Seven days in Batopilas by Ann J. Phillips

Batopilas is a remote town at the bottom of the Batopilas canyon in the Copper Canyon system in northern Mexico. The town stretches out between the west bank of the Batopilas river and the steep sides of the canyon. The center of town is only two streets wide, though there are houses on the hillsides that overlook the town on both sides of the river. For most of its history, Batopilas has been a silver mining camp. The conquistadors arrived around 1632 and discovered the rich veins, and mining was carried on almost continuously until the early 20th century. It was once one of the most productive silver mining areas in the world.
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Alexander Shepherd of Washington D.C. bought a mine, the San Miguel tunnel, for $600,000 and filed 350 additional claims in the late 1860’s and early 1870s. The Shepherd mines produced more than 25,000,000 ounces of silver, making Shepherd a very rich man. When Shepherd died of a ruptured appendix in 1902 his sons tried valiantly to carry on the business. However, there were funding problems for the young owners, and then the Mexican Revolution came along. Before long the mines were closed, putting some 1500 people out of work. This was the last big silver boom for Batopilas, though mines still continue to be opened and closed in hopes of finding another bonanza. The population dwindled, but the merchants and some stalwart citizens held on and kept the town from disappearing altogether.

Prior to 1978 Batopilas hosted few visitors. In order to get to the town one had to hike over the mountains, a three day walk from Urique. The Tarahumari Indians, who still walk almost everywhere, would come to town, as they still do, to buy provisions. Then, an unpaved road was built that wound around the mountain sides, making it possible for motor vehicles to reach the bottom of the Canyon. As do all remote places, Batopilas began to attract adventure travelers who are coming now in increasing numbers.

Two days is barely enough time to get acquainted with Batopilas and the surrounding area. However, on a guided tour, that seems to be the usual time allowed for a visit. Your guide will probably take you out to Satevo Mission and to the Shepherd Hacienda and, if there’s time, the aqueduct. You will have a chance to walk around town, admire the attractive colonial buildings and the Plaza Principal. You will probably eat at Carolina’s or Dona Mica’s in the Plaza Chica. In that sense, tour visits to this interesting place have become pretty standardized. It’s a nice introduction, but if Batopilas intrigues you, you may soon find yourself making arrangements for a second, and longer, visit. There are several hotels in town that range from the small, inexpensive lodgings preferred by backpackers, to more elegant hotels such as the Riverside Lodge and Casa Real de Minas. You’ll have to check with a local tour company to find out which ones can accommodate individual visitors who want to stay longer than the usual couple of days.
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The Riverside Lodge takes up a whole block across the street from Iglesia de la Virgin de Carmen. The original building on that site must have been a miner’s shack or log house, as that corner seems to have been occupied for some 300 years. Due to a couple of fires in the town, and missing or non-existent records, little is know about the structure until the Spaniard Gregorio Bigleer and his wife, Defina Sayas came to Batopilas from Mexico City in the 1800s. Bigleer was a wealthy merchant and established a very successful business in Batopilas. He bought the corner piece of property and built Casa Bigleer, perhaps the first really solid building on that site. He also bought the piece of property just south of it and built the church for the town. Bigleer’s heirs acquired the property to the north of the casa and began to add rooms. Here again, how far the house expanded and who lived there before 1989 is information not easily found.

The next owner of note was Skip McWilliams, an American businessman who had been coming to Copper Canyon for vacations and hiking trips for many years. He bought the property, and between 1989 and 1992 spent over a million dollars rebuilding and renovating the building, turning it into one of the most beautiful and unusual hotels in the Copper Canyon area or anywhere else. The people of the town were anxious to be involved in the project, and the members of over 100 families hired on to work for McWilliams.

If you are not a guest at the Riverside Lodge it’s unlikely that you will ever see the inside of the hotel. Since a stay there is more like a visit to a family home than a stop at public lodgings, there are no areas open to the general public and no front desk. Luggage is brought in and out by the side door and guests are immediately cautioned not to bring visitors inside. .

The hotel is filled with antiques and memorabilia, many items from the Bigleer era. They have a small library with articles about Batopilas and subjects related to the town and silver mining. The building is like a maze, with small patios, ups, downs and lefts and rights. There are many guava trees in the open courtyards, and other shade trees and tropical plants. You can climb up to the roof and photograph the dome and tower, and one level higher is a roof top patio where you can go to watch the stars at night. They also have a wonderful collection of old photos from the late 1800s.

The Riverside Lodge has twelve to fifteen rooms available for guests. The rooms are not numbered but rather are identified by women’s names. I stayed in the Sophia which faces the main courtyard. The Elena is the round room under the dome. There is a kitchen and a dining area. During my stay a continental breakfast with very good brewed coffee was available. Our host, Raphael, would have his mother, Dona Lupe, come down from the Casa Real de Minas to make the coffee. The two hotels are managed by brother Martin, who is very active in promoting responsible tourism for the town. You must make your reservations through a tour company, preferably one well known to the management. I booked my trips through Les Mahoney of Copper Canyon Adventures who always does a great job for his clients.

When it comes to sight seeing, the ruin of Hacienda San Miguel is one of the major attractions in Batopilas. If you aren’t with a tour group and have not hired a vehicle you may find the long walk all the way to the green bridge very tedious, but there is a shortcut. If you’re into tightrope walking. you might want to use the crude “bridge” of boards constructed by the residents as a shortcut across the river, or wade across as I did (wade across the up-river side next to the bridge where you can hold on). Otherwise you will have to walk across the green bridge and backtrack to the hacienda.
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Someone will meet you at the gate and you pay 10 pesos to get in. The advantage of visiting the hacienda this way is that you can spend as much time exploring as you wish and at the time of day that suits you best. Grant Shepherd’s book, Silver Magnet, shows an old photo of the property with the buildings identified.

One of the goals for my second and extended visit was to explore a silver mine. There are a few mines still operating, but most of them are only reached after a rough climb up the sides of the canyon. The entrances to the closed San Miguel Tunnel and Santo Domingo mine, however, are right on the road going away from the town on the east side of the river. San Miguel was locked, but there was no lock on the Santo Domingo gate. Perhaps, in spite of the warning signs, this is a tacit invitation to see the inside of a real silver mine. Not every guide is willing to take visitors inside the mine, but the man I hired, Roberto, had been here before, so he boldly stepped out of the truck and opened the gate.

The tunnel wraps around you within a few feet of the entrance. Even the light of the flashlights is swallowed up by the dark. We walked carefully, avoiding rubble and patches of mud on the floor. Shining our lights on the ceiling, we were able to see small streaks of silver and, at one point, the remains of an archaic tool imbedded above our heads. There are also interesting side tunnels. One to our left was a pond-like spot filled with water, while to our right was another that had suffered a devastating cave in. After a few minutes of exploration we turned around to see that the entrance to the mine was just a far away speck of sunlight. There seemed little more of interest to see, so we walked back toward the entrance. Along the way we poked at the solid looking ceiling and were able to pick off pieces of rock. The tunnel is less substantial than it looks, with cave-ins still a possibility.
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Another landmark I wanted to visit was the beginning of the Shepherd aqueduct, which is still in use. Where the Batopilas River is joined by the Cerro Colorado a small dam was built along with an aqueduct covered by arched gates. The aqueduct is three miles long and brought hydroelectric power to Batopilas around 1880, long before any other place in Mexico except Mexico City. The current gates are modern and in good repair, part of the upgrades in progress all over the area. They now serve the purpose of controlling the flow of water during the rainy season and at any time when more or less water would be beneficial.

To get to the dam and the gate, it is necessary to wade across the river. Since the bottom is all stones and slippery spots, I chose to go across in my hiking boots, which I knew from experience would dry out just fine if left in the sun for a few hours. Raphael was in front of me, perhaps 20 or 30 yards ahead, while Roberto brought up the rear. I was trying to be careful, carrying my camera in my left hand, when a strong current and slippery rock combined to land me on my back in the shallow river. I was completely soaked, and laughing so hard I couldn’t get up, but I managed to keep my camera dry. The guys came to my rescue and we made the rest of the crossing without further incident. I must say that on that very warm afternoon, the wet clothes were something of a blessing.

I was having dinner at Dona Mica’s one evening when I had the opportunity to meet Bonnie and Bill Neely. They invited me to submit an article about Batopilas to this magazine, so part of the remainder of my stay was devoted to research. Besides some valuable articles I found in the hotel library, the little town library in the municipal building has information, though mostly in Spanish. As of this writing, the municipal library is open for a couple of hours in the morning, closes a couple of hours at mid-day, then opens again about one o’clock. They also have computers for those who want to send email home, when you can find one not in use, and when phone lines have not been interrupted..
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Batopilas was a town built by silver, but it is fast becoming a town supported by tourism. Everyone is watching carefully to see how tourism develops here. As long as the hotels are kept small, as long as there are no McDonald’s or water slides, or other tacky examples of North American culture, and as long as the people of Batopilas continue to restore old buildings instead of replacing them, and most important, as long as they don’t pave that road, there’s reason to hope that Batopilas will continue to be a charming and remote place that people are willing to go out of their way to visit.