The road to Batopilas

 

I am no stranger to wretched roads. I’ve done the Alcan highway across Canada and to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I’ve done Highway 1 through the length of Baja California. I’ve done miles of gravel. I’ve done mountain passes. I’ve done 20 percent grades hauling a 30-foot trailer.

A one-lane gravel road with hairpin curves along mountain rims? No guardrails, of course. Guardrails are for sissies.

Bring it on.

Well. Let me tell you, the road to Batopilas ain’t like nothing I done before, and I can’t even show you because I was jouncing along in a packed van through the worst of it. And in the dark through the rest.

The road to Batopilas that I DIDN’T see. (photo by Jim Fontana)

Batopilas is a tiny town at the bottom of a canyon amid the huge maze of the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon). A single road connects Batopilas to the rest of the world, and it is a one-lane gravel scratch winding way down the mountainside. (I’ve hear there are other “back roads” but I don’t want to even consider them.)

The trip takes 4-5 hours from Creel, the village at the top of the canyon. The Mexican government has been working to widen and pave the road for two years and it will probably still be working on the road a year–or ten–from now. Thus, the road is closed from 6am to 6pm, during which enormous machines cling to the face of cliffs that dwarf them by comparson. Small brown men throw their bodies into the work of moving rock and earth under dangerous and intensely unpleasant conditions. I don’t know how long they work or where they are trucked when they get off work because there are few places to go. The whole operation seems brutal to both men and machines.

The construction means that, although the road is wider in places, it is clogged with haphazard piles of rubble and stone. All the ordinary traffic that connects Batopilas with the outside world plays chicken with earth-movers that are literally clearing the road of rock and rubble ahead of them. Everyone seems to play the game adroitly and with good humor–you can’t indulge in road rage here and live to tell about it–but it’s a long and tortuous way to the bottom.

Clinging to the mountainside.

Clinging to the mountainside.

 

Dust from the rubble being pushed down the mountainside

Dust from the rubble being pushed down the mountainside

I shared the ride down the mountain with a family just returning from a vacation in Chihuahua. We queued up in the afternoon midway down to wait for the road to open, which unaccountably didn’t happen until 7:30. By that time, 6-year-old Cesar was running circles around the van, hyped on sugar and exhaustion.

In the queue waiting for the road to open.

In the queue waiting for the road to open.

“Cesar, ay,” said his mom, Flores, patiently as her son threw himself over the seat several times.

I’d pretty much been a silent passenger by the window, but now the novelty of someone who spoke a strange language was enough to distract Cesar for about ten seconds. We ran through colors and “How are you.” The grownups drew from long-ago memories and came up with random phrases: Good morning. What is your name?

Finally, because of Cesar’s sugar-laden attention span, I brought forth electronic magic from the depths of my bag. For the next half hour, Cesar was so intensely focused on the games I’d downloaded for my granddaughter, that he sometimes forgot to swallow and would literally drool down his chin. He recognized Fruit Ninja right away (How does this happen in a place so remote?). He made electronic snowcones and did electronic pedicures, and by the time he was finished, he’d worn himself out and the road was open.

I got to Batopilas late that night. Flores had told me to stay at Juanita’s, where there was a courtyard and it was very pretty.

As we unloaded in the dark and quiet street, Flores repeated, “Vaya a Juanita’s. Esta mejor.” She pointed emphatically across the plaza and to the right.

Fortunately, a couple was still sitting in the quiet plaza, and told me which window to knock at. I knocked.

Nothing.

I looked helplessly at the couple. The woman got up and bleated at an upstairs window: “Juan-A! Juan-A!”

Eventually, an older man appeared at the window.

“Tiene huesped,” said the woman flatly, resuming her seat on the plaza.

In a few minutes, to my utter relief, the man shuffled down and ushered me through a hall full of heavy, antique furniture, to a clean but basic room off a lovely, tropical courtyard.

Batopilas-Juanits's exterior

Courtyard view from my room

Courtyard view from my room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Batopilas is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos–magical towns, and the designation is well-deserved. It’s a sweet little place with a lovely plaza, a handful of  restaurants and a melange of hotels, from a backpacker hostel to one fancy place on the hillside.

View across the plaza

View across the plaza

Bonita Batopilas

Bonita Batopilas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Batopilas began as a silver mining town owned by an Amerian, Alexander Shepherd, who ran an efficient and lucrative operation there for 30 years. Because of the relative importance of the mine, tiny Batopilas was the second city in Mexico (after Mexico City) to be wired for electricity. (Which is ironic, because there was NO electricity most of the time I was there.)

The process of moving the silver from the canyon bottom to the railhead at Chihuahua, 240 miles (385 km) away was a exercise in dogged tenacity and good logistics requiring a small army of mules and men.

Juanita is incisive and intuitive with a big heart, and I liked her immediately. She hooked me up with Manuel, a local guide, who is cut from the same cloth–direct, intelligent, and gentle.

Juanita (right) and her friend Virginia.

Juanita (right) and her friend Virginia.

Manuel in front of a traditional Tarahumara house like his grandfather's

Manuel in front of a traditional Tarahumara house like his grandfather’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuel lives simply in the mountains. He is part Tarahumara and fondly recalls the traditional ways of his grandfather. He has been a guide for a long time, and although he is now 70, he didn’t hesitate suggesting a 10+-mile walk to show me the church at Satevo and the tiny Tarahumara community nearby. After sitting on buses for two days, I needed a walk. A trek along the river at the bottom of this canyon seemed perfect.

Trek along the river. The old church at Satevo is just visible in the distance.

Trek along the river. The old church at Satevo is just visible in the distance.

 

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11 Responses to The road to Batopilas

  1. Joe Todd 12 January, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    Thanks Kate

  2. Veronica Jabrocki 11 January, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    I greatly enjoyed reading of this new adventure! The way you connect with the locals is admirable, Kate. Please keep “wandering” so that we may travel with you. Take care … be safe.

    • Kate Convissor 11 January, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

      If you so much as smile, these people light up (especially in the small towns). I think that’s one of the things I’m enjoying most is the serendipitous and lovely encounters with the people.

      (Glad you got that danged numeric screening thing to work. What a pain.)

  3. Carol Brainard 11 January, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    At first I found myself comparing your adventure on this road to a couple of roads we’ve experienced in Colorado and more recently in New Mexico. But then I realized this is much more similar to the day-long drives between cities in Tibet. There, roads of similar condition regularly wash out during torrential rains and whatever community lives closest to the road is required by Chinese law to maintain their part. These roads are also one-way and if they have a bridge, the bridge will be designated as one direction on some days of the week and the other direction on the other days. We were with a small tour group (about ten of us) on the equivalent of an old VW bus. The entire ventilation system on these buses has been removed to give more rock clearance underneath the vehicle. That means that the passengers take turns sitting next
    to the driver on a hump under which the engine sits which is the only place that is warm. The helper is in charge of wiping the fog off the windshield. The luggage racks above the seats have huge rubber bladders filled with oxygen in case you get so lightheaded from the elevation that you need a toke. On one of these long rides the rains were unbelievable and we saw another tour bus stopped on the road going the other direction. Our driver got out and talked with the other driver. When he returned, he spoke with our guide in Chinese and she reported, “He says he can’t help them and we have to look after ourselves.”

    You’re a brave soul, Kate..for being on that road and for being in the back seat with Ceasar. Great pictures!

    • Kate Convissor 11 January, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

      Whoa! Now THAT’S an adventure. Makes my hairy ride look like a walk in the park. I may think twice about Nepal, altough I hear its pretty fantastic.

  4. shawn 11 January, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    This makes me want to read your next book! More, please.
    That road was spook, YIKES!

    • Kate Convissor 11 January, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

      Oh, there’s more. Never fear. (Dunno about a book, though.)

  5. Cary Carlson 10 January, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    We are soooo envious . . and traveling vicariously. Ed rode motorcycle to Creel in 2006; several in his group rode on down to Bat. and back on layover day and said it was long and hard. Seen photos of Satevo and the hacienda. Never seen a photo of the road down til yours, it looks very scary. We have rare book (1938) by Shepard’s son, who grew up in Bat. In your “rocking chair” days, some day, you’ve got to read it.

    • Kate Convissor 11 January, 2014 at 9:01 pm #

      Might have known you guys would have beat me here. A bike would have a hard time now with all the rubble piles, Although I met a kid (30-ish) from the states who not only road his bike (the back way) to Batopilas, but then went over the mountain to Urique. Took him two days to do the road to Urique and he said it was awful. Also lots of narco surveillance.

      Batopilas, for me, is a one-time trip until they get that road paved.

      I really can’t imagine growing up during those silver-mining years Fabulous wealth, but sort of a wildcat, cowboy experience. His father was known as the Grand Patron. The way they carried ingots of silver out on mules from one wayside stop to another is incredible. I’d be very interested in the book.

      No need to be jealous–it’s all still here. Take the El Chepe once more for old time’s sake.

  6. Maria 10 January, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    Picturesque indeed and a fascinating history from silver mines to today with no electricity. Wow!

    • Kate Convissor 11 January, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

      Mexico–and other developing coutries, I imagine–are a sometimes jarring counterpoint of beauty, patchwork systems that somehow, sort of work, great skill at making do and making by hand, a temperament of endurance, and a lot of scraping by and sometimes not scraping very well.

      It’s fascinating.

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