Tarahumara: A Look at the Running People
As of this writing I’m in the Sierra Madre mountains, also known as the Sierra Tarahumara. I’ve been doing some pre-trip research and planning while I wait for my photo tour participants to arrive. This is a part of Chihuahua state, México, where the indigenous Tarahumara people are concentrated. Despite its incredible diversity and beauty, few people visit this area, and it’s a real shame because there’s so much to see and do, especially with regards to photography.
The Tarahumara are known as the “running people” because of their affinity for long distance running, and they do so in what are essentially hand-made sandals. These sandals have become a symbol of the Tarahumara, as well as El Chepe, the Chihuahua al Pacifico railway that runs from the capital city of Chihuahua, through the alpine towns of Creel and Divisadero and on to Los Mochis, at sea level.
I visited this region for the first time last year while on assignment to shoot the travel and cultural images for a cookbook on the regional cuisine of México. We were told by our guide, and I’m not sure if it’s legend, truth, or somewhere in between, that the Tarahumara would hunt by running down their prey, for days at a time, if necessary, until the animal fell over from exhaustion, then they’d kill it and carry it home to feed their families. Pretty amazing stuff, to say the least.
My guide in Creel, Jorge, told me there are approximately 95,000 Tarahumara scattered throughout this area, which includes the Copper Canyon, or Barrancas del Cobre, truly one of the great wonders of the world, and certainly one that few people have heard of, much less experienced. By some measurements Copper Canyon is four times bigger, and it’s deeper, than the Grand Canyon, a fact that astonished me.
You can see by the images here how distinct the Tarahumara women’s and children’s clothing are. Today the men and boys tend to dress more western-style, wearing baseball caps and everyday pants and long-sleeved shirts.
This gentleman was more than happy to let me photograph him standing in front of a small section of the canyon dressed in traditional Tarahumara clothing, but I’m told that because it’s impractical for the weather conditions, which can get well below freezing at night, even outside of winter, plus they’re much more infiltrated into society in order to work, that they’ve lost their long-established ways with regards to dress.
But back to the women and children who wear hand-made, puffy dresses of bright, neon colors, and scarves that cover their often long, and always dark hair.
To earn their living the Tarahumara women and their children sell wonderful hand-made crafts ranging from intricately woven baskets of all sizes, to bracelets and shawls. You’ll also find them selling apples and other fruits, and even dolls depicting Tarahumara life, as well as oven mitts decorated with images of the Tarahumara themselves.
On a caminata, or hike, that started at the main entrance to our hotel, a group of us followed along as local guide Jorge took us on the most incredible walk. Because we were up at around 8,000 feet above sea level, I’ll have to admit that my lungs, much more comfortable at sea-level, where I live, were a bit winded.
We ventured along the rim of the canyon on one of the countless paths that dissect these high altitude valleys. We saw wildlife ranging from praying mantis to falcons, and there are even cows and donkeys owned by the Tarahumara at this altitude, and their distinct sounds are carried throughout the canyon for miles.
On our hike we ended up at a group of two or three one-room Tarahumara houses. Because it’s so precious, they collect rainwater in makeshift cisterns, buckets and pails for use in cooking, cleaning and, of course, drinking.
As we approached this small group of houses, several women were busy weaving baskets with the local reeds, which are fibrous and especially strong and useful for this purpose. And sure enough, this remote family living on the edge of the canyon (see pictures taken from my hotel room balcony) had several handicraft displays laid out and ready for us to peruse, and a box distinctly marked PROPINAS TIPS, another important source of tourist income. A small tip is welcomed, and often expected, when photographing the Tarahumara.
Stay tuned because next I’ll be writing more about how the Tarahumara live, and about their churches.
What indigenous cultures have you experienced? Please share.