This article is from the June 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Hotels Abandon Copper Canyon’s Deteriorating Ecosystems

by Keith Albritton 

Keith Albritton is a former trail guide in the Sierra Madre. He can be reached at birdman@newnorth.net 

Once cited by Aldo Leopold as one of the most intact ecosystems left in North America, the Copper Canyon area, in Mexico’s western Sierra Madre, has fallen victim to massive timbering, road building, and random unregulated development. 

“Ecotourists who once visited here every year simply aren’t returning anymore,” says one hotelier who is still trying to hang on. “They are experienced world travelers. They have options, they simply go to where it is most natural, most rustic, most pristine.” 

Another hotel, the Copper Canyon Riverside Lodge, has already closed, and a third hotelier, who asks not to be quoted, is looking for a buyer as customer bases dwindle in the face of what some call an ecological disaster. 

The picturesque road to the canyon bottom has been blasted to double width and thousands of tons of debris poured over lush green cliffs. In the canyon bottom’s remote historical oasis of Batopilas, cobbled streets were recently cemented over, four ancient buildings replaced with cement block, and the car and truck traffic is destroying 17th century sidewalks.  Satellite dishes now peer from roofs, streetlights block out once magnificent night skies, and air conditioners hum incessantly into the streetlight-filled night. 

“It’s basically a drug money town now,” says one long-time visitor. “The burro trains don’t come here anymore. The hiking trails have been blasted into roads to move the drugs easier.” 

At Creel, just ten years ago a picturesque lumber town, unregulated development sees 40-foot billboards, loud music from restaurants sporting luminous “Cold Beer” signs and city-style steel curtains for security. Plans are in place to cap the nearby Recohuata hot springs, a major hiker’s attraction, to supply water to encourage Creel’s growth. Plans have been announced to build a jetport in the center of the Sierra. 

Electricity and mercury vapor lights on posts are erasing the Milky Way in more pueblos each year, and power and waste treatment plants are left exposed by the roadside. High voltage transmission towers line miles of highway. 

Timbering, illegal and otherwise, has changed the face of the landscape. More cement buildings pop up each month along country roads, and hotels at Divisadero dump raw sewage from rooms directly over the canyon rim. Road paving operations last year dug open pit mines for material along the road to Creel. 

The hotel at El Tejaban has driven away Indian neighbors by shooting near their feet with long distance rifles, and Indian ceremonies are often surrounded by more clicking cameras than participants. 

The Tarahumara Indians, unwilling to accept foreign concepts of management and property and unable to run hotels, stand by silently, as their fields, forests, water, and sacred hot springs slowly evaporate in the name of modernism.

Many maps show the area as a National Park. It is not. For promotional purposes, it is designated a Natural Park, with no restrictions on mining, timber or development. There’s talk of a true, well-regulated National Park, limiting accommodations to home-stays in Tarahumara ranchos, giving control and income directly to the Tarahumara, while preserving the ecosystems and marketability of the area. “It is a promising alternative for preserving this unique Mexican heritage”, says Alejandro Lopez, of the Grupo Verde, the Mexican ecology association. 

For more information on the National Park issue, contact Keith Albritton at birdman@newnorth.net