MY TOURS TO MEXICO

(from Cenizo Journal, 2nd Quarter 2017)

I remember clearly the first time I crossed from Texas to Mexico. It was 1994, and I had just arrived in Alpine and opened a Bed & Breakfast called The Corner House. I was also writing a travel guidebook to the region. David Busey, who was director of the Alpine Chamber of Commerce, suggested a trip to Lajitas so I could get better acquainted with the region.

Soon  after, David and I climbed on board George Merriman’s plane at Alpine’s airport and, with George at the controls, flew 40 minutes down to Lajitas, landing on a gravel strip. We walked 15 minutes to the Rio Grande, took a wooden        rowboat to the Mexican side, and I bought breakfast for George and David at Dos Amigos café. No immigration controls, no Customs inspection. Then we flew back to Alpine.

What a surprise! A whole new country on my doorstep! Next, I did more research on the border region and wrote a book “Unofficial Border Crossings from Big Bend to Mexico,” which featured Boquillas, Paso Lajitas and San Carlos.  Needing some more pages to achieve book length, I took the El Chepe train across the Sierra Madre, and added “& Copper Canyon” to the title. With each discovery of a place to eat, to sleep or something to do, I got more excited. And, while I had already travelled extensively around the world, there were aspects of Mexico I particularly liked: the music, the color, the sense of family and manners. Lovely people.

It was the late Kelly Fenstermaker of Fort Davis who in 2001 said: “You’ve written a book about Copper Canyon, why don’t you organize a tour?” I replied “If you get 10 people, I’ll arrange a trip.” With a little more research, I booked the  hotels, train tickets and guides and the next year a group of 10 local residents and myself spent 6 days on a  tour to Chihuahua, Creel and El Fuerte, a tour that still runs today.

I am the only person locally running Copper Canyon tours and am fortunate not to have had any real problems over the years. Part of this is because the people I get on my trips are from West Texas and can accept the sometimes unavoidable minor changes during a tour without throwing a fit. I had one accident on a tour– a retired lady from Oklahoma- who slipped on her way to the waterfall near Sierra Lodge, fell and broke her ankle. The hike to the waterfall is 3.5 miles roundtrip from Sierra Lodge, where we stay. Most people have no problem with the distance and complete the hike safely.

Sierra Lodge, 18 miles from Creel, where we spend the second night on the Copper Canyon tour, is off the beaten track and has been described as a “luxury log cabin” No large tour groups there. The rooms have kerosene lamps, log burning stoves, thick fluffy towels and bathrobes and flannel bed sheets. At 7,000 feet, that’s just what you need. The folks running it serve margaritas before dinner and Maria the cook makes meals to remember.

An interesting change has happened to me over the years. An inveterate solo traveler, I increasingly see the advantage in joining a small group on a tour and sharing the experience within the group of food, sights or meeting people. The most pleasure I get from running these trips is seeing the delight in other people’s faces, and hearing their comments when they observe something unexpected, new and pleasant in Mexico.

Once the Copper Canyon train trip had become familiar, I looked for another destination. The redoubtable Kelly Fenstermaker had read about Batopilas, at the bottom of one of the canyons. I researched it, booked it. Again, she got a group together. This will be a real adventure trip, I thought.

With a 3,000 foot elevation drop on sharp switchback bends and tropical vegetation waiting at the end of the road (which goes no further), Batopilas is a small, sleepy town with a rich history. A single street beside the river leads the visitor to the plaza, where the principal buildings stand: the 19th century Church, the Presidencia (city hall), a new Museum of Mining and the extraordinary Riverside Lodge hotel.

Batopilas has recently been named a Magic Town by the Mexican Government. Various improvements have been undertaken (e.g. to the plaza) and new visitor attractions installed such as a zip line which crosses the town and river in two stages. I am deeply moved that somebody recently arranged to have one of the new benches in the plaza inscribed with “Jim Glendinning y sus amigos.”

 

The Riverside Lodge, where we stay, is a block-long, two-story hacienda, formerly the home of a wealthy merchant, who owned the store during Batopilas’s heyday in the late 1800’s, when the silver mine was in full production.

Called “wonderfully weird” by guidebook writer Joe Cummings, it features interior courtyards with kumquat and avocado trees. Bougainvillea spills from the many balconies. The bedrooms have claw-foot bath tubs, and the parlor is an extravaganza of Mexican and Victorian whimsy. A ceiling fresco denotes the history of Batopilas, a bust of Elvis adorns the piano, a picture of Winston Churchill hangs below a full-nude painting and a victrola plays Patsy Cline and Mozart. It’s a hoot.

For those more energetic, depending on the season and the heat (April to October is the hot season), there are options: the hike downstream to the “Lost Cathedral,” (a triple-domed church from the 17th century), a hike upstream to the dam that provided the water for generating electricity or a visit across the river to the headquarters of the Batopilas Mining Company now in ruins.

A tour guide can make or break the experience of a foreign place to visitors. I have sought out and found some remarkable guides in the region. Ivan Fernandez, in Creel, by age and experience, is the best. We use him for trips to Batopilas. Gustavo Lozano guides us in Chihuahua City on the new 3-day trip. In Creel, Chal Gamez, owner of the hotel where we stay, can induce tears in his eyes when describing the history of the town. In Casas Grandes, Diana Acosta and her sister Denise are spirited, funny and well-informed. Their mother, Sarah, cooks us a sumptuous meal in the family home, a hacienda close to the pottery village, Mata Ortiz.

In 2015 I renewed a tour to Casas Grandes & Mata Ortiz, still in the state of Chihuahua, but far from Copper Canyon. I had run this tour in 2004, then dropped it for reasons forgotten. I called it the “Ruins and Pots tour.” But, 3 years ago, I came across the man, Spencer MacAllum, who had discovered the Mexican paisano who, untaught, had learned how to make pots in the old style, and then taught all his neighbors. Spencer MacCallum has a compound of adobe rooms in Casas Grandes, where our group could stay, and he also introduced me to an outstanding young, local tour guide Diana Acosta. So – a tour was re-born.

I have recently added a new tour- a 3-day visit to Chihuahua City. This trip is aimed at those who don’t have the time or interest in a longer tour – an introduction. Chihuahua City downtown, where we stay next to the cathedral, has been pedestrianized and tidied up. There is a lot of history here. Father Hidalgo, Mexico’s founder, was executed here. Pancho Villa, the local hero, made Chihuahua City his base for a while. Both have memorials. There are impressive art galleries and museums.  There is also shopping. The peso has dropped 50% recently so I include time for shopping for Tarahumara artifacts and Mata Ortiz pots, as well as everyday items

FinalIy, I keep getting asked about safety in the places we visit. First, I would not take myself or others to any unsafe area. Second, the overall statistics of homicides of US tourists in Mexico show that out 28 million total American visitors to Mexico annually (this includes land border crossers as well as 9 million who fly in) there are fewer than 200 homicides. Third, the cartels are alive and well, but I contend they are careful not to target tourists because it brings extra attention on themselves. So, let’s go! Vamanos a México! For tour information, Contact Me here

 

 

(box) Richard Hinkel, of Alpine, who has had experience with Elderhostel trips in Mexico some years back, has been on all my trips, with a view to taking over sometime soon. Same trips, same standards.

 

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change

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