On a recent trip to Mexico, I had a unique opportunity to spend time with Huichol indians and partake in their Fiesta del Tambor — a festival and religious ceremony celebrating the new corn harvest, and bringing offerings to the Huichol gods as well as initiating the Huichol children into their religion.
The trip came together out of pure serendipity, as I was visiting my friends Rafe and Laura in Mexico, when I had an opportunity to tag along with Laura, who was tagging along with the parents of a childhood friend of Rafe’s — Jack and Sandy — long time friends of a Huichol family. Laura and I met up with Jack and Sandy at night in the Guadalajara airport and from there we drove to the town of Tepíc, capital of the state of Nayarit just north of Jalisco. This is Mexico-central where the landscape alternates from rugged canyons and sierras to soft rolling fields with endless rows of blue agave — the plant that produces the heralded Tequila. The Huichols don’t live in Tepíc, but do come down from their villages in the sierra to buy goods in the local hardware stores and supermarkets, and also sell their artwork — a mixture of textile and bead work that is very colorful and quite pretty to look at. Mid day we left Tepíc for our host family’s settlement set back 10km or so off the main road. After a bumpy ride in our capable front wheel drive rental car we pulled into the village. Instantly the car was surrounded with kids, but after they all came and said hello to Jack and Sandy and met us they went back to their business of playing and hanging out. A little girl called Brisa proudly showed Laura and I the family pets, a pair of falcons found as babies. The male bird, obviously was used to Brisa, cooing gently when she walked up and not really paying too much attention when she yanked on his tail a few times, as if he were the family Labrador. Brisa’s mom yelled out from the kitchen to leave the bird alone, and later she came over to feed these impressive predators their daily meal of raw meat. Eagles (same as falcons to the indians) have important symbolical meaning in Huichol religion as they reside in the sky and their feathers impart special powers to the shaman.
Preparations for the festival were already under way when we arrived, and at night, the first ceremony kicked off and we met Joaquin, patriarch and budding shaman of the family. This was Joaquin’s first year solely conducting the Fiesta del Tambor, and his powers as a shaman and confidence of the family had yet to be garnered. The ceremony had been complicated as well by a family strife between Joaquin and his brother (who lives 20 yards away) much to his mother’s discontent. Notwithstanding his internal stresses Joaquin welcomed Laura and I and expressed his joy at us sharing the ceremony with his family. Chanting and some early offerings occurred, and the beating of the drum and the stoking of the sacred fire commenced. We were invited to participate and made offerings of corn and chocolate to the altar. We also placed corn in the fire, an important symbol for the Huichols, and throughout the night, shaman Joaquin would shake his feather-clad prayer wand called a muwieri from the fire to the heavens and back while mumbling prayers and apparently having deep exchanges of some sort. A young bull had been brought out during the day and was tied on a string nearby quietly grazing whatever he could reach. Jack clued us in that the bull was to be slaughtered by knife at some point late in the night. At one point the whole party got up and gathered around the bull, now a little spooked by the sudden attention and probably wondering what we wanted from him. As Joaquin chanted the group passed around the ceremonial knife that we all flashed to the chosen bovine. As I showed this animal its tool of imminent death, I couldn’t help but notice the knife seemed kind of shiny and cheap, more of decoration quality, but I guessed it would have to do the job. The group moved back to the fire and the drum, and the bull went back to grazing. Laura and I vowed to try to stay awake for the slaughter, but I went to bed not a 100% convinced I wanted to watch. I, in fact, did not get up, but was awakened in the night by a long protesting mooing – a swift death it was not.
The following day was marked by a ceremony involving the young children of the settlement. The children perform this spiritual voyage the first seven years by shaking their prayer rattlers for hours while the Shaman goes around and performs some rituals on them. I was impressed how these young children sat still on a chair in the sun for so long without much protest. The night held some more chanting, and fire, and drumbeating though the energy level wasn’t quite what it had been the day before. The heat of the daytime ceremony and the continuous praying and ceremony leading had left the shaman and his troupe exhausted.
The final day, a Sunday, made me think of Christmas. It was a day where the extended family and village friends gathered and exchanged offerings and gifts. Joaquin’s brother also came, and it was clear this was an emotional healing for both of them. Everybody received a portion food offerings and took them to be blessed by Joaquin. The food we ate consisted of squash, elote (corn), and jerked bull. the corn was dry and chewy but very tasty, and the squash tasted delicious. The woman had also been brewing a corn beer called tesguino, a wild-fermentation, acidic, and mildly alcoholic beverage that looks like café con leche. Most of it was hard to get down, but all the women came around with their bucket (as in the plastic rubbermaid kind) and spooned out a teacup’s worth expecting you to down it. I was sure I would have some dire intestinal effects following this force feeding, but all turned out all right in the end.
At the end of the weekend, I felt truly privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with such a gracious group in their special time, and felt very grateful for our new friends Jack and Sandy’s who shared so freely their garnered knowledge of the Huichols. Thank you both, and Laura for letting me tag along!
You can read more about Huichols here:
I got smart on my way up the Baja peninsula and took my time to see some neat spots. My first stop was Loreto, BCS — home of the first mission of the Californias. I rented a little room above a hardware store for the night and enjoyed a hot shower. The next morning, I took a walk around this picturesque town, and enjoyed an eggs with cactus breakfast while watching the tourists and locals.
On my way down the coast, I had put a few x’s on my map where I wanted to camp on the way north, and when I reached the turn that brought me to Bahía Concepción I looked over that gorgeous bay with a lustful eye. At about kilometer marker 94.5 there is a sliver of a beach called Playa Requesón. I rolled down the dirt road to the beach to have some lunch if nothing else, but lo and behold someone was on the beach with a kite! It turned out Kristine and Kevin, fellow kiters/hobos, had stopped here on their way North from La Ventana. I quickly decided to camp for the night and set up my gear for a session on some of the most gorgeous water the Sea of Cortez has to offer. Being out on the water by myself with no other vessel around for miles felt pretty neat, but also made me ride pretty conservatively. Kevin was my only backup, if something were to go wrong.
Here’s just a few more photos of kiting and arroyo life. While kiting I got the chance to see some great wildlife up close including a 20-lb tuna, a turtle, a sea lion biting a big trumpet fish in half, and various other birds and such. The kite is pretty low-impact so you don’t generally spook wildlife. It occurred to me it might be a neat way to go spearfishing (for advanced kiters only).
When a multi-day lull threatened our kite fun, the arroyo council met, and we decided we should go for a road trip. I really wanted to snorkel Cabo Pulmo — a marine sanctuary with live coral reefs off the east coast of the cape, and Jess recommended we stop by Todos Santos,a quaint albeit somewhat touristy town on the west coast. We ended driving a three-day, counterclockwise loop around the cape enjoying beautiful views and gorgeous beaches and taking time to get to know the local wildlife.
I was cruising around town when I happened to read a poster flopping in the wind advertising a Lucha Libra in El Sargento. This announcement was great cause for excitement for me. Based on past experiences with Lucha Vavoom in Los Angeles I figured we were in for a party! Mexican wrestling — small town style. We started the evening with some pre-fight margaritas and activities on the beach, and then headed on down el estadio de beisbol (baseball — get it?) to see “Murciélago” take on “Steel Dragon” and many others.
We showed up at six sharp looking for food and fight inside the stadium. The ring was set up roughly on the pitching mound, and surrounded by hundreds of Corona Extra lawn chairs. The first fight wasn’t made up of a lucha libre battle, but instead what appeared to be a junior club boxing match. The junior fights continued with real boxing and clean calls by the referee. It was obvious these kids trained together and their camaraderie predated this event. The whole thing reminded me of a high school basketball game — the family atmosphere, concession stand and teams traveling in group. While entertaining, this wasn’t exactly what we had come to see — I took the opportunity to get some bistec ranchero and knock back a few Pacificos — those came in handy after biting into a particularly spicy roasted pepper.
Then came the real show — the likes of “The Fly” and “Vengador Águila” started performing some sweet trash talking and the throwing of bodies commenced. I think my favorite luchador was “El Hijo de Porky” — a very rotund guy who I envisioned was a truck driver or something by day and actually did very little fighting but talked a lot of shit. At one point there was a climax consisting of a fight between just about all the fighters among the chairs that really got the Mexican crowd going with jeers and laughter. I later talked to a lady whose brother runs the La Paz Lucha Libre, and she thought the El Sargento one was ‘cheezzy’ and that in La Paz you could get the real deal. Either way, I had some great laughs and excellent tacos, bistec, and hot dogs (with mayo and hot sauce…what?).
Well, I didn’t last long at the campground. The brackish water and questionable hygiene in the bathrooms made the 90 pesos/day fee seem kind of steep ($7) especially when you can buy dinner for half that. I met some cool people who were living in one of the arroyos (dry river bed) just bordering the camp ground, so I pulled up stakes and joined the gang.
Life in the arroyo is pretty relax with a nice sense of community. We share a communal kitchen between about seven of us, and also have a crow’s nest palapas hang out to have morning coffee, and see who is getting some sick air on the water in the afternoon. An additional feature of the swanky arroyo that is now my home is “La Casa de Vapor” — a makeshift steam room, that is a wood-fired contraption of hoses, an old gas tank, some plywood and a tarp. After a hard day of kiting it feels nice to get nice and steamy with some of your fellow kiters. Once you let go of your claustrophobic penchant and crawl into the three-foot tall structure you can relax in a beach chair in the blue light of a headlamp and eucalyptus vapors coming from fresh-cut leaves.
The daily rhythm is pretty consistent except for the occasional party or outing. Get up at sunrise, enjoy coffee and swap “how I cut my foot” stories, make some breakfast, and then just wait for the wind to come up — a good time to do some chores. Then in the afternoon, we kite until our legs start giving out. At night we go get some ballenas (one liter bottles of Pacifico) and head on over to Poncho Amigos or Pablo’s for some tasty tacos or papas rellenas. Pura vida!
So far I love this place. It has been honking the last two days, so much so that I had to sit out this afternoon due to my 12 meter kite being too large. The campground is a nice mix of people who are all here for the same purpose — riding the wind…
Here’s a couple of shots of my camp and kiting:
About an hour into my second leg down the Baja peninsula, I realized I may not make it to La Ventana by nightfall. As I mentioned before, nighttime driving in Baja is a bad, bad idea, so I settled on the destination of La Paz as another midpoint. Well rested after a solid ten hours of sleep in my little casita at Gary’s B&B in San Ignacio I picked up the pace a little. Driving the windy roads in the mountains is a lot of fun, but I was taking the passing of trucks very seriously, as almost every sharp turn has at least one little cross and some flowers, and several times I noticed burnt out car wrecks in the bottom of ravines. Armed with some empanadas de datiles (dates) I drove nonstop for most of the day save the occasional vista stop and mark on the map for camp spots on the way home.
Why the hurry you ask? Because the wind is killer in La Ventana right now, and the season is ending at the end of the month. I figured I can get some exploration in later on in my trip if the wind dies in LV.
By about 5 pm I reached La Paz — the biggest city I had seen since Ensenada — they even have a Sam’s club, and a Home Depot! Because there was an hour of daylight left, I pushed on to La Ventana. The last stretch of road turned out to be the most perilous. The 286 highway is riddled with serious potholes — the type that will remove your wheels from your vehicle — so the going was slow, but I made it safe and sound.
After 500+ miles of driving due south, I am resting my bones in the beautiful little oasis of San Ignacio. I left San Diego at first dawn to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. Night time driving in Baja is not recommended due to poorly marked roads, free roaming cattle, drunk drivers, and then there’s some banditos rumored to be around too. This guy from Oregon who bummed some gas from me told me it was better to cross the border around 7 am because that’s when the guard changes. I indeed must have caught the end of the night shift, as I breezed through the aduana without any troubles.
When I drove through Ensenada it started raining to my dismay. I read online that six bridges were out due to heavy rains the previous few weeks, so the prospect of taking my ‘not-so-Baja-500’ VW Passat through torrents in the arroyos didn’t thrill me too much. Luckily most of those bridges had been restored and the one arroyo I had to drive through was dry.
I passed some beautiful landscapes reminiscent of the Sonora desert near Tucson. Springtime in the desert is pretty with flowering cacti, and bright green colors dispersed among the red rock. The large Valle de los Cirios is like a giant rock garden filled with majestic Saguaros — some pretty large as can be seen int he pic where my car is close to one.
Originally I had planned to spend the night in Guerrero Negro, but that place was knocked so badly by one travel guide, and it turned out to be in the middle of a sandstorm when I passed through that I decided to push on to San Ignacio home of an old mission(one of the many on the peninsula) and a date palm oasis. I found a little Cabana rented to me by a Canadian ex-pat named Gary (aka Geronimo) who keeps either hockey or the Canadian weather report on the TV at all times (I guess to remind himself why he is here). A great find and nice and hidden so nobody busts into my car loaded with camping gear. Next stop La Ventana!