If you have wished with all your heart that you could make the arduous hike to see the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona but knew your knees would never make it, and you were afraid to trust your burro riding ability, you MUST visit Mexico’s Copper Canyon, as we did!
The privately-owned El Chepe train has replaced the formerly government-owned, old train and is one of only a few passenger trains remaining in Mexico and runs from Chihauhau City to the Pacific coast in both directions. California Native , a tour company that has almost two decades of experience traveling in Copper Canyon and working with the people there, arranged our trip with first class train and moderate hotels. Economy class is a different train that makes more stops. The train station bathroom was abysmal, but the on-board restrooms are large and clean. The air-conditioned ride is non-smoking and very comfortable.
The train passes through many tunnels and over bridges and for much of the five hour ride clings to the side of the cliff, making a number of squeaking S curves. We climbed steadily from nearly sea level to the 7,777 top at Divasadero.
We left the tropics with palm trees and fruit groves to ascend through cactus and sparse, dry ranch country with goatherds and a few cows, into the pine forests and dry limestone white soil of the upper regions. One side of the train has steep cliffs almost straight up in bleached and desert varnished, jagged rock formations, while the other side is straight down through trees and grasses to the river, canyons, and valleys. Request seat assignment on the side you prefer, considering the sun is hot when it is on your side and you will need sun lotion and sun glasses for part of the ride through this high desert. Meals on the train are delicious, but a little high in price, as are drinks from the bar. You might wish to bring our own food and drinks aboard.
Our fifteen-minute stop at Posada Barrancas was our first sighting of the Tarahumara Indian women who came out to sell baskets to passengers. They were dressed in bright, floral-print, full ruffled skirts and blouses with hand-loomed shawls and colored bandana kerchiefs shielding their faces from the sun. They stood quietly hopeful and shy by the train door. Grandmothers sat weaving pine needle or agave leaf baskets. The beautifully made articles cost only pennies on the dollar compared with what similar ones in the US bring.
We arrived at beautiful Hotel Divisadero Barrancas with the entrance way covered with beautiful crafts. Colorful Tarahumara women and children sat on the stone floor in front of our first view of the immense canyon thousands of meters below. The hotel hugs the rim in a ranch style series of log buildings with orange tin roofs. Each room has a balcony on the edge of the magnificent canyon.
Native guides from the hotel lead excellent hikes past cave homes of present-dayTarahumara Indians, where children play along the cliffs. and families subsist totally on their environment, only purchasing a few necessities with the coins from their craft sales. Other hikes are to see the surrounding beauty of the National Park, with overlooks to the immense canyon, steep climbs in the mountains, or to buy crafts from locals at picture perfect spots.
Meals at the hotel are delicious, served in the large lodge- style dining room overlooking Urique Canyon. This National Park protects the convergence of five canyons and three rivers and the home of about 70,000 native Tarahumaras who have kept the same way of life and preserved their culture the same as it has been for centuries, touched but unchanged by modern civilization’s encroachment. We were encouraged not to give handouts but to purchase generously and to pay anyone whom we photographed, as these people live on so very little. The Mexican government tries to help them but the lack of health care, poor diet, and hardships of lifestyle make infant mortality high and lifespan averages 55 for Tarahumara women and 45 for men.
The brand new viewing stations and steel suspension bridge, which is really well built and at a perfect place for photos. The gigantic rock monuments of weird shapes and enormous sizes are sandstone and limestone, sculpted into their various forms by eons of rain, ice, and snow. Geologists have determined that these canyons and cliffs were formed by hundreds of earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic plate shifts and up-thrusts, not by one cataclysmic event.
The next day we boarded the train for a short ride to Creel, a lumber town, where about 5,000 people live at about 7,824 feet elevation. Creel is centered by the railroad and helped to thrive by the tourist trade with souvenir shops, a bank, two churches, and a fossil museum. The best is a fascinating museum of Tarahumara Culture with signs in both English and Spanish. A good place to purchase artisana is from The Mission Gift Shop near the train station because the proceeds support the Health Clinic here. There are several nice motels and restaurants, and the pretty town plaza is a pretty place to sit and watch people.
The next day we met our driver PePe (Jose Flores) and headed down the canyon for Batopilas, the village at the bottom of Batopilas Canyon, a descent of nearly 7,000 feet. Pepe has a great personality and no one could help but like him. He had studied two years in the US, so his English is good. What a road!! We were thankful to be in his four-door Ford Ranger pick-up, which had 4-wheel drive and is very comfortable, and Pepe is totally concentrated on his driving. The first hour and a half we covered 75 kilometers on a paved two lane road with totally sharp S curves and a steep descent. Pepe, who grew up in Creel, has made this drive once or twice a week leading tourists for fifteen years. Request his guide service through the Best Western Hotel in Creel, and book him early. In typical high desert way, nights are cool or cold and days warm up rapidly in Creel, and at the bottom of the canyon it is always warm to very hot.
When the pavement ended the rocky, dusty road became one lane with only a few places that had extended width for meeting a car. The S curves were sharp and constant and the passenger side of the car looked straight down the cliff with almost no shoulder to spare. The driver side was next to steep walls of rock rising straight up hundreds of feet! This unpaved road wound steeply downward for another 65 kilometers, which required about four hours more! It was the ride of a lifetime, and not for the fearful! The blind curves, each of which looks as if you are going straight off the cliff in mid air before the car bears sharply around, are doubly scary because you pray you are not meeting another car. But for the most part, you can see a few curves ahead and know when you’re approaching another vehicle and find a place to stop and wait.
About halfway our driver needed a rest and we did too. Pepe found a place to stop and we got out to eat a box lunch the hotel had prepared. It was a lovely picnic rock overlooking the curves to come. Then we walked for a half hour before he picked us up at a goat-herder’s house where we took pictures. There are no facilities on the road, so you must take water, food, and toilet paper and find a tree or big rock when necessary.
When we finally reached the river at the bottom we breathed a sigh of relief but still had several more miles of frightening curves to go before reaching the long, long town beside the Batopilas River, one of the oldest cities in Mexico, founded as a mission in 1609 by the Jesuits. Through the centuries Franciscans and Jesuits, Spaniards and Americans came and went, taking over the canyon for the rich veins of gold, silver, and copper. This remote town was a thriving city of 7,000 people and the second city in all Mexico to have electricity, in early 1900’s when Alexander Shepherd, an engineer from Washington, DC, owned the mine and built his home here. This is a fascinating town to visit, and the entire trip should be at the top of your MUST VISIT list!