There is a beautiful little town in Sinaloa, Mexico, called El Fuerte, “The Fort.” Situated on top of the tallest bluff along the river, the fort overlooks a forested wildlife preserve on the other side.
It is an old city, the birthplace of Don Diego de la Vega, known as the hero, Zorro. His wealthy parents moved, shortly after his birth, to the Los Angeles area of California, which was still part of Mexico. There he grew up seeing the inequalities between the native people and the rich landowners. He became the Robin Hood of Mexico, stealing the hard-earned wealth from the richest landowners and returning it to those whose sweat and labor created it.
References to Zorro are everywhere in El Fuerte, in brochures, on menus, and on plaques. In the patio of one hotel, a sculpture of the man dominates; whip in the air, ready to do battle.
The town is beautiful because it’s so well preserved. It is filled with sculptures and murals, old colonial buildings, and lovely parks with mature trees. Whitewashed buildings sit next to clean streets with graffiti-free walls. It is an oasis in the Sinaloan desert.
And in some ways it’s a big fake.
The town has been there for a long time, but the fort is new and houses a historical museum. Its walls hide an enormous water tank that serves the city’s water needs. It was supposedly built on the site of the original fort, but signs say there was no real proof a fort ever existed there.
And although there is a plaque on one house claiming to be the birthplace of Zorro and other plaques on the houses of various relatives, it didn’t take but a few minutes searching the web to discover the truth. Zorro was not born in the early 1800s. He was born in 1919 in the imagination of writer Johnston McCulley. The character was later made famous in a movie starring Douglas Fairbanks. The real landowners in California never had to deal with a maverick from their own ranks.
The town is a natural jumping-off place in the desert. The famous “El Chepe” Copper Canyon train reaches El Fuerte in the late evening, bringing tourists for an overnight stop. Several well-appointed small hotels and restaurants cater to them.
Tours are available in the early morning to view the large number of bird species that live in the reserve along the river. Other tours take people to see local indigenous villages and craft workshops.
Being one of the prettiest, best-kept cities in Mexico apparently wasn’t enough enticement for tourists. In the days before the Internet, the town must have felt it had to fabricate a fictional native son to add some legitimacy. The legend has certainly added romance to the tourist experience. Even now, most visitors don’t bother to look up the truth about Zorro and still believe the legends surrounding him.
Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: www.mexadventures.com.