I had major reservations about this adventure, and rightfully so. It meant crossing the border from El Paso into Juarez and going south to the desolate Chihuahua Desert at night. I was torn. I wanted to experience the mysticism of the dunes, yet hesitant because of the known violence, including a National Geographic reporter being shot recently. That reporter was interviewing someone in a drug cartel, so he faced a danger I have no plans to put myself in. I was in El Paso for the Society of American Travel Writers convention. I knew the organization and both sides of the border were taking every precaution to ensure our safety. I also had a sentimental reason for wanting to step into this sliver of Mexico on this trip. My dad would have turned 83 on October 20th and this was just a couple of days after his birthday. In the late 1990s, my parents and I were on a cross country road trip and we walked across the bridge into Juarez. It was all of our first times in Juarez and their first and only time to step into Mexico before both faced declining health before passing. Perhaps it was a heavenly push as I made the decision to go just hours before the buses departed.
I joined other journalist and off we went on what would be a 3-hour tour just to get to the dunes. Our four buses sat at the border for over an hour. Perhaps the border patrol was doing a sweep. Perhaps there was a danger we didn’t know about. Perhaps it was just because. As we weaved through town, I couldn’t help noticing two things – there’s an overabundance of American companies from fast food to big box stores and a lot of cars have very dark tinted windows in Juarez. We had a police escort, but it was rush hour, so I was a little antsy. As the scenery changed from buildings to scrubby desert terrain on the 32-mile trek south of Juarez, I could see the Samalayuca Dune Field in the distance. Turning onto a dirt road, a policia contingency was waiting to escort us through the ranchland and into dunes.
The sun was quickly setting and I’m sure you can imagine busloads of journalists and photographers were at the ready to capture the magical moment, and really ready to get off the buses after being on them for hours. As we pulled into the beautiful event site, I was awed by the number of policia vehicles, officers on foot, some standing high on the dunes and others patrolling in all-terrain vehicles. The protection force of policia and security detail was astounding. It could have easily been in the hundreds, just to make sure we stayed safe.
I ran up the dunes as the golden glow of the setting sun was being cast on the terrain. The peaks looked like waves kissed by the last light of day in a sea of sand. The expansive dune field was one the shoreline of prehistoric Lake Palomas. The mysticism of the dunes was immediately felt as I looked out across the undeveloped landscape. It was magical and moving. It was breathtakingly beautiful. In that moment, I knew I had made the right decision for myself. For us, surrounded by an extensive police force, it was an oasis in an area known for violence.
As the wind blows the fine white silica sand, the landscape is constantly changing, just as the light, colors and shadows were quickly shifting at sunset. It was a kaleidoscope of colors with hues of orange, pink, purple and tan until nightfall settled in and the stars began twinkling across the vast night sky.
Some folks were sipping mezcal or sotol, others were meditating feeling the find sand sift through their fingers and others with chatting and taking photos. Ever since my trip to Valle de Guadalupe, I’ve been a fan of Mexican wines. I first sipped a rose from winemaker Armando Reyes, who owns a boutique winery in the state of Chihuahua, a growing wine region in Mexico. It was one of his cabernet sauvignons that I really enjoyed as I watched the Milky Way take center stage in the night sky. Here’s an interesting astronomy tidbit – the Samalayuca Dunes hold the Guinness Book of World Records title for largest astronomy class with more than 2000 people using almost 500 telescopes.
As the darkness settled in, we convened under the giant tent for an authentic and elegant dining experience. The first course was a smoky flavored zucchini cream soup I really enjoyed. After the soup, everyone who doesn’t eat meat like me got a bright blue bandana tied around his or her wrist. I laughed at their way to identify the vegetarians. The “strong dish” as the main course was called on our menu was a pork belly for meat eaters. The vegetarian option was smoked panela cheese and nopal cactus, a staple in Mexican cuisine. The smoky flavor of the cheese paired nicely with the tanginess of the cactus. It was topped with greens with a splash of citrus and heat in the light dressing. The meal ended with each of us getting a guare raramuri, or small woven pot, filled with petit fours of apple and pinole (a cinnamon-like spice) macaroon, pecan truffle with sotol and fruit quince square. As we nibbled on our sweet treats the delightful sounds of a full mariachi band filled the air.
It was a magical night in a mystical sandy sea, but sadly our revelry had to come to an end. As the four buses raced to the border with a caravan of police cars, trucks and ATVs, we were quickly thrusted back into the reality of the danger of the region at night. When the bus slowed as we approached the border, the droves of folks seeking asylum to enter the United States trying to sleep under makeshift tents against concrete walls was tough to see. While I was safe in the confines of the bus, just a few feet away on the other side of the window were children and adults of all ages trying to sleep in the chill of night in the desert as they wait. On the bridge between the Mexican immigration and American immigration I flashed back to the day my folks and I walked back and forth between the two countries. As I went through U.S. immigration, being an inquisitive person, I asked the agent some questions – yes I was that person holding up the line. I needed to know including how long those people would wait. It could be weeks or months he told me. Back on the bus and driving down the quiet streets of El Paso at 11:30p.m. I couldn’t help but think how blessed I am and how grateful I was that I said yes to a night of adventure in a sandy world. I hope one day the drug violence and danger subsides so many others can enjoy a night like I did in the Samalayuca Dunes.
Travel journalist and adventurer Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across Mexico and Central America. She have a deep love for tacos, margaritas and Mexican hospitality. If you want to read another one her adventures in Mexico, check out blog A Day in the City of Eternal Spring: Exploring Cuernavaca.