In our first week in mainland Mexico we experience a stark contrast of two different worlds – the loud, hot, dirty, abrasive madness of Mazatlan during Semana Santa, and the cool, quiet, peaceful serenity of a climbing excursion to the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains.
It all started with the ferry ride from La Paz. Thanks to a suggestion from Stephanie and Juan of Van en Van, we chose the cargo ferry line Transportación Marítima de California, which was cheaper and more dog and van-friendly than the passenger ferry. When we were checking in on the scale we told them we had a dog (who was posing particularly cutely in his nest of blankets on the bed) and they laughed, then when we gave the check-in card to the woman at the ticket counter she cracked up and showed us that the guys at the scale had written “dos personas y uno perro bravo”. The loading of the ferry was an impressive game of Tetris. The men directing the vehicles completely maximized their space, parking the big rigs inches from each other front to back and side to side, and the drivers maneuvered their lumbering trucks with finesse. At first we thought we were fortunate that we were loaded early in the game, but then we realized that it was because there was tiny Chimera-sized space right at the back, which meant that we had to wait for hours for all of the rest of the vehicles to be loaded. It turned out that our aft positioning put us right over the loud engines and in the line of the exhaust, so it was a pretty rough night.
Hobie did great on the ferry. From our nook it was a dirty, smelly, slippery walk through fish guts leaking from trucks, to the stairs up to the viewing decks, galley, and bathrooms, and the stairs were very steep. Hobie was rather wary of the strange noises and smells (for some reason the chains securing the trucks to the deck particularly freaked him out) but he bravely walked with us around the ferry, and enjoyed the fresh air on the observation decks. However, he was a little too nervous to go to the bathroom. We were concerned at first about where he would pee, and what about if he needed to poop? Once we saw (and smelled) the dirty ferry deck, however, we realized it would be fine if he went just about anywhere. But Hobie wasn’t so sure. After several hours aboard when we had walked him all around and he still hadn’t peed we grew somewhat concerned and tried every way we could think of (ask Tim…) to show him that it was ok to lift his leg on a truck tire, but he just wouldn’t do it. By the time we unloaded in Mazatlan it had been over twenty-four hours since Hobie had peed, so we stopped at the first tree we could find.
The full madness of Semana Santa finally caught up with us in Mazatlan, which we discovered is a favorite holiday get-away spot for Mexican youngsters and families. The city is well-known for its long stretches of nice beaches, with soft sand, shallow slopes, and warm waters. We were lucky to find an affordable RV park that wasn’t crowded, and only a few blocks from the beach and the touristy “Zona Dorada”, but still relatively quiet. We arrived on the Thursday of Semana Santa and when we walked out to the beach we were startled and amazed by how packed it was, but there was still enough room to walk along the water. The next day it was somehow even more crowded – now there were people and their umbrellas solid from the resorts out into the waves.
The Mexican style of beach partying is an interesting spectacle: many of the groups were large families, including everyone from babies to seniors, all crowded under one or a few colorful umbrellas, with countless children running around in all directions, a large assortment of food laid out on various ramshackle tables, chairs, and towels, and copious beer and boom boxes. And then there were the brass bands. By Friday afternoon there were very loud groups of musicians, replete with tubas and large drums, all playing at the same time (and what sounded to us like the same songs) approximately every twenty feet along the beach. I don’t know how anyone could hear anything through the ruckus.
We escaped from the beach for a nice walk around old town Mazatlan, which has an impressive cathedral and beautiful old buildings in splendid colors, and of course a central market. Like most urban markets that we’ve been to in our previous travels this one was crowded, loud, colorful, and full of interesting sights and aromas. We bought some vegetables and ate a tasty lunch on a balcony overlooking the busy street.
The cheapest and easiest way to get around Mazatlan is by the small, open-air taxis called “pulmonias”, which literally translates to pneumonia. Most of these cute little vehicles are made by VW (it turns out that VWs are very common throughout Mexico, due to their production here), and many are quite old. When we asked our entertaining pulmonia driver about the name he told us it refers to the drivers going out to the beach after a long day and drinking beer, then getting cold from the wind and catching pneumonia, at least that’s what we gathered through our language barrier.
Even off the main drag in our little RV park we could still hear the loud bands and whooping and hollering from revelers into the wee hours, so after two nights in Mazatlan we decided it was time to flee from the city. We headed east towards the city of Durango to check out a potential climbing area that we had read about, not knowing exactly what we would find. As with several places in Mexico, this route has both an older free road and a newer toll road, and when we came to the Y where the two split we had no idea which we should take, so we somewhat randomly chose the toll road. In general the toll roads are faster and nicer, without the notorious potholes and crumbling sides of many Mexican roads. On the other hand, the free roads often offer better scenery and culture, and of course they save some money. Boy are we glad that this time we chose the toll road. It was expensive, in fact it was more expensive than either of us could remember paying on a toll road in the states (about $30 USD one way), but it was an astounding feat of engineering through breathtaking scenery.
The new Mazatlan-Durango toll road (Mex 40D) was in the works for decades and only opened in October of 2013. The old free road winds 180 miles through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, and from what we saw of it and read about it, it’s very slow going, taking 6-8 hours. The new road cuts this journey down to 140 miles and takes only around 3 hours, by going straight through most of the mountains and across the spans. This was accomplished by building a very impressive 115 bridges and 63 tunnels. The tunnels vary in length from about 60m to over a kilometer and a half, with a combined length of over 10 miles. Eight of the bridges are over 900 feet high, and perhaps the very most impressive feature of the whole road is a long suspension bridge spanning the Baluarte River, which also marks the state line between Sinaloa and Durango. We read that at over 1300 feet tall the Baluarte Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the world. Whether that’s true or not, it was extremely impressive, as was the entire highway. We understand now why the tolls were so high, the government is trying to slowly gain back some of the 2.2 billion dollars it spent on the new road.
When we reached about the highest point on the highway (over 2700m) we saw our landmark – La Piramide. We were able to camp near the base of the impressive rock pinnacle on the land of an ecotourist establishment. What a stark contrast this was to our hot, dusty days in Baja, and the chaos of Mazatlan. Now we found ourselves nestled under a pine tree in the middle of a meadow breathing in the fresh, cool mountain air. A very welcome escape indeed!
In the morning we hiked up to La Piramide with our sights set on a two-pitch 5.9 that we had scoped out the previous afternoon. We had read that the route was over-bolted, but we couldn’t see past the fourth bolt, so took along some trad gear and a couple of “bail biners” (gear that we wouldn’t mind leaving behind just in case we had to descend before we reached the top). The route started off on the lip of an overhang about six feet of the ground, which meant that the first move involved a pull-up, a heel-hook, and then a sit-up. The line then ran up the face for a few bolts and into a long chimney. After not climbing for quite a while we were both rather wimpy and rusty, but the route was easy and super fun, topping out on a nice wide summit. La Piramide is an army training area, so at the summit there are several coats of arms painted on the rock, and dozens of dog tags and other memorabilia hung over a cross. There were in fact copious bolts up the route, however the anchors were very sketchy. It appears that others who climb the route (likely the army trainees) rappel off of just some webbing run directly through a single bolt and tied. We opted to sacrifice some gear and used our bail biners to make a safer rappelling anchor.
Not far from La Piramide was a huge rocky area that we spent the afternoon exploring. We were awed by the impressive outcrops and vast potential for both sport and trad climbing, as well as bouldering. If this area were in the states it would be a climbing mecca. It was clear that someone had spent time there scouting out some routes, painting the lines with colored dots, and bolting a few of them. Whether these routes were set for personal climbing or army training we’re not sure, but we did see more coats of arms painted on various summits. Most of the lines looked like easy 5.8s or 5.9s, but we did see one sheer wall with three or four different extremely over-bolted routes (the bolts were every 18 to 24 inches) that looked very challenging.
After two days of enjoying the cool piney mountain air it was time to stow the jeans, jackets, and socks away again and head back down to the beach. We are again in search of good waves.