Treasure of Sierra Madre

Only the drums told us we were not alone

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Our small party had been hiking for hours through Mexico’s Barranca del Cobre – the Copper Canyon — without seeing a trace of any other human being. Now, in the heart of a canyon even deeper than the Grand Canyon, we heard the echoes of Tarahumara drums.

Their simple beats were faint at first, but soon gathered strength. Echoing off stony ridges, it was impossible to tell their number or location. We looked to our guide for direction. «Quien sabe?» he said. “Who knows? The Tarahumara can’t be seen unless they want to be seen.”

Just 300 miles from the US border, we are in another world, a world unknown to most Mexicans, let alone Americans. In the heart of the Sierra Madre, the Copper Canyon is really seven major canyons, four of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon. This is where the US Army hunted Pancho Villa for ten years, without success. Not surprising, given the expanse. Only the Tarahumara know this land.

The Tarahumara are probably the most isolated and primitive Native American tribe in North America. Scattered over 10,000 miles of mountains and canyons — a family here, another there — the Tarahumara may be invisible, but they’re everywhere.

The world’s strongest long distance runners, running up to 125 miles non-stop, the Tarahumara can live just about anywhere in the canyon system, and they do. Though there’s a Tarahumara ‘ranchito’ wherever there is a flat patch of land, that’s not saying much, since flat patches are few and far between.

Extremely shy, most Tarahumara want little contact with the trickle of adventurers who make it to the canyon. The best place from which to explore their land, though, is through the Posada Barrancas Mirador, just south of the town of Creel.

Poised like an eagle’s nest at the canyon’s edge, the Posada Barrancas Mirador stands near the highest point of the canyon. Here you will meet some of the Tarahumara people, you might take a horseback or jeep excursion to a Tarahumara village, wander down a path to an inhabited Tarahumaran cave dwelling or hike down to the canyon floor.

Here you will meet some of the Tarahumara people, you might take a horseback or jeep excursion to a Tarahumara village, wander down a path to an inhabited Tarahumaran cave dwelling or hike down to the canyon floor.

Arareko lake

Hikes are tailored to suit you — easy half day jaunts with plenty of rest stops and photo opportunities — or rigorous all-day treks into areas rarely seen by outsiders. All of the hikes allow you to see life as it was a century ago.

Less than thirty minutes from the lodge, we passed empty caves where the Tarahumara live during the winter. After another hour of hiking, we heard the drums — which have religious significance for the Tarahumara. As if on cue, all of us stopped to listen to the hauntingly simple sound reverberating through the canyon.

Continuing on, we crossed a mesa, and then, after a steep, 1,000-foot descent, we reached our goal — the Basirecota Hot Springs. The springs were small; a few pools located on either side of the Rio Cusarare. Some were the perfect temperature to soak tired feet and aching muscles.

As we rested for the hike back home, we marveled at the impossibly blue sky and imposing cliffs that overhung this little piece of heaven. Back home, Basirecota would surely be declared a national park. Here it was just another beautiful spot among many.

• Batopilas

After a couple of days at the top of the canyon, our next stop is Batopilas, an old silver mining town at the very bottom of the canyon. Reputed to be the most spectacular drive in North America, the six-hour trip to Batopilas is just that — breath-taking.

As our guide maneuvered the car around blind curves on a one-lane dirt road, spectacular views give way to even better ones; purple mountains and chasms so deep that we could have been on the set for Jules Verne’s “”Journey to the Center of the Earth”.”

Our party contained some seasoned travelers who’d been everywhere and seen everything, but even they were overwhelmed. “There’s a National Geographic photo around every corner,” and “This makes the Grand Canyon look like a pothole” were typical of their comments.

After hours of visual overload, we finally reached Batopilas, nestled at the bottom of a 6,900 foot canyon. The Spanish found silver here in 1632, and the town was a mining center for centuries, until all the mines were closed by government edict shortly after the Mexican Revolution.

Just one street wide for most of its length, Batopilas is sandwiched between river and canyon. Subtropical, the town is bursting with orange trees, bougainvillea, butterflies and humming birds.

We were lucky to have chosen a time when resident guides Carl Franz and Lorena Havens were on site. Author and editor, respectively, of The People’s Guide to Mexico, they were walking encyclopedias for information on Batopilas and the Copper Canyon. They suggested we visit the Mission at Satevo, and arranged for a guide, Luis, to take us.

Early the next morning, Luis led us out of town. For two hours we followed the Rio Batopilas as it twisted and turned through a rocky, arid landscape. Then, rounding a bend, we saw the Mission gleaming like a pearl in a lush, green garden. The Mission is the great mystery of Batopilas. No one knows when it was built or who, exactly, built it. But as long ago as 1700, the imposing brick structure was topped with a domed roof and a bell tower.

Abandoned now for decades, the local Tarahumara keep the Mission minimally maintained, and the desert climate has helped preserve some of the original murals and icons, including a life-size black Madonna, thought to have come from Spain two centuries ago.

On our last full day in Batopilas, we hiked up into the mountains. Our goal was a mesa near the tiny hamlet of Yerba Anise. The path upward is surrounded by wildflowers and 35 foot high cactus plants. The higher we climbed, the more magnificent the views became.

Hiking tour copper canyon

After three hours of vigorous hiking, we arrived at the mesa to see Cerro Colorado shimmering in the distance. It’s pockmarked with gold mines, and we could almost feel the lure of limitless wealth that drove Humphrey Bogart insane in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

On the way back, we made a mental note to stop and pick up a couple of empty Coke bottles we had left on the way up. When we reached the shady overhang we had used for a rest spot on the climb up, the bottles were gone. In their place was a single footprint, made by a traditional Tarahumara sandal.

Though we hadn’t seen a soul since we’d left town five hours earlier, it seemed probable that we’d been under constant observation. I looked at Luis. «Quien sabe?», he said. “The Tarahumara are invisible, but they’re everywhere.”

Remote, rugged and hard to get to, Copper Canyon is not for everyone. But if you can forego the homogenized pleasures of the beaten path, you may find yourself on the adventure of a lifetime.

If you decide to experience the adventure:

U.S. Toll Free: 1-800-896-8196

Balderrama Travel Advisors will tell you everything you need to know about accommodations and will offer to make all of your travel arrangements, including all associated plane, train and car reservations.

If you choose to make your own plane reservations, you’ll need to get yourself first to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana or Las Vegas.

Bring along clothing appropriate for both Fall and Summer. This means you’ll want everything from a jacket for cool evenings to shorts for hot days — including a bathing suit for the hot springs.

As for gear, make sure you bring hiking boots, a day pack, water bottles, a sun hat, plenty of suntan lotion, and more camera film/memory than you think you could ever use in eight days!