Extreme Agri-Tourism: Off the Grid with the Tarahumara Indians, Chapter 1

Extreme Agri-Tourism

I went to the presentation given by David Holladay with only mild curiosity. I figured it would be a pleasant way to spend an evening. An enjoyable end to an enjoyable day. Little did I know that it would be the start of an epic adventure.

And as you might be thinking, yes, David is a direct descendant of the famous Doc Holliday. And the modern day Dave is just about as big a character as his famous forefather.


David Holladay is a direct descendant of the famous Doc Holliday.

Meet David Holladay

I was attending a primitive skills gathering and the announcement said the presentation would be at “dark 30.”

Someone had rigged up a small generator-powered projector and used the broadside of a white canvas tent for the screen. We sat in a semicircle in the dirt and the stars above peeked in to watch the show too.

David is one of the world’s leading educators in Stone Age living skills. Hollywood producers have been known to consult with him for his expertise on movies such as “Castaway.” The History Channel picked him up and featured him on their show No Man’s Land. And he has been featured in numerous articles and magazines. But for most of Dave’s life, he has lived in wilderness areas and made a living by leading people on adventures in terrain they would otherwise never see.

David and the Tarahumara Tribe

In this evening’s presentation, Dave was going to share some of his experiences visiting with the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico. The Tarahumara Indians are one of the few remaining indigenous groups that still live wild in North America. They are known for their incredible athleticism, health, and longevity. The Tarahumaran Indians live tucked far away from civilization in the unbelievably rugged terrain of the Copper Canyon.

Several decades ago, while visiting his mom in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, Dave saw a photo in the local newspaper of two Tarahumara girls who were grinning from ear to ear. Through a series of coincidences he got to meet the girls and when he asked them why they were smiling so much they said, “Because we have eaten today.” Dave befriended them, and their families invited him to come visit their homes in the Copper Canyons of Mexico.

Dave thrives in rugged terrain and took the Tarahumara up on their welcome and he has been going back every year since.

Running – A Tarahumara Legacy

The Tarahumara Indians lived in intentional seclusion and obscurity until the world discovered that they were the fastest ultramarathon runners on the planet. Their incredible feats of athleticism, longevity, and health have been highly acclaimed in books such as the New York Times bestseller Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. The healthy diet of the Tarahumara became a prescription for curing diabetes as outlined by Dr. Daphne Miller, Ph.D., in her book The Jungle Effect.


Two Tarahumara runners

I loved both books and figured this presentation would be fun to see what the Tarahumara were really like from a first hand account.

As the presentation started, I leaned back on my elbows in pleasant contentment. I could almost doze with the crackling warmth of the big campfire at my back.

But not too long into his presentation, Dave said something that had me sitting bolt upright. He said:

The Tarahumara say they are the fastest runners in the world because they grow their own food. They say that the masa from the stores doesn’t fuel them like their own homegrown corn. Their food is grown on land that their families have been tending for centuries. Their seeds are blessed by their community, and every stage of the growing, harvesting, and preparing of the food is tended with love by themselves and their family. There is an energy and strength to their food that cannot be matched.

Ultra-Athletes Growing Their Own Food

I have been working on a project exploring how the next cutting edge for ultra athletes will be growing their own food. I said to myself, “Wow, I’ve got to go meet these people and verify this.”

So seven months later, after many preparations and logistics, I found myself hugging my husband goodbye at the airport.

Our tiny group would just be the [Grow] Network’s brave video producer, Anthony Tamayo, and me. I had tried to interest others into joining this expedition. I contacted numerous ultra athletes, paleo nutrition experts, and longevity researchers. All of them were initially very excited and wanted to go.

“Oh Marjory, this trip will be incredible, let me clear my calendar!” was the typical response.

Danger in Mexico

Then I contacted Josué Stephens who is an organizer for extreme endurance races in the Tarahumara region. Josué told me that he would not be going back to the Copper Canyon anytime soon. When I asked him why, he sent me this link to an article just published by the New York Times In Mexico; An Extreme Race In Extreme Danger. The article outlined how the violence in the region had become hyperactive and people were being found with their heads cut off.


Overview of the Copper Canyon from the train

“But Josué,” I said, “you run your race course right through marijuana and poppy fields.” That seemed pretty dumb to me. But nonetheless Josué was not going to join me in this Copper Canyon trip.

And as soon as everyone else saw the NY Times article they all dropped off too.

Preparing for the Expedition

My husband was really worried too, but after almost 19 years of marriage he knows better than to try and stop his wife when she decides something is important. The night before my departure, he had gone over all the maps of the area and asked me again, “So exactly where are you going and what is your itinerary?”

“I don’t know, Hon,” I said, “all I know is that David Holladay will try to meet us at the train station in Creel, and if he’s not there we should book a room at Margarita’s Hotel and wait for him until he arrives.”

The plan was that David would get to the region a few days ahead of us to scout out some of the backcountry areas to see who was home, who wasn’t, and who would be open to visitors. There are very few telecommunications in the region. We wouldn’t know exactly where we were going until we got there. And even then we might not know. Would the buses run on schedule? There had been a lot of rain recently, would the roads be open? Would the Tarahumara even be home – or had the violence driven them deeper into the canyons? It is just not one of those trips you could plan.

I gave my husband the names of a couple of small towns that we might be in or near; Creel for certain, Samachique as a possibility, and maybe Batopilas. He grumbled unhappily with this meager amount of information and said, “at least I’ll have a starting point to send the mercenaries to look for you.”


Route map of the train named el Chepe

At the departure curbside he reminded me again that we have two kids. Then he held me close and kissed me deeply.

That kiss almost undid me.

I have a loving family, a beautiful home, and deeply meaningful work. Why was I going on this trip again?

“I’ll be back,” I said into his shirt with more confidence than I actually felt at that moment. I reluctantly left his embrace. I was already way past committed. So I commanded my buckling legs to get going, and I pushed the cart loaded with overstuffed duffel bags toward the airline counter.

Departing for Mexico

Thus began a long grueling day of airports and changing flights, immigration and customs, and of course delays when we got to Mexico City.

Note to self: Never, never, never fly through Mexico City’s terminal 2 ever again in my life. It is the most dysfunctional, disorganized, and ridiculous way of getting passengers onto planes that I have ever experienced.

And this was simply the beginning of the hard travelling that would get us to the more difficult part.

Our first transit stop, we got into Los Mochis, Mexico pretty late in the night. The hotel was fairly decent and there isn’t much to remark about the experience except for one thing that would cause me some real embarrassment in the next few days…


This article is Chapter 1 in the series “Extreme Agri-Tourism: Off the Grid with the Tarhumara Indians.” You can read the rest of the series here:

Chapter 1: Extreme Agri-Tourism
Chapter 2: Hard Traveling
Chapter 3: The Tarhumara Girls School
Chapter 4: How To Lose 30 Pounds In 10 Seconds
Chapter 5: Gunfights Don’t Usually Last That Long…
Chapter 6: The Vomit Comet Through Tarahumara Country
Chapter 7: Don’t Ever Do This When Traveling In Strange Territory
Chapter 8: Nice Legs Really Scare Tarahumara Men
Chapter 9: Living Sustainably Is An Everyday Thing Here
Chapter 10: The Biggest Surprise of the Trip
Chapter 11: Another Tarahumara Myth Busted
Chapter 12: Sleeping with Rats is Better than Freezing
• Chapter 13: COMING SOON

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This post was written by Marjory


  • Rita says:

    Thank you for this article. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your service to others. You are a generous and kind person Marjory- thank you.

  • Lisa says:

    This promises to be a wonderful read. Love the “note to self.” I can’t wait to read the rest!

  • Terri says:

    It is so kind of you to share and help all of us who care what it takes to learn all that we can about others and our world. I am looking forward to part two of your adventure!

  • Victory says:

    Eagerly waiting for the second part. Makes me want to travel with Marjory 🙂

  • CL says:

    I went to Copper Canyon in the early to mid 80’s; no danger back then, and I even went by myself one time and stayed in Creel. I look back and think I was crazy, but after reading Marjory’s account, mine was a breeze. I wish I would have spent more time getting to know the Tarahumara Indians; I knew they were long distance runners and we got to visit some of the cave dwellings they lived in, but I wish I hadn’t been so much of a tourist back then. I was told that they were very simple people and some didn’t even know how old they were. The Copper Canyon is their Grand Canyon and is very beautiful.

  • Such as fascinating and educational article. Thank you for sharing.

  • cat says:

    Oooh, spicy stuff! could turn this adventure into a novel 🙂

    1. Pataniki says:

      wow this one adventure orientated…it will be fun to get thru all of them…question are there pics if so why do they not load…a pic or two would teach alot…many years ago i was invited to a gathering in honor of a number of T elders who had come up from mexico…me very tall and they were small and amazingly fit and fast…

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