobbly peaks, three thousand metres high, which barely nosed above the plateau. An undulating stretch of highway clung to the flanks of the sierra to my right beyond which the sun soon dipped. The temperature dropped and I grew anxious to arrive. From the crest of the umpteenth rise the town of Sombrerete appeared, deep in a fold between two lines of barren hills. Coasting down the incline towards the variegated townscape spread across the slopes below, I anticipated a settlement as desolate as the landscape which enclosed it.
My preconceptions were quickly swept away as I rolled into town through streets still paved with the original stone. Sombrerete turned out to be a gem of a place, a superb example of Spanish colonail architecture with fine baroque churches, well-laid out squares, elegant public buildings and a colonaded main street. I found a hotel and went out to explore. The streets were bustling with people out for the evening paseo and, far from being hicks, they appeared well-groomed and stylishly dressed. The proportion of good-looking women among the strollers lent added impetus to my decision to hang around awhile.
Next day, I wandered up onto the hills above the town. The mining lifts dotted around the ridgelines stood guard over hidden wealth therein. Most of the mines had actually long since stopped producing but a couple were still in operation, yielding the silver that was the key to Sombrerete's prosperity. Silver first brought the conquistadores in the sixteenth century. The Franciscans, the Augustinians and the Jesuits arrived in their wake and silver financed the churches required to spead the word to the natives. Silver built the roads and paid for the armies needed to establish control over the deserts. The Camino de la Plata, a highway of religious missions and military garrisons eventually extended all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Back in town I wandered through arcades and idled in plazas overshadowed by churches ornate enough to give a Presbyterian a fit. Early in the evening I ventured into a cafe to spend a couple of hours sipping beer over my notebook. The streets were a hive of activity when I re-emerged for the paseo. A brass band played to crowds in the main plaza while the protraits of a dozen beauties hung from the facade of the adjacent town hall. Somehow I'd contrived to miss the crowning of the local festival queen.
Next morning, I rode up a hill onto the plateau to be greeted with the cactus-infested landscape from which I'd descended two days previously. Surveying the bleak terrain into which I was about to ride, it occured to me that perhaps Sombrerete had been some kind of luxuriant dream.
A long day's ride, interrupted by a spate of punctures, carried me across the flanks of the Sierra Madre Occidental to the edge of Fresnillo, one hundred kiometres to the south. The slender poles of adolescent yuccas, lined the route, their spiky green fronds as lurid as a Chernobyl toilet brush. By now I was in the tropics, although at two and a half thousand metres there was a discernable chill abroad. Sundown on the autopista brought with it another moment of deflation. Out of patches and cursing like a trucker in a tailback, I pushed my bike for ten kilometres through drab darkened suburbs. It was gone eight when I found a flophouse by the bus station.
Zacatecas is also a silver town though on a much larger scale than Sombrerete. A city of more than one hundred thousand inhabitants it's long since outgrown the ore-rich hills which enclose it and has spread up onto the surrounding plateau.
After months of negociating towns and cities laid out on a grid system, I found orientation somewhat disconcerting at first. But it was seldom anything other than a pleasure to lose oneself amid the plazuelas, callejones and arcades of the old town, surrounded by elegant colonial architecture and the hustle and bustle of a sophisticated but welcoming populace. Besides, there was always the reference point of the Cerro de la Bufa, the church topped crag which towered above the city, and if that wasn't sufficient, there was always someone on hand to offer directions.
I had the good fortune to stay at the Villa Colonial, which is situated in a quiet street behind the magnificent baroque cathedral with its quasi-pagan facade of coiled pillars and indigenous saints. The main men at the hostal were the always charming dueño, Ernesto, and his brother Guillermo, whose mission it was to ensure that their guests enjoyed their stay in Zacatecas. So it was that on my first night in the city, I found myself in the laid-back surroundings of nearby Todos Santos bar with some friends of the family and a couple of fellow guests at the hostal. Chaco, the dueño, as well as being a genial host, was a patron of the arts and the bar was a haunt of musicians, who played several nights a week, and local artists, whose works hung from the walls. During my time in Zacatecas I made a point of trying to call into at least once a night with the twin aims of improving my Spanish and having a good time. There was usually somebody interesting to be found at the hostel who was willing to tag along.
It was Saturday evening and I was sitting in the kitchen at the Villa Colonial wondering what to do when the sound of a brass band came in from the street outside. I stuck my head out the door and sure enough a line of musicians walked past - a trumpeter, a tuba player and a trombonist accompanied by a drummer - followed by a couple of hundred people who were obviously in high spirits. Some of the crowd beckoned the to the small group stood by the doorway to come and join them.
'It's a callejoneada', Ernesto told us, adding by way of explantion that it would be fun. Along with Matt from the U.S. I grabbed a couple of bottles of beer from the fridge and headed out into the night. We caught up with the procession just as it was arriving in the plaza by the market house. The band played on and couples began to dance. A group of half a dozen students came over to say hello. They wore string necklaces from which hung small earthenware cups. Two more necklaces were procured from somewhere and we put them on. Introductions complete, we were directed to an old lady who carried a large vat full of translucent liquid. Beside her stood another woman with a basket of salt-coated limes. A moment later, with a cupful of tequila and a citrus each, we rejoined our new-found friends. Along with the rest of the group I raised my cup and, on the count of 'tres' up-ended it. Vapour singed the back of my throat as the liquid swirled around my mouth. I swallowed the tequila and brought the citrus to my lips. My heart felt warm and my taste buds resounded with the freshness of lime.
The procession moved off again, the jolly sound off brass mixing with the chatter of the crowd as we passed through narrow streets lined with elegant period buildings. By a fountain in a smart plazuela we paused for more dancing and tequila before moving off again, up a flight of stone steps and along the arcaded main street to the Plaza de Armas where we turned into the lanes behind the floodlit cathedral. To where we were headed, we did not know and nor did we care, so long as the band played and the tequila flowed - which they did. We swayed deeper into the maze of callejones, our Spanglish increasing in fluency by the minute, until we emerged into a large courtyard at the back of some houses.
A man emerged from one of the dwellings with a huge vat of tequila which he began offering around the assembly. The band sprang to life again and the fiesta continued with renewed vigor, dancers spilling onto the terrace and music reverberating around the yard. I lost count of how many shots I'd taken and the number of new best friends I'd made.
Eventually the music finished and the crowd began to drift away. A crowd of boisterous teenagers, encircled us and, with one of their number proferring a bottle of tequila, began chanting 'Mas, mas,mas'. I grabbed Matt by the arm and pulled him along the alleyway to the relative sanity of a nearby street. Outside a taqueria we met Luis, who was also a little worse for wear. Somehow he managed to persuade us to go back with him to his bakery which he assured us was 'just around the corner'.
We followed Luis up flights of steps and through back streets deserted save for roaming dogs. Just when I was wondering how to deal with the coming ambush Luis stopped by a rusty iron gate and produced a key. Behind the gate, a door led into a long room, at the end of which was the hatch of an oven in which bread was baking. Beside a medal table piled high with scones, sat a young man, one of Luis's relatives. He looked too exhausted to be bemused at the arrival of two drunken foreigners and Luis sent him off to bed, before leading us on a brief but enthusiastic tour of the bakery. We peered into the oven as he outlined the baking process in words we did not understand. Then we sat down to eat sweet scones and drink more tequila.
It wasn't strictly necessary to go to the night club afterwards. But the girls looked good and there was a live rock band playing. I recall a long conversation with a local fighter about the art of pugilism. Appropriately enough, I woke up the next morning feeling like I'd gone ten rounds against the young Muhammed Ali.
A couple of days later Matt and myself jumped on a bus heading north-east. A three hour ride took us to San Tiburcio, a windswept crossroads in the back of beyond. We sat down to wait for our onward connection in a freezing broken-windowed bus office. At the checkpoint outside, soldiers went through the monotonous routine of checking cars, every once in a while pulling some hapless driver out for a body search.
We were en route to the old silver town of Real de Catorce, high in the mountains of northern San Luis Potosi. This was actually in the opposite direction to that in which I had intended to travel - south to tropical heat - but I had a feeling that higher forces were at work pushing me back to the mountains. With Matt on board, all that was required was a bit of luck with the weather and the right kind of cactus - and surely both were given things if the powers that be were onside.
Like an army of advancing Gorgons, a forest of yucca trees, the bright green fronds of their many heads silhouetted against the sky, covered the plain. The rural bus crawled towards the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental, deposited us in the dusty square of Estacion de Catorce, a remote settlement of a few hundred souls, late in the afternoon. Somewhere in the cloud-capped bulk of mountains which loomed over the town lay our destination.
Upon making enquiries we learned that the only way to make it to Real de Catorce that day was to hire a jeep. Across the square we found Jorge polishing his 1962 Ford. We struck a deal and headed off into the mountains, the interior loaded up with bales of sileage and Matt and myself perched atop the roof-rack to admire the view..
A dirt track led across stony fields overrun with nopal cacti to the mouth of a gorge. we clung on tightly as the jeep swayed and bounced its way up the steep hillside past narrow strips of cultivated land built up on stone terracing. A village of a couple of dozen houses clung to the slopes. We paused while Jorge delivered his load of hay to a herd of bleating goats. Chickens roamed the lanes and small boys played football in the school yard.
On a cobblestone pavement we ascended towards the clouds, rolling around like a couple of land-lubbers on the high seas. Like an explorer of old I gave names to the strange species of cactus which thrived by the roadside - the yellowed flowered zig-zag, the blue tequila, the sliced football, the red vibrator and, as ever, the table-tennis tree. But there was no sign of the mystical mezcal.
A red-brick chimney poked its nose up from beyond a stone wall barring the ravine. As we climbed higher the long derelict remnants of a mining operation came into view, spread out over a platform which had been balsted out of the gorge. There was a definite chill in the air by the time we rounded a shoulder to see the white towers and tiled dome of Real de Catorce's baroque cathedral emerge from the mists above us. A narrow lane climbed past tumbledown stone cottages and foraging donkeys to the town's pretty main square with its orante iron bandstand and well-laid out gardens. A gaggle of touts, anxious to sell us the ultimate horse ride, pursued us to a nearby guesthouse, where we laid low until they dispersed.
Later in the evening, after a brief walk around the cold dark streets, we took refuge in a pub with a fire and there we stayed put. Matt had come to Mexico on a rock-climbing trip. Bad weather had thwarted his plans and he'd been bussing around for a while. Originally from Philadelphia, he'd recently graduated from university in Colorado, where he'd developed a taste for adrenalin-inducing sports. In addition to having some big climbs under his belt, he'd jumped out of a moving aeroplane on a couple of dozen occasions. Despite all this gravity-defying bravado he couldn't hack the cold which was part of the reason he gave for moving to Florida.
Real de Catorce sits in a col below two bare rounded summits at an altitude of some three thousand metres. In the sixteenth century silver was discovered in the surrounding hills and a prosperous town, home to tens of thousands of people, sprang up over the course of the following centuries. When mining ceased in the early 1900s the populace srifted away to more hospitable climes, leaving a behind a sparsely inhabited ghost town of elegant ruins and decaying facades. In the recent years tourism - with the aid of Hollywood (The Mexican starring Brad Pit and Julia Roberts was filmed in R.d.C.) - has sparked a revival in the fortunes and people have started moving in again. With every year that passes new houses, hotels and restaurants are emerging from the ruins.
On a cold wet morning at the tail-end of January Real de Catorce was, unsurprisingly, not at its best. The crowing of cocks and the sound of builders engaged in reconstruction had aroused me from my slumber and driven me out onto slippery cobbled streets in search of something warm to eat. Cloud hung low over the valley and a chill wind blew in off the mountainside. Tour guides, hands firmly in their pockets, hung around on the steps of the cathedral offering unseen horses for hire. Along the narrow main street, lines of stalls pedalled T-shirts, trinkets and other assorted crap. Stallholders ignored my 'Hola' and turned away from my glance - no point in smiling at a 'budget tourist' even when business is slow.
I did make one new friend in the form of a black and white sheepdog who followed me along a track leading out of town. I wandered into high-walled cemetary where the pretty white church, dive-bombed by the ravages of time, was missing one of its bell towers. An influx of fresh dead was bringing the graveyard back to life after a century-long hiatus.
I roamed to and fro across a cactus-littered moor, scouring the ground. A group of camera-shy donkeys watched me suspiciously before scattering down the hillside. Far below sunlight coloured the plain and a thin brown ribbon of dirt road stretched out towards the horizon. I found the agave and the nopal, the lasituna, the yucca and many more. But I couldn't find any mezcal.
Back at the guest-house Matt had company in the shape of Annie, a nurse from Colorado, who was a couple of years my senior. When she wasn't dodging bullets with Medecins Sans Frontieres, Annie liked to spend her time hanging from precipitous rock faces. She'd broken a few bones and, no doubt, some hearts as well. The three of us headed down to the pub with fire for the evening and Annie told us about the horse ride she'd taken earlier in the day. The guide had brought her up the mountain in the rain and pointed out the elusive mexcal cactus with its hallucinogenic peyote buttons. But the information was of moot interest as Matt had already declared that he was 'out' citing miserable weather and the 'us and them' atmosphere prevalent in the town. He was right of course. I didn't fancy being chased around a freezing mountainside by the Abonimable Snowman either. Nor did I wish to avail of the special trips which the local police had been known to arrange for cactus-eating foreigners. After a bite to eat and a few more beers I resolved to take up rock-climbing instead.
Matt took off early the following morning bound for the rock faces of El Portero Chico. It was another gloomy day in Real de Catorce and I was glad to take my place in Jorge's jeep for the return trip down the gorge. Along with me for the ride were a German woman and her local guide, who was bringing her out to the desert for a few days. On arrival in Estacion de Catorce my ears pricked up when the foxy fraulein confided that she was on her way to eat peyote and that she would be glad of some additional company. But first we would have to wait two days in this god-forsaken place for a shaman to arrive. I wished her luck and headed off to buy a bus ticket. Later that night I was in back in Zacatecas, dancing with some Mexican girls I'd met at the Villa Colonial.