This article is from the October 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Copper Canyon Revisited

by Julie Fox 

Julie Fox lives in San Diego, but is originally from New Zealand. Growing up on a farm in New Zealand, she always had a sense of adventure and like most kiwi’s, has been hiking since she was able to walk.  Julie has traveled extensively throughout the world and photography is one of her current passions. Except for prior tourist type trips to Baja, Copper Canyon was her first real adventure into Mexico. She loved it so much, she visited Mexico City and Real de Catorce in June and hopes to continue exploring this country. She’s currently learning Spanish, but finds it tough going with a kiwi accent. 

“Unbelievable” is the only word that comes to mind to describe my first adventure to Real Mexico. Two male companions and I drove from San Diego to the Copper Canyon area, where we spent three days around the town of Creel getting acclimatized with day hikes. This included a visit to Divisadero, which had a magnificent view, but was very much a tourist stop. As the trains make a stop at this viewpoint, local Tarahumara women already had their wares displayed out on the ground when we arrived early in the day. On the fourth day, we took the local minibus to the old silver mining town of Batapilas nestled at the bottom of the canyon. The 70-mile ride was one to remember, with the adrenaline flowing strong and even those of us not of the Catholic persuasion offering a quick prayer toward the crucifix swinging on the rear view mirror. The narrow road switched back and forth as we went down into the canyon and the vehicle wheels often seemed to be balanced on the edge of the road, which then dropped straight down. The young driver did nothing to encourage our confidence as he casually drove with one hand on the wheel and continually glanced down at the left front wheel as if he expected a blowout at any moment. Although it was a beautiful drive, we were quite grateful to arrive in Batopilas alive.  

Batopilas had 7,000 inhabitants at the height of its mining days, but today it is a community of 800. It's truly a photographer’s dream. Walking around town you can easily visualize how the place looked back in the silver mining days. Some great architecture remains. Still standing are ruins of the huge hacienda built by the American who purchased the mines in 1880. Burros and other animals wander freely around the town, adding to the really laid-back atmosphere, and tropical flowers give additional color to the town. I regretted that we hadn’t planned on spending more than one night here.  

Our guide, Doug Rhodes, had met the bus and instructed the driver to drop us at the hotel. Doug had just completed a horseback trek with a group from England traveling from his hotel at Cerocahui to Batopilas and when we had contacted him via the Internet, he had offered us a great deal to do the return trip with him.  

He arranged for a local guide to drive us to the “Lost Mission” in Satevo Valley that dates to around 1760. The guide stopped a mile or two from the mission to give us a chance to take in the beautiful sight of the building sitting isolated in the middle of the canyon with the river in the foreground. The mission is a beautiful structure inside and out and well worth a visit. Doug escorted us to a local restaurant that night, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of steaks and trout. I was pleased to hear that the trout did not come from the local river, but from some nearby fish farm.  

Although we were determined to hike the trail, Doug offered to make it a little easier by placing some of our gear onto a cargo mule. This left us with daypacks for carrying water, snacks and miscellaneous items we might need during the day. I have to admit that many times I was quite relieved not to be carrying a heavy backpack.

We started out from Batopilas early the next morning on foot, with Doug and his wranglers following later with the extra horses and burros. Once Doug caught up with us, we followed the river for several miles, stopping at a wonderful water hole for a swim prior to beginning our ascent out of the canyon. Doug had also offered us the use of his horses to ride, and initially we had turned him down. With our steep ascent and the afternoon sun beating down on us, however, those horses began to look really good and we finally took him up on his offer for the final leg. As we continued the trip, we would often start out or end the day on foot, but in the heat of the day with some steep climbs, our pride was quickly swallowed as we dragged ourselves onto the horses. To be honest, I think we put more confidence in the sure-footedness of the horse on some of the more difficult parts of the trail than we would have in our own feet. Of course, Doug continued to reassure us of our safety with remarks such as “if the horse goes over the side, make sure you jump off on the high side.” He had to be kidding! A couple of times it was actually necessary to get off the animals and lead them through a low hanging cliff or a sharp turn that dropped straight down. 

Our first overnight stay was at Los Terreros at the ranch of Emilio Cervantes and his family. The family could not have been more hospitable even though they did not speak any English. But as we all know, you don’t always have to share a common language to communicate. Although Doug was fixing our dinner separately outside, when I went into the kitchen to observe Señora Cervantes and her daughter prepare tortillas from scratch, they insisted I sit down and eat with the family. I wasn’t always sure what I was eating, but everything was delicious. One of their young sons then took it upon himself to fix my hiking boots with thin wire where part of the sole was pulling away. Both my horse and I will forever be grateful to him because it enabled me to continue hiking rather than ride on horseback for the remainder of the trip.  

The Cervantes family home overlooked the Munerachi and Batopilas canyons, which gave the feeling of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We slept outside under millions of stars and really had to catch our breath and pinch ourselves the next morning when we opened our eyes and beheld the magnificent view before us.  

That day started with a steep climb. By noon we reached the first growth of pine and oak forests with lovely, long shady areas that tended to be flatter and made hiking easier. When we reached the top of the canyon, we had a marvelous view looking down into the Urique Valley with the river wandering through.

We finished the day coming down a steep, rocky two-hour trail that led us into the ghost pueblo of Los Alisos, where Doug owns a ranchito. It consists of an adobe home, fruit orchards and grazing fields for the horses. Doug did not know the exact age of the adobe, but he knew a 70-year-old woman who was born in it. Due to the high temperatures, we still slept outside on the ground the two nights rather than inside. I actually preferred it, as found the night noises and bats flying overhead actually added to the adventure.  

Luckily we were awake early the next morning as Prospero, Doug’s neighbor, wandered over for a visit around six o’clock and joined us for breakfast. We took a much-needed break that day and spent time exploring the ruins of an old school nearby. Unfortunately, the nearby river was quite low on water, so no possibility of a swim to cool off. We did, however, delight in the primitive cold shower Doug has permanently rigged up in an arroyo (dry stream bed) surrounded by trees up on the hill. The shower is complete with an old door rigged as a floor. After two days of jumping into rivers for a bath, it was indeed a luxury for us. We even made use of the neighbor’s washing rock to catch up on a little laundry. The neighbor’s wife made it look easy, but I soon found the actions only come with practice. It was worth the effort, though, to put on a clean shirt.

Doug decided to do something special for our dinner the second night and had Jose, our Tarahumara wrangler, search out a cabra (goat) to kill. Being a big animal lover, this wasn’t quite the highlight of my trip, but David and Mark both enjoyed it and I did sample a small bit just to put my curiosity aside. Prospero had brought over a bottle of his homemade brew for us to try with dinner. We all had a taste, but even though we were assured we would not have a hangover the next morning, none of us was about to chance it.  

Next day we headed to Urique, which was a challenging trail with many loose rocks on the downhill portions. The temperatures rose fast that morning and you could tell we were on the canyon bottom (1,700 meters). Urique, like Batopilas, is an old silver mining town founded in the late 17th century. I read later that there are 1,300 residents, but I think most of them were enjoying a siesta when we visited, as there was very little activity except for a donkey and its young wandering around. It was really hot, so we were grateful Doug had had the foresight to plan that night at another ranchito higher up where the air would be cooler. Before we departed, though, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a local restaurant and also stored up on provisions from the rather characteristic main store that has been in business since 1908. The current storeowner has owned it since 1943 and he seems to sell everything from popcorn to rope. Whatever you desire hangs from the ceiling to the floor within one large room.  

We followed the river out of town, but before starting our climb again Doug stopped at a wonderful, big swimming hole for us to wash the dust off. We also took the horses in for a well-deserved swim, with everyone sharing the same bar of Camay soap. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, the horses or us.  

As we climbed out of the canyon, we passed tropical orchards, including bananas and mangos. It was quite amazing how each day the vegetation seemed to change totally. Some days it was desert-like, with tall cactuses everywhere. Then on days when we climbed high into the mountains, the oak and pine trees would provide us with welcome shade. The various views of the canyons changed each day, as well, and it was one of those times when a photograph just could not capture the feeling of such awesome sights. We also sighted various birds, which Doug was able to name for us. I read somewhere that 200 species have been sighted in this area, so it’s a paradise for bird watchers. 

We reached our next camp at Narango late in the day. This was the home of the Mancinas family, nestled into the mountains surrounded by the high canyon walls. Again, wonderful people welcomed us into their primitive home. Dinner that night was another of Doug’s magical concoctions where everything was thrown into the pot, but tasted wonderful, especially with homemade tortillas to accompany it. Amazingly to me, there was not only enough for the five of us, but also the family of Señor and Señora Mancinas and their ten children.  

Unfortunately, no one got a very good night’s sleep because we were awakened around four-thirty in the morning with the local rooster chorus. I don’t think the sun was even up when they started, but throughout the valley the roosters each took a turn at crowing and you could only laugh, it was such an amazing sound. How they knew when it was their turn to crow, I still wonder to this day. 

After a hearty breakfast, Doug took us for a 10-minute walk further up the mountain to the local school and adobe church. While he was obtaining the key to the church, Mark and David tried to teach a few basic English phrases to some of the children who had come out to investigate the strangers. The kids seemed eager to learn even with all the giggling that accompanied each word. The small church was very primitive inside, but amazing to see. Hanging on the walls were paper decorations used to celebrate a recent festival and Doug showed us one of the items, a replica of Spanish helmets.

We started the day off with another climb to the top of the canyon known as the Pass of the Cross, where we took a break to eat lunch. Shortly after sitting down, we were joined by three guys from the Urique Police Department who had driven up on the rather rough forest road. The three of us were quite relieved when we realized Doug knew them. After hearing many horror stories about the police in Mexico, it made us very nervous to see them approach us with rifles slung over their shoulders. (I'd had enough friends remark to me when I told them I was heading to a remote part of Mexico to go see the movie "Traffic" and rethink my trip!) Doug invited them to share our tuna sandwiches and two of them took him up on his offer before moving on. I have to admit the three of us were quite relieved when they did leave our company. 

The remainder of the day was an easy trail before late in the afternoon arriving at Paraiso del Oso, Doug's hotel near Cerocahui. After sleeping on the ground several nights, I have to admit that an actual bed and hot water were wonderful. Although the hotel has solar power, kerosene lanterns used at night added to the charm. The first order of business when we arrived was a celebration margarita for each of us in the hotel bar. Nothing could have tasted better. 

In the morning, prior to leaving for the train station, we hiked with Doug to the Indian burial cave located close to the hotel. Known as The Cave of the Crosses, Doug told us that 53 Indians lived in this cave until an epidemic wiped them out during the time of the Mexican Revolution. Even though they were not Christians, someone had laid them to rest and later painted white crosses on the wall that are still quite visible today. The area was like a living museum with pieces of bone and stone implements just lying around to be viewed.  

It was hard for the three of us to get on the train back to Creel and head home again. We all felt it had been one of the most interesting and exhilarating vacations we’d taken and we are all well traveled. Although it tested us physically, at the same time it was mentally restful. To just totally turn off from civilization as we know it and challenge ourselves to handle some of the rougher parts of the trail had a strong affect on us.  

You can learn more about the area from Doug's web site at

I'm also happy to answer any question at