The People's Guide To Mexico

Camping in Mexico

Strangers In The Night

By Carl Franz
An excerpt from The People's Guide to Backpacking, Boating & Camping in Mexico

republished: February 2002

Carl's note: The anecdote below is taken from our People's Guide to Backpacking, Boating & Camping In Mexico. The book has been out-of-print for many years, so in response to many requests we will republish portions of it on this website.

In the early Seventies, Lorena and I were camped in a remote region of western Mexico, in a place that promised plenty of adventure. As you'll see below, we got even more than we'd bargained for....


We were awakened in our tent late one night by a strange sound coming over the low moaning of the wind. Angry cries drifted in the air, punctuated by a metallic banging, as if a bucket were being beaten with a broom handle. Occasional dim flashes of light through the trees indicated that someone was approaching our camp. Who could it be? And at this hour of the night, when all respectable and superstitious campesinos were safely barricaded inside their houses?

I crawled out of bed and quickly kicked dirt over the coals of our campfire. There seemed little hope that we would be overlooked. A partial moon reflected off the tent, erected almost in the middle of the trail. My instinctive reaction was to hide, but where? The ridge was too steep and confining to make a strategic getaway. Could this be a genuine bandit attack?

"Sounds more like a snipe hunt to me,” Lorena said, pulling on her clothes and wrapping herself in a shawl to ward off the chill.

I wanted to agree, but my imagination had taken control; it was a drug-crazed band of Indians bent on exorcising the intruders (us) from sacred ground. We would be dragged off by our hair to . . . No, it was too awful to contemplate. I would have to amaze them with my Bic lighter, convince them we brought only goodwill and gifts of garlic powder, soy sauce and flashlight batteries . . .

We listened intently but the cries and shouts were meaningless.

Here they come,” Lorena nudged me with her elbow, pointing to a break in the dense pine trees a hundred yards away. I saw an odd twinkle of light, followed by a shout of “¡Vapor! ¡Vapor!”, a string of curses and a tinny crash. What did he say? Steam? Steam?

Before I could puzzle this out a huge knock-kneed burro staggered into view, its ragged dusty coat gleaming an eerie silver in the moonlight. Its head tossed crazily from side to side as the rider, a hunched up old man who looked as eroded and scarred as the mountains themselves, thrashed the beast about the neck and ears with a long crooked stick.

“¡Vapor! ¡Más luz!” the old man cried, delivering a mighty blow between the animal’s flopping ears. The burro shook its head and to our amazement a dim light beamed out of its forehead. Another angry shout of “Steam! More light!” and a jab in the neck with the stick intensified the glow.

In our travels in Mexico we have often heard wild tales of mythical creatures, the whistling deer of Quintana Roo that lure hunters to an unknown fate, dwarves who steal naughty children and snakes that fly and grab you by the nose. But this! Nothing had prepared us for a burro that glowed in the dark.

We stood transfixed as the unearthly pair bore down on us. Running, I knew, would do no good. No one escapes the Glowing Burro.

“!Buenas noches!” a quavery voice called, the greeting punctuated by a final THWACK! of the stick as the burro steered toward us. “Sorry I am so late,” the old man added, gingerly easing ancient bones from the crude wood and leather saddle. He hobbled over with his hand extended, eyes glittering brightly in the moonlight. I automatically shook his frail hand.

“Allow me to present my identification, señor.” he said in a tone of formality tinged with humor. He thrust a small tattered piece of paper into my hand and raised his arm in a sloppy salute.

“Just a moment,” he added, “and I will bring you the light. Come Vapor! Come you grimy son of a . . . “ He turned and grabbed “Steam” by the nearest ear, twisting and tugging until the beast relented and took a few steps forward. With no further ado, the old man raised his club and clobbered the burro on the forehead. Each blow brought a tremendous shake and clatter as the animal tried to avoid the stick. Within seconds, the light reappeared on its forehead. Gradually increasing in intensity, like a weak flashlight beam.

“It’s a carbide miner’s lantern!” I said to Lorena, bending closer to read the faded print. “Zapata? Good lord! This is his ID from Zapata’s Army!” The old man grinned triumphantly as I returned the card, replacing it with great care in a handmade leather pouch on his belt. There was only one more mystery to be solved: what did he want with us, late news from Pancho Villa’s Army Of The North?

He anticipated my question; reaching for a Revolutionary era blown glass jug that dangled by a thong from the saddle, he smiled and said, “Amigos, my neighbors told me that gringos passed through today.” He paused for a long gurgling swallow before passing the bottle to me, “and I came just as fast as I could. Uiii! You walked farther than I expected! Such energy!” He took a deep breath of air and continued, “I am going to tell you stories of my adventures, all of my many adventures.”

He watched with an appraising eye as I took a tentative sip. It was homemade aguardiente, smooth but very potent. “I have many stories,” he said, reaching behind the saddle to untie his bedroll, “and I know that you will enjoy them. What else is there,” he added, “to do on such a long night as this?”

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©1972-2002 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens