Riding El Chepe: Part 2
Into the Canyon
I jumped off of El Chepe at the town of Bahuichivo — a picturesque hamlet nestled among the mountain pines — and immediately came across three white women carrying big packs. They had been in my train car, and from the sound of their language, I pinpointed them as Dutch. Years of meeting travelers in Southeast Asia had attuned my ear when it came to picking out accents and languages, and Dutch was one of those that I just knew right away.
There were also heading to Urique, so we boarded the dusty white minivan going there and rolled out of town. Our driver was a thin young guy with a soccer player’s fauxhawk and thick eyebrows that threatened to meet in the middle. He immediately slammed the gas and began screaming down a narrow road replete with cracks, ruts, and potholes — not to mention dogs, cows, and chickens aplenty. Two of the Dutch women (one blond, one dark-haired) immediately piped up with calls for him to slow down: “¡Tranquilo! ¡Tranquilo!” they cried. The one in the dark hair then went on to explain in emphatic Spanish, that she had been in a car wreck just a couple of months before due to speeding. Laughing nervously, our driver smiled, nodded, and just barely let off the gas.
We soon pulled off into a kind of mountain depot with a couple of school busses parked outside. This is a common sight in Mexico, since they routinely buy old American school busses and reuse them for public transportation. A dozen or so locals milled about in front, while a tough-looking woman in jeans and a ponytail (who had been riding shotgun with us) got out, slid open the passenger door, and informed us in military-sounding Spanish that we’d now be transferring to a very shitty looking school bus sitting next to the van. The thing was covered in dirt and grime and most every window had at least one major crack. We could see a number of locals sitting inside its dark cavity.
Now all of us had agreed to pay 230 pesos (around $15) for the two-hour ride, which, while not exactly a king’s ransom, wasn’t exactly a bargain, either. We knew we were being charged the “gringo price,” which didn’t bother me so much, as I think double-tiered pricing in parts of the world where people are seriously poor is just fine. What bothered me — and the Dutch trio — was that they were changing up vehicles on us. We were initially led to believe we’d get to ride to Urique in a private van, but now we were being foisted off onto a filthy bus that looked like it was held together with glue and baling wire. And we hadn’t even seen the inside. Though two of the Dutch women spoke good Spanish, I nominated myself to make a stand.
I jumped out of the van and located the woman in charge.
“If you are… changing vehicles…” I sputtered… “then… you have to change the price.”
“No, no. Everyone pays the same price.”
“But we paid for the van. Not this old bus.”
“You are taking the bus.”
“But it is not fair. “
“230 pesos is the price. Or you can walk.”
She had us by the collective ballbag and had no choice but admit defeat. Before we knew it they were tossing our bags from the roof of the van into the bowels of the jalopy. We soon followed, slinking onto the crowded little school bus and squeezing into our seats, where we took our hosing in grim silence.
Not only did the passengers change vehicles, but so did the driver. The Dutch women groaned as our fauxhawked speed demon sat down at the controls. They understood clearly that he was about to navigate us down the narrowest of roads that descended into a very deep hole in the earth, a place where one miscalculation would mean the death of us all.
The bus was now filled to capacity, with four foreigners and local folks of all ages and sizes. We found this out very clearly just before departure, when a young woman lumbered on board with her daughter, who must have been about five years old. At this point there were no seats left, so she and her little girl were forced to stand as the old bus herked and jerked out of the depot and onto the main road.
I felt sorry for this woman and for a moment I was seized with the impulse to surrender my seat, but one good look at her mammoth ass quickly disabused me of such a notion. Her ass was so big that it nearly managed to touch edges of the seats on either side of the aisle. To top it off, she had it squeezed into a pair of short shorts which did little to contain the cascade of blubber. The ass fat just fell out of the bottom, huge slabs of cheek being called the ground by the brutal bitch named “gravity.” Feeling the eyes of the bus drawn to her beef flanks, she kept trying to pull down the tiny strips of denim in a futile attempt at modesty, but they were invariably pulled back up while that ass just made a run for her feet. There was simply no way she was going to fit into just one seat. I tried to avert my eyes, but each jostle of the bus shook her cheese in tectonic waves, and I just couldn’t help but stare.
Luckily, our creaky bus pulled into another improvised station just 20 minutes down the road. Much to my relief, the woman and her daughter exited the vehicle, though I’m sure some of the local boys were more than happy to have such an addition to the area’s landscape.
We soon pulled off the main road onto a very rough gravel track which brought us out along the top of the Urique Canyon. It was gorgeous country. The river carved out its path over millions of years, revealing golden and red rock toward that rose from the verdant valley in sheer magnificence. The sky was a brilliant blue, with blossoms of white and purplish clouds hovering just over the spires. Far below we could see the silvery brown thread of river snaking through the bed of the canyon, with the settlement of Urique splayed out as a motley assortment of colorful buildings. It was the kind of scenery that punches you in the chest; all I could do was gasp in a kind of blissful disbelief.
But the savoring of the canyon’s grandeur was interrupted by our maniacal driver, who blasted the bus along the tiny gravel track a rate that made our hearts sprint. With each jerk forward and hard corner we left claw marks in the seats in front of us.. The dark haired Dutchie (Katja) who sat across from me was especially horrified, having just recently survived a crash. Along with Jessica (the blond), she again protested, admonishing the driver to slow down. “We don’t want to die!” they shouted. “We don’t want to die!”
And “die” is exactly what would happen. This particular route was blasted out of the face of the cliff, with sheer drop-offs of thousands of feet at the road’s edge. This left zero room for error, yet our driver lurched and careened as if there was no danger in the world.
We were offered a respite when we turned off and stopped at the mirador, a large viewpoint with metal platforms bolted onto the lip of the cliff. This installation offered vistas of the whole valley, opening up the wide expanse of canyon for all of us to take in. We took turns snapping photos and breathed in the pure air before once again boarding our rolling tube of death.
As we began to drop back into the canyon, I noticed that our driver was having trouble with the gears. He was grinding them pretty hard, and a one point he just stopped for a while and revved the engine in neutral, as if he had lost the gear altogether. I took advantage of the pause in horror to retrieve a small bottle of Jameson that I had stashed in my pack. I immediately unscrewed the cap and took a few hot swigs to dull the sharp edge of fear slicing my guts. I was straight-up afraid of dying in a Mexican bus plunge.
After more revving and clashing metal he found his gear and we throttled forward once more, only now the bus picked up even more speed. His driving became extra-erratic, lurching and weaving within inches of the road’s killer edge.
The locals rode in seemingly unconcerned silence, while the four of us looked on with faces drained of blood. I was seriously pondering the possibility that this may be it, that at any moment we were going over. After all, we read about deadly mountain bus plunges all the time. Who was to say that I couldn’t go out that way, in a crushing tumble of glass, rock, metal, and blood?
I had been on these hell rides before — on a crowded Vietnam highway, in a minivan in Sumatra, on the Karakorum Highway in far western China — and each time had come face to face with real, cold sweat fear. Here I was again. I thought of a passage from Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster,” where his own terrible driver crashes the car while heading balls-to-the-wall to Tibet:
“It infuriated me that this had happened on a dry road, under clear skies, so early in the trip. Now we were stuck, and it was because of the incompetence of Mr. Fu. He had been driving too fast. But it was also my own fault for having said nothing. “
Inspired by Theroux, I resolved to raise my voice, but Jessica beat me to it. She had had her fill. She shot up the aisle of the heaving vehicle and shouted, in very demanding Spanish, “What part of ‘slow’ do you not understand? Are you crazy?? Do you want to die???” Our driver grimaced, and the two of them continues with a short, hurried conversation.
Jessica turned back towards us and announced in loud English, “THE BUS IS BROKEN. HE SAYS HE CANNOT USE THE LOW GEAR. IT’S NOT SAFE FOR ANY OF US.” Switching back to Spanish, she shouted “Stop! Open the door! I’m not riding on this bus any longer.”
Abashed, the driver obeyed and brought the bus to a halt. She wrote down his number so she could later track down her bags, and motioned to her two companions, who got up and walked down the narrow aisle in solidarity.
For a moment I froze. After all, I had supported their attempts to get this driver to slow down. For me, the most nerve-wracking aspect of traveling in less-developed countries is the stupidly aggressive way that so many people drive. I hate it. The fact that these women weren’t putting up with it made them heroes in my eyes. On the other hand, we were on a mountainside somewhere in… Mexico. Could we just jump off this bus and expect everything to turn out okay?
Of course we could.
I grabbed my light pack and joined their walk out.
As the bus rolled away, we were left with nothing but the rocks, earth, wind, and clouds. I was decked out in my new light hikers that I had picked up for this trip, but the women were in flimsy little flip-flops and totally unprepared for a long slog down a road with jagged rocks jutting forth like so many crude arrowheads.
We were probably about halfway down the mountain. We could clearly see Urique below us, with the road making countless switchbacks in its seemingly never ending descent. Any way you cut it we had a long way down.
As we walked (with a lot of sliding and stumbling on their part), I learned their story. Jessica and Katja were doctors. They had been working at a hospital in Mexico’s southernmost (and poorest) state of Chiapas. Sylvia, Jessica’s sister, was a mother of three back in the Netherlands and had flown into Tijuana for a visit. They had spent several days travelling in Baja, before taking the ferry across the gulf to Los Mochis, where they jumped on El Chepe. They planned to continue on to Chihuahua City before heading back to Chiapas, and Europe, respectively. They were enjoying bit of girls’ adventure, only now with a random American man thrown in.
We hiked down the road into the wide embrace of the canyon, marvelling at the rocks and the sky, which took on a supernatural look. A bruised cloud unleashed a streak of rain onto a nearby mountaintop, with the low rumble of thunder confirming its presence. It seemed to be wafting our way, but we managed to stay dry on our side of the canyon.
“So what’s it like working at a hospital in Chiapas?” I asked. A large hawk circled overhead.
“It’s a Catholic hospital,” Jessica said.
“Run by nuns,” remarked Katja.
This caught my attention. “Nuns?”
“Yes, but we think they’re actually brujas,” Katja replied, using the Spanish word for “witches.”
“That’s right,” said Jessica, laughing. “We’re crazy bitches who work for witches!”
After about an hour on the road we heard the sound of a vehicle crunching on the loose rock behind us. Jessica and Katja waved it down and soon we joined two local dudes sitting in the back of the black pickup. We rode in the rocking bed for about five minutes, until we spied another vehicle heading up the road towards us. It was a red jeep, piloted by none other the driver of our bus. He had been sent to retrieve us.
The four of us jumped down from the back of the black pickup and poured into the jeep. “¡Tranquilo!” admonished the women. “¡Tranquilo!” Our driver, Damian, was all now all smiles, as if the incident on the mountainside was all forgotten. He pulled a very careful three point turn and, to our relief, delivered us into Urique at a speed that could only be described as geriatric.
It was around five o’clock on a Sunday evening and the whole town was drunk. As Damian rolled through its streets, we were greeted by red-eyed, swaying men gulping down red and silver cans of Tecate. Music blasted from doorways, balconies, and the few vehicles putting along. People shouted to us as we passed by. From the look of things, it seemed like we were catching the tail end of Urique’s all-weekend bender.
The town itself was made up of about three main roads and a minor maze of side streets. The houses and buildings were all just one or two stories, while a handful of tall trees provided shade from the punishing canyon sun. Urique was originally founded as a mining center, but now relied on tourism and local agriculture, not to mention the drug money that was surely circulating through. Damian made sure to point to a few of the “mafia properties” to me, which included the biggest house in town and an empty motel with a few hard-looking men sitting in the parking lot next to a couple of menacing, black SUV’s.
The Urique River gurgled past, penned in by expansive rock fields on either side. Like most deep canyon streams, the silty water resembled a heaving, rolling channel of chocolate milk. A pedestrian footbridge made from cables, chain-link, and wooden slats spanned the river, delivering crossers to a collection of humble houses across the way, as well as the town’s baseball diamond.
After driving in circles for the better part of thirty minutes in what I supposed was an attempt to introduce us to the town, Damian brought us to our guesthouse, a wide compound of traditional stone outbuildings called “Entre Amigos.” The Dutch trio took a private room, while I opted for a bed in the dormitory lodging, which, to my luck, was empty of guests.
We were, in fact, the only people there. Aside from the couple of backpackers I’d seen at my place in El Fuerte — as well s the American senior citizen tour group at the train depot — I hadn’t come across any other non-Mexican tourists during my admittedly short time on the road. Foreigners just weren’t making the trip and I was absolutely sure this was due to the drug violence that continues to plague northern Mexico. While everything I’d heard and read assured me that — as bad as things may be — tourists are almost never targeted, the bloodshed was enough to keep people away, and Urique was feeling it firsthand.
Still, I was glad to have a private room for the price of dorm.
The two nights and days I spent in Urique were hallucinatory. I could wax for pages, but in the interest time, it’s best to boil it down to just a few snapshots:
*The food at Restaurante Plaza, where Dona Tita offered up down home fare that scratched a deep itch. Each meal was a massive plate of rice, beans, chili-pepper fried meat or slabs of fish, served up with lettuce, avocado, salsa, and flour tortillas. It was the food of the home, of the family. She was a woman in her 60’s and respected throughout the town. She kept a cat that, every night, slept on a shelf over a portrait of her late husband. She told me that the cat never much cared for her husband when he was alive, but now honored his memory. “Animals, know these things,” she said.
- Endlessly cruising the circuit of the town with Damian while the weekend’s party staggered to its conclusion. Over the course of the evening I bought several six packs of Tecate at the walk-up open air beer mart and shared them with him and anyone else who needed a one (which turned out to be a lot). They sold the cans in plastic bags that include a scoopful of ice. Damian cranked the Mexi-music as he drank and drove at around the town at 5 mph, introducing me to el patron (his boss), his very pretty wife and son, as well as a long chain of friends and relatives, including his cousin — an M-16 wielding cop who gave me a handshake and Damian a couple of smokes.
- Hiking up the canyon along the dirt road skirting the river in the press of the afternoon heat. After an hour I was forced to turn back, dizzy from the early signs of heat exhaustion. I revived myself by plunging into the cheap, algae-choked above-ground swimming pool of the Entre Amigos compound, which was also home to actual, live fish.
- Sipping an ice-cold Dos Equis in the shaded courtyard of the guest house while the compound’s cat lounged nearby.
- Bisecting a nasty-looking black scorpion as I whapped it off the side of the candlelit bathroom/shower outbuilding wall with a broom handle. I didn’t want to kill the thing, but its presence in such a intimate space was just too much too bear.
Urique was a charming vortex, and I regret that I didn’t have more time to spend there, to do a proper canyon hike, or even a horseback trip. This was driven home as we boarded the white minivan for the trip back up to the canyon rim to the train stop at Bahiuchivo. El patron (Damian’s boss who seemed to owm all of the vehicles that got us to and around town) implored us to come back and see and do more, and to also tell our friends to come — that Urique was actually a safe destination.
This was the overriding mantra I heard during my week in northern Mexico: Tell people to come. It’s good here. Really.