This article is from the August 1999 – September 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
The Copper Canyon Might Be the World’s Eighth Wonder
by David Simmonds
At first I wasn’t certain I wanted to accept the invitation. It had arrived via email from Edelman, the New York public relations firm who handles the SECTUR (Secretaría de Turismo) account in the United States. I thought it was terrific that I had finally been included as a worthy member of the travel media, but traveling with a group? That’s something I’ve never been very good at or fond of. It sounded way too organized and, well, tediously friendly for one who isn’t always either. But there, right in my face, in the itinerary was the hook – Copper Canyon. The one place in Mexico I, embarrassingly, had never been. Since it’s not on the way to a warm water beach, I have avoided it for thirty years. Big mistake – because Barancas del Cobre is as wild and magical a place as I have ever seen, even though I experienced it as a tour geek traveling unaccustomedly in first class.The journey began with an AeroMexico complimentary plane ticket to Mazatlán for two nights in a oceanfront suite at the Riviera Hotel, which had roughly the same view on the same spot I spent numerous summers van camping many years past. From there it was north to Los Mochis, the reputed drug capital of Mexico, but actually a nice looking middle-class town where we were fed. We then had an hor-douvres and cerveza yacht cruise of nearby Topolobampo Bay where the local dolphins provide an entertaining nature show. The bay is mostly undeveloped and is the third deepest bay in the world after San Francisco and Sydney. Perfect conditions for loading and shipping the state’s (Sinaloa) favorite cash crop…marijuana.
Our van driver/guide, Juan, summed up Los Mochis best when he stated, “the tour won’t last very long because, frankly, there’s not much to see.” A major feature seemed to be that it is only one of two towns in Mexico with a potable water system. He failed to mention the high murder rate that I have seen reported for years (usually the competing drug dealers knocking each other off). Sinaloa’s native sons include Amado Carrillo Fuentes of the Juarez cartel and the Arrellano Felix brothers, who head the Tijuana cartel. Having said that, I don’t hesitate to encourage anyone to visit the area. As a major agricultural zone, there just aren’t a lot of tourist attractions.
Los Mochis is the starting (or ending) point for many people venturing toward La Sierra Tarahumara, a more accurate description of what most call Copper Canyon. But a better choice, and the one we took, is to embark on the train in the colonial town of El Fuerte, 50 miles down the track.
In my humble opinion El Fuerte, founded in 1564, will one day be mentioned with the more famous colonial towns of Mexico as a traveler’s favorite. The streets are lined with the old mansions built at a time it was a major trading town on the old Camino Real. For the most part, the town hasn’t yet been “discovered” by the retirees looking for a good real estate deal where they can move in and set up t-shirt shops and cappuccino stands. For years it has been a favorite of the gringo hunters and fresh-water fishermen, traditionally not a group who demand much in the way of amenities. But now, as more and more people travel to the canyons, as they surely will, El Fuerte is perfectly positioned to showcase its charms. Located halfway between the Sea of Cortez and Copper Canyon, it is a natural for the growing eco-tourist industry.Although we stayed only one night in El Fuerte (these tour groups keep you moving), we stayed at the fabulous Posada del Hidalgo, built in the late 1800’s as the home of silver mining family member, Rafael Almada. It has subsequently seen time as a military headquarters, a jail, the mayor’s home, a school, and now a hotel. The interior gardens, fountains, portales hallways, and high-ceilinged rooms create a serene opulence you will appreciate either at the end or the beginning of your trip to the more rugged canyons.
The fertile valley surrounding El Fuerte is home to numerous fowl species such as geese, duck, dove and quail, many of which actually survive the onslaught of hunting season from late October to late February. Additionally, the Rio Fuerte has been used to create two large nearby reservoirs stocked with largemouthed bass. Boat rentals are available for your fishing pleasure. The Posada del Hidalgo can provide information or arrange for a guide.
The train heading east, toward the canyons, is scheduled to leave El Fuerte at 7:30 am, after departing Los Mochis at 6:00 am. This may or may not be on time, a quirk which we found on each leg of the journey. This is the train run daily, year round, by the Mexican Railway Service. A much costlier option is a private company tour offering “Train Cruises,” which operate from September to June only. I didn’t take this trip, so I won’t comment on it, other than to say “why spend the extra money for something you can do yourself?”
Anyway, the regularly scheduled train is quite nice with air conditioning, very comfortable reclining seats, and a bar and dining car. Soon after leaving the depot, you start entering the canyon area. Copper Canyon is actually a name given to a network of several enormous canyons, including Urique (6,130 feet deep), Sinforosa (6,000 feet), and Batopilas (5,900 feet), Candamena (5,380 feet), Chinipas (5,250 feet), and Oteros (5,000 feet), all deeper than the Grand Canyon. The system is named Copper Canyon , a branch of the Urique Canyon which became well-known for its copper mines.
The differences in climate can be astounding in a short distance. We were surprised by a frigid hail storm near the rim, while at the canyon floor the temperature was in the nineties. These canyons were formed some twenty million years ago due to the secondary effects of tectonics with deep cracks through which rivers flowed.
The construction of the railroad line took a little less time to complete, but it wasn’t easy. An American named Owens first conceived the line as a connection between Kansas City and the Pacific port, Topolobampo. Trouble is, it took almost 100 years before the line was inaugurated by President Adolfo Lopez Mateos in November, 1961. And considering just the natural obstacles (man-made obstacles are a given), it is a true engineering feat that constructed the rails that traverse the 39 bridges and 86 tunnels from Los Mochis to Chihuahua.
By the way, here’s a traveling tip. If you want to take photos or video on the train without shooting through glass that isn’t cleaned nearly enough, secure a spot in the area between the train cars where the windows will open, providing the best views. Also, if you’re traveling east, the right side of the train has the best canyon views, and it’s just the opposite going west.
Of course, the primary purpose of the rail line was not to ferry gawking tourists through sacred Indian lands from sea level to 8,000 feet. It also has and continues to haul timber and ore to market as well as providing much needed transportation for the many isolated villagers of the region.
The vegetation diversity in the canyons is really remarkable, with ponderosa pine and douglas fir in the higher elevations to tropical samples down below. I read an amazing statement in the Northern Mexico Handbook by Joe Cummings, a travel guidebook I highly recommend. Joe states, speaking of the Tarahumara forests, “they contain the largest stands of old-growth forest in the Americas; and they produce more pine and oak than any other area in the world.” Incredibly, I learned that there are no organizations or foundations, private or public, existing to protect this remarkable region of Mexico. The rising popularity of the canyons will certainly bring more and more people and business interests that will slowly but surely take little pieces, bit by bit, until the fragile ecosystem is forever degraded. Some sort of historic designation needs to be granted, or, at least, a national park created, to help protect the future of this ecological gem. In addition, there are 60,000 Tarahumara Indians who inhabit the area, and until now, they have been mostly unaffected by modern civilization (see related article in the next issue of Mexico File).
Back to the train ride: After a few hours of photos and relaxing on the comfortable ride, we had reached Bahuichivo, where we disembarked. From there we were met by two vans provided by Hotel Paraiso del Oso. The hotel is located nearly eight dirt-road miles down into the canyon, near the Tarahumara village of Cerocahui (elevation 5,000 feet), founded in 1680 as a Jesuit mission. Once again, our stay was too short, but this is a place that I’ll visit again. Dedicated “to the conservation and interpretation of the natural and cultural history of the Copper Canyon area,” this hotel occupies one of the prettiest sites imaginable – especially during, or just after, the rainy season, as it was in late July when I was there. A month earlier everything had been brown and dusty, but now it was bright green and lush with technicolor skies accompanying dusk and dawn.Invariably, in a family run establishment, the results are only as good as the hosts. They set the tone, make the decisions, provide the personality, and ultimately determine if their venture will succeed or fail. Based on that, Paraiso del Oso will be a raging success for years to come. Transplanted American Doug “Diego” Rhodes and his charming Mexican wife, Ana Maria, have built their business, literally, from the ground up and have done a superb job. Not only will you feel right at home during your stay, they offer an amazing array of day-trips or longer into the areas of the canyon you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Doug personally guides many of the trips and you’ll know you’re in good hands. His experience leading trips throughout the canyons, as well as in the state of Oaxaca, goes back many years, and that experience and knowledge are very important to your safety – especially in traversing Tarahumara lands, who are a very guarded and private people. He knows these people and they know and trust him, a point that can’t be over emphasized.
What sets their hotel apart from other canyon retreats is the quality of their horse stable. The horses are descendants of those used by the Spanish Conquistadors who arrived 500 years ago. This has been mixed with Quarterhorse and Appaloosa blood. Bred for endurance and dependability, they average between 14 and 15 hands.
I’ll take the liberty to quote from the hotel literature here: “But the Oso offers more than just great riding. As riders make their way through beautiful mountain scenery, they are told of the human and natural history of the area. A flock of parrots may fly overhead, camp may be shared with a friendly mountain family, donated supplies delivered to a remote, one room school, or riders may become part of centuries-old religious festivals.”
The hotel is a single-story rectangular shape, constructed equally of adobe and concrete block. The 21 rooms are simple but very nice, lit by kerosene lamps. The lobby is connected to the restaurant and bar and outdoor patio, where Doug likes to concoct some of the group meals. Our group was served a fine meal with margaritas and beers available to wash down the road dust. Afterwards we were serenaded by Gloria, a lady from Colombia, who now does televison work in Chicago. As she strummed her guitar and beautifully sang the Spanish songs well known to a few in the group, we gringos could only tap our feet and jealously marvel at the magic of the moment, knowing that we had found a place to remember.
The next day we were offered a choice between a trail ride or a trip to Cerocahui, the nearby Tarahumara village of around 2,000 residents. I chose the ride, although I hadn’t been on a horse in about 15 years. My mount, Andy, didn’t seem to mind, and all the other riders later thought this might have been the high point of the entire trip. It was a fairly easy ride upstream, about two and one-half hours roundtrip, and just incredibly gorgeous.
The ranch offers a variety of rides, some lasting 5 to 12 days, with camping during a few of the nights. The most notorious is the Batopilas run, advertised as the “toughest ride in North America.” Covering over 150 miles of rugged mountain terrain, much of it vertical, the ride covers unmaintained Indian and mining trails. In case you think this might be a good alternative to a Carnival boat cruise with Kathie Lee, read some basic requirements: “Applicants for this trip must submit a written statement of riding and camping experience and agree to a telephone interview. Riders must be in excellent health, able to walk long distances, and spend 8-10 hours a day in the saddle. They should have camping experience, be willing to saddle their own horse and help out with camp chores.” For the rest of us, there are rides available for virtually every class of rider
Like I said, I’ll be returning to Rancho de Oso. The opportunity to experience the astounding canyon and the Tarahumara culture, hosted by the Rhodes, make this a journey you will never forget. Even if you aren’t a rider, there are many reasons to go.
Next issue, we’ll start back at the Bahuichivo train station, waiting…and waiting…for the train arrival and the continuation of our trip. One of the guides somewhere along the way told us that they call it the Catholic train. “We all know the departure times, but only God knows the arrival.”
This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
Copper Canyon – Part II
A few hours of waiting for a train to arrive reduces your brain activity to exactly the same catatonic state mine is in right now pondering how to begin this article. You know that eventually you’ll get rolling, but the wait can be taxing. So it was after our brief, but wonderful, stay at Paraiso del Oso, several dirt road miles down the canyon from the Bahuichivo train station. At one point I had laid on my back with my hat pulled over my face to catch a nap, prompting one of the members of our group who didn’t recognize me (not imagining that an exalted fellow media member would actually crash on a train station floor) to think that a homeless man had joined the wait. Evidently, the brain dysfunction was spreading.Just as I was contemplating what life would be like for me living in this small Tarahumara village apart from my family, without email or body-surfing, there came the train. It seems the tracks had been covered by rocks and debris from the intense summer rain in a couple of places and had to be cleared. I guess that’s a better reason than being hijacked by robbers, which is not unheard of on this run, although the authorities say that thorny problem has been resolved. Soon enough we were on our way, once again being treated to the visual marvel that makes this train ride one you need to take. As you traverse the 86 tunnels and 37 bridges along the route, you will gaze into a maze of canyons whose depths are seemingly endless. The primary canyons you will see are the Urique and the Septentrión. With a growing network of highways and the railway, the world of the canyons is becoming increasingly accessible, with the tourist industry becoming one of the fastest growing in the sierra.
Perhaps the most breathtaking view of all is from what was to be our next stop, Divisadero (the viewpoint). Only about 1½ hours from Bahuichivo, Divisadero is perched on a rim not conducive for those with vertigo or suicidal voices. The train stops here to allow the passengers to take photos and experience scenery normally afforded Sherpas and canyon swallows. Here you get the pleasure of shopping for handcrafts from the little village of stands whose owners seem to understand the market theory of supply and demand. There is some nice stuff, however, and I encourage you to support the local economy.
Our little group was graciously treated to beautiful, balconied rooms at the expensive Hotel Divisadero Barrancas, inches away from a vertical drop that would be a jumper’s dream. Built in 1973, the hotel has 50 rooms, with the 20 most recently constructed having the most spectacular views. A very comfortable lobby/bar and restaurant also provide floor to ceiling windows enabling you to witness summer lightning shows those of us from SoCal rarely experience. Even in the hot months, you’ll need a jacket on this trip. It gets cold up on the rim – and even colder in winter.
The hotel offers a variety of excursions, including hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and helicopter rides. This area isn’t very conducive to independent travel, as compared to other parts of the canyon. Private guides hang around the train station and can be hired for a reasonable price. Although the train continues to the next stop at Creel, we were transported by van. The road from Divisadero is paved and in good repair from this point onward to the east, towards Chihuahua City. Actually, the paved road starts, or ends, in San Rafael, just west of Divisadero. Many people prefer to drive their own vehicles into the area loaded with camping and hiking gear, sometimes just taking the train on short runs for the novelty of the experience.
For most, Creel is the gateway to the canyon depths as well as the surrounding forest. Although the population is less than 4,000, this old-western style town has a fairly wide array of supplies and hotel accommodations. Horses are common as transportation by the locals in what is foremost a logging town, complete with its own mill.The town itself offers little in the way of standard tourist attractions, but it has a nice, easy feel to it, not unlike a small town you might find in the Rockies, Aspen excepted. At nearly 7,700 feet, the winters are cold and the summers are cool. Named for Enrique Creel, twice the governor of the state of Chihuahua, the town was founded in 1907 as a railway town, later becoming a silver mining outpost. The timber and silver are now both nearing depletion, suggesting that tourism will be the primary source of income at some point in the future. Located in a high valley, it is circled by a series of magnificent rock formations and an impossibly blue sky. And even though the Tarahumara aren’t city dwellers, many can be seen on the streets.
The old railroad station now houses the Arts and Crafts Museum where there is an excellent exposition of the Tarahumara culture. You can also buy local crafts at the museum, as well as at some of the local stores in town. The best and most complete maps of the area are also available at several locations. For first hand information on sites and hiking opportunities, find others who have been in the area for a few days. As always, this is the best source of info wherever you travel, unless, of course the person has been pounding down tequila shooters since noon, in which case you’re better off consulting a ouija board.
If you arrive without a package deal, plan on finding a guide to explore the area – they are plentiful and can be arranged at any of the hotels. Regrettably, our media group itinerary didn’t allow time for us to take the 94-mile road down to the bottom of the canyon to the town of Batopilas. The bus runs there on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings and takes about six hours on a very slow, switchback dirt road.
I plan on returning to Creel sometime soon, because a trip to the canyons seems very incomplete without going to Batopilas. Founded in 1632, the town was once one of Mexico’s wealthiest, fueled by the then-rich silver mines in the area. Now home to about 1,200 people, the town is much more tropical at 1,500 feet, and can get very hot in the summer. It was built between the canyon walls and the Rio Batopilas, stretching for miles in length, but very narrow in width. People have described Batopilas to me as being the ultimate “end of the road” town. Something about that activates my imagination beyond the norm.
Our trip did include a short drive down the Batopilas road from Creel to the Copper Canyon Lodges site along the Cusárare River, The Sierra Lodge. They also have the Riverside Lodge in Batopilas, and from what I have seen they offer stellar accommodations.
The very friendly Sierra Lodge, owned by Michigan resident Skip McWilliams, is a 14 room, hand-hewn log and stucco retreat. The kerosene lantern-lit rooms are very stylish, sporting beamed ceilings, tile baths and wood burning stoves. White, terry-cloth robes are provided, although the mental image of me sporting one just doesn’t fit.
The Lodge offers many nearby hikes, including treks to nearby ancient caves, The Mision Cusárare, and the popular 100-foot Cusárare Falls. And always, there are the Tarahumara, walking the trails from place to place, not, presumably, on sight seeing tours, but because that’s how they get from one place to another.
You may notice that there are no photos in this piece of these private people. I certainly had opportunities to shoot them, but I couldn’t do it. Our media tour group was even escorted into the home of one of the families for a photo op, but I stayed away, waiting well away from the rock house in which they made their home. It just didn’t feel right for me and I would make the same decision again. We were later advised that if you want to interact with a family, perhaps asking permission to camp on their land, it is not proper to knock on the door. Instead, you should wait out front, near their gate if they have one, and wait for the man of the house to approach you. If that doesn’t happen…move on. And if you want to photograph them, ask permission. You may be asked for money. Whatever the circumstance, please be respectful and understand. These people live a life in which most of us would perish in short time, leaving us little reason to feel superior.
On To Chihuahua
When you leave Creel, heading east, you have seen the last of the canyons. As I have said, we were now in vans at this point, and motoring towards Chihuahua City. But not before a stop to visit yet another family home that, again, I couldn’t bring myself to enter. However, these weren’t the Tarahumara who have lived in the canyons for centuries. These were the Mennonites, who have been present since 1921, after being invited to leave Canada after they refused to fight the Germans in WWI. Looking for a new home, they worked out an agreement with then Mexican president Obregon that was very favorable to them. This has all worked out quite well for both countries, as the Mennonites located a place to live in freedom and the state of Chihuahua has had what was then a desert valley turned into one of Mexico’s most fertile and productive. It’s quite a sensation to leave an ancient Indian culture and all of a sudden be cavorting with hogs in the midst of what looks like Iow.The Mennonite culture has remained fairly constant – and now numbers near 20,000. They still speak a German dialect, women dress in the old world, conservative style, and they churn out the best damn cheese in the country. So many of them look so alike, with the round faces topped by reddish hair, that you worry a little about cousins marrying cousins. Nonetheless, they seem to be thriving and you have to admire what they have accomplished.
Alas, the trip I wasn’t sure I wanted to join, was about to end as we entered the city of Chihuahua. It turned out to be a great week, one that I will always remember. But first, we had a couple of days in a city I was anxious to see, for no other reason than that I had never been there before. As it turned out, two days is just about right when you consider that the most interesting attraction is the home of Pancho Villa, hero extraordinaire of the Mexican Revolution. It is now known as the museum of the Mexican Revolution. One of the more interesting aspects of the old mansion is the way it was awarded to Luz Corral de Villa after Villa’s assassination in 1923. It seems that Pancho had more than 20 wives and/or mistresses, many who laid claim to the estate. It was eventually awarded to Luz Corral, who lived there until her death in 1981. The government then acquired it (read: took it) and made it a museum. There are some great old photographs and weapons from the revolution, but the real attraction is the black 1929 Dodge in which he was riding when slaughtered by unknown persons. Most of the bullet holes were repaired when they washed off the carnage, but a few remain.
Another place to tour in town is the Government’s Palace, built in 1881 across from the pleasant Plaza Hidalgo. You can get city tourist information here and view the mural that encircles the first floor hallway. The muralist, Aaron Pina Mora, had never done a mural before, and as you go clockwise from the main entrance, you can see how his style changed and improved as he proceeded. The theme is the history of the state, and is really an impressive piece of art. Literature is available to explain the various depictions.
Finally, our tour guide was a Chihuahua resident who, with pride, drove us through many of the better neighborhoods. He seemed especially fond of the new Sam’s Club and the exterior hills that were being carved up by machinery as the town continues to grow at a rapid pace, now numbering over a million souls. It’s a boom town that he says he will leave shortly. He’s moving to a small town, near the canyons. “Yes”, he said, “that is where I want to live and then to die. It’s so peaceful, you know what I mean, amigo.” Oh, yeah.