Wednesday, June 19, 2024

This pilgrimage took grit, courage and tequila — lots of tequila

And here I thought the pilgrimage to Chalma was tough. 

That pilgrimage had taken 2½ days, and on each full day, I rode a horse for a couple of hours, walked a few more, got rained on and slept on muddy ground covered with rocks. But I survived. 

So when I was invited to go on a pilgrimage to Amatlán, Morelos — which I was told we’d do on horseback and which would take about eight hours — I felt ready. I believed I was battled-tested. 

I was a fool. 

Residents of San Gregorio Atlapulco, in Mexico City’s Xochimilco borough, make the pilgrimage to Amatlán on July 21 to honor María Magdalena, Amatlán’s patron saint. They go because xochimilcas — who have occupied San Gregorio since pre-Hispanic times — populated parts of Morelos centuries ago. 

Six of us headed out a little past 8:30 a.m. and almost immediately faced the first challenge of the day: navigating San Gregorio’s chaotic traffic circle. At rush hour. On horseback. 

The other riders expertly weaved their way through cars that were coming at them from every possible direction — and some impossible ones. You’d think drivers would take pity on someone on horseback trying to cross the road. 

You’d be wrong. 

The only way I could figure to get safely across that road was to make eye contact with drivers, hoping they’d see the terror in my eyes and not hit me. It must have worked because we made it — or perhaps Saint Mary Magdelena heard my pleas. 

The first couple of hours were across flat stretches, where I learned something important about my horse: she didn’t like to go slow. 

Every chance she got, she’d break into a trot, bouncing me unmercifully in the saddle. I’d pull on the reins, slowing her down, but soon she’d be running again. 

My friend Felipe pulled up alongside me. “She likes to run,” he said. I’d pretty much figured that out. 

We rode for about three hours through mountains before stopping for what I believed would be a quick lunch. I believed this because the sky had turned a deep, ominous black and lightning was flashing all around.

So I gulped down my food, expecting to mount back up quickly, but the rest of the crew ate at a leisurely pace, filling their cups with tequila, something I politely refused. Drinking tequila while on horseback in the mountains with a storm threatening seemed a bad idea. But my friends took their cups on the road as we resumed our journey.

Happily, the rain didn’t reach us. Yet. 

We were still in the mountains as dusk settled, getting lost three or four times. People were working in nopal (cactus) fields, and when we asked for directions, they’d point here and there. We’d head off, only to somehow realize we were going the wrong way. I don’t know how anyone knew this, but we’d realize this and turn and head back. Of course, the person who’d given us the directions was long gone. 

My friend Javier, who rode next to me, said, “We’re almost there.” I said something about us getting lost.

“Yes, but it’s exciting,” he replied. Not exactly my sentiments. 

By this time, my fellow pilgrims had tossed their plastic cups aside and were drinking tequila straight from the bottle, perhaps contributing to our getting more and more lost. 

Around 8 p.m., we entered San José de las Laureles — meaning we’d been riding for almost 12 hours. The sky had blackened again, and lightning crackled. We were lost — again — and asking for directions, but there was a lot of confusion as people pointed us in different directions. 

The only word I could clearly hear during these discussions was carretera, meaning “highway.” Not a comforting word. 

Finally, a young man said he’d guide us. He jumped in his truck, and we followed — on a highway, in the dark. I kept being alternatively terrified as a vehicle approached my  horse from behind or blinded as one approached from the front.  

Our guide finally left us, after pointing out the road we needed to continue on. It was now pitch-black and raining. I strained to make out the rest of my group.

Meanwhile, my trusty horse continued to break into a trot. I’d rein her in, telling her I was also anxious to get to Amatlán but that trotting in darkness in the rain with a novice rider might not be the best idea. 

Finally, we pulled into Santa Catarina at midnight, meaning we’d been riding for 16 hours. We stopped in front of a small store that, amazingly, was still open. When I dismounted, everything ached: my back, legs, shoulders. My brain was completely fogged. 

We all bought something to eat and drink and walked around, trying to force some life back into our bodies. Javier told me we were going to wait for rides to Amatlán. A trailer would take the horses, and we’d all ride in cars. I didn’t know where they’d get enough cars, but I didn’t care. We were so exhausted that most of us lay down on sidewalks and fell asleep. 

When I was shaken awake, we all climbed into the back of a horse trailer — there were no cars — as the horses were loaded into another trailer. We finally arrived at Amatlán at 7:30 a.m., slept for around two hours, ate, and attended the festival the next day.

When we were ready to leave, Javier told me I could ride with the group or go back in a pickup. I pretended to weigh the options before saying it’d probably be best if I went by truck. Javier agreed.

The following year, Aurora, a friend in San Gregorio, asked if I was going to Amatlán. 

“I’m not getting on a horse again,” I said. 

“We are not going on horseback,” she said. “We are walking.”

I told her I’d think about it.

Joseph Sorrentino, a writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmvisiones and of Stinky Island Tales: Some Stories from an Italian-American Childhood, is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. More examples of his photographs and links to other articles may be found at www.sorrentinophotography.com He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla. 

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