Copper Canyon Mexico - March '97

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Map of our travels

Copper Canyon is a large region within Mexico's Sierra Madre mountain range. The package we booked included lodging and transportation and a few local 'tours'. We've come to prefer this kind of touring since it allows some independence but we don't have to worry about connections. Ronda and I travelled with her aunt Moya and uncle Fred. Fred had been wanting to see Copper Canyon and when we found we had a mutual interest the trip came together.

We flew into Los Mochis (half way between Guymas and Mazatlan) on the west coast on the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). With irrigation, Los Mochis has become a major fruit basket and supplier to the US. We took a taxi into the foothills to the city of El Fuerte and stayed for two nights at the Hotel San Francisco. We had added an extra night here to avoid one-night-stands as much as possible. The hotel courtyard was attractive enough, but at night you could hear every word the night manager uttered, and there were a few mosquitos that had late dinner on my arm. There's a better looking hotel in town, the Posada Hidalgo, that we looked into. It had some very nice rooms and seemed to be the 'what's happening' place in a 'not much happening' town.

The local guide who showed us around was a charming guy named Chal Gomez. Chal showed us the ‘motel’ he is building on a prime piece of land overlooking the city and the river. It's taking him a long time to build since he's a little short on funds, but labor is cheap. I noted that elegant murals have already been painted on the inside walls even though some of the basics (plumbing, wiring, ...) aren't completed yet. I think he and his friends are having fun building it but I wouldn't want to be an investor.

El Fuerte is a charming, colonial type town, with a classic town square. We spent some time shopping for hats and boots for me since they seemed a great bargain. Didn’t find anything that met my criteria though. In a borrowed car Chal drove us out to see some local indians (not Tarahumaras). There were 8 or 9 little boys, 2 crones, and some snot nosed babies. I saw a man lurking in the backgound. We felt that we were intruding and had no business there. These were supposed to be descendents of the Aztecs, but they were the most pathetic, chronically poverty stricken folks we had seen in a long time. Culture shock maybe.

Our train going into tunnel

We caught the train at El Fuerte and headed east and into the mountains. The Chihuahua Al Pacifico railroad is an amazing piece of engineering. There are 86 tunnels, lots of bridges, and switchbacks galore. There is a section where the track crosses over a tunnel so one makes a compete loop. This picture taken while I was leaning out the door between cars. We're about to go into a tunnel, one of 86 on the route.

Loop in box canyon Another section goes into a box canyon, curves around the back of the canyon climbing the whole time, curves around again making a large 'S' and goes into a tunnel many feet above the canyon floor. It’s like a kid with a large train set and unlimited scenery budget put it together. Flooded church

We passed a canyon which had been flooded by a dam some years back. At the time an entire village had to move out when the waters rose. But several years of drought has caused the water to recede to the point where some buildings are now above water and the residents are moving back in. This picture attempts to show the church which was flooded and is now above water again, at least until the rains come.

Basket vendors at train station

Tarahumara women attempted to sell their baskets to train passengers. I bought one this way, but it's hard to browse. And the ladies speak so softly, it's hard with my limited Spanish for me to understand the asking price.

We got off the train in Bahuichivo (baa-whi-chee-vo) and were driven to our lodge in Ceracahui (sera-cow-ee). The Paraiso Del Oso lodge is owned by an American, Doug Rhodes, who lives there with his wife. He bought the land from an old indian man who now works there. The name of the lodge (paradise of the bear) comes from a rock formation in the shape of Yogi Bear that towers over the lodge. The rock formations are pretty amazing and this really does look like a cartoon bear wearing a hat. Here we entered the land of no electricity, and our room was lit by kerosene lamps and heated by wood stove. The owner has plans for electricity and we could see wiring in the walls poised and ready.

Tarahumara Farm

Tarahumara farm near Ceracahui. This was one of the more prosperous looking farms, with a neat little house with tin roof, prickly pear cactus in the foreground, and willow trees to complete the picture. The guide said that this farm had been photographed for postcards.

We saw the Hale-Bopp comet from the courtyard at the lodge. I tried to see it at other locations on the trip but was unsuccessful. The town of Cerocahui is tiny. We visited a church-run elementary school for Tarahumara girls. Apparently not very many Tarahumara boys attend school since they go to work as soon as possible in the fields. Some of the girls come from families who live far from town, so they live at the school.

Urique Canyon

This is Urique Canyon as viewed from the rim where we drove while we in Ceracahui. On a hike near the lodge at Ceracahui, we saw the Cave of the Crosses, so called because there are 54 white crosses painted on the soot blackened walls. The crosses commemorate 54 Tarahumara indians who died of disease while hiding there from Pancho Villa (to avoid conscription). The indians are buried there, and there are some human bones laid on top of the burial locations as a shrine of sorts. The locals seem to have bad things to say about Pancho Villa, in contrast to the image we often get of the revolutionary hero. The locals also seem to have admiration and pride in the Tarahumaras for their self-sufficiency, independence, and physical strength.

Our guide Mario showed us the ‘Cave of John’, named for the Tarahumara man who lived there for many years. The story is that John went to Los Mochis to work in the fields. He got drunk (the Tarahumaras are famous for their drinking as well as their running) and fell asleep in a tomato field. While asleep he was sprayed with poison from a crop duster and became very ill. He worked his way back to the cave to die, but was found by friends who took him to the clinic in Creel (the nearest town of any size). He survived and still lives nearby, though not in a cave.

We were in Ceracahui only one night and the next day took the train from Bahuichivo to Creel. The Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge is about a 20 minute drive from Creel.

Ronda and Amiga

This is Ronda and her amiga, the picture taken near the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge. It's a dog, not a goat in the background. Moya and Fred

The picture on the right shows Moya and Fred, Ronda's aunt and uncle who travelled with us. The rock is used as a counterbalance on the large gate to the Sierra Lodge property. Behind the fence is the field worked by the Tarahumara family who reportedly own the property the lodge is on.

The lodge is pretty rustic, no electricity and no plans for it. They do provide battery powered book lights. These are pretty good substitutes for TV. The Sierra Lodge is run by a tall, elegant Mexican woman from Chihuahua named Mara. She projects an air of poise and confidence that is very attractive. She has a son name Emiliano, after the revolutionary general E. Zapata. She explained that Zapata was the visionary and strong idealist in contrast to Pancho Villa was merely a warrior.

Tarahumara Kids at the lodge

The lodge property is leased from a Tarahumara family who live on a farm nearby. We could see the man tilling his field with a horse-drawn wooden plough. Kids and Pigs The many Tarahumara kids hang around the lodge and are fascinated by the gringos. There are also pigs and several dogs hanging around.

We hiked up a stream from the lodge and one of the dogs adopted us and accompanied us the entire way. At one point, there was a steer in our path (the cattle all have big horns) and the dog intervened on our behalf, barking and growling and getting the steer to move. I suggest trying to find the same dog when you come here. Dinner at these lodges seems to follow a pattern: many Margueritas, then communal dining with the rest of the mostly American guests. The tourists we met were very pleasant and well travelled, and fairly diverse in age range. There didn’t seem to be any Mexican tourists.

I was interested to hear about the Virgin of Guadalupe, called by some the ‘dark saint’ of Mexico. The story is that the Virgin appeared in a vision to an indian man. He reported this to the local white priest but was only believed when it was noticed that the roses that he brought never lost their petals. Apparently this occurance raised the ‘spiritual status’ of the indians in the eyes of the Catholic Church and paved the way for mutual acceptance of the indian and mestizo cultures. Makes a good story anyhow. But the Virgin of Gualdalupe is a big name in the Sierra Madre, with many shrines on the roadside and mine entrances, and pictures in the lodge dining room and even our bedroom. She is often portrayed as having dark skin.

Travel by Suburban Road to Batopilas

After two nights at the Sierra lodge, we travelled by Chevy Suburban to Batopilas. The trip is about 6 hours and involves a drop of 7000 feet, from cool alpine forest, down to hot subtropical desert. The dirt road is switchback city, and the cars seldom get out of low gear. Each of the two Suburbans the lodge uses has two seats on the roof and we took turns riding on top. The view is unobstructed and dramatic as you plunge downward and the canyon views open up. It’s a bit dusty when you get behind another vehicle. Slow bus on road to Batopilas I think the only time we ate dust was when we followed and eventually passed a local bus. It was packed with passengers who stared at us. One made a strange hand signal which I couldn’t interpret. Three of the bus passengers were riding on top also, but they were just bouncing along with the baggage, not harnessed in as we were.

Main Street, Batopilas

Batopilas is a sleepy little place. It’s right on the Batopilas river and is only one street wide since the canyon goes up steeply on each side of the river. It’s claim to fame is a history of silver and gold about 100 years ago. There are ruins of the large hacienda of the primary silver baron, Alexander Shepard. He was governor of the District of Columbia until there was a scandal involving misuse of government funds. So he left the US and brought his family to Mexico. He took over an existing silver mining operation, improved it, and made a ton of money. At the height of the boom, they bought in Paris fashions, opera, etc. They had to bring everything in on mules so nothing could weigh over 300 pounds. It sounds very much like the rubber boom history of the Amazon, when opera came to Manaus, Brazil. It seems like opera is the symbol of gentility and refinement which these characters seemed to crave.

Jugs at Riverside Lodge

There were many Tarahumara men in town, mostly looking poor and forlorn. While at higher elevation the few men we saw wore pants, in Batopilas they mostly wear their traditional loincloth. This is an odd-looking garment that seems to be buttoned in front and with a triangle pointed downward in back. The traditional shirt is blousy, long sleeved, and colorful; looks like a colorful pirate shirt. We didn’t notice much begging during the trip but an old Tarahumara man come into the hotel courtyard while we were drinking Margueritas and gestured that he was hungry and wanted a handout. I’m not usually responsive to begging but after awhile I couldn’t bear it and slipped him a 10 peso note ($1.25 US) in hopes he would go away. He hung around though and it turned out he wanted to sell us a bunch of leaves he had picked. We found out via the hotel staff that they were medicinal leaves to aid digestion and Ronda become interested. He didn’t want to sell just a few, so we bought the whole bunch (2 feet long, and 10 inches in diameter) for 2 pesos. Then he left. Maybe the gestures I interpreted as ‘hungry’ really had something to do with aiding digestion. In any case the giant bunch of leaves went to the kitchen and we never got around to getting them brewed into tea.

Decorative tower at Riverside

The Copper Canyon Riverside Lodge is a beautifully restored hacienda occupying most of a city block. An American, Skip McWilliams from Michigan spent $3,000,000 to bring it to it’s present state. Here they have electricity, but oddly enough, no electric lights in the guest rooms. The juice goes off periodically and aside from electric lights and refrigerators in the kitchen, it’s only used to run fans in the guest rooms. I was able to recharge my razor battery.

Parlor at the Riverside

The hacienda is delightful. Most of the rooms are in the turn-of-the-century colonial style, though the parlor is Victorian. There are many separate courtyards, many levels, towers, and stairs leading all over the place. As in much Mexican colonial architecture, the walls facing the street have few windows and most of the windows face inner courtyards. The windows have wooden doors but no glass, and none of the passage doors lock. We slept with our double door half open and our window open to the courtyard and fountain. Ronda has decided she wants a hacienda. I think it sounds great.

Five of us took a half-day hike to an abandoned silver mine in the hills above town. We brought our flashlights and it was interesting to go back into the tunnels. There are miles of open tunnels and some have abandoned mining equipment. The tunnels we explored were level, but there are vertical drops and rises that are pretty impressive. We did the customary throwing of rocks to see how long they took to reach the bottom.

It was good to have a guide on this hike since the route was fairly obscure. Our guide was Librado Valderama-Contreras, a man in his 60’s I’d guess. Librado spoke no English, but we learned (via one of our group who spoke very good Spanish) that although he can’t read or write, his wife and children can. He explained that his parents had been too poor to afford books and that as a young man he herded animals in the hills. At his request, we sent him a snapshot we took of him and the group.

Carlos, the manager of our hacienda lodge, gave us a tour of the abandoned Hacienda de San Miguel, the home and base of operations of silver baron Alexander Shepard. Most of the buidings are gone but the remaining ruins are interesting. In improving the silver operation, Shepard built a bridge across the river, a canal, and a hydroelectric plant all of which are still in use. To avoid having to haul silver ore from the mine shafts, he built the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel which runs just above river level under all the major mining areas. (Diaz was president of Mexico prior to the revolution in 1910+.) The ore was dumped into this tunnel and then hauled out for processing at the hacienda. The silver ingots were hauled out by mule on a 4 day trip to the rail head. Shepard died in 1904 and his sons ran the operation until 1914 when the Mexican Revolution forced them out.

When I asked Carlos about the Marijuana crop in relation to the local economy, he was circumspect in his answers. Most of the guides and hosts we talked with had this in common. They want to have Mexico appear as the law abiding and safe place that it is, yet they must acknowledge that their largest cash crop is illegal. I asked him about the new construction going on in town and he expained that most of it is being done by one merchant who owns several properties. He said that most of the property transactions are in cash (versus mortgage). Carlos is president of the Batopilas Tourist Association and is engaged in a struggle to make tourism a more important factor in the region’s economy. While we were in Mexico, the newspaper headline talked of the ‘conditional certification’ that the US was granting Mexico for supposedly suppressing the drug trade. The Mexicans we talked to saw this as hypocritical since the US is the main consumer of the biggest cash crop in the Sierra Madre. In Batopilas at night we could occasionally hear heavy trucks going through town. Obviously the trade continues, but now under wraps.

Lost Cathedral at Satevo

This is Satevo Mission. We walked about 4 miles here from Batopilas. The church was reportedly built in the late 1600s and it's used once a week when the priest comes. A very pretty little valley though sparsely populated.

On Thursday night in we did witness a Batopilas traffic jam. Two trucks came into the street at the same time going in opposite directions. Gridlock occurred when three cows attempted to pass at the same time. The cattle jumped up onto the sidewalk (2 1/2 feet up) and the problem was solved. We heard a story about the government traffic bureaucrats coming into town and starting to paint the curbs yellow. (The curbs in Batopilas range in size from massive to flush with the cobblestone.) With Carlos’ help, the locals put a stop to the painting. The paint that was applied is being allowed to fade.

View of Canyons at Divisadero

We drove back up the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge for one more night, and then took the train from Creel and headed back West. Weaver at Divisadero This is a view of the canyons from Divisadero, one of the major stops along the way. Divisadero is so named because the continental divide is near here. The near canyon is Urique and it may be the 'Copper Canyon' (the one from which the area takes its name) in the far background. This is more of a tourist destination since there are great views of the canyons with no hiking required. There were tourists from around the world plus a large number of Mexican tourists.

A short distance by train from Divisadero is Pasada Barancas. The train stops at Pasada Barancas for only 5 minutes and we had to hustle to get our baggage and ourselves off. Here we stayed at the Mansion Tarahumara hotel for two nights.

Mansion Tarahumara was built 10 years ago to look like a storybook castle and is impressive at first glance. There is a main building and multiple smaller buildings. We had a private separated unit which had a large main room and a loft. It also had electric lights. The down side was that the construction was very thrifty and little attention had been paid to details. The doors barely fit the doorways, and to achieve the castle effect they had made overgenerous use of gunnite (spray-on concrete). They are trying to sell time-share weeks and its hard to think they’ll sell many. There are several derelict vehicles parked on the hotel grounds and it gives the impression that they are having a hard time making it.

The place is owned and run by an energetic and charming Mexican woman named Maria Barrega. During our stay, one of the guests needed to make a phone call so Maria drove a few of us into the nearest town (the Pueblo of San Rafael) where the phone is located. The phone is located at the post office, so while the call was made we browsed at the local ‘mini-super’. Maria took us on a walk on the 300 acre property that she owns near San Rafael. She has built a dam on the property that has now accumulated a small lake. It is here that she gets water for the hotel, transporting it by tanker truck. She says it’s much better this way since its only a 10 minute drive for her truck versus the much longer drive to the river. She has also been selling water to other hotels nearby but has had to stop for fear she would run low. She has ambitious plans to put tourist lodging on this property also.

Dave and Ronda at overlook

Prior to dinner, one of the trail guides, Jose Angel, sang Mexican ballads and played his guitar. This was a rather pleasant accompaniment to our vino blanco. The Mexican guests knew the words and gradually joined in the singing; first a pair of older ladies, and then a middle aged man who turned out to be a wonderful baritone. A group of Brazilians who lived in Mexico City joined also. These folks contrasted dramatically to the rather stiff American tourists here at the same time. One of Brazillian women was celebrating her birthday and the waiters gathered around her table. I fully expected to hear the old birthday song standard, but to my pleasant surprise everyone (but the gringos) joined in singing a different, more interesting, and quite nice standard Mexican birthday song.

Our last morning here I had a short horse ride (yes, it was a short horse) along the canyon rim. I was accompanied by ‘the boy’ as the hotel staff called him. I introduced myself to this lad of about 14, but he was shy of talking with anyone who didn’t have good Spanish and his name seemed unpronouncible. Maybe that’s why he’s referred to as ‘the boy’. The ride was pleasant and easy and there were a lot of canyon views I would not like to have missed. I persisted with my pathetic Spanish and by the end of our ride ‘the boy’ got the idea of how to speak in the required simple slow sentences.

Boxcar housing near Los Mochis

We caught the train mid-afternoon at Pasada Barancas and continued west for our last night at Los Mochis. This was about a 7 hour train ride and it was late when we arrived. Along the way at a stop called Loreto, about 50 miles east of Los Mochis, several beefy men got off the train. They wore pistols and mustaches and were obviously security guards of some kind. Their caps and some jackets indicated Services Especial, but they had an extremely unofficial air about them. One was dressed cowboy style and had a Colt .45 tucked into his pants; darned uncomfortable I would think. He’s probably saving up for a holster. They greeted each other with special ‘bro’ type handshakes. I was rather glad to leave them behind, though as we pulled out of the station, I noticed large number of large marijuana plants growing by the track. Yes indeed, crime right under their noses.

There are seven major canyons in the Copper Canyon area, and you hear that four of them are ‘bigger’ than the Grand Canyon in Colorado. I think it’s a mistake to compare them however. The Grand Canyon is more spectacular due to the colors, exposed rock, and the fact that you can see its extent at one glance. The Copper Canyon(s) are spread over a large area, the canyons are longer, and there is more vegetation on the sides. It’s my opinion that the next few years is the only time Batopilas will be as pleasant as it is now. If the tourist industry flourishes, then it won’t be as quaint. There is a good chance that it will fail however since the town is so inaccessible and relies on tourists who want to hike. If that happens, the wonderful lodging we enjoyed can’t remain for long.

Overall the trip was greatly enjoyable and it was hard to get back to the everyday routine. Moya and Fred were great travelling companions, and the Mexican people were sweet and helpful. The train route and canyon scenery were spectacular, and the Tarahumara indians were interesting. We are looking forward to going back.

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