Sunday, April 12, 2015

Durango - March 31-April 3, 2015

It's The Journey, Not The Destination

And sometimes that's not just a platitude.

Before leaving Mazatlan on the 31st of March we spent most of the afternoon having lunch with some yatista compadres - the crews of Dodger II (Leif and Jackie Watson), Full 'n By (Dick Towson and Anne Woodson) and Kewao (Tom Shenton). We didn't feel pressure to get on the road to Durango because we had read that, since the new cuota (toll road) between Mazatlan and Durango had opened in 2013, the drive to Durango had been reduced to "slightly under 2.5 hours". The old libre still exists, and it is said to wind around the side of the mountains providing spectacular views at the expense of a very long (up to eight hours long), death-defying ride.  

Well, after taking the new, fast, safer road to Durango our thoughts are: Holy Crap we're glad we didn't (a) take the free road, (b) have a beer at lunch or (c) ride with the guy that can do the trip in only 2.5 hours. 

The cuota - Mexico 40D - is an engineering marvel with 63 tunnels and 115 bridges, one of which is the highest suspension bridge in the world. The views are spectacular. But it's still a challenging, winding route and it took us 4.5 hours door to door.

You Do NOT Pull Over For Photos On MX 40D!

One of The 63 Tunnels
Another Of The 63 Tunnels

One of The 115 Bridges

Was THIS The Highest Suspension
Bridge In The World?


We pulled into Victoria de Durango (named for Mexico's first President, Guadalupe Victoria) around 8:30 in the evening (there's a time-change between the coast and Durango). We checked into the Hotel Gobernador (which we recommend) and had a glass of wine in the hotel bar before more wine and dinner in the hotel restaurant - too exhausted by the "easy" route to seek out other dining options.

Over the next two days we learned that Durango is a bustling, clean, prosperous (mostly from mining) city with just enough Mexican moments to make a visitor smile:

One Can Still Get A Shoe Shine On The Plaza

Gas Delivery Still Sometimes A Little Sketchy

And This IS Cowboy Country

The town was first founded in 1563 but most of the buildings are from the Porfiriato (the period during which Porfirio Diaz was president (1876 - 1910 ish).

Got Portales? Check!

Got A Plaza? Check!

Got A Cathedral On The Plaza? Check!

          Museo de la Ciudad 450:  There are more than two days worth of museums to see in town so we didn't see them all. But we understand why travel writers seem to be in agreement that the one museum to see is the Museo de la Ciudad 450. [The 450 reference is to the 450 years between the city's founding in 1563 and the opening of the museum in 2013.] 

The 450 covers a wide range of subjects including Durango's role in the motion picture industry. If you've seen a cowboy movie in the last 50 years you've probably seen scenes shot in Durango. Movies filmed in Durango include True Grit, The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven and the "classic" chick-western, Bandidas (Bryce's favorite western . . . really, it's all about the story)

Hollywood and Mexico's Film Industry Came Calling

The Duke Was There

Durango's other connection with the motion picture business is that it is the birthplace of Dolores del Rio. If you're too young to know who she is you should take time to watch Flying Down to Rio or The Fugitive. She's gorgeous.

The 450 also includes information about the history of Durango, even encroaching on the scope of the Museo Francisco Villa by including exhibit about Pancho Villa.

Molly and the First Mayor of Durango

A Former Miss Durango - Guess the Decade

The Alacran - A Symbol of Durango
(They Grow Big There!)

          Museo Francisco Villa:  As corny as a museum about Pancho Villa could be - this one isn't. It is a thorough, albeit somewhat romanticized, discussion of Sr. Villa's out-sized life. 

The short-hand version of that life is Sr. Villa was born in the state of Durango as Doroteo Arango Arambula. He used several aliases during his early years but became famous under the name of Francisco (Pancho) Villa. He held several jobs throughout his life including bandit, revolutionary, movie actor and border raider. He ended up an assassination victim. 

The museum is very interactive and we were amused to see that the visiting children/youths paid almost no attention to the artifacts or written materials. They went immediately to the interactive screens available in every room. Does one learn more or less by touching pictures on and hearing from a screen than by reading a wall plaque and looking at a piece of clothing once worn by a guy long dead? Hard to tell. 

Like many of the museums in Durango, this one is located in a spectacular turn-of-the-last-century building.

          El Aguacate: Our third museum was the UJED Regional Museum (UJED = Universidad Juarez del Estado de Durango) also known for reasons we never figured out as El Aguacate (the avocado - ?). It has a rambling collection of rocks, minerals, mammoth tusks, taxidermed birds and animals, religious paintings by Miguel Cabrera, some pre-Conquest art, some conquistador armor, information about Durango during the War of Independence and the Revolution and an entire room dedicated to Pancho Villa.

           Walking Tour: On our first afternoon we hired a young woman who had approached us from a tourist kiosk in the Plaza de Armas to take us on a walking tour the next morning. She was a delightful guide - fluent-ish in English and knowledgeable enough about her city. We were her second tour and her first English-language tour! Sometimes you win at hire-a-random-local-guide roulette. It was nice to walk through town without having to stop and read our little tour map to find out if what we were seeing was important. She took us to several areas around the downtown core we might not have seen on our own.

          Teleferico:  Our final act of tourism was to ride the teleferico (a gondola ride) up to the view point in town. It gave Bryce a chance to fiddle with the panorama feature on his smartphone and we liked trying to spot where we had walked that morning. But really the view's not that spectacular so if you never get to take this ride you should not consider it a great loss. 

Durango as Panorama

Durango from the Mirador (Lookout) 

           Timing:  We were in Durango Tuesday through Thursday of Semana Santa (Holy Week or the week preceding Easter Sunday). Semana Santa of course has religious significance in a country where the majority (still) self-identify as Catholic Christians. But in large part Semana Santa in Mexico is a national holiday week. It's said that everyone not employed in the tourist industry or required to stay at work for public safety reasons is on holiday for Semana Santa. And life near the beach has led us to believe that's probably true. On the beach it's "Spring Break". 

But in Durango - even though it is only a "2.5 hour drive from the beach" - (ha) - it was quiet. Really quiet. It seemed like everyone had gone to Mazatlan for the party. On the night of Maundy Thursday (the day commemorating Jesus' Last Supper) we hailed a cab and asked to be taken to a popular steakhouse - only to find that it was closed. As was the next place the cab driver tried. Thankfully the restaurant at the Hotel Gobernador was open, the food was okay and the singer in the adjacent bar was good.  

[Travel Tip: Apparently tourists in Mexico who don't go to the beach for Semana Santa will have their Last Supper at a hotel restaurant!] 

Some Extremely Simplified and Condensed Historical Notes: 

Summer 2013 was our time for learning (a bit) about Mexico's war of independence from Spain. This trip through Pancho Villa country has been our chance to become thoroughly confused about Mexico's Revolution. To help you (and us) through the next few posts, here's what we think we know about the Revolution:

          The Revolution Isn't The War of Independence: Like many estadounidenses (people from the U.S.) we used to confuse Mexico's War of Independence with it's Revolution because in the U.S. the terms "war of independence" and "revolution" are both used to refer to the same conflict - that which established the U.S. as a separate political entity. 

In Mexico these terms refer to two different bloody conflicts separated by 100 years. The Mexican War of Independence (from Spain) took place in the 19th Century (1810 - 1820ish). The Mexican Revolution was an internal conflict initiated to overthrow the dictatorial regime of the Mexican President, General Porfirio Diaz. The Revolution took place in the early 20th Century (1910 - 1920ish).

          Cultural Note: Those of us of a certain age watched the Revolution played out in several Hollywood movies and on early television. Think: Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, big sombreros, bandoleros and lots of aye-yai-yais. Like other Hollywood historical flicks those about the Mexican Revolution include a grain of truth. But no one movie can do justice to the plot twists of the Mexican Revolution. 

At a minimum it would require an HBO series running for multiple seasons to accurately reflect the Mexican Revolution. 

          Plot Twists: The idealist Francisco Madero (and friends) managed to overthrow the dictator Porfirio Diaz (see above re: the Porfiriato). Diaz skedaddled to Europe. Madero was murdered by his top general Victoriano Huerta who became president but eventually skedaddled to Europe. Venustiano Carranza took power but was murdered while trying to skedaddle to Europe with a bunch of gold. Alvaro Obregon became president and in early 1921 defeated Adolfo Huerta who had somehow become an interim president. This Huerta is not the same Huerta that skedaddled to Europe - that Huerta died in El Paso trying to get back across the border and regain power. 

Fighting on a small scale continued but the war was mostly over by 1921. Of course there were other wars after that, but we'll try to stick to this one in this post. While all of these power shifts were going on Villa was switching allegiances frequently and with varied military success. He also made raids into the U.S. where he spent time in prison. Villa was given a hacienda for his services to the republic in 1920 and assassinated (maybe even by the same guys) in 1923. Zapata operated his own ideologically-based revolution with varied military success against anyone that wouldn't support land reform. He got killed in 1919. There were several different attempts to get Villa and Zapata to join with various other parties that had limited success. 

And along the way there were lots of agreements. Mostly broken.

          Foreign (Mostly U.S.) Intervention: The U.S. intervened both politically and militarily. General Pershing tried to capture Villa along the U.S./Mexico border. The U.S. Navy blockaded Veracruz to avoid importation of German arms to Huerta #1 (think timing: WWI is happening in Europe). The U.S. also took military action to protect American oil interests. 

Germany intervened politically and in 1917 actually offered (well, there was one telegram) assistance to Mexico to regain territory lost to the U.S. in the Mexican-American War (that one was in 1846-1848). 

Also in 1917 the U.S. entered WWI and didn't spend a lot more time intervening militarily. 

          Final Score: One million Mexican dead (though some 1918 flu victims may be counted in there), continued unrest, some land reform measures and decades of one-party (PRI) rule.

If you are interested in this non-linear happening the Internet has some interesting though sometimes inconsistent time-lines to walk you through the plot maze.  

Our next post will be mostly about Viernes Santos (Good Friday). We'll get back to the Revolution shortly thereafter.

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