The Glories of Copper Canyon

The Glories of Copper Canyon

Mystery and Majesty in the Mountains of Mexico

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The raven-haired little beauty barely whispered the price of the doll I was considering. She shyly looked down, but her smile was worthy of Da Vinci. I asked her age, but she just shrugged her shoulders. To the Tarahumara Indians, age is an unknown and unimportant concept. Bedecked in a colorful carnival of flounced skirts, the young girl, perhaps eight years old, had her wares spread out mere steps from a 6,000 foot cliff. Behind her, an incredibly vast panorama stretched into infinity.

Here in Mexico’s glorious Copper Canyon, inhabited by the cliff-dwelling Tarahumara Indians, I felt as though I was not only in a different world, but in another era as well. I’d lived and worked in Mexico for years, and had traveled extensively there. But this was an experience completely apart from any other. Think you know Mexico from your many visits to Cancun, Vallarta and Acapulco? Guess again – the “Barrancas del Cobre” is a Mexico only five percent of its tourists have seen.

The Copper Canyon area takes up 25,000 square miles, almost a full third of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. This beautiful region of the Sierra Madre mountains is filled with enormous waterfalls, caves, forests, apple orchards, rich flora and fauna, the famed Tarahumara Indians with their fascinating, age-old culture and one of the longest and deepest systems of canyons in the world, actually four times deeper than the Grand Canyon. How to see it: take an unforgettable trip on the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, an engineering marvel which took 100 years to build and now makes a large section of this once unreachable area easily and pleasantly accessible. The “Chepe,” as it is affectionately known, takes its travelers from sea level to 8,000 feet through five climatic zones, 86 tunnels, 37 bridges and some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.

Travelers can either start their rail journey in Chihuahua, or from the coast, as we did. We began in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, a small, tidy city founded by a North American sugar magnate in 1903. Worthy of a night’s stay, particularly to enjoy the fabulous, nationally renowned seafood at El Farallon Restaurant, Los Mochis also offers the Sinaloa Botanical Garden, a good regional museum and El Maviri beach is just 20 minutes away. Los Mochis can be reached by a three-hour drive or bus ride from Mazatlan, or by air, with connecting service to several Mexican cities.

We could have boarded the train in Los Mochis, but due to time constraints, we traveled by bus for 1 1/2 hours to El Fuerte, a delightfully preserved and restored colonial town. Founded in 1564, El Fuerte is a member of Mexico’s “pueblos mágicos” program, which highlights small towns that maintain the charm and feel of yesteryear. El Fuerte felt like a Mexico I’d only seen in old westerns, with its cobblestone streets, beautifully cared-for architecture, sleepy little main street and perfect little plaza.

Posada del Hidalgo lodging in El Fuerte

The inns of El Fuerte epitomize charm – no chain properties here, these are lovingly adorned in folkart, covered in bougainvillea, filled with touches such as rock-walled jacuzzis, ceilings hung with dozens of piñatas, handpainted tiled swimming pools and tropical courtyards in which purple and pink petals rained over me. My room at the Posada del Hidalgo, built in 1890, smelled lusciously of aged oak, guava and flowers. I wanted to spend weeks here, not just a day. Afternoons bring a visit to the 1,500 year old Nahuatl Petroglyphs, lazy inflatable raft trip down the El Fuerte River, a wide, slow waterway where I saw gray and white egrets, blue and tiger herons, cormorants, a flock of black vultures eerily crowded in a spindly tree and two or three fishermen casting nets for catfish and bass.

We boarded the train here. Since 1961, this now privatized railroad has been traveling daily through 406 miles of railways. Originally designed to provide the city of Chihuahua with access to the sea, as well as to promote development of the Sierra Tarahumara region of the western Sierra Madre, its construction began in 1898. It is considered one of the most spectacular feats of engineering in the world. The Chihuahua-Pacific Railroad is air-conditioned/heated, with a dining car, lounge, bilingual personnel, and reclining seats.

After settling in, most passengers explore the train, walking from boxcar to boxcar. Outside, in between the cars, I madly snapped photos of the ever-changing scenery and covered my ears from the deafening roar when we rushed through tunnels. The breeze made it pleasantly fresh, even though the June climate at the lower elevations was hot and humid.

Tarahumara Indians

I first spotted some Tarahumara Indians, with their not-to-be-missed rainbow attire, at a tiny train station where only the second-class train stops. As they reached up to sell their intricate pine-needle baskets, I felt the thrill I always feel when presented with a truly different culture. The Tarahumara were dressed, from head to toe, in their traditional clothing – no tennis shoes, no watches, just huaraches, bandannas and hand-sewn calico skirts and blouses of every color imaginable.

Famed for their long-distance running ability, some 50,000 Tarahumara Indians live in caves and primitive log cabins in the Copper Canyon region, much as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. They are considered the largest and best preserved ethnic group in Mexico. Their inexpensive handmade crafts, including pine needle baskets, rustic violins, wooden dolls, carvings and woven goods, are distinctive and unlike other Mexican folk art. Refreshingly, wheeling and dealing doesn’t exist with the Tarahumara – prices are given quietly and respectfully. If you decide not to buy at the quoted price, just walk away.

Our next station, Bahuichivo, just eight miles from Cerocahui, brought us to a small village, founded in 1681, at the edge of Urique Canyon, the deepest canyon in the system, at 6136 feet. Cerocahui’s 900 inhabitants live in a valley surrounded by mountains and apple orchards. Doors are invitingly left open, and there is such safety and trust here that children as young as two can wander the dusty paths without fear. When I spotted a little kitten in a doorway, the elderly couple inside begged me to step in and visit with them in their spotless, one-room bungalow. Another woman, no taller than my eight-year-old daughter, beckoned us in to her bathroom-sized parlor to see her handmade dolls for sale.

Hotels here are small inns, walking distance from the historic old Jesuit mission church, and the very moving Tewecado Mission School, a Tarahumara girls boarding school, run as a charity by the Catholic Church. It welcomes visitors and has an impressive gift shop of native crafts and baskets. The girls live in dormitories right out of the French ‘Madeline’ books, with iron beds lined up in rows, covered with yellow and blue spreads and identical dolls on the pillows. The girls, although impoverished, are warm, enthusiastic and love to sing and dance for visitors. During our visit, they asked me to sing in English for them, and were delighted to hear my outstanding rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” I was so overcome emotionally by the visit to the school that I left in tears, partly from seeing their beauty and exuberance, but also from realizing the intense poverty of the children’s families, who live in remote areas and only see their daughters twice a year.

From Cerocahui, tourists can take a 45-minute, bumpy drive to the Cerro del Gallego Urique Lookout, a 7,500 foot elevation, which affords a sweeping, glorious view of the Copper Canyon system and the mining town of Urique down below. Visits to Urique are possible as well, as are various opportunities for birdwatching and hikes or horse-back rides to waterfalls and an abandoned gold mine.

Next stop – El Divisadero, one of the most famous tourist stops in the entire Sierra Tarahumara range. One of the best observation points over Urique Canyon, El Divisadero has several four star hotels, two of them perched right on the ‘rim’ with magnificent views. A small, bustling shopping area is located right at the rustic station, where both Tarahumaras and mestizos alike sell their wares, along with aromatic tacos and empanadas. This area has wonderful hiking trails.

From El Divisadero, we moved on to Creel, once known as a ‘wild west’ community, but now settled into a peaceful town of 4,000, with a wide variety of businesses, most relying on tourism. For Copper Canyon

visitors starting their trip in Chihuahua, Creel is considered the gateway to the region. Creel’s Casa de las

Artesanias, a state government institution for promoting regional and Tarahumara crafts is in the town center and has very reasonable prices. Creel also hosts a good museum on Tarahumara culture. There is much to be seen nearby. We traveled to the sparkling blue Lake Arareko, which was evocative of postcards of Swiss mountain lakes, if not for the tiny clusters of Tarahumara women selling their wares every 100 yards or so. Camping sites, hostels and a luxury rental cabin are all available at the lake, as well as small launches for rent.

We then toured the so-called Valley of the Mushrooms, named for the group of colossal mushroom-shaped rocks there, but didn’t have time to visit its less famous neighbors – Valley of the Toads and Valley of the Breasts. Several Tarahumara mission settlements are also here, such as the Cusarare Mission, with centuries-old churches and tiny clusters of log cabins and cave dwellings, sometimes a mission school as well. Nominal admission is typically charged to enter the churches. I was admonished in broken Spanish by a Tarahumara, swirling her skirts fussily, for not presenting my admission ticket, when I poked around a dusty old church in a village that seemed so forlorn, it amazed me anyone there would bother waiting for tourists to pay. I hadn’t even noticed her, sitting as she was in a dark corner.

From here, many tours opt for road rather than train travel to Chihuahua, as there are opportunities to visit various Mennonite communities, where some 65,000 Mennonites, of German, Swiss and Dutch extraction, live on immaculate farms where they keep up their traditions faithfully and sell cheese and other products. The countryside is green and lush, dotted with enormous apple and peach orchards, cow pastures and small towns.

Finally, we arrived in Chihuahua, a cattle, industrial and commercial center, bustling with a very Western-tinged ambiance. Chihuahua, definitely worthy of at least a day’s stay, features the Museum of the Mexican Revolution (Revolutionary Pancho Villa’s house,) the Government Palace, the baroque style Cathedral and the Gameros Mansion.

It is widely quoted that someone once said, “the Copper Canyon is what the Grand Canyon would like to be when it grows up.” Certainly, while each region is magnificent in its own right, no where can rival Mexico’s Copper Canyon for beauty, grandeur and diversity, along with its extraordinary cultural wealth.

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If you decide to experience the adventure:

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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.

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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!