Photo © Joe Furey

The Moon Men of Mexico’s Sonoran Desert

The El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve can seem otherworldly – but did the Apollo 11 astronauts actually train here?

Joseph S Furey's Profile Image

By Joseph S Furey

Travel Writer

1 Dec 2023 - 5 Minute Read


Covering 2,760mi2 (7,150km2) of Sonora, Mexico’s second largest state, the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is vast – “visible from space” vast. But its size is not the reason UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site. Its otherworldly landscapes – part dormant volcanic, part active sand dunes – provide habitat for a stupendous variety of fauna and flora, including the gila monster, bighorn sheep and a subspecies of pronghorn antelope; and it erupts into color, throwing up sprays of verbena and lily, as soon as it sniffs water.

I had always wanted to go there, and when my duties as a drug-war correspondent took me to nearby Mexicali, my nerves, after a couple of close things with cartel heavies, begged for some remission from violence, horror and politics. I headed straight to Puerto Peñasco, on the north shore of the Sea of Cortez, a good base from which to explore the reserve.

It was summertime, and the living – in a rented room in an apartment block close to the beach – was as easy as the fishing, which kept me and my neighbors in red snapper, bonito, and calico bass for the duration of my stay. These days, the Sea of Cortez is more commonly referred to as the Gulf of California, but seeing as I’m a romantic – having, when I was 12, been utterly gripped by John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the novelist’s account of his six-week marine expedition on a sardine boat – I know what I’ll continue to call it.

One of the reserve's moon-like craters.
Joe Furey
One of the reserve's moon-like craters.

I don’t mind admitting that the reserve came to possess me, to the point where I was trekking it in my sleep. I had intended to spend a week getting to know it, but a month got by me without breaking a sweat, despite the high heat. Each visit I paid to its cinder cones, lava tubes, lunar craters, shifting sands and inselbergs – seemingly punching through the desert floor like fists of granite to form their own mini sierra – felt like my first. It was wonderfully disorienting, the way love can be.

But it was something that happened there, and something I saw, that made my trip to El Pinacate – rather brilliantly named for a beetle, which, when distressed, does a headstand and emits a foul-smelling fluid – so memorable. It’s where I was handed irrefutable proof that the Apollo 11 moon landing wasn’t faked.

Jagged peaks and wildflowers in El Pinacate.
Joe Furey
Jagged peaks and wildflowers in El Pinacate.

Over coffee in Peñasco one morning, I told a neighbor, Gus, a softly spoken man in his seventies, that I'd heard astronauts had undergone training of some kind in the reserve, but I’d put that down to people speculating on its unearthly appearance. Gus smiled, benign as a pane of cool, clear glass, and slowly, as if a rite were being performed, took a photo out of a large wallet and, watching my face, passed it to me.

As I examined it, he said: “An American businessman – a hotelier and horse breeder – threw a party for some important people here, at his house, in January 1969. He asked me if I would play with the band he had booked, so I took my cornet along. Everyone was very excited, but I didn’t know why or who the men were. They were friendly and they tipped us well, and that was all I really cared about then. I would learn their names later.”

He paused, as though summoning nerve, then said with inordinate care: “Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.”

And there they were, faded and a little furred at the creases, but it was undeniably them, grinning up at me in their civvies, holding baconara cocktails like tiki bar regulars, a few months before universal fame would come knocking and never, ever stop.

I asked if I could take a photo of his icon, but Gus shook his head, still smiling, and gently took it from me. The “three amiable strangers” – in Collins’ own words – returned to their rightful home, he placed his wallet on the table between us. I swear, for a moment then, it glowed.

Discover similar stories in

Travel Writer

Joe Furey is a travel writer who's writing credits include The Times, Guardian, National Geographic, and Vice.

Related articles

No Comments

Add a Comment