Mar 092017
 

In a previous post — The re-opening of the giant El Boleo copper mine in Santa Rosalía, Baja California Sur —  we looked at the repeated boom-bust-boom history of the copper mining center of Santa Rosalía on the Baja California Peninsula. The arid peninsula did not offer much in the way of local resources for the construction of a mining settlement. When mining took off, an entire town was needed, virtually overnight. Almost all the materials necessary for the construction and exploitation of the mines and for building the houses and public buildings had to be imported, primarily from the USA.

As the town grew at the end of the nineteenth century, a clear geographic (spatial) segregation developed, which is still noticeable even today:

  • Workers’ homes were built on the lowland near the foundry and port
  • Higher up the slope was the Mexican quarter where government workers and ancillary support staff lived
  • The highest section of town, overlooking everything, was the French quarter.

The contrasts of Santa Rosalía at this time were well summed by María Eugenia B. de Novelo:

“Santa Rosalía was a place of clashing contrasts and situations. It had a scarred backdrop of copper hills, a black-tinted shore, French silks, fine perfumes, crystal, Bordeaux wines and Duret cooking oil, sharing the scene with flour tortillas, giant lobsters, abalone and chimney dust.”

The French quarter has retained its distinctive architecture to the present day. At one end is the Hotel Francés, opened in 1886, which has an incredibly stylish period interior and still operates today.

Hotel Francés, Santa Rosalía

Hotel Francés, Santa Rosalía. Photo: Tony Burton

The gorgeous architecture of many of the homes of the French quarter is reminiscent of New Orleans. Beautiful wooden houses stand aloof on blocks with porches, balconies and verandas, competing for the best view over the town below. Wooden homes are decidedly unusual in this part of Mexico, which was never forested, and are, indeed, rare almost everywhere in the country. There are so many wooden homes here that Santa Rosalía has long had its own fire department, just in case!

At the other end of the French quarter are the former mining offices, now the Museo Boléo, an interesting museum where interior details are little changed from a century ago. Standing in the main hall, it is possible to imagine the hustle and bustle of former days, as clerks work feverishly to keep up with their superiors’ numerous demands. The mining company attracted workers from far afield. Three thousand Chinese workers arrived, settling the districts still known as La Chinita and Nuevo Pekin.

The most conspicuous landmark in the main part of town remains the former foundry, no longer open to the public. The next most conspicuous landmark is the church of Santa Bárbara. There are serious doubts as to who designed this unusual church, assembled out of pre-fabricated, stamped steel sheets or plates. Most guidebooks attribute the church to Gustave Eiffel, the famous French architect responsible for the Eiffel Town in Paris. According to this version, Eiffel’s design won a prize at the 1889 Universal Exposition of Paris, France, and was originally destined for somewhere in Africa. It was later discovered in Belgium by an official of the Boleo mining company, who purchased it and brought it back to Santa Rosalía in 1897.

The church of Santa Rosalía

The church of Santa Rosalía. Photo: Tony Burton.

The latter part of the story may be correct, but research by Angela Gardner strongly suggests that the original designer was probably not Eiffel but is far more likely to have been a Brazilian, Bibiano Duclos, who graduated from the same academy as Eiffel in Paris. Duclos took out a patent on pre-fabricated buildings, whereas there is no evidence that Eiffel ever designed a pre-fabricated building of any kind. Whoever designed it, it is certainly a unique design in the context of Mexico, and well worth seeing.

Other well-preserved buildings dating back to the heyday of the town’s success include the municipal palace or town hall (formerly a school designed by Gustave Eiffel), the Central Hotel, the DIF building, the Club Mutualista, the Post Office and the Mahatma Gandhi library, currently being restored. The library is in Parque Morelos, which is also the last resting place for a Baldwin locomotive dating back to 1886.

If walking around town looking at the architecture makes you hungry, try the French pastries (and Mexican sweet breads) from the Panadería El Boleo on the main street. With slight hyperbole, Panadería El Boleo boasts on its wall of being the World’s most famous bakery. Expect to queue, but enjoy the smells of fresh baked goods while you wait.

The distinctive history, architecture (and pastries) of Santa Rosalía, assuming they are conserved, should prove in the future to be an excellent basis for the development of cultural tourism to supplement the ecotourism and adventure tourism already in place.

Sources:

Want to read more?

Note : This post was first published 11 October 2011.

Feb 182017
 

The Naica caves, in the northern state of Chihuahua are home to the world’s largest natural crystals. The crystals are selenite, said to enhance sex drive.

The formation of the crystals caves is described in more detail below, but in February 2017, Penelope Boston, head of Nasa’s Astrobiology Institute announced that “bizarre and ancient microbes” had been found in these caves. The discovery came after nine years of work and was first announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston. The life forms in the Naica caves survive by living on minerals such as iron and manganese and could be 50,000 years old. The find is still subject to peer-review and independent confirmation:

How were the crystals discovered?

Early in 2001, news emerged of a truly extraordinary discovery in caverns deep under the earth in the state of Chihuahua. Miners tunneling through the Naica Hills, south of Chihuahua City, in search of silver and zinc, found huge mineral crystals, far larger than any natural crystals previously seen anywhere else on the planet.

Massive crystals in Naica Cave, Chihuahua

Massive crystals in Naica Cave, Chihuahua. Photo credit: Speleoresearch Archive and Films La Venta

The monster crystals, over six meters long, are made of selenite, a crystalline form of the mineral gypsum (the number one ingredient in blackboard chalk!). For its pale translucence, this form of gypsum is known as selenite, named after Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon.

The largest crystals are over 11 meters long, and weigh more than 55 tons. Scientists believe they have found DNA from ancient bacterial life trapped in air bubbles inside the crystals.

The crystals formed when the caverns were completely filled with hot water (warmer than 50 degrees C) supersaturated with calcium sulphate (gypsum) for very long periods of time. The estimated growth rate, confirmed by uranium-thorium dating, is 1.5 mm per 1000 years, which means that the longest crystals took more than 500,000 years to form.

The engineer working for the mining company Peñoles that first reported these caves believes that many more caves probably exist, but stresses that they would never have been located at all if it had not been for the mine’s massive pumps (pumping more than 16,000 gallons of water out each minute) working round the clock for years. This pumping has lowered the water table from 100 meters below the surface to about 300 meters in the area of the mines. Since the caverns have been drained, the crystals are no longer growing, and the temperatures in the cavern have fallen by about 0.5 degrees C each year.

The Naica (“shady place”) hills have been actively mined for more than a century. Even though early prospectors discovered silver here in 1794, the first formal mining claim was not made until a century later in 1896, by one Santiago Stoppelli, and large scale mining only began in 1900.

Ten years later, super-large sword-shaped crystals of selenite were found in a cavern at a depth of 120 meters. Over the years, a steady stream of geologists and mineral collectors have visited this 70-meter-diameter cave, since renamed the Cave of the Swords, which is now equipped with paths, lights and a ventilation system. Even with this system, the temperature in the cave is a stifling 40 degrees C! Several typical examples of selenite crystals from this cave, ranging in length from 1.2 to 1.6 meters (4 to 4.25 feet), are displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

But these specimens from the Cave of the Swords are small fry in size when compared with the latest discoveries, 300 meters below the surface, in the Cave of the Crystals. In two relatively small chambers, each the size of a small apartment, miners found incredibly large selenite crystals, some over six meters long. The crystals combine to form massive fifteen-meter-long columns, “the size of pine trees”, as well as hundreds of formations shaped like sharks’ teeth, jutting about a meter up from the cave floor. The overall effect is, in the words of Richard Fisher, an Arizona-based photographer and adventurer, like walking into an enormous geode.

The Future

Mining operations at Naica have been in the hands of the Peñoles group since 1961 and the mine, one of the most productive in Chihuahua, still produces ample quantities of lead, silver and zinc.

Even if the silver ore is eventually worked out, Peñoles realizes that the caverns might have a very bright future as a major geo-tourist attraction. The company has not only taken steps to safeguard the crystals, but was already developing a tourism plan, which involved the installation of an air-conditioning system in the caverns, since the temperature in the Cave of Crystals is a mind-boggling 60 degrees Celsius. This heat, combined with the 100% humidity in the caverns, is so suffocating and disorienting that researchers can only safely spend a few minutes at a time studying this fantastic sight.

The harsh conditions have not deterred crystal looters who are already reported to be breaking through padlocked doors and trying to chisel prize specimens off the cave walls. This is a dangerous business and the effort proved fatal for one would-be collector when the gigantic crystal he was attempted to sever broke away from the ceiling and crushed him as it fell. The combined physical forces of Newton and Darwin caused this particular plunderer to meet his maker!

It was announced in October 2015 that Peñoles had been forced to close its Naica mine indefinitely, following its failure to reduce the level of water in the mine following a flood in January 2015. The company was seeking to redeploy more than 400 workers. In 2014, the Naica mine produced 19,694 tons of lead, 15,399 tons of zinc and 1.9 million ounces of silver (25% 6% and 3% respectively of the company’s total output of each metal).

Whether or not attempts will be made in the future to allow access to view the crystals is unknown. It is perfectly possible that other miners in the region might be lucky enough to find even bigger crystals nearby!

These cavers may never be suitable for sustainable tourism. To preserve these magnificent crystals for future generations, the decision may have to be taken to leave the caverns under water, protecting the crystals that already exist and allowing new ones to grow.

These amazing crystals are one of the latest additions to the incredible list of natural wonders that can be enjoyed in Mexico!

For truly amazing images of the crystals, watch the Discovery Channel documentary “Naica: Secrets of The Crystal Cave” (2008). Short clip on Discovery Channel.

Note:

  • This is an update of a post originally published in 2010

Mexico’s geology, relief and landforms are analyzed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy of this invaluable reference guide today!

Jun 202016
 

Mexico is the world’s leading producer of silver and has occupied top spot for several years. Mexico’s output of silver rose 2.0% in 2015 to 5,372 metric tons (189.5 million ounces). Mexico is responsible for 21% of global production, followed by Peru (15%), China (12%) and Australia and Russia (each 6%). About 70% of silver produced in Mexico is exported, the remainder is sold on the domestic market.

Global silver production fell slightly in 2015 due to decreased output from Canada, Australia and China. World demand for silver in 2015 reached a record 33,170 tons (1,170 million ounces), due to surges in three manufacturing sectors: jewelry, ingots and coins, and photo-voltaic solar panels.

The increased output in Mexico came from expansions in the Saucito and Saucito II mines, operated by Fresnillo, and the El Cubo mine, managed by Canadian firm, Endeavour Silver. A similar increase in production is predicted this year, given the on-going expansion of the San José mine, owned by Canada-based Fortuna Silver Mines.

Zacatecas is Mexico’s leading silver producing state (46.5% of total; see map), well ahead of Chihuahua (16.6%), Durango (11.3%) and Sonora (6.9%).

Silver production in Mexico, 2011. Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

Silver production in Mexico, 2011. Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

In Zacatecas, silver mining is especially important in the municipalities of Fresnillo (24% of total national silver production) and Mazapil (15%) as well as Chalchihuites and Sombrerete (3% each). The main silver mining municipality in Chihuahua is Santa Bárbara (3% of national total). In Durango, San Dimas and Guanaceví are each responsible for about 3% of national production, while the leading municipality for silver in Sonora is Nacozari de García (1%).

The legacy of silver

The importance of silver mining in colonial New Spain can not be over-emphasized. For instance, during colonial times nearly one third of all the silver mined in the world came from the Guanajuato region!

Even today, the cities and landscapes of many parts of central and northern Mexico reveal the historical significance of silver mining. The legacies of silver mining include not only the opulent colonial buildings in numerous major cities such as Zacatecas and Guanajuato, as well as innumerable smaller towns, but also the deforestation of huge swathes of countryside.

The landscape of states like San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Guanajuato was forever changed by the frenzied exploitation of their woodlands. Silver mines needed wooden ladders and pit props. The smelting of silver ore required vast quantities of firewood. Barren tracts of upland testify to the success of those early silver mines. Mining played a crucial role in the pattern of settlement and communications of most of northern Mexico. The need to transfer valuable silver bullion safely from mine to mint required the construction of faster and shorter routes (see, for example, El Camino Real or Royal Road, the spine of the colonial road system in New Spain), helping to focus the pattern of road and rail communications on a limited number of major cities.

Once workable ores ran out, smaller mining communities fell into obscurity and many became ghost towns. Some of these settlements, such as Real de Catorce and Angangueo, have enjoyed a new lease of life in recent years due to tourism.

The main town associated with silver and tourism is Taxco, the center of silversmiths and silver working in Mexico.

Mining towns described briefly previously on Geo-Mexico.com include:

Note: This is a 2016 update of a post first published in 2013.

Related posts:

May 262016
 

Mexico’s largest mining company, Grupo México plans to mine copper from its mine in Angangueo, Michoacán, according to the town’s mayor, Leonel Martínez Maya, who says it would revitalize the local economy. Large-scale mining in the town declined after a serious accident in 1953, said to have been attributable to the company’s then-foreign management in response to a threatened strike. The miners who lost their lives in this accident are commemorated by a huge statue which overlooks the town.

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

The mayor is adamant that the renewal of active mining in the town would have no adverse consequences for the annual migration of Monarch butterflies (who overwinter in their tens of millions in the pine-fir forests above the town)  or on their habitat.

The town is one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns” and the area is a protected natural reserve, but apparently the mining company is taking advantage of a legal loophole and arguing that the mine predates the establishment of the Monarch reserve, and that the mine was never technically closed, even though it was inactive in recent years. The Michoacán state government is said to support the Grupo México initiative.

Despite boom times in the past, the town of Angangueo currently has only limited sources of revenue other than seasonal tourism.

The illustration and parts of the description come from chapter 30 of my Western Mexico, a Traveller’s Treasury (4th edition, 2013).

Related posts:

Feb 122015
 

The largest salt-making facility on the planet is near Guerrero Negro on the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. It produces about 9 million metric tons of salt each year. The salt here is not mined, but extracted from ocean water by evaporation. The salt fields cover 33,000 hectares (acres), including 28,000 ha of collection ponds and 3,000 ha of crystallization ponds.

Satellite image of part of Guerrero Negro saltworks

Satellite image of part of Guerrero Negro saltworks

The major locational advantages are:

  • the large flat area close to the coast, a former marine floor
  • the dry climate; this is a desert region with very low precipitation
  • the high solar radiation (direct solar powered evaporation!)
  • regular strong winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean
  • the net result of the climate is a high evaporation index

Disadvantage? Since the salt working got underway around the saline Ojo de Liebre coastal lagoon, the entire area has been designated part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve on account of its importance as a habitat for endangered species and breeding ground for gray whales. The salt lagoons are also located on major flight paths for migratory birds.

Brief history of salt-making in Guerrero Negro

Prior to the 1950s, salt extraction in this area was small-scale and methods were rudimentary. In the 1950s, San Francisco ceased supplying salt to the US west coast paper industry and an alternative source of salt was needed. Daniel Ludwig (who would later build the famed Acapulco Princess Hotel) set up a company at the saline Ojo de Liebre coastal lagoon near Guerrero Negro in 1954; three years later, salt was exported to the USA for the first time. Ludwig sold the company in 1973. Exportadora de Sal (Salt Exporter) is now jointly owned by the Mexican government (51%) and the Japanese Mitsubishi corporation (49%).

Plans to expand the company by building another evaporation plant for salt further south along the Baja California Sur coast were thwarted by officials after a lengthy and acrimonious campaign by environmentalists angered at the probably environmental consequences. (For discussion of some of the issues, see “Mitsubishi and Laguna San Ignacio“, “Mexico’s Friendly Whales” and “The Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance conservation plan“).

What does the landscape look like?

This short, 3-minute Postandfly video shows what the landscape and salt working operations look like from the air:

The salt-making process

The salt-making process is fairly simple. Seawater is pumped into a series of collection ponds. About 700 million tons of seawater enters the system each year. As the water in the ponds evaporates, the salt concentration increases. The collection ponds are controlled by dikes and gates. At a critical level of salt concentration, the water is pumped into the next point, and so on.

Salt trucksEventually, more than a year later, the water becomes saturated with salt, and the mineral salt (almost entirely sodium chloride) begins to crystallize out. The pond is then drained and the salt collected. The harvesting of the salt is done by giant graders which scrape off only the uppermost layer, leaving a hard saltpan below as the future floor of the pond. Giant gondola trucks collect the mounds of salt and carry it to a cleaning plant. The salt is then washed with a salt water solution to purify it still further, before being shipped.

Initial shipping is from the Chaparrito Port (where the washing plant is located) near Guerrero Negro. This port can load barges carrying up to 10,500 metric tons, which take the salt to the much larger port of Morro Redondo, on the southern tip of Cedros Island, a short distance to the west and just inside the state of Baja California. The Morro Redondo facility has additional inspection, storage and packing facilities and handles ocean-going vessels.

Salt bargeIn 2014, Mexico exported slightly over 9 million tons of salt, worth 164 million dollars, making it the world’s fifth largest salt exporter, after the Netherlands, Canada, Germany and Chile.

Each year, Exportadora de Sal produces about 9 million metric tons of salt of various grades, and is reported to be expanding its operations to boost annual production to 9.5 million tons by 2020.

It sold 8.98 million tons of salt in 2014, 87.4% of the national total. 60% of the output of industrial salt (for use in pulp and paper, and chemical industries) is exported to Japan. The company also exports salt to many other countries including USA, Canada, Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. Almost all the 100,000 metric tons of table salt produced each year is sold on the domestic Mexican market or elsewhere in Latin America.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published here in February 2012.

Want to read more?

Where are the mining concessions in Mexico?

 Books and resources  Comments Off on Where are the mining concessions in Mexico?
Feb 022015
 

A series of graphics prepared by Mexico City daily El Universal includes a map showing the details of all the mining concessions in Mexico. According to the newspaper’s analysis, one fifth of Mexico’s total land area is subject to mining concessions belonging to one company or another.

The six companies holding the largest areas of concessions are:

  • Altos Hornos de México (364 concessions totaling 3208 hectares)
  • Fresnillo PLC (1009; 1953)
  • Industrias Peñoles (922; 953)
  • Minera Fresco (779; 889)
  • Cascabel (116; 749)
  • and Grupo México (711; 607).

The map is probably the single most interesting graphic in the series. Zooming in (top left of map) allows the details of each concession to be viewed, including the concession holder, size of concession, minerals involved and whether or not the concession is “active”. Is there a mining concession near you? You might be surprised. Even in an area of Mexico that I have known intimately for many years, there are two concessions that I have never previously heard of!

Related posts:

The Huichol (Wixárika) People’s fight against multinational mining companies

 Books and resources  Comments Off on The Huichol (Wixárika) People’s fight against multinational mining companies
Nov 162014
 

A new feature-length documentary about the Huichol (Wixárika) People, an indigenous group who live in the mountains of western Mexico, has been released. Huicholes: the last peyote guardians is a must-see movie and is already winning praise and awards. Equally importantly, it is helping to raise funds and support for the Huichol as they fight to retain full control over their ancestral territory in the face of threats from federal authorities and multinational mining companies.

The IMDb movie database describes the movie as, “The urgent story of the mystical Wixarika People, the Huicholes: one of the last pre-Hispanic alive cultures in Latin America. Their struggle against the Mexican government and multinational mining corporations to preserve Wirikuta, their most sacred territory and home of the famous peyote cactus. The mining activities of the Canadian companies that got the concessions in 2010 to prospect this protected area, rich in silver, gold and other minerals, are seen by the Wixarika and their supporters as a great menace for the delicate biodiversity of this unique ecosystem, listed by the UNESCO as World Cultural and Natural Heritage. An unequal and controversial fight from today that triggers the global debate between ancient cultural values, the exploitation of nature and the inevitable development of the peoples.”

I have to agree with my long-time editor and colleague David McLaughlin that this documentary about the Huichol portrays “Canadian commercial imperialism at its worst.”

To learn more about the film:

Related posts:

Cananea in Sonora: one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world

 Other  Comments Off on Cananea in Sonora: one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world
Oct 022014
 

One of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world, the Buenavista del Cobre mine in Cananea produced over 200,000 metric tons of copper in 2012. The mine, opened in 1899, is located approximately 40 kilometers south of the border between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. The open-pit mine was estimated to contain 26.874 million metric tons of copper reserve as of December 2012.

This mine was the location of a 2014 toxic spill: Toxic spill in Sonora copper mine causes environmental disaster

mina-cananea

Source unknown. Used at http://www.labartolina.com.mx

The ore is refined at an on-site concentrator, which has a milling capacity of 77,000 metric tons/day. The concentrate output is transported to the smelter at La Caridad by rail. Also present are an on-site leaching facility and two solvent extraction and electro winning (SX/EW) plants, with an annual production capacity of 55,000 metric tons of copper cathode.

The active, 2-kilometer-diameter Colorada Pit (top right of image below) is recognizable in this astronaut photograph by the concentric steps, or benches, cut around its perimeter (see larger image). These benches allow for access into the pit for extraction of ore and waste materials.

Cananea Mine, Sonora (NASA Earth Observatory, March 2008)

Cananea Copper Mine, Sonora (NASA Earth Observatory, March 2008) Click to enlarge

Water (black) fills the bottom of the pit and several other basins in the surrounding area. The city of Cananea, marked by its street grid, is northeast of the mine workings. A leachate reservoir for removal and evaporation of water pumped from the mine workings is located to the east of the mine (image lower left). The bluish-white color of deposits near the reservoir suggests the high mineral content of the leachate.

sonora-cananea-mina_de_cobre

Source unknown. Credit: https://yoreme.wordpress.com/

Text: NASA’s Earth Observatory and The 10 biggest copper mines in the world

Related posts:

Toxic spill in Sonora copper mine causes environmental disaster

 Other  Comments Off on Toxic spill in Sonora copper mine causes environmental disaster
Sep 112014
 

A toxic spill at a copper mine in the northwestern state of Sonora is the Mexican mining sector’s worst environmental disaster in recent history.

The mine is owned by mining giant Grupo México, Mexico’s largest mining corporation and operated by its Buenavista del Cobre division. Grupo México is the third largest copper producer in the world and has a rail transport division, Ferrocarril Mexicano (Ferromex), that operates Mexico’s largest rail fleet. The Buenavista del Cobre mine, part-way through a $3.4 billion expansion plan, has some of the largest proven copper reserves in the world and is the world’s fourth largest copper mine.

The spill allowed 40,000 cubic meters of toxic copper sulfate acid to enter the Tinajas stream in the town of Cananea on 6 August 2014. Buenavista del Cobre claimed the spill was the result of an unforeseeable heavy rain storm, which triggered a rise in the level of water and copper sulfate in a holding tank being constructed at the copper mine. Grupo México has formed a team of 20 experts from the University of Arizona and Mexican universities to investigate the spill.

However, an initial report by the National Water Commission (Conagua) determined that the spill was caused by a flawed polyethylene pipe at one of the mine’s leachate tanks, together with a faulty valve at another tank. Conagua attributed the environmental disaster to negligence on the part of the company. Mexico’s federal environmental protection agency (Profepa) reported that the contaminants from the spill included copper, arsenic, aluminum, cadmium, chromium, iron, manganese and lead.

Sonora-Copper-Mine-Spill-

Credit: Jesus Ballesteros/Expreso-Cuartoscuro.com

Mexico’s Environment Secretary Juan José Guerra Abud called it the “worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico,” and confirmed that the spill contaminated not only the 17.6-kilometer-long (11-mile-long) Tinajas stream, but also the River Bacanuchi (64 kilometers in length), the River Sonora (190 kilometers long) and the El Molinito reservoir which stores 15.4 million cubic meters of water.

The contamination turned the waterways orange (see image) and affected the water supply of 24,000 people in seven communities along the rivers, forcing schools to close for several weeks while environmental authorities clean up the mess. More than 300 wells were shut down. The Sonora state government has been providing millions of liters of water via trucks to residents in the affected area. It has also started a temporary employment program to reactivate the local economy. The mining company has provided 13 million liters of water and $266,000 in immediate assistance to affected communities.

Some 800 mine workers, members of Mexico’s national mining and metallurgical workers union, blockaded the mine entrances in protest at the company’s failure to prevent the spill. Workers have been fighting over contracts since a strike in 2007.

The total clean-up costs are unknown, but likely to run into tens of millions of dollars.

On 18 August, Profepa filed a criminal complaint against Buenavista del Cobre and another Grupo México unit, Minera México, for their alleged roles in the spill. Grupo México could be fined up to 3.3 million dollars if the complaint is upheld.

Sonora State Governor Guillermo Padrés Elías has announced that the seven municipalities affected by the leached copper spill are filing a civil claim for damages.

Eight years ago in the northern state of Coahuila, an explosion in a coal mine belonging to Grupo México left 65 miners trapped underground; only two bodies were ever recovered.

Related posts:

The transformation of Real de Catorce from ghost town to film set and Magic Town

 Other  Comments Off on The transformation of Real de Catorce from ghost town to film set and Magic Town
Dec 262013
 

Both the name and the coat-of-arms of the state of San Luis Potosi recall the tremendous importance of mining to Mexico’s economy.

SLP-coat-of-armsCalled Potosí in emulation of the mines of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the city’s coat-of-arms, awarded in 1656, has its patron saint standing atop a hill in which are three mine shafts. Left of the hill are two gold ingots, and right of it, two silver ones.

Some of the early mining towns in San Luis Potosí faded into obscurity, others became centers for ranching and commerce. The best known former mining town, Real de Catorce, for long considered a ghost town, has been resuscitated by tourism.

For visitors planning to see Real de Catorce, the best place to stay the night before is Matehuala, on highway 57, which has a full range of tourist services. From Matehuala, it is short distance west to Cedral. Shortly after Cedral a 24-kilometer-long cobblestone road climbs up the mountain to Real de Catorce, which sits at an elevation of  2,743 meters (9,000 ft) in the Sierra de Catorce range.

Real de Catorce

Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony

Main street of Real de Catorce. Credit: Tony Burton

The first surprise for visitors is the single file 2,300 meter long Ogarrio tunnel – the only entrance to the town from the north – a unique introduction to the many strange things awaiting you on the other side. The second surprise  is how such a large place, which produced more than 3 million dollars worth of silver each year, could ever have become a ghost town. Between 1788 and 1806, the La Purisima mine alone yielded annually more than $200,000 pesos of silver– and that was when a peso of silver was equivalent to a dollar.

The large, stone houses, often of several stories, with tiled roofs, wooden window frames and wrought-iron work, were so well built that they have survived to tell you their tales as you wander through the steep streets, soaking up the atmosphere of one of Mexico’s most curious places.

You need time to really appreciate the former grandeur of Real de Catorce. Fortunately, there are several simple hotels and restaurants. It is well worth hiring a local guide.  An enthusiastic guide will wear your feet out long before you tire of their informative commentaries.

Seek out the beautifully restored palenque (cock-fighting pit). Pause in the church to examine the mesquite floor, imaginatively described in some guidebooks as comprised of a mosaic of coffin lids. The church is dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. The two week long fiesta in his honor, centered on October 4th, is a huge affair, attended by hundreds of returning Real de Catorce families.

In front of the church, across the small plaza of Carbón, is the former mint. This gorgeous building is well worth visiting and now used for cultural events such as photographic exhibitions. Look in the gallery and perhaps you’ll find an irresistible, original, handcrafted item made of locally mined silver.

The town of Real de Catorce and its surroundings are sufficiently photogenic that several movies have been filmed here, including Bandidas (featuring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz) and The Mexican (featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts).

The town, designated a Magic Town in 2001, has several small hotels and restaurants for those wanting to spend more time here.

This area has close associations with the indigenous Huichol (Wixarika) Indians who call this area Wirikuta. Each spring, they visit Cerro del Quemado, a hill within easy hiking distance of Real de Catorce, to leave religious offerings. The Huichol collect the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, used in some of their ceremonies, from the surrounding desert during an annual spiritual pilgrimage to Wirikuta from their heartland in northern Jalisco, 400 km (250) miles away. Cerro del Quemado was declared a National Sacred Site in 2011. An upcoming full length documentary about the Huichol Indians, the “Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians“, includes shots of the pilgrimage, while looking at how the continuation of the pilgrimages could be threatened by proposed mining projects.

Related posts: