DO-IT-YOURSELF COPPER CANYON
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
Most Americans have never heard of Copper Canyon. If they have, they have a vague notion that it¹s Mexico¹s answer to our Grand Canyon and there¹s a train that goes there. But few Americans know one of the great travel secrets: you can drive to the Copper Canyon yourself and have a safe, beautiful, exotic adventure.
But first, a few misconceptions have to be dissipated. The Copper Canyon isn¹t full of copper. Second, it¹s one of many canyons, although most aficionados agree that there are six principal ones. Third, it¹s located in Chihuahua, which is the largest state in Mexico. Fourth, you can get there by crossing the border at Columbus, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas.
Because vacations seem to be getting shorter and time is a commodity that no one seems to have enough of, it is worthwhile considering several travel options. You can drive all the way from the USA. You can fly or take a train to Chihuahua City, or several other towns, and rent a car or a car and driver there.
On a recent trip, we started in Chihuahua City, the capital of the state of Chihuahua. It¹s a city. Big, sprawling, not particularly easy on the eyes. But it has some very worthwhile attractions. In the Palace of the Governors are dazzling polychrome murals by Aaron Pina Mora, which depict Chihuahuan history. They tell the story of the arrival of the conquistadors, the cruelty of the colonizers, the gouging of the earth to start mining, the revolt of the Indians, including a portrait of ³The Axe Man,² who was one of the leaders of the rebellion. The murals lead the viewer through the Revolution and the reign of Benito Juarez, the first President of Mexico, who was a very Europeanized Indian. On one panel, he is flanked by two other freedom leaders
Historical reminders are not confined to the Palace of Governors, but are everywhere in Chihuahua City. The main church, a baroque beauty, was built by taxing silver ingots from the mines. It contains a main altar made of Carrera marble, and a small chapel with a bulto of a crucified Franciscan monk. On the left side of the church is a museum of sacred art.
Anyone who is interested in revolutions will want to make a stop at Pancho Villa¹s house. Pancho was, to say the least, a very complex figure. He chose the pseudonym ³Pancho Villa² because he was running from the law. He was a cattle rustler who ran a clandestine butcher shop in Chihuahua where he cut up his stolen cows and sold the meat in the market. He was a natural leader, a life force, and highly charismatic. He had twenty-five known wives, and perhaps a few we have yet to learn about.
His house/museum is full of guns, rifles, photos and all the trappings of a media-conscious revolution: printing machines, phones, typewriters. The only thing missing is a hookup to the net.
On July 30, 1923, Pancho was driving in his Dodge, on his way to a school to deliver books. He was obsessed with education, since he never had very much himself. He was assassinated by his enemies, and the bullet-riddled car is on display on the ground level of the house. It¹s hard not to gawk, because the car seems so intimate, so vulnerable.
The house is decorated with fine European furniture
If your appetite for seeing fine things is whetted, you¹ll want to visit Quinta Gameros, a mansion built in 1909. It¹s a highly eclectic building with plaster and woodwork in the French style, cut and blown Venetian glass chandeliers, and art nouveau décor and furniture. Many of the furnishings were imported from Mexico City, except for two noteworthy originals: a shower with surround sprays in the art nouveau style, and an art nouveau toilet.
Leaving behind the city life, you can now head for the country and canyon landsSwhich are home to the ancient and traditional Tarahumara Indians. There are about 60,000 Tarahumara in Mexico, and they are a gentle, agricultural people who are known for their legendary runners and their crafts. They still depend on their age-old diet of corn, beans, squash and peppers, although a l0-year drought in the region has brought many of them to the brink of starvation.
The Tarahumara women wear layers of brilliantly-colored skirts, while the men can sometimes be seen in their traditional loincloth with a triangle hanging down the back, and a headband tied at the side of the head. Although visitors might think that some of them are begging for money, they are actually practicing their custom of ³korima,² or sharing. If someone doesn¹t have a blanket or corn, they give it as korima, as a gift. They expect the same in return.
During the hot season, the Tarahumara live in small groups in the valleys of the high mountains of Chihuahua, but before the snows come, they move down with their animals, a few of their possessions, and their musical instruments. Encountering the Tarahumara is one of the highlights of a trip to Copper Canyon. If you are not bound by a train¹s schedule, you can stop your car to talk, to visit, to buy blankets and crafts. You can even, as we did, offer rides to hitchhiking Tarahumara kids, who often have to walk many hours to get to school.
A short stop for do-it-yourself drivers exiting Chihuahua City should be the Mennonite community in Cuauhtemoc (about an hour¹s drive). The Mennonites originated in Germany, moved to Canada, and came to Mexico in 1922 to resist forced Canadian public education. They were excellent farmers, and they leased a quarter of a million acres from the Mexican government for 50 years. What they asked for was religious freedom, and exemption from taxes and the draft. They still live in small communities (called ³campos²) and, now that the 50 years are up, they have to pay taxes. But they still have freedom of religion and from the draft. The most conservative Mennonites use horses and buggies, but most now use machinery and motorized vehicles, at least for work.
Some of the Mennonites will let you enter their homes to buy crafts. The house we visited in Campo 6 was sparse, bordering on draconian. The mother, who wore a head scarf and apron, had quilts for sale, and the children, who wore overalls, were docile, obedient and well-behaved. They speak what we are told is l8th century low German. There have few toys and fewer modern amenities. Their life style is unusual anywhere, but especially startling in the middle of Mexico.
The first major stop on your car trip from Chihuahua City (153 miles; about two and a half hours) will probably be Creel, a small town which is accessible to a lot of the area¹s natural attractions. In the main square, Tarahumara craftspeople sell woven belts, blankets, dolls and baskets for a fraction of what they are worth. If indoor shopping is more your style, try the Mission Store, where the money goes to support a local hospital. Like most places in northern Mexico, accommodations and meals in Creel are inexpensive, fairly basic, clean and centrally located.
One of the highlights of the Creel area is a trip to Cuzarare Falls. Leaving Creel, on the left-hand side of the road, is a low white building which houses the Tarahumara women¹s craft cooperative. It was a struggle for the women to wrest their economic independence from the traditional and conservative men folk, but they persisted. You may want to support their efforts by buying some souvenirs. When you arrive at Cuzarare Falls, be prepared for a fairly-easy one-hour hike that¹s not to be missed. You will pass by streams and cornfields, and see Tarahumara children whose job it is to tend the flocks of sheep and goats. A mountain cave is used by the Indians for storage, and they have a portable, collapsible corral set up in their fields. Once the animals have produced enough excrement to fertilize a crop, they just pick up the wooden corral and move it on.
It is best to walk in silence, so you can hear the birds, the insects, and the gentle sounds of water. The open fields turn into forest, and at almost every turn in the path, placid, beautiful Tarahumara display their crafts on boulders or in the shade of trees. Suddenly, the path leads upwards and the marvelous 98-foot Cuzarare Falls can be seen from a high vantage point. Down below, locals swim in small pools and lagoons formed from the forcefully cascading water. If you¹re hungry after the hike, nearby Cuzarare Hiking Lodge offers casual, inexpensive Mexican fare. If the lodge satisfies your bucolic fantasies, you can stay there for $50 a night, including three meals. There are no phones or TV, wood fires supply heat and kerosene lamps provide light.
Also in the Creel area is the Mission of St. Ignatio which can immediately be identified by the round sun and cross on the front façade. It is unusual to see a pre-Hispanic symbol (the sun) on a mission church. In front of the small mission is a large white cross which is known as the Cross of Forgiveness. Where it stands, there was a whipping post for punishing recalcitrant Indians who didn¹t want to pray or work the colonizers¹ ways.
On the outskirts of Creel, some Tarahumara still live in caves, and we have the good fortune to visit one. A Tarahumara single mother is raising ten children, nieces and nephews and sending them to school in Creel. It is not a romantic existence. The cave is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Matresses are spread everywhere, quarters are cramped, and every spare inch is taken up with clothes, bedding, kitchen utensils and cooking pots. I felt cowed in the presence of such a strong, enduring woman.
On a lighter note, head for Mushroom Rocks
A winding road from Creel leads deep down into a dramatic canyon to the town of Batopilas (it can take up to five hours). This is one of the places the train doesn¹t go, so you are in for a treat exclusively reserved for drivers and for those passengers who aren¹t afraid of bumps and don¹t get carsick or have acrophobia. Although the total driving distance is under 100 miles, and the road starts out being paved, it gives way to an ³improved dirt² road, and then the descent is very steep (from 7500 feet at Creel to l500 feet at Batopilas) and the narrow path is often perilously close to the edge of the canyon. You have to baby your brakes on the way down (stop and give them a break every half hour or so) and be careful of engine overheating on the way back up. Try to head down into Batopilas early in the day and come back up (unless you are staying over) before it¹s dark. With these caveats in mind, you can be sure of a safe and gorgeous trip.
People usually think of northern Mexico as being arid, but the Batopilas Canyon is lush green and bursting with vegetation. Your camera will get even more of a workout than your car. Along the road are picturesque chapels and altars, stark rock outcroppings, startling view points, and breathtaking glimpses up to the heavens, across the mountains, and into the canyon below.
When you finally make it to Batopilas, be prepared for a little inconvenience. The former silver mining town is currently being torn up to improve the sewer system (don¹t ask
The Batopilans are very friendly, and you can find cheap eats and lodging (not great, but adequate) in the center of town. No matter where you go or what you do, you will immediately feel that you are away from civilization. You are down in the belly of a canyon, away from the cares and concerns of the ³real world.² One night a week, a band serenades locals and visitors. It¹s not just any band. They are trying to recreate the sound of the mining era, when Batopilas was in its heyday. They are putting The band together piece by piece, they need money to purchase instruments, and it¹s touchingly home-grown right now. A few of the older locals come out to dance, holding their life-long mates as though they were still newlyweds.
Four miles from Batopilas is the Satevo Mission, a round-domed, architectural anomaly that was abandoned by the Jesuits and today is a haunting shadow of former times, nestled in lush, tropical foliage. And right outside of Batopilas is the old Sheppherd Hacienda, one of the most evocative in northern Mexico.
A hacienda wasn¹t just a house for wealthy land owners. It was a self-sufficient life style. There were living quarters for workers and machinery and metal works and even a coin-minting operation. When the revolution came, the revolutionaries destroyed the haciendas and took precious machines and belongings to finance their campaigns.
Today, ducks and cows wander through the ruins of the old hacienda, and a new owner has taken over, with hopes of one day restoring it as an inn.
Whenever you decide to leave Batopilas, you have to exit the same way you entered
As soon as you get into Divisadero, find out when the train arrives, and be there, at the station, waiting for the explosion of life. Vendors grill and sell fresh, hot food, Tarahumara spread out their crafts, and there is a bustling exchange of money and goods as a spontaneous market takes shape. When the train leaves, though some vendors remain, the excitement goes with it.
You will definitely want to eat, if not stay, at the Divisadero Barrancas. The hotel nests on the very rim of the Copper Canyon, and huge picture windows line the dining room. After eating, you can stroll outside to different vistas, or climb down into the canyon. If you are lucky, you will nab a room where you wake up, open the curtains, and look down into the Canyon as the sun rises. The hotel also offers lectures, excursions and other cultural activities.
Another alternative is the Tarahumara Mansion hotel. They have a special honeymoon package, but you don¹t have to be newlyweds to take advantage of it. $320 (for two) will get you dos noches in a room with a private Jacuzzi, three meals a day, and all tours of the area included.
When you are fully rested, have had your fill of the lush canyons and are loaded up with colorful Tarahumara crafts, you¹ll be ready to bid adios to the canyon country of Chihuahua and head back to the USA again. You¹ll have the thrill of knowing you are among the five per cent of tourists who have made the trip by car, instead of taking the more organized, more predictable, but less exciting train.
Distance from the New Mexican border to Chihuahua City: 360 miles from Chihuahua city to Creel 166 miles from Creel to Batopilas 100 miles (half of it on dirt roads) from Creel to Divisadero 30 miles from Batopilas to Divisadero is 130 miles
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