Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Pilgrimage to Talpa

We met Nicholas on a February morning, a sprite man in his early seventies. He had a small welding business and we hired him to do some work for us. A few days later I ran into him and he had a cold. "Well," I said, "you had better take it easy." " No, no," he replied, "I'm walking up into the hills tomorrow morning to take my cold up there." The next time I met him I inquired about his cold. "Oh" he said, "I got rid of it. See up there?" he pointed in the direction of the 8000' high ridge behind Ajijic, "I took my cold up there and left it walking the ridge. I feel great now." I doubt if the drug companies ever made a penny of Nicholas.
We started talking about walking in the mountains and I told him how much I enjoyed hiking. So he told me all about the pilgrimage to Talpa in March.
They are called romerĂ­as or peregrinaciones, and the people who make them are peregrinos. Pilgrims of all ages, shapes and sizes come from as far away as Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Tepic, and many other places within 300 miles to pay homage to Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa de Allende, and they come by the thousands at this time of the year.  The celebration in Talpa begins on the first Sunday in March when the pilgrims from Tecoman, Colima, walk in. Tecoman is roughly two hundred seventy highway miles from Talpa. People arrive in chartered buses, private automobiles, on horse-back and bikes. The most faithful come on foot.  They are not always the healthiest because the reason for their walk to Talpa is often to ask Our Lady of the Rosary to grant them a miracle to heal them. Walking along any highway in Mexico is a dangerous enterprise,so most use the many well-used trails that lead to Talpa.
There are no hotels or restaurants along the  route, but many enterprising ranchers use this opportunity to make the extra peso or two and provide a place to throw one's sleeping bag on the ground for a few hours of rest. About every hour of walking distance, one can find  stalls that sell coffee (usually with tons of sugar) or canela (a hot, sweet cinnamon drink that hits the spot at 3 in the morning), fruit, sodas, bottled water, beans, eggs, hand made tortillas (yum), and other Mexican staples.
However, this is not an easy stroll in the countryside. Mountains, huge boulders, rivers, sharp rocks, unfriendly dogs and bulls are a few of the obstacles one has to circumvent.
Nicholas kept talking about this yearly pilgrimage he has made ever since he was a little boy. My adventure spirit came alive and I was captivated. I talked to Ferdy about maybe joining Nicholas on this venture and he said "Are you crazy? If I want to see a virgin, I can get in the car and drive to Chapala." What a party pooper, I thought. Next time I saw Nicholas I asked about some of the particulars. He told me that he organized a bus that would take us about 100 miles to the town of Ameca. He also organized a pick-up to carry our backpacks and sleeping bags to our designated rest stops. We would arrive in Ameca at midnight and start walking carrying only a small fanny pack and a flashlight. We would walk all night, then sleep for a few hours in the early morning before tackling one of the bigger climbs, the "Espinazo del Diablo"  (Devil's Spine). The next night we would sleep under the pines at some rancho, then leave at 3AM to climb up to the Cruz de Romero and from there descend into Talpa where we would arrive around 8 in the morning. He also offered that there was always a truck somewhere that would take a weary traveler if he/she couldn't walk on.  Ferdy's ears perked up when he heard that and he consented to give the whole stupid idea a try.

Our trusty guide Nicholas.

Ferdy ready to roll

It feels good to have a fire on a chilly night.

Our bus arrived in Ameca at around midnight. Ferdy and I were the only foreigners on the bus, the rest were local people from our neighborhood. On the way, the women prayed for a safe trip and recited the rosary. Did they know something we didn't? Once we got to Ameca, Nicholas decided because we were newbies and he was getting old, we would  skip the first mountain and go on to the rancho of Estanzuelas. Ferdy breathed a sigh of relief and fell back into his worn busseat. Half an hour later we got off the bus and started walking. It was a beautiful night coinciding with a full moon. The light was so bright we didn't need our flashlights. From a distance we could see trails of blinking lights from people hiking all over the mountains. The trails were wide and with the bright moon light easy to negotiate. At about 5 in the morning, Nicholas loaded us and a bunch of other people into a pick-up and we drove to the next rancho to avoid hiking the short stretch along the highway. The temperature had dropped quite a bit and we were freezing on the back of the pick-up. Our sleeping bags were waiting for us at the rancho and it felt good to climb into them to get some warmth and a little cat nap. As the sun was peeking over the horizon, it was time to get up, get some hot beans and tortillas at a small shack, and start climbing the long, windy, and steep trail up the Devil's spine before the sun got too hot.

Early morning breakfast with hand-made tortillas. These women are up all night providing the hungry travelers with nourishment.

It's still early but it's time to tackle the next mountain.

Are we going to be there soon?

We've come a long way - you can see part of the trail on the left - but we still have a long way to climb. This scene is typical of the Jalisco mountains during the dry winter months.

On the dusty trail - but still smiling.

Young and old on the trail to Talpa.

Part of our group from Ajijic.

No problema - we can do it.

A welcome refreshment station with fresh fruit, snacks, and sodas - and a bench to sit down for a while

Finally, some well-deserved rest. We're sleeping on soft pine needles under the pine trees with a full moon shining trough the branches. What more can you want. It's Ferdy's birthday today and after a quick shot of tequila for a celebration drink, we're out.
"Fernando, Jutta, todos, levantense (get up)" Nicholas voice woke us out of a deep sleep at 3AM. Our group sleepily got up. We rolled up our belongings, put them on the waiting pick-up and started walking up another mountain to the Cruz de Romero, a large cross overlooking the valley of Talpa de Allende. The sight from the cross was awesome. All the twinkling lights of the town indicated the end of our journey. As we descended into the valley, the temperature kept dropping and it got downright cold. It was still dark when we arrived. People were walking into town from all directions. As the sun was coming up over the mountains, the town came alive. Vendors lined the streets everywhere selling anything from food, drink, pots and pans, sweets, souvenirs, T-shirts printed with a pilgrimage map, little colorful edible toys and baskets made from gum, etc.. We found a hotel room, took a well-deserved shower and headed for the next food stall for a hot bowl of pozole. We had made it!

Early Sunday morning we descend into Talpa, located in a large valley surrounded by mountains. The Plaza in front of the cathedral is mobbed with peregrinos anxious to walk into the church to see Our Lady of the Rosary.

As groups of pilgrims walk into town they buy flowers, hire a Mariachi Group and form a procession toward the cathedral

A group of proud horsemen from the mountain village of Tapalpa.

Dancers perform all day in front of the cathedral.

There is an interesting pilgrimage museum in Talpa. At the entrance of the museum, this plaque shows the distances and altitudes of the walk from Ameca to Talpa: A total of 117.32 km.

Talpa has many hotels, hostels, and rooms to let, but with all the people there, sometimes a corner on a sidewalk is the only place for a rest.

Some of the dancers sport very interesting head dresses.

More Dancers.

It was quite chilly when we arrived in Talpa on Sunday morning around 7 AM and a hot bowl of Pozole was exactly what we needed.

We spent the day sampling delicious food from the vendors, watching the dancers at the Plaza and all the people walking into town. At 4 in the afternoon our group walked into the cathedral. Nicholas had hired a Mariachi Band for all of us. They had taken the pews out of the cathedral to accommodate all the people trying to get into the church. It was quite an emotianal experience to watch many of the faithfull drop to their knees at the entrance to the church und scoot to the altar.
At eleven the next morning we all met at the bus for the drive home. But first we bought some carne asada, beans, tortillas, soft drinks for a picnic along the way. At the picnic ground we all gathered fire wood. Somebody had brought a comal - a flat metal tray - for cooking, and soon we enjoyed a fabulous lunch and reminisced about our long walk.

We arrived back in Ajijic early in the evening on Monday one adventure richer. As an added benefit we now have lots of new friends in the village who walked with us to Talpa.

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