National Geographic : 1946 Aug
Down Mexico's Rio Balsas BY JOH)N W. "WVI'1:ER With Illustrations from Photographs by the IAuthor AONG the much-traveled Camino Real from Mexico City to Acapulco we looked down on the mystery river of Balsas, which flows for several hundred little known miles through the low Hot Country to the Pacific Ocean. Some of the waters under the bridge once fell as snow on age-old volcanic peaks long extinct, along the so-called Belt of Fire; some low from the still-steaming cone of Popocate petl; and part come from the cool heights on which nestles the town of artists and silver :miths, Taxco. Indians who inhabit the scattered villages are descended from aboriginal tribes and show traces of customs practiced before Cortes came. TheLureofaNameonaMap What captivated me most, however, was the designation on some maps of a vast, moun tainous tract known as Regidn Inexplorada. For some time I had been enjoying the bracing mountain climate at Taxco when Peter, an English artist, suggested that we spend a few weeks drifting down the Balsas in a flat-bottomed boat. In 1944 I had explored the nearer, better known parts of the river with my Mexican friend, Enrique, and two Indian boatmen. We had covered only about a hundred miles, and now I welcomed the opportunity to travel much farther, into country which is avoided by upland Mexicans because of the heat and pestilence. I was loath to leave Taxco. I had become attached to its narrow curved streets paved in patterns with multicolored stones, the old houses, the high retaining walls with gardens above and below them, and the venerable churches, some of them little used now except during the annual fiesta of their particular saint (Plate 1 Handicraft products are sold in attractive shops near the main plaza, and here visitors buy the distinctive silver jewelry based on antique Indian designs. Part of the Rio Balsas is not far from Taxco (map, page 254). The village of Balsas, the head of navigation, can be reached from Iguala by railroad or by mountain trails, but no vehicular road leads there. Balsas is the ter minus of the line, and the train which crawls in every evening crosses a trestle and stops abruptly on the other bank of the river. Peter and I decided that we should start within two days. It was January, the cool dry season. Each day the sun would bea' down hotter on the tropical river. One of the larger settlements in the lower valley is aptly named Infiernillo (Little Hell). Moreover, in a week the moon would be full, and we wished to take advantage of it. I remembered from my former short trip that the river can be navigated by moonlight except where there are dangerous rapids and hidden rocks. Drifting along by daylight had been pleas ant and interesting, but my keenest recollec tions were of the late twilight hours when the sun had set over the desert mountains and the dark rippled water twinkled with reflections of the moon. Carlos, one of the Mexican boys, constantly wore new dark glasses, of which he was very proud, insisting that the brilliancy of the moonlight blinded him! Traveling Light, on a Raft Peter, having lived some years in Mexico, had excellent ideas on what we should take for clothing and supplies. He suggested a change of clothing, two or three emergency medicines, flashlights, toilet articles, and a little food. We also needed serapes to wrap around ourselves at night before going to sleep on the wooden deck. As Peter is an artist, he would naturally take his sketching equipment, of minimum weight, and although he is an Englishman. educated at Eton, he did not even mention taking the proverbial dinner clothes. We did not know how far downstream we could travel, nor where we could leave the Rio Balsas. Our maps showed several red lines, indicating trails, which approached the lower river. One line was of double width and crossed the river. It was evidently an im portant trade route leading from the ticrra caliente (Hot Country) toward the city of Patzcuaro and, what was still better, toward the new volcano Paricutin which, less than two years before, had spurted up from a Tarascan Indian's cornfield.* We noted that the name of the settlement where this trail crossed the Rio Balsas, ap parently by ferry, was Las Balsas. So, accord * See "Paricutin. the Cornfield That Grew a Vol cano," by James A. Green, NATIONAL GEORAPIII( MAGAZINE, February, 1944.