I will spare you the details. Here are the facts:
– Urique is a pueblo of about 1,000 people located at the bottom of the deepest canyon in North America.
– The canyon is about 5600 feet (1870 meters) deep.
– Urique is about 30 miles from Bahuichivo, which is a stop on the El Chepe train.
– Urique has been on the map since the days of the Jesuit missionaries (about 1690), but a road into the canyon wasn’t constructed until 1976. Until then, the only way out of the canyon was on foot or by donkey or horse.
– The descent to Urique from the canyon rim is about 3000 feet (1800 meters) in the final five miles of steep switchbacks.
Impressive stats, no?
My descent to Urique was in a van crammed to the eyeballs with Christmas shoppers returning from…wherever…in the dark of night due to a very late train.
Still, I was hopeful that it would be quick. After all, how long can it take to drive that 30 miles from Bahuichivo?
About 3 hours, as it turns out. After chugging along fairly level, paved roads that wound through pine forests, dropping off people here and there, which took a couple of hours in itself, we rounded a bend, and there, far, far below, the lights of Urique, twinkled like inverted stars in the clear night sky.
Once again I found myself tucked into the corner of a crammed van navigating switchbacks in the dark on a one-and-a-half-lane gravel road without guardrails along a cliff edge. At each turn, those little twinkling lights remain frustratingly far away. By this time, however, I was numb to fear, and, except for the little landslide that had left just enough room for the van to squeeze through, the road was in pretty good shape.
Down and down and finally, we were driving through the dark streets of Urique, dropping folks off at various sleeping casas. Then, it was only me in the van. I was supposed to go Entre Amigos–a unique little hostel built and run for years by two American guys and their wives. But the van driver seemed reluctant to go there. Finally, he tells me that it might be better for me to stay at a hotel in town and go to Entre Amigos in the morning. He tells me this several times loudly, although I got the gist the first time. I am more than happy to put myself at his disposal.
We pull up to a gated hotel, which he assures me is economico y limpio, and he calls loudly. Finally, an old woman shuffles out and actually seems happy to have a guest.
It is 1a.m.
I wake at 5a.m. to the sound of someone vomiting violently. This goes on for a while. Voices. Feet. Periodic retching. Finally, a car starts and drives away, and all is silent.
At 7, I leave the key and head out.
Entre Amigos is one of the reasons I decided to venture into yet another canyon-bottom village. I’d read about how restful, how idyllic the place is. About the vegetable garden and the lovely, rustic cabins. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve, and this seemed like a muy tranquilo place for the holiday.
Everything I’d heard About Entre Amigos was true. You can read the backstory here.
Keith, one of the partners, is a weathered guy who likes to putter around in the garden, play his guitar, and watch the world go by. The days of backbreaking labor are over. He’s seen a lot of people come and go through the little piece of Eden. Over the years, Entre Amigos has acquired a certain cachet among the backpacker/long-distance runner/adventure traveler crowd. So, it would take a lot to impress Keith. I do not impress Keith.
His wife, Violeta, is charming. She still works as a professor of Spanish and linguistics at a college in Oregon. When I arrived, she was in the final throes of a textbook manuscript about language and the teaching of Spanish.
But she wasn’t too busy to prepare a lavish holiday feast for her guests at Entre Amigos, which amounted to me and Scott and Serena, a couple staying in the next-door cabin. Scott had already targeted me as fair game for his sharp wit.
“Well, Kate, I had just started to like you,” he’d gripe when I returned his zingers. “And now you’ve gone and ruined it.”
Serena was aptly named–sweet, down-to-earth, and beautiful, which made me self-conscious of my older and less-pulchritudinous state. “Drink water,” she advised. Maybe, but I think it’s all in the genes.
I’d had a great time hiking to the next town along the river with Scott and Serena. As I find is usually the case, I’d gone much farther than I’d have had the guts to by myself. Both the company and the scenery had been excellent.
In the evening, after a shower in Keith’s wood-fired bathhouse, we dressed for our quiet holiday celebration. Inspired by Serena’s clever use of fashion accents, I even dug out a pair of earrings and a scarf.
I can’t imagine a finer Christmas Eve far from home. The company, the food, the music (classic rock–the music of our youth) the warm air scented with the citrus trees Keith had planted long ago. Finally, after we had eaten and cleaned up, we sat in the midnight dark under the same panoply of stars that must have blazed across the sky the night an insignificant baby, whom it so happened would change the face of time, was born in a cave? A stable? Not unlike the circumstances that many children in this place are born into.
I felt both insignificant and cradled in something warm and secure.
Later, we would learn that a policeman had been shot and killed on Christmas Eve in this tiny place. Probably by a relative. A search was on for the killer who was probably hiding…somewhere.