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 9, Domingo Pascuas: A lazy Sunday in Zacatecas

After eight busy days, we promised the kids and ourselves that Easter Sunday would be very restful. We all agreed to sleep in until whenever and other than eating and maybe seeing a movie, we had no plans.

After we were all up and showered (around 1:00 pm), we ventured out to eat. On the way, Danny found something he just couldn’t resist playing with and eventually buying. He found a Predator action figure (think Alien vs. Predator). I don’t fully understand the excitement, but this thing has some interchangeable parts and Danny sees resell value in its future.

Until then, he can play with it…

None of wanted a fancy meal (last night was steak night), and we had read about Gorditas Doña Julia. All the great things we had heard were dead on. 10 or 12 pesos each, great choice of fillings and excellent quality.

The concept is simple: seat yourself, fill out the order form, thank the joven for bringing you the drinks, wait two more minutes and a big basket of Gorditas arrives. Find which ones are yours and dig in. Yummmm.

After that, we bought Danny some drawing supplies, traveled out to the “Centro De Plata” which was a bust (sort of open and more about selling than showing how things are made). Then we went to see the movie, The Adjustment Bureau which we all loved. After that, cab ride home, a stop for chocolate and back to the hotel room. Just the lazy day we all needed.

Still lovin’ Zacatecas…

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 10, Our last full day in Zacatecas

Today, Monday, was our last full day in Zacatecas. We had plans to have Dianne, Danny and Mara do a craft project with a group of local residents, go to the University Science Museum, go on the Tirolesa (zip line), shop and eat.

How’d we do? Well, we showed up for craft time and there were so many little kids that all three in our group backed out. The museum is closed for renovation. hmmm – not a good start! We decided to head up to the zip line. It was a very windy day, especially on top of the hill. The Tirolesa is 840 meters long and is the longest in Latin American – or so they say. Three us us decided to go, with Dianne staying back to hold valuables and act as videographer. It was exhilarating and well worth the 150 pesos. Dianne shot mainly video, so we also purchased the pictures from the local photographer. Mara’s parents will undoubtedly be a little shocked, but we call made it home in one piece.

We celebrated our success with a refresco and a quick trip the observatory, which is really a weather station with an awesome view. Then, we headed out to Viva Mexico – another great restaurant I had found out about on some foodie website. Man, was it great. Three of us had enchiladas (all different types) and one had Chile Mestizo (a stuffed pepper with incredible walnut sauce). I still cannot decide where I had the best enchiladas ever – Viva Mexico or Los Dorados de Villa. All I know is the best enchiladas ever are in Zacatecas.

After eating, we took a slow walk home. We proved once again that we are all great shoppers. We all bought some stuff for ourselves and for others. We then plopped down in a plaza to have an adult beverage and enjoy the passers-by. As an added bonus, we were entertained by folkloric dancers as part of the cultural festival. Those of under 20 were too tired and wanted to go home to text, chat and do whatever. Dianne and I enjoyed our quiet time and came home a couple of hours later to write blog entries.

I am on strike with Blogger. It is so frustrating to line up text and pictures that I am giving up. Below are self-explanatory pictures including one extra just to remind us we are in Mexico! (For those of you not in the know an E with a slash through it means no parking.)

Tomorrow we head for Durango (yes, a change of plans). Stay tuned…

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 8, Sábado de Gloria: Jerez, Feria de Primavera

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 8, Sábado de Gloria: Jerez, Feria de Primavera
Today was all about charros, Mexican cowboys. We saw over 2000 cuacos, or horses, and some of the most beautiful charrería or charro fashion ever, in “the world’s largest cantina,” the Jerez Spring Festival.

Jerez was about a 45-minute drive from Zacatecas. We arrived about 10 am, which was really lucky, as we were able to get a perfect parking spot and walk around the streets prior to the crowds arriving. We stopped in a tailor shop, as well as a saddlery shop. People in Jerez were so very kind and friendly. The tailor was working on last-minute adjustments to charro pants for a few guys, and the saddlery was doing the same—making new holes in belts and adjusting saddlery so everyone could celebrate the day appropriately. It seemed obvious this was one of the most important days of the year. The sombrero sellers were also doing big business in the morning. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view as a slideshow.

The streets of Jerez are gorgeous, particularly for a small town. There is a beautiful cathedral, some gothic buildings, and many more typical Mexican small town streets as well. Everywhere we looked the town was dressed up for the Feria de Primavera. They especially seem to love huge inflatable beer cans and bottles here 🙂  As we walked around the streets began to fill with people, ready for a party.

As we were walking around, we met quite a few people and realized that charros from all over Mexico come to Jerez for the Spring Festival. It is a major big deal. Two of our new friends hosted us to breakfast (gracias!).

The main event of the day is the cabalgata, which in this case is basically cruising around the streets of the town on a horse in full charro regalia, flirting with the spectators. Note that there were a few lady riders, and they rode sidesaddle. Some people rode as couples. And some rode while texting.

The day starts out about 1:00 pm with the lighting of various Judases—traitors—hung around town. These Judases are like piñatas with firecrackers attached. They seem mostly to be sponsored by local businesses, particularly cantinas. This year the Judases included an Osama bin Laden, a Moamar Khadafi, and two (2!) Barak Obamas!

We were able to see most of the Judases before the crowds showed up. We knew they would light them later. What we didn’t realize was that the guys on the horses would light the Judases. Then, they’d rope them (lasso them), drag them down, and gallop through town dragging the Judas as it was burning and popping. You definitely do not want to be standing in the street as the horses gallop buy dragging a flipping, flopping, burning and popping Judas! It was quite the sight!

The day started out very family-friendly. There were lots of kids and families. Most of the kids were just so darned cute!

As the day went on, however, the cabalgata riders started drinking beer, then tequila, and then whiskey. We definitely started to understand the “biggest cantina in the world” slogan. The afternoon from about 2-5 became one big street party. It was terrific.

There were bands everywhere: norteñas, bandas, tamborazos, and even a few mariachi. They played while marching in the cabalgata, they played on stages and bandstands, they played behind the bleachers where the spectators were watching the cabalgata and partying, they played UNDER the bleachers as well. Bottom line seemed to be that you had to be able to play in the midst of a crowd of people.

We enjoyed ourselves until about 3 o’clock, when the crowds really became overwhelming for us.

One of the coolest things I realized today was how beautiful the charro hats are, and what a variety they are. I am absolutely in love with the wicker variety, and want to check on prices, which I imagine are high. If not, I would love to have one—beautiful artisan work.

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 8, Sábado de Gloria: Jerez, Feria de PrimaveraAfter driving back to the hotel, resting, attending a beautiful but very lengthy Easter Resurrection mass this Sábado de Gloria, we made Danny a very happy boy. He was able to eat meat for the first time in 40 days ☺

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 7, Good Friday: Zacatecas

I guess we had a busy day, because I’m having a really hard time choosing the photos to use. It felt like a very relaxed and wonderful day as we wandered around the city.

Danny was unfortunately sick with a fever and stayed behind today, sleeping nearly all day. Mara, Greg and I headed out to the Rafael Coronel (mask) museum. On the way, however, we happened by the Casa de Cultura. What a find! It’s very near our hotel, but somehow we hadn’t seen it before today.

In addition to incredible handmade stuff inside (which we bought our share of), they have TWO WEEKS of FREE art classes during Semana Santa! People can study wood or rock carving, chair caning, piñata/Judas making, huichól wax beadwork and yarn work, embroidery, weaving… you name it. It was wonderful! We had such a good time looking around and talking to people, and we signed up for classes on Monday.

From there we wandered across town to the mask museum. I am going to have to do a special “architecture of Zacatecas” blog or photo page, as there is just too much to cover here, such a wealth of beauty. On the way we passed the Templo de Santo Domingo which had been closed yesterday, so we peeked inside. They have gold altars down both side walls, plus a gorgeous main altar and organ.

The mask museum itself is housed in the former Convent of San Francisco. The building is incredible—ruins and gardens, nearly jungle-like, plus a lawn out front and very modern installations in the museum itself. So happy we went.

Rafael, like his brother Pedro, was an artist and collector. While Pedro seemed to collect paintings, Pedro collected masks. They are from all over Mexico, and it is astounding how many of them, and how wonderful, they are! They say it’s the largest collection of masks in the world.  We had such a good time looking through the collection, and we thoroughly enjoyed the site, too.

There were also quite a few musical instruments that were pretty remarkable. I do love folk art.

And they had masks that weren’t for the face, but rather to step into and dance with. They seemed a lot of fun.

Outside the main mask museum they had what may be a temporary exhibit, I’m not sure, but it was of incredibly real marionettes in various scenes.

From the museum we walked downhill around the corner to eat at a place Greg had found online: Los Dorados de Villa. Inside the place was chock-full of Mexican curio and history. Several of the walls are papered with old money/bills.

It was the cutest little house, and it had quite the “soup Nazi” at the door! She was actually wonderful, but I don’t envy her job! Very pushy people try to cut the line or pay her off to get ahead, but she held her ground. She took people to be seated in the order they arrived, or some had reservations.

The food was INCREDIBLE. The three of us had pozole, enchiladas doradas con lomo en crema de poblano, and encacahuatadas. OMG! TO DIE FOR! The encacahuatadas were a light chipotle cream sauce with peanut, very Thai, yet very Mexican. I could only eat two of the five in the bowl.

From there we headed back to the hotel to check on poor Danny, who honest to goodness had slept most of the day. On the way we were able to get into the cathedral (very modern compared to other churches in the city), and had the joy of strolling through this gorgeous city that is wall-to-wall party/festival this week. Everywhere you look is joy.

Danny was feeling better, so joined us for the Procession of Silence. That was also most incredible, held on Good Friday evening. I will devote a separate blog post to that.