Semana Santa en Chihuahua

Trip Start Jan 11, 2006
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Trip End Jun 21, 2006


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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Good evening to all and happy Día de las Madres!

As the traditional May 10 holiday honoring those wonderful females caught me off guard by providing me with an evening off school, I find myself composing my last entry from the city of Hermosillo. I have just a few days left of school and a week to finish up projects and take exams, then a healthy month to experience Mexico via buses and a backpack. Needless to say, I'm more than excited and, as great of an experience Hermosillo has been, ready to move on.

The last month and a half have been action packed and by far the best time spent here, so it's difficult for me to look back and tell the stories in a logical, chronological order. Shortly after updating last, remembering how frustrating it was staring at the computer screen with those curly locks in my way, I headed to my first and likely only Mexican barbershop. My thinking was straightforward; shorter hair would be much cooler and allow me to travel more inconspicuously (aka: less gringolike). I was correct in the former, but unfortunately my short hair and failed attempts at growing a mustache haven't made me look any less American. However, I was lucky enough to receive a straight edge razor shave, which was both weird and sensational at the same time.

With short hair and a clean shave, I was prepared for Katie's arrival just before Holy Week, or Semana Santa, where I was given a week off of school and a brief glimpse of how thrilling and fulfilling travel is in a foreign country when you can speak the language. Semana Santa and Christmas are the two times of the year when all of Mexico seems to be on the road, so we weren't sure what to expect as far as crowds and availability goes. Leaving Hermosillo Friday morning, our first stop was San Carlos to meet up with Ryan's mother and sister, who were down visiting as well. (Many thanks to Ryan's sister for providing us with some music - thanks to her, we've gotten to enjoy Jethro Tull, Dire Straits, Sting Cheese, Dispatch, Jack Johnson, Yonder Mountain, Johnny Cash, and Bela Fleck, all from our cozy Mexican room. I will never leave home again without music!). That night we enjoyed seafood on the beach and fell asleep under the stars on the beach near Ryan's hotel, which only partly confused the hotel security guard when he asked if we wouldn't prefer a bed.

Monday we lounged on the beach and had dead jellyfish fights, then grabbed the bus to the city of Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, the state bordering Sonora to the south. The most special feature about Los Mochis is that it serves as the western terminus for the Chihuahua al Pacifico railway, running from the city of Chihuahua in central northern Mexico to the western coast at Los Mochis. It has also been described as North America's most beautiful train ride, which Katie and I had decided to see for ourselves. Our late night arrival in Los Mochis only gave us a morning to explore the city, where we checked out the markets and breakfasted on some delicious pastries and papaya shakes. We quickly hopped a bus to the small colonial town of El Fuerte (The Fort), where we would board the train the next day. A small pueblo centered around a church, plaza, and rebuilt Spanish fort, we found El Fuerte a great alternative to boarding the train in the metropolis of Los Mochis. The flora was noticeably greener as here I was privy to my first flowing Mexican river (the Rio Sonora is dry - more on this later) that wasn't filled completely with wastewater. We explored the city, ate some delicious black bass and enchiladas, then joined the sleepy village for an evening song and dance festival in the plaza before cashing in for the evening.

Tuesday we rose early and took a taxi to the train station, only to find ourselves the first people at the station. There are two classes of trains on the Chihuahua al Pacifico, Primaria and Economica, and their differences are rather intuitive by simply hearing their names. The old story claims that the conductor, when asked if the train arrives on time, replied, "The train always arrives on time...unfortunately, sometimes it's yesterday's train that arrives at today's time". The system has recently been privatized and is rumored to run much smoother than previous years. Slowly but surely people started to trickle into the train station, and it became apparent that we were the only people headed out on the Economic Class, as the people arriving were the elderly retired class of the US out for an enjoyable train ride through Mexico. The Primaria class arrived about 20 minutes late with plenty of open seats, and once again we were left alone at the stop. Throughout the next hour (we arrived far too early) Mexicans started to appear until a large group of about 30 of us was waiting for the train, which arrived around 45 minutes late with the conductors telling us there were no open seats. No open seats, but they were still letting people on? Fair enough! We boarded and shared the floor of the dining car with all who didn't already have seats.

The Chihuahua al Pacifico begins in Los Mochis at nearly sea level, climbs through the mountains and canyons of south western Chihuahua state, reaching an elevation of around 8000', then drops back down to Chihuahua City around 4000'. You start in desert landscape with cacti, sagebrush, and rocky landscapes, reach pine forests and rock formations rivaling Yosemite National Park in the mountains, then return to the desert. Seated on our box of water bottles in the dining car, we had a fantastic if a little uncomfortable view of the scenery changes. At the small town of Divisadero, the train makes a 15-minute stop to allow you to soak in the scenery of canyons four times the size of the Grand Canyon, and upon first view my breath was literally taken away. The Divisadero train stop is essentially the city itself, with merchants and street vendors selling everything and anything along the train line with business that depends solely on the arrival and departure of the daily trains. There is a ridiculously expensive lodge on the edge of the canyon that milks tourists of their money, but we didn't find much else. We boarded the train and were luckily awarded a seat and a step up in comfort from our dining car seats.

The tickets we had were good until Creel, a small town more or less located geographically between the coast and Chihuahua City and positioned in a key spot for canyon exploration and great hiking. The elevation of Creel is around 7000', so the climate was a breath of fresh air coming from the desert. We climbed off the train into a sea of small children, ages 8-15 or so, each advertising a different hotel and trying to reel in the guests. We did our best to break free as we were eager to stretch our legs and find a place to crash in our own time, but a young chap by the name of Chi Chi had another idea. He followed us throughout the city, and in his enthusiastic and sweet manner of repeating himself and making grandiose plans that would never pan out, we came to realize that he wasn't entirely checked in upstairs. We did our best to humor him, and lucky for me he did most of the talking. He led us to a few different lodging options, and finally we decided on Casa Margarita's, a combination hostel-lodge with a common eating area complete with breakfast, dinner, and Mariachi bands. Everyone gathers in the dining room to eat delicious home cooked meals and the environment is super friendly for travelers of our type.

I'm not a seasoned traveler by any means, and most of my traveling has been out of a backpack and living in a tent, not doing the cheap hotel/hostel thing that Katie and I did this trip (we did this to cut down on our gear and travel much lighter and quicker). Having said this, I learned very fast how the hotel system in Creel is designed to work in favor of those renting out rooms, not those checking into rooms. I could get into lots of details, but it would probably be a bore to read and might not make much sense, so I'll describe it in more general terms. Certain hotels around the area run tour services, and are much more apt to share information with you if you agree to go on a tour. There are also several guest houses around Creel which rent out rooms and are often linked with a certain hotel, so if the hotel is full they will send you to one of these guest houses. Katie and I were more interested in exploring on our own than paying for a tour, so our second night we ended up in a different hotel which, although nice and very clean, wasn't quite the social or economic value of Casa Margarita's. The next morning I managed to get us into a guest house run by the sister of Margarita, but only after agreeing to go on one of these tours. Luckily the Señora who lived in the guest house was extremely sweet and friendly, giving us fresh tamales and hot chocolate the first morning, and it also came with the added benefit of eating at Casa Margarita's just down the street. We stayed in the guest house for the rest of our time in Creel, until Friday morning.

Creel is located next to an ecological reserve of the Tarahumara Indians, the native people of the canyons in Chihuahua. Visitors are allowed to enter this reserve for a small fee, explore the forests and the lake, the old mission churches, waterfalls, hot springs and extremely bizarre rock formations (shaped like elephants, mushrooms, and frogs). There are also many Tarahumara still living in the reserve in caves and rustic cabins, the men dressed in thrift shop style clothing and the women dressed in brightly colored dresses with scarves and hoods. It was a bit awkward to walk around in what felt like their backyard, so we limited our time in these areas and spent our few days getting lost in the woods and hiking our butts off. One afternoon, we were eating our lunch of tortillas, beans, and cheese, when a small dog came up to us with a look of hunger in her eyes. I gave her the remainder of our beans, and instantly Katie and I had adopted a new best friend. She followed us on our circumnavigation of the lake and right back to the door of Margarita's, probably about 12 miles total, and even met up with me the next morning. Creel is on the right track in the respect that a Catholic mission provides free medical care to the Tarahumara, and there also exists a separately run dog orphanage.

Friday morning we boarded a bus for a quick stopover in Divisadero before heading out to Chihuahua City. The bus we took was in rough state of disrepair, and seemed to have problems with the transmission and radiator. At one point the bus stopped, and passengers with extra water had to donate it to the driver to fill the radiator. We eventually made it safe and sound and were aided by some extremely friendly gentlemen in working our way around the bus system. It has been my experience that when you tell someone in a part of Mexico how friendly the people are in other parts, they do their best to outdo that friendliness. It's a very advantageous system. We ate that night in a hip, open-air restaurant with live music and great food. However, I tried a drink called Clamato, which is a mix of clam juice and V8 to which you add beer, and it is my recommendation to stick with straight beer. Possibly the most disgusting beverage I've ever tasted, yet people here go crazy for it. We spent the rest of the night exploring the lively, European style streets of Chihuahua, checking out the large statues and monuments, and surprisingly ran into a few people from our original train ride from El Fuerte.

Saturday was an uneventful day full of bus riding. There is no direct highway between Chihuahua City and Hermosillo, but the bus travels north to Agua Prieta on the US border, then back south to Hermosillo, a total of about 16 hours. We did our best to stomach the horrible movies and catch some sleep while possible, but 16 hours on a bus is 16 hours on a bus anyway you spin it. We arrived in the heat of Hermosillo around 4 a.m. Easter Sunday, and welcomed our beds with open arms. Easter Sunday we spent in a city park, laying low and reading articles out of Backpacker and parts of a Paul Theroux novel to each other. Katie left on Monday evening and will spend the summer working at the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee, and has admitted to dearly missing and even dreaming about Señora's food.

That will have to do it for tonight. Tomorrow I will try and catch up since Semana Santa ended, which includes trips to Ciudad Obregón to survey people about water problems and the week I just spent with students from Michigan and Canada on a field trip and study of the Rio Sonora basin. Thanks for tuning in!

Buenas noches,
Jeff
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