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Trekking in Copper Canyon, Mexico

by Stephen Fisher

Some people see the cup as half full, others see it as half empty. The way we travel is a litmus test that decisively tells which type we are. Stephen sees the cup as half full. He had read the brochures and done his research into Copper Canyon - Mexico's Grand Canyon. He didn't find what he had expected but found much more. We hope you enjoy his writing as much as we do. We are eagerly awaiting his next adventure or perhaps a recounting of a past trip "off the beaten path." (AW)

About the Author

Stephen Fisher is an educator and school principal; he has written five books and is an avid backpacker and amateur archeologist; he emphasizes that he looks at but never collects chards.

Trekking in Copper Canyon

The reports seemed too good to be true! The travel brochures too colorful to be real (scenes vaguely reminiscent of the lush greenery of the South Pacific). The information that I read alluded to a venture reminiscent of the "The Call of the Wild", definitely a place too exciting to ignore. So I left Los Angeles for Los Mochis, Mexico (on the coast of the Gulf of California), to travel by train 9 hours to Creel, to reach the interior of Chihuahua and the entrance to the Grand Canyon of Mexico - Barranca del Cobre - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Sierra Tarahumara!

I was eager to see fantastic sights! To explore legendary cities! To witness the culture of the Tarahumara Indians. To be absorbed in a land that time had forgotten! I was going to explore where few people had gone before-The Mysterious Copper Canyon- and discover an untapped wilderness BEFORE it was discovered by the tourist industry.

I left, I saw, and I returned. Was I disappointed? Well, let's say the hype never equaled the reality. The tourist industry HAD discovered Copper Canyon. It hadn't rained much in the region for the past three years so the tropical look of the brochures was difficult to find (My trip took place over a 8 day period in early April-just after the rainy season). I never saw a Tarahumara Indian even jogging, let alone running. NOTE: The information on the Tarahumarans consistently referred their great feats of running endurance - "They run and never tire!".

BUT the trip was the unique experience I had hoped for.

Copper Canyon has something to offer for all ages and budgets and getting there was an experience in itself. After arriving in Los Mochis late Saturday evening and negotiating, in limited Spanish, a taxi ride to the heart of the city, I encountered my first problem. I wasn't able to purchase an advance ticket for the train ride to Creel and was told IF I wanted to ensure a ticket, I needed to be at the Los Mochis train station at 4:30 a.m. The "first class" train left at 6:00 a.m. (Cost in U.S. about $15.00). The "second class" train left an hour later but stopped at almost every city (9 hours would become 12 hours)- That was it for trains leaving that day. Needless to say, if I missed the first class train my trip schedule would have been seriously jeopardized.

By 5:00 A.M. the train station was alive with activity, including a multitude of kids, families, pets, and at least enough supplies next to the above to sustain a family of four for a month. The bustle of activity, however, did not extend to the ticket booth. This, and the fact that there appeared to be at least 500 people waiting for the "few" available first class train seats, heightened my anxiety and caused minor heart palpitations. One of my traveling companions through guile and ingenuity was positioned close to the ticket window for at least an hour and a half. The window opened right on time (at 6:20- more panic) but no problem. The hordes of people at the station were waiting for the second class train.

By 6:30 we were on our way and the brochure pictures were dancing in my mind. A look out the train window sobered me instantly. For at least the next ten miles I saw the shacks of thousands of poor people living next to the railroad tracks. It was truly depressing to see so many families living it what appeared to be dire poverty waving at "the first class train".

One thing I should point out about the railroad is that the persistent reports of 19th century style train robberies are greatly exaggerated. I felt very comfortable with the ever present armed guard who patrolled the cars and the fact that at EACH rail stop machine gun toting soldiers were always visible. What, me worry?

The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad was not quite (I learned to use this phrase quite a bit on this trip) as spectacular as the brochures indicated. For example, "The Chihuahua al Pacifico is the most spectacular train ride in North America in terms of scenery and sheer engineering marvels". The engineering marvel comment is probably accurate. (My engineering background is limited to reading new car specifications). The length of track is about 400 miles, (Creel is the halfway point); the train traverses canyons and more canyons (from sea level to 8,000 feet at its highest point), goes over a multitude of bridges and through an even greater multitude of tunnels, and at one point near Temoris, makes a 360 degree circle on its journey into and out of the canyon.

Hanging out on the platforms between the cars, while not spectacular, is a must. It was the best part of the train ride. Often the sides of the canyon walls were so close to the tracks that I could touch the foliage of the trees. And speeding into a tunnel while standing on the platform gave me an interesting perspective on depth perception.

from the highest bridge
View from the highest bridge. The white dot is a person on an ATC.

Railroad aficionados probably do use the term spectacular while describing the railroad; and I'm sure many rail aficionados come to this area just to ride the train and revel in the engineering that went into building the railroad. The scenery, however, was not "awe inspiring" but it did have its moments, especially at Temoris and Divisadero. Divisadero is the first major stop (the half-way point) and the view is spectacular. It is also major sightseeing stop and the first real look "into the Grand Canyon of Mexico". The views are unobstructed (except for camera fanatics). This is also your first chance to buy hand-made baskets from the Tarahumara Indians (women) dressed in a kaleidoscope of color. It seems that the further I got from Los Mochis, the more "traditional" the scene became. A short 15 minutes later it was back on the train and more bridges, tunnels, shrubs and armed guards.

Before you could say, "Nine Hours!", we were at Creel. Creel is a great city, with a beautiful church and a surprising calmness that transcends the area. It also is a far cry from the urban centered Los Mochis. In Creel the local population is friendly, the traffic limited, the restaurants good, and the scenery inspiring. We had arrived.

Our first stop, before backpacking and camping in the local area, was the Pension Creel. I can heartily recommend this restored hacienda style Bed and Breakfast ($45.00). The rooms are spacious and the food was excellent. The price was also very reasonable compared to the "big bucks" charged by the Lodge at Creel ($250.00 per night, per person, food and outings included. Did I forget to mention the 5 night minimum?).

The Pension Creel also has its own guide service to various points of interest (additional cost). Another reasonable motel was the Cascada Inn ($35.00) which also has its own guide service (additional cost). By far the most reasonable motel in Creel is the Casa de Margarita's ($15.00, with breakfast and dinner included). Yes, the Margarita has its own guide service (additional cost). The Margarita is a favorite spot for backpackers, students, low budget travelers, and those who like few amenities - but it's better than a tent.

church in Batopilas
Church in Batopilas

There are good hiking opportunities around Creel. For starters and to acclimate yourself to the area, I would suggest a day hike, first to the cemetery (of historical interest), next to the Mission San Ignacio, and then into the surrounding canyons (through Tarahumara ranchitos). Stay on the main road and you don't need a guide. The views are wonderful.

Be sure to skip the visit to a cave home just outside of Creel; in the backcountry it would be a point of high interest; 2 miles outside of town with tour busses lined up, it's degrading.

There are good camping areas located at Arareco Lake, about 8 miles outside of town. You can hitchhike there in almost perfect safety-or walk on the well paved road. Hitchhiking is very easy since the local population is not worried about crime. I never worried about crime in either Creel or the surrounding area. (It's great to feel safe).

A quick note regarding points of local interest in the Creel area: There are about 8 major half day and full day tours available leaving from Creel. If you like "packaged" tours, they're easy to schedule; however, with a little ingenuity, it's easy to create your own "tour package". All you need is a description of the area, a "little" Spanish, and an adventurous spirit. If you want to spend money, everything can be done for you. In fact, you can also be transported (by car) at the end of any paid tour to all local Indian craft stores. Of course, you can walk there by yourself for free. By the way, Tarahumara basketry is well-crafted, inexpensive and often recently made. Collecting baskets is essential on any trip to Copper Canyon.

Important Note: Buy more baskets than you think you need! Consider baskets like film - Don't economize!

"Areas" I would recommend to explore around Creel include:

On the road to Batopilas
On the road to Batopilas with donkey

Batopilas is a two or three day visit with excellent camping possibilities on the river or even at the non-restored, but historic hacienda San Miquel. Don't be surprised if you share the hacienda with cows and chickens.

Batopilas also has an unique mission - Mission Satevo. This is a great day hike (8 miles round trip). The mission is a combination of many conflicting styles and the interior is of special interest. By the way, there are a number of great full and half-day hikes in the area. The aqueduct trail, with stream crossings, can be hiked for as long or as short as you like. This also is true of the Arroyo las Minas and Arroya Huinolito trails (refer to a good guide book - you don't need a guide!).

For inexpensive accommodations, the Hotel Mary is a great place to stay ($8.00); in fact, the clientele and the ambience reminded me of a Hemingway novel. For just $250.00 per night you can stay at the historic Riverside Inn; it's a great place to visit (cost free).

For anyone interested in the Creel area, any good tour book will provide all the information needed to plan a trip. If you plan to backpack for any length of time, you DO need a guide. Maps are somewhat useless in the area because there are about 10 million Tarahumara trails crisscrossing the area. The 10 million figure is not hyperbole.

On our return to Creel, it was time once again to go through the "railroad drill". (1) We couldn't purchase tickets in advance; (2) The train was full; (3) Start lining up at the ticket booth early! and (4) The on-time train (which was leaving Creel at noon) was 2 hours late.

What does this mean?: "9 hours plus 2 hours, equals Los Mochis at midnight." Adversity does have it's advantages. The late arrival forced us to stop at El Fuerte instead of Los Mochis (we saved about 2 hours). The colonial town of El Fuerte is historical, beautiful, and a MUST on any Copper Canyon trip. The cathedral was inspiring, the central square was magnificent, and the town itself a treasure.

After a day in El Fuerte, we took a local bus to Los Mochis, a taxi to the airport, and without incident, home to Los Angeles.

I thought I would add a few interesting points about traveling to Copper Canyon during the Easter season. It's a great time to be in Mexico!

For further information a good starting point would be to look at the following:

© 1996 Stephen Fisher

Note: Steve took this trip in 1996; prices might have changed, so it's best to get current estimates when planning your trip! (aw)

You may also get the following book on the Tarahumara directly from Armchair World:

Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara - A Photohistory of the People of the Edge
by W. Dirk Raat & George R. Janeck
University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, 136 pgs, 111 back-and-white photographs, 6 maps, notes, bibliography (7" x 9" - cloth cover)
book description

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