The group of nearly 20 individuals came from all over the world—North America, Europe, and certainly Mexico, their current location. It was mid-week, and they sat around a dinner table over a traditional local meal, reliving their day of running, exploring, and relaxing in the unconventional tourist locale of the Sierra Tarahumara.
At some point during dinner, their bus driver over the past few days marveled at the undeniable bond between them. A bond that surely must have existed for years.
He leaned over to ask the group’s guide, Mau Diaz, a question.
“How do you guys all know each other?”
Diaz laughed and responded, “As long as we’ve known you.”
IN DECEMBER 2015, Manuel Morato, 32, called his friend, Diaz, with an idea. They were both adventurous runners, often taking to the mountains and deserts beyond Mexico City, where Diaz, 31, was born and raised.
“He said ‘I’m going to run this huge distance along the Sea of Cortes, and I want to document this whole thing,” recalls Diaz.
They would run 90km straight through, in one day.
First things first, they came up with a name for their project: Aire Libre (translation: free air). What began as a simple idea of running from one point to another eventually evolved into a full-fledged travel company, providing running retreats in far-off locales, with a core purpose of experiencing cultural immersion and indigenous knowledge.
In the beginning, it was merely for fun. Diaz loved running in wild places, and it sounded like a great break from his daily life as a digital marketer at a startup. He jumped on board, along with a handful of others, and they documented their journey through the Sonoran Desert along the Sea of Cortes. Along the way, they bonded with each other and with those they met, including the indigenous Seri people of Sonora.
Like any good marketer, Diaz made an Instagram for their project, with the initial purpose of simply inspiring people with content. Despite the irony of using Instagram to inspire others to explore nature, Diaz knew he wanted to help bridge the wide chasm that existed between people and nature. Even though he was constantly running unconventional routes through natural habitats around Mexico City, he knew he was an anomaly.
For the first year, Diaz and his Aire Libre partners (Morato and a third partner, Daniel Almazán) focused merely on producing content—photos and videos from other adventures on weekends and days off. As the idea of Aire Libre began to gain traction, they decided to run their first group retreat in January 2017: a 3-day running tour of the Oaxacan Mountains. The group consisted of a dozen Canadians and eight Mexicans and was a cultural, gastronomical, and wellness running adventure.
“At the end, half the group burst into tears, and one guy from Canada said, ‘In my 38 years of life, this is the most memorable experience I’ve ever had.’ He was just crying and hugging us,” says Diaz.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what we did, I just took you to run in the forest.’”
Since that first trip, Diaz has found that many of their clientele come from cities around the world, and that many are looking to escape that daily grind, if only for a week. In the span of a day, they may find themselves going from the cacophony of midtown Manhattan to a sit-down traditional meal in an indigenous Zapotec community of Oaxaca.
“We live a really fast-paced life, and that fast-paced life has its toll. We’re disconnected from everything, from ourselves, from nature, from the true meaning of how to live,” says Diaz.
Taking this mantra further, they highly discourage cell phone use on their trips, and always provide a professional photographer who is guaranteed to get shots that are better than any iPhone snap.
When curating a running retreat, Aire Libre focuses on finding a running location that will allow their clientele to experience culture outside the typical tourist destination. They scout their locations thoroughly, visiting six months to a year out, connecting with locals and letting them know what their intentions are.
“We make sure the people and places we’re going to go through are excited to work with us,” notes Diaz. “It really becomes an amazing exchange of experiences and thoughts. The locals are not only willing to have people over, but the same locals take a lot from the people who come.”
They’ve seen potential in this type of responsible tourism to have both an economic and social impact on regions that might be forgotten, outside of the conventional tourist places.
A typical Aire Libre experience can last from five to eight days and include up to 20 individuals. While Aire Libre is focused on experiences through running, they are quick to point out that any runner of any ability is welcome to join.
When the group arrives, they’ll be picked up from the airport and have a large welcome dinner, a break-the-ice time.
The following morning, as with every morning, they’ll start with a meditation session, followed by a 6-8 mile run through amazing trails or atypical locales within the city. A post-run yoga session follows.
Food is always an important aspect of experiencing any culture, and Aire Libre attempts to give the full spectrum of the local cuisine; one meal may be at the best restaurant in the city, while the next may be at the house of someone up in the mountains.
And then there are the next-level cultural experiences.
“In Mexico, we do this very ancient ceremony called a Temazcal, a sweat lodge. Conceptually, it’s a dark cave where you go in, and they bring hot volcanic stones in the middle. There will be a shaman, and it becomes a steam bath,” details Diaz. “Conceptually you go in mother earth’s womb and work on yourself and ask for stuff you’d like to get rid of and stuff you’d reinforce.”
Probably not going to get that at a timeshare.
Each day ends with a dinner and a time of sharing, to solidify that bond between former strangers.
“Walking and running helps you connect really fast to the place and become vulnerable. Even if you don’t talk while running, there’s this bond that forms between you and the people you run with,” says Diaz.
After two years, Aire Libre continues to grow and expand its offerings. In 2019 alone they’ll offer trips almost every month, ranging from the Amazonian jungles of Bolivia to the Lake District of Patagonia, and of course throughout their home territory of Mexico City and the Sierra Tarahumara.
“There’s tourism that can be destructive, which is most—putting up hotels and walls and locking people in this fantasy world,” says Diaz. “Or there’s the other end where you take people outside that fantasy world and immerse them in the real world.”