Monday, March 19, 2012

Big Mexico: El Fuerte (Sinaloa)


El Fuerte's native son, Zorro. 
Our hotel in El Fuerte was lovely. In the courtyard was a statue of Zorro, with his famous whip. El Fuerte was the birthplace of Don Diego de la Vega back in the early 1800s. His parents moved when he was still a child to the Los Angeles region of California where he eventually became the "Robin Hood" of Mexico with the name of Zorro (which means the Fox).  That was the story printed out around town, explained on the metal plaque by the statue, and even his birthplace had a sign saying as much. But in truth, the whole story was just that, a novel created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley and made famous by Douglas Fairbanks in the first movie shot at his own studio. A wonderful fabrication for the tourists, and I'm sure it has put El Fuerte on the map.

It belongs on the map if for no other reason than it is one of the more beautiful towns in Mexico. I don't know how the townspeople have done it, but there is virtually no graffiti anywhere. The Municipal building, which houses every aspect of local and regional government is huge, restored to it's original splendor and seems too lovely to be a mere government building. The interior of the stair wells and other interior walls are covered with murals by a 'primitive' painter, a self-taught local. Yet, they are expressive and detailed, with scenes from Sinaloa's history and many historical characters.

The Municipal building.

El Fuerte means Fort, and like Zorro, there is a fort up on the hill, looking for all the world like a classic Spanish fort - right out of Disneyland. It was built on the spot where it's thought the original fort might have been. And inside, it is both a museum and the enormous tank for the city's water supply. The museum is full of real historical objects, guns, vehicles, photographs, and artwork. Very much worth a visit.

Some on our tour opted for the early morning boat trip down the river to see birds and other wildlife living in the natural zone on the other side of the river from town. They saw dozens of species of birds, turtles, iguanas and other indiginous species. Some went on the city tour which included the home of Zorro's birth. Several of us went on the afternoon tour of a small Mayo village. The Mayos were the people living in Sinaloa and the western edge of Chihuahua when the Spanairds arrived several centuries ago. They too were devastated by the diseases trailing after the Spaniards like rapid dogs. But they have maintained a semblance of their former lives, still celebrating many of the ancient rituals and customs, and scratching out a living from the arid soils.
Too pretty yard at the Fort.

We visited a curandero, a man who is the local herbalist/healer. He showed us various objects and plants that treat different diseases, including snake skin to ward off bad dreams. He had powdered oregano, dried mushrooms, various leaves and stems with which to make teas, and powdered rocks. He also made his living raising butterflies for their cocoons. After the butterfly is gone, he collects and dries the cocoons, then fills each with tiny pebbles and sews them together on long strips of cloth to be wrapped around a dancer's legs as rattles. I hadn't thought the noise would be very loud but with fifty or so cocoons, it made a substantial noise. Around his house were many vines and bushes with butterfly cocoons attached. They'll emerge in April and he'll have a whole new crop.

We then went to another home where the women were making tortillas and gorditas over a comal. The comal was white and very slick. Our guide showed us how they get it that way. He took a piece of dry bone from a cow and rubbed it on the surface of the hot griddle. You could smell the bone 'melting' onto the surface. After it 'fires' on, the surface is slick as teflon. We got to look around the house. It consisted of several small buildings with a single door and roof. One had a concrete front porch but the others were dirt all round. Connecting the buildings were long ramadas, branches put up over poles stretched between upright poles to provide shade. It was quite nice temperature-wise, but it was still winter. I can't imagine how much relief there will be when the temperature soars in the summer. They had an outhouse off to the side of the walled yard that consisted of some draperies over poles to provide privacy.

Our hostess, cooking tortillas over a hot fire.

After we had eaten some tortillas with chile and salsa we were given a short lecture by the home's owner about how the Mayos live now, what their economy is like, how much the government has helped them to survive the drought, and about some of their overnight rituals. Then a man came to dance for us. Another fellow played the guitar and a harmonica for the first dance depicting a coyote prowling around. Later he danced as a deer. Each dance told a rather elaborate story and during the overnight festival, the ceremonies end with the deer dance. It was quite moving, and the man did an excellent job of mimicking the movements of a deer while it grazed, drank water, and in its death throes after it was shot by a hunter. Three men accompanied the deer with rhythmic beating on a stick laid over an upside down gourd which produced an amazingly loud drum beat.

Back in town, Felicia and I went in search of a paleta or ice cream cone. At the Michoacan ice cream store we found paletas (like a giant popcicle) made from the pulp of the little oranges called narajitos, plus a generous addition of chile powder. They were fantastic and a welcome cooling off for what was becoming a pretty hot afternoon. Wandering around we found the produce market, various stores, a bar with a sign that said nobody in a uniform may come inside, and a Chinese restaurant called Chinaloa!

The river with city on one side, and
natural preserve on the other.
We had stored our bags with the hotel, and were waiting around till almost dark to take a bus to Los Mochis where we were destined to catch the ferry for an overnight ride to La Paz. Evan and I went for a photo expedition along the river. There was an interesting structure that appeared to be an outdoor room on the roof of a house, covered with netting for drying meat. I knocked on the door of the house. A bunch of dogs and a couple of cats dashed out when the woman opened the door. She sold me a large bag of the shredded jerky which I think is the best I've ever eaten. What I don't understand is why all those animals wanted OUT of that house!

The river walk is a nice concrete roadway that probably will be expanded in the future because it only went about half a mile. Along the way were homes with orchards of those naranjito trees, sprays of bougainvilleas, blooming fruit trees, and plenty of farm animals inside  large pens. The town seems prosperous and well cared for. There was little trash, few run down homes, even the vehicles looked fairly new. For a state as infamous for drug cartels as Sinaloa, it appeared this little town had never heard of them, certainly nobody was quivering in fear.



Bougainvilleas abound.



View from the Mayo Village

Thin slices of beef drying on the roof of a house.
Mural of the Deer Dance in the Municipal building.
Mayo man putting on his
deer head for the dance.


Deer dance and gourd drummer.







The gorgeous 'fake' fort housing a museum,
and the city's water tank.