“My brother has a hotel in El Fuerte. It’s clean and secure. You should stay there,”
I had, once again, fallen into a rabbit hole and was waiting for the train in Bahuichivo to complete the last leg of my trip through the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre). I’d been speaking with Miguel, who was a health worker for the state of Chihuahua and whose job it was to innoculate Tarahumara children (and adults). As such, he spent a lot of time in remote areas in the mountains and canyons.
He didn’t look like a guy who spent his life trekking over mountain passes with vials and needles. He looked more like an accountant. Right now, he was on vacation with his young daughter, whom he obviously adored and which she obviously was aware of and used to her advantage.
Miguel was a gentle, intelligent man, and during our wait at the station, he ranged over many topics in rapid-fire Spanish most of which I didn’t understand or can’t remember, except the part about assaying gold. He pulled some gold pellets and jewelry out of a pocket to demonstrate their heft and value.
At times like these, I swallow a piece of humble pie and realize how infantile my Spanish still is. I nod and smile as the words fly by, but really, I mostly don’t have a clue.
I did, however, get the name of the brother’s hotel in El Fuerte, so when the train pulled into the station in the dark of early evening, I had a name to offer the van driver.
El Fuerte is the next-to-last stop on the western end of the El Chepe train through the canyon. I’d heard that the town was much more picturesque and manageable than the final destination of Los Mochis, and since I was going to hunker down for several days over New Year’s, manageable and attractive sounded good to me. El Fuerte was both.
Gaspar, Miguel’s older brother, was bent with the burden of the establishment he tried to manage, but which seemed to be managing him. He showed me to my room, which was indeed very economical, but which was also dank, windowless, and moldy without sink, internet, or electric outlet. The place seemed to be a hangout for extreme, and extremely young, budget travelers, and an assortment of other vague types.
Now, my standards aren’t high; I can tolerate some level of grunge, a few holes in the sheets, a few insect guests behind the shower curtain (assuming there IS a shower and a curtain. There is a point at which, however, I literally can’t stand to be in a place.
I couldn’t stand to be in this hotel. I felt guilty about ditching this kind and burdened man’s establishment, but he seemed to take it in stride, just as he swallowed all the other humiliations, large and small, that came his way. Nonetheless, for the next few days, I did all kinds of maneuvers to avoid passing directly in front of his hotel, which was awkward since I’d just moved down the street to Enedino’s little place, Hotel Guerrero, which at least had a pleasant courtyard and electric outlets.
El Fuerte is a “Pueblo Magico,” which means the Mexican government has deemed it a nice place to visit. It was founded by Juan Francisco de Ibarra in 1564, and it has been a gateway to the inner sanctum of the Sierra Madres and the mining towns of Urique and Batopila ever since. Now, it’s also the gateway to the El Chepe train. The wild interior of the mountains that I’d just passed through was never really “conquered” by the Spanish as the rest of Mexico was. It isn’t really conquered today.
El Fuerte lies along a pretty river (el Rio Fuerte), and it has that characteristic Mexican colonial atmosphere, which was soothing and enchanting after the past weeks in rough-and-ready frontier towns. There’s a plaza; a mercado; places to eat that range from taco stands to linen napkins. Even a coffeehouse! With Internet.
It was only slightly disconcerting to see the small army of heavily armed local police riding around with only their eyes showing above their stocking masks. I asked a local about it, and he said that it made people feel safe. Well…okay. I guess I was just thrown off by those big guns, which are scary no matter who’s carrying them.
El Fuerte is a two-day town. Maybe three, but since I was there to wait out the New Year festivities, I began to dredge into corners. So, I:
–visited the fort and the museum, which was like the town scrapbook with photos of the town fathers and the festival queens.
–took the river cruise, which was surprisingly pleasant. The guide was used to ferrying serious birders, and had eyes like the Hubble telescope. He could see things that I couldn’t even with binoculars. I’m sure I was a disappointment.
The tour includes a stop at the extensive petroglyphs, which I later discovered were an easy walk from town. He interpreted their meaning from a book in English of petroglyph drawings, so perhaps his interpretations were slightly skewed.
–walked around. Found the market. Drank coffee that wasn’t Nescafe. Took photos.
–paid homage to Zorro, my childhood hero, who was apparently born in El Fuerte (according to the plaque in the lobby of the hotel in which he was apparently born.) The young Diego left El Fuerte after his father died, and went to Alta California, which is now my country (USA). Years later, stories of “the fox,” El Zorro, a masked Spanish version of Robin Hood, filtered back to El Fuerte and somehow the missing Diego was linked to the mystery man.
–spent New Year’s Eve with my landlord and his pretty girlfriend, who arrived after work with a tubful of homemade tamales. I thought they were waiting for friends to come over after mass. But I had attended mass and no friends showed up. So it was just me and the landlord and the girlfriend, who served us after working, driving to El Fuerte, and making tamales. Hmmm. No wonder the landlord looks like a happy man.
And the next day, I walked across the street and got on a bus to Los Mochis, and from there to Mazatlan. From mountaintops and canyon bottoms to seaside resorts. I was beginning to feel the flow.
And some freebie animal photos: