Semana Santa with the Tarahumara Indians in Copper Canyon

Adventures In Copper Canyon, Mexico – Tarahumara Indians End Semana Santa with a Drunken Bash

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

For more than a week, Semana Santa (Easter week) celebrations had been occurring in Copper Canyon, Mexico. I was fortunate to attend two of these, one on Palm Sunday in the tiny village of Cusarare and another on Good Friday in Cerocahui, where I joined in a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Christ, but from the beginning I had been looking forward to the main attraction on Easter weekend. For this reason alone I returned to Urique Canyon. I hoped to witness the Tarahumara Indians perform their mystical religious rites in the village of Guapalayna.

Can’t see the above slide show about Semana Santa in Guapalayna, Mexico? Click here.

On Saturday afternoon, I joined other guests staying at Cabanas San Isidro Lodge for the two hour drive to the bottom of the canyon. With no hotel facilities in Guapalayna, we planned to stay overnight in Urique, rising early on Easter Sunday morning for the short drive to the settlement of the Tarahumara Indians. At least that was the plan. Unfortunately the hotel where we had reservations had other ideas. When we arrived, there was “no room at the inn.” Our reservations had been turned over to guests who wanted to stay more than one night. Since all accommodations in town were totally booked, we drove back up to the canyon rim, placated by assurances from the lodge owner that we would return the next morning in time for the festivities. As we made the long drive back up the hill, he filled us in on the history of the area.

Beginning in the mid-1600’s, Jesuit monks began converting the Tarahumara to Christianity. The Jesuits succeeded where other had failed, most likely because they allowed indigenous peoples to merge their traditional native beliefs with Catholicism. This resulted in the peculiar animistic/religious ceremonies that are today staged on religious sacred holidays, Easter being the most important one of the year. On Saturday afternoon, loose confederations of Tarahumara Indians wander through town beating handmade drums, beckoning members of the tribe who have climbed down from the cliffs to join in the ceremony. Some paint their entire bodies in black and white stripes that represent the devil. Fueled by teseno, a potent drink made from fermented corn, the “devils” carry around a straw Judas and mount repeated attacks on the church, only to be repulsed by the forces of good. After a long night of drinking and many symbolic wrestling matches, the forces of good finally prevail on Easter morning: Judas is destroyed and the devils undergo a ritualistic cleaning, after which they are welcomed back into society.

The next morning we clambered back into the van for the main event. As we pulled into the dusty town square I anxiously looked around for painted devils, but there were none to be seen. We were too late. The lodge owner pointed down a dirt road leading away from the town square: “The Indians have gone that way, follow the road until you find them.” A mile later, we spotted the Tarahumara gathered in a forest clearing and descended into an arroyo littered with jagged boulders. We stopped outside the barb-wired gate leading to the compound until the chief waved us in. The party was well underway. Mugs of an amber colored liquid were being drawn from a huge black rubber container and distributed to everyone present, regardless of age. Adolescent boys and teens staggered around the grounds, barely able to stand.

Can’t see the above YouTube video about Semana Santa in Guapalayna, Mexico? Click here.

A glass was proffered to me. “Es alcohol?” I asked. Is it alcohol? “No, no es alcohol.” But the unmistakable odor of alcohol assaulted my nostrils when I sniffed. “Me huele como alcohol,” I insisted – It smells like alcohol. “No, es de maiz.” No it’s made from corn, the brewmeister persisted. “Pero, es fermentado, verdad?” But it’s fermented, right? “Si, pero no es alcohol.” Not willing to risk my sobriety, I politely declined, hoping to dispel any ill will generated by my refusal by explaining that I have an allergy to alcohol and could not take the chance.

I wandered around the compound, examining handmade drums being offered for sale and listening to a trio of musicians playing songs about their beloved Guapalayna. Though I hoped to spot a laggard devil, all traces of black and white paint had long since been been removed in the nearby river, banishing the devils until next year. It was a most anticlimactic end to my Copper Canyon adventure, but looking on the bright side, missing out on the Semana Santa celebration in Guapalnya gives me an excuse to return.

Series NavigationAn Adventure In Copper Canyon, Mexico – Good Friday Celebration in Cerocahui during Semana Santa

11 Comments on “Adventures In Copper Canyon, Mexico – Tarahumara Indians End Semana Santa with a Drunken Bash

  1. Thanks for the great reads!!
    I’m actually reading your blog from my room at Casa Margaritas in Creel! However I think it’s changed a lot since you were here. I’m the only guest at the moment, and my 150 pesos has got me what I’m told is a dorm room, which is a private room with double bed and private bathroom off a common area. I think the main hotel is being refurbished at the moment. No meals, but I’ve got three thick blankets. 🙂
    I loved your story about getting to Urique, because it’s just what happened to me a few days ago! Where’s the bus to Urique? You have to wait a few hours. My rescuer was Hugo from Paraiso Del Oso, who took me to Cerocahui to explore and showed me the bus stop. And I met Mario in Urique, who drove me to Guadalupe and then back to San Isidrio. Such a beautiful place!! Unfortunately I didn’t get to stay at Entres Amigos – when I got there, it seemed awfully creepy and abandoned, so I decided to go with Mario instead.
    Thanks for providing a great read!!
    Martina 🙂

    • You’re very welcome Martina. So glad you enjoyed my articles and found them to be helpful while trying to navigate your way around Copper Canyon. Isn’t it a wonderful place? I am sad to hear that you found Entree Amigos to feel creepy. There were very few people staying there when I was there as well, but the place was really terrific. But you can’t go wrong with Mario!

  2. Ohhhh – I’m so sad you missed your devils! I love your attitude though…what a great reason to go back!
    A super series of posts Barbara – I loved all of them! It really did educate me on Mexico and the Copper Canyon area – something which I knew nothing about a month ago!

  3. I was thinking along the same lines as Heather – probably a difference in the definition of alcohol.

  4. That definition of alcohol reminds me that in many parts of Europe if you say you’re vegetarian they will still offer you chicken or fish. Looks like you missed most of the devils for this year.

  5. Barbara, I love the video, especially the fellow who is handed a full glass of the amber drink — he looks at it for a bit, as if to decide if he’s really going to drink the whole glass – and then pours 3/4 of the glass back into the bucket. That must be some mighty potent brew. Great detail on your travels. Hope you are having the adventure you wished for.

  6. Barbara, That’s so bizarre that they said it didn’t contain alcohol but it clearly smelled like alcohol. I wonder if they define “alcohol” as “whiskey” or something similar. When I was in Spain, I had a similar experience. The locals made a type of homebrew that was incredibly strong and could get people quite drunk but they did not define it as “alcohol.” It looks like you had a beautiful trip.

    • Yeah Andy, but it wouldn’t have done much for my 4 years of sobriety!

  7. This was a really great piece, Barbara.  Very comprehensive and the photos were so good.  Y, escribes con alma.
    I wonder. . .in Chiapas one can get beaten or killed for taking a photo of the indigenous and in Oaxaca the same, tho maybe less stringent than Chiapan Mayas.  Did you find the Tarahumara to be that way?  They don't seem so shy or so subscribing to the belief that a photo will rob them of their soul. 
    Travel safe while in northern Mexico.
    M

    • Hi Marilyn: The Tarahumara are retiring and camera shy, so I asked if I could take photos. Some said yes, some said no, but I never got the sense or was told that the ones who said no did so because they believed photos robbed them of their soul. Thanks for the great compliment, “escribo con alma.” That means so much to me.

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