The Sierra Tarahumara may be one of the few places left in North America that is virtually devoid of Internet access. That will explain why I haven’t been online in four days … I’ve just returned to the pueblo of El Fuerte after a brief visit to this rugged region of mountains and canyons.
Layered across the Sierra Madre Occidental in northern Mexico, incised by the Barranca del Cobre (the Copper Canyon) and other chasms 8,000 feet deep or more, this is the homeland of the Tarahumara Indians. The Tarahumara have lived here for hundreds of years, long before Spanish Jesuit missions first sent parties north from Mexico City to convert the savages. Their culture was then, and remains, one of subsistence … of scratching a living from poor earth, growing corn, hunting deer with bows and arrows, and in recent centuries tending small numbers of barnyard stock.
A primary source of income today is selling traditional crafts to tourists who enter the Tarahumara realm via the Copper Canyon Railroad. Women and children, in particular — brilliantly clad in hand-loomed, luminescent greens, oranges, reds, blues and whites — unfurl their wares beside train stops, outside hotels and at roadside stops. Finely woven basketry ranges from barely thumb-sized to several feet high. There’s also jewelry, wood crafts, masks, musical instruments (violins and flutes) and handsome shawls and scarves.
So seemingly ubiquitous are these people—estimates of whose population ranges from about 7,000 to more than 60,000—that a traveler is reminded of the omnipresent Navajo vendors of Arizona and New Mexico. But a canyon hike and a horseback ride off the beaten tourist track allowed me a glimpse of the more traditional Tarahumara culture.
Near San Ignacio, I met Maria Vega, the matron of a pair of families who have lived in the Cueva de Sebastian for five generations. Maria said 20 people live in her cave, which faces upon a field of harvested corn and a wall of additional caves … some of them homes, others used as storage for corn or farm implements. And although Maria speaks some Spanish, that is not her native language. It is a native dialect called Raramuri.
On a boulder-strewn hillside known as the Valle de los Hongos (Valley of the Mushrooms) for its unusual rock formations, I witnessed demonstrations of traditional Tarahumara sports. Known as the “people of light feet,” this culture is famed for its runners, who can travel swiftly for days, wearing only sandals, along precipitous mountain trails better suited for wild goats. In one game (rarjiparo), teams of men kick or hit a baseball-sized ball with a stick as they chase it for up to 40 hours. A related women’s game (dowerami) involves chasing rope quoits tossed with pointed sticks.
Tomorrow: Riding the Copper Canyon Railroad