Somewhere In Mexico…
This is the story of how I accidentally wandered into an extremely remote Mexican village that was openly controlled by a ruthless drug cartel — and what happened next.
The other week I was taking an Uber from the airport, chatting with the driver about traveling and working around the world as a digital nomad.
After asking the standard question everyone asks “what’s your favorite country”, he wanted to know if I’ve ever felt in any danger while traveling.
Sure, I’ve been scared before.
- When I crossed the border into Afghanistan by myself on foot.
- Balancing on rusty beams 300 feet over a canyon in Spain.
- Attempting to wade across a crocodile-infested river in Costa Rica.
- Scuba diving without a cage in Fiji face-to-face with bull sharks.
- Spending the night on an erupting volcano in Guatemala.
- Illegally hopping a freight train while hitchhiking across America.
Yes, looking back, I’ve done some stupid & risky stuff over the years…
But the most scared I’ve ever been — was on a journey through Northern Mexico about 7 years ago. And it’s a story I’ve NEVER shared on this blog.
I wrestled with writing about this experience for a long time.
It just didn’t feel appropriate to share publicly, or even very safe for that matter. I was worried about the possible consequences for myself and others.
Yet I think enough time has passed that I finally feel comfortable sharing my crazy (and pretty dumb) encounter with dangerous members of a notorious drug cartel in the lawless mountains deep within Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
Maybe the story will be entertaining, but I hope you’ll learn something too.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico…
My tale begins in the Mexican tourist town of Creel. A major stop for the popular Copper Canyon Train which runs from the cities of Chihuahua through the Sierra Tarahumara mountains to Los Mochis on the coast.
After a very scenic (but uneventful) train journey through the mountains, I planned to explore more of this mountainous area on my own. Hoping to spend time with the Tarahumara, a Mexican indigenous group.
While chatting with locals, I learned of small villages at the bottom of the canyon that would present a more “authentic” Northern Mexican experience. Off-the-beaten-path if you will.
These places were not easy to reach, and the drive would take hours on rough mountain roads. I mentioned my plan to a local guy (let’s call him Fede) who I’d worked with earlier, and he offered to take me in his vehicle.
Fede wasn’t just some random dude. I’d already spent a few days traveling with him. Even crashing overnight at his family’s house. He was a well-known local professional. I trusted him completely.
Surprises Down In The Canyon
I’m not going to name the specific village I traveled to in this story. However, I’m sure if you dig deep enough, you’ll probably be able to figure it out.
Because it’s not like what goes on down there isn’t unknown within Mexico.
Over the course of our 6+ hour drive down winding dirt roads into the depths of the Copper Canyon, Fede starts to share some unsettling information with me.
“When we get there, you may see some stuff that’s alarming. But don’t worry. They know you’re coming.” – Fede
“Wait, what?! What kind of stuff? Who knows I’m coming?” – Me
“The Cartel. They control this town. But when the only guesthouse has a tourist, the owner informs The Cartel. They won’t bother you as long as you don’t do anything stupid.” – Fede
“……….” – Me
The Cartel he was referring to is the Sinaloa Drug Cartel. Aka Cártel de Sinaloa, aka the Guzmán-Loera Organization, aka The Blood Alliance.
The same cartel controlled by the notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was just on trial in the United States for drug trafficking, murder, and money laundering.
What the hell did I just get myself into?
Mexico’s Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the nickname given to a remote and mountainous region in Northern Mexico that encompasses the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango.
It’s where Mexico’s powerful cartels have been growing billions of dollars worth of heroin & weed to supply an insatiable demand for drugs from the United States.
Cartels are able to produce drugs in the Golden Triangle because the area is so rugged & inaccessible that it can take hours to reach these small villages on unmarked dirt roads.
Mexico’s Copper Canyon, if you haven’t heard of it before, is a massive canyon that’s technically larger and deeper than the US Grand Canyon. It is the perfect hiding place for fields of illegally grown opium poppies & marijuana plants!
Combine this fact with a desperately poor workforce of indigenous people called the Tarahumara, and you’ve got a Mexican drug lord’s wet dream.
This is where I found myself.
On the edge of the Golden Triangle, in a village controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel.
A Surreal Travel Experience
As we pull into the village, over a narrow bridge, I see a kid talking into a military-style radio. He’s announcing our arrival to the cartel. My heart begins to race.
Further down the road, we pass a group of men dressed in black, armed with assault rifles. I begin to sweat.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all…
Fede notices my apprehension and assures me everything will be ok. I’m not the first tourist to visit this town.
Because the cartel doesn’t want to draw any attention to themselves, they’d never harm a tourist. That would force the military to intervene and ruin everything.
I check into my guesthouse, the only one in town, and we eat lunch at his friend’s place, which is basically a small restaurant run out of her home.
Keeping Tabs On Me…
Fede says his goodbyes and leaves town. He has to go back to work. So I’m on my own now. I walk around town. I visit some abandoned silver mines nearby.
I stop into the local museum and sign the guestbook (the last signature is over a month old).
I pass by the group of cartel members I saw earlier. We say hello to each other. While they certainly appear to fit the stereotype of hardened criminals, they seem friendly enough.
I still can’t quite believe this is happening.
My goal for the day is to visit an old Spanish Mission, located a few miles out of town. On the way, I run into a pickup truck with blacked-out windows on the side of the road. As I approach, the driver’s side window rolls down.
“¿A dónde vas?” says a large scary dude in a cowboy hat. There’s a beautiful woman half his age in the passenger seat.
“La misión Española” I reply. He nods, and the window slides back up. They’re keeping an eye on me. Making sure I don’t stumble into their fields of poppy or marijuana.
Everyone Works For The Drug Cartel
Over the next few days, I learn that basically the whole town is working for the cartel. They are the sole employer.
I’m not sure if it’s by choice, or by the threat of violence, but growing and trafficking drugs for the cartel is how this town survives.
And some of them are not afraid to talk about it. Growing marijuana is as normal as growing corn. It’s just another crop — only one that pays much better.
After chatting with one local farmer for a while, he takes me up to a small barn behind his house, pulls out a large sack, and offers me two giant handfuls of freshly picked marijuana buds!
I start laughing, thanking him for his generosity, but explain that there’s no way I can bring his gift back into the United States with me.
But… because I’m a polite guy, I accept a few flowers so he isn’t offended.
This man isn’t some murderous cartel member, he’s just a friendly, impoverished farmer trying to make a living for his family with very limited opportunities.
A Very Surreal Experience
So while the whole cartel situation had me feeling pretty nervous, this next part was the scariest moment of the whole few days I was down there.
My comfort level had been improving. I was getting used to chatting with cartel members each day. Maybe too comfortable.
One evening, a young Mexican guy dressed like a rodeo cowboy walks into the home-based restaurant where I’m eating dinner.
He’s wearing a pair of beautiful, very fancy white-handled revolvers on his hip. Like right out of your typical Spaghetti Western movie.
A heavily armed bodyguard wearing a bullet-proof vest waits for him outside.
We happily chat for a minute in Spanish, asking how I like the food, before they both disappear into the darkness of night. Everything is getting very surreal, and I seriously feel like I’m trapped in a movie.
On another occasion, I watch a team of five armed men loading blue 55-gallon drums of something from a truck into a guarded building.
Weed? Opium poppies? Human remains dissolving in acid? My imagination starts to run wild…
Getting The Shot
I REALLY wanted a photo of one of these guys. No one would believe all this happened to me unless I had a photo!
So the next morning, I cut a small hole into the side of my backpack and tape a GoPro inside. My plan is to use “time-lapse” mode, quietly shooting photos automatically as I walk past them.
However as I approach, I decide to stop and chat. With my adrenaline pumping, I simply ask them directly. Pointing at the camera around my neck. What’s the worst that could happen?
“¿Puedo tomar tu retrato?” (Can I take your portrait?) – Me
“Jajaja… no.” – Cartel Dude #1
“Please? My American friends back home would love to see your big gun. I can leave your face out of it if you’d like.” – Me
“Jajaja… no. But you can get a photo of my amigo here.” – Cartel Dude #1
So, without thinking about the consequences, I aim my wide-angle lens at the truck driver sitting next to him. *CLICK*
Cartel Dude #1 is in the photo too, but just doesn’t realize it.
Immediately I start to panic — internally. What if he asks to see the photo? That was so dumb! I’m going to get myself killed. Maybe I can quickly use the zoom button before showing it to him…
Fortunatley he never asks — and just assumes the camera wasn’t aimed his way.
I try to act normal, end the conversation, and walk off down the road contemplating just how stupid that was.
I think it’s time for me to leave this town.
Cartel Wars In The Mountains
As someone who has spent almost 2 years of my life both living and traveling through Mexico, I’ll be the first to tell you it’s one of my favorite countries.
I certainly don’t want my story to scare you from visiting Mexico. This is NOT a typical Mexican vacation experience.
I specifically went out of my way to visit a remote area that isn’t very safe. Even for the Copper Canyon itself — if you stay on the normal tourist trail you’ll be fine.
However if you venture off-grid in this region, there’s a lot of sh*t going on.
Mexico is an amazing and beautiful destination, but like any country, it can also be a dangerous one if you go looking for danger.
- Golden Triangle In Flames Again (Borderland Beat)
- Extreme Race in the Shadow of Extreme Danger (New York Times)
- Drug Gangs Delay Sierra Trail Riders (My San Antonio)
One particular story that shook me recently was the murder of North Carolina teacher Patrick Braxton-Andrew, who was visiting a similar remote village in the same region last year.
That one hit close to home. A curious traveler looking for adventure, trying to get off the beaten path, exploring a dangerous area on his own… mistaken for a DEA agent and shot by the drug cartels.
When I first started traveling, I did many risky and stupid things seeking that addictive jolt of adrenaline. Hell, I haven’t completely cured myself of it even now!
Luckily everything has turned out ok so far, and I have some pretty incredible memories and stories to show for it.
But that isn’t always the case for everyone.
My Scariest Travel Story
I’m not sure if there is a lesson in this story. Maybe there are many.
Play stupid games, win stupid prizes? Young people traveling with no responsibilities often take unnecessary risks for fun? Don’t be an idiot like me?
I’m sure I’ll be judged and ridiculed a bit for writing about this. That’s ok. It happened, and I have to live with it. I’m probably lucky to be living at all…
Have you ever done anything stupid like this while traveling? Taken on too much risk? Gotten yourself into a sticky situation that you regret later?
Frequent travelers have this insufferable tendency to “one-up” each other’s travel stories — and this one is mine. The one I share at bars after a few drinks.
Now it’s your turn to share.
Take a minute to quickly describe your scariest/dumb travel story.
If only to make me feel like I’m not the only one out there who’s done something stupid on the road…
Maybe we can turn it into a guide on “what-not-to-do while traveling.” ★
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READ MORE TRAVEL SAFETY TIPS
I hope you enjoyed my Mexican drug cartel story! Hopefully you found it entertaining. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
- My 50 Best Travel Tips (After 10 Years)
- Is Instagram Ruining Travel?
- How To Take Better Travel Photos
- How To Stay Safe While Traveling
- Best Travel Insurance For Digital Nomads
Have any questions about traveling in Mexico? Do you have a scary travel story? Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to share!