The Rio Sonora Valley Continued

There are a number of topics that I would like to write about before warm weather, workshops, gardening and such things begin to compete with the time I’ve had this winter to write this blog. I want to complete our European trip by telling you about our visit to Gemany along with a few other odds and ends. For now, I would like to return to Mexico, it’s a lengthy piece, but perhaps my last til summer.

Before telling you the events of our last trip I thought I would take this opportunity to answer a question that I am frequently asked – how bad is the violence in Mexico and whether or not it is safe for travel.

To begin with, I don’t think there is any easy answer to that question. At best, it’s an incredibly complex situation. What I can do is offer my very brief and limited perspective on the current state of affairs in Mexico and why things evolved the way that they did.

Because the topics are so different I’m going to divide this post into two parts. Part one will be dedicated to discussing that which we can refer to as the dark side of the border. Part two is about all things good in the part of Mexico we visit and some of the reasons we have been traveling there. If you want to skip the dark side, by all means, go directly to part two.

Part 1 – The darker side of the border.

Many people have the idea that stepping across the Mexican border puts one at great risk for getting shot, robbed or kidnapped. In all honesty, I don’t think that is anywhere near the truth. If anything, it’s the other way around. Who it’s dangerous for are the thousands of Mexicans, adults and children, who pay large sums of money to be guided across our southwestern deserts, many dying in the process. The crosses on the border fence are in memory of those who died while attempting that journey.

The border fence, Agua Prieta, Sonora.

It’s true that the border towns have become battlegrounds for the drug cartels. Other parts of Mexico are affected as well. So whether or not crossing the border has harmful implications is something to be answered by each individual. As for myself, I chose to believe that people create their own fate, contrary to the prevailing belief that we are all potential victims of all sorts of maladies that are out there waiting to afflict us. What I can say, quite truthfully, is that our experiences traveling in Mexico have only been positive. For now, I have no reason to think that they will be otherwise.

For me, the story begins with us, Mexico’s northern neighbor, a country that seems to have an insatiable appetite for drugs of all kinds, making it an irresistible market for those living in the midst of depressed economies. Plain and simple, it’s old school economics – supply and demand. Competition for that lucrative market fuels the violence.

With the tightening of the Mexican border, two major things have happened. Many of the routes previously available for drug traffic have been shut down and people who depended upon work in the Sates in order to support their families in Mexico are no longer able to do so. Competition for the remaining drug routes between the cartels has increased, as witnessed by corresponding levels of violence in the border towns. Crossing larger drug parcels has become more difficult, the emphasis has shifted to crossing smaller, more difficult to detect, heroin and cocaine. The cartels, who don’t want to be left out of marijuana profits are increasingly shifting much of their marijuana production to the States, a great deal of it on public lands. In short, a portion of Mexico’s marijuana production is moving north across the border.

These events, in combination with warnings from our State Department and some novels that have greatly over-exaggerated violence in Mexico, have greatly reduced tourist traffic. This blow to their tourist industry has only served to increase economic tension and hardened conditions for its people, notably in the border towns. Other types of crime have begun to appear as conditions worsen.

Nogales, Sonora border wall.

Efforts on the U.S. side have essentially boiled down to the new Great Wall and increased vigilance by more Border Patrol agents. The Wall seems to be a frequent topic of amusement in this part of the world watching Mexican ingenuity at work. Methods to cross the wall have included everything from cranes and platforms designed to lift vehicles over it, gates made from cut and hinged portions of the vehicle barriers, tunnels, I would not be surprised to see them developing wings. My personal favorite is that many Mexicans were hired to build the wall, some of them illegal’s, discretely tack welded large sections, making dismantling it easy.

As I said earlier, it’s a complex story, I’m only skimming the surface. There are many more facets all compounded by the corruption of law enforcement personel, customs agents and military on both sides of the border. I don’t think I need to say anymore about this, I find it a most frustrating set of circumstances that will take a great deal of insight and understanding to bring about any kind of lasting change. Much of it will depend upon our willingness to stand by and not abandon a country that has been more friend and good neighbor than enemy.

Part Two – The brighter side.

There is much in Mexico that keeps calling us back. Before I tell you what those things are, I need to be fair and tell you a little about my background. When I was very young, at the onset of one of my first trips to Mexico with my parents, I vividly remember my Indiana born father telling my mother that Mexico was dangerous and that we should be cautious, not drive at night, avoid traveling in remote places and never when tired. What I remember from that conversation is how rapidly my mother dismissed his suggestion and told him to calm down and enjoy himself. It must have had a significant impact on my impressionable young mind because ever since, it seems like I’ve been doing nothing but. As for my father, I think he got used to the idea, at least I never heard him complain.

Mexico has been a big part of my life, it has brought me much enjoyment and allowed me to look at life through a different set of eyes. Much of the Mexico that I knew in my youth has now disappeared. The tiny fishing village of Puerto Vallarta, that I knew when it had a population of only a few thousand people, is now a modern resort destination with a population over 500,000.

In its place, much closer to home, in the same bioregion where we live, we now find much of what I once found elsewhere in Mexico. That place is the Rio Sonora Valley. The story I want to tell is a story that could be told about many areas around the world that haven’t been totally assimilated into frenzy of the modern world, it just happens that this place is close to home and full of lessons about the place I live. In short it’s a simple story about simple things.

The Rio Sonora highway near Sinoquipe.

Once we get away from the border area, one of the first things we notice is the lack of human and vehicle congestion. The Mexico that I read about in the papers begins to fade, the landscape, dotted with occasional ranches takes over. As small towns appear, there is no evidence of urban sprawl and the cheaply built subdivisions where all the houses look the same. In contrast, the towns on the Rio Sonora are small, easily defined with discernable edges. Viewed from afar, their size and scale feels good.

View of the town of Arizpe.

Perhaps more than anything else, this story is a story about scale, two lane roads and the kind of people and towns one finds along them. As you might imagine, access to the Rio Sonora is via a narrow two lane road that for the most part is comfortable to drive and yet it never lets you slip into the hypnotic trance of the Interstate, semis and buses are rare. It’s also the kind of road that keeps you in touch with the towns and landscape. The road passes through the middle of most of the towns.

The highway entering the town of Baviacora.

Rather than driving over bridges, far removed from the river, there are many low water crossings where the road goes right through the water. It’s much more fun than the bridge, especially after heavy rain.

River crossing near the town of Arizpe.

If the road could talk, it would suggest that you stop often, get out from behind the wheel and appreciate the rock outcroppings, the deep canyons, the semi-tropical vegetation, the colors of the fields, the living fence rows of willows-cottonwoods and the river. Sometimes it’s nothing more than the light, early morning or late afternoon, that transforms the ordinary into magical.

Rock outcroppings between Arizpe and Sinoquipe.

As we travel the area, we usually do so with little planning, relying more on feel, waiting for something, someone or a place to suggest that we stop and find out more. Other than remaining within the immediate area, our destinations remain loose. In general, people are very friendly, maybe a little shy, but for the most part they welcome a smile, a greeting or the chance to engage in conversation. Most often, our forays are rewarded with meaningful and memorable encounters, hospitality the most common.

The old flour mill, molino harinero, at Huepac.

The towns are scaled for people rather than vehicles. For the most part the buildings and homes are simple. The houses throughout the Valley suggest that they are homes rather than architectural statements, that people live within. It is rare to find something of a grand scale. For the most part, they are of reasonable size and whether basic or elegant, they differ one from the next. There is no suggestion of the box-like uniformity characteristic of modern urban housing.

One finds a mix of old and new. The turn of the century buildings and houses, closed from the street with arched entries that reveal courtyards within, are gradually being replaced by a modern trend with front yards and sitting areas. Sometimes the old buildings are restored, others left alone to fall apart, being allowed the dignity of their age.

Old and new houses in Huepac.

Sometimes it is nothing more than the color that catches one’s attention.

House and store in Boacoachi.

Common to all the towns are the plazas and churches, none of them grand or suggestive of great colonial riches, instead they reveal a subtle and simple beauty, much of it rooted in local materials.

Mision de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios de Banamichi.

The plazas still remain central for the town feast days and other public events. Recently we found ourselves on the Banamichi plaza for a performance by the local middle and high schools doing folkloric dances from northern Mexico, Sonora and Chihuahua. The kids were fabulous, displaying the talent that earned them second place in Mexico’s national competition. Their presentation was made all the more beautiful by the outdoor plaza setting, the trees and as is often the case, the late afternoon light.

Ballet Folkloric group from the Valley’s high school and middle school.

In town, we walk, often we use the bicyles to explore the town, the fields and the river. People become much more accessible, it’s easy to stop and begin a conversation, the kind that leads to fascinating stories, people to meet and places not to be missed.

Kalin and Athena.

One can still feel a sense of community amongst the people. There is a shared local experience that is vanishing and eroding in our modern developed world. The kind of self absorbed and frenzied individualism that we increasingly take for granted amongst ourselves is virtually nowhere to be found.

Sunday fiesta in the town of Baviacora.

Over the years we have come to treasure the qualities of a passing generation of Sonoran people, those who have been raised in that region. They carry themselves with an amiable dignified courtesy that comes across as goodwill and generosity when you meet them. I think that much of this stems from the simplicity of their lifestyles, largely brought about by their geographical distance from large urban areas with schools and other institutions. In place of extensive formal learning, years of observation and subsistence living, has provided them with priceless common sense wisdom and innate intelligence. To know them and spend time with them is one of the main reasons we keep returning.

Edmundo Lopez and Eliazar Maldonado.

Wandering the streets, we are often rewarded with the kind subtle cultural nuances that could easily go unnoticed. Over the years I have noticed that in every town, there would be one or two places, usually a public area, where you could find a group of men sitting and talking to one another. I often wondered about the content of their conversations. Inquiring to a friend, I discovered that these places actually had a name – mentideros. The root word is mentira, meaning to lie, fib or perhaps more appropriate for this context – tall tale. Consequently, mentidero translates as a place where one, when feeling down or depressed, can go to feel better about oneself or life by telling or listening to someone else’s tall tales. Any place will do, the only requisite is enough seats, some shade makes the stories even better.

Mentidero corner in Baviacora.

Most days are filled with things that you would never see in the States, most often things that are simple, sometimes humorous. On our last trip, our friend Valer Austin needed a flat tire repaired. I think the photo conveys clearly what I’m trying to say. It might be titled Rio Sonora Discount Tire.

Tire repair, Banamichi.

Spending time with people from the Valley means coming to know their regional foods. As with most traditional cultures, these people and their food are inseparable. To date, the area is free of corporate franchises and I doubt that will change anytime soon. The food in the Rio Sonora Valley is not what I would call “cuisine.” It would be better described as simple good food, based on cultural tradition, the seasons and local resources. And of course, prepared with lots of care, love and pride the kind of food that makes travel all that much more enjoyable.

Ramon of El Rodeo restaurant in Arizpe.

Taquerias are one of the outstanding food venues, I’ve written about them in past posts, the hot dog vendors are also make an equally good story. There are only a handful of tiny restaurants along the length of the valley. Usually they are of the three to six table variety, specializing in comidas caseras – home cooked meals. Lastly, there are meals that can be found informally in people’s homes.

On our last trip, when inquiring of the house keeper about the possibility of viewing furniture inside a home, she informed me that she also cooked meals for people and rented rooms. Continuing the conversation, I discovered that she was the owner of a small motel on the main road of town that had a sign that had amused me for some time – Cuartos y Hot Dogs, or in English, rooms and hot dogs. Malena Leon runs a small four room motel and prepares meals for guests when requested. She is no longer a vendor for hot dogs. From the tiny kitchen of her home, she prepares three meals a day for approximately eighteen men from the Santa Elena mine. She’s the Rio Sonora’s version of the old mom and pop eateries that were once common in pre-franchise America, but with a spicier twist. And as for her motel, it is simple, the sort of place where a traveler can roll into town at dusk and get an inexpensive, no-frill, comfortable night’s sleep and a meal to die for.

Malena Leon’s motel, Banamichi.

I couldn’t let her acquaintance go without partaking one her meals. I had just learned about a new dish made from small immature fava beans called pipian de habitas. It didn’t take me long, exploring the fields by bicycle, to find someone that had baby favas already washed and bagged. I delivered a bag to Malena’s kitchen and later that afternoon we enjoyed a mid-day comida of pipian de habitas, dried and shredded deer meat machaca and course, frijoles. The pipian sauce is basically a French white sauce made with milk and red chile powder. The Mexican version uses lard instead of butter, red chile powder and flour are used in equal amounts. At home, Julia Child’s light curry sauce recipe worked brilliantly, substituting red chile powder for curry powder.

Malena and plate of pipian de habitas, machaca, frijoles.

There Is an intimate connection between the food culture of the area and mescal bacanora. Central to the Rio Sonora culture, it is at the heart of all types of gatherings whether they be small and intimate or on the scale of the town fiesta. Recently we spent a truly beautiful evening with Roberto and Lupita Contreras and their friends/relatives Eliazar and Armida Maldonado at their ranch where they make their bacanora. We had come for a visit to watch the distilling taking place.

Twilight is a magical time in the Sonoran desert, especially with the setting sun and a fire. That evening, the still and a blue enamel pot of Rio Sonora coffee provided the fire. The scent of the fermented agave fiber filled the air along with the perfumed scent of the Vinorama acacia bushes. Roberto, brought out a bottle of his finest aged bacanora that we sampled along with roasted nuts, left by other visitors and Cadbury chocolate. Music was provided by a mockingbird settling in for the night. It was one of those moments you know you’ll never forget, the color of the setting sun, the glowing orange light from the stills, the scents, the food and the sweet, syrupy, smooth mescal.

The mescal made at Rancho Tepua will soon be available in the States under the label Cielo Rojo. For more information contact Charles Simmons and Marla Perry of Pueblo Partners Trading Co. in Tucson, Arizona,

Rancho Tepua mescal stills and Sonoran Desert lounge.

On the photo below, you can see a white ring around the top of the base of the still. It’s nothing more than a flour paste that is used to seal the top and bottom parts. After trying all types of seals and gaskets, none of which worked, Roberto returned to the time tested and centuries old method of piecing the still together.

Flour paste ring for sealing the still.

This story could go on forever, obviously that is not an option. My main wish in writing this account was to share with you a small piece of experiences in Mexico and to give you some idea of why we travel there. Ideally, I would like you the reader, to feel just like you were there with us. Most of all I wanted to say some good things about a country that has been a good neighbor and friend, a country currently suffering from a lack of good things said about it.

As I was getting ready to publish this post, I came across the marvelous quote by Helen Keller that I just had to include: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

To close, I’d like to mention a young fellow from that area who has made much of that story possible. His name is Mauro Maldonado, he’s the computer guru and fix-it guy for the Valley and assistant to Bill Harmsen of the La Posada Rio Sonora in Banamichi. He’s been an incredible help to us in many respects, his presence is behind many of the above photos. Actually, it’s not only Mauro, but also his mother and father that have been equally helpful. Many thanks to all of them.

Mauro Maldonado and mother Armida.

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  1. Thank you, Bill, for sharing your experience and your passion for the people and traditions of a part of Mexico. Until I travel there myself, your down-to-earth stories are the next best thing.
    george young, (now in Albuquerque)

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