Spring on the Rio Sonora

Moonrise over Banamichi, Sonora

Spring along the Rio Sonora Valley brings the first signs of the fierce summer heat that will peak during the month of June, lessening somewhat when the summer monsoon rains arrive early in July. Flowers are blooming both in the desert and in people’s homes. The early evening air is perfumed by the blossoms on both citrus and the orchidia trees, bauhinia mexicana. Winter wheat is maturing, fava beans and onions as well, the garlic won’t be far behind. The prickly pear cactus, nopales, are putting out their tender baby pads, most of which will be eaten in a variety of household dishes.

Remodeled old home in Banamichi.

This was a short trip for us, four days minus two days of travel. As always, I spend a portion of our trips looking to see what local foods are in season and learning how they are prepared. On our way down, we stopped in the town of Imuris for afternoon meal of tacos. Imuris, a small town where two major roads intersect, has a main street that is lined with one taqueria after another. While eating a young boy came up to me selling bags of chuales, wild lambsquarter greens that are collected along irrigation canals and the edges of fields. Not wanting to bother finding the correct amount of change, I told him that I wasn’t interested and that besides, I didn’t know how to prepare them. “No problema,” he told me, “I’ll give you the recipe.” That promptly cancelled my excuse so off we went with two bags. Nothing complex to their preparation, boil or steam them until soft and then add them to eggs, sauces, beans and the like. We added them to beans that were refried with milk and a little red chile powder. Combined with a little queso fresco, or non-cooked farmer’s cheese and a flour tortilla, they are nothing short of fantastic.

Chuales or wild lambsquarters.

A dish that rivaled the chuales was one that I had always heard about, tallos y nopales, or the green stems of maturing onions and prickly pear cactus pads cooked in a red chile sauce. To allow the onions to mature in the fields, the main stem with a flower bulb, is cut and used for this dish. Recipes varied as I asked different people, but the basic pattern goes something like this – sauté the onion stems that have been chopped into small sections, boil the de-spined and chopped cactus pads until the foam disappears and strain. Combine equal parts of the tallos and nopales, add boiling water along with the amount of chile and salt desired.

Tallos or onion stems.

Tallos chopped, prickly pear – nopales, cooking to the rear.

Young nopales – prickly pear cactus pads, almost perfect for eating.

We programmed our trip to photograph the harvesting of agave plants at Rancho Tepua. They were delayed so we spent a couple of days wandering around town, the outskirts and surrounding hills. Considering that those two days had no agenda, they ended up being fuller than full. We made new acquaintances with two American couples who were staying at the hotel, one of them is negotiating to buy it as I write. I’d call it a most interesting and gutsy move in a time when not many people want to go to Mexico. To me it’s the kind of move that makes no logical sense and yet on another level, makes perfectly good sense. As is said, calculated risk often makes for reward.

Claudia Cordova Hererida, manager of the hotel La Posada del Rio Sonora, a master at avoiding having her photo taken, the only I’ve managed in four trips.

Kids baseball team from Banamichi.

Separated from Athena and Kalin while riding bikes, I wandered into the tiny ranchito La Martina, where I found four men, one of them older, quietly talking, wrapping up the day’s work to the glow of the setting sun. Initially, I found myself hesitant, not wanting to disrupt, but ultimately I was not able to resist. The setting – buildings and trees, the men’s faces, the animals, had stories and images written all over them. Don Ramon Ochoa, the older man who looked to be about 80, sitting on his horse had the kind of face that suggested thousands of tales and adventures. The other three, his sons, Alfredo, Conrado and Ramon had the same look about them, the difference being that one would calculate their stories to be in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Don Ramon Ochoa and sons.

Don Ramon to the rear with his friend Moises. Cooking in the pot on his old wheelbarrow grill are nopales y tallos. One thing to immediately admire about Don Ramon is that when many people his age are being confined to assisted living and care facilities, he continues working, riding his horse or burro daily, looking as fit as someone half his age.

Don Ramon’s burro.

Together they have fields they tend, cattle they raise, cows for milking and cheese and are regarded for the mescal they produce at their still, vinata. The first few minutes of conversation, but as always, gave way to ease and laughter. The short version of this story is that the next day revolved around this family – a guided tour of an Opata site, a lunch or comida of tallos and nopales, photographing the grand-daughter of Ramon who was a candidate for the queen of her middle school. And of course, cousins and siblings were also ready to have their photos taken.

Grand-daughters Kimberly, queen candidate and cousin Maria Jesus.

Photo review – mothers and siblings.

We love the little stores that are scattered throughout town, no super markets to be found within a hundred miles. Most of the basic necessities are there, I always seem to find whatever we need, we buy from three them, all within a couple of blocks from where we stay. Most often we frequent Tienda San Judas, the most colorful store in town, owned by enterprising, outspoken, Manuel Ramos who is always worth a laugh, he’s got everything from cell phones to chiltepines (wild chiles). In my last conversation with him, when inquiring the identity of someone in a photo I posted on the blog, told me the name and let me know he had seen it on the blog. Turns out that he and others in town are following these posts, I never anticipated that it would have a local readership.

Manuel Ramos and his store below.

We revisited Rancho Tepua, where mescal bacanora is being produced, to photograph and video the harvesting of the agave plants used to make it. From the paved road, it takes about an hour’s drive to reach the ranch on a bumpy dirt road that winds into the mountains. Due to abundant winter rains, there were flowers everywhere, yellows, purples, from tiny to large. We followed Roberto Contreras Jr., co-worker Chico and their burro through the hills of spiny Sonoran Desert vegetation, as they harvested enough agave hearts to load the burro. And as always, we wandered our way back down the road in the dark to the Maldonado home in La Estancia for an evening of capirotada, traditional bread pudding served during Lent.

Loading the burro with the agave hearts – cabezas.

Cutting the leaves from the agave.

The next day we returned to the Maldonado’s for a Palm Sunday brunch, (actually I don’t think there is a word for brunch in Spanish), pit barbecued beef, traditionally known in Mexico as a maya. The morning was one of those quintessential Mexican weekend meals, sitting outside under trees with an abundance of beer and conversation. I don’t think anyone can match the Mexican people when it comes food and beer in the shade of trees.

Armida and Eliazar Maldonado at their home in La Estancia.

The drive home takes about 4 ½ hours if we do it without stopping. For one reason or another, we easily seem to make it last all day. Having left early, gave us time to drive the old road along and through the river, Kalin and Athena love riding in the roof rack of the Suburban. It’s the road used by those working the fields that line the river so it’s always a chance to see what’s growing, to watch the planting-maintenance of the living fence rows and to make new friends – which we did.

Athena and Kalin preparing for a drive along the river. Turns out our 89 Chevy Suburban is much admired along the river valley for its age, strength and four wheel drive.

Plowing the fields near Bamori.

For at least the next month and a half we’re home doing workshops, Mexico will have to come to us. We given scholarships to two young guys from the valley, our constant companion Mauro Maldonado and Roberto Contreras jr, pictured above collecting agave cabezas with the burro. Italy will also come to us in the form of a new intern, Cecilia, who we met during our Europe tour. And with that, I could say, adios for now, but most Mexicans now use the word “bye.”

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  1. Thank you, Bill, for another chapter; for the pictures and for the continuing story about your trips to Mexico, and to northern New Mexico. Feliz primavera, por usted, su familia, y sus visitantes. george

  2. What a great post. I teach 4th grade in a tiny rural school in Aguila, AZ. Our school is 97% Hispanic. I have almost all Hispanic children in my class – all but one. I enjoy learning a bit more about the culture of MX through your posts.

    For many years I have had a dream of building a strawbale home. Someday I will visit Canelo and take some of your strawbale workshops. I have many of your books.

    Gracias y adios,


  3. Very interesting post Bill! We so enjoyed meeting you, Athena and Kalin. We are already looking forward to our next meeting. Thanks for all the information and the beautiful photos. Hope the video camera is getting easier. Take care!

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