Running With Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians

Tarahumara Runners Mexico

Tarahumara Runners in the Copper Canyon

Cerocahui, Mexico

Tarahumara runners are some of the best long-distance marathoners in the world. While exploring Mexico’s Copper Canyon, I attempted to go running with them.

Northern Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madre mountains are home to the indigenous Tarahumara (Rarámuri) people. During the 16th century they retreated deep into these formidable canyons to escape slave raids by Spanish conquistadors.

For hundreds of years they remained isolated from the outside world growing their own corn, potatoes, and beans while living in caves. A complex network of trails links the various Rancheras — small communities of 3-7 families who share work & farmland.

Trail running to deliver messages and communicate between families is a major part of their lifestyle. Running was also important for hunting animals — chasing down deer until they are too exhausted to escape a well-placed Tarahumara arrow.

In fact they call themselves Rarámuri which translates to “the running people”.

Tarahumara Runners Mexico

Ultra-Running Champion Miguel Lara

Born To Run?

Like many others, I first learned about the Tarahumara after reading Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book “Born to Run“. It explores the life & running habits of the tribe while arguing that running shoes hurt us more than they help us.

So visiting the Tarahumara homeland and meeting them in person was kind of a big deal for me. I’m not much of a runner, but was excited to learn from them. I arrived in the town of Bahuichivo after a beautiful train journey through the Copper Canyon.

From there we traveled to San Isidro Lodge above the village of Cerocahui by way of a steep, rough, and winding dirt road.

Then I met Miguel Lara & Leonardo Cleto from the Tarahumara tribe.

These guys have been running their whole lives, starting when they were kids competing in rarajipari races. This is a traditional Tarahumara game where contestants kick a wooden ball down mountain trails for hours (or days) at a time.

Tarahumara Runners Mexico

Comparing Our Huarache Sandals

Running For Fun

Both Miguel & Leonardo were clad in zapetas (loin cloths) and traditional huarache sandals made from tires and leather straps. They quickly noticed I was wearing huaraches too, although mine are a pair of Luna Sandals made in the US.

The sandals mold to your foot, providing just enough protection from the terrain without interfering with natural movement.

All three of us took off for a short morning run through the forest. Miguel & Leonardo ran fast and light over the rough trails, making it look easy. They ran with short strides, fluid speed, and landed on the balls of their feet rather than heels. Watching their legendary technique up close was quite a treat.

But it was their attitude that brought a smile to my face.

Running is not a chore for the Tarahumara. It’s just fun. I could feel their joy running alongside them. It was infectious. We only went a short distance but I was hooked.

Running for exercise is one thing, running for fun is something completely different.

Tarahumara Runners Mexico

Running for Fun with Leonardo

Tarahumara People

Not only are the Tarahumara some of the most skilled long-distance trail runners alive, 22 year old Miguel Lara is arguably the best in the whole tribe at the moment. He’s won most of the races he’s competed in.

In fact I just learned he placed 2nd last weekend in the Ultra Caballo Blanco, Micah True’s famous 60 mile trail race held in the Copper Canyon.

Running with the Tarahumara has directly contributed to my renewed interest in the sport. I logged quite a few miles jogging through the rocky canyons of the Sierra Madre during the rest of my trip. And I had a lot of fun doing it.

Actually just writing this post has inspired me.

It’s 10pm right now, but I think I’ll strap on my huaraches & go for a run. ★

More Information

Location: Cerocahui, Mexico [Map]
Accommodation: San Isidro Lodge
Company: Authentic Copper Canyon
Useful Notes: It’s difficult to describe trail running through the natural beauty of the Copper Canyons. Especially with the Tarahumara. It’s very possible you’ll never look at running the same way again.

Are you a runner? Have you heard of the Tarahumara before? Share with us in the comments below!


This adventure is made possible in partnership with Authentic Copper Canyon & Chihuahua Tourism. As always, the content & opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

Want To Travel More?

Hi! My name is Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for 3 years. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with entertaining stories, beautiful images, and money saving tips. Please join thousands of others who receive exclusive monthly updates!


Comments & Questions

16 Comments

  1. Jim
    July 24, 2014

    Tarahumara runners are so good at what they do they were actually banned from competing in one of the largest marathons held in the US. After humiliating many world runners of course.

    Reply
  2. Marvin Espinoza
    January 14, 2014

    Great post! Did you live with them? Would they allow you to train with them and just learn from them? Is it possible for an American to live with them for a year and just become a part of their culture?

    Reply
  3. Outpost Magazine
    January 9, 2014

    That’s pretty incredible that the best type of running gear for this terrain is a simple and effective pair of Huarache Sandals. Time tested and comfortable: the human foot.

    Thanks for this great post Matt!

    Reply
  4. Dana Richardson
    November 20, 2013

    I am co-producing a documentary featuring the Tarahumara, the most indigenous tribe in North America. The Tarahumara are renowned for their long distance running ability and remarkable resistance to the top 3 modern diseases – cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Our documentary Goshen, links their extraordinary health to their indigenous diet and extremely active lifestyle.

    In March 2013, we got to live among one of the remote Tarahumara communities for a month and document their way of life in the remote depths of the Copper Canyons, Mexico. We believe your readers will be inspired by the Tarahumara lifestyle. Check out http://www.goshenfilm.com

    Reply
  5. Kara
    July 21, 2013

    My family is from Chihuahua, My abuelos dad was tarahumara and I spent about three months out of the year every year there until I was about 17 and you rarely see this side of them thank you for sharing this is awesome!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 16, 2013

      Very cool Kara. Yeah, I felt honored to be able to hang out with them and see this. :)

      Reply
  6. jill
    March 22, 2013

    Very impressive. I hate running – and I think those trail runners are half cyborgs. How do they train? Do they just run everywhere all the time?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 25, 2013

      These two run regularly in the mornings like most runners, but they’ve got rough, high-altitude trails right outside their doors. Miguel runs in ultra-marathons in the US occasionally too.

      But your average Tarahumara runs the canyon trails to get from his home into town looking for work or to sell produce. There are many running games played during local holidays too.

      Reply
  7. Sofie
    March 12, 2013

    I’m very curious about their tehnique!
    I suppose you didn’t get to film it?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 13, 2013

      I didn’t get video unfortunately, was planning to run with them again later in the week but it didn’t pan out and I arrived at the race too late. I do have some video of me playing the Rarajípari game with some kids, eventually I’ll get that posted. They kicked my ass. :)

      Reply
  8. Craig Zabransky
    March 10, 2013

    What impressed me most was the terrain… they just ran across uneven mountainous terrain with ease… complete ease.

    congrats to Miguel too… he has a long career in front of him…

    stay adventurous, Craig

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 11, 2013

      One day when Miguel is winning every 50 mile ultra race he enters, I can say: “I ran with that guy!”. :)

      Reply
  9. Janeth
    March 8, 2013

    Very nice post!

    Reply
  10. Ryan @ Pause The Moment
    March 8, 2013

    Awesome post Matt! What an incredible experience it must have been to get a chance to run with Miguel. I’m guessing that goes down as one of the most memorable runs you’ve ever taken, because, as we all know not too many runs are memorable.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 9, 2013

      You can say that again. After the experience I’m learning to treat the whole thing as a fun challenge, and it’s making it more enjoyable. Running with others and on varied/scenic terrain also helps. Now if I could only make burpees more fun… :D

      Reply

Leave a Reply