By Keith Rosenblum
There is an array of wonderful reasons to visit this picturesque village along the Rio Sonora. But, even if there wasn’t, does it not boggle the mind that a community within a half-day’s drive of Phoenix or Tucson has been continuously occupied since 1639?
Banámichi (bah-NAH-mitch-i), some 2 1/2 hours south of Douglas, offers both a glimpse into the history, beauty and serenity of rural Mexico and a short course into Mexican policies that have deprived and battered its far-flung settlements.
The town, originally named Nuestro Senora de los Recuerdos de Banámichi, was founded by Jesuit missionaries Bartolomé Castaños and Pedro Pantoja. Originally the area was occupied by members of the Opata tribe. Its name is derived from banamitel, Opata for “where the river turns.” In 1768, when Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish lands, it became a Franciscan mission.
It is not easy to get here – which may explain why it is not frequented by Americans. Sonora 118, the snaking state highway linking the town with Hermosillo to the south and Cananea to the north, is a smidgeon over two car (or wagon train) widths and has a shoulder ranging from non-existent to barely existent. Just make sure your tires are in good shape and, unless you thrive on perilous drives, you travel between dawn and dusk. Buses service Banámichi, but finding and boarding them is another matter.
Once you’re here, however, Banámichi is a simple delight.
A GAP IN POPULATION
The town is a mix of traditional, hacienda-style buildings; European-style contiguous block residences; and inexpensive brick stand-alone homes from the mid-1900’s, all built along streets just as narrow as the highway. It takes but 20 minutes to walk through and around the entire town. In the process, one visits Plaza Hidalgo, where – as tradition mandates – City Hall faces a church (the ornate Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Loreto) and centuries-old homes. (Mass is held Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m.) Another gathering spot for locals: Plaza de Piedra, on Avenida Constitucion, the name for Sonora 118 as it passes through town.
Like many other villages through agrarian Mexico, Banámichi demonstrates how Mexican federal planners have channeled resources away from rural areas in favor of larger “hub” cities – in this case, Hermosillo.
Census data shows that Banámichi has fewer people today (1,484) than it did in 1980 (1,885), a demographic trend repeated throughout Mexico’s villages, while urban areas rapidly expand.
One has the sense that something is missing during the walk through town. And it is.
While there are plenty of children, and plenty of residents over 50 years old, there are noticeably few residents between 18 and 50. They are gone, working in Hermosillo, another big city or in the U.S.
The residents that are left here do not enjoy amenities found in cities or those found in rural America. For example, food is more expensive, as there are no supermarkets nearby. There are few, if any, social services provided to the area’s elderly or poor. There is but one doctor – an intern from out of state doing his social service. Internet or cable services are available only through satellite dishes.
There have been a handful of economic initiatives. Forty residents work at an assembly plant that makes fish-hooks for an American bait company. A fish farm producing Red Jumbo y Stirling tilapia has recently launched. But the mainstay of yesteryear’s economy – cattle grazing – continues to be the town’s lifeblood.
Banámichi is one stop on the Sonora state government’s Ruta Rio Sonora, a scenic 150-mile panorama that runs by Ures, Baviacora, Aconchi, San Felipe de Jesus, Huepac, Arizpe, Bocoachi and Cananea. Yet, it’s an error to think that each of these pueblos can’t entertain a visitor for days or weeks by themselves. Each one can.
What makes a trip to Banámichi particularly enjoyable is the presence of a new retreat, La Posada del Rio Sonora (www.laposadadelriosonora.com) an eight-room hotel lodge run by retired Coloradan Bill Harmsden, and his wife, Irma Rojo. Harmsden became enamored of Banámichi seven years ago when, by chance, he traveled from a job in Hermosillo to Tucson via the back roads of Rio Sonora.
On his way, Harmsden glimpsed a mansion for sale in Arizpe. It turned out that property had been sold, but Harmsden looked a few miles south and wound up buying and remodeling a 200-year-old building on this town’s Plaza Hidalgo. Restoration was completed last year and La Posada now caters to an eclectic group of history buffs, hunters, miners, horseriders, and hot springs fans.
Being in this small town does not mean the visitor will have to endure inferior cuisine. A kitchen overseen by Irma’s brother, Ruben, offers visitors sumptuous dishes, made – whenever possible – from local produce, which includes beef, grapefruit, garlic, peanuts, squash and berros, a lettuce-like vegetable. La Posada can be reached at (011-52-623) 231-0259 or through a Tucson prefix, 520-275-2002. Less expensive lodging in Banámichi is available at Hotel Guely, (011-52-623) 231-0172 or Hotel Leon, 231-0210.
Banámichi is not the place to come for scheduled entertainment. There is no theater, no nightlife, no chili cookoffs or other trappings of a city. But for the creative at heart, there’s more than enough to do, anyway:
Horseback riding: There are two primary horsetrails, one along the Rio Sonora and another into the Sierra. Travelers should allot two hours for the river route and at least double that for the mountains. Guide Francisco Davila Villaescusa is sought by first-time visitors.
Swimming: Bacachi Pool, on the southern outskirt, provides refreshment via a five-foot-deep medium-sized pool and adjacent picnic area. A natural stream feeds the pool, which is maintained by the town. Admission is less than $1.
Bicycling: This is trail bike heaven. One route maintained by the state links Banámichi with Huepac, some seven miles away. Another, from Banámichi to San Felipe de Jesus, is about two miles long. A third route links Baviacora with San Felipe, a distance of some 11 miles.
Hunting: There are two hunting seasons: white-tailed deer from December through January; white-winged dove from November to February.
Hiking and walking: The most ambitious hikers aim for the highest sierra, known as “El Durazo.” A halfway point, known as “Vallecito,’ is the goal of those with lesser pulmonary ability. Many hikers enjoy walking to El Molino, a beautiful building that housed a flour mill and closed in the 1950’s.
Hot springs: Sonora’s famous hot springs, Agua Caliente Aconchi, surface at scalding temperatures but are corralled into a cooler network of downstream pools. They are just 30 minutes by car from Banámichi. The springs are run by Ejido de San Pedro de Aconchi, which also rents a cabin on site.
Banámichi has its own special holidays. Dia del Pueblo, or Founders’ Day, is held on Sept. 16, which coincides with Mexican Independence Day. Festivities begin with a 4 a.m. parade known as Desfile del Gallo, or Parade of the Rooster. On both Dia del Pueblo and Sabado Santo, the Saturday preceding Easter, horseraces are held.