travelog 80

Desierto Coahuilense

We begin our trip through the desert region of Coahuila in Monclova. This is the last opportunity to shop in a big supermarket for what is needed during the next couple of weeks. Besides, we engage again in Internet piratery. Since wireless Internet access is now available in many bigger towns in Mexico, we try to get Internet access for free instead of searching for an Internet Cafe. The easiest way for us to do this is to take the laptop and try to find an unsecured connection at all four corners of the main public square. If we succeed, we'll park the Unimog in exactly the same spot, plug in the laptop, connect to the Internet, and surf to our heart's content. If we can't find an unsecured connection we slowly cruise along a busy street with many shops and offices. One of us drives and the other tries to get the connection. One way or the other always works. Except for a few curious looks from passers by who think it strange that we sit on some stairway landing with our computer, we're never bothered.

The beautiful and deserted landscape that we came to see up here begins outside of Monclova and along the way to Cuatro Cienegas. Precipitous mountain ranges run through the barren land. On gentle hills we find huge colonies of Hesperaloe funifera ssp. funifera. Another interesting plant here is Grusonia bradtiana. With its yellow spines it really glows in the back-lighting and looks beautiful. Between the hills the vegetation gets really dense. We find a small spot where people sometimes harvest Candelilla, Euphorbia antisyphilitica, to spend the night. The entire area is being harvested for Candelilla. The modern Candelilleros drive their pickup trucks to harvest the plants but we can still often see old men at work with their fully loaded burros. Candelilla wax is being extracted from the plants. The wax is then being used in the cosmetic industry and in polishes and waxes for furniture, leather and textiles. There's lots of Opuntia wood for our campfire. We enjoy our dinner from the barbeque under a crescent moon. A glass of tequila helps the digestion. The delicate inflorescences of the Hesperaloes stand out against the still slightly lit sky of the horizon. Small bats circle in breakneck maneuvers through the twilight in search of flying insects.

The surroundings of Cuatro Cienegas alone are worth a visit of several weeks. We first visit the small information center where books and local artwork from mesquite wood is offered and where you can also get a lot of information about the area. We get the key to the gate to the "Dunas de Yeso", the gypsum dunes. In the background rises the massive Sierra de San Marcos y Pinos. On a very good dirt road we soon reach the white gypsum dunes. First it's only small hills that form in the lee of low bushes. Yucca torreyi and a Dasylirion try to make a living. The road snakes through the low white dunes until we reach a small parking lot. After a few steps most of the tracks in the sand disappear and you are completely alone. The dunes glare even whiter under a brilliantly blue sky. Sand accumulates under stunted trees, dead wood, low bushes, and between the leaves of Yucca trees and Dasylirions. We spend the night at the "Poza de la Becerra", a series of interconnected pools with wonderful warm water. Unfortunately this place lies just next to the main highway to Torreon but at night traffic slows down to nothing. There are palm frond shaded huts, barbeques, tables, and you can even rent deck chairs. First we get into the 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) warm water to soak off all the dust that has accumulated during the last few weeks. A sign on a tree advertises that it's forbidden to feed the fish. It seems to us these fish already know where to get their food without begging. As soon as we get into the water they approach and try to get some small skin pieces from our legs or even bite into our toes. There's quite a variety of fish in these warm waters, some of them endemic to the area, the biggest a black one about 15cm (6 inches) long. The area is big and we're the only visitors on this weekday until a group of young people park their car next to our truck. First they open all the doors and turn the music to full volume. Then they get out big cartons of beer cans. Our peaecful evening seems over. When more young men with even more beer arrive, it's too much for us. When we ask politely if they could turn down the volume a little bit since their taste of music is different from ours, they obey immediately. Later we see why. There are rules that say that music can only be played at low volume. Then two youths appear from behind our truck, laughing in embarrassment, and I see a puddle under the vehicle. I have to spell it out to the boys that it doesn't say much about their manners to pee under our truck, especially with real toilets nearby. Five minutes later the group packs up and leaves for the farthest corner of the area where we can't hear them anymore. Finally we spend a tranquil night under a starry sky. In the early morning the rising sun bathes the reflecting mountain ranges in pink light and clouds of steam float above the warm water. While we fill our tanks in Cuatro Cienegas we're approached by a young man. First we think that he's a guide offering his services but it turns out that he's an archaeologist working for the INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia). We talk a little and he invites us to his office where we coan check our emails. His office turns out to be a small house that he shares with a young woman and her small child. We clear our way through an incredible chaos and out into the small garden where we plug in the laptop on an improvised table. Surprisingly we have a secured wireless connection to the Internet and can download and respond to our mails.

The road from Cuatro Cienegas to Ocampo is paved. Shortly before reaching Ocampo we take a side trip to the west towards the Sierra La Madera. We drive over a big flat on a mostly bad dirt road until we finally reach the first foothills of the sierra. Here we see the first Yucca faxoniana. Most of the plants have their inflorescences cut off. A vaquero, a Mexican cowboy, explains to us later that the flowers of this species are a very good cattle food and thus cut in masses. As soon as we get into the hills we drive through an incredibly dense forest of Yucca faxoniana. Somewhere we park among the millions of plants and enjoy our dinner again under the stars. The next day we pass two abandoned looking small ranches and meet the aforementioned cowboy who is rather surprised to see us out here. Unfortunately we have to turn around because the next cattle guard is locked and he doesn't have a key. The big loneliness begins north of Ocampo. On a dead straight dusty road we slowly move northwards. The land is absolutely flat and boring. Sometimes we can make out some low hills on the horizon but the road never approaches any elevations worth mentioning for the next 100 kilometers (62 miles). After these 100 kilometers we can't resist the first rocky hill where we find Ariocarpus fissuratus together with some other cacti. There are only a few scattered ranches and huge grazing lands out here. Rarely do we meet another car. Sometimes the ranches are named as indicated on the map. Then we see signposts with names of villages 286 kilometers (178 miles) away. Finally we turn off to the east and towards the Sierra La Encantada. We come to the village of Las Eutimias where Candelilla seems to be the main source of income. In vain we inquire about an abarrote (grocery) store. They don't even have electricity here, let alone something to buy. Our road now consists of many tracks that somehow all lead north. This stretch must be quite an adventure during the rainy season when the fine dust turns into muddy clay.

Finally we reach an incredibly good dirt road where we can drive almost as if on a major highway until it ends at a gate with an armed guard. This is La Encantada, a huge Canadian-Mexican silver mine. After an enternity and umpteen telephone calls we finally get the permission to drive onto the grounds to buy drinking water in the only store in this place. Bananas rot on the racks and potatoes sprout. The only things that seem to sell like hot cakes are canned beans, chips, CocaCola and Maruchan instant meals. We park the Unimog at an abandoned rancho where the road gets closest to the sheer cliffs of the Sierra La Encantada. Then we hike to and into a spectacular canyon on a very old and almost completely overgrown road. Without this track it would be impossible to get through the carpets of Hechtias and Lechuguillas. The sheer cliffs are completely bare except for some Hechtias. Further in the canyon we don't find anything interesting apart from beautiful rock formations and chiltepin, a tiny but very spicy wild chile. Later we look for a place to spend the night and come to a hut cobbled together with corrugated iron and cardboard that we didn't see from the road. A few goats, chickens and a dog dig in the sand. The owner greets us in a friendly manner and tells us the story of half of his life. When we already want to leave, he asks what he can offer us. He doesn't even have water at his place, a neighbor brings it every day. We thank him very gracefully for his typical Mexican hospitality and park a little ways away from his place.

The road from Melchor Muzquiz to Cuesta La Malena and to the turn-off to Boquillas del Carmen is paved. We enjoy the pavement only for a few kilometers. Just past aforementioned turn-off the road that leads us to San Miguel is again washboardy. We stop for some old mining shafts where we always find some nice pieces on the slag heaps. Shortly before reaching San Miguel we meet the road construction team. Indeed there are plans to pave the road all the way to San Miguel in the near future. They are measuring and marking like crazy but if there's enough money left for the project after the measuring is done, it will be a welcome surprise. There's luke warm coke and beer for sale in San Miguel, of course for rip-off prices. Then the usual Maruchan instand meals. And gasoline out of canisters. Behind this village it gets lonely again. The mainly sandy and pretty bad road leads through flat lands and we can only imagine the mountains in the far distance. We cross untold numbers of dry riverbeds where most of the crossings are washed out and have to be bypassed. Now we meet at most three cars a day. We are the only ones for miles and miles in this godforsaken corner of Mexico although we're only a few kilometers south of the border to the USA. In the far distance we can make out the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. The land is infinitely wide, the night sky studded with stars, and the coyotes sing us to sleep.

Before reaching Alamos de Marquez we explore a canyon through which the road leads up onto a plateau. There are calcareous rocks protruding through the sand in the dry riverbed. In exactly those rocks Martin discovers a fossilized ammonite. We find another fossils, a shell, a fish and something like a leaf. But no Crassulaceae, our objective in climbing down into the riverbed. Alamos de Marquez lies exactly at the border to the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Now the road miraculously becomes one of the best dirt roads we've ever driven on. Soon we meet a two-men team that works on the road with heavy machinery. How long this nice surface will last remains to be seen. Again we get closer to colorful mountains and on a side trip we find petrified wood and other beautiful rocks in the foothills of small valleys. The road now leads through badlands. The soil sometimes is yellow with the remains of red volcanic rock jutting out from it. The pastel colored hills are eroding. Then we come to Paso de San Antonio, pass through a beautiful river valley with green Cottonwood trees and finally reach the pavement in Manuel Benavides after 600 kilometers (373 miles) of dusty dirt roads. The cemetery is still very colorful with all the flowers left from the Dia de los Muertos. In a small grocery store we meet again one of the same man who was working on the road yesterday. Here the world is still small. As soon as we leave Manuel Benavides towards Ojinaga we meet another contribution of civilisation, a military control post. Of course these guys are really interested in our truck when it suddenly appears from out of nowhere. After all, they know all the people driving through here because nobody drives further than to and from Manuel Benavides. After a very thorough inspection of our vehicle and after they identified the plastic bag with the suspicious white powder as flour, we chat for a while.

On all the 600 kilometers, some of them leading very close along the American border, we haven't seen a single military control. No patrols either. The area is so godforsaken, lonely and inhospitable that not even desperate illegal immigrants or drug traffickers stray into these lands. We will always remember the infinite expanses, the star studded sky, the pastel colored hills and the howling coyotes. And then there is the tempting turn-off to Boquillas del Carmen and the Sierra del Carmen, areas we didn't explore this time around because of lack of diesel fuel and food. But we will be back to work our way through these lonely lands again, another project that for the moment ends up on our already huge project pile.

October 2007

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen