23. Pain and danger: South of the Sierra de Guadalupe

From the Cerro Gordo I saw a grey triangle of houses high on the upper slopes of the Sierra de Guadalupe. It was a colonia called La Presa in Ecatepec. I had been warned several times in my crossing of the mountains: Further on you will come by a neighborhood called La Presa, be very careful there, it is very dangerous. It was very common on the route to hear people say that a few neighborhoods further on it was very dangerous. Often it wasn’t true. Yet in the case of La Presa people were particularly insistent. Once more I was afraid.

I walked up the long staircase up the side of the hills surrounded by grey, self-constructed houses. I then arrived at a dirt road along the side of the city creeping along a ridge towards the neighborhood. Dust blew up along the road and the cinderblock houses lining it seemed abandoned with rebar sticking out of their roofs and fences of mattress springs and pallets. I was limping and still couldn’t lift my right arm above my shoulder. I felt the Santa Muerte was still after me for taking the picture. Putting superstition aside I walked along the ridge to the high grey triangle up the slope with fatalistic determination.

As I turned right into the neighborhood I saw La Presa loom above me, houses of two to three stories, several with people on them. Below me was the vast view of the Lake of Texcoco, the Cerro Gordo and southern mountain ranges behind them. Dust clouds blew up off the dry lakebed below. I walked along a school with children honoring the flag on a bare asphalt basketball court seemingly afloat in the air above the valley. Shops were either boarded up or had their metal curtains pulled down halfway.

I came upon the opposite edge of the neighborhood and started following it upwards to the point of the triangle. Along the route upwards I saw a man with black sunglasses and a black leather cap sitting on the sidewalk, looking out over the valley snorting glue. I passed him by. A child saw me and gestured in the distance and whistled. I heard whistled replies sounding over the passageways and stairwells covering the hillside.

I continued my limping walk up the hill, taking pictures. Quickly I reached the pinnacle at the end of a long uphill street marking the edge. I stopped briefly and then started to walk down the other side. It was once an asphalt road but now bushes grew up between the cracks. Two sets of stairs along the side replaced the sidewalk. I walked onward. In the distance I now saw people pointing at me.

Hurriedly I reached the bottom of the slope and reached the main avenue where there were once again cars and shops, even if they did have their metal curtains pulled halfway down. I felt remiss in being what was supposedly the most dangerous neighborhood of the Sierra de Guadalupe and not talking to anyone. I saw a barbershop up some stairs to me left hanging over the street and decided to have a haircut.

A small young woman with dyed red hair was standing inside with a toddler. I explained I wanted a haircut and sat down in the chair in front of the mirror.

I told her I was on a trip and asked after the neighborhood. She said it was very bad. The people from the slums around San Juanico had been moved there after the big refinery explosion in 1984. The neighborhood now dedicated itself to crime and no one was safe anymore. Children were kidnapped within their own neighborhood and the police only came in with twenty or more people. Drug dealers came from other parts of the city to buy wholesale.

She said I had been lucky to make it this far. Hopefully I would be able to get out of the neighborhood.

I left her there with her child and stepped once more into the light of the street with my new haircut. I walked along the avenue out of the neighborhood arriving at the village of San Andrés in a steep, long valley towards the center of the Sierra de Guadalupe Massif. I walked along the pepper tree lined dirt roads. The danger seemed past. I hooked back toward the village of Santa Clara to find a hotel. To my chagrin I found the closest hotel was once again the Cerro Gordo Plaza Inn. I had ping-ponged off the edge back to where I started.

Before getting to the hotel I had a big steak in a luxury road restaurant. I contemplated the elegant waters as I felt the dust of the Sierra de Guadalupe clinging to my neck. Feeling the anxiety drain out of me I relaxed and had a beer.

Then I made my way to the familiar entrance of the hotel set in a quarry in the hill of the Fat Man.