Bargains, Backbones and Bar Fights – Durango, Mexico

It’s true. Durango doesn’t have the museums or restaurants of Mexico City. Or the charro culture of Lagos de Moreno. Or the tequila of Tequila or the beach resorts of the Costalegre.  And it’s certainly not on most visitors’ itineraries.

Then again, we’re not most visitors. Durango it is!

Durango's Cathedral Basilica Menor by day...



...and by night.


Our first stop in Durango was Cremeria Wallender where our minds were boggled by its luscious similarities–from the freshly roasted coffee to the freshly baked bread and pastries to the gourmet cuts of meat to the decadent prepared foods to the hard-to-find ingredients–to Dean & Deluca, the gourmet mecca in New York City’s swanky Soho district. It’s not the biggest food bargain in Durango (more on food bargains later), but it’s a lovely shop and cafe especially with the owner passing out free glasses of sangria, apparently inaugurating a beautiful new outdoor patio complete with  a jazz duo.

Cremeria Wallender delivers live jazz on weekends, great salads and tortas (sandwiches) plus gourmet groceries and adorable painted cows.


Next we checked into the Hotel Durango where we found free parking, a big clean room with an even bigger outdoor patio and all the mod-cons all for 240 pesos with Wi-Fi. Honestly, this room is one of the biggest city hotel bargains we’ve encountered in Mexico so far.

Another bargain? Dinner at Corleone Pizza. Not only is the pizza and pasta perfectly respectable, but the prices are unbeatable (a 16″ pizza is 90 pesos) which explains the crush of young couples on dates and new families on a budget that fill the place and form lines out the door (come early).

Town was filled with the sound of drum and bugle corps and when we stumbled upon Plaza IV Centenario we discovered why: the Concurso de Bandas de Guerra (Contest of War Bands??? Anyone?) was in full swing.


An unexpected bonus of our stay in Durango was a convergence of marching bands of all ages which were in town for something called the Concurso de Bandas de Guerra which we’ve lamely translated as “Contest of War Bands.” One evening we stumbled across a kind of battle of the war bands in Plaza IV Centenario and when the participants began to solemnly unfurl the Mexican flag and play and sing the national anthem we suddenly realize we’d never actually heard it before. It’s lovely and heartfelt and mournful and long–like everyone’s national anthem. What is unusual is that any Mexican who’s been in the military sings the anthem while saluting at their foreheads. Those who have never served salute at the level of their hearts.

Unfortunately, at least one of the bands was staying at our hotel and the teenaged  members felt the need to use the echoing hallways as playgrounds from 2 am to 4 am. One thing you learn in Mexico: noise does not bother people the same way it does in the US and if you complain about noise you’re likely to be met with a puzzled look. We certainly were.

A formal flag ceremony at the Concurso de Bandas de Guerra. We realized this was the first time we'd heard Mexico's national anthem.


One thing Durango has that Mexico City or Tequila or Lagos de Moreno or the Costalegre don’t have is a golden history as the place where many beloved movies have been shot over the course of the past 100 or so years. There’s even a Museo de Cine in town.

For obvious geographical reasons, many of those movies were westerns–John Wayne was here so often he eventually bought a local ranch which was ultimately turned into a movie set. The western main street (saloon, post office, jail, etc) that served as the set for many famous western movies is now an attraction called Villa del Oeste which. For 30 pesos per person, including bus transportation from downtown, you get a blessedly  tongue-in-cheek “re-enactment” of western scenes palyed out on the dusty main street, plus plenty of beer, snacks and food. It’s cheesy but also strangely enjoyable and we ended up surprising ourselves by being really glad we came.

At Villa de Oeste Karen was nearly taken hostage by a crazed gunman, um, actor, um, gunman...

At Villa de Oeste Karen is nearly taken hostage by a crazed gunman.


After the show one of the actors, a scar-faced toughie named Tom Hansson who played a scar-faced toughie in the show, approached us and insisted on signing our program. When he becomes the next John Wayne we expect to clean up.

The road from the coast (Mazatlan) to Durango is one of the more spectacular drives in Mexico as sections cross the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental. A particularly narrow and winding section is aptly named El Espinoza del Diablo, or The Devil's Backbone.

Perhaps another reason Durango isn’t on everyone’s Mexico itinerary is that you have to take Highway 40, a road that includes a narrow, windy section unwelcomingly named The Devil’s Backbone. The road itself  is often referred to by the locals as “El Camino de Tres Mil Curvas” or The Road of 3,000 Curves and there were moments of mild car sickness even though we “never get car sick.”

The 180 miles from Durango to Mazatlan is so winding that it takes six to seven hours to make the trip, depending on how courageous you are at passing slower moving traffic. But it’s also a spectacular drive as you climb and turn through the Sierra Madre Occidental. The two lane road is narrow and hogged up by a steady stream of 18-wheelers whose drivers demonstrate wildly varying levels of skill and consideration for other vehicles and many turns are simply too tight to accommodate big trucks and buses.

A multi-billion dollar road works project is currently creating an alternate high speed and undoubetedly high-toll route that involves a lot of high-tech engineering including 26 tunnels and 14 bridges in just one 29 mile section. One of the bridges, the Baluarte Bridge (El Puente Baluarte), will be nearly 3,700 feet long–the biggest cable-stay bridge in Latin America. The new road, set to be done in 2012, will have fewer turns and drop 75 miles (including the Devil’s Backbone section) out of the route cutting the total trip time from six hours to around three hours and all but erasing the white-knuckle factor.

We’ll take the old road any day.

One of the few places along Carretera 40 (The Road of 3,000 Turns) where it's wide enough to pull over. This section is called The Devil's Backbone.


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5 comments on “Bargains, Backbones and Bar Fights – Durango, Mexico

  1. Can you tell me, (feb 14, 2010) how much of the devils backbone is done with new highway? I am leaving Puerto Vallarta and heading to New Mexico and want to take this route, driving a suburban pulling a boat. Is alot of the new highway done? I have been waiting for it to be done for YEARS. I drove the backbone back in 2002, also with the same vehicle but my wife is not wanting to do it again unless it is new road. What can you tell me?

    • Shawn,
      Though much of the new highway is done, the most technical sections are still being worked on and it is not scheduled for completion until 2012. However, almost none of the new road is open open at this time, or at least as of late November when we were there. You will still be driving on the old road except for the last 30-40km leading into Durango. As you know, based on previous experience, the old road is the highway that has been used by all, including many large trucks for many years. You can do it towing a boat…it will just take some time, patience and concentration. However, convincing your wife is your job.
      If you do take the road, please post any updates as to its status here.
      Thanks and good luck.

  2. Hi,
    A great read. Have driven the “Devils Backbone” many times in the late 1980’s and early 90’s when living in Mazatlan. I agree with you I will take the old road any day. Quite an adventure. The driving trip from the coast of Georgia, thru Laredo, Saltillo, Durango and then Mazatlan was my wife’s first experience in Mexico. I know she thought I was crazy, as we were moving to Mazatlan with a 3 yr old and a 5 yr old. Going back the 28th of May 2010 for a 3 week visit. The first in 17 years. We have visited many places in Mexico, but Mazatlan is where our hearts are.

  3. Thanks for the good read I was trying to decide if I should go to the John Wayne town and now I will. A note to other readers. The new Road is now done and it’s just 2.5 hours from Mazatlán and the road itself is worth the trip!

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