Pronatours offers a terrific, 12-hr guided tour of Durango via a 16-passenger Mercedes Sprinter van for $108pp. Victor, our guide, was amazing, keeping us entertained and well-informed throughout the day.
Due to the long drive, we had a 6:20am pickup time…waaay too early! Unfortunately, I mis-remembered the opening time of the coffee shop. No coffee or muffins for you! Luckily, our tour includes a “breakfast” box, or so I thought. A triple-decker ham & cheese sandwich is not exactly what I want to eat at 7am. Oh, the excitement when our van stopped at OXXO along the way - free coffee or mochas for everyone! Nice touch Pronatours. So very helpful of you to keep my better half on his daily meds - caffeine deprivation is not a pretty sight.
The Road to Durango
On a normal tour, the road you travel is just a means to the tourist destination. In this case, the newly completed Durango-Mazatlan Highway is PART of the tour. Actually, it is one of the main attractions.
The Devil’s Backbone
Beginning near Brownsville, TX, Highway 40 passes through Monterrey and climbs into the interior of Mexico. The last and most difficult portion to modernize was from the mountains of Durango to the beaches of Mazatlan. Prior to 2013, it took 6-8 hours to drive to Durango; day trips for Mazatlan vacationers were not an option. The Old Highway, built in the 1940’s, was a thin, 2-lane road through some of the most rugged geography in Mexico. Precariously perched along the dramatically shear Sierra Madre mountain range, this 180-mile hazardous trek full of switchbacks, rockslides, steep terrain, no shoulders or passing lanes was ominously named “The Devil’s Backbone”.
An Engineering Feat
Once the new 4-lane highway was completed in 2013, a modern transcontinental Highway 40 was finalized, opening commercial floodgates for both cities. Now, the journey takes a mere 2-3 hours, permitting our day-tripping venture to Durango. But of particular interest is the sheer engineering conundrum the “Devil’s Backbone” presented… and the steps required to conquered it. With no less than 115 bridges and 11 miles of tunnels (an incredible 63 separate tunnels in all), along the 140-mile route, I’m not surprised a $1.4 billion budget climbed to $2.2 billion. With a B.
Oodles of Tunnels
With an astounding 63 tunnels, I could barely snap a photo without being whisked into the darkness of YET another mountainside. The longest is an amazing 1.7 miles…so long they included side-exit passageways for pedestrians and emergency telephones in case of an interior collapse…a potential issue I’d rather not think about. Some tunnels utilize cool asphalt-embedded “runway lights” planted along the demarcation lines. As the sole source of illumination, they evoked the feeling of taxiing down a runway at night or driving in a live video game.
Fantastic! But I often wished we were driving ourselves so I could stop and breathe, taking in the spectacular scenery and crisp mountain air. Our drive took us from 70 degree desert-tropicalness into freezing temps where icicles cling to cement bulwarks and road-workers gather to warm around a steel barrel fire. The landscape reminded us of the Sierra Nevadas in California. Coniferous and oak forests tower tanned and green above a sea of grey, craggy rock, rising dramatically from the earth and tumbling into canyons so low I can’t see the river bottom. A grand waterfall plummets off a sheer cliff in the distance, somehow insignificant amid the infinite landscape.
Actual towns are virtually non-existent in this unforgiving territory; a few roadside stands and a couple dinky hamlets are all we see. So at night, just like traveling the coastline of the Sea of Cortez, a heavy blanket of darkness settles across these mountains… not a light to be seen out in the vast nothingness… other than the bright tunnel lights visible for miles across the winding canyon.
Guinness Book Bridge
The crown jewel of this highway project is the Baluarte Bridge. Spanning the Baluarte River, it marks the border between Sinaloa and Durango states. While the bridge is only 3600-ft long (about a 2/3 mile), it stands 1300-ft high off the river bottom. This puts Baluarte squarely in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Highest ‘Cable-Stayed’ Bridge in the world, and 2nd highest in the world overall. Not too shabby.
I uploaded a rather wretched YouTube VIDEO of our bridge crossing. Bouncing van + 8 seconds of photo-op stop = blech. But at least you’ll get a better idea of the view. Click HERE for some cool photos and stats of the bridge construction.
NOT as Smooth as a Pool Table
“This new road is a smooth as a pool table!” says our tour guide as he excitedly conveys the story of the highway. While I am positive it is world’s better than the old highway, we can personally attest to it NOT being pool-table smooth. AT ALL. In fact, being in the last row seats was the worst spot; so much so, we had to over-tighten our seatbelts to keep us from going airborne over the spine-crunching bumps. Every time I tried to take a photo of the landscape outside… Bounce! Click! Shit! Yet ANOTHER blurry photo.
Durango, Durango: the Mile High City
Situated over 6000ft high in elevation in a high-desert setting, Durango surprised the heck out of us; it was nothing like we expected. I anticipated another Mazatlan only bigger, with a lovely but very small old town section surrounded by thousands of non-zoned buildings and roads in various states of repair or complete disrepair. Typical Mexico, right?
What we found was pretty incredible. Durango, founded in 1563 and now with a population of over 600,000, boasts a typical “centro” district encompassing a grand plaza with stately colonial buildings surrounding the impressive main cathedral. But those remarkable structures extended for as far as we could see! From palaces to museums to train stations, impressive Spanish/French building influences surprised us at every turn: lovely ornamental columns, intricately detailed cornices, majestic arched passageways, sky-lighted courtyards. I felt transported back in time to a preserved 1800’s Europe.
Our city tour consisted of a gondola ride for views of the expansive city, a walking tour of the central district including the gorgeous cathedral, entry into the Pancho Villa museum, a short stop at the central market and lunch in a colonial style restaurant. These places are best described with photos – see gallery.
During our walkabout, we noticed something else…Durango was booming. Mining and lumber are key industries here, not tourism. Unlike other Mexican towns where many businesses have gone under, nearly every shop we passed was open…and doing business …but not with the overwhelming Canadian and (to a lesser extent) American tourists. How do we know this? Well, we tend to stand out; I just can’t seem to tan enough to disappear. This was the first time we noted being openly stared at with placid interest by everyone we passed as a definite anomaly. What the heck are these tourists doing here? And why are they taking pictures of that McDonald’s? Crazy gringos.
Pancho Villa Museum
The highlight of the tour is billed as the Pancho Villa Museum. In reality, while the building was impressive, located in the former governor's palace, the tour was…meh. Our separate museum guide spoke English but ran his words together; plus, he was a low-talker (like me), speaking so softly and monotone that we only caught about 20%. Trying to comprehend our docent’s runaway English while ineptly deciphering Spanish-only text displays was near impossible in the short time span allowed. Eventually we all just shuffled along and didn’t learn much. But it DID inspire us to learn a bit more about this iconic figure when we got home. AND I got a once-in-a-lifetime shot of Brian as a Mexican Revolutionary Army dude. Priceless.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa, Villain or Hero
While our museum guide seemed to think of him as a Robin Hood archetype, I felt he was more of a rogue warrior character, seemingly only content when causing conflict. Pancho Villa’s first occupation as a bandit/bank robber segued into an illustrious military career. In 1910, Villa helped Francisco Madero to overthrow the current dictator, Porfirio Diaz, after a despicably-long reign of 34 years, beginning the Mexican Revolution.
A ruthless Villa thrived throughout the Revolution amid a confusing array of presidential power grabs, betrayals and assassinations… very “Game of Thrones”-esque. As General of the North, he commanded a large army and won many battles, some of which were filmed by Hollywood, thus growing his celebrity and cementing his folk hero status. Villa’s backslide into villain territory was finalized after unscrupulously kidnapping and killing Americans in raids across the border to obtain weapons and supplies after the US withdrew material support to his army. Woodrow Wilson sent General Pershing after Villa in retaliation for the murders but failed to locate him.
Eventually, Pancho Villa surrendered and was allowed to retire in relative style, so long as he remained out of politics. But in 1923, a mere 3 years into retirement, he was gunned down, most likely to keep him from inciting further political turmoil. His body lies interred in Mexico City but someone else has his head. Literally, no one knows where his head is. One of many conspiracy theories…the infamous Skull and Bones Society of Yale possibly stores it in their secret collection. Creepy.
We asked our museum guide: Why did Villa get so much hype, as opposed to many other key players in the Mexican Revolution? Well, there’s the numerous troops he commanded and the countless battles he won, but Villa also kept photographers with him at all times. Pure narcissism? Or did he just really understand the value of P.R.? Probably both. Even back then, wars were won in the media. Perhaps he was “The Donald” of his day in terms of a publicity genius.
Back to the Tour…Why not rent a car?
For us, the toll fees alone weren’t worth it; a round trip costs about $100 - expensive for Mexico standard tolls. That doesn’t include the cost of the car rental, gas or hotel (we’d recommend staying overnight to avoid driving back in the dark). Plus, we just didn’t feel like driving, we felt relatively safer tagging along with a group of tourists and it’s nice to have a well-informed guide. At $220 for 2 people, including lunch, you just can’t beat that price for a no-hassle experience.
But if the main goal is to meander and marvel at the Baluarte Bridge and the mountain scenery, rent a car… especially if you want really good photos. The tour stops for, literally, a 1-minute photo op on the bridge in the middle of traffic. Unable to get out for safety reasons, I shot an 8 second video through the open door of the van, without even looking through the viewfinder, hoping I caught “something”. The only bonus of the jump-seat position was that I was able to aim my GoPro through the back window and capture a video of traveling on the bridge. But again… impossibly bouncy.
Tour Grade? A-
Overall, Durango was a great day-trip. We highly recommend Pronatours and in particular, Victor, as a guide. The only downsides: did I mention it was bouncy? (can’t be helped – don’t ride in the back if prone to car-sickness), short bridge photo-op stop (again, no scenic pull-outs so we understand the urgency to move along), and our low-talker museum guide (Pronatours should have Victor do the museum tour instead).
On the upside, we were surprised to discover a historical aspect of Mexico that seemed, until now quite frankly, rather underwhelming. In this unique city, rich in incredible architecture and fascinating history, the past now connects to the present by an engineering masterpiece. I predict many more Mazatlan tourists will be visiting Durango in the future!