travelog 97

Return to Topia

From Santiago Papasquiaro in central Durango a road snakes up west high into the Sierra Madre Occidental. It leads through pine and oak forests and passes large populations of Agave parryi and later A. filifera ssp. schidigera. At almost 2400 m (7900 ft), near the small village of Los Altares, we visit the type locality of Graptopetalum saxifragoides. In a canyon with rock pillars and columns and a small stream we climb around looking for the Graptopetalum. First we find Echinocereus acifer, a species flowering in May with bright red flowers. Next is Echeveria chihuahuaensis, also flowering in May. Finally we find the small, shrivelled rosettes of the Graptopetalum in crevices of the cliffs. Only in the shade and with more humus the rosettes really resemble a Graptopetalum saxifragoides.

The road continues through endless pine forests with views far into the Sierra Madre Occidental. It climbs up to 2850 m (9350 ft) altitude. In April of 2001, on our first trip to Topia, the pavement ended just behind La Quebradita. In December of 2010, our second trip into this area, the road is paved all the way to La Caņada del Machito, 20 kms (12.5 miles) before reaching Canelas, though it's the usual Mexican pavement. It's a very thin layer of asphalt that starts to fall apart after one rainy season and the cold of winter. The road feels more like riding on the roller-coaster, one has to pay constant attention to the many deep potholes and progress is slow, but still faster than on the dirt road many years ago. We pass small settlements that could also be somewhere in the Alps - only the Corona advertisement doesn't go well with Switzerland or Allgäu. Apple trees, brown-green grazing lands, cows, chickens and pigs, shingle-roofed wooden houses, endless fir forests. The road snakes through the forests forever and we are always expecting it to drop because Topia lies at an altitude of only 1750 m (5740 ft).

Finally we reach the turn-off to Topia but we are still driving through the forest above 2000 m (6560 ft) altitude, though we are now on a more or less bad and really narrow, dusty dirt road. Small tracks branch off to nearby hamlets and finally we catch a first glimpse into the deep canyon near Topia. Even the small town is visible for a short while way down below. Now the road steeply snakes down the mountain in tight hairpin curves. We're surprised again and again how we managed these hairpins 10 years ago with the Unimog.

Almost 200 kms (124 miles) northwest of Santiago Papasquiaro we eventually reach Topia, a small, bustling town in the middle of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Late on this Friday afternoon there's almost no getting through the narrow streets. The main drag is passable in both directions but at dusk lines of cars parade up and down through the narrow street. You have to squeeze between parked cars to let an oncoming car pass. Most cars are brand new, sparkling clean with shiny rims and the stereo system turned up to full volume. Without exception, young men sit at the wheel. In general it's astonishing how many young men there are in this place at the back of beyond! Officially, the main source of income is work in the surrounding mines, but it's obvious that there is much more money to be made at other enterprises deep in the mountains of Mexico.

Unfortunately there's a competition between the nearby schools the next day. Teachers and their pupils have occupied all hotel rooms in the small town. After having seen the second-last available room in a run-down hotel on the main plaza where we could stay for 150 Pesos, we decide spontaneously to accept an uncomfortable and cold night in the truck rather than having to pay for a musty and sewage-smelly room with two small beds and worn out mattresses, and a bathroom that has to be shared with other hotel guests. We wander through the streets a little bit lost when a young man speaks to us, asking if we were the foreigners of the UNAM. Of course our old, green pickup truck with the large stickers showing that we are collaborators of the botanical institute of the UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) was noticed immediately. We quickly get into a conversation with the nice young man and soon after he introduces us to one of his aunts. She supposedly has an empty room that she sometimes rents to the drivers of the bus. With the usual Mexican hospitality, Doņa Maria Elena invites us into her simple house. She offers not one, but two rooms, and of course free of charge. After delicious burritos at the small restaurant of Blanca, a friend of Doņa Maria Elena, we sit down in her kitchen again and chat about her childhood days in Topia. During most of the year Maria Elena lives in the Mexican state of Yucatan in a small village by the sea. But every year she comes up to Topia with her now 96 year old mother for three month to stay at her parental home.

The women fly from Merida to Leon where they visit with family. Then they hop on a bus to Durango. In Durango they board another bus to Santiago Papasquiaro where they have to change busses again. The last 28 kms (17 miles) are covered on above-mentioned dusty, bumpy and narrow dirt road. After this strenuous trip, Doņa Teresa, Maria Elena's mother, always needs a couple of days to recover. The bus drive is available for a fraction of the price of a ticket on board of a small propeller-driven aircraft. Another cheap transportation possibility is the ride with Maria Elena's cousin, the ambulance driver. The ride is free for emergency patients, but definitely not for those with weak nerves. He covers the usually 8-hour drive to Santiago Papasquiaro in 4 hours, he proudly tells us, though he went off the road in a curve more than once, on one occasion throwing not only himself and the passenger out of the ambulance but also throwing the patient off the stretcher. His most adventurous rides, he goes on, are the ones with very pregnant women who have to be admitted to the "nearby" 200 kms (124 miles) distant hospital in Santiago Papasquiaro. Of course the ambulance sets off as close as possible to the hour of birth because otherwise the women would have to pay for their additional stay at the hospital. 2 AM is not an unusual hour to leave Topia. Neither is it unusual that labor contractions start soon after the first bumpy curves above Topia and that the baby is delivered on the road. The culmination of his stories is about one of his last rides when he had to bring a young man who was found stabbed to death after the towns yearly fiesta back to his 60 kms (37 miles) distant hometown of La Cienega for the burial.

This area of the Sierra Madre Occidental does not have a very good reputation. That's how we also get to hear stories about all kinds of robberies and attacks. A very popular target are the trucks that load up with foodstuff and other necessities in Papasquiaro or Durango to be delivered to the small shops in Topia. They regularly fall victim to attacks but at least none of the drivers has yet lost his life. You can certainly notice with food prices that you're far away from the rest of the world. For example, one liter of milk in a plastic bottle that normally costs 11 Pesos, sells for 16 Pesos in Topia. Maria Elena knows more stories, rumors, and legends from Topia. With a glass of the Tequila that we have brought along from Jalisco, and a little bit of hot punch that she prepared for Christmas time, the time flies by quickly. Some of her younger male relatives have a very typical attitude for today's male Mexican youth. They are hired and paid by drug gangs, can afford a new truck with gleaming rims and a loud stereo and have an easier time with the pretty women of Topia. In return for this luxury their life expectancy drops considerably. They prefer to live according to the motto "better die young and rich than old and poor".

When we get up at daybreak the next morning, Doņa Maria Elena has already fired up the water heater. In her house the water is still heated with wood. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee with cinnamon wafts out from the kitchen. Around the corner we find a few slices of sweet bread. It's a simple but tasty breakfast. Then we're ready to take off. In 2001 we caused quite a sensation with the Unimog and were even introduced to the towns mayor who saw in us financially powerful investors for the local mines and was quite disappointed when we told him that we were more taken with plants than with rocks. At that time he ordered his deputy to show us the correct exit and descent to Los Molinos. The deputy had assured us that the road was not a problem for the Unimog, a fact that of course turned out to be sweet talk. From 1750 m (5740 ft) altitude in Topia the road drops down to 1150 m (3770 ft) at Los Molinos in risky hairpin curves. In PocoLoco we were rarely able to manage these curves at the first attempt but miraculously never had to fight with oncoming traffic. The drive in April of 2001 past many yellow flowering Agave vilmoriniana was absolutely worth the cranking. In 2010 the road down to Los Molinos is not wider or better, but our current vehicle is much smaller. There's still no oncoming traffic and soon we reach Los Molinos, a small settlement with an old, slowly crumbling mill. We follow the dirt road above the river for a while to a small ranch whose owners are nowhere to be seen. From here we walk along a foot path down to the river and to the vertical cliffs that are covered with Sedum suaveolens. All attempts to get within reach of the plants through risky climbing are futile. This time we can't even find plants that have fallen down to the ground. We have to be satisfied with telephoto lens pictures hoping that next time we will be able to spend more time in the area to search for more localities of this beautiful and interesting plant. We hike downriver a little more but only pass partially cleared areas between large rocks at the river's edge that are being watered with an automatic sprinkler system. Between all the green trees a small marijuana plantation will certainly not stand out very much in case the military flies over the area in helicopters. From the road above, the river is almost invisible. On the way back we notice a small shrine in Los Molinos in honor of Jesus Malverde that is visited by young people on this Saturday afternoon. Malverde is also called the saint of the drug dealers (Santo de los Narcos) and is something like a Mexican Robin Hood. The cult around Malverde originated in the state of Sinaloa, but has spread to almost everywhere in Mexico. It is more than questionable, though, one wonders if he ever existed as the many stories tell. The Catholic church does not recognize Malverde as a saint, nevertheless he figures as protector of people who have something to do with the production or the trade of drugs.

Tonight we don't have a problem finding an acceptable hotel room in Topia. At nightfall we visit with Doņa Maria Elena and her mother again. The two greet us with hot punch and buņuelos, hollow fritters that are similar to a Swiss specialty served at carnival time. We ennoble the punch with Tequila and spread the buņuelos, those that Maria Elena produces continuously from her frying pan and her mother sprinkles with sugar while they are still hot, with a thick guava puree derived from the small garden behind the house. Maria Elena's cousin, the ambulace driver, joins us again entertaining everybody with his stories. Of course he does not say no to a few good swigs of straight Tequila. Doņa Teresa also tells us stories from her childhood in Topia and the hours pass in no time.

The next day we leave Topia towards Canelas. Past Canelas the road climbs up again to over 2000 m (6560 ft) and meets the miserable paved road at La Caņada del Machito. One far away day this road will be paved all the way to Tamazula and the coast of Sinaloa. Time runs by too fast and we only reach La Cienega, a small lumber and mining town, when daylight is fading quickly. All the cheap hotels in the center of town are already occupied and we have to bite into the sour apple and take a room at the best hotel in town, which will be fully occupied later that night too. In mid December it's not advisable to camp outside up here in the mountains! With extra woollen blankets from our supply and fleece jackets over the pyjamas we manage to keep more or less warm in bed. At almost every other hotel in such cold mountain regions, even with a lot more economic room prices, we have later encountered gas heaters to keep the rooms warm.

Tepehuanes, our next destination, is reached over extremely bad roads. We sneak up to the mines at Tovar from the back to search again for Echeveria tobarensis, a species lost in cultivation in 1911 and never since rediscovered. But we will tell you about our quest in the next travelog.

November 2010

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen