I first became aware of Talpa as a pilgrimage destination when I read Juan Rulfo’s bleak, acerbic short story called ‘Talpa’ in his brilliant collection of short stories set in the South of Jalisco “Llana en Llamas”. The mother of a friend here has invited me to make the pilgrimage with the local group she goes with the last two years but each time I have been ill and have not been able to go.
In all, there are about 20 different groups here who walk the 300kms or so to Talpa, all leaving from Ciudad Guzmán in early March. Talpa is one of the three most important pilgrimage sites in Jalisco – the other two being San Juan de los Lagos (which is the second most visited religious site in Mexico after Tepeyac en Mexico City) and the Basílica of Zapopan on October 12th.
Most people initially go to Talpa because they have a manda – that is a commitment with the virgin of Talpa who has answered their prayers and in return they want to honour her through the pilgrimage. Having been once, however, many people want to repeat the experience.
A friend invited me to go this year with a group of 110 people mostly drawn from people who work at the Tianguis which is the large local food and clothes market. In fact, the group was socially very diverse and ranged in age from 80 to 15. My friend told me that he wanted to take his mother with him, who had died the previous year.
Previously I had been reluctant to go with this group as they aim to do the pilgrimage in a shorter time than most other groups, starting walking at 2am most days, and continuing through the night to avoid walking in the heat of the following day. As my friend’s mother, however, was not able to go this year for health reasons, I decided to go with the group from the Tianguis.
We left Ciudad Guzmán at 7.30pm on Tuesday 16th March after a mass at a local church, passing by the statue of the Goddess Tzapotlena on the outskirts of the town.
Our first stop – after a steep climb up the hill, known as the media luna, to the north of the Volcán del Nevado – was at Sayulapa, a tiny, tiny hamlet just on the other side of the volcano. I arrived there around 11pm, to find a welcome supper of atole and tacos of frijoles and carne. This was the first example of what I experienced as the remarkable organization of this pilgrimage, providing food twice a day for over 100 people.
There were three female cooks and another five people comprising the support staff, who helped set up the kitchen for breakfast and at the destination for the night. They used two medium sized lorries to carry the food and the cooking equipment and one large lorry onto which they daily loaded and unloaded all our luggage.
The whole question of organization in Mexico fascinates me. Often, by rational Western standards, it is appalling. Other times, like on this pilgrimage, it is highly impressive. It seems Mexicans are brilliant at organizing fiestas and religious events, which shows of course that it can be done when it is judged important. It was only at the end of the pilgrimage that the organization reverted to type and we had to wait four hours in Talpa for the bus to arrive to take us back to Ciudad Guzmán.
In Sayulapa, I set up my yoga mat and sleeping bag on the grass and fell asleep until we were awakened at 4am to begin walking at 5am. The next day was a long descent down the western slopes of the volcano by road, then a stretch of brecha (a dusty track) to the breakfast venue, then another long road walk to Apulco, a small town principally known for being the birth place of Juan Rulfo and for its production of tequila.
By now I had two blisters. Fortunately my friend treated me with the well-known remedy of using a needle and thread to pierce the blister and leave the thread within the blister so that it continues to drain fluid. This was the first example of the kindness and support that I found throughout the walk.
In Apulco, we slept in the small central plaza, and washed either with cold water via a hose in the priest’s front yard, or better, a shower in a private house. The next day we were woken at 1am with tea and pan dulce to start walking at 2am. The walk at night first took us to Tonaya, a largish town.
For all the pilgrimage we were accompanied by music. Marcos, in the photo above, has gone on this pilgrimage for at least the last ten years and has the key role of providing the music. He has an enormous selection on his MP3 player, ranging from recordings of special prayers to contemporary banda music and corridas to ballads from the 40’s and 50’s to western disco music. Whenever he saw I was flagging, he would play me “Staying Alive”.
You might think that entering a town at 4am would be a good reason to turn down the music. But not in Mexico. If anything it seemed louder and people sang along more fervently.
From Tonaya, there was a further steep climb out of the town, and then a gentle descent along some lovely paths, before breakfasting around 9am at the side of a river in a tiny town called San Miguel.
I had not fully understood the timings of everything yet so I walked seven hours getting increasingly hungry and without finding anywhere to buy anything. By the time I arrived in San Miguel and saw the lorries parked by the side of a river, I was so hungry that I could hardly eat. One of the constant delights of the walk, however, was arriving for breakfast and finding a huge vat of freshly squeezed orange juice and an abundance of traditional Mexican food.
From San Miguel we walked to Ejutla, which is a very pretty small town ringed by hills. On return to Ciudad Guzmán, I met someone who told me that this town enjoys the best quality of life in Jalisco – I have no idea on what basis he said that, but the town did seem to have a particularly good feel to it. Like many towns in this part of Mexico, the main plaza had a statue of one of the priest martyrs from the particularly vicious civil war known as the Guerra Cristera, that gripped the region in the 1920’s.
In the above photograph, it is possible to see to the right of the statue of the priest, the virgin that was taken from Ciudad Guzmán in a pick up truck and unloaded at every stop.
In Ejutla, we slept in the portales surrounding the main square. One of the many great things about Mexico is that everyone takes this in their stride. In every place where we stopped for the night and essentially took over the main local plaza, we were made to feel welcome and never given a sense that we were inconveniencing people.
Another wake-up call at 1am followed, before climbing one of the hills that ring Ejutla. It was a long days walk to the next stop at Ayutla. By now I was just beginning to get into the rhythm. After going to bed at 6pm in Ayutla, the next call at 1am did not seem so severe. And fortunately I had no more blisters – only a continually burning sensation in my feet called escaldado – which appropriately translates as ‘scalded’.
I had been warned this next day would be pesado (heavy) and so it was. Thankfully, having slept well, I did not feel so exhausted, but still did not arrive at that night’s stopping point until 5.30pm. The walk, this day was particularly beautiful.
We climbed a high hill, called the campana because it is shaped like a church bell, from which it was a gradual descent to La Jacal where we slept the night.
At La Jacal, we were only about five hours walking from Talpa. I was told that now it would be easy. The following day we were given a lie-in until 3am, but then it was still a four hour mostly road walk to breakfast. After eating, there was a touching ceremony where we all met in a circle and gave thanks to the Virgin of Talpa for having brought us this far.
For the first part of the final one and a half hours walk into Talpa along the road, we all walked in single file, led by someone carrying the standard. However, once we moved off the road and onto a path, the discipline no longer held.
Led by Marcos and his blaring banda music, the younger people raced ahead and this group did the steep descent into Talpa dancing. Only in Mexico, I thought.
At the entrance to Talpa, we regrouped and then walked the final 2kms to the church in a more disciplined manner in ranks of four people accompanied by Mariachi music. The closer we got to the center of Talpa the more crowded it became.
Finally, after what I was told was 325 kms, we arrived at the church holding the Virgin of Talpa, where a special mass was to be held for us. The church was, however, so packed that we had to wait outside in a queue for nearly an hour. I know of few places in the world where there are queues to get into church and you almost have to fight your way through to attend mass. Such is the continuing power of the Virgin de Talpa.
¡Viva la Virgen de Talpa!