20. Santa Muerte: Tultitlán

The Sierra de Guadalupe loomed over my hotel in Tultitlán on the Avenida López Portillo. Box stores, franchises and malls lined the great expressway of the northern part of the megalopolis. Trucks and other traffic roared through the morning as I walked onto the sidewalk – an anonymous pedestrian amid the late morning traffic. As I walked looking for a point of entry, a point which would bring me up the Sierra de Guadalupe mountains, I suddenly was struck by a dark shape behind me, caught from the corner of my eye.

Looking up I saw a two-story statue of a skeleton with a black cloak, arms outstretched. I realized that this was a shrine to the Santa Muerte I had heard about. The Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is a popular religious cult worshipping death as a Catholic saint. Though the statue was separated from the highway by a sheet metal barrier a man-sized door in the gate was half open.

With all the grace of a lifetime tourist I took out my camera and slipped through the door. Behind, it was a gravel parking lot, a small building, some tent pavilions and the huge statue. There was nobody. So I took a picture of the statue.

Immediately an old woman appeared from the building, like a witch from a play. The wrinkled caretaker angrily told me that it was prohibited to take picture of the image without permission of the priestess. As I explained my good intentions she asked me to accompany her to the building.

The building was an open wooden office space with various religious items of the Santa Muerte for sale, a religious gift shop. She told me that the priestess was having a mass next Sunday and that if I wanted to take pictures I had to return then.

After explaining my willingness to interview the priestess but the impossibility of my being here on Sunday as I had to continue my walk, I left. I turned right and found a path through the houses upwards into the slopes of the Sierra de Guadalupe. After a brief ascent the houses disappeared and a cement road curved up the slope though dry grass and Eucalyptus trees.

After a while the asphalt road ended. I continued over a dirt road as the vegetation changed, the eucalypti disappeared and the original foliage of oak and pine, agave and nopal reappeared. The slopes became increasingly steep. The dirt road became a path up a tree-clad ravine. Finally I arrived at a small stone shrine with a rustic painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on a stone amid a small clearing of rocks on the floor of the gully.

I continued along the creek at the bottom of the ravine hopping over the stones. I was thirsty and hungry and had not brought anything along. As I searched my pockets I found a lollypop I had been given after some meal. I saw a pool of moving water coming up from a spring. The high mountain ridge loomed above me. So I scooped a gulp of cool water from the pool with my hand and drank it, enjoying the lollypop afterwards. And I felt it was perfect.

I realized that the ravine would bring me to a dead-end as the slopes were increasingly steep. Finally I saw a precarious path up the rocks to the left. I clambered up and found myself climbing on all fours up the face of rock and brush towards the highest point of the Valley of Mexico and Sierra de Guadalupe, el Cerro de los Tres Picos. A watchtower on top was my point of reference. I knew that when I reached it I would also find a more passable path off the mountain.

As I pulled myself up on one particularly steep part the small tree which I was holding in my right hand came loose. I slid belly-down banging along the rocks. When I came to a standstill on a small plateau I had spots before my eyes. My belly burned from being dragged over the rocks. An intense pain shot through my left shoulder and I was afraid I had dislocated it. I could no longer lift my right arm. There was no way I could climb back without it, the slope had been too steep. And the watchtower was some four hundred yards amid the rocks above. It was getting late and it would be impossible to climb the mountain in the dark. If I did not hurry I would be stuck on the side of the Cerro de los Tres Picos for the night. Things change suddenly in the wild. One moment all is well, the next you are in trouble.

I had no choice but to continue upwards with one arm. With great care I wedged my legs between the rocks and continued, fumbling upwards with one hand towards the watchtower.

When I finally reached the graffiti covered metal skeleton of the watchtower with some daylight left I was overwhelmed with relief. I scaled up the metal ladders feeling the vibration of the steel and hearing the metallic reverberation of my footsteps though the rusty structure. And as I stood on the watch platform at the top I saw the flatlands of Ecatepec and Coacalco to the north fade into the smog below me.

I struggled onwards over a path amid the trees at the top of the hill until I reached the huge radio dish of Televisa. There was nobody there and the gate was open. So I walked in to the helicopter pad, before thinking better of it and returning to public land. I imagined all the nonsense spewing out of this dish, flowing down the hill and floating into television sets around Mexico. Such a powerful dish and so unprotected on top of this hill.

In the twilight I returned downward in the paths among the bushes finally arriving, a limping dirty mess at a hotel in Coacalco.