My Run-In With A Notorious Mexican Drug Cartel

Mexican Cartel Members
My Craziest Travel Story
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.

No, this is not an April fools post. Posted April 2nd!

The other week I was taking an Uber from the airport, chatting with the driver about traveling and working around the world as a 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.

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.

Copper Canyon Mexico
The Sierra Tarahumara Mountains

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.

Mountain Road in Mexico
Rugged Dirt Roads in Mexico

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 4+ 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 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 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?

Golden Triangle Mexico
The Golden Triangle – Drug Production Area in Mexico

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.

Remote Mountain Village
The Only Bridge Into Town

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.

One of the Cartel's Trucks
One of the Cartel’s Trucks

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.

Mexican Farmer
Friendly Mexican Drug Farmer
Harvesting the Crop
This Sack is Full of Weed…

Everyone Works For The 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.

Making Friends in Town
Making Friends in Town

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…

Mexican Drug Cartel Story
Sinaloa Cartel Members (Faces Censored for Safety)

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.

Patrolling the Village
Patrolling the Village
Villages in the Golden Triangle
Mexico’s Remote Golden Triangle

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.

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.

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.” ★

What’s your scariest travel story? Have you ever done something dangerous or stupid while traveling? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Wild Kamchatka: Visiting Russia’s Nomadic Reindeer Herders

Reindeer Herding in Kamchatka

Exploring Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula

Kamchatka, Russia

On the remote Russian peninsula of Kamchatka, indigenous Even people watch over large herds of reindeer as their ancestors have for centuries. We caught up with them after traveling by snowmobile.

Blowing winter snow stung my face like 1000 tiny frozen needles.

Riding snowmobiles through a whiteout with 60 mph winds, at temperatures of -39F, we were attempting to escape the top of a featureless alpine plateau. The weather just keeps getting worse.

I was seriously starting to worry if we’d make it out of here…

It’s March, and we’re deep in the heart of Kamchatka, a 900-mile long Russian peninsula attached to Siberia that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Most people only know it from the game of RISK.

It’s about the size of California, with only 400,000 residents.

Kamchatka is a wilderness lover’s playground, composed of thick boreal forests, geothermically active volcanoes, and barren tundra landscapes.

This mysterious landmass was off-limits to outsiders until the 1990s, due to its strategic importance to the Soviet military’s nuclear submarine bases.

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy Sunset

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy Sunset

A City Surrounded by Volcanos

A City Surrounded by Volcanos

The Kamchatka Penninsula

No roads lead into Kamchatka, the only way to visit is by sea or air. The peninsula was once part of the Bering land bridge that connected Asia to North America.

Part of the Pacific Ocean’s notorious Ring Of Fire, Kamchatka boasts 200 different volcanoes, 30 of them active. It’s also teeming with wildlife, including a massive population of Grizzly bears.

The land has many similarities with Alaska, and was the perfect location for an adventure travel photography tour that I was co-leading with fellow travel photographer Matt Reichel.

Our mission? Take a group of adventure-lovers into the heart of this lesser-known wilderness to meet with nomadic Even reindeer herders who live there.

The Small Village of Esso

The Small Village of Esso

Preparing For Our Expedition

We first flew into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Kamchatka’s small Soviet-style capital city surrounded by volcanoes. Followed by a 6-hour bus ride to the small village of Esso, our jumping off point for the rest of the trip.

In Esso we secure snowmobiles, food, and supplies. We also meet up with our local backcountry guides and drivers, preparing to explore Kamchatka’s Ichinsky District for the next week.

There’s Vlad, a Belarusian fixer/translator and geological scientist who’s been living in Kamchatka researching active volcanoes. Igor is the rugged Russian team leader and former park ranger for Bystrinsky National Park.

Ilya and his wife Dasha are our indigenous Even guides, and the key to helping us track the Taboons (nomadic reindeer herding communities on the tundra).

Snowmobiling through the Mountains of Kamchatka

Snowmobiling through the Mountains of Kamchatka

Navigating the Russian Countryside

Navigating the Russian Backcountry

Russian Snowmobile Adventure

Leaving civilization, our small convoy of 5 snowmobiles pulls sleds full of gear (and ourselves) through forests of fresh snow under the shadow of massive volcanoes.

Traveling by snowmobile out here is a challenging endeavor!

Sometimes you need to lean with your driver in order to navigate sharp turns, much like a motorcycle.

Occasionally dodging tree branches and always prepared to jump-off in an emergency to avoid getting crushed by the sled.

And jump-off we did, many times! When a snowmobile tips over into deep snow, it often takes a good 10-15 minutes to dig it out too.

Then there are tricky river crossings requiring careful maneuvers, sometimes building temporary bridges by hand using tree saplings and branches covered with snow.

Just traveling out to visit these reindeer herds was an adventure itself.

Even Reindeer Taboon

Even Reindeer Taboon

White Reindeer in Kamchatka

Did you know some reindeer are white?

Even Reindeer Taboons

After a long day of snowmobile travel through thick forests, high alpine tundra, steep mountain passes, and semi-frozen rivers in Kamchatka’s Ichinkski district, we arrive at the first reindeer taboon.

Kiryak Adukanov and his family have constructed a simple wooden cabin out here, from which to base themselves. They are Evens, an indigenous group based in Siberia.

The Even have a long history of reindeer husbandry, making a living (and living off of) semi-domesticated herds of animals in Russia’s Far East and Siberian wilderness areas.

These days reindeer meat is sold to the Russian government and other companies around the world as a luxury product that can fetch up to $10 a pound. Antlers are sold to China and ground into “medicines”.

We spend an hour pitching camp behind a huge snow drift, including digging a “snow toilet” to protect us from the wind – which becomes important later.

Even Reindeer Herder

Kiryak walks through his herd of Reindeer…

Reindeer Selfie in Russia

Making new Friends in Russia!

Hanging Out With The Herd

The next morning Kiryak takes us out into the forest to meet his large herd of reindeer, and it’s quite a sight!

Dressed in camo, with a rifle slung on his back, he shouts and whistles while trekking over the snow on a pair of homemade wooden skis — all 1200 animals following behind him like some kind of wilderness pied-piper.

The reindeer then begin to dig through the snow, munching away at the hidden grasses they prefer to eat. After they get comfortable with our presence, we’re able to walk among them, capturing photos and watching their behavior.

Skinning a Reindeer

Skinning and preparing the animal for its meat.

Drinking Reindeer Blood

Local Tradition after a Kill…

Collecting Reindeer Meat

Our hosts then proceed to shoot a reindeer, something they do every few weeks. The Even live off the meat and use the pelt as warm sleeping pads and protective clothing.

We’ve brought in supplies from the village to trade in exchange for a supply of fresh meat, which will sustain us for the rest of our voyage.

The only catch, is having to watch one get butchered…

WARNING: The following few paragraphs include semi-graphic descriptions of the killing and skinning of animals. Feel free to skip it.
Click To Read Graphic Content
If you haven’t seen it before, watching an animal get slaughtered in front of you can be pretty jarring the first time.

It really makes you appreciate where your meat comes from.

Skin is peeled off with the aid of sharp hunting knives, internal organs removed, and the meat is separated by head, legs, and ribs for easy transport back to camp.

Finally, a steaming cup of raw reindeer blood is passed between the Even. They drink to honor the sacrifice this animal made. It’s offered to us as guests, and a few of us give it a try…

It’s warm and tastes of iron, with mystery chunks of flesh floating around.

Winter Camping in Kamchatka

Crazy winds blow through our campsite!

Snowmobiling on the Alpine Tundra

Snowmobiling on the Alpine Tundra

Dangerous Weather Moves In

Back at camp, we fire up the stove and feast on tasty bowls of hearty reindeer stew before settling into our tents for the night.

However, sleep is interrupted around 4am when wind picks up drastically and buries our campsite with snow drifts. A layer of frost covers our sleeping bags.

The morning is chaos. Sixty miles per hour winds and sub-zero temperatures force us to break camp in the middle of a whiteout.

Not sure how long it will take us to find the next taboon, we evacuate back to Esso for a night due to the bad weather, some of us showing signs of frostbite.

Herders live in Portable Yurts

Herders living in Portable Yurts

Inside the Yurt

Inside the Yurt

Legend Of The Whales

After our break in Esso, we’re back on the trail again, spending the next four days tracking down another taboon in the Russian backcountry.

Some families live in a portable yurt, moving with the herd every few weeks.

We’re staying in basic hunting cabins. My favorite of them sits at the base of snow-covered Ichinsky Volcano. At 11,834 ft. (3,607 m) tall, it’s the highest peak of Kamchatka’s Sredinny Range.

The Even people practice a form of shamanism. One legend is about a volcano spirit plucking five whales out of the ocean, one on each finger, and cooking them inside — causing the volcano to smoke.

Kamchatka has many natural hot-springs due to all the geothermal activity too.

Our Expedition Team Under the Volcano

Our Expedition Team Under the Volcano

The Vast Kamchatka Peninsula

The Vast Kamchatka Peninsula

Russia’s Adventure Destination

Riding back through the snow to Esso after a long and cold week in the Russian wilderness, I reflect on what we’d seen and experienced.

Kamchatka is a fascinating place. Full of rugged beauty, wildlife, and ancient culture. But without all the crowds of some more popular travel destinations.

It was a challenging trip, but those are often the most rewarding anyway!

I only hope the reindeer of Kamchatka continue to thrive, as there’s been a disturbing trend with global declines of reindeer and caribou populations partly due to climate change.

If you’re interested in a possible trip to Kamchatka in the future, I highly recommend checking out Matt’s tour company Inertia Network.

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Have you ever heard of Kamchatka before? Would you like to visit Russia? Drop me a message in the comments below!

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.