OOOOOHHHHHHHH MEXICO, IT SOUNDS SO SIMPLE, I JUST HAVE TO GO. ------James Taylor
Sierra Tarahumara-Barrancas Del Cobre
Lorenzo Martinez and I just returned from an adventure traveler's dream ---"Barranca Del Cobre" Mexico. This type of trip, particularly the 27 hours of Mexican bus travel, is not for everyone but worked reasonably well for us. Part of our mission was to seek out and interview future guides, and gather as much data as possible for a future rim-to-rim inner canyon backpack. Limited topo maps were available and those that were, provided only general and often times inaccurate data.The name, "Copper Canyon" is used as a general reference to six massive gorges covering 25,000 sq. miles. The term refers to the copper/green colored lichen that clings to the canyon walls. This canyon system is four times larger than the Grand Canyon. Four of its six canyons are deeper than our Grand - some by over 1,000 feet. The Copper Canyon area is a maze of 200 gorges making for complex inner canyon backpacking that requires an adventurous spirit. An incredible variety of ecosystems further distinguish the region. The Sierra Madre possesses more varieties of oak and pine than anywhere else in the world. It is lush!!! When asked the inevitable Grand Canyon comparison question, we respond that our impression of Copper Canyon is that it is a combination of Canyon De Chelly and The North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Very similar and very different.Complimenting the area's awesome scenery is the Tarahumara Indian culture. There are about 50,000 of these people living in the gorges, many in cliff and cave dwellings. Simple farming and ranching provides their sustenance. They are among the world's greatest longest distance runners. One of our guides, Reyes, unmercifully ran us up and down the Valley of Sighs for twelve miles. Our sojourn was special on many fronts, not the least of which was the incredible train ride from Los Mochis to the Mountain Ciudad of Creel. The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, completed in 1961, is an engineering marvel. We traveled from sea level to over 8000' up the Sierra Madre mountain range through innumerable tunnels, bridges and lush subtropical vegetation.Day1 - Monday 7.02.01Lorenzo drove his new SUV to Nogales, where we stored it in a secure lot for the ten days that we would be in Mexico. We then crossed the border and obtained our tourist cards and caught a first class bus to Los Mochis. The twelve hour ride was comfortable and scenic. Four movies helped pass the time. We arrived in Los Mochis close to 10:00 P.M. and took a cab to the Hotel Montecarlo. This hotel is clean and has an open courtyard. Twelve bucks each -US. We were able to find an open bar in the 'upscale' Hotel Santa Anita and sampled a couple of Negro Modello cervezas and then enjoyed a gourmet meal of tacos and burritos served up by a street vendor across the street from the hotel-60 pesos(6 bucks) for both. Lobo (Bruce) declined a beverage with his meal since all they offered was non-alcoholic. Lobo kept requesting cerveza, but the vendor would only shake her head and say 'cerveza es mal' (beer is bad). Day2 - Tuesday 7.03.01We were up at 4:30 A.M. and caught a cab to the train station where we boarded the first class train that leaves each morning at 6:00 A.M. for the 10 hour ride to Creel. The First class train is about fifty-five bucks (US) one way to Creel. The second class train costs half that, and leaves a couple of hours later. The second class train is not a bad option as it has air conditioning and decent seating, it just takes a little longer, does not have a dining or bar cars and can be crowded. The train ride was comfortable and the views were outstanding. We met several European travelers and exchanged information. An eight year old boy from New Jersey, Josh, traveling with his grandpa, latched on to us and we chit chatted for hours. He helped Lobo with his Spanish. His mom was born in Creel and migrated to the US. Josh is a great kid. Immediately upon arriving in Creel we went to the mission store to purchase maps and then checked into Margaritas. Margaritas is a hostel popular with backpackers and young European travelers. Our cost was $12.00 ea. (US) for a private room and bath and two meals a day (breakfast and dinner). The meals were very good. Margaritas is also one big party. For every cerveza purchased you are provided with a free double shot of tequila. We hooked up with a couple of fun guys from the US-Myer and Mike and partied hard the first night. The usual scenario is to hang out in the courtyard after dinner and get acquainted with other guests while enjoying 10 peso cervezas (and free tequila). When things really get going, the suggestion is usually made to move the fiesta to the other Margarita (hotel) bar, which is about 4 blocks away. There was much laughing, drinking and dancing (by Myer and Mike). At 3:30 a.m. when the party returned to the hostel, Lobo could hear howling and loud appeals for him to return to the party on the courtyard. El Lobo put his head under the pillow. Day3 - Wednesday 7.04.01 (USA birthday)We were up and showered in time for breakfast, which is served between 7:30-9:00. The day prior, we signed up for a trip to the Rekowata Hot Springs (at 100 pesos per head, bag lunch included). Twelve of us piled into the van for the 40 minute trip to the trailhead. At the trailhead, Mario our driver, told us the hike was 3 kilometers down and to always stay to the left. About 40 drizzling-rain minutes later, we were all at the Rekowata springs, which flow from the canyon walls into the San Ignacio River. This area represents the beginning of Urique Canyon. We lounged in the lukewarm pools of the river for close to 3 hours before heading back up trail. The 1,700 foot elevation gain made the hike out somewhat strenuous, but all were out within 1.5 hours. On the way up, Lobo and Zo met Pinto, the dog, and his companion Caesar, a Tarahumara kid of about 5. At the top, Lobo scored a doll and basket (woven out of pine needles).We were back at Margaritas in time for a shower and dinner. After dinner, the indoctrination of new arrivals began in the courtyard. Things really got going when a birthday cake for Paula was produced. Cake started flying. As with the previous night, Mike was very popular with the senoritas. He is a superb dancer. Close to 11, talk of heading to the bar began. Lobo and Zo declined and headed to their room to sleep. Sounds of the ongoing festivities continued throughout the night.Day4 - Thursday 7.05.01After breakfast, we took our laundry to a woman who washes, dries and folds for 40 pesos per load. At 10 we boarded a bus to El Divisadero, a town south of Creel that is a popular train stop offering food stalls, plenty of jewelry and basket vendors, and the best views of the canyon. We were joined by Carol, a young backpacker from Colorado we had met the day before at Margaritas. She was set on doing nothing but backpacking. We only wanted to find a nice day hike. We asked a stall operator if he knew of any guides. We were directed to follow the dirt road out of town for about 2km until we came to a little ranchito belonging to Lencho Macinas.We headed off as directed and soon came across an older gentleman walking towards town. We asked if he knew Lencho Macinas and he extended his hand. Carol tried to negotiate a trip down into the canyon and he offered a couple of options, but neither seemed to fit Carol's budget. He gave us directions for a short rim day hike back towards town and off we went. Part way in, we veered off and followed a path down into the canyon, which led to some Tarahumara dwellings. The short diversion offered some great views.Back at El Divisadero, we had a gordita and a chile relleno burrito, and checked out the merchandise that was for sale. We sat outside waiting for our bus taking in the great views as 2 Tarahumara brothers, Lorenzo and Victor, chased each other around us. On the ride back, the clouds let loose. When we got to Creel, the streets were like rivers. We picked up our laundry and headed back to Margaritas. At Margaritas, we discovered there had been a landslide on the train tracks and train service to Los Mochis was halted indefinitely. Quite a few folks were stranded, but the beer was still 10 pesos and the tequila was still free.After dinner, Myer and Mike shared our 6-packs of Tecate and Dos X while being entertained with El Lobo stories. Myer and Mike were eventually lured to the room next door where some of the stranded senoritas needed escorts to the bar. Zo and Lobo went to bed. There were plans for the next day.Day5 - Friday 7.06.01We packed after breakfast and then checked out of Margaritas, but not before paying in advance for Sunday night. We joined the tour to Cusarare Falls where we would be left at the trailhead to the falls. This is the location of Copper Canyon Lodge (a.k.a. Sierra Madre Hiking Lodge/Cabanas de Cobre).We left the tour group and headed for the lodge. Jose Luis, the manager was not around, so we left our packs and did the 3km hike to the falls. The falls seemed to be flowing at less than 50%. They must be awesome at full force. We saw Carol at the falls. She camped close by the night before and seemed to have found a guide to take her into the canyon the following day.Back at the lodge we met Jose Luis, Monserat (do-it-all man), and Margarita (cook/chef). We were back in time for lunch with Angela, who works for the US Forest Service. Margarita served up sopa de fideo (a Mexican thin noodle soup with avocado slices) that was delicious.Copper Canyon Lodge is awesome!!!! There is no electricity, just kerosene lamps in the rooms. Very quiet and charming. This is one of the nicest places you will ever stay!! Fifty (US) dollars per person per night, including three superb meals. The meals alone are worth it. The place is very informal. The bar is self-serve. You get your own beer from the fridge in the kitchen or mix your own drinks at the bar. It works on the honor system and you're expected to keep tab of how many drinks you have.We had planned to hike the 3km to the town of Cusarare and check out the mission after lunch, but as had become the norm, the afternoon showers appeared and we were left to make journal entries and read while sitting on the porch and enjoying the scenery. Several Tarahumara children would come by like little duckling groups and visit along with the dogs that hung out hoping for treats like El Lobo's jerky. We would show the children the pictures in National Geographic Traveler magazine and they would smile and laugh and enthusiastically chit chat in Tarahumara tongue. They were beautiful children, dressed in bright traditional Tarahumara outfits. The dining room at the lodge is great. The furnishings are made of rich dark woods and leather - very rustic and very comfortable. Before dinner we enjoyed vino and cervezas with Angela and her friend Sandra in front of a fire Monserat had started. Dinner always consisted of soup, entrée, and desert, and was always sabroso. Margarita was trained by 2 chefs who were full time staff when the lodge always operated at full capacity and charged $200(US) per night. The dinner consisted of onion soup, tomatadas (enchiladas in tomato sauce rather than chile sauce), and baked pear and apple slices in a wine-cinnamon sauce.Angela and Sandra were leaving early the next morning and we planned to join them for breakfast before going on a 20km hike to some hot springs Monserat had mentioned.When we got to our rooms, our kerosene lamps had been lit.Day6 - Saturday 7.07.01Before breakfast we headed out to do the 3km walk to check out the mission in Cusarare. There is not much to the town and the mission was locked so we couldn't see the inside. We got back to lodge in time to bid farewell to Angela and Sandra. We were now the only 2 guests at the lodge. Breakfast was delicious. Huevos rancheros for Lobo and huevos a la mexicana for Zo with plenty of beans, tortillas, biscuits, sliced fruit and cereal.We had originally intended on hiking 10km down the canyon to some hotsprings, but Jose Luis suggested taking a guided route over a nearby ridge to the springs. After breakfast we asked Monserat if he had time to guide us to the springs. He told us they had set us up with Reyes as guide. Jose Reyes Batista is a Tarahumara who lives next to the lodge. He has a small plot of land (1 of 3) where he grows corn, potatoes and beans to sustain his family of 7.Jose Luis, Margarita and Monserat were out on the porch telling Reyes that we'd been out to the mission and back in about 30 minutes. They described us as 'muy rapidos.' Reyes' look seemed a bit worried, but with a sly grin that seemed eager for a challenge. We took the lunches Margarita packed for us and off we went (but not before Reyes scored himself a bar of soap so he could bathe down at the river). Reyes set a quick pace towards the ridge. Before the first km was over, we had all worked up a sweat and lack of oxygen. We made it up the ridge in quick fashion with a couple of breaks to remove layers and take in the vista at the top of the ridge. Reyes noted it would all be downhill from here. Reyes led us over the ridge and down a scree slope. As Zo and Lobo carefully chose their steps to avoid any rock slides, Reyes was almost running down the slope. It wouldn't have been so bad, this was his backyard afterall, but here we were with our 'advanced' technology rubber-whatever soles fearing slips while Reyes with his huarachis (sandals) made from tire tread and leather thongs danced his way down the slope. His leather thong did break twice though - what can you expect after 2 years of wear. Reyes had mentioned during one of his huarachi repairs that he preferred his huarachis. He only wore covered shoes a few days during the winter when the cold weather would make his toes hurt.Two hours into the hike, we reached the bottom of the canyon. A spring hot enough to boil an egg ran down into a 4ft diameter pool. The pool itself was not very warm, and we dipped our feet in while Reyes went up river a bit to put his bar of soap to use.We stayed in the canyon going up river to the falls by the lodge. Three hours later, Reyes was making his way through his corn field toward his house, while we sat on porch to enjoy the chile relleno burritos we carried on the hike but never stopped to enjoy.The rest of the rainy afternoon was spent lounging on the porch, showering and napping. This day's dinner consisted of vegetable soup, the tenderest chicken we've ever had, and cake.We spent the rest of night talking to the staff about the history of the lodge and the eccentricities of the owner.Day7 - Sunday 7.08.01For our last day at the lodge, we hiked over to a cave with many petroglyphs. The Tarahumara's are known to inhabit caves even now. After exploring the cave, we continued up the small canyon to the rim. From there went overland toward the direction of the main road to loop around back to the lodge. Back at the lodge, we packed and waited for Jose Luis to return from Creel, so he could drive us back to Creel.By midday we were back at Margaritas for one last party. As we entered, the staff gleefully shouted El Lobo! We left our packs in our room went out to walk Creel's main drag one last time.At dinner time, the only word to escape El Lobo's mouth (approximately 8 times) was tequila.After dinner, the only word to escape El Lobo's mouth was margarita; so off we went the Best Western Hotel bar. On the way back we ran into New Jersey Josh and his mother. The original plan was to take the train back to Los Mochis, but we decided to take the bus to Chihuahua City instead.Day8 - Monday 7.09.01At 9:15 we were on the bus for the 4 hour ride to Chihuahua. On the way to the bus station, we saw Carol who proudly informed us she had made it down to the inner canyon. We congratulated her in the rain and parted ways. The ride was uneventful for the most part. We arrived in Chihuahua and purchased bus tickets for Nogales the next day. We checked into the Santa Regina Hotel (400 pesos) and started to ease back into the US mentality by having lunch at Burger King (it was that or Pizza Hut). We walked about a mile to Pancho Villa's old house (now the Museum of the Revolution) only to discover it was closed on Mondays. The rest of the day was spent walking through the Plaza de Armas.Day9/10 - Tuesday/Wednesday 7.10/11.01We rose early to catch a "first class" bus for the twelve hour ride to Nogales. The bathroom was broken as well as the TV sets, but the time went by quickly enjoying the countryside. There were two bus drivers covering the trip, with one sometimes sleeping in the luggage compartment on the side of the bus. The stereo was cranked up full blast with festive music as one of the drivers negotiated the hair pin turns over the narrow mountain roads. We stopped at many little towns along the way and with the exception of the Federales stopping and searching the bus several times, all went smooth until we reached the small town of Cananea. While we were using the bathroom in th bus station, the drivers unloaded our luggage and were leaving. The drivers told us that they had to get back, but another bus would be here "poquito" to take us to Nogales. They then drove off, ignoring our appeals of "but this is a through bus to Nogales.' We were insured by an "official" at the Bus Station that another Nogales bus would be there soon. Each time a bus would show we would be hopeful, but none were going to Nogales. One bus driver told us "Nogales!" There will be no buses to Nogales! And offered to take us to another town where we could get a transfer. This would only cost a few pesos. We opted to stay there until a bus showed up four hours later that would stop in the little town of Imuris. Imuris was at least on a main highway (15) and with darkness looming, some rough looking local vultures were hovering, and appeared ready to feast on two gringos. We jumped on the bus. The road over the mountains to Imuris was absolutely frightening. The sunset was spectacular. Our strategy paid off; we were able to get a bus to Nogales within minutes of arriving in Imuris. We arrived in Nogales much too late to get our vehicle out of hawk, so we stayed in a hotel in US Nogales. The next morning we drove back to Phoenix. Total individual cost for this trip was less than $600 and $75 of that was for jewelry and souvenirs. For an additional $300 (US) you can fly round trip from Phoenix to Los Mochis in luxury. But why would you want to do that, when you can take a bus--the travel of choice for millions of Mexicans. The joys of travel are not always obtained in reaching one's destination, but in the journey itself. (It is the road, not the inn)We thoroughly enjoyed this trip. Copper Canyon is truly an adventure of a lifetime.