Okay, so you’re headed to Mexico. Here are a few handy travel tips to keep in mind:
Don’t forget to pack a few extra: Warm clothes. The peaks of the Sierra Madre can get mighty cold at night, even in the dead of summer, so bring a few extra layers just in case a harsh wind blows in.
If you only have 24-48 hours in Mexico, you must visit: Oteviachi Uno Eco-Lodge, near San Rafael. It is a bit of schlep to get there from Chihuahua – half-day on the Chepe train, then a bus, then a 4-wheel drive for the last dirt stretch to the overlook. But perched on a precarious 2,000-metre drop to the base of the Copper Canyon, Oteviachi is a tranquil sentinel at one of the most breathtaking vistas in the Americas. Meditative and reflective, Oteviachi is a green lodge with a tiny bio-footprint, a Mexican and American venture whose proceeds benefit the ejido (communal land) which supports a handful of local Raramuri. Sustainable tourism, jaw-dropping views, and hikes the rest of the world has not yet discovered make Oteviachi a Mexican Shangri-La.
If you’re going to haggle, keep this in mind: Bartering is standard in much of the world, and it can be an enjoyable dance between vendor and customer, a virtual buying of time to get to know the seller you are dealing with. But keep in mind the average annual salary of a Mexican citizen is $11,000 US. In the remote corners of the Sierra Madre, it is considerably less, especially in Raramuri regions where subsistence farming and tourist trinket sales keep indigenous families alive. So when you are haggling with that Rarumuri woman for a handwoven needle basket in Divisadero, keep in perspective that the basket likely took a week to make, and $5 more or less is not going to break your bank.
The one food I totally loved was: Chile relleno. Colour me a Mexican food aficionado, and be advised the town in which I live – Tucson, Arizona – is one hour from the border. That being said, the chile rellenos (stuffed chile peppers) I had in the North of Mexico were to die for. Huge green flavourful chillies filled with ground beef, onion, tomato and cheese and dipped in flour and egg batter, then fried. Bienvenidos a paradiso.
And the one food I will pass on in the future is: Saladitos. It sounds like you are ordering a tasty little salad, refreshing in the Mexican heat, but instead you are tortured with a hideous handful of rock-hard dried plums covered in salt. I found it challenging to not dry-heave when consuming them. There may be a Mexican grandmother somewhere that can make them taste delicious, but I never met her.
I know it may sound weird, but you absolutely have to try: An Easter celebration at a Raramuri village in the Copper Canyon. Based on Catholic passion plays taught by Galician missionaries in the 1600s, the Raramuri Easter has melded into a strange ritual of indigenous fertility rites, wrestling, and body-painting with the characters from Jesus’ Passion as bit players. The village splits into two groups, Romans versus the Devils, while violins and drums accompany the all-night, trance-dance, fuelled by a powerful concoction of tesguino, or sacred corn beer. As dawn breaks, the wrestling begins, until a wooden Judas is ritually bludgeoned with sticks and the balance is struck between the opposing forces in each of us for another year. The growing season begins, Jesus is resurrected, and life returns to the Copper Canyon. Just like Easter at Grandma’s!
But as an independent traveller in Mexico, the one thing I would avoid is: Asking too many questions about the drug cartels and the violent turf war escalating near the border. The Sierra Madres are ground zero for marijuana and opium production: the inhospitable craggy canyons are perfect for hiding fields of contraband, and local thugs will do anything to assure the industry continues to flourish. Meanwhile, violent cartels from the bigger bergs battle each other and the government for control of the vast empire of drugs flowing north of the border as money and arms flow back south. The violence in the north seems largely directed at those involved in or affecting the trade – reporters, judges, policemen, middlemen – and not at travellers. But being snoopy will scare off the locals, close doors, and attract unwanted attention from the kind of people travellers should best avoid; a weather eye on one’s back is always good counsel for those travelling solo in a land where some choose to live by desperate means.
I was really surprised by: The existence of 60,000 Mennonites in the heart of Mexico’s untamed north. Anabaptist pacifists who fled Holland for Russia to Canada, this group of Mennonites migrated to Mexico in the 1920s, continuing their search for religious and political freedom. They live a simple and austere life on the ranches and farmlands of the plains of Cuauhtemoc, growing grains and corn, raising cattle for meat, milk and cheese. Their work ethic is intense, their lives simple yet severe, and in great contrast with the colourful Chihuahuan culture which surrounds them. Perhaps now more than ever, it is a fascinating time to witness their lifestyle in transition, as they struggle with the prevalence of technology, the dominant Mexican culture, and the drug-war violence that is erupting around them.
The best way to fit in and not draw too much attention to yourself is to: Sport the local duds – jeans, boots, and a baseball or cowboy hat. The number one thing that identifies travellers is their clothes (obviously until you open your mouth the Mexicans do not realize you do not speak Spanish – and even if you do, by the end of the first sentence they know you are not from Mexico). So blend in better by donning some jeans, a t-shirt or buttoned shirt, and the local headgear. The Mexican sun is fiendishly unkind, so protect your head with a baseball hat like the kids or a white straw cowboy hat like their dads. Or a black felt one if you are feeling ornery.
When it comes to getting around, I recommend: The Copper Canyon Railway (CHP or Chepe for short). The world-famous train line passes from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, on the Pacific Ocean, across the wild Sierra Madre mountains to Chihuahua in the east, with cars leaving from either side and passing in the middle each day. Chugging 673 kilometres through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, it spans some of the most majestic and forbidding territory in Mexico, past the Copper Canyon, deeper and wider in points than America’s Grand Canyon, and home to the fiercely independent and unique Raramuri indigenous tribe. Some considered it unbuildable, and its track is still hailed as a modern feat of engineering. But perhaps most endearing is the Chepe’s nostalgic feel: the period-dressed porters, the well-apportioned train cars, and the rustic bordertown feel of the wild-west high desert towns it steams through.
A good place to get basics (bottled water, toothpaste, a snack, stamps, phone cards) is: The home-spun general stores on the corner of any small town. Named anything from Mini-super (mini super mart) to Tienda Veronica (Veronica’s Shop), the mom-and-pop establishments are usually painted with a day-glo veneer, now faded, run by three generations of an extended family, and feature a TV over the counter blasting Mexican soap operas (telenovelas). They sell anything from chocolate pops to panties to machetes, and if they don’t have it they can point you in the right direction with a smile and a “Suerte!” (Goodl uck!).
And it’s always nice to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘how much?’ in the native tongue. And that is:
SPANISH / español
Please – POR FAVOR
Thank You / Thank You Very Much / 1000 Thanks – GRACIAS / MUCHAS GRACIAS / MIL GRACIAS
How Much – ¿CUÁNTO CUESTA?
Please – Pe risensi / Pe risénsia / Pericó
Thank You – Matétera-bá / Natérara-bá
How Much – ¿Chu quipu?