An experience the whole family can enjoy
By Catherine Dunn Original Print Publication: December, 2007
El Alberto, Hidalgo – The steeple of San Alberto Church is a shimmering beacon in the night for our group of about 40 people. We slide down a dust-and-rock strewn incline toward the soft river bank, and run across a shadowy glen to hide in a thatch of brambles that blocks out the constellations overhead.
The caminata, on foot and in pick-up trucks, takes about four hours.
Suddenly, a shot rings out.
Voices amplified by a crackling megaphone thunder from the road above: “Go back to Mexico. We don’t want you. Think about the snakes in the desert. Remember your families.”
Another gunshot sounds, and the Border Patrol drives away. We creep out from under the brambles and follow the river.
El Alberto, Hidalgo, an indigenous community of Hñahñu Indians, lies in central Mexico among hills plumed with cactus and scrub; a lush riverbank shades the Río Tula. The church, built in 1521, sits on a hill overlooking the town’s houses, many of which sit empty because their owners live in the US.
They started leaving this milpa farming community in the mid-80s, and for a time 60 to 70 percent of El Alberto’s people were living in El Norte. Now, about 20 percent of the 2300 villagers live in the US, the large majority illegally.
On this Saturday night the border is here in the middle of Mexico. Three years ago, the town’s citizens opened a border-crossing trail at Parque EcoAlberto. The trek has drawn nearly 4,000 visitors this year. In the late 1990s the town built a balneario, which became the foundation of the eco-park. The thermal waters fill a series of steaming blue pools encircled by a neatly manicured campground. Seven years ago, it occurred to the community’s governing assembly to create the border crossing simulation, which they christened the caminata nocturna, or nighttime hike.
The main component of the caminata’s success is that the people of El Alberto know exactly what it is like to cross the border. Here, they have distilled their real life or death struggles into a tourist spectacle that’s authentic enough to be believable (running in the dark is challenging), but not nearly “real” enough to scare off weekenders from the DF, who pay $200 pesos a ticket for the experience.
As Florentino García put it to me: “This park is like a store. You’ve got to sell well if you want your customers to come back.”
García and his El Alberto brethren are a second reason the park is doing well. An internal community reglamento dictates that every eight to ten years, each member of the community must give one year of unpaid social service. If your name comes up on the list and you’re living in Las Vegas, as García and many other Hñahñus do, you return to the village from Vegas.
Florentino’s last year of social service was in 1997, well before the caminata existed. That year he worked security at a local clinic: this year, he is the park’s treasurer and also helps build stone cabins for tourists. His wife, also from El Alberto, stayed in Las Vegas with their three daughters. When he's finished his service he will cross back to the US illegally. “It’s terrible. It’s horrible, it’s very, very horrible,” he says of crossing the desert.
A couple of hours – and a few scrapes and stumbles later – we huddle on a small hill and watch the drama of an arrest unfold in the blue-and-red flashing light of our ever-present pursuers, the Border Patrol. They cart away “The Fallen”, and we continue across another small stream, past a quiet cow, and into the bed of a waiting pickup truck.
Then we are blindfolded.
The night air whips around us as we rush down the road. When we arrive – wherever we are – the guides link our arms over each other’s shoulders and we form a silly conga line of the blind leading the blind … down hill. Finally we reach the end, and our guide allows us to remove our blindfolds.
The surprise revelation will make you blink, amazed. It’s as if you had closed your eyes, made a wish and got to watch it come true.
Talking to Florentino the next day, I ask him what the blindfolded part of the caminata means to him.
“The blindfold means tolerating hunger, not drinking, and crossing mountains and rivers … for us, los illegales, the blindfold is to cross,” he says. At the end of the journey, “the surprise is that you’re in the USA.”
What: Simulated border crossing, 3-4 hour nighttime hike called the caminata nocturna.
Cost: $200 pesos/person, discounts with accommodations rental. Where: Parque EcoAlberto, Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo
Accommodations: campground: tent and blanket rental at the balneario (thermal pools). Stone cabin rental at El Cañon, overlooking the Río Tula.
Other activities: rappel, swimming, boat rides on the river.