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Peregrinations Mexico and Central America on Motorcycle: Open road, open heart, open mind.

Week eight: Durango

MEXICO | Tuesday, 10 May 2011 | Views [1787] | Comments [4]

The Plaza de Armas in Durango.

The Plaza de Armas in Durango.

The first time I heard the Spanish word "narcofosa", I was reading a Mexican newspaper in a cafe in La Paz, Baja Sur. Without knowing that key term, the rest of the article didn't make much sense, but I understood that it involved bodies and drug traffickers, of narcotraficantes, as they're known here in Mexico. Ends up the word means "mass grave", or more specifically, a mass grave filled with the bodies of those killed by the narcos. This grave was found in a neighborhood in the city of Durango, heart of Mexican lawlessness and drug crime. Or, at least that's the impression you get by reading the papers. In reality, the city of Durango has a hell of a lot more going for it than first appears. 

But first you have to get to the city, which in itself is an adventure. Having different schedules these days, Charlie and I decided to part ways with Tom and Alex for awhile; we were craving the coolness of the Sierra Madre mountains, while Tom and Alex were ready to make serious progress towards Mexico City. So Charlie and I crossed the vast and impenetrable wilderness of the Sierra Madre by one of just four roads that transect it, the Espinosa del Diablo, or the Devil's Backbone. Having traveled this road once before by bus, I knew it would be spectacular on bike--and it didn't let me down. 

The road curves and winds along some of the most precipitous terrain I have ever witnessed, tracing along cliff edges, up and down mountains and gorges, and clinging miraculously to the faces of hillsides too steep to contemplate. Even the little towns are tenaciously stuck on the sides of near-vertical mountains. It's easy to understand why the Sierra Madre is the location of choice for drug growers and traffickers. Looking down into abyss after abyss, I couldn't envision the military going down in there to check on things very often. 

The road was extremely fun to drive, with tight corners that nearly took you around 360 degrees before spitting you out into a corner that went the entire opposite direction. The only downside was the traffic: sharing these tight little corners and super-narrow roads with us were droves of risk-taking motorcyclists leaving the convention in Mazatlan, a few dozen average Mexican drivers with no regard for either their life or anyone else's, and a score of semi-trucks taking up both lanes of the road on each and every turn. Whew. But we made it through unscathed, with nothing bothering me other than a sore neck from the constant swiveling around to check out the vistas. 

Our first glimpse of Durango was promising: lots of white buildings and red roofs, looking cleaner than any other city we'd yet been to in Mexico. The first impression improved further when a random Mexican on a motorcycle pulled up alongside us and offered to lead us straight to the city center. Very kind of him.

Once set up in a hotel, we went off to find a beer. At the Modelo Bar on the pedestrian street in front of our hotel, we drank a beer...and then one more...and eventually left the bar at around 2 am with heads full of information and impressions, and pockets full of napkins with phone numbers and emails on them. Ends up tourists are a bit of a rarity in Durango. I can't imagine why, given its reputation and all. 

The people we met were mostly very good English speakers, eager to talk about their city and its problems and perks. It was easy to see the perks: the streets were clean, over 2,000 buildings had been restored to their colonial facades, the Plaza de Armas was leafy and green, and the pedestrian-only streets were charming and friendly, if heavily patrolled by cops.

The downsides were equally striking: in a city of just 410,000 people, an average of ten people are killed each day. In poor families, which tend to have between six and twelve children, the kids are often encouraged to join up with the narcotraficantes, simply for the income it will bring the family, even though the average lifespan of a narco is a mere three years. And, of course, there was the mass grave.

The narcofosa found under the streets of Durango in the middle of April is still being unearthed. At last count, 117 bodies have been found. No one has indicated how these people died, and how it was decided that narcos killed them...but still, it's unsettling to think that over one hundred people could go missing in a town that size, and no one noticed...?  

On Monday morning, I read the paper and was surprised to find a section called "seguridad". On just two pages of print, I tallied the following numbers:
32 people had died violently in northern Mexico over the weekend. Of those, 29 had been executed. Two policemen had switched teams to work for the narcos. Eleven people had been "disappeared". Eight people had been stabbed or shot and not died. But, of all the people who died, only four were in the state of Durango--a slow weekend. 

I also learned new words in the paper, such as apunalar and costado, which were both used in this quote, "el hombre estuvo apunalado en el costado izquierdo," which means, "the man was stabbed in his left side." How very educational the Durango newspaper was.

But, again, the folks living in Durango belie the idea that Durango is a mean, lowly, ugly city. It's quite the opposite. Everyone we met was so friendly and open and well educated, it was an absolute joy spending time with them. In fact, we were even invited along as free guests on a guided tour into the Sierra Madre. Seriously friendly people. And after just one night at the local hangout, we were regularly running into friends at coffee shops, on the street, and in bars. It doesn't take long to feel comfortable in Durango. 

Moral of the story is this: Durango is a place that has to be seen to be believed. There are two sides to the city: the one you read about in the headlines of the papers, and the one that welcomes you with open, friendly, good-humored grace and beauty when you actually visit. 

In the two months I've spent in Mexico so far, Durango tops my list of places to visit. To anyone thinking about cruising by it, please don't: take a chance on Durango. I don't think you'll regret it. 

Comments

1

We were enroute to the BMW rally in Queretaro a few years ago when my buddy's bike became submerged in the rio crossing. After a harrowing ride over the Sierra at night with his bike in the back of a rickety pickup, we made it to Durango where the nest day we were taken under the wing of the entire Durango moto community and assisted in every way imaginable. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Me encanta Durango.

  Jimmy May 14, 2011 1:40 PM

2

Your bad Baja Auntie wants to say "BE SAFE!" JC and I are keeping track of you. Shoulder back to normal?

  Marilyn May 15, 2011 1:30 PM

3

Not yet, auntie! Check out the picture on facebook! I'll be safe(r) I promise!
Sarah

  Sarah May 15, 2011 2:20 PM

4

It's so true that even amid a heavily-reported-on drug war or whatever kinds of conflict there is in a region, life has to go on. I love reading stuff like this, it rings very true to me.

It's not that the violence and tragedy doesn't exist. It's just that it's only a part, and sometimes just a small part of the overall picture. I don't mean that to be callous towards those who do suffer - but it is just undeniably true.

Great post!

Eric in Peru

  Eric May 24, 2011 1:37 AM

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