We love Mazatlán. It is a breathtakingly gorgeous place, located on the world-renowned Sea of Cortés, a real working city that plays host to millions of tourists from the interior as well as abroad. We are proud to be featured in world-class travel and tourism magazines. We crow about hosting the 2018 Tianguis Turístico. We brag about the number and variety of cruise ships that visit our port every week.
Yet we do so very little to show respect for the natural beauty with which we are blessed. At sunset on the weekend, we see our beaches covered in garbage. Carnavál revelers throw their refuse everywhere you can possibly imagine. Our streets, empty lots and estuaries are frequent dumping grounds for all kinds of unsightly, unhygienic trash that suffocates our marine life.
Tourists get off the cruise ship or leave their hotels to take a city tour, going to the top of Lookout and Icebox Hills for the views. The panoramas, and the snapshots, are amazing—until you look in the foreground. “Aim that camera up higher, John. That trash in the weeds there ruins the photo.” Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
We have a culture here in Mazatlán that condones littering. It holds us back as a city, as a community, and as a tourism destination, and it’s my fervent passion that we can change that culture!
One man giving his all to do just that is Don Nichols. He has led a clean-up and beautification campaign atop Cerro de la Nevería/Icebox Hill for the past three years, and the results are remarkable!
Don and his wife Lori live in a gorgeous house with killer views. He was an employment lawyer in Minneapolis/St. Paul for 40+ years, and they bought their home atop the hill eight years ago in preparation for retirement. They love living here seasonally, and like good Midwesterners, they take pride in their neighborhood. It pained Don to see how people would come up to his neighborhood at night to drink in the views and the beer, leaving all their trash behind. Unlike Cerro del Vigía/Lookout Hill, where there is a homeowner’s association, his neighborhood doesn’t have a street sweeper. So the trash just accumulated. And accumulated.
Don went to the city to complain and to ask for some clean-up assistance. When none was forthcoming, he took matters into his own hands—like the independent Midwestern he is. Along with Juan and Martín, an uncle and nephew who work for Don, he started cleaning up and hauling trash out of the area.
Don, Juan and Martín’s efforts could barely keep ahead of those who trashed the area, however. So, they got the brainstorm to impede access to the empty lots where most of the partying went on by installing fences and beautifying them with brightly colored bougainvillea. They surround the bougainvillea plants with a circle of lime-covered rocks, to discourage ants from killing the plants. When he can find the property owners, Don gets permission, but he has beautified a few parcels for which he’s unable to contact the owners.
During their clean-up efforts, they found sidewalks buried under the trash, brush and sediment that washes down the steep hill. So, their efforts grew to include hauling out dirt and brush to reveal sidewalks that haven’t seen the light of day in twenty years! Don figures that in three years time they have hauled 50 dump truck loads of crud off the hill. I so wish Don were my neighbor!
They installed and painted trash cans to encourage neighbors and visitors to help keep the area clean. The cans are bright pink, the same color as most of the bougainvillea. They get filled quickly, and Don is grateful that city crews come Monday, Wednesday and Friday to empty the cans. The cans have to be repainted at least once a year. He, Juan and Martín have painted a few concrete walls the same pink color, creating a vibrant theme in the neighborhood. They’ve painted electrical boxes green and recently even painted a sign on the side of the road—Mazatlán’s Most Beautiful Hill (in Spanish)—with hopes of instilling pride of place in the local community.
The beautification is a never-ending process. Run-off on the steep hill never ends, so dirt and rocks constantly fall down, covering the sidewalks and the road, and bringing trash downhill. If they don’t stay on top of daily litter pickup and frequent dirt and rock removal, the area will all too quickly return to how it looked before.
Don has found that the bougainvillea so far are a great idea. They have thorns, so people don’t want to walk through them. They’re gorgeous, so people usually respect them. Most of the empty lots he beautifies have no flat space on which to plant anything, however—it’s a very steep hill. So, he builds a wall downhill and grades the soil to make a garden bed.
The problem is, however, that the bougainvillea need water in order to take root. They can get by after a rainy season, but at least the first year the plants need fertilizer and regular watering. So, Don bought a motorcycle with an attached flatbed and put a tinaco in it. They fill the tinaco with water and then ride around watering the plants in the neighborhood. It’s a lot of work, but with beautiful results! His efforts have transformed the area.
He and his crew have also painted lime on many of the trees in the neighborhood, again to discourage the ants. He has met with a few setbacks. Bougainvillea he planted on the landings of the stairway were yanked out by someone, he’s not sure who. They are debating whether to replant or not. There is one place where someone has rolled back a fence they installed, in order to be better able to park their trucks, turn on their stereos and party. Don hopes to plant bougainvillea there and repair the fence, in hopes that the second time will be the charm. A third “failure” is a bed of trumpet vines he planted on the uphill side of the road. While they have grown significantly, they have never flowered, probably due to lack of sun.
Quite a few pulmonía, auriga and taxi drivers have thanked Don for his efforts, saying the beautification has improved tourists’ enjoyment of their tours. While he hasn’t gotten many thank-yous from neighbors, another expat chipped in some money to support his effort, and he’s only gotten one criticism. One neighbor complained that Don had removed sand that he’d been saving (the sand had been in a pile at the side of the road for several years). So, Don got him some new sand.
Don’s beautification efforts have helped increase the value of real estate in the neighborhood, I imagine, but he’s helped his neighbors in other ways, too. Frustrated at repeatedly finding human feces on one empty lot, Don learned that a man living next door didn’t have running water or a toilet. Well, for US$350, he had a shower and toilet installed in the man’s house, in exchange for the man’s promise to keep the lot next door clear of brush and trash. Most definitely a win-win!
Don obviously didn’t set out three years ago to make a full-time job for himself; it grew little by little. He very much hopes that his efforts will inspire other property owners in the area to maintain and beautify their properties, so that Icebox Hill can be not only the most beautiful hill in Mazatlán but in all of Sinaloa. He also very much hopes the city will assign a street sweeper to his hill.
Great article about my pal Don! He’s always a leader in seeking out the best solutions to sticky issues. The improvements he and his team have made to his hill are top notch and an example for us all.
Indeed they are! Thanks for joining us here, Gordon.
We live near the hill. Congrats to Don for all his wonderful work. He has made a huge difference. As to getting a street cleaner, virtually all the ones in our area have disappeared. It seems they have been reassigned to other areas. People in the Zone say they are seeing more so maybe that is where they are. However, our areas are now becoming much dirtier with a lot more garbage.
I would hope that if, as a neighborhood, you got together to ask the city to assign a street sweeper, they would be more likely to listen. It’s a huge tourist zone up there, as well. Fingers crossed.