Mandas a Magdalena


NOGALES, Ariz. — Faith, for some, is the force that can motivate the endurance of great pain for penance, but for non-religious people, this suffering is difficult to understand.

It is faith that leads hundreds of Mexicans from the state of Sonora to walk 50 or more miles each October in a little-known yet significant religious pilgrimage from Nogales, Sonora to Magadalena, Sonora. To see this force of faith for myself, in October 2009, I too walked with the pilgrims.

Caminantes close to finish their pilgrimage, close to Magdalena. (George Thomson/

Caminantes close to finish their pilgrimage to Magdalena. (George Thomson/

If I completed this pilgrimage the journey would not be complete until I took one more step and fulfilled my “manda.” I walked 50 miles from Nogales, Sonora to Magdalena, Sonora during two days. With each step I made a commitment to document the annual pilgrimage completed yearly by hundreds of Mexicans. Over these two days in October these pilgrims depart from various locations in Sonora and Sinaloa, northern states in Mexico.

“Camino a tener una niña.”  (I am walking to have a baby girl.)

All of us walked with a promise or to ask a miracle to be granted once the walk was complete and a kiss planted on the head of the statue of San Francisco in the church at Magdalena.

On the first day I walked alone down the 25 miles of long straight roads empty of people and filled with speeding cars and barreling trucks. On the next day I walked dirt roads filled with hundreds of rain-soaked pilgrims, nearly all flashing signs of peace to this reporter.

The isolated highway of long straight pavement and then the dirt roads packed with pilgrims and strewn with empty water bottles contrast the experience. Once the pilgrims reach Magdalena they kiss and lift the head of San Francisco at the Church in Magdalena to ask for his blessing and a miracle.

Regardless of the weather, regardless of the quality of their shoes or food to sustain them and water to quench thirst, the pilgrims walk. On this walk rain poured and the walkers kept walking.

Roberto, one of the pilgrims with whom I walked the miles, said “If I’d known what I was getting into, I would have found a way out.”

“Mi manda es cuidar mejor a mis niños.” (I’m walking to take better care of my children.)

This long walk required a manda, a reason to make the walk. For my manda I considered a penance for all the bad things I’d done, but they were past. I thought I may as well make a promise to improve myself, but that would take a miracle. My personal manda was a pay it forward, a promise to document this pilgrimage. This non-believer walked to relate the respect I have for the hundreds pilgrims I walked with, each with their own individual reason to take on this challenge.

What event would make this historical tradition a necessity? It begins with religious myth that tells the history of the Magdalena pilgrimage…

Pilgrims touching and kissing the statue of San Francisco to get their miracle granted. (George Thomson/

Pilgrims touching and kissing the statue of San Francisco to get their miracle granted. (George Thomson/

San Francisco de Xavier is the patron saint of historically influential Padre Kino. Xavier died in India, incorrupt, that is his body didn’t decompose. That miracle, along with the work of Padre Kino, make the pilgrimage a call for a personal manda. One problem for Kino, his patron saint’s feast day was in December, a little cold for a feast and pilgrimage. Kino, then, changed the celebration for San Francisco to the feast day of Saint Assisi, the patron Saint of the Animals to Assisi’s feast day on October fourth.

Mandas: Penance, Miracles, Promesas and Pay it Forwards

“I prayed for everyone I knew, from A to Z even my enemies, and I got one friend back.”

Joe had made the pilgrimage 18 times, each time he walked a straight 24 hours. With his deep religious convictions, Joe walked the pilgrimage to seek the improvement of other’s lives and give meaning to his religious convictions.

“I was hit by a bus.”

At about mile 36 a young man limped slowly down the road; as I passed him he asked for some chocolate as he rested. He told of being hit by a bus and showed his mangled ankle. He promised that if he were able to walk after the accident, his manda would be to make the full pilgrimage from Nogales to Magdalena.

Two walkers talked of loved ones in a coma, and how the pilgrimage was a miracle or a promise. On the route Roberto talked about his cousin who the doctors said, “was gone.” Roberto walked for the miracle, knowing that after six months in a coma the doctors said his chances of recovery were slim. Later his cousin did come out of his coma, although deeply affected, and enjoyed a few more years of life.

Martha spoke of her niece, who had also been in a coma. Her brother promised that if his daughter came out of her three-week coma, he would walk, the daughter came out and Martha’s brother walked from Tumacacori, Arizona to Magdalena more than 80 miles in three days.

Marcelino walked for five years to keep his father alive. One woman said, “for a baby girl.” Another told me, “para la salud del mundo,” for world health. The first person I met on the route was a young man who promised to be a better father. Many walked for the health of their family.

As for penance, no one would confess theirs, but as I listened to the reasons for walking, it became obvious that past transgressions were being paid back.

Los que Ayudan

Members of the Torres Picos family offer their support to walkers with water, lemons, and medicines. (George Thomson/

Members of the Torres Picos family offer their support to walkers with water, lemons, and medicines. (George Thomson/

The manda is not only for the walkers, but also for those who help the walkers, along the route for the same reasons the walkers walk, “Los que ayudan, (those who help) also have a personal manda that may be granted if they help the walkers.

Proudly holding a sign with one family’s name and the years 2007 and 2008 crossed out and with 2009 written in over the previous dates, this family told of the 30-year tradition of helping the walkers. At another stop, near La Mesa, at about mile 40, a family had a tent and tables set in the yard serving coffee, breakfast, aspirin and even cigarettes.

A woman from Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, walked the year her brother recovered from a serious medical problem. Now, to keep him healthy, she served coffee and sandwiches as her brother lay in the back of the truck.

The most useful was a family driving the route offering water, foot gel and duct tape to help the walker’s feet make the journey.

Another family spoke of their father who walked for 12 years without support, so they choose to help along the route. A young girl gave aspirin from the back of her mom’s car.

The best stop for food served delicious shrimp, but that stop gave an unexpected payback with diarrhea at the end of the route.


Jessica told of her tía’s “incredible experience,” Her tía had walked half way to Magdalena, and lost her group. She was alone, in fear, when she met an elderly man who helped and encouraged her, “con ánimo,”  (Keep going you can do it.) Later after the reunited group of 10 relentlessly looked for him to thank him, the elderly man was nowhere to be found. They were all convinced he was the sprit of their dead grandfather for whom they had walked the year before.

All along the route Los Ayudantes provided water, food, medicine even cigarettes for free, only one sign offered “Baños $5.” I pissed on the  sign.

In the pueblo of Terenate, Sonora, directly above the route, Teresa, an incredible woman with a huge heart, opened her home to eight walkers and the pilgrims’ support family. Her manda, to help these first-time walkers, at great expense to herself, gave love and sustenance and it would have been much more difficult to complete the pilgrimage without her deep support.

Other people of Terenate supported this group, like the handyman who set up the blessed and comfortable old army cots and even the town drunk who acquired fresh cilantro, onions and radishes for our meals and gladly accepted payment in beer.

“I’ll know when I get there.”

George Thomson taking a break from the long walk. (Courtesy of George Thomson)

George Thomson taking a break from the long walk. (Courtesy of George Thomson)

Along the route, on a small dirt road, a large tour bus passed. A tour bus that drives the route, that is the easy way.  Take a bus and drive to your manda.

Consider your manda, or walk and then find it, one woman said, “I’ll know when I get there.”

Get your blisters early, at least one month before you leave on the journey.


As I took the 1000 photographs of the walk I started to see nearly all of the pilgrims flashing a peace sign, showing the true nature of the manda — peace and goodwill through miracles, promesas, penance, and paying it forward.

This historically significant yearly pilgrimage in Northern Mexico, demonstrates that through a humbling sacrifice, faith will grant a miracle.

16 thoughts on “Mandas a Magdalena

  1. George: Very insightful and thorough. I was only superficially aware of this pilgrimage. Sorry I didn’t find your report till now in April 2010. Keep working and keep the quality you demonstrate in this article.

  2. George, I suspect that this pilgrimage is about to become more widely known. Brandon Flowers (lead singer of The Killers band) has just released a solo album called Flamingo. One of the songs is called Magdalena and is about the walk from Nogales to Magdalena!

  3. Glenda, thanks for that info. We’re walking again October 1st if you’re local and would like to join our group of five walkers. It is a beautiful cultural experience.

  4. In Portugal there’s a huge foot pilgrimage towards Fátima from all parts of the country. It takes a week to arrive when they come from the most distant ones.
    In some years they gather 300,000 people, together with catholic believers from all over the world.

    Well, it’s faith. Like Brandon Flowers’s, I guess.

  5. Hi George,
    One of my fathers “compadres” walked to Magdalena because he made the promise that he would do it if he made it through WWII. He made it back and he walked every year until he could not make it. Faith has no explanations, yet it can move mountains. My Son who is not necessarily religious asked me to sprinkle Holy Water on his uniforms before he took off to Iraq. He insists that this is what kept him alive even after loosing his buddies who were right beside him.

  6. George,

    Hello again! If you recall we met Saturday morning of the walk (I was the guy who took your advice on the socks!! Thanks again as that really helped).

    Anyhow at the point I saw you Saturday morning I thought we only had a few miles to go. Boy was I wrong. At about mile 45 I sat down for about an hour and was ready to give up, however, everyone that passed me was cheering me on and lifted my spirits. I made it in 18 hours (including 3 hours of breaks)!

    I wanted to meet you for a beer at the end of the walk but forgot the name of the bar you would be at. Magdalena was much larger than I had envisioned. Also I was much more exhausted both physically and emotionally than I’d anticipated.

    Anyhow it was nice chatting with you. Look forward to your story on this years walk. It was a very moving experience for me personally.

    Also I was hoping you might send a copy of the picture you took of me Saturday morning to send to my Dad.

    Best regards….Dan

  7. George I wanted to thank you for your insightful story of your journey.
    My husband and I hope to do it next year as we were unable to this October.
    I was wondering if you could give an insight on accomodation along the way, we would like to do the journey in two or three parts and stop over night at towns on the way. Are there many places to stay? I guess they maybe full if there are?
    And please share your famous sock advice!
    Thanks so much again.


  8. Hi,
    I want to travel the world when I finish high school and this is one of the things I want to do. It sounds amazing and I was hoping you could give me some facts and other information on how to take part in this pilgrimage.
    Thank you

  9. George,

    Hello again! Thanks for your recent e-mail reply. I didn’t see the picture on the Flickr link you sent.

    Any chance I missed something?


  10. Mr. Thomson,
    Thank you so much for the insight into this pilgrimage. I feel inspired and compelled to make the journey from Nogales to Magdalena to absolve my sins and become a new person spiritually. I am looking for some information on how to get involved and participate in the upcoming years. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again for such a great account of the Sonoran Pilgrimage.

  11. Excellent article. I live in Tucson, and have almost decided to do the walk in October 2011. I would drive to Nogales, Arizona, and walk from there. One question: How does one get back to Nogales afterwards?

  12. Hello, will you be going on a pilgrimage this year–2011? I am very interested in this pilgrimage, but would have to fly from across the country first. Would like to join a group.

  13. John: Several bus lines run almost hourly from Magdalena to Nogales. One of the most friendly, reliable, and comfortable is Tufesa.

    (Actually, the major Mexican bus lines make Greyhound look really shabby because the buses are sleek, immaculate, late-model Mercedes and Volvos, most of them “hecho en Mexico.”)

    The terminals are less than a 15-minute stroll from the Kino Shrine. Just ask anybody for directions.

  14. Hi George,
    A friend and I are hoping to do the pilgrimage walk to Magdalena in 2014. Is there a way to get more specific information on the route and advise on what to take? Thank you! I grew up in Nogales and always wanted to do this.

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