From no-go to hot spot

A sand boarder navigates the dunes in SamalayucaImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

The Samalayuca sand dunes are considered one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets. With their stunning views and endemic vegetation, they have plenty of potential to attract tourists, nature lovers and sand boarders. But their location, just 50km (30 miles) south of Ciudad Juárez, means few venture out here as many are put off by the Mexican city’s high murder rate.

Federal police cars line up near Samalayuca, near Ciudad JuárezImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

In 2010, the city on the Mexico-US border broke the record for the highest homicide rate ever recorded, with some 10 people killed on average every day. While the number of homicides has gone down, Ciudad Juárez has struggled to shake its reputation as a highly violent city.

But for locals, the sand dunes have always been an oasis where they find respite and have fun.

Families fly kites in the Samalayuca dunesImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

They are part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest in North America, and the dunes occupy an area of 2,000 sq km, a third of which was declared a protected area in 2009.

A view of the expanse of the Samalayuca sand dunesImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

Others come to the dunes for extreme sports.

Tony Reyes, 22, first visited when he was a child with his family and friends. He is part of a racing team which comes to practise off-road driving for tournaments that take place in the area every couple of months.

“What I like most about doing off-road in Samalayuca is the calm of the desert,” Mr Reyes says.

A man drives through the dunes on a quad bikeImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

Tony Reyes on his bikeImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

Close-up of Tony ReyesImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

The dunes are located along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior), a 2,560km-long trade route between Mexico City and Santa Fe, the capital of the US state of New Mexico.

For many centuries before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, indigenous nomads moved up and down the trail hunting and gathering useful plants.

The petroglyphs, or rock carvings, found in Samalayuca are a legacy of the early inhabitants of the area. The images date back 1,500 years and depict wild animals including horned sheep, stars and people.

Petroglyphs on a rock face in SamalayucaImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

A close-up view of the petroglyphs showing animals with hornsImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

The Spanish discovered the trail in the 16th Century and used it to reach the area where they eventually founded Santa Fe. After that, the route became fundamental for missionaries and colonisers and to transport goods and merchandise.

Centuries later, the dunes were used as a setting for several films, including Conan the Destroyer, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and David Lynch’s Dune.

Children play in the dunesImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

Javier Meléndez is a local farmer who is now undersecretary for rural development of the northern area of Chihuahua state. During the most violent years in Ciudad Juárez, he served as mayor of the town of Samalayuca, just off the dunes.

A local celebrity, he has never shied away from addressing the difficulties of his region.

Javier Meléndez, a local farmer turned politicianImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

In 2014, a Canadian-Mexican copper company came to the area, interested in exploiting the high silica content of the sands.

Mr Meléndez was initially in favour of the project, hoping it would drive down the area’s high unemployment rates.

But environmentalists were opposed, saying it would destroy its delicate biodiversity and put at risk the few sources of water.

Eventually, Mr Meléndez came to oppose it as well. Modern techniques of desert irrigation have made the cultivation of zucchinis and other vegetables possible, creating more employment in the agricultural sector.

Agriculture has taken off with irrigationImage copyright
Melissa Lyttle

Moreover, local tourism is growing. Some residents of Ciudad Juárez have bought weekend homes in the area to enjoy the calm surroundings.

“Now we favour tourism as a strategic area for the local economy,” says Mr Meléndez.

“We want to build our future as people of the desert, who are aware of the environment they live in.”

Irene Caselli and Melissa Lyttle were in Samalayuca thanks to a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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