travelog 44

Zona del Silencio

Engine noise, then loud howls out of a big green Mercedes bus. All of that in the Zona del Silncio, the Zone of Silence. From the bus pour 12 people, photographic students from Durango with their "Profe" (professor), the "Capo" (driver) and another silent helper. Immediately we're offered some beer, after all we should be quickly as cheerful and loud as our new friends. Shortly before that, everything was quite different:

Absolute silence, divine quiet, a gentle wind, dark blue sky as far as the eye can see, beautiful Agaves (Agave asperrima ssp. asperrima) which we can photograph in peace and quiet.

On our first trip into the Zona del Silencio, in April of 2001, it rained a lot, very abnormal for this time of the year, and a normally totally dry river bed was transformed into a mud hole where others have practised with their cars before us. The deep tracks in the mud spoke for itself. That's why we camped a little away from the real Zona del Silencio. As we learn later, only tractors can deal with those mud holes.

Our second trip is crowned with more success. There's no cloud in sight, no rain has fallen since months, everything is bone-dry, dusty. This you can feel as soon as you reach the maze of roads that leads through the endless plains. Here you choose the best track, but they are all equally dusty. Then you push the pedal to the metal to escape the fine silt, and you're followed by a long cloud of dust. This spectacle goes on for many kilometres until you reach a little hill with an abandoned Rancho. Big spiders settled in the drivers cabin of an old rusty truck. A packrat lives in the upholstery of the seat. An Aloe vera vegetates in a rusty pot. A faded Coca Cola sign gives evidence of once better times. A little later we reach a fork in the road where the research station of the "Reserva de la Biosfera" is announced on a sign. We decide to go there to talk a little to the people about their projects. But as we arrive everybody has gone out. And the Seņora who guards the house normally hides behind the high walls from strangers. So we can only admire the javelinas in a cage which got a visit from a turkey vulture.

Near here we also meet the happy group from Durango. After the driver tells us about a mountain with interesting plants that they want to climb the next day, we decide to move on together with them. Of course the students first have to take pictures of the sunset. Then we have to wait until the sky turns pink and red. And until everybody is again accomodated on the roof of the bus it's already pretty dark. Like crazies we race along behind the Mercedes (simply PocoLoco) which obviously knows his way. He finds every turn-off, every short cut, and we wonder how we will find our way out of this maze again. Finally, even the crew of the Mercedes is fed up with the bumpy road and we set up camp somwhere in the Nowhere. First of all the camp fire is lit up and somebody boils water for coffee. Then the bottle of Mezcal goes the rounds, the last cold beer cans are cracked open, and the women prepare some Tacos over the fire. We sit until long into the night under a beautiful starry sky and exchange stories.

The next day we can accompany the photograph students. First of all we drive with the bus to the real Zona del Silencio where there is a sign telling us that we're really there. According to our guide book this place should be swarming with meteorites, one of the reasons why we came here. According to the driver (and scientific books on meteorites) this is all a pack of lies. The big meteorit of Allende went down near Parral, that's where you can still find some splinters. Nevertheless we look for interesting rocks and make some finds - it's probably still some meteorites, everything is possible. At a washed out river bed we reach the end of the road, at least for the Mercedes bus (you should have a Unimog...). We shoulder our rucksacks and climb the nearest mountain. The vegetation gets interesting as soon as we reach the foothills. We discover Ariocarpus fissuratus (the false Peyote as the Mexicans call this cactus) in the limestone soil which grows sunken into the ground and is thus easily overlooked. Next to it flowers a tiny Mammillaria (M. lasiacantha ssp. egregia). Of course there are more interesting cacti, also Agaves, Hechtia, and Yucca trees, but we don't want to get on your nerves with too many names. We climb to the top of the mountain because that's where also the real Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) should be growing. We don't really believe that until we suddenly discover the bluegreen to pale purple fleshy cacti in cracks between flat limestone slabs. Of course our students have to cut and eat some of the plants. But they only get high on the Tequila and the home-made Mezcal they drink later... On the way back we can take pictures of a Roundtail Horned Lizard which is here in Mexico called chameleon. This little animal really trusts in its perfect camouflage and stands still while we are able to crawl closer and closer with our cameras.

The next day the group from Durango says goodbye. We stay longer and explore the many small dirt roads. If you know some of the landmarks in this area like the higher hills, it's quite impossible to get lost. Although the Zona is extremely dry and inhospitable, there is quite a bit of human life here. A few Ranchos live from livestock farming - besides, it's also possible to stumble over a marijuana field that certainly nobody would suspect here. Farther east there is even an area where salt is extracted from an ancient sea. You come by many artificial lakes, watering-places for the cattle, which are also frequented by native animals such as deers, javelinas, and many more. If you like it somewhere you slip away a little bit, look for the dead opuntia/cholla wood for the campfire, and under a sparkling sky you listen to an owl living in the rocks nearby. Although this desert is very inhospitable and sparsely covered with vegetation, you can find many interesting plants. The more you climb around, the more you discover. The mountains and foothills are often very rocky but they also receive a little more precipitation and thus are more densely covered with vegetation. In the sandy plains the Creosote bush is dominating the landscape. That's probably why the people from the research station do most of their research on this plant.

As soon as you leave the peaceful and practically deserted Zona del Silencio, you come to the freeway and later inevitably into a big city where you can replenish your supplies. That's what we want to do too, buy everything we need for the next trip in a big supermarket, greet some policemen who circle our vehicle curiously on the parking lot, and finally leave town to the east. Suddenly we have a police car at our side, the passenger waves us over to the side, and the two gentlemen get out of their car with their little book. It's the same friendly waving guys from the above-mentioned parking lot! This time they don't look very friendly and announce that they have to give us a fine. They claim we were running over a stop sign and that we also blocked another car. We, however, can't remember any stop sign (which we always pay attention to, mostly as the only drivers in Mexico, because we exactly know that these are the traps where tourists get caught in) nor can we remember blocking another car (really and truly not! This has nothing to do with the "oldtimers" disease or other signs of old age!), and so we deny all the accusations. Finally we want to write down the names and numbers of the two policemen but they refuse to tell us. After that they agree to come with us to the police station where we want to settle the whole matter. They get in their car, drive off with screeching tires, and vanish never to be seen again!

With full fridges and one experience richer, we leave civilization very quickly for the more remote areas.

P.S. The tours of our "Capo" Walter Bishop can be looked up under If somebody of you plans a special tour in Mexico, this address can be very valuable!

January 2002

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen