Living in Tucson, I think it is fascinating that we are two, three, four hours away from some rather interesting towns in Sonora, Mexico. You wake up in the Old Pueblo and by noon you can be eating birria tacos from a street vendor and looking at the remains of Father Kino through a glass.
That's what I did this weekend.
Early Sunday morning, three friends and I drove down to Madgalena, Sonora, and made pit stops in two other towns in the area, Atil and Tubutama. It's a very easy trip, you just get on the I-19, go through the Mariposa Port of Entry and then take the 15 once you are in Mexico. As long as you stay on that road, you'll see the turns to these small towns.
The first stop we made was in Tubutama. It was deserted. I counted maybe 15 people in the town's plaza, playing corridos (traditional, narrative Mexican songs) through small speakers, and what seemed like a hair styling event. Then we turn to the church, and there is an older woman sitting in there, praying, waiting for mass to start, but we didn't see a priest or any signs of anyone aside from her at the church.
A couple of years ago, there was a shooting in Tubutama, or a massacre I should say, allegedly between two drug cartels. It was reported by residents that in one night about 100 trucks and SUVs made their way into the town. The drug war has definitely been the driving force for people abandoning towns like Tubutama. The more deserted it gets, the better for drug cartels.
Atil was the second stop. Beautiful, colonial, quiet. No one on the streets except for a teacher and two of her colleagues who were leaving a church after mass.
Visit these two if you're into places that haven't changed in decades and if you'd like to see the effects of Mexico's drug and human smuggling, as well as poverty—many of these towns are empty because people have migrated here. They're located very close to Altar, Sáric and Sásabe where there are more coyotes (human smugglers) than there is vegetation.
Then, there's Magdalena. What a change of scenery. People everywhere, loud music (they had some sort of festival on Sunday with dance groups, singers, food) vendors on the streets, what seemed to be the entire town hanging out by the Magdalena river and the main plaza.
This is interesting: locals like to hang out by the river, and watch smaller cars try to cross through the water and then get stuck in the river. There's music (trios of musicians called taka takas), alcohol and food. You don't need much else. That river had been dry for a while, but recent rains filled it up with a little bit of water recently.
Madgalena is also where you can see the remains of Father Kino. His bones are placed in the same spot where he died, and what was his old parish. That parish is now dust, but he's still there.
We are all aware of borderland dangers, but places like Atil, Magdalena, even Tubutama and the others (I don't know about Sásabe, you might not want to go there or Sáric. They are popular drug smuggling corridors) are worth exploring.