A Story of Water: Riding Into the Sierra Guarijía in Sonora

Reasons to go on a bike trip have different origins; this one, in particular, originated when I saw a photo of several rock pillars lined together and I wanted to see them in person. Located in the heart of the Guarijío/Makurawe Native’s land in the southeast of my home state Sonora, “Los Pilares de San Bernardo” have witnessed the centuries that the Guarijío have made of this place their home, and in the last decade, the construction of a controversial megaproject by the federal government. Promoted with the idea of building a dam to prevent floodings further down the Mayo Valley and provide the local communities with water all year long, this project was given a fast forward before being fully evaluated and is also splattered with shady agreements between the government, big agricultural and mining companies and “local authorities” that some of the Guarijío don’t recognize as such.

Due to my lack of knowledge of the area, I recurred to a trusty source: a complete stranger from my social networks. Turned out that Enrique, an avid mountain biker and owner of Bikes Workshop in the city of Navojoa in southern Sonora, happened to be also very knowledgeable of the area thanks to his own explorations and having relatives all over. We talked about the idea I had and he came up with an improved version of my tentative route and said he could join me but unfortunately he had a very close encounter with his handlebar while mountain biking which required six stitches and some weeks off the bike. Once the route was set I postponed the project waiting for cooler days, but when I found out that my friend Javo had some days off from his bike couriering duties I told him the plan. “When would we leave?”, he asked. I said “Day after tomorrow”. “Jalo”-he answered, in the Sonoran way to say “I’m in”.

Two days later we find ourselves in Navojoa’s bus station where we put our bikes together and ride to Enrique’s shop to meet him in person and make final arrangements; he seems as excited about the trip as I am. In the morning, against the doctor’s recommendations, he rides his bike and guides us out of town through a series of dirt roads and single track while telling some of the histories of the area, then he U-turns to go back to Navojoa. Javo soon realizes that his now loaded handlebar bag rubs against the tire so he flips it upside down over the bars. At noon we make it to the town of Tepahui where we spend some hours under the shade since the temperature is reaching 39°C (102°F), then we stock up on food and water and ride another 20 km before making camp.

The next morning I realize that my wallet isn’t with me; trying not to panic, we decide to go back to Tepahui, look for the wallet, and plan based on whether we recover it or not. The 20 km back to town seem eternal and I ride in silence barely responding to whatever conversation Javo is trying to make. We revisit the two places where I used my wallet: first the groceries store where they said they haven’t seen anything, and then to the purified water store where the owner, who lives next door, is outside watering his plants. “You guys are back already!”- he
says. I tell him what happened and he says he hasn’t seen nor anyone has reported anything. So

I move on to Plan B: as there are no ATM’s here I decide to ride back to Navojoa, have my partner Karla transfer money to Javo’s account, and restart the trip the day after; once I resign myself to the situation we go back to the water store to refill for the 60 km back to the city. This time we go into the place and oh surprise, my wallet is right there, covered in a thin layer of dust after half a day sitting on the same spot; the owner says he hadn’t been there since we left yesterday, so he didn’t see it. I kick some trash to celebrate the finding, cancel Plan B, and still euphoric we resume our ride. We make the longest climb of the trip during the hottest hours but I’m just happy to still have a clean wallet-losing record.

We reach the few houses that constitute the town of Sejaqui and I’ve already drunk almost all of my 5 liters of water, so we stop for a refill. The couple operating the store sits outside talking in Guarijío, a language I’m hearing for the first time and the predominant in this region; after leaving Sejaqui we make camp next to one of the several dry arroyos we’ve come across. This has been a particularly rainless year and most of the vegetation around us has the same color as the dirt we ride on, save for the cacti and the white flowers of the Palo Santo trees; locals say the deer eat it because it makes them feel weightless. I wonder if I eat some, will I also feel weightless on the climbs? In the morning we come across a man walking with a long stick and a water bottle strapped to it while listening to ranchera music on a little speaker; Guarijíos are used to walking long distances and often refuse car rides, this man says he’s going to the next town which is 10 km away.

At noon we reach one of the main rivers in the state, the Río Mayo, where we take the first bath in three days and wash our crusty, sweat-stained clothes. Next to the river is the town of Mesa Colorada, the epicenter of the Guarijío communities, where we visit the local store. As short in stock as it already is, this town was cut off from its main road to the nearest city and head municipality, Álamos, for some weeks when the new dam was put to use the first time, ignoring a law that mandated that the people affected would be informed and consulted as well as several requests from the National Human Rights Commission; supplies couldn’t be brought and they were disconnected from medical services until the water level dropped again.

We leave town through the very same road that had flooded, riding parallel to the Río Mayo. The road is covered in footprints of sandals made out of car tires. We see another man walking in the same fashion as the one we saw before. The next morning we arrive at Nuevo Chorijoa, one of the communities that were relocated because of the dam. The houses are built resembling the traditional Guarijío architecture but with newer materials, two rooms separated by an outside corridor and an exterior wood stove. A little ahead is Chorijoa Viejo, which is expected to drown once the water accumulates, mostly empty save for three houses that are still occupied. Near this town, there are rock paintings and petroglyphs that have also been affected by the reservoir, and this is the main argument by which the project was suspended last August: the National Institute of Anthropology and History found forty-four archeological sites in the area that by federal law must be protected and preserved, so the dam, currently 85 percent completed, remains in suspension until further notice.

Some kilometers later Los Pilares appear drawn against a blue sky and we get plenty of time to admire them as they accompany us till the town of San Bernardo, where we touch the pavement for the first time since leaving Navojoa. Once again we spend the noon hours under the shade in the town’s plaza, this time answering questions from kids who don’t believe we rode here from Navojoa. On the way out of town, we take the detour to the dam and appreciate the tons of concrete poured to build a reservoir that not only will drown sacred places and hot springs used for healing but will also cause a complete change in the way of life of the Guarijío by depriving them of clean, running water and isolating them even more by cutting the current ways of communication. How long will the suspension withstand the pressure of mining projects paused due to the lack of water and the agricultural industry in the Valle del Mayo is something we will see in the time to come.

The next day a low trafficked paved road delivers us to the town of Álamos, one of the two “Pueblos Mágicos” in Sonora and the northernmost colonial town in México, where we stuff our faces with pizza and junk food. We have plans for this place, but for now, it’s time to lay under the shade and enjoy the commodities of easily available cold drinks after days of being permanently thirsty because I just couldn’t seem to drink enough.