Sierra Madre

Writer, director, and actor John Huston created some of the most famous pieces in film history. A few of his standouts include The Maltese Falcon, the Asphalt Junge, The African Queen, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Three of those four partnered Huston with screen legend Humphrey Bogart, including 1948’s Treasure, considered one of the greatest adventure films and intensive psyche studies ever created.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was first a novel, written in 1927 under the pseudonym of B. Traven. To this date, the true identity of Traven is shrouded in mystery and open to debate. Most of Traven’s 12 novels are set in Mexico, where he is presumed to have lived most of his life, despite a seemingly German background.

Both the novel and the film prominently feature a real mountain range in Mexico, the namesake Sierra Madre. In Spanish, sierra means “mountain range,” while madre translates to “mother.” One might expect the “mother mountain range” to be quite the beauty. In this respect, the Sierra Madre delivers, but in triplicate!

Theatrical release poster - Warner Brothers

Though the book and movie mention the “mother mountain range” in the singular, three Sierra Madres exist.

Of the six significant chains in Mexico, two long ones flank the main continental body of the country and they bear the motherly moniker. In the east, between Texas and the Yucatan Peninsula is the Sierra Madre Oriental. In the broadest sense, “oriental” means “eastern.” On the other side of the nation runs the Sierra Madre Occidental. The word “occidental” stands for “western.” Additionally, another chain runs east-south-east at the southern tip of the Occidental range, which is called the Sierra Madre del Sur, the mother range of the south.

So, the ranges in Mexico have three mothers, all the cardinal directions save north.

Topological Map labeling the most important elevations of Mexico - NASA

The Sierra Madre Oriental rises from the Rio Grande on the border with the United States, running over 620 miles before terminating along the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps one of the strangest attributes of these chains is a human one. Despite the advanced nature of technology, in a world of global positioning systems, the heights of some of the mountains are inexactly known. Some sources proclaim Cerro San Rafael as the tallest peak in the Oriental range. Its elevation is cited at 12,139 feet in some resources and 12,188 in others. Peakbagger, a prominent mountaineering database, states Cerro el Potosí is the apex of the range, rising 12,205 feet above sea level. Part of the confusion stems from the imprecise measurements, which is exacerbated by the fact that three peaks – Cerro San Rafael, Cerro el Potosí, and Sierra de la Marta – all seemingly top out within 10 meters of each other!

The Sierra Madre Oriental - photo by ゴスロリ
The Sierra Madre Oriental in Hidalgo state - photo by Boligrafoazul
Cerro San Rafael - photo by Aldo Dávalos
Cerro Potosí in winter - photo by panoramio

The setting for the story of Treasure exists in the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Though the top elevations are shorter than its eastern sibling, the Occidental half is longer, clocking in at 932 miles. It runs from Sonora, the state across the border from Arizona, until the point on the Mexican mainland that jogs toward the east.

Like the Oriental range, the precise elevations of the highest peaks remain uncertain. Some authorities peg 10,863 foot Cerro Mohinora as the acme, while others declare Cerro Gordo to be higher at 10,997 feet.

These mountains have produced a slew of mineral lodes throughout the ages, including the gold that lured the characters of Treasure to their rugged ridges. Preserved within the chain are Basaseachic Falls National Park and Cumbres de Majalca National Park. The former contains the highest waterfalls in Mexico, including the eponymous falls.

Rio Grande de Santiago flowing through the Sierra Madre Occidental - photo by Christian Frausto Bernal
The Occidental's Copper Canyon - photo by JensUhlenbrock
Basaseachic Falls - photo by Err0neous
Cerro Mohinora - photographer unknown

The Sierra Madre del Sur spans the southwestern coast of Mexico, along the Pacific Ocean. Running 620 miles in length, the range creates a coastline similar to spots in California.

Continuing the theme, the high point of this chain is not certain. The distinction goes either to Cerro Nube, which some resources list at 12,200 feet, or Cerro el Nacimiento. Peakbagger awards this crag 12,139 feet but shaves off 150 or so feet from Cerro Nube.

The Sierra Madre del Sul meets the ocean - photo by Not home

In the famous story, down-on-their-luck characters travel into the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental looking for riches. When they find them, the result isn’t strictly positive.

However, if one enters the Sierra Madres searching for mountainous beauty, these ranges provide nothing but paydirt.

Further Reading and Exploration

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – Internet Movie Database

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven

Sierra Madre – Encyclopedia Britannica

Sierra Madre Oriental – Peakbagger

Sierra Madre Occidental – Peakbagger

Sierra Madre del Sur – Peakbagger

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