Deep Into The Sierra Madre

“We’re going to Pino Gordo, want to come,” asked my brother-in-law Randy from his home in Chihuahua, Mexico. Sure, why not. So I flew from Seattle to El Paso, Texas, caught a taxi to the central bus station in Juarez, Mexico and made the 4-hour bus ride south to Chihuahua.

Pino Gordo (Fat Pine Tree). Don’t look for it on any map – it’s not a town or village but an ejido (eh-HEE-doe), a land grant to indigenous people in this case the Tarahuamara (tar-ah-MAR-ah), or more properly, the Raramuri (rah-ram-ur-EE).

They are the famous long distance runners that can hunt deer by running the animal down to exhaustion. The name Pino Gordo refers to the large, old-growth pine trees in the area, one of the last remaining original forests in the Sierra Madre. Pino Gordo is at the end of a forty mile dirt track road from the rough and tumble logging town of Guadalupe y Calvo, itself an 8-hour drive from Chihuahua. There’s one more reason Pino Gordo is so isolated; it’s in the middle of a major drug-trafficking area and there have been violent conflicts between the Tarahuamara and narco-traffickers.

Randy is the director of Tierra Nativa, a non-profit organization based in Chihuahua and focused on securing land rights for the Tarahuamara. This trip was a combination of meeting with community leaders and transporting needed supplies to the community.

It was March and Randy advised me to pack for winter. But I’m from Washington State, used to snow and rain, so I packed my summer sleeping bag, backpacking tent and lightweight hiking pants. Besides, how cold can it get in Mexico even in the sierra? Butt freezing cold as it turned out. Pino Gordo is about 8,000 feet elevation and on the edge of the deepest canyon in North America, the massive Sinforosa.

I met Randy in Chihuahua along with his American friends Beth and Jonathan from Arizona and two American women going along to photograph the expedition. We loaded two battered, crew cab pickup trucks with 100-pound bags of dried beans and rice, baskets of fresh jalapeño peppers, school supplies, tools and a Tarahuamara family catching a ride with us back to their home in Pino Gordo. We cruised south on the federal interstate highway through the vast open deserts of southern Chihuahua. We stopped at the small, pleasant silver-mining city of Hidalgo del Parral for lunch and left the federal highway behind as we climbed a winding mountain road into the sierra.

As we drove across the ranchlands in the high plateaus above Parral, Randy suddenly turned off of the road signaling me to follow. There in a farmers’ field sat the carcass of a vintage four-engine DC-4 airplane, motors stripped out but otherwise intact, burros basking in the shade of its wings. Randy said this was a Colombian drug runners’ plane that landed in this field in the 1980’s loaded with cocaine and bound for the U.S. when it became disabled and was abandoned here. We climbed aboard and played around in it for a while before resuming our journey to Guadalupe y Calvo.

We reached Guadalupe y Calvo at dusk. The place looked like a frontier town should with ramshackle buildings and a couple seedy looking characters lurking by the door to the only restaurant open. We bought a meal of goat stew at the restaurant, filled the trucks with gas at the only PEMEX station around, and as night fell drove out of town on an unsigned dirt road towards Pino Gordo.

After a couple hours of grinding along in four-wheel drive we arrived in Pino Gordo and set up our tents by the one-room schoolhouse using the trucks’ headlights since there is no electricity there. We had a shot of tequila and bedded down, me shivering through the below-freezing night in my thin summer sleeping bag.

Shy but Curious in Pino Gordo

Shy but Curious in Pino Gordo

The next morning I had my first view of Pino Gordo, a collection of low adobe and wood plank buildings facing a large meadow surrounded by pine forest stretching away far across rolling hills. Curious Tarahuamara girls in their typically colorful skirts watched as we unloaded the trucks and we learned that the community had a tesgüinada planned during our visit (tes-wee-NAH-dah). Tesgüinadas are days-long celebrations that blend elements of Christianity and indigenous beliefs with foot races and consumption of prodigious amounts of tesgüino (tes-WEE-noh), a crude, home-brewed beer made from ground corn.


We joined with the residents from surrounding ranches gathering in the meadow as the runners, distinguished by their white headbands and breechcloths, presented themselves. The betting on the race was hot and heavy with flashlight batteries and jugs of tesgüino being the main medium of exchange. One woman upped the ante by removing her outer skirt and throwing it on the pile (women typically wear two skirts, one over the other) while a bookie in a straw sombrero wrote down the wagers on a notepad.

GatheringForRace 001

Without any perceptible notice, the race began. The runners ran barefoot across the rocky meadow kicking a baseball-size wooden ball thirty feet in front of them as they went. They ran for an hour or, back and forth across the meadow and into the nearby forest, without even breathing hard and covering fifteen to twenty miles in the process. At the same time, adolescent girls ran their race in their full skirts while using a stick curved at the end to hook a brightly colored wooden ring off of the ground and flip it twenty feet or so in front of them as they ran.

The race over and the winnings distributed, we finished unloading the supplies from the trucks as the morning warmed into a sunny glorious day in the seventies. One of the more prominent local citizens, Francisco, was hosting the tesgüinada and had invited us to attend. So we walked along the maze of footpaths winding through the forests to Francisco’s homestead a mile or so away from the meadow. We were warmly welcomed by his wife and family into their plank-sided house where we ate beans, chiles and tortillas cooked over a fire pit in the packed earth floor.

Francisco & Family

Francisco & Family

Outside a shaman was preparing the grounds for the upcoming festivities chanting over a pair of Christian-like crosses placed in a circle of tamped down earth with two large clay jugs of tesgüino. Once blessed, he placed a white cloth over the crosses to preserve the benediction for the tesgüinada later that afternoon.
Nearby, one of Francisco’s daughters was stirring a twenty-gallon plastic barrel of tesgüino being fermented just in time for the evening’s events and neighbors began arriving to help prepare for the night. We fell in with the crowd, carrying firewood to the field where the tesgüinada would be. Everyone seemed to have pre-determined duties with one guy whittling sharp points on oak sticks and tying them together in small bundles, others were carrying water from a nearby stream to an enormous steel kettle, others were carrying tree trunks in from the forest and placing them around for seating.

Altar, Blessed and Prepared

Altar, Blessed and Prepared

In the late afternoon a group of cowboys led Francisco’s bull from its pen and chased it around the field. They then gathered in two groups on either side of the exhausted animal and threw a rope under it. The group on the other side of the bull caught the rope and threw the loose end over the bull to the first group who then returned it once more under the bull. In this way they encircled the body of the bull with the rope which they then carefully wiggled across the bull’s rump until it fell onto its hind legs. At this point the cowboys sharply pulled the rope felling the bull onto its side while also securing its hind legs. Without delay some men jumped onto the thrashing bull, tying its front legs together and wrestling its sharp-tipped horns into the ground. This immobilized the bull, its legs bound, head facing upwards and secured to the ground by its own horns.

Wrangling the Bull

Wrangling the Bull

Now the shaman approached and placing a small wooden cross by the bull’s head, he gently stroked the animal’s face while murmuring a benediction. Francisco’s daughter dug a depression under the bull’s neck and placed a large bowl in it. As night fell the shaman cut the bulls jugulars with a small knife and the bull bled out quietly, filling the bowl with blood. Once full, Francisco’s daughter took the bowl full of blood to the house to be cooked into blood sausage and stews.

As night fell the labors of the afternoon now became apparent. The bundles of sharpened oak sticks were torches. After lighting the pointed ends the bundles of sticks threw off an amazing amount of smokeless bright light. A dapperly dressed cowboy skinned the bull by this torchlight while others butchered the meat into steaks and roasts. Six men hoisted the carcass and carried it to the giant steel pot (now a cauldron of boiling water) and tossed it in to become a mammoth stew to feed the crowd. And the tesgüinada went into full swing with gourd cups of tesgüino being passed around. Francisco taught us to drink with our teeth partially closed in order to sift most of the corn mash from the liquid, spitting out the mash before passing the cup on.

Drinking Tesguino

Drinking Tesguino

We drank tesgüino and laughed with the cowboys until the wee hours of the night with no sign of stopping. But a couple of narcos had shown up with their fancy boots, aggressive stares and ominous bulges under their shirts. Finally, the women in our group became nervous about the leering narcos so we walked back together along the moonlit forest paths to our camp by the schoolhouse a mile or so away. This night I borrowed a couple of wool blankets to augment my thin sleeping bag and exhausted, fell into a deep comfortable sleep.

In the silent, pre-dawn hours I was wrenched awake by the loud, deep boom of a single shot from a shotgun or large pistol discharged somewhere nearby in the meadow. Thinking of the narcos from the previous night I carefully crawled out of my tent and went into the schoolhouse. About an hour later Randy came in and said he hadn’t heard the shot, but would ask around about it. Later he said everyone was pretty quiet about it, but found out that a local Tarahuamara man had been terrorizing the community, raping girls and stealing from houses. They’d taken him to court in Chihuahua but the judge wouldn’t hear the case saying it was a Tarahuamara matter. Probably crazed from alcoholism, the man wouldn’t stop his criminal acts, so the community held council. Although we never found out for sure, apparently the council decided to execute him, that being the shot I’d heard.

Later that day I walked down a side canyon and found two Tarahuamara men sawing up a large pine tree with an old two-man hand saw. The Tarahuamara fell large pines to split into fence rails or planks for houses, but without power saws they do little damage cutting just a few trees per year. It’s the illegal commercial logging by drug-traffickers in the area that causes widespread environmental damage across the Sierra Madre.

We greeted each other but I was distracted by the call of an Elegant Trogan, a colorful, long-tailed bird becoming increasingly rare in the sierra. I climbed a nearby hill following its elusive sound and stumbled into a Tarahuamara burial ground. The graves were shallow trenches scraped out of the rocky soil in a small forest clearing. Logs had been placed over the graves to prevent animals from digging and each grave was surrounded by the person’s personal belongings. With the morning’s gunshot still fresh in mind, I noticed a brand new grave, a man’s, with his sombrero and jugs of tesgüino placed around it. I quietly slipped back into the forest and back to the meadow.

Meeting back up with Randy we walked towards Francisco’s ranch. Along the way we met thin and rangy Maricelo and his considerably larger wife. Maricelo was about 60-years old, his wife about ten years younger. They invited us to their house high on the rim of the Sinforosa Canyon. Like Francisco’s house, Maricelo’s was a simple wood-plank house, but his was on the rim of the Sinforosa Canyon with views all the way to the other side. When he unloaded his backpack I noticed flashlight batteries and other industrially made items. I asked him where he bought these things as there was no store in Pino Gordo and he pointed to a town (Guachochi – wah-CHOH-chee) barely visible on the opposite side of the 5,000 foot deep canyon. He said he “walked” over to Guachochi yesterday and would have returned then, but spent too much time visiting at a friend’s house and was just now returning. From his house to Guachochi is a journey greater than hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again. And Maricelo did that twice in little more than a day.

Next day, time to go home. Saying goodbye to our new friends in Pino Gordo we started the 12-hour drive back to Chihuahua. After crawling up the worst of the road from Pino Gordo we entered a wide valley of ranchland and pine forest. We stopped for a particularly refreshing swim in a river along the way, passed through the military checkpoint outside of Guadalupe y Calvo, and pulled over in a small town at dusk. Randy said there was a hot spring somewhere in this town and asked at the local store about it. We were directed to a farmhouse nearby and knocked on the door. The owner invited us to enjoy the hot springs behind the house which were contained in two very large concrete pools by a river. We couldn’t figure out if the springs were public or privately owned, but jumped in them anyway and splashed around in the warm waters for a couple hours under the moonlight before continuing on our journey, refreshed and awake.

Finally we arrived back in Parral, hungry and tired. Randy stopped at a large restaurant famous for its cabrito (kah-BREE-toe; suckling goat). We ordered the house special and were served the entire animal roasted on a platter. It was incredibly delicious.

At last we rolled into Chihuahua late at night. Dropping Jonathan and the women off at a hotel, Randy and I returned to his house. He took me to the bus station in the morning for the return trip to Seattle while we made plans to explore the depths of the Sinforosa Canyon and visit some remote areas in the deserts south of Chihuahua. Later on we made good on those plans, but that’s a story for another time.

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