A Mexican in a white sombrero rides his donkey on the dusty gravel road in front of us. His appearance in this deserted region presents an unexpected opportunity to ask if he knows of a shortcut through the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Squinting, he scans the surrounding hillsides. Perhaps assuming that we are on the brink of light-headedly risking our lives, he asks us in a low voice "Tienen una pistola?" Do you carry a pistol?
His shocked expression speaks volumes. He would never dare go there unarmed. He wishes us good luck and adds, "You'll need it." Apparently the turbulent past is still haunting many Mexicans. The Sierra is almost mythical, a dangerous place that most other people only know from the westerns they have seen. The revolver seems as much an essential accessory for real cowboys here as are the pointy boots we constantly smile about. Especially in the cities, where the pink, light-blue or bright yellow footwear made of ostrich leather is the latest in masculine fashion.
A peaceful night despite the prophecy of doom
North of Tequila, long rows of silver blue agaves stretch to the horizon. We soon leave the sea of spiky plants, the prime ingredient for Mexico's national drink, behind and head for the mountains. Mid-May marks the end of the dry season. The heat has left the vegetation a dull brown, and we are all the more thrilled to find a small stream next to some ruins. We wonder what made the occupants abandon them. Loneliness? Drought? A band of robbers? A tree with ripe oranges is their only intact legacy. We take Mother Nature's invitation and pitch our tent in its shade. Although we feel safe, the Mexican's warning goes through our minds. Nevertheless, the night is as peaceful as it can be. The next morning, a curvy gravel road takes us through hilly country back to pavement. We ride north on a high plateau sandwiched between the mountains of the eastern and western Sierra Madre.
The dirt road winds from village to village through peach and apple orchards. A farmer drives his cattle to a watering place on a pasture. He kindly opens up a gap in the barbwire fence so that we can ride our bikes through. While we pitch our tent in the grass among high trees an elderly couple shows up. The encounter with these two will greatly impact our view of their country. José and Maria are typical Mexicans. He sports the mandatory white sombrero and a slight beer belly. His face is weather-beaten, bearing a mustache and the smile of a caballero. Maria is clearly well-nourished too. Silver strands go through her long black braids. Alert brown eyes peer at us from a friendly face. "Why don't you come over for a cup of coffee?" she asks. "We live beside the next windmill."