Mind Scraps: The Legendary Tarahumara

It’s been all about delving deep into the rabbit hole today. I’ve been investigating a visit to the Chihuahua region of Mexico. I knew next to nothing about Mexico’s largest state/department before this morning. Now, I am pretty darn stoked about the region’s highlights:

  • 1. Home to Mexico’s two largest waterfalls – one of which is the 10th largest in the world

2. The Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a river/canyon system larger and more magnificent than the Grand Canyon lies in the Sierra Tarahumara

3. The Tarahumara people are an indigenous population that lives in the mountains. They are legendary runners and are considered among the best runners in the world – running on scraps of tire laced with leather. The Tarahumara have managed to keep much of its ancient pre-Spanish rituals and traditions alive by fleeing deep into the nearly inaccessible gorges of the Sierra Tarahumara. They still live in caves and adobe huts.

I’ve compiled a massive collection of notes about the Tarahumara:

For at least 2,000 years the Tarahumara have lived in the mountains of northern Mexico, resisting outside intrusion by retreating, when necessary, to ever more inaccessible territory. In this way the Tarahumara have been better able to retain their traditions than many native peoples in North America.

The Sierra Tarahumara, is an immense and diverse region spanning the south and west areas of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It is home to North America’s tallest waterfall, Basaseachi, and also its deepest gorge, Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), which is visited by tourists who ride the Chihuahua-Pacifico train.

…The Tarahumara continue to live much as they have for centuries because of their separation and the difficulties in reaching them. They are a people rich in culture, dedicated to their families and extended families, who live in widely scattered collections of small adobe houses or caves. (Radio Tarahumara)

When it comes to the top 10 health risks facing American men, the Tarahumara are practically immortal: Their incidence rate is at or near zero in just about every category, including diabetes, vascular disease, and colorectal cancer. Age seems to have no effect on them, either: The Tarahumara runner who won the 1993 Leadville ultramarathon was 55 years old. Plus, their supernatural invulnerability isn’t just limited to their bodies; the Tarahumara have mastered the secret of happiness as well, living as benignly as bodhisattvas in a world free of theft, murder, suicide, and cruelty.

So how do they do it? How is it that we, in one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, can devote armies of scientists and terabytes of data to improving our lives, yet keep getting fatter, sicker, and sadder, while the Tarahumara, who haven’t changed a thing in 2,000 years, don’t just survive, but thrive? What have they remembered that we’ve forgotten?…

Alejandro leads us behind a cluster of cacti, where we find a tiny, three-sided hut, with nothing else in sight in any direction. As far as Tarahumara settlements go, this is about as bustling as it gets; the Tarahumara are even reclusive with each other, keeping their homes concealed and a holler’s distance apart. “The Tarahumara are so bashful, even between husbands and wives, that if they didn’t get drunk, they might not be able to perpetuate the race,” one anthropologist notes…

I don’t understand it: How come they’re not hobbled by overuse injuries? How do they get away with pounding beers and all that carb-loaded pinole? And I have no idea what any of this has to do with cancer, suicide, and stroke: Even if there is a magical, bulletproofing benefit to being in amazing shape, how are the Tarahumara pulling it off with a diet and training worse than mine?

Then, the Tarahumara tell me about a stranger named White Horse. A lone runner of the High Sierra, “Caballo Blanco” often visits the village during his long, rambling journeys through the mountains. When I track Caballo down, he turns out to be an American named Micah True. Ten years ago, True met a Tarahumara runner at an ultramarathon in Colorado, and it changed his life forever. Shortly after the race, he left behind his life in America to move down here, slowly turning himself into the world’s only gringo. (Adapted from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, Men’s Health Magazine: The Men Who Live Forever)

Micah invited me to stay and film the race which would be held the following weekend. He told me about the Tarahumara Indians who come to participate in the race. They call themselves “Raramuri” which means “fast runner” in their language. They are known as being some of the best long distance runners in the world and he organized the race as a way of encouraging them to keep their tradition of running alive. I told Micah that I would consider returning to Urique to film the race, but first I had some exploring to do in the canyons. (Vagabiker: It’s all downhill from here…)

I left Urique a day later than I anticipated. Riding back up the spectacular cliff edge road, the temperature gradually dropped until once again I was at 6,000 feet of elevation in the cool and refreshing pine forests. I went back through Cerocaui, and found roads that took me to San Rafael, where the pavement began again. A short while later I stopped in Divisidero, where the Chihuahaua Pacifico (called the “Chepe”) train stops so that the visitors can get off the train and see a view of the canyon below. The train ride itself is supposed to be quite spectacular as it traverses the canyon country across a number of bridges and through many tunnels. Ironically, the stop at Divisidero is the only place where the train riders can actually see the canyon itself. It only stops for twenty minutes and I witnessed the parade of tourists get off the train, run through the gauntlet of Tarahumara Indians selling their crafts, take a few pictures of the canyon and then get back on the train and leave. I felt like my own experience was the inverse of theirs. While they had been spending all of their time onboard the train, with just twenty minutes to see the actual canyon itself, I had been spending all of my time in the canyon, and had just twenty minutes to see the train.(Vagabiker: Creel, The “Hub” of the Copper Canyon)

I couldn’t tell who was in the lead for most of the day. What really inspired me however, was noticing that there were several Raramuri women in the race. They were wearing their traditional pleated skirts, even in the marathon. Many of the Raramuri were also wearing huraches, sandals made out of recycled rubber tire treads with leather fastenings. Not surprisingly, most of the gringos favored their expensive, high-tech, running shoes. (Vegabiker: Caballo Blanco – 2009 Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon)

Excerpts from National Geographic’s A People A Part by Cynthia Gorney

Each star in the night sky is a Tarahumara Indian whose souls—men have three and women have four, as they are the producers of new life—have all, finally, been extinguished…

Rarámuri means “foot-runner” or “he who walks well,” and they’ve been known to irritate American ultramarathoners by beating them while wearing huarache sandals and stopping now and then for a smoke…

Their traditional economy is conducted by means of barter, not cash; they have a word for sharing that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish or English: “kórima,” a Tarahumara woman may say, opening her palm for what a chabochi would call charity. There will be no thank you for the proffered coin, though, as kórima implies the obligation to distribute wealth for the benefit of everyone…

By the most recent government count, 106,000 Tarahumara live in Mexico, making them one of the largest indigenous groups in North America; the majority still live in relative isolation in the area Mexico promotes as Copper Canyon, but both the place-name and the image of its inhabitants sketched by tourist outfits (“They live a simple life undisturbed by modern technologies,” reads one online write-up) turn out to be fragments, understatements, misleading in the neatness of their packaging.

The Copper Canyon itself, for example, or Barranca del Cobre, is actually only one of a dozen massive canyons in this part of the Sierra Madre. Several of them are deeper than the Grand Canyon. And chabochi commerce, legal and illegal, is pushing hard into all of them. The narco industry is increasing its use of the canyons for marijuana and opium poppy cultivation, displacing Tarahumara families from their corn, bean, and squash fields. Government efforts to bring roads and schoolbooks into Tarahumara communities are also bringing cheap tequila, thugs with guns, and all the chatarra, as Mexicans call junk food, hardy enough to stack up in makeshift general stores with no electricity. Traditional Tarahumara men wear wide headbands and loin coverings that leave their legs bare even when it’s freezing, but many more now wear blue jeans and cowboy hats, and pointy-toed boots in leather dyed to match their belts. Most Tarahumara women still wear multicolored head scarves and long skirts of flowery prints or deep-hued pleats or billowy pastels gathered into scallops like fancy window drapes. But some now wear blue jeans too…

The Copper Canyon development plan is full of uncertainty and controversy—the airport construction has already been delayed many times, and environmental arguments continue, especially since the whole Sierra region suffers from periodic drought. (Promises of ecological sensitivity weren’t going over well last spring, when everybody I met, including government officials, knew that one already existing hotel had for years been dumping its raw sewage into the nearest canyon; the owner, who insists septic repairs are under way, happens to be a former state tourism director…)

Tarahumara religious practice had morphed into an intensely held juxtaposition, Catholic liturgy combined with ancient faith, that prevails now in much of the Sierra Madre. Things happen in the canyons during Semana Santa that would startle most Christian outsiders coming upon them for the first time—there’s a Judas-in-effigy part a newcomer might fret about allowing a small child to watch; and the Pharisees, the pious Jews of the biblical era, assume primary roles in a pageant of running, drumming, dancing, drinking, and battle. It makes for powerful spectacle, the men sometimes painting their faces and torsos in fierce pointillist arrangements of white against skin, and every spring the weeklong ceremonies attract thousands of visitors to the Sierra…

I had heard one of the Jesuits remark that the expanding network of truck-navigable roads was causing the Tarahumara to lose their walking and running endurance over long distances, and now with my mouth full of tortilla in the golden light of the stove fire, I found myself envisioning electricity in Guagüeyvo as a pileup of metallic chabochi objects with cords sticking out—push-button grinders, digital clocks, hair dryers, the new black refrigerator, TVs broadcasting telenovelas between commercials for mascara and laundry soap.

The geography that made the Tarahumara’s lands so inaccessible to conquerors, though, made them irresistible to a succession of plunderers. The peaks and canyons contained silver and other minerals, which drew miners as early as the 17th century. The forests attracted loggers, who leveled the trees and eventually—under the initial leadership of a late 1800s American engineer—got a railway built to carry out the spoils. The construction effort lasted almost 80 years; the completed track that winds through the Sierra Madre, with its high bridges and multiple tunnels, is a marvel of railway engineering. These days the logs are brought out by truck (still in reckless numbers, logging critics say, despite their admonitions about the degradation of the forest), and the principal train now using the Sierra track is called the Chihuahua Pacífico, or more familiarly, the Chepe. It’s pronounced CHEH-peh, and its main job is hauling tourists.

Tarahumara and other locals ride the second-class Chepe regularly, en route to the towns or seasonal fruit-picking jobs just beyond the mountains. But the real Chepe money comes from outsiders, Mexican and foreign, who crane their necks out the railcar half-doors and disembark at the overlooks, where the first full view of the canyons is so astonishing, such a dizzying display—the Copper label isn’t from the mineral, but rather from the luminous colors of the massive sunlit cliffs—that the next exploitable resource is obvious: grandeur. You’re standing there blinking, taking it in, thinking: This is too beautiful. There are too many people with money who want a piece of this, including the entire development-hungry nation of Mexico. It’s not a fair fight…

The Tarahumara do much of their running in a traditional form of Rarámuri competition, people gathering to bet livestock or other possessions on the outcome. The men race in staggeringly long trail runs, wearing huaraches or barefoot, while steadily kicking a baseball-size wooden sphere. When the women run, they fling and catch hoops with long sticks as they go, and that’s how the girls and young women were running through the streets of Chihuahua, huaraches slapping the pavement, skirts flapping at their calves. Behind the cheering spectators, who looked to be their aunts and grandmothers, the wagered goods were heaped hip high: a mound of Rarámuri garments, brilliant as jockey silks…

There are teachers and carpenters inside the tiny apartments of Rarámuri enclaves, and resident elders respectfully deferred to for community leadership, and university students majoring in anthropology or industrial engineering. But there are also narco workers, everybody knows that, and teenage boys slouched against the walls with their caps turned backward, and glue sniffers and beggars, and girls having babies at 13, and diabetes cases to go along with the junk-food obesity and the alta presión. These aren’t entirely urban scourges, either; in Guagüeyvo I met a young chabochi doctor who kept a clinic wall chart of malnutrition cases in children under five—60 such cases as of this past spring, he told me, the combined consequence of poverty, depleted crops, and alcoholic parents too dulled by corn brew or trucked-in liquor to understand that their children are not getting enough to eat.

“The life of the Tarahumara has changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 300,” a Creel priest named Pedro Juan de Velasco Rivero told me…

Outside of the state tourism office it’s hard to find anyone in Chihuahua who believes wholeheartedly in the Copper Canyon development blueprint, with its vast glass-and-steel canyon-rim scaffolding and its enthusiastic estimates of the size of the potential visitor market: 7.2 million from the U.S., one brochure declares in headline, another 5.5 million from Mexico. But I heard chabochis and even a few Tarahumara say the region could use this economic boost—some built-up tourist facilities and a local commercial airport. Poverty is not noble, one Creel hotel owner said heatedly, even when it lives in splendid canyons and dresses in beautiful skirts.

To which the priests reply: Jobs cleaning hotel rooms, with pretty paintings of Tarahumara on the lobby walls, are no advancement at all. “Don’t pretend these are projects to help the Tarahumara,” de Velasco said crisply. “They’re to attract tourists and increase private profits. A ‘Tarahumara village’ is an absurdity—a lie, really. A gondola over the canyon would be a desecration. And this is an area without water; one new hotel will use more in a day than what a Tarahumara family consumes in a year. With what the government is preparing to invest for hotels, they could bring potable water to all the Tarahumara, which would be much more useful to them than creating a fake village where they can sell things…”

Semana Santa rituals had been explained to me by anthropologists, by Tarahumara in other communities, by relatives in Fidencia’s kitchen, and there wasn’t much overlap in the explanations. The drumming, for example: It starts up three weeks before Semana Santa, all over the Sierra Madre, and a soft-voiced woman stirring lunch stew at a Rarámuri school had told me the sound keeps God from dozing off, because the devil comes nearest this time of the year.

When I tried this on Fidencia, she replied along the lines of, “Isn’t that interesting,” in a let’s-humor-the-chabochi sort of way, and shrugged. We drum because it’s time to drum, she said, sounding exactly like my grandmothertrying to remember why a wine glass gets stomped on at the end of Jewish weddings. The Pharisees applying paint to their bodies; the costumed soldiers carrying decorated wooden swords; the shoulder-borne bowers containing Jesus and the Virgin; the straw effigy of Judas—startlingly shaped, one can’t help but notice, to suggest the recent ingestion of a lot of Viagra—these are Semana Santa elements replicated all over the Sierra Madre, the crucifixion story superimposed upon planting-season ceremonies, good-over-evil catharsis, and a pre-Christian reverence for the rain, the sun, the moon…

Lorena has no enthusiasm for the Copper Canyon development plan; room-cleaning jobs are not what her people need, she said, and she feels a little queasy when she sees the Rarámuri handicraft sellers looking solemn and colorful while the tourists take their pictures. But her reasons are fundamentally unsentimental: They don’t make enough money at it. They ought to charge more than they do. And their children ought to be in school. And they ought to stop teaching their sons how to drink…

Judas burned on Saturday morning. The vats of corn brew were dragged into the open, drinking began at first light, and hot pozole, corn stew made with a slaughtered goat and rabbits caught by Pharisees on the trail the day before, was dished from giant barrels outside a house up the canyon from Lorena’s. (“I would walk with you on the trails this afternoon to homes you are unable to see from here,” one of Lorena’s cousins said courteously, handing me a dish of pozole and a gourd of the corn brew, “but I plan to be extremely drunk.”) Then everybody tramped to the churchyard. The effigy was dragged to an open place, a black baseball cap on its head, and a half dozen drunk men fell upon it, shouting, kicking, ripping at the limbs. Finally someone put a match to Judas, and when there was nothing left but ashes and charred bits of straw, the drunk men stood back unsteadily, breathing hard.

Someone cried, “¿Ahora qué hacemos?”

Lorena broke up laughing. She shot me a look. She squeezed her five-year-old’s shoulders and repeated this, loudly. “¿Ahora qué hacemos?—What do we do next?” (National Geographic Magazine: A People Apart)

As simple as it sounds, the race and running programs have a fundamental impact on quality of life for the Raramuri. When communities in the region see the strength and beauty of a Raramuri runner, they respond with new respect for people they have considered lower class. And when the government sees them as a cultural asset, they are less likely to neglect or pressure them in ways that place their survival in jeopardy. Finally, but most fundamentally, when Raramuri see themselves as respected and valued, they are further encouraged to sustain their culture themselves, passing it along to the next generation. (By Will Harlan Blue Ridge Outdoors:The Running People)

Trailer for Super Athletes of the Sierra Madre:


UNTIL he met a reclusive tribe of near-mythical athletes at the bottom of a Mexican canyon, Micah True could never figure out why his running injuries got worse as his running shoes got better. Then, the Tarahumara Indians taught him a lesson that even Nike is now starting to embrace: the best shoe may be no shoe at all. (New York Times: Kick of Your Shoes and Run Awhile by Chris McDougall)

It is January. While Creel shivers under a thin covering of snow, and icy winds knife their way under your skin and into your bones, the bottom of the canyon yawns and stretches blissfully in the subtropical warmth…

I’ve visited some of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals in my time: Chartres, Canterbury, Cologne, and like Copper Canyon, they all seem to start with the letter C, for colossal, captivating, charming and so on, because the Copper Canyon is like a cathedral in more than just its magnificence. It is a humbling place to be; awesome in the true sense of the word. If you’re so inclined, it makes you aware of the power of the Creator; if you don’t believe in Creators, then the stunning beauty of what fills your eye at every turn of the trail will remind you of the wonder of nature and how damn lucky you are right now this minute to be there…

When we hit the flatland at the top of the canyon we run, cruising at a happy canter through the undulating forest, reveling in the shade, the cool, humid air and the soft, springy trail until the forest thins and the gaping void of the Batopilas Canyon stretches out before us…

It’s a gigantic boulder with a flat top, and when you climb up onto it, like kids into a tree house, you can see out over the Batopilas Canyon, looking down over the winding descent we are about to undertake. And off we go again, leaving the enchanted forest to drop down onto the mean, ankle-hating, sunbeaten trail. This is where you need to concentrate, concentrate and concentrate harder. Focus on keeping your thighs strong as they are thumped into submission by the steep downslopes; focus on what lies underfoot as gravity drags your feet down fast onto evil rocks and ridges. And this is where any deadening of the spirit from fatigue is offset by the profound beauty of the canyon. How can you not keep going when all around is such massive natural energy? And a magical moment that almost robs me of speech: half-way down the canyon, rounding a bend that juts out into thin air, in front of me a flock of emerald-green parrots clatter through the sky, the sunlight bouncing off their wings. The green against the red ochre of the canyon against the searing blue of the sky is still etched on my mind. (Crazy for the Copper Canyon by Huw Davies)

They are often reluctant to be photographed, there are very few images of the Tarahumara running in their natural environment. (Barranca de Cobre)

A new organization dedication themselves to the preservation of the Tarahumara cultura and their beautiful terrain:
Friends of the Running People/Norawas de Rarámuri

Trailer for Light Feet:

The story of Tepo, a Raramuri boy, guiding his mother and baby brother through the mountains to civilization. What are they looking for? What are they running away from? Premonitions, dreams and memories unfold inside this boy’s head as he gets closer to the unknown.

Shot against the stunning Mexican landscape, LIGHT FEET is a moving story about the magic of childhood, and the timeless teachings of the Raramuris, more commonly known as the Tarahumaras.



Before I put my screen-sore eyes to rest, I must make note: Fer and I didn’t connect online tonight. There are things I would really like to tell him. Already my day feels not quite complete without having spoken to him. As they say in Spanish “me hace falta.”

I was full of doubt last night. Not about him… but about my wanderlust mixing with his admirable but more sedentary lifestyle. Upon waking this morning though, my doubts were dissolved. An innocent Google probe into the region of Chihuahua and it was mere minutes before my next adventure began materializing most clearly before me. An indigenous people whose culture and customs -for the most part – are remarkably true to pre-Colonial influence. A photojournalist’s dream. Their legendary for the capacity to run… for days… without injury. My own longing to re-engage my commitment to a tougher running regimen. An ultra-marathon showcasing it all… in than three weeks.

In an uncanny coincidence, I read an article and discover that I’m already connected to the race organizer, famed Caballo Blanco – the gringo that has entered the world of the Tarahumara. I already have emails from him in my inbox though I’ve never written to him… specifically. My friend who is spearheading the Fuego y Agua ultramarathon in Nicaragua – a project which I’ve published articles about – is friends with Caballo. Caballo supports FYA. Thus, Caballo and I have been communicating through the FYA Google group. Further digging reveals Caballo is helping develop a new NGO, one that launched in 2009. They have a Website… complete and void of content. I do content. A quick email to Josue and less than two hours later I’m speaking with one of the founders of the NGO. No budget now, but soon… am I still interested in being involved? Absolutely. Money is not going to stop me. Are you up for a trade – work for costs? Believes it can be arranged…

Then, a random Facebook message: A girl from the earlier days of my most recent Guatemalan trip. Since her departure from Guate our communication – always warm and friendly – has, nonetheless, been sparse. Her message comes from the deep south of Texas – San Antonio. In lesser words, she asks: “Up for Mexico?”

I smile. Oh girl… my bags are already packed. Though, I might be heading out a bit quicker than you expected. Mind if show up on your doorstep for a quick stopover? I’m taking the bus…

Do I feel crazy? 100%. And oh how that invigorates me. Besides, there’s no point in resisting what life lays out so perfectly before you – like a thoughtful mother laying out her child’s school clothes for the next morning. I simply punched Camarga, MX into Google. Life did the rest. Life that I’ve already lived. It’s such a beautiful moment when the twists, curves and doubling-back in life all suddenly take a familiar shape. In this moment you laugh – laugh at yourself for all the pointless head-scratching and tense arms flailing in frustration. In one instant… poof… it’s all so clear.

All this… is what I was wanting to share with Fernando. He is most certainly the key catalyst. And the adventure has already been set into motion. The question I wish to know is… will he be more than just the catalyst? Admittedly, I’m hoping he’ll be my key collaborator… amidst my signature locura.

Que rico!

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