Feb 182017
 

The Naica caves, in the northern state of Chihuahua are home to the world’s largest natural crystals. The crystals are selenite, said to enhance sex drive.

The formation of the crystals caves is described in more detail below, but in February 2017, Penelope Boston, head of Nasa’s Astrobiology Institute announced that “bizarre and ancient microbes” had been found in these caves. The discovery came after nine years of work and was first announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston. The life forms in the Naica caves survive by living on minerals such as iron and manganese and could be 50,000 years old. The find is still subject to peer-review and independent confirmation:

How were the crystals discovered?

Early in 2001, news emerged of a truly extraordinary discovery in caverns deep under the earth in the state of Chihuahua. Miners tunneling through the Naica Hills, south of Chihuahua City, in search of silver and zinc, found huge mineral crystals, far larger than any natural crystals previously seen anywhere else on the planet.

Massive crystals in Naica Cave, Chihuahua

Massive crystals in Naica Cave, Chihuahua. Photo credit: Speleoresearch Archive and Films La Venta

The monster crystals, over six meters long, are made of selenite, a crystalline form of the mineral gypsum (the number one ingredient in blackboard chalk!). For its pale translucence, this form of gypsum is known as selenite, named after Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon.

The largest crystals are over 11 meters long, and weigh more than 55 tons. Scientists believe they have found DNA from ancient bacterial life trapped in air bubbles inside the crystals.

The crystals formed when the caverns were completely filled with hot water (warmer than 50 degrees C) supersaturated with calcium sulphate (gypsum) for very long periods of time. The estimated growth rate, confirmed by uranium-thorium dating, is 1.5 mm per 1000 years, which means that the longest crystals took more than 500,000 years to form.

The engineer working for the mining company Peñoles that first reported these caves believes that many more caves probably exist, but stresses that they would never have been located at all if it had not been for the mine’s massive pumps (pumping more than 16,000 gallons of water out each minute) working round the clock for years. This pumping has lowered the water table from 100 meters below the surface to about 300 meters in the area of the mines. Since the caverns have been drained, the crystals are no longer growing, and the temperatures in the cavern have fallen by about 0.5 degrees C each year.

The Naica (“shady place”) hills have been actively mined for more than a century. Even though early prospectors discovered silver here in 1794, the first formal mining claim was not made until a century later in 1896, by one Santiago Stoppelli, and large scale mining only began in 1900.

Ten years later, super-large sword-shaped crystals of selenite were found in a cavern at a depth of 120 meters. Over the years, a steady stream of geologists and mineral collectors have visited this 70-meter-diameter cave, since renamed the Cave of the Swords, which is now equipped with paths, lights and a ventilation system. Even with this system, the temperature in the cave is a stifling 40 degrees C! Several typical examples of selenite crystals from this cave, ranging in length from 1.2 to 1.6 meters (4 to 4.25 feet), are displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

But these specimens from the Cave of the Swords are small fry in size when compared with the latest discoveries, 300 meters below the surface, in the Cave of the Crystals. In two relatively small chambers, each the size of a small apartment, miners found incredibly large selenite crystals, some over six meters long. The crystals combine to form massive fifteen-meter-long columns, “the size of pine trees”, as well as hundreds of formations shaped like sharks’ teeth, jutting about a meter up from the cave floor. The overall effect is, in the words of Richard Fisher, an Arizona-based photographer and adventurer, like walking into an enormous geode.

The Future

Mining operations at Naica have been in the hands of the Peñoles group since 1961 and the mine, one of the most productive in Chihuahua, still produces ample quantities of lead, silver and zinc.

Even if the silver ore is eventually worked out, Peñoles realizes that the caverns might have a very bright future as a major geo-tourist attraction. The company has not only taken steps to safeguard the crystals, but was already developing a tourism plan, which involved the installation of an air-conditioning system in the caverns, since the temperature in the Cave of Crystals is a mind-boggling 60 degrees Celsius. This heat, combined with the 100% humidity in the caverns, is so suffocating and disorienting that researchers can only safely spend a few minutes at a time studying this fantastic sight.

The harsh conditions have not deterred crystal looters who are already reported to be breaking through padlocked doors and trying to chisel prize specimens off the cave walls. This is a dangerous business and the effort proved fatal for one would-be collector when the gigantic crystal he was attempted to sever broke away from the ceiling and crushed him as it fell. The combined physical forces of Newton and Darwin caused this particular plunderer to meet his maker!

It was announced in October 2015 that Peñoles had been forced to close its Naica mine indefinitely, following its failure to reduce the level of water in the mine following a flood in January 2015. The company was seeking to redeploy more than 400 workers. In 2014, the Naica mine produced 19,694 tons of lead, 15,399 tons of zinc and 1.9 million ounces of silver (25% 6% and 3% respectively of the company’s total output of each metal).

Whether or not attempts will be made in the future to allow access to view the crystals is unknown. It is perfectly possible that other miners in the region might be lucky enough to find even bigger crystals nearby!

These cavers may never be suitable for sustainable tourism. To preserve these magnificent crystals for future generations, the decision may have to be taken to leave the caverns under water, protecting the crystals that already exist and allowing new ones to grow.

These amazing crystals are one of the latest additions to the incredible list of natural wonders that can be enjoyed in Mexico!

For truly amazing images of the crystals, watch the Discovery Channel documentary “Naica: Secrets of The Crystal Cave” (2008). Short clip on Discovery Channel.

Note:

  • This is an update of a post originally published in 2010

Mexico’s geology, relief and landforms are analyzed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy of this invaluable reference guide today!

Feb 122017
 

One of the more beautiful, unusual and useful map projections ever devised was created by cartographer Bernard Cahill. The butterfly projection was first published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1909. Cahill (1866-1944) later applied for a US patent to protect his creation.


I first came across Cahill’s projection on a stamp issued in Mexico in 1964. The design of the stamp (see image) shows his world map, an octahedral whose eight faces have been flattened into a shape resembling a butterfly. Ever since then I have wondered why such an unusual map would be chosen for a Mexican stamp that commemorated the 10th Conference of the International Bar Association (IBA), held that year in Mexico City. Coming some 20 years after the cartographer’s death, it seems an unlikely choice. So far, all my efforts to find a link between Cahill, the IBA and Mexico have drawn a blank. (Note to readers: Help needed!)

Cahill’s butterfly map, like Buckminster Fuller’s later Dymaxion Maps (1943 and 1954) enabled all the continents to appear linked, and with reasonable fidelity to a globe. Cahill demonstrated this principle by also inventing a rubber ball globe which could be placed under a pane of glass and flattened into the “Butterfly” form. When removed, the map/globe reverted to its original shape.

The original Cahill projection (1909). Credit: Gene Keyes

The original Cahill projection (1909). Credit: Gene Keyes

Largely in honor of his cartographic innovation, Cahill was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1913 he started the Cahill World Map Company, but this company was not successful and his map has since been largely forgotten by most people.

But not by cartographer Gene Keyes! Except for Cahill himself, no follower of Cahill’s projection has ever been as dedicated as Gene Keyes, a former student of Buckminster Fuller. Keyes’ website is a mine of information about Cahill and his map projection, and is well worth reading.

Born in the UK, Bernard Joseph Stanislaus Cahill (18661944) was an architect, town planner and cartographer who moved to San Francisco, California, in 1888. He was an early proponent of the San Francisco Civic Center and designed that city’s Neptune Society Columbarium.

Cahill encountered some stiff obstacles in the many years it took him to develop his butterfly projection. For example, he lost all his initial drawings and papers in the disastrous San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. At least one major publisher signed a contract to publish the butterfly map as a wall map and in an atlas, but then failed to follow through.

Cahill’s world map used for world tours

Soon after its creation, Cahill’s butterfly map was used to illustrate a flying trip around the world, or circumaviation, proposed for the Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. The map was exhibited at this exposition and won a gold medal for cartography. Some time later, the map was used by both the State of California and the City of Charleston to illustrate shipping routes.

In 1924, the American Express Company chose the map for use during a world tour aboard the Cunard ocean liner Laconia. According to Keyes, the map was prominently displayed on the Palm Deck of the ship and seen by Robert Ripley, a participant on the world tour, who later featured it in his Believe it or Not series.

Perhaps the closest Cahill came to seeing his map in more general use came in 1937, when the International Meteorological Committee apparently came within a single vote of adopting a version of his projection for all world weather charting.

No wonder, then, that in Keyes’ words, “Cahill should be seen in company with other pioneers such as Charles Babbage or Gregor Mendel, who died long before their efforts gained wider appreciation. As well, he antedates Buckminster Fuller, prophet of Spaceship Earth.”

Keyes goes on to note that, “Cahill was not merely an astute architect and cartographer, but, that like Fuller, his map expressed an underlying whole-earth philosophy much like themes which emerged 60 years later. Cahill used the term “geosophy” in that regard….” (And used it as early as 1912, well before the geographer J.K. Wright, commonly credited for having coined the term in 1947).

Will Cahill’s map ever catch on? The latest sign of renewed interest in Cahill’s projection comes from its adaptation by the New York Times as the basis for a series of 10 maps published in December 2011 illustrating the changing world of computing, communications and technology.

Keyes closes his account of Cahill’s map by quoting Ambrose Bierce, who in a letter to Cahill, wrote that, “The Butterfly Map is indubitably the right one, but it will be a long time before it gets into general use….”

Sadly, that has proved to be all too true, despite its inclusion in the design of a Mexican postage stamp.

Related posts using Mexican stamps for illustration:

Jan 302017
 

Huatulco is best known as one of Mexico’s leading tourist resorts, one of several similar large-scale, purpose-built developments partially funded by federal funds.

In 1967, responding to bullish predictions of US demand for beach vacations, Mexico’s central bank identified the five best places for completely new, purpose-built tourist resorts. Top of the list, as part of a 30-year plan, was the uninhabited barrier island now known as Cancún (see The growth of Cancún, Mexico leading tourist resort). The other choice locations were Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Loreto and Huatulco. The National Fund for Tourism Infrastructure (renamed the National Tourism Development Fund, Fonatur, in 1974) began building Cancún in 1970 and Ixtapa in 1971.

Huatulco’s site on the coast of Oaxaca had been initially identified in 1969 but the area lacked adequate transportation infrastructure until the regional highways were improved in 1982. Legal land expropriations followed; by 1984 Fonatur controlled more than 21,000 hectares (50,000 acres). In 1985 Fonatur began construction of an airport and a service town, La Crucecita, a few kilometers back from the coast. In 1986 the villagers of the coastal community of Santa Cruz were resettled in La Crucecita. Most of Huatulco’s nine bays were linked by paved road by 1987 (see map).

Sketch map of Huatulco (not to scale)

Sketch map of Huatulco (not to scale)

Fonatur took a number of steps to help the original residents adapt to the massive changes taking place around them. It built schools, held public meetings, provided medical and police services, and offered job training programs. Most people gradually adapted; some are employed in Huatulco hotels and some started their own small businesses. By 1994 Huatulco had 1905 hotel rooms and attracted 170,000 tourists, 26% of them foreign. The average length of stay was 4.22 days.

Huatulco’s growth has not been as rapid as Cancún’s. By 2006, Huatulco had 2506 rooms and played host to 312,000 tourists (15% foreign). While Cancún first attracted Mexican tourists and then foreign tourists followed (and now dominate), in Huatulco the proportion of foreign tourists has fallen as the resort has developed. The master plan for Huatulco foresees 30,000 hotel rooms and a city with an eventual population of 600,000.

As for most of its other developments, Fonatur’s construction of La Crucecita established a clear spatial and visual divide between the tourist areas on the coast and the residential areas for tourism employees, in this case on the inland side of some low hills.

So far, so good, but critics of centrally-planned, “top-down” resorts like those built by Fonatur, and of Huatulco in particular, point to the tremendous strains placed on the local inhabitants and on the local environment. We look at some of these in more detail in Villages near Huatulco, Oaxaca: a case study in the “Integrated Administration of Natural Resources”

Related posts:

Jan 242017
 

During the ten years between 2000 and 2010, Jalisco’s population increased by over a million from 6,322,002 to 7,350,355. Suburbs around Guadalajara dominated demographic change increasing by 887,301 (43.2%) to 2,940,118 (see Population change in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area). The greatest growth was in the southern suburb of Tlajomulco which grew 237% from 123,619 to 416,552. Interestingly, the population of the central city of Guadalajara decreased by 152,185 to 1,494,134.

In this post, we look at the pattern of population change for the other municipalities in the state of Jalisco. The map shows the average annual percentage change in population for the period 2000-2010. It is worth noting that the population of a place with an annual growth rate of 3% will double in about 24 years.

Map of population change in Jalisco

Population change in Jalisco, 2000-2010. Copyright Tony Burton. Click image to enlarge.

What other areas of Jalisco are growing fastest?

Puerto Vallarta, the other major urban area in the state, grew by 38% to 255,725. The northern suburbs of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Nayarit grew even faster. The other major ex-pat area around Lake Chapala grew more slowly. Chapala grew by 12.4% to 48,812, Jocotepec by 18.0% to 42,142, while Poncitlan increased by 18.6% to 48,407.

Jalisco grew by 16.3% during the decade or an average increase of about 1.5% per year. But rates of population growth varied greatly from one area to another.

As indicated in the map, many of the isolated rural municipalities in the state actually declined in population (yellow-green and yellow areas). While births in these rural communities generally exceeded deaths, they experienced significant out migration.

In addition, many other rural communities in western Jalisco grew slowly at less than 1% per year (light pink on the map). Most of the communities in eastern Jalisco grew 1 – 2% about the same rate as the state as a whole.

Surprisingly, three of the most isolated municipalities in far northern Jalisco grew rapidly at over 3% per year. These municipalities are home to many indigenous Huichol Indians. Only relatively low numbers of Huichol Indians have migrated away from their ancestral homelands, so out-migration from these municipalities is much lower than from other remote parts of the state. In recent years, mining activity which was the mainstay of the economy of this area in colonial times, has made something of a comeback, thereby increasing local economic activity and opportunities.

Methodological note: The map depicts the municipal boundaries as they existed in the year 2000. Since that time, the municipality of Arandas has been split into two, reducing its territorial extent, and creating the new municipality of San Ignacio Cerro Gordo.

Jan 162017
 

The map shows the percentage of the population of each state who profess themselves to be Catholic. Mexico’s population is predominantly Catholic but Mexican Catholicism is extremely varied in practice. It ranges from those who support traditional folk religious practices to those who adhere to the highly intellectualized liberation theology.

Catholicism in Mexico

Catholicism in Mexico, 2010.

While the population remains predominantly Catholic, allegiance to the church has declined steadily since 1970. In 1970 96% of the population five years of age and older identified itself as Roman Catholic. By the 2010 census the figure had fallen to 84%. Though the proportion of Catholics is declining in Mexico, it is still considerably higher than in Mexico’s southern neighbors. For example, only about 70% in Guatemala are Catholic.

There are significant regional variations. Catholicism is strongest in a band of central-western states, extending from Zacatecas to Michoacán, where only one in twenty is not Catholic. In such areas, religion is a strong force in everyday life, with visible manifestations not only in the number of churches and other ecclesiastical buildings but also in the cultural importance and frequency of religious festivals and processions.

In contrast, about one in six is not Catholic in the northern border states. In southeastern Mexico (Chiapas, Campeche, Tabasco and Quintana Roo), about one in four is not Catholic. Interestingly, non-Catholics are concentrated in both the prosperous northern states and in the relatively poor south and southeastern states.

In summary, the pattern of Catholicism in Mexico exhibits a clear distance-decay pattern around the strongly-Catholic western states, with minor anomalies such as the state of Yucatán.

For more details, see these previous related posts:

 Posted by at 9:13 am  Tagged with:
Jan 092017
 

Tapatíos (residents of Guadalajara) and Jaliscienses (residents of Jalisco) often brag that they live in the most “Mexican” area of the country. Are these boasts truthful? This is not an easy question to answer. It involves looking at a broad range of evidence.

Jalisco’s climate and natural ecosystems are very diverse like the country as a whole. It is the only state with all of the country’s five principal natural ecosystems (tropical evergreen forest, tropical deciduous and thorn forest, temperate forest, grassland and mesquite-grassland, and arid and semi-arid scrubland) [Geo-Mexico, page 31]. Furthermore, Jalisco has Lake Chapala, the country’s largest natural lake as well as the Colima Volcano, one of the most active in the country. Certainly from a physical geography perspective Jalisco appears the most representative of Mexico as a whole. (For other natural wonders of Jalisco see John Pint’s website: http://ranchopint.com).

Map of Jalisco state

Map of Jalisco. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Jalisco’s socio-economic characteristics are also representative of Mexico. Its population has an average growth rate and is distributed among a very large city, secondary and smaller cities, extensive farming communities and isolated indigenous areas. While its adjusted per person income is just below the national average, its human development index (composed of infant mortality rate, adult literacy, school enrollment ratio, and adjusted average personal income) is slightly above. Jalisco is similar to Mexico regarding the main economic sectors of agriculture, industry and services, including tourism.

From a tourism perspective, Jalisco includes everything Mexico has to offer: fantastic beach resorts, urban cultural and artistic attractions, natural wonders, significant indigenous areas and impressive archeological sites. On the other hand, Jalisco is not representative in that it is the leading agricultural state (first in production of corn, beef, pork, poultry, milk and eggs). It is also more predominantly Catholic and politically more conservative than Mexico as a whole. Aside from these two exceptions, Jalisco is quite representative from a socio-economic perspective.

Perhaps cultural aspects are the most important in determining the most “Mexican” of the 32 states. Here Jalisco really stands out. It is the birthplace of such stereotypical Mexican cultural characteristics as charrería (Mexican horsemanship), jarabe tapatío (Mexican hat dance), mariachi music, and tequila, the national drink.

In conclusion, the available evidence appears to support the boasts of some Tapatíos and Jaliscienses that they live in the “most Mexican” area of the country.

Many aspects of Mexico’s culture feature in Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, a handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. If you have enjoyed this post, consider gifting a copy of Geo-Mexico to someone you know.

 Posted by at 9:31 am  Tagged with:
Jan 022017
 

Unlike in the USA and Canada, where gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day (25 December), the original tradition in Mexico over the Christmas season was to exchange presents on Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes, 6 January). In the Christian calendar, 6 January marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when the magi arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the infant Jesus. In homage to this occasion, Mexican children would dutifully stuff the largest shoes (or box) they could find with straw, and leave them outside their bedroom door on the night of January 5, in anticipation of finding new toys the following morning.

In the 20th century the Three Kings Day tradition in some regions of Mexico broke down in the face of the enormous consumer-oriented publicity from north of the border, which stressed Christmas (rather than Epiphany) gifts. Naturally, however, some greedy Mexican middle- and upper-class children expect to receive gifts on both days, claiming that parents and grandparents should not only preserve the old customs but also embrace the new version! Equally, children with parents who are separated or divorced also often receive gifts on both 25 December and 6 January, with each parent taking responsibility for one of the two festive days.

Rosca de Reyes

A typical family-sized Rosca de Reyes

Even where it is no longer a day to exchange gifts, 6 January is still very much a family day throughout Mexico. In the late afternoon or early evening, it is traditional for the whole family to share a rosca. Roscas are ring-shaped loaves of sweet bread, sold to be eaten on special occasions. The roscas for Three Kings Day each contain a small plastic (formerly ceramic) muñeco (doll). These muñecos were originally ceramic, but are now more usually plastic. The recipient of the piece of rosca containing the muñeco has to throw a party on 2 February (Candlemas day, Día de la Candelaria) for all those present at the sharing of the rosca. It is customary to provide tamales to feed everyone gathering on Candlemas day. In some parts of southern Mexico,  guests expect to be served home-made mole, a sauce which contains dozens of ingredients including nuts, chocolate and numerous spices, and which requires many hours of arduous preparation.

In 2011, Mexico City residents were treated to an early Three Kings Day present. On Sunday 2 January, the main central square in Mexico City filled with people pushing through the crowds to receive their free portion of the world’s largest ever rosca – a staggering 720 meters long, 90 cm wide and weighing 9,375 kilograms. More than 300,000 people eventually collected a piece to take home for their families to enjoy sometime on Three Kings’ Day.

And if you think making mole is arduous, then just imagine how much work was required to make this enormous rosca! The finished bread was made from 6,000 kg of flour, 3,000 kg of butter, 38,000 eggs, 1,000 kg of fruit, 1,000 liters of milk, and 220 kg of sugar; its preparation took 16,000 man-hours. Given the rising levels of obesity in Mexico, it is to be hoped that the recipe used was for a “reduced calorie” rosca

Credits: Thanks to Fatimah Araneta for suggesting valuable modifications to the original article, and to Cristina Potters for emphasizing that gift-giving on Three Kings Day is still very much alive and well in much of central and southern Mexico. Cristina Potters’ blog Mexico Cooks! has a comprehensive account of the significance of the cuisine associated with Three Kings Day and Candlemas Day.

Many aspects of Mexico’s culture feature in Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, a handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. If you have enjoyed this post, please consider gifting a copy of Geo-Mexico to a friend.

 Posted by at 6:41 am  Tagged with:
Dec 222016
 

Some parts of Mexico have been working on Christmas for most of the year… For example, the manufacturing of beautiful handmade Christmas tree decorations is the main industry today in the former gold and silver mining town of Tlalpujahua in the state of Michoacán. The production of Christmas ornaments in Tlapujahua has a great series of photos by Arturo Toraya of Notimex, showing some of the steps involved.

ornaments-2

As the accompanying text explains, “Making baubles for Christmas trees is the main source of jobs in the town, which is now one of the top five producers in the world. Due to their quality, 90 percent of the total production is exported to the U.S. and Canada. There are 200 family workshops in the town with seven-hour shifts, and each worker can make up to 550 baubles per day. Each workshop decorates about 500 per day. Red, blue, green and yellow are the top selling colors in Mexico, while black, brown and grey are more popular in the U.S.”

The village of Tzintzuntzan, on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, also in Michoacán, is another settlement where Christmas seems to be a year-round source of inspiration. The village handicraft market is a cornucopia of straw work in every conceivable color, design and size, which make ideal Christmas decorations or gifts.

Happy Christmas from Geo-Mexico! – ¡Feliz Navidad!

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

Related posts:

Dec 172016
 

Most of Mexico is above 1000 m (about 3300 ft) in elevation; as a result most of Mexico has a more temperate climate than might be expected given its latitude.

The famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt, one of the founding fathers of physical geography and meteorology, was the first to describe the vertical differentiation of climatic and vegetation zones in Mexico. Writing in 1811, he proposed the terms tierra caliente, tierra templada, and tierra fría, still widely used by non-specialists today.

Tierra caliente (hot land) includes all areas under about 900 m (3000 ft). These areas generally have a mean annual temperature above 25°C (77°F). Their natural vegetation is usually either tropical evergreen or tropical deciduous forest. Farms produce tropical crops such as sugar-cane, cacao and bananas.

Altitude zones

Altitude zones. Copyright John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2000.

Tierra templada (temperate land) is the area between 900 and 1800 m (3000 to 6000 ft) where mean annual temperatures are usually between about 18°C and 25°C (64°F to 77°F). The natural vegetation in these zones is temperate forest, such as oak and pine-oak forest. Farms grow crops such as corn (maize), beans, squash, wheat and coffee.

Tierra fria (cold land) is over 1800 m (6000 ft) where mean annual temperatures are in the range 13°–18°C (55°–64°F). At these altitudes pine and pine-fir forests are common. Farm crops include barley and potatoes. On the highest mountain tops, above the tierra fría is tierra helada, frosty land.

Even higher, and almost permanently under snow and ice, is the tierra nevada, snow-covered land.

Dec 082016
 

Corn (maize) has been the principal food of the Tarahumara Indians since long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. There are several precolumbian varieties that are still grown, including the ancient and delicious “blue corn”. Maize is the source of a wide variety of foodstuffs and drinks including flour (pinole), a non‑alcoholic drink called esquiate, tortillas, atole and tamales. Green corn and blue corn tortillas are made when in season, for special occasions. A version of corn beer (Spanish “tesgüino“) is also important, and is described separately below.

The Tarahumara continue to “hunt and gather” locally available foodstuffs, though these activities now supply only about 10% of their diet. Several varieties of cactus fruit are collected, edible agaves are cooked, and small river fish are caught where possible. Small animals are ruthlessly hunted. Squirrels, birds and deer, though rare today, are considered particular delicacies.

Beans, mustard green and squash also play important parts in the Tarahumara diet which is rounded out by wheat, potatoes, peaches and sweet potatoes. Those Tarahumara with access to lower elevations, such as Batopilas Canyon, also include crops typical of warmer regions such as oranges, figs and sugar‑cane. Chiles and tobacco are also cultivated.

Meat is hard to come by, and eaten only on ceremonial occasions when a goat or cow is sacrificed. It probably accounts for less than 5% of the average Tarahumara diet. Most protein comes from beans; these are usually prepared by roasting, grinding and then boiling with water, to produce a hot soup. Pork, chicken and eggs are rarely found, while sheep are kept mainly for their wool.

Squash is only eaten in season though the Indians know how to preserve it by drying. The squash flowers are eaten too, boiled with water and salt. Mustard greens (Tarahumara “maquasori“, Spanish “quelites“) are grown in the rainy season and carefully gathered and dried, for use throughout the year, providing minerals and vitamins. Quelites include the epazote plant (Chenopodium ambrosioides), described by Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, as “the Mexican herb par excellence”.

Many families have a small number of scrubby fruit trees, usually peaches, near their house. Fruit is often picked and eaten green. Peaches are an important trading item, and may be exchanged for cigarettes or cloth. At higher elevations, apples are grown.

Given the well-documented endurance feats of Tarahumara runners, this diet clearly provides adequate nutrition! In the 1994 Denver, Colorado, “Sky Race”, Tarahumara Indian Juan Herrera (25 years old) smashed 25 minutes off the previous record, completing the 160 kilometers in 17 hours, 30 minutes, 42 seconds. He came in more than half an hour ahead of his nearest rival!

However, in many years (including 2011, 2012), and seemingly with increasing frequency, food is in extremely short supply by the time the summer growing season arrives. Fortunately for the less successful Tarahumara farmers, an age‑old tribal custom, korima is still observed. This custom requires the better‑off to share food with the less fortunate in times of need. The poor person visits successive ranchos, collecting small quantities of food to last him a week or two, then repeats this procedure as necessary. No lasting debt is incurred. The severe drought in northern Mexico over the past 24 months – see Many states in Mexico badly affected by drought – has meant that many Tarahumara have no food reserves left and have had to rely on infrequent emergency aid organized by charitable organizations, and the federal and state government.

Tesgüino (corn beer)

The average Tarahumara family expends 100 kg of corn a year to make tesgüino. This is sufficient corn to last a family of 4‑5 about a month, a significant quantity, given the regular annual food deficiencies in this region.

Tesgüino is a form of corn‑beer. It is a thick, milky, nutritious drink, supplying much needed vitamins, minerals and calories. The corn is first dampened and allowed to sprout in a dark place, then ground and boiled for about 8 hours with a catalyst to promote fermentation. The catalyst may be local grass seed (basiahuari) ground in a metate, or bark, leaves, lichens or roots, depending on the place. The liquid is then strained and left to ferment for about three days. The total preparation time is therefore about seven days. To avoid spoilage, the beverage must be drunk quickly. It’s at its best for only 12‑24 hours. This explains why it would be so wasteful to leave any beer can tesgüino undrunk at a “tesgüinada” (see below); it would be far too wasteful, even if as many as 50 gallons have been made.

Other alcoholic drinks are also made, one based on green corn (pachiki or caña) and another on maguey (meki). In earlier times, there were no alcoholics as we define the term, since tesgüino can’t be stored, but today the greater availability of commercial alcohol poses a serious problem.

Why are tesgüinadas so important?

The tesgüinada system is the social device which ties individual settlements (ranchos) together in a cooperative framework for performing all kinds of agricultural tasks. The person requiring assistance with a particular task will invite his neighbors and friends to a “tesgüinada”. He takes responsibility for providing the tesgüino, other refreshments and food. In return, the persons who attend will help plow. sow, reap or weed..

Lumholtz, recognizing from his time among the Tarahumara at the end of the last century the importance of the tesgüinada, summed up their philosophy writing that, “Rain cannot be obtained without tesgüino. Tesgüino cannot be made without corn and corn cannot grow without rain.”

The tesgüinada is necessary since many families cannot supply the labor required for both herding and cultivation at certain times of the year. In small groups like the ranchos, high mortality inevitably leaves some families unable to manage on their own. The tesgüinada is their response to the economic uncertainties facing them just as collective religious rituals help them face the unpredictability of weather, sickness and plagues. The cooperative effort moves from one rancho to another, from one tesgüinada to the next.

The tesgüinadas, which are like large, boisterous parties, provide a focus for Tarahumara social life, a chance for entertainment and to make extra-familiar friendships. Being held in a succession of different ranchos, they offer some communal resilience against the risks of becoming further isolated and marginalized. The Tarahumara attach no shame to being drunk; indeed, they positively revel in getting as drunk as humanly possible at tesgüinadas. Children are excluded until they are 14 years old or so.

Tesgüinadas do come at a cost. They increase the incidence of accidents, such as adult men falling off precipitous rock ledges that would normally pose little risk, even when running. They increase violence, which may result in serious injury or death. They also limit the amount of corn that can be held over from one year to the next. Assuming an average of 4‑6 tesgüinadas per year per family, with additional visits to tesgüinadas held in perhaps 15 other households, many Tarahumara Indians would be likely to attend more than sixty tesgüinadas a year. Even if the true figure is only 50% of this total, it still means that the Tarahumara spend as many as 100 days a year either preparing for a tesgüinada, attending one, or recovering from one.

Sources /  Bibliography:

  1. Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976.
  2. Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996.
  3. Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish.
  4. Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996.

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