travelog 112

Quebradas de Durango

Rugged landscapes with tall mountains, vertical cliffs, and deep canyons where you have to cope with altitude differences of more than 2000 m (6500 ft) per day; dirt roads that look as if they were last used years ago; encounters with exactly one car with happy, beer-in-cans drinking passengers or an assault rifle wearing horse rider; busy villages with gold and silver mines; well-known and new plant species. All that - and much more - can be seen in the "Quebradas" of Durango, and that's what we will tell you about in the following travelog. If someone now intends to visit this spectacular area because of our travelog, please be very careful in planning your trip. Spanish language knowledge is a real advantage, fourwheel drive and high clearance are absolutely necessary, and of course you need enough time and a good amount of adventureous spirit.

The Quebradas are named for their spectacular rugged landscapes, or "broken" landscapes if you'd use the literal translation. There's the Quebradas del Piaxtla, one of the most precipitous and deepest, also named the Quebrada del Diablo by the Spanish about four centuries ago; the Quebrada Ventanas, one of the closest ones to a major highway but almost the least travelled because of its access difficulty; and the Quebrada de Basís, probably the easiest accessible one where you need to drive along a spectacular vertical cliff face. The lowest point lies at about ~500 m (1600 ft) above sea level, the highest peak rises over 3000 m (9800 ft). There are a few busy villages like Tayoltita or Cardos profiting from nearby mines, or San Miguel de Cruces and La Ciudad, both small logging towns, along a paved highway. You come through lonely and often abandoned ranches or small settlements where only a few families live. Many times we were asked what we were selling because it is unthinkable to these people to drive that many miles along such bad roads to penetrate deep into this Godforsaken area just for the fun of it. Along the main highway you can stock up on supplies, fill the gas tank and get a room in a shabby hotel in the abovementioned logging towns like El Salto, La Ciudad, and San Miguel de Cruces.

We began our adventure with Jean-Marc in La Ciudad. The rain clouds of the previous evening were gone and we left under a clear blue sky. There was a sign a little west of La Ciudad at the turn-off to Borbollones. This was the last sign for the next few days. We drove along the only dirt road that looked more or less used through Borbollones and asked at the other end of the village if we were on the right road to Palmarito. The people explained that they did not know the road but that they were quite sure that it was passable all the way through to the other side of the canyons. An old woman gave us her blessing and we went on our way hopefully protected by all her many blessings. Behind the village, the road went through a dark fir tree forest and was almost unvisible. Fortunately we met a small pickup truck loaded with wooden crates full of gorgeous looking peaches. Of course we asked the driver about the road to Palmarito and he turned out to be a native of the area. We were on the right road, he told us, and it was impossible to get lost. Further down the mountain we would see the plantations of peaches but the main road was clearly visible. The man was in the car with his young son to deliver the peaches in El Salto. He was delighted that we wanted to venture into this lonely and beautiful area. He obviously didn't meet many tourists along this road. After he had given us some of his wonderful, freshly picked peaches as food for the journey, we all went our ways. Soon we came out of the dense forest and had the first spectacular views down into the Quebrada de Ventanas as the view opened up in front of us. From a rocky plateau we had a wonderful 180° view and also saw the peach plantations and a few houses below us. Of course we took the wrong road because it looked more in use. At least it was only a few hundred meters but with the extremely bad condition of the road every meter was too much to drive back. First we passed Agave inaequidens ssp. barrancensis, then we saw Echeveria affinis and E. dactylifera.

If we did not have to have our eyes glued onto the road, we enjoyed the spectacular views down into the canyon of the Rio Presidio and saw the many switchbacks of the road far below us. We took another wrong turn because the road looked a lot better than the other branch; it led us to a small ranch. Turning around on these steep mountain sides with the many switchbacks was a big undertaking every time. A huge specimen of Echeveria dactylifera that almost looked like a light green agave was worth stopping for. Four kids rattled passed us on their ATV. The biggest boy was driving and passed our trucks elegantly on the mountain side. A completely stripped pickup that must have broken down here sat on the side in one of the next switchbacks. The temperature went up as we drove down deeper into the canyon and the vegetation was drier now. From time to time we spotted the bright red flowers of an Echinocereus koehresianus. Hylocereus were thriving on the rocks and orchids grew in the trees. At a dry creek bed we passed a small ranch house with flowers in the garden and chickens on the road. After about 35 kms (22 miles) from the main highway we finally reached Palmarito. It did not look as though anyone was renting rooms. A young woman came out of one of the few houses and wanted to know what business we had down here. She lost all interest when she found out that we were looking for plants for the UNAM and did not bring the newest fashion from the big city Durango. Shortly after passing Palmarito we had to ford the Rio Presidio. At the end of the dry season its water level was very low. We decided unanimously that we needed to gain as much altitude as possible to find a good place for camping. In the meantime it was late in the afternoon and thick, black rain clouds appeared above the mountains. Thunder was loudly rumbling in the distance. At 1350 m (4400 ft) we found a small place that had room for two cars, our chairs and the table. Quickly we stacked the boxes in the back of the truck, filled the inflatable mattress, got the sleeping bags ready, and hoped that the rain strom would not come down above us. The beer from the cooler was still refreshingly cold, and Jean-Marc offered his addictive Pommes Chips. We were lucky and only a few rain drops fell, but instead the tiny biting insects were a real pain where the sun never shines. As an alternative to the small settlement Mala Noche (Bad Night), that we had passed earlier, we spent a wonderful night. The upgrade to an inflatable mattress made a big difference in sleeping comfort. Jean-Marc was less lucky. His car, a Toyota FJ Cruiser, was shorter than our huge Dodge and the poor man squeezed himself on a thin mattress somewhere between the front seat and his many boxes. This did no good to his back and knees.

A young man guiding a "train" of donkeys came by in the morning. His animals carried large plastic buckets, the cargo hidden by bags. In this area it could well have been marijuana or something like that. Our breakfast was accompanied by the loud squawking of "guacamayas", green parrots (Ara militaris) flying far above us. As soon as we had packed our stuff and driven up a few more curves we stopped at a very interesting looking cliff. Plumeria, Mala Mujer, Cnidoscolus sp., and Ipomoea were all flowering in white. Agave multifilifera clang to the vertical cliff together with A. bovicornuta and A. vilmoriniana. There was also a very compact, green to purple and silvery colored hechtia, Echinocereus koehresianus and Mammillaria sp. Of course there were also Laelia species orchids and in the more humid and shady places with accumulated leaves we found a Cyrtopodium species. The teacher from Mala Noche walked down the road with her son. She came back from a "Quinceañera" in San Francisco, a party where the 15th birthday of a girl (and her becoming a woman to be married) was celebrated. San Francisco was situated 16 kilometers (ten miles) walking/driving distance above Mala Noche in the mountains. From where we met her she still had to walk another six kilometers (about four miles) but she only shrugged her shoulders when we asked her if she was not already too late for her 16 pupils and the beginning of her school day on this Monday morning. The road first led along a mountain range with spectacular views down to the Rio Presidio and the endless canyon landscape. Soon we drove along a mountain crest. There were vertical drop-offs over cliffs on one side. On the other was a rounded knob where we discovered a lonely Echeveria dactylifera. Walking around to find more interesting things we also discovered large groups of Echeveria pringlei var. parva. One large Encyclia citrina, a tulip or daffodil orchid, hung head-down in an oak tree. Jean-Marc was fascinated by a Mammillaria species that resembled M. craigii, M. lindsay or M. grusonii. A Chevrolet Yukon was parked above a small ranch house, obviously for eternity. The car did not have four-wheel drive and it was an absolute mystery to us how these people got to here with it. A Jeep Cherokee, loaded with beer drinking young men was the next encounter in a hairpin curve. One needed to have a ton of faith in God for the driver and his abilities to get into his car with a beer in hand after a party (the Quinceañera in San Francisco) and to drive along one of the worst and most precipitous dirt roads we know.

About 20 kilometers (13 miles) after having crossed the Rio Presidio we reached La Desmontada. At the other end of the village a large group of young men had gathered together. They were all lolling around and drinking beer. On one side three AK-47 machine guns hung from a tree, on the other side of the road two smaller automatic weapons leaned against a tree trunk. Martin stopped just for a very short time when I mentioned the guns and instantly one of the young man approached the truck. We talked for a while very politely and the young man was astounded by that much tourism in this remote area. It was obviously not very common to see two cars with white-skinned tourists whose truck was plastered with UNAM stickers so that precisely men like the one leaning against our truck would be able to identify us from far away as harmless. Unfortunately he was absolutely against our taking pictures of their impressive collection of guns because this (taking pictures!) would be illegal. Besides, he said, the guns were only here to protect the village. For a Monday afternoon and such a small village in such a remote place it was obvious that the youth team did not follow a "normal" activity. We also doubted very much that the military or state police got here often to smoke out the gang - and if they did the men would long before have been warned by their "halcones", their "falcons". The next village was San Francisco where we were asked for which political party we were advertising since only three weeks were left until the presidential election. At 2760 m (9000 ft) we reached the highest point along the road, then passed San Jose de Causas and shortly after saw beautiful, large agaves in the forest with a fantastic white leaf imprint, only remotely resembling an Agave inaequidens ssp. barrancensis. After roughly 72 kilometers (45 miles) from the paved road on extremely bad roads through extremely spectacular landscapes we had finally reached the turn-off to Las Cebollas and Tayoltita.

By now it was late in the afternoon. As usual thick, dark rain clouds gathered above the mountains. Tayoltita with a hot shower and a comfortable bed was still 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. At least there was hope that this main dirt road, which was also travelled by the official public bus from Durango, was a little better than what we had driven on before. Unfortunately our hope was not fulfilled. Though the road was a little wider, but it also had more traffic and was therefore more distroyed. Shortly past Las Cebollas we admired once again the spectacular, rounded cliffs with thousands of Agave inaequidens ssp. barrancensis. There was also A. multifilifera, Echeveria pringlei var. parva, an Echinocereus sp., the usual Mammillaria and one single, completely inaccessible cluster of Graptopetalum amethystinum. Now we drove down in hairpin curves seeing more Echeveria pringlei var. parva together with Sedum copalense. Soon we caught the first views to Tayoltita at the edge of the canyon but the road still snaked endlessly along the almost vertical mountain sides until we finally reached the slope just above Tayoltita from where the road again snaked down to the little village in what seemed like endless hairpin curves. We had to fight the usual traffic jam because most of the narrow streets are two-way streets and cars are parked on either side. We managed to get to the corner of the hotel "La Parriquia", a place that belongs to the mining company and is reserved for the workers and engineers, but the nice lady remembered us from our previous visits and found one available room with three beds that we now shared.

A hot shower, the room with A/C, the hotel in the centre of town, and a nice restaurant just around the corner where we got ice cold beer and delicious food. Well-fed and happy we chatted for a while with the neighbors of the hotel who also remembered us from another visit. One of the sons with the most interesting name of Inri Salvador had produced a DVD about Tayoltita. For the less informed; INRI means "In Nomine Rey Iudios". We have to admit that the guy's first name was a lot more exciting than his DVD. We got into bed exhausted and not even Jean-Marc's snoring was able to keep us awake.

June 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen