"If you weren't there, you can't even imagine it......"
I must start with a heart felt thanks to our guide Frenchie LeChance (yes, he says that’s his real name!). We all met Frenchie at dinner at the historic Gadsden hotel in Douglas. Frenchie said to look for the guy with the suit and tie. Actually, he was wearing a huge bowtie and flashing a suit of cards, but that’s Frenchie. And so it began….
What a great group of people. Although there were supposed to be 10 jeeps in the group, we started out with just 8. Many of us had never met each other, but as you can usually count on with this type of event, we were great friends by the end of that first dinner.
After spending the night in Douglas, we crossed into Mexico the next morning and let Frenchie lead us at a leisurely pace. He tells great stories, and knows so much about the country and the people. We enjoyed the narrative on radio along the way.
I may get the days mixed up so forgive me if the details are a little off. Frenchie had a set plan day by day, but we as a group immediately started juggling the schedule. It became apparent early on that everyone wanted to ride the train, so we made it happen.
The first day in Mexico we headed toward Mata Ortiz, with a great stop to see the Paquime Ruins. We intended to also see the Casa Grandes the same day, but put it off a day getting us into Mata Ortiz and the little motel in plenty of time to visit the local pottery artists. The hotel was simple but perfect (except for the spider and the tics), and we were able to get dinner and breakfast family style. The people were amazing and we actually were in one artist’s kitchen watching him paint pottery with such a tiny brush, just one hair strand.
The next morning we circled back to see the Casa Grandes, and visited the Mata Ortiz train station. That’s where we met Freddie, the leader of a 300+ jeep group congregating in the small town for their annual meet. We were invited to join them, but of course we just continued on our own course. The second evening, we set up camp near the Valley of the Caves. The caves were a short hiking distance from camp. It’s amazing how well preserved all of the ruins are.
I think it was the morning of the 3rd day that we encountered the drug cartel on the road. It caught us by surprise, and I don’t want to dwell on what it was or could have been. We followed Frenchie’s lead and avoided any problems. It did make us all very aware that Mexico has it’s problems with corruption. It’s very sad to see. But, on to Madera and then over the crazy shelf roads (sorry Mike!) and down into the Rio Suripa hot springs. We immediately fell in love with this camping spot, and after the locals left Sunday afternoon, we had the place to ourselves. We just HAD to stay two nights. It was the most amazing shower you will ever experience. We spent a lot of time just soaking in the spring’s pool. I can’t really explain how great the shower was, you just had to be there. We did need to have radio silence as we left the hot springs due to the impending dynamite project up on the narrowest part of the shelf road (sorry Mike!) as Frenchie suggested after speaking to the Mexican road crew that we not do anything to possibly set off a charge prematurely. True story……
Due to the shift in plans, we headed next for Creel where we would ALL catch the train. Great plan! We rented typical little camp cabins at the old “KOA” camp ground. Then we found out that train tickets had to be purchased online 72 hours prior to boarding. BUT WE HAD GABBY. If you ever go to Mexico, you want to always have Gabby in your back pocket. She speaks fluent Spanish, and was a heck of a negotiator. She got us all on board at the last minute and we paid cash on board. Ha! Lucky for us we had the same conductor on the return trip the next day.
The train was worth the trip. It was so nice that everyone got to go. We had a long leisurely ride, several stops along the way, and good food in the dining car. The real surprise was El Fuerte, the destination city where we spent the night. It was beautiful. We were all able to walk around the city and enjoy the night life. The hotel itself was exceptional. What a nice surprise. Beautiful.
Once back at the KOA, we had a final dinner as a group as we had to say goodby to half the troop as they had to start home the next day. Luckily, all but Kevin and Sean were able to take a quick trip out to the Basaseachic Falls. Frenchie again delivered. There wasn’t much water runoff, but the falls were still beautiful and according to Frenchie, the 3rd highest falls on the North American continent (it must be true!).
Now we were down to the “Final Four” jeeps. Tin Shanty, Gold Digger, Red Ruby, and Frenchie! The first day on our own was pretty ambitious with two missions, a Tarahumara village, rough roads, and finally camping on the Rio Fuerte sandbar. All of this while trying to avoid the log trucks. They were pretty precariously loaded, and scary to pass or be near in any way.
Next I think (?) we followed the Rio Fuerte to the town of Tubares and up through a working copper mine. We had lunch overlooking a Tarahumara village and traversed a crazy paved rock road blanketed with falling rocks. We also saw the bridge that Frenchie "never drove over" as the center span collapsed the first year it was finished (!). We wound up at the Yogi Bear motel. Seriously, a nice little place. You had to see the rock formation above the property to understand.
The drive to Alimos was pretty intense. We drove through Bahuichivo (seem to remember a guy with a pistol). We went past a huge open mine, dodging the dump trucks on every turn. This made Frenchie a little nervous trying to keep track of his flock. We then went up (and down) three mountain passes through some very remote terrain. On the last pass we did run into a couple of armed thugs, and Jim was accosted but handled it well. The reward was a very nice villa in the town of Alimos. We had our own private 3 motel room wing of the hotel with our own common areas. It was really nice and CHEAP! We cooked dinner in the parking lot and had a great evening.
By now Frenchie’s plan was completely out the window as we "the clients" demanded two days on a beach. Bahai de Kino was a perfect beach setting. The town was a little sleepy, as was the RV park. We did meet a few full time Americans living very frugally at the park. We had no problem relaxing. It was a great way to end the trip.
The last day was an uneventful drive to the border and a way too easy entry into the USA!! It was great to be home.
Thank you to all of our new friends for a great trip! It is hard to comprehend how much ground we covered and what we saw in just two short weeks. And especially thank you to our guide Frenchie. He says this was his last guided trip into Mexico as he claims to be retired. We were so lucky to get him.