Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010


I was driving through a forest in Mexico at night when I spotted the flashing lights of the policia in my rear view window.
“I think they want us to pull over,” said my travel partner, Vikki Mara.
“But I’m only doing 5km/h,” I said.
I stepped on the brake and waited for the cop to approach. The air was brisk with the scent of pines as it wafted in my open window. We had found a beautiful campground by a lake just outside of the town of Creel, deserted save for the Tarahumara Indian who had emerged from a smoky hut to collect our pesos at the entry gate. After having dinner in Creel, we had just been returning to our campsite when the police appeared. It was our third night inside of Mexico, our first in the wild region known as the Barrancas del Cobre – or Copper Canyon.  
“Where are you going?” asked the cop in perfect English.
“To our campsite. This is a campground, right?” I gently reminded him.
This seemed to throw him off. I suspected that a camper hadn’t been spotted here since the week of semana santa.
“Well, where did you come from?” he soldiered on.
“Canada,” I proudly announced.
“What? In this car?” he snorted incredulously, stepping back to get a better view of our dirt-encrusted Subaru Loyale station wagon, the back seat containing two large dogs and an Israeli traveller we’d picked up in town.
Already the dire warnings I had received about driving in Mexico seemed to be coming true. But, up till now at least, it hadn’t been that bad. 
For starters, we had been allowed to roll over the border without even stopping – a free zone extends for about 20 kilometres south, which you can enter and stay in for three days without any formalities – but as we continued south we soon came to a large checkpoint where we had to get out and present our documents. For most tourists, this shouldn’t have presented much of a problem – all you need is a passport, driver’s license, vehicle ownership, and a major credit card, which is photocopied to guard against you selling your car while in Mexico. But our situation was complicated somewhat by the fact that, somewhere in eastern Texas, Vikki had left her wallet on the roof of the car after filling up at a gas station and then driven for five hours before discovering it missing. She lost all her and the car’s documents, except her passport, but fortunately we still had photocopies of everything. These, after being shuffled around to different teller windows, eventually passed inspection and were duly ennobled with official stamps.
We had obtained certificates of health and vaccination records for the dogs, but no one ever asked to see them. Neither were they interested in seeing any car insurance. Car insurance in not mandatory in Mexico, but it is highly advised, since, without it, if you are in an accident the police will throw you into jail first and ask questions later. Canadian and American insurance policies are rarely valid in Mexico, but there are scores of companies at the border who will sell you insurance. Alternatively, you could do what we did: buy your insurance over the phone.
Since Vikki’s car – a 1991 Subaru Legacy – wasn’t worth much anyway, we opted to just get basic liability. We took Kemper Mexico Seguros – whose California-based broker in ADA VIS Global Enterprises – up on their offer of US$58 each for one year of coverage, and for an additional US$25, Vikki got access to their Mexico Legal Service, which can provide legal advice or a lawyer if necessary.
The red tape behind us, we drove straight to Chihuahua. The toll highway was nearly as good as any American interstate, with noticeably less traffic and slower speeds. I had read that the new toll highways in Mexico can be expensive, so I wasn’t surprised when we had to shell out 110 pesos ($20) to cover the 350 km journey.
I was shocked, however, when we stopped to fill up the gas tank and the numbers on the pump spun crazily up to nearly 300 pesos ($50). At first I thought I had already fallen victim to one of Mexico’s well-publicized gas station rip-offs, but when I checked the per litre cost, I found it was equivalent to about $1 a litre.
Our next stop was Creel, some 200 km southwest of Chihuahua. To get there, we had to leave the artificial world of the toll highway, or cuota, and join the real Mexico on the free highway – the carretara libre. While further south these roads can become choked with diesel spewing busses and trucks, and passing becomes a game of life and death played with all too much nonchalance, in the northern states traffic is at a minimum and they make for relatively stress-free driving.
Like any secondary highway in the States or Canada, travel time stretches considerably on the free highways as you pass through town after town. But unlike towns north of the Rio Grande, every community in Mexico worth its name builds speed bumps, or topes, at the entrance and exit to town, with a few sprinkled in between for good measure. Usually there is fair warning about an approaching tope, but not always. Fail to slow down for one of these, and you’ll soon have a healthy respect for what they can do to the bottom of your car and the top of your head. Most Mexicans slow down to a crawl before easing their tires over the steep slopes of these overgrown speed bumps. Inevitably, thinking you have passed the last of the topes, you will eagerly start accelerating back to highway speeds, only to slam on the brakes yet again as one last tope rears up before you.
Just outside of Creel, we found our beautiful deserted campground by Lake Arareco. Although Mexico has few official campgrounds, camping is spectacularly easy. Would be campers benefit from the fact that Mexicans, while not big on camping themselves, are seriously into picnicking. One is rarely far from a little clearing in the pines where someone has been kind enough to pour some concrete fire pits with rebar grilles, and one is welcome to spend the night, free of charge. A willingness to ask locals for directions and, of course, your own transportation are essential prerequisites for taking advantage of these hidden gems. Without a car, most of these sites are about as accessible as Tierra del Fuego.
The same can be said for the beach, which, by law, is public property and can be camped on for free. If your ideal beach does not include hordes of people, portable stereos and wandering vendors, then having your own vehicle gives you access to some of the best – and least visited – stretches of sand on both coasts.
Other camping options include that beach away from the beach – the balneario – a kind of outdoor water recreation resort, always popular with Mexicans eager to escape the heat of the city. Shortly after dark, however, these places empty of people and you can often camp there for free.
Indeed, upon asking an attendant if you are allowed to camp on any parcel of land set aside for some natural wonder, such as a waterfall or a lake, you are likely to receive a shrug and partly mystified, “Porque no?” – “Why not?” – and left to camp wherever you wish.
As a last resort, you can always drive out of town and, whenever you come to a crossroads, take the smaller road, until, after a few such turnoffs, you should soon find yourself on a tiny dirt track in the middle of nowhere. You then need only to find a space wide enough on the shoulder to park and set up your tent. I did this several times and my solitude was, at most, only momentarily interrupted by a truck or horserider passing at dawn.
Mexicans, by Canadian or American standards, are very accepting of strangers camping out. Vikki and I once set up our tent in an empty lot next to a warehouse on the outskirts of Guadalajara. We were just downing a few nightcaps of tequila when a police pick-up truck pulled up beside us and an officer leapt out to ask if we were alright. We explained we were just camping and the police drove off. The next morning, as we still lay in our sleeping bags, another cop dropped by to check if we were okay.
But the cop we were now faced with in the campground outside of Creel didn’t seem to be motivated by a desire to help us. The beam of his flashlight probed every inch of our loyal Loyale. I was acutely aware of the fact that we were completely alone at night in a foreign country with two men wearing guns. After eyeing us suspiciously for a few moments, though, he cracked a smile and waved us on, apparently figuring no one would make the a preposterous claim of having driven several thousand kilometres in this piece of junk if it were not the truth.
As we drove away, I felt we had passed some sort of test, and that we were now, for real, in Mexico. “Bienvenidos a México!” I felt the cop should have shouted as we left, presenting us with a memorial sombrero and bottle of tequila.
Later I would learn why someone driving through the trees late at night would be regarded with suspicion in the Copper Canyon. The trackless wilderness of the region is a paradise for growing marijuana and opium, and the area is crawling with drug producers, smugglers and, correspondingly, federal narcos.
We decided to plunge into the heart of drug country, and set our sights on Batopilas, a town that sits at the bottom of a canyon, at the dead end of the only road that cuts into the Parque Natural Barrancas del Cobre. 
An Aussie traveller named Jerry warned us to not attempt driving there ourselves: “It’s 1000 feet straight down, no guardrails. One wrong move and you could easily kill yourself. Sometimes,” he elaborated about his recent bus trip there, “we’d meet another vehicle coming around a blind curve and both vehicles would slam on their brakes and sort of skid around each other.”
The weight of the evidence was convincing us that we should just take one of the thrice weekly busses – until we spoke to Casy, an American living in Creel.
“It’s dangerous,” he conceded, “there’s no search and rescue is something goes wrong. But it’s also one of the best things you can do in this part of the world. The road is half the trip.”
We decided that if we were to die on this road, we’d rather do it to ourselves than hand the honour to some bus driver.
The first half of the journey was along a winding but newly paved road, then we pulled off the blacktop and onto a dirt road that led to the edge of the canyon. From there we began the slow, spectacularly torturous descent to the river far, far below. I sat perched on the passenger window, gaping at the breathtaking view. Some of the canyons in this area hold more air than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. My mind boggled at the sheer amount of space defined by the canyon walls; space that seemed palpable enough to touch – if there wasn’t such a giddy aura of danger surrounding it. The far side of the canyon seemed so far away, it was almost like observing something astronomical, rather than terrestrial.
Vikki drove for about an hour, never once touching the gas pedal. Nor did we see another vehicle, and the deeply grooved dirt road enforced it’s own slow speed limit. We eventually rolled across a bridge and into the streets of Batopilas just as darkness fell. It had taken 6 hours to drive 130 km.
Batopilas is an odd place. Semi-tropical in climate, it feels like the point where the old world meets the old west: men in white cowboy hats and shiny new pick-up trucks cruise down tiny streets lined with a continuous wall of crumbling white stucco homes. Empty shells of deteriorating buildings are a common sight; after silver was discovered in the 1600’s, the town swelled to 20,000 people. Now, some 1100 residents live in what has become a major bottleneck for the drug trade. Drugs come in from the surrounding canyonlands and are shipped out on the road we had just arrived on.
For someone used to a clear conceptual line being drawn between commercial and residential space, Batopilas can be an eye-opener. Signage is at a minimum; the open door you are peering into, waiting for your retina to adjust to the gloom within, could lead to someone’s bedroom, or it could be a tiny shop – or both.
The town has officially been declared “dry”, but it was a Saturday night and the beer was clearly flowing in every dark corner or pick-up with its doors hanging open and the stereo playing. Perhaps prohibition had been declared because of the influence of the local Tarahumara Indians, who go on ritual drinking binges lasting days, during which time normal societal laws are put on hold. Even murder during a tesguino, as the drinking festivals are called, is thought of as no more than an unfortunate accident.
We joined in the illicit beer consumption, buying Tecate from our hotel owner, who was doing a thriving drive-through trade out his window – narrow streets with no sidewalks make every business a potential “drive-thru”. The next day, just to add to the sense of being in some mutated old west setting, we went panning for gold in the Batolipas river, and Vikki turned up a tiny nugget.
But we eventually tired of dust and cowboy hats, and made a bee-line for the coast. Around Chamela we found just what we had been looking for: a wide stretch of sand, deserted save a few fishermen, but backed by a small village with a handful of restaurants. In my enthusiasm, I drove straight for the sand and, taking note of a predecessor’s tire tracks criss-crossing the beach, I hit the button for 4-wheel drive and ploughed ahead onto the playa.
No sooner had all four wheels touched the beach then we came to an abrupt stop. It was as if my tires had been suddenly cast in concrete. We weren’t going anywhere. Which, I decided as I popped open a cold beer and watched the sun set into the ocean, wasn’t such a bad thing.

Copyright Sean Butler 2002


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