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Safety of the Durango - Mazatlan Highway

March 2000

by Chris Harrison

Just a note of our experiences along the Durango/Mazatlan highway.  We birded there the week of 3/12 - 3/18 of this year.  Overall, it was a great trip (we recorded over 200 species - a new high for us).  I will send another mail later describing our localities, etc.  and attaching our list.

We did not have any trouble, BUT, we were stopped by a group of heavily armed police on the mine road that turns of the Panuco road (just outside of Copala, Sinaloa - see the Howell guide to Mexican birding spots for more specific info).  The police that stopped us (around 7 pm) actually came looking for us down the mine road I suppose after they saw our truck (TX plates) parked at the top of the road.  When they found us they were rather heavily armed (each of the four police officers had a semi-automatic weapon and a pistol) and had their automatic weapons raised when they came across us.

I have come across groups of police in the field on several occasions and in several states in Mexico, but this group was different.  They were clearly uneasy at being down here at dusk and appeared rather glad to find us unharmed and were more than anxious to get back to their vehicle.  As we walked back up to our trucks, two of the four followed us and seemed to look over their shoulders more than someone on a casual stroll would.

Unfortunately, I do not speak much spanish, but here is what I learned from them.

According to these four officers, it is very dangerous for Americans to walk down this road.  They described the threat as armed "militantes" who will break into vehicles and rob individuals for money, cameras or anything else of perceived value.  They told us that it was safe to bird along the main highway because that was heavily patrolled, but these side roads were not patrolled and were very dangerous.  I do not know if that applies to the "road" over to La Barranca, but clearly the Panuco road is not a good place for tourists to be.

I am not trying to start any unfriendly rumors, but having birded off the beaten track all over Mexico, I have never come across any police who seemed as genuinely concerned about our safety as these four men.  Needless to say, we heeded their warning and stayed on the paved road from that time on.

The previous day, on another side road (the road to La Petaca), we were warned by some locals that the road we were on was muy peligrosso as well, but we ignored this warning.  The police warning however, sunk in.

Overall, a great place to bird.  But use common sense, and be aware of the risks before you go.

Chris Harrison
San Angelo, TX


Interesting!  My botanist friends and I had a very similar experience 2 years ago when we parked along Hwy. 40 at the intersection of a side road down to a small town signed "El Indio" near the Espinazo del Diablo area in Durango.  A tough looking but ultimately friendly group of guys identifying themselves as Durango state police detained us with M-16s until all our group was together, telling us that the area below was "muy peligroso".  We took their advise & moved on down the road.  That being said, my other experiences along the Hwy 40 route, including several side road excursions (the Panuco road among them), have all been great.  In addition to fine birding, this region is a botanical paradise, with an incredible diversity of flowering plants.  However, I agree fully about being careful in this area -- back road areas throughout the Sierras in Sinaloa should probably all be regarded as dangerous for outsiders.

Mark Egger