Our first trip on the Durango Mazatlán Highway and the Baluarte Bridge

About one week ago, we were fortunate to drive to Durango and back on the new Durango-Mazatlán toll road. Why were we lucky? Well, first of all the road is brand new with the key part (a.k.a. the middle) only being open for less than 10 days. Second, the road contains 63 bridges and 115 tunnels – very cool. Third, the road includes the Baluarte Bridge, the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world and the longest in North America. Fourth, two days after we returned, Tropical Storm Sonia hit hard in that area of Mexico, closing the road for 36 hours and doing damage to this beautiful new highway that will be apparent for years to come (watch video in this story to see for yourself). You can read all the facts and figures here and below is a video we recorded through the sunroof.

We were door to door in three hours. By that I mean from our door on the malecón to the door of our hotel in the historic district of Durango in three hours. This includes stopping to pay tolls and one gas station stop. I did not include stopping to take pictures of the Baluarte Bridge which you can look through by clicking on any of the photos below.

The road provides an alternative to the free road, known as El Espinazo del Diablo, or the Devil’s backbone. This road took from five to eight hours for the same journey and includes countless switchbacks and hairpin turns and numerous encounters with busses, trucks, cows, burros and bicycles all on a two lane road with little or no shoulder. It was frequently closed due to accidents and mud slides and was a nightmare when the clouds were thick enough to reduce visibility to near zero. The new road is two lane most of the way, but has ample shoulders for passing or for emergencies and is about as straight as a mountainous road can get.

The tunnels range from short and sweet to awesome. Some have natural daylight “windows” while other rely on electric lights. Only four or five were long enough to lose the satellite connection to our NAV system. The longest is called El Sinaloense and is 2.8 Km long and has such cool lighting it feels like you are passing through or participating in a video game. Here is a video:

According to my passengers, the views were incredible. Passing over the bridges provides an incredible vista and the rock formations around the tunnels are truly awesome. There are no real services on the road yet, but you can see where they are being built. They should be available soon.

I highly recommend this road. It is much safer and efficient. The tolls round trip will be about 1,000 pesos which is not chump change. You will save a lot of gas compared to the old road and arrive sooner. I understand that the high price of the tolls is an issue and the governor of Sinaloa is “looking into it.” Texas is now a one day’s daylight drive thanks to this road – well, at least in summer.

***One important note about safety. The bridge is a huge attraction and many people want to stop and take pictures. Unfortunately, the topography of the land did not allow for a viewing area. So, what people are doing, us included, is simply stopping in the right lane and walking around (the bridge does have four lanes). This is perhaps a little foolish with cars coming out of a tunnel at you going well over 60 miles per hour. But, this is the system, at least for now. Word on the street is that the cruise ships are planning excursions to “see the amazing new bridge.” I can’t wait to see dozens of tourist vans taking up the right lane while tourists pose for pictures. Drive carefully everyone.

Día de los Muertos en Durango

You may recall that last month we went to Durango, prior to the road opening. This weekend we had to go again. Thank GOODNESS the road was open! The Baluarte Bridge is incredible, and the entire drive is unbelievably gorgeous and easy (three hours door to door). Greg will write more about that in a separate post.

We were heartbroken to miss the callejoneada for Day of the Dead here in Mazatlán, but we thought we’d share with you a glimpse of what Día de los Muertos looks like elsewhere. In Durango the cemeteries were full of people, of course—flowers, cleaning, bands, praying and partying. The city also hosted a hot air balloon festival. In the main plaza, in front of the cathedral, there was a large “Day of the Dead” display set up. It contained a dozen or more life-sized papier maché katrinas and other scenes, plus a few stages for performances.

Durango was completely different this time, primarily because last time we were there it was the height of their major annual cultural festival. Streets, plazas and restaurants were much less crowded this time around. Below are some photos we took this trip—a favorite new restaurant, some street scenes, and the plaza display. Click any photo to enlarge or view a slide show.

On Friday night Greg and I wandered back down to the plaza while Danny studied for his test, and there was a children’s folkloric dance group performing. What was out of the ordinary about this one was that the kids all dressed up as calacas—skeletons—and in glow-in-the-dark costumes. The stage was lit with black lights, so it was a pretty cool effect. We enjoyed it a lot.

Just prior to the performance, the little kids had fun posing for my camera. During the performance, shots were of course very challenging, as it was very dark and the kids were constantly moving. They danced to some songs you’d expect—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for example—and they also took us on a tour around México.

I put together a short (three minute) video of the performance. I trust you’ll enjoy watching it. The kids had soooo much fun in their costumes. They knew they looked great.

On the pedestrian street to the left of the cathedral, just down from Hostal de las Monjas and across the street from our favorite little cenaduría, El Parcero Tacos Bar, is a large funeral home, Funerales Hernández. They had an altar to Jenni Rivera that was larger and more superb than ANY I have EVER laid my eyes on. They called it a “Monumental Altar de Muertos.” It contained dozens of life-sized katrinas, ceramic and sugar skulls, antique and artesenal chachkes, Jenni Rivera music playing (not too loud), a mini disco ball for effect, and gorgeous paper work. Just take a look:

On our way back to the hotel, we walked by the old Palacio Municipal. It was all decorated for Day of the Dead, too. Those photos are below.


This Weekend in Durango

Well, since the SATs (college entrance exam for many schools in the USA) are held in Mazatlán only in the springtime, we drove to Durango this weekend so Danny could take the test. The last two times we drove that route, it took 3 and 3 1/2 hours for us to get from Mazatlán to Durango. This time, on Friday, it took 5 1/2! Granted, it was raining and foggy, and there was a whole lot of truck traffic. But we counted only 18 tunnels and 12 bridges that we crossed. We would swear that more of the new highway was open the last times we went. Perhaps more has closed due to damage from the recent heavy rains?

Needless to say, we arrived on Friday evening much later than we would have preferred, since we had to get up at the crack of dawn to get Danny to the test. But we had a great weekend! Unbeknownst to us, Durango is celebrating its 450th birthday (since summer), and right now is the Festival Cultural Revueltas—music, literature, dancing, theater. The streets were packed and all were having a grand time. While we have seen a lot of folkloric dancing in our day, it was the first time we’d witnessed ballet folkloric danced to banda music!  (I post a short video below, if you’d care to see.)

We stayed in a beautiful hotel very near the American School, where the test was held—the Hotel Gobernador.  Click on any photo below to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

While Danny took the test, Greg and I spent a whopping 20 pesos to go round-trip on the teleférico, or gondola, one of four in Mexico. What a gorgeous day we had, and such incredible views! At the top of the route is the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, a beautiful, small, and very old church, dating back to the founding of the city itself (and worship at the site by native Mexicans even earlier). (Click on any photo below to view it larger or view a slideshow.)

At the top of the gondola, a group of folkloric dancers were performing. Many of them were the same dancers that we’d happen to see again that evening in the Plaza de Armas. (Click on any photo below to view it larger or view a slideshow.)

Once Danny was finished with the test, we ate lunch at an incredible restaurant, Esquilón (Hidalgo #411, tel 618-811-1632). The space was awesome, the food was very, very good, and they have loads of private party areas. We  highly recommend it. (Click on any photo below to view it larger or view a slideshow.)

As part of the festival there was a handicraft market going on. As always, I was interested in the native peoples. There was a lovely Huichol couple doing beadwork, and several Tepehuanos sewing barbasca de pino/pine needle basketry. While we weren’t able to make it this trip, there is an Artesanías Tepehuana (O’dam) at Tuxpan 227, cel. 618-151-9862 or 618-116-8849. We also learned that there is an Indigenous Art and Culture of Durango Cooperative at Isla Acerralvo 211, cel. 618-171-9661 that sounds well worth visiting. Danny was able to buy a nice birthday gift for his friend, made of animal skin, so he was also quite happy. (Click on any photo below to view it larger or view a slideshow.)

Our favorite part of Durango, always, has been the beautiful architecture. The climate there seems to be so much more forgiving than ours here in Mazatlán, and they light the buildings up so gorgeously at night! It is breathtaking.

Finally, let me share with you some various shots of children playing and other city scenes.

Once the highway and the Puente Baluarte are truly open, they are predicting that the trip to Durango will take 2 1/2 hours. Even at 4 hours, it is well worth a visit!

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 12: Espinazo del Diablo/Devil’s Backbone

The road between Mazatlán and Durango (Highway 40) is called “Espinazo del Diablo”, or “Devil’s Backbone,” due to its steep incline, hairpin turns, and sheer drop offs. Originally this spring break trip we had intended to leave Mazatlán and go over the Devil’s Backbone through Durango to Zacatecas. It’s only about 180 miles/300 km, not so far. But, it takes at least five hours, and some have even reported it taking ten hours! Many of our local friends convinced us that we should not do that because it was far too dangerous. Instead, our friends recommended we go around, through Guadalajara, making a big southern circle to get to Zacatecas. We followed advice and were happy we did. Our roundabout route enabled us to spend a few days in Guanajuato.

We intended to return the same route on the way home. Thanks to our friends’ advice, we were now scared about traveling over the reported 3800 curves of the Devil’s Backbone. But, who wants to retrace their steps? We wanted to see new territory, and we’d heard that the drive through the Sierras via Durango was gorgeous. Durango is a city fairly close to Mazatlán, with others being Culiacan or Guadalajara. There are not a lot of big cities nearby our home, and sometimes one craves a city.

What we found today was a gorgeous drive with a much-improved roadway, and some fortunately very responsible drivers. While I wouldn’t want to make this drive often, I would definitely make it again. Neither Greg nor I felt it any worse than the drive to Tahoe or down Cañada Road on the SF Peninsula (N CA), or Oak Creek Canyon in AZ where I grew up. It is, however, much much longer.
We left Durango about 9 am and arrived in Mazatlán about 3:00, with stops for breakfast and lunch on the way, as well as losing one hour to the time change. That means about a 5 hour drive from Durango to Mazatlán for us today. Over the curves we averaged 30 mph, but when we were stuck behind trucks or a line of cars we frequently progressed at 2 or 5 mph. It is definitely slow going!

The new portion of the road that is open is terrific—two lanes each way, flat and smooth, clearly marked. The scenery along the route is terrific, with some unusual rock formations and incredible vistas.

John Wayne’s ranch is along this route, as are a couple of national parks, some nature preserves, and several places to rent cabañas. Come summer I think it would be fun to go up there, rent a cabaña, and spend a few days sniffing the pine trees, hiking and mountain biking. It was wonderful to smell pine in the fresh air and to feel the nearly-freezing temperatures of the sunny morning. The highest point, we’ve been told, is 1890 meters/6200 feet, less than Flagstaff AZ where I grew up, and far less than Conifer CO where Danny grew up.

Once the new cuota ended the free road was two lane, with oncoming traffic. The actual “Espinazo del Diablo” or “Devil’s Backbone” of hairpin turns and steep drop offs is only a portion of the road between Durango and Mazatlán, a 2-3 hour portion depending on which big slow trucks you get behind and how kind they are to pull to the right when you want to pass. Greg and I felt it was not nearly as bad a drive as we had been led to believe. With the new highway, it should be great. There were guardrails in most of the places that needed guardrails, something others had mentioned as making this drive so dangerous. Our guess is the rails have been recently installed. The biggest danger is closer to the Mazatlán side, nearing Copala, where the road, at least today, was still two lane and had absolutely no shoulder. If you happen to be making a hairpin curve while some crazy person is passing in oncoming traffic, there is not much you can do. Fortunately, today we only had two small instances, both very manageable. So, as of now we’ve overcome our fear of the Devil’s Spine.
There were lots of cows and horses by the side of the road, free range, and we saw some turkeys as well. It was a very scenic drive. Unfortunately we also saw loads of roadside shrines, dedicated to people who had been killed in car accidents.

Along the way are many construction sites. Information on the signs varies, but a website for the project indicates that the new road is going to include 63 tunnels along with 8 bridges over 300 feet in length and an assortment of smaller bridges. Along the way there are many makeshift towns that seemed to have arisen so that the road/bridge workers can have somewhere to live. Please visit the website to get a better understanding of the engineering challenge in making this drive safer, quicker and easier.
The workers work in incredibly dangerous-looking conditions, with steep drop offs and no safety equipment from what we could see.
We had our last meal of this spring break holiday together in Villa Unión at Cuchupeta’s, a place we’ve long been planning to visit. We were not disappointed.

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 11: Durango

After a leisurely breakfast in the hotel and a rather unsavory check-out process, we left for Durango, arriving about 3:00. We found a great room with two double beds, a kitchenette and sofa for 350 pesos, right in El Centro Histórico—Hotel Durango. They also had really affordable cenas, breakfasts and room service, though we didn’t try any.

We took a walk around. The architecture was really pretty cool, and it was nice to know there is another fairly major city not so very far from home; will be much closer once the new highway opens.

The city was putting on free 45-minute trolley car tours. That means that some of these photos are taken through the glare of window glass, but they’ll give you an idea of what Durango looks like if you haven’t been there.

Tip: if you don’t like pizza with hot dogs on top and a crust made of pie crust, don’t eat at Coreleone’s. If you like “distinctive” pizza, get right over there. It’s on the gorgeous pedestrian street in the center of town.