5-9-2012 – Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico

Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a well-known natural wonder of Mexico, located in the mountains of the state of Chihuahua.  It’s deeper and covers an area larger than America’s Grand Canyon, which it’s often compared to.  In late April we took a week to visit Copper Canyon from Banderas Bay.  We took an overnight bus from Puerto Vallarta (actually a nearby town called Mezcales) to Los Mochis a few hundred miles north.  As the bus arrived, we began talking with the only other passenger still aboard, a French woman traveling alone.  We had a very nice connection, and the three of us decided to travel together.  Emmanuelle is a thoughtful traveler, fun and informed.  She speaks English far better than either of us speak French, and her Spanish is also better than ours.  She’s organized, but spontaneous and energetic.  It was a real treat to meet her and to spend the better part of a week with her!


There’s an amazing railroad which goes from Los Mochis to the city of Chihuahua, roughly 400 miles through extremely remote territory.  El Chepe, as it’s known (short for Ferrocarril Chihuahua-Pacifico), has 86 tunnels and 37 bridges.  Someone told us that over 10,000 people died during its construction over more than 60 years.  We had heard that the first section of the train-ride was not as interesting as the later parts, so we grabbed a local bus to El Fuerte, El Chepe’s first stop.  Emmanuelle had a travel guide, so it was easy to find an affordable hotel for the night.  As the name promises, the Rio Vista hotel overlooks a river, and offers a spectacular view.  We went for a nice walk along the river, in search of some petroglyphs that we’d heard were nearby.  We had a bit of an adventure finding them ourselves, rather than hiring a tour guide, but it was worth the effort!  Other than the mosquitos (and something else – no-see-ums?), we had an enjoyable evening and caught the train station first thing in the morning. 


Wow!  From 8am to 5pm we rode the train to the town of Creel.  The countryside began flat and ended up quite vertical.  We  gained up to 8000 feet in elevation, and then came down about 2000.  Although the entire region is quite dry, we passed through several different ecosystems, with various types of cactus. pines and other high-desert plants.  The terrain also changed dramatically, including rocky hill-sides, steep canyons, spires of rock, sheer cliffs, with often a glimpse of a tiny river far below.  We traveled in the economy class, rather than first-class, because we were interested in seeing more of the local people (and fewer of the tourists).  There were half a dozen stops and we were pleased to see lots of people of all ages and apparently traveling for a variety of reasons.  It was interesting to see the large bags of produce that some people were transporting: they must travel to a bigger town a few times a year to stock up on potatos or onions.  We didn’t notice much agriculture once we got into the mountains, although many people raised animals, including cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, burros and horses.  The scenery was spectacular, and a train is a fun way to see it, with the big picture windows and the freedom to move around from one side to the other.  We each spent a good bit of time in between the cars, feeling the motion of the train on the tracks and the wind through the open windows.  At times these were the crowded points, while later in the journey we often had that space to ourselves.  There were children playing in the aisles, peeking out from around luggage or hurrying down the aisles in small posses.  There were indigenous women in their traditional dresses, wearing shoes that they’d made from tire treads and cloth ribbons.  There were rough-hewn men wearing cowboy hats and ostrich-skin boots with very pointy toes, on their way to whatever the next adventure would be.  And of course there were still we tourists, from France or Canada or the U.S.A. comparing notes on where we’d been and what we were still hoping to see.  At several of the stops, there was a small crowd of mostly-indigenous people trying to sell their wares, whether food or crafts, through the windows of the train.  At the town of Divisidero, the highest point on the track, the train stopped for 15 minutes to allow passengers to take some photos of the most impressive viewpoints, and to purchase a quick meal or a few souvenirs.


The next stop was Creel, which is the largest town on the route.  With a population of about 8000, it serves as the hub for most of the region’s tourism.  Dan had been here almost 20 years ago, and it had grown and changed quite a bit in the intervening years.  Where it had been a pretty sleepy village, now it is full of hotels, restaurants and gift shops – all modest, but primarily targeting the tourists.  We first went to the hostel that Dan remembered from his previous visit, but Margarita’s has become “the” place to stay and it wasn’t what we were looking for.  We visited 2 or 3 other places before finding the place for us: a little mom-and-pop place with about 10 rooms,  named Real de Chapultepec.  We paid about $20 a night for a huge suite for the 3 of us, which included a fireplace that we enjoyed each night. 

The first day in Creel we rented bicycles and visited several of the “must-see” places near the town.  There’s a valley nearby which is filled with huge pillars of rock.  Historically the place was called the Valley of the Gods, but it was renamed the Valley of the Monks (Valle de los Monjes) when the Spaniards came on the scene.  We stashed the bicycles and hiked in a little ways, but our itinerary was a loop so we didn’t stay long.  Although we were a bit uncertain about the route, the trail was always easy to spot and we never took a wrong turn.  We continued down to a local reservoir which offers fishing, camping, boating and a little bit of swimming.  We stopped for a picnic lunch, and actually dozed off for a short while before we started to hear some distant thunder.  We decided not to chance getting caught in a storm, so we headed on back.  By this time, we were all saddle-weary; the bicycle seats were quite hard and we were ready to be back.  Much to our relief, the last 5 km of our loop tour were on a paved road.  Just on the outskirts of the town, we passed a big cave, which was clearly still occupied by an indigenous family.  The Tarahumara people were the original inhabitants of this area, and they live very close to the land.  They traditionally lived in caves and walked very long distances regularly.  They do not seem to live in tight communities, but rather are quite independent and reserved people.  Many of them now have built houses from the sorts of materials we Westerners would assume.  It appears that many of them have built houses right near their cave, as sort of an extension to increase the size of their living quarters.  This particular cave seemed to have the kitchen still in the cave, with perhaps a bedroom in a nearby house.  The laundry was strung from somewhere in the cave to a tree outside.
The second day in Creel none of us felt like riding another bike!  We paid our host (the hotel owner offered up his cousin to be our tour guide) to take us to a nearby hot springs.  The first hour was by car and the last hour by foot down a cobblestone road which descended 1500 feet in about 3 miles.  The driver is Mestizo, of mixed Spanish and indigenous race, and he’s interested in the Tarahumara people. (Tarahumara is the name given them by outsiders.  They call themselves the Raramuri, which translates in their language to “people who run”.) He taught us to say “hello” and “what is your name?” in Raramuri (but it was difficult and we no longer remember either!).  The only other visitors were a young Mexican family, playing in one of the pools when we arrived.  Later we talked with them and tossed a ball with the 5-year-old son.  The walk to the top afterwards was challenging but the scenery was still spectacular as the shadows deepened into dusk.


We packed up the next day and took another bus to a town at the bottom of the canyon, named Batopilas.  Although this was a local bus, it was actually a four-wheel-drive van.  The 4 1/2 hour drive wound down the steep cliffs, and was impressively beautiful although Dan might use a word more like “terrifying”.  The first half of it was a smooth asphalt road with *lots* of twists and turns.  Emmanuelle was starting to feel car-sick when we turned off onto a much bumpier dirt road that Dan describes as “precipitously clinging” to the cliffs.  There were dozens, or probably hundreds of switchbacks as we slowly crawled, climbing and descending over dizzying heights through one canyon after another.  The rock changed color from gold to deep red and changed texture numerous times.  We stopped once to pick up a young man who was just walking along the road, and wondered how he had gotten out in the middle of nowhere.


Once we arrived in town, we found a hotel and explored the town a bit.  It felt good to stretch our legs!  Batopilas was founded in the heyday of the silver mining in the region a century ago.  Because of all the wealth, it was the second city in all of Mexico to have electricity.  Currently there is no mining going on (although exploration is starting up again, as the price of silver as risen in recent years), and the town is pretty sleepy.  Although it is no stranger to tourism, there are far fewer Western faces seen here than up in Creel.  We walked to the outskirts of town and wandered around an old hacienda which had been used during the mining boom.  Now it’s just a red-brick ruin with hints of the beautiful architecture here and there: arches that once formed doors and walls with a string of elegant but long empty windows overlooking the river.  There’s a swinging bridge across the river, a long foot-bridge linking the two sides of town.  Our hostess told us that there were two restaurants in town that she would recommend, that she liked equally well.  We had dinner at Dona Mita’s the first night and Casa Carolina the second.  Both were indeed charming, affordable and delicious.  Dona Mita recited the menu to us, of the 4 or 5 things she could cook for us today.  Carolina’s was a room of her house, and the first time we entered we ended up in her living room instead of the public eating room.  We found the food in Creel uninspired, but thoroughly enjoyed our dining experience in Batopilas.

The next day we took a hike 7 km to another town, even more remote than Batopilas, called Satevo.  Its claim to fame was a church called the “Lost Cathedral”, Catedral Perdida.  We asked around a few times to find the way, which turned out to basically be to follow the river down until you see the church.  It seems that few locals had actually been there, and weren’t exactly sure how to get there.  The hike was through pretty remote land, and there were a number of stunning views along the way.  We left early in the morning, to avoid the hottest time of the day.  When we arrived at the church, it was closed up so we sat in its shade and had some lunch.  While we were there, a youngish woman came by with a bag of embroidered cloths that she hoped to sell.  We wanted to contribute to the community, so we bought a kitchen hand towel (actually intended to wrap tortillas in a basket, but we don’t often serve tortillas with dinner like that).  She asked us if we had seen the church, and when we said no, she offered to get the key.  She led us to a house behind the church and we stood outside the fenced yard while she called through a window to some kids that were watching television.  They acknowledged her call, but didn’t move.  Apparently this is (similar to) the traditional way that the Tarahumara pay a call.  They do not demand entrance, but rather wait until their host is ready to receive them.  If the host does not wish to be disturbed, he is not obligated to receive a guest.  We’re postulating that this is a result of their living in caves and other places that don’t exactly offer a lot of privacy.  Perhaps the culture has developed techniques to allow people to experience privacy, even when the environment does not readily offer it.  After this happened 3 or 4 times, though, she looked slightly exasperated, and she went around to the front door to try a different approach.  An older brother answered, retrieved the key, and led us to the church’s main entrance.  We enjoyed 15 minutes in the cool silence of the church, admiring the architecture but marveling at the simplicity of the furnishings.  This is clearly a tiny community without a lot of wealth.

We wandered around a little bit more and then returned to Batopilas.  We spent the afternoon mostly people-watching from the porch of our hotel, which looked out over the river and had a nice view of a dozen or more homes on the steep bank on the other side.  The homes were small, so the families did much of their real living outside.  It appears that most families have 5 or 6 children.  We watched the children in a couple of families caring for their younger siblings  and doing other chores.  One little boy, perhaps 3 years old, spent most of the evening chasing a particular chicken in their yard, and when he caught it he picked it up, carried it around proudly for a few minutes, then set it down and started chasing it again.  We watched a few women washing their laundry in the river and setting it out to dry on rocks alongside.  We saw men working on building a new home with adobe bricks, and a few families moving around perhaps returning home from a visit to a relative or on their way to a friend’s home.  We enjoyed a little show when a calf ran down the river and a middle-aged man was chasing him.  Later the man returned with a lasso, but the calf crossed the river and the man was slowed down.  After the calf turned into town, we lost sight of them and never saw the resolution to this conflict.  As dusk set in, we left for dinner and an early bedtime – the bus back to Creel left at 5am!


The bus was a similar van to the one that we’d taken down the canyon, with a different driver.  Both drivers were very experienced and competent, so we knew we were safe even though Dan was extremely uncomfortable with the environment.  Fortunately (?) it was pitch dark when we left, so there wasn’t much to see for the first 2 hours.  By the time it was light enough to see, we were almost past the unpaved section and Dan’s worst fears.  At one point along this road, an old man and woman walked down onto the road, appearing from seemingly nowhere, somewhere up in the mountains.  Each of them was carrying a large sack, probably 40 or 50 pounds.  They hailed the bus, and we stopped to pick them up.  They put their big sacks on the roof and the man got in the bus – but not the woman.  She turned around and headed back up the mountain where she’d come from.  Although it was clear that they were a couple, there was no sign of affection between them: no good-bye kiss or hug, no gentle words.  Another demonstration of their reserved nature.  Both people were dressed in traditional attire, the woman in a very ruffled skirt and pleated blouse, and the man in a similar blouse with a characteristic skirt-like loin-cloth and a cap.  He had a friendly demeanor while he was on the bus, but only briefly talked with one other person on the ‘bus’, another indigenous man.

Once we returned to Creel, we continued our journey back home on one bus after another.  First we took a 4-hour local bus to the state’s capital city of Chihuahua.  Then we got a 15-hour regional bus to Guadalajara, where we said good-bye to Emmanuelle – with the customary Western demonstrations of affection!  Finally we took a 16-hour regional bus back to our Puerto Vallarta stop, where we caught a 15-minute local bus back to the marina.  Whew!  It was a wonderful adventure, but after all that travel we were glad to be home on Lungta!

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