Friday, March 16, 2012

Big Mexico: Valentine's day in Batopilas

Valentine's Day 2012

There are many reasons to want to go on a tour. One is that you don't have to plan the logistics of hotels or risk a taxi driver taking you to a really bad one out in the middle of some campo, figure out where and when to catch a bus, try to find a place where you can get vegetables to eat that aren't going to make you sick, negotiate with taxi drivers, miss out on seeing a museum because "everybody knows the museums are closed on Mondays!", etc. The bad thing about tours is that often there is a lot of sitting and being transported, and OMG how they feed you!! Every meal we had so far, and this was day five, was overwhelmingly good food and way too much of it. I felt bad several times at how much we left on our plates, and hoped at least some of it would be recycled to pigs, dogs, or even people, rather than just thrown out.

Tuesday, two more hikes were planned. The rough-n-ready hikers took off early for their 20 mile hike up to a remote canyon, while those of us nursing blisters and horrid colds went on the 6 mile ruins tour.

Ruins of the silver mill.
Batopilas has an interesting history. Way back, several hundred years ago, the Spanish Crown was interested in sucking as much gold and silver out of Mexico that it could. Every mine gave 1/5 of its output in taxes to Spain. It was carted across the ocean once a year in a huge armada of transport and gun ships to minimize the possibility of piracy. Silver was found in some abundance in Batopilas Canyon. There is a small museum dedicated to this period in history when bars of silver created at the mill in Batopilas were taken by burro and on men's backs out of the canyons to Chihuahua. It was a six week journey. Over the years photographs have been taken of the reenactments. In the museum are displays featuring photos of the mansions that were built, the mill in full swing, and the drinking establishments. The town's population was around 15,000, now it's less than 5000. There are a lot of abandoned buildings and ruins.

What is left of the mill owner's home.
Our hotel, the Riverside Lodge was one of those silver baron's homes. It had been abandoned by the original owners during the 1910 revolution when rich people fled Chihuahua. Over the years it was owned and used but was a shambles by the time an Eastern investor decided to create a luxury hotel. In the process of remodeling, three separate treasures of silver coins and paper money were discovered. One was in a floor safe, still in the living room full of silver coins, but now guarded by a 5 inch plexiglass shield. Another was found behind a wooden panel in the room Lia and I shared. In the corridor were posted details of the restoration, including a collection of old glass wine casks.

The hotel speaks of a elegant home with painted walls and ceilings, luxurious furniture, lovely outdoor spaces, and producing fruit trees. When we arrived back from our hot and dusty hikes, we were greeted with glasses of cold tart kumquat juice. Kumquats are called naranjitos in Spanish. There were at least four large naranjito trees, all drooping with small fruits. 

The rooms were elegant, the beds comfortable, and almost every bathroom had a claw-footed tub. We spent three nights at the hotel, had breakfast catered by one of the local restaurants, and went out to dinner at different restaurants every evening. We usually went to bed stuffed to the gills, but still managed to wake up to pan dulces, strong coffee, and some kind of fluffy egg dish with a variety of salsas. 

Judy peeking out her window.
The hike past the mill ruins lasted a few hours, just enough to work off some of that rich breakfast. We hiked past another large but closed hotel on the outskirts of town, past men running a water powered rock sluice filled with gold ore they'd mined in the hills. The drought has shut down all marijuana production, one of the main cash crops in the valley, so panning and mining for gold is what's left. We crossed over a suspension bridge that swayed precariously with the rhythm of our footsteps, but we were held inside by chain link fencing. Some of the boards on the bridge were missing, and in places the chainlink had large holes in it. As usual, we had to take very good care of ourselves, the nearest medical help was way up that long dirt road and all the way to Creel.  Once on the other side of the river, we followed the irrigation canal which supplies all water to the town. In places it was diverted to irrigate fields, run the gold sluice, or provide water for animals.

After the hike, some of us wandered around the town where we found an internet cafe (not open till late afternoon), several small groceries, several more bars, a lot of loose hungry dogs, and one poor old starving cow who was foraging the leaves from a tree that fell in a small park. There was no grass and nothing on the bushes.

People worked at washing clothes in the river and cutting wood out in the flats of the river bed. Some had car and tool repair businesses and there were a few stores with clothing and hardware. In general it was a small town without much going on. There was one new hotel being built. I assume the owner is hoping the new road will bring back the visitors. And the clinic was being expanded into a new hospital, so there were some publicly funded jobs to be had.

That evening we were in for a big surprise.

The hotel manager had arranged for a 4 piece band to come play for us while we had Happy Hour in the largest patio. He also furnished some locally made mescal and tequila. The mescal was exquisite, flavored and aged with raisins which mellowed it and added several layers of flavorful complexity. As it got darker, and we got drunker, we began to dance. Some of us knew the waltz, the rumba, salsa and other formal dances, but most of us simply did the monkey bouncing that we all learned as teenagers. We danced and drank for two hours. It was just delightful, and I think all of us had lost track of time, not realizing that it was Valentine's Day. Afterwards, we went for another too-filling dinner at a local restaurant. I felt very sad to leave that hotel and the sweet people of Batopilas, and knew I would really miss that luxurious bed!!


A painted ceiling in the salon.



Antique furniture is found throughout the hotel.

One of several outdoor patios, this one with a fountain.

Dining room open to the outdoors on three sides.


Part of the newer section of the hotel.
Very fanciful.
Sculptures were on display
throughout the living areas.
The hotel's lovely Mexican kitchen.