This article is from the April 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
Durango, Miles From Nowhere
by David Simmonds
The best advice I ever received about traveling in Mexico was provided by a retired gentleman, an expat living in his trailer in Guadalajara around 1975. I remember riding as the passenger in his car, catching a lift into the centro for shopping, my right arm partially resting out the window. This was when he literally screamed at me, “Get your damn arm back in the car!” Never having been one to enjoy being screamed at (that’s right, I never served in the military), I was ready to retort in kind, when he calmly explained the reason. One of his closest friends had his arm crushed by a side-swipe, and it wasn’t all that rare. He told me to look around to see if I saw many others driving or riding in that style, with the arm (either right or left) resting on the open window space, as is so common in the States. And he was right. People keep their body parts inside the car in Mexico, particularly in city driving. And so it happened that I was riding the bus recently from the Pacific coast city of Mazatlán to Durango (rhymes with “your mango”), the historic town high in the Sierra Madre. I hadn’t had a lot of sleep the previous night and the bus ride takes about seven hours to cover the 180 miles of mostly hair-pin turns, a few small villages, and some of the most majestic vistas in all of Mexico. I say it takes seven hours, but it actually took an hour longer due to the fact that our bus driver had to stop at every ba o in route, borrowing toilet paper from all the passengers as the trip progressed.. This did not seem to embarrass him in the least. Well into the journey I slid my window open and tried to position my head in a reasonably comfortable position to catch a nap. I discovered it worked best with my right arm resting on the window sill as I grasped the rain gutter above the window for support. It was at just that moment, when I was half in sleep and half awake, that I recalled that specific instance so many years ago in Guadalajara and my friend’s advice. And I knew I should get my arm in, but this felt so good with the breeze in my face and I was just about gone when…KABLOOM. I was jolted forward in my seat and opened my eyes to witness the side-view mirror flying through the air and a lumber-toting truck inches from my face and closing fast. I yanked my arm inside two seconds before we side-swiped the truck, wondering why I always seem destined to learn things the hard way.
How did this happen? There is very little traffic on this road. How did my diarrhea-challenged driver get us in this situation? Well, it seems that we were passing the lumber truck, which isn’t that unusual, except there are no straight sections of road for fifty miles. So the driver thinks, “What the hell, we haven’t seen a vehicle coming the other way for ten minutes, so what are the chances?” At this time, I imagine, he crossed the virgin hanging from his rear-view mirror, downshifted, and then went for it.
I suppose this usually works for him, or else he wouldn’t have lived long enough to develop an intestinal disorder. But my man guessed wrong this time! The car coming down the hill apparently sensed trouble because the driver was going slow enough to actually stop before committing a head-on. Fortunately, all three vehicles disengaged before any major damage occurred and after a few minutes we were all on our way…the driver ba o bound and still proudly unfazed.
At first glance, Durango would seem to be of little interest to the traveler. It’s a somewhat large city of 600,000 with sprawling neighborhoods filled with fairly prosperous (relative to much of Mexico) Durangue os. Much of the commerce is connected to farming, ranching and lumber. However, what first put Durango on the map was the Cerro de Mercado, one of the world’s largest iron ore deposits. The 300 tons of production daily is thought to have another 100 years remaining.
The locals seem to be a happy, friendly and mostly educated lot. They dress well and don’t seem to be terribly impressed with the few tourists who visit their city. And that really is what I like about Durango.
THE HISTORIC CENTER
When you go, find your way to the historic center. Most of the buildings are from the 17th and 18th centuries. The centro has been declared a national monument by the government. The buildings and architecture compare favorably with those in Oaxaca City or any number of colonial towns. But the big difference is that you’re about the only person with a camera slung around his neck looking for the tourist office. You don’t feel like you stepped into a international tour group convention with people yammering in ten different languages, which can be the case elsewhere.
It’s an easy town to get around in. You won’t need a car and the buses are efficient and cheap. In the centro you will want to walk everywhere. The focal point is the Plaza de Armas, a clean and lively zócalo flanked by the beautiful Catedral Basilica Menor. This is actually the third attempt at constructing a building in this location. The first church was built in 1571 only to go up in flames sixty years later. This was followed by a poorly built twin-towered church that had to be demolished before it collapsed. The present-day cathedral was began in 1691 and was a continuous project for the following eighty years. The interior is one of the most impressive in Mexico and is widely regarded as the finest in northern Mexico.
There are numerous other churches in the area, the oldest being the Santuario de los Remedios. Built on a hill (same name) in 1640, the church offers an outstanding view of the city and was used as a look-out for angry Indians, who had not been pleased with the “discovery” and settlement of their lands. Indeed, the battles were so fierce and frequent that between 1679 and 1738 the governor lived in Parral, Chihuahua, some 250 miles to the north. One particularly bloody battle resulted in the deaths of 15,000 natives.
There are a few other specific buildings to admire, although nothing on the scale of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. It is more the overall architecture and ambience of a working city and a kind of sense of discovery that makes Durango so nice to visit. It’s the kind of town that draws you into its streets and makes you want to explore and peek into the inner courtyards that are common to Spanish style buildings. Most of the guidebooks give it little coverage. Frommer’s Mexico 96 doesn’t even mention Durango. It’s just out of the tourist loop. Although not that far from Mazatlán, most of that town’s tourists rarely venture elsewhere. They get dumped out their airplanes ready to either fish or party or both. Most of them don’t even take the time to see Mazatlán’s historic center which is slowly being nicely restored. After a few days of revelry allowed by their “package deal,” they fly back north for three more months of ice-fishing, their skin the color of Bazooka bubble gum. But let’s save that for another issue, several months from now.
THE HOLLYWOOD CONNECTION
John Wayne spent a lot of time in Durango. Starting in the 1950’s, producer/director Robert Jacks discovered the area as having perfect natural lighting and terrain to film westerns. And at almost 6,000 feet in elevation, the weather is almost always sunny and mild. It reminds me a little of Santa Fe and Taos in New Mexico. Well over 100 films have been shot near Durango since then, many starring John Wayne, who also spent time over on the coast drinking and fishing, in that order. The Tall Men (with Clark Gable and Jane Russell), The War Wagon, Chisum and Big Jake (all with Wayne), two Sam Peckinpaugh classics, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as well as the more recent Romancing the Stone and Old Gringo were all filmed in Durango and the surrounding country. There are three different movie sets still intact that you can visit a short distance from town. Local bus transportation will get you there or the tourist office arranges tours on weekends. You can find current information from the tourist office. In the same building the state has its own office whose sole purpose is one of facilitating filmakers who want to make their films there. The office is called Dirección Estatal de Cinematografía and they also can arrange tours. The tourist office address is at Calle Hidalgo 408 Sur, about four blocks from the Plaza de Armas. The hours are 9-3, closed on weekends.
SOUP AND MESCAL
The food is very good in Durango…and plenty cheap. They are most proud of their caldillo durangue o which is a soup I ate for almost every meal. A bowl of this with a pile of tortillas is perfect any time of the day and highly recommended with a very cold beer. It’s basically a stew-like brew with chunks of beef, venison or goat in a rich natural broth loaded with chiles. This is served at the finer restaurants as well as the food stalls at the open air mercado. It tastes a little different at each place, but it is always a treat you don’t want to miss. When you tire of caldillo, try some gorditas, also served almost everywhere. These are basically two corn tortillas pancaked together and stuffed with…all kinds of things. Or you can request flour tortillas which is another thing I like about Durango. This is wheat country more than corn fields and tortillas de harina are readily available.
I had heard that mescal is produced in abundance in the area and was directed to a five-foot wide store-front with a Mexican lady selling unlabeled and uncapped recycled bottles of a clear liquid that I imagine might have a variety uses, the most obvious being to permanently deaden your brainstem and render your tongue inoperable. Which it does quite well. All of this in the name of research for you…the reader of this report. By the way, brain damage runs cheap. A half-liter bottle, capped with cellophane and a rubber band, costs four pesos (around 40 cents US). The other applied uses involve killing gophers and cleaning engine parts, or so I am told.
GETTING TO NOWHERE
Despite being off the tourist trail, Durango is actually not hard to reach. There is an airport with flights from Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and a few other places. Buses run in all directions. Although it takes several hours in transit, it is mostly toll-road all the way from Laredo, Texas. Also, the train is an option, a very cheap option. You can get to Durango, even though not that many travellers do. I know I will be going back.
Its a good starting point to visit the Zona de Silencio. This is a large, remote area located where the states of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua meet and I’ve heard some intriguing reports about it. A lot of meteorites descend into this desert and NASA has a research center there. Radios lose their signal, or so I am told. I have made some connections with people who have offered to take me there and learn more.
And I must repeat: the bus ride from the west coast of Mexico on Highwy 40 is a visual wonder. This section of the Sierra Madre contains some of the most unexplored regions of Mexico. It is very rugged with canyon and mountain views that are truly breathtaking. You will pass through El Salto, a small lumber town, from where you can hike in the hills to streams, waterfalls and canyons. The terrain is such that the Spaniards never established a mission in this area, which they did in the more renowned Copper Canyon. El Salto is only sixty miles west of Durango. I highly recommend this drive. Just keep you arm inside the vehicle.