This article is from the June 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Let's Get Lost in the Sierra Tarahumara

Story and photos by Jane Onstott 

Jane Onstott is currently updating The Unofficial Guide to Mexico's Coastal Resorts with author Maribeth Mellin. A second edition of Jane's National Geographic Traveler Mexico is to come out in late 2005. 

Volcanic rock resists erosion, but succumbs eventually to the combined forces of wind, rain, time. Geologic time is slow; change is constant yet imperceptible. The six major crevasses that comprise the Copper Canyon – more accurately known as the Sierra Tarahumara – were carved over a period of about 60 million years. Communities there are isolated by terrain and to some degree by choice, and they also resist change.  

Until now, tourism to this 25,000-square-mile region in the southwest quarter of Chihuahua State has been light – a trickle of train- and nature-lovers. For better or for worse, however, the Copper Canyon is today more accessible than ever. Chihuahua State tourism officials are systematically luring national and international travelers to this once-exotic destination. The number of visitors nearly doubled between 1998 and 2003. Adventure tour operators offer mountain bike and kayaking excursions. High-end outfits like National Geographic offer exclusive train tours with expert guides.  

The system of mountains and canyons was carved up by more than a half dozen rivers, which today continue to wind through the canyons to eventually drain into the Pacific Ocean. The largest river, Río Verde, drains Sinforosa Canyon, the narrowest of the system’s major canyons and one of the least explored. It’s also the second deepest (5,856 feet), second only to Urique, more than 6,000 feet. Four of the Sierra Tarahumara’s six main canyons are deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, however it’s their narrow width in relation to depth that make for fantastic scenery and super scary rides (bus, car, burro, horse, mountain bike) and hikes from the rim to the canyon floor. 

Mining Moguls and Missionaries 

The first Europeans to settle this magnificent but unmerciful land were mining entrepreneurs who – in order to maximize profit – immediately enslaved the local Indians. In a scenario reenacted throughout Mesoamerica, deplorable living and working conditions and introduced diseases like measles and smallpox soon decimated the native people. Once home to nearly 40 different tribal groups, northern Mexico was only sparsely populated by indigenous people by the end of the colonial era.  

Those hardy individuals who did survive had little use for the European missionaries who arrived in the early 1700s looking for souls to save. Patient as well as stubbornly brave, the Jesuits eventually succeeded in layering Catholic rituals onto the native worldview. But the controversial and successful religious order was the object of envy among other religious orders, and the Jesuits were abruptly expelled from the New World in 1767.  

Today's Tarahumara 

The Jesuits’ forced evacuation left a void in religious leadership among the isolated mountain and canyon communities of the Sierra Madre. As a result, the Tarahumara developed a synergistic brand of Catholicism that incorporates ancient beliefs and rites. Feast days honoring patron saints are ushered in with drumming and dancing. The men get righteously drunk on the native corn beer, tesguino, to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe during her extended December feast. Easter, the most important holiday of the Christian church, celebrates the beginning of the planting season, or the renewal of life through life-giving corn, as well as the resurrection of Christ.  

Isolated and self-reliant, the Tarahumara concern themselves little with material things. Human relations are valued more than belongings. In fact, one of the worst sins among traditional Tarahumara is hoarding. Buildings are often constructed cooperatively, with the beneficiaries providing food and drink. Their language has no swear words.  

Although they gather to celebrate holy days and for community projects, the Tarahumara generally live in far-flung family units instead of towns. Even today semi-nomadic, traditional families have multiple dwellings. During the winter, when forests near the rim can be covered in snow, homes deep within the canyons are snug, and surrounding fields and orchards support crops. When summer storms bring flash floods and withering heat, families move to simple wooden houses – and to a lesser extent, to large, open-sided caves – closer to the canyons’ rims. 

Called Tarahumara by the Spaniards, this native group calls itself Rarámuri, which translates loosely as “People Who Run.” And run they do, sometimes carrying heavy loads up and down the steep trails between home and pasture or between one home and another. In recent years Tarahumara men have entered and won international marathons and 100-mile endurance races without any particular training for the event. Most men now wear modern Western attire instead of the traditional white cotton breechcloths and billowy shirts, but women still wear full, gathered skirts and blouses of bright print fabric.  

Modern Age Ushered in on the Rails 

The Sierra Tarahumara became accessible to outsiders only with the completion of the Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad, an incredible engineering endeavor requiring 90 years and about USD$90 million. The first tracks of the narrow-gauge railway were laid at the turn of the 20th century during the ebullient presidency of Porfirio Díaz. Both Mexican and American companies contributed to construction over the years until their rights were purchased by the Mexican government, which finally finished the project in 1961. 

Since the railroad was sold to a private company in 1998, both the tracks and the train cars have been revamped. Traversing innumerable switchbacks and hair-raising loops as well as 37 bridges and 86 tunnels, the train journey is great fun for kids as well as adults. There’s a dining car with reasonably good food and a bar where smokers can puff away. Smokers also congregate between train cars, sharing the noisy, shifting platforms with photographers looking for clear access to the scenery.  

Riding the Rails, and Adventures Beyond the Tracks  

The 14- to 17-hour, 400-mile train trip can be done in one shot, although taking this approach you’d miss out on some wonderful experiences. Along the way there are homey Western-style lodges with incredible views, and each year there are more opportunities for hiking, biking, and rock climbing. Hanging out with family or friends in front of a roaring fire is as worthwhile an endeavor as any. Easy walks and van tours lead you to wildflower-strewn meadows where Tarahumara children tend herds of goats. Women in bright cotton skirts and blouses cook over open fires in rudimentary kitchens or – mainly for the benefit of tourists – in the caves that were once their primary dwellings. Blue skies and unusual rock formations paint a brilliant background.  

Naturalists will find fascinating the variety of plants and animals found in the Copper Canyon. Hummingbirds, parrots, and macaws inhabit the subtropical lowlands where palms and orchids thrive next to various kinds of cactus. Roadrunners race through mesquite forests; rattlers and white-tailed deer do their thing in the pine-oak forests. At the highest elevations, hawks and golden eagles soar easily on updrafts and feed their young in nests atop ancient pines.  

It doesn’t cost extra to make stopovers along the train route, but you should book them in advance and reiterate your itinerary when purchasing the train ticket. I recommend skipping Los Mochis and boarding the train in El Fuerte. Spend the night before there, and stop for one or more nights in Cerocahui (Bahuichivo Station), El Divisadero, and Creel. More adventurous souls can design trips to some of the lesser known canyons (see the Reading List for suggestions about exploring these) with local guides. If you want the exercise but not the legwork involved in individual trip planning, check out the adventure outfitters. At least a dozen U.S. operators now lead Copper Canyon expeditions centered around mountain biking, birding, hiking, and rafting. 

Among the best-known adventure travel outfitters with Copper Canyon itineraries are Outpost Wilderness Adventure, Umarike Expeditions, Mountain Travel Sobek, and Nichols Expeditions. National Geographic offers a high-end tour with expert naturalists aboard the American Orient Express; the Sierra Madre Express is another deluxe train tour. Copper Canyon Adventures, The California Native Canyon Travel, and Lindblad offer bus and van tours. Rosen Rides leads motorcycle expeditions to the area. The Mexican tour operators Felgueres, Rojo y Casavantes, and Turismo al Mar have been leading trips to the Copper Canyon for many years. 

Ready to Roll 

Although a Chihuahua al Pacifico rail adventure can be undertaken in either direction between Chihuahua City and Los Mochis, traveling west to east promises the most spectacular canyon scenery during daylight hours. The landscape changes substantially during the 400-mile journey. Rich alluvial plains near the coast have fields of alfalfa, sugar cane, rice, and cotton going full tilt. These give way to foothills covered in twisted scrub oak and aromatic mesquite, and soon riders are glimpsing the first of the magnificent canyons. The most spectacular scenery is seen between Témoris and Creel stations. The railway gains nearly 3,500 feet in elevation in just 85 miles, so it’s no surprise that this stretch boasts the most astonishing engineering feats as well. 

Just beyond Creel is Ojitos, the highest point of the train ride at 8,071 feet. After that the train begins a steady descent to the prairies and cultivated fields around Chihuahua City, the state’s capital. The Creel to Chihuahua leg can just as easily be accomplished by bus as by train, as the scenery is mostly the same, and buses run more frequently. 

A busy commercial city, Los Mochis, the train’s western terminus, is often sweltering and not terribly attractive. Most tourists come exclusively to board the train, which decamps with a great belch at 6 AM. If you have time to kill in Los Mochis, sightseeing options include a bay tour out of Topolobampo to see birds and dolphins; birdwatching and sea lion tours to Isla del Farallón; offshore fishing near Isla del Farallón; and countryside tours to plantations and small towns near Ahome. 

About 50 miles east of Los Mochis and 600 feet above sea level, El Fuerte is more intimate and historic and has more things to do. Also, by spending the night in El Fuerte you can sleep later the next morning, as the train makes its first stop there at 7:40 AM. Founded by the young Spanish explorer Francisco de Ibarra in the mid-16th century, El Fuerte served as a trading post for several centuries and is now dedicated mainly to agriculture and tourism. Some of the town’s most impressive homes have been turned into hotels. 

Things to do in and around this picturesque colonial town include visiting petroglyphs outside town and soaking in hot springs around Choix, about 30 miles to the northeast. Float or kayak on the Río Fuerte to see native and migratory birds, fish for black bass on El Fuerte Lake, or take a guided or unguided bike tour of El Fuerte. Copper Canyon Adventures (tel. 698/893-0915, www.coppercanyonadventures.com) leads local tours as well as excursions into the canyons. 

Cerocahui and Urique Canyon 

The next train station with tourist accommodations nearby is Bahuichivo. A handful of hotels in and around the small town of Cerocahui send drivers to pick up guests. Otherwise you can board a dilapidated bus for a long, bumpy ride to Urique, at the canyon’s base. 

Cerocahui is a diminutive mission town where holy days are celebrated at the pink limestone church built by the Jesuits in 1680. From Cerocahui, local outfitters can arrange expeditions on foot or horseback to see a variety of attractions, including Yepáravo waterfall, the old Sangre de Cristo gold mine, and Indian burial caves. They also can arrange trips to Urique, at the bottom of the eponymous canyon. You can spot it – glinting in the sun next to the lazily curving Urique River – from the incredible lookout point Mirador Cerro del Gallego.  

Into the Canyon 

At 1,640 feet above sea level – and about 6,000 feet below the canyon's rim – Urique was established as a mining town along the upper portion of the system’s deepest canyon. The inhabitants of this area were the first of the canyon groups to be conquered by the Spanish. A peaceful riverside settlement with a few historic buildings and a laconic air, Urique has only been connected to Cerocahui, by dirt-and-gravel road, since the mid-1970s.  

There’s plenty to occupy the adventurous traveler who reaches Urique on foot or horseback, or by bus or truck. Visit the Santa María de Monserrat Church, especially lively around September 8, feast day of its patron saint. Hike to hidden El Fuerte Canyon, rarely visited by tourists, or to ruins or villages closer to town. Swim in the river, hike lateral canyons, or arrange ahead of time to go rock climbing or mountain biking. In the wet season you can go rafting along the Urique and Fuerte rivers. Urique has several simple lodgings where you can get – you guessed it – simple meals. 

Cerocahui itself has several charming lodges. Right across from the mission church, the Hotel Misión (tel. 668/818-7046, ext. 432, www.mexicoscoppercanyon.com) is part of the Balderrama chain – the Fred Harveys of the Copper Canyon. Outside town on the road to the train station, Paraiso del Oso (tel. 800/884-3107 in the U.S., www.mexicohorse.com) is owned by American Doug Rhodes and his wife Ana, who is from the area. Doug is a good contact for horse rides throughout the area. Meals are included at both lodgings.

The Great Divide 

The train’s 15-minute stop at El Divisadero isn't long enough. There’s hardly time to admire the magnificent canyon views, let alone to take photos or buy handcrafts from the Tarahumara who set up on straw mats their reasonably priced wares. The most common items for sale are burnished clay pots, carved wooden bowls and trinkets, and pine needle baskets. Divisadero offers miles of panoramic views and opportunities to walk, hike, and ride horses into the Urique, Oteros, and Copper Canyons. Hike to Lago Pilares, a pretty lake nestled in pinewoods, or to the lookout point for Piedra Volada: an enormous rock that seems to hang in the air. 

Named for the Continental Divide that it straddles, El Divisadero has three charming lodges with excellent views. Three miles to the west, at Areponapuchi, are two other comfortable lodgings. “El Uno” Ecolodge is Tarahumara-owned. There are no restaurants in the area; each hotel serves guests in its wood-timbered dining room. El Divisadero is now accessible by road from Creel, 30 miles to the west, and from Cerocahui, 42 miles south. 

Creel: Canyon Gateway 

Creel was founded in 1907 during construction of the railroad. During the early days of tourism, in the 1970s and 80s, burros and horses were as common as pickups on the town’s few dusty streets. Today there is a higher ratio of four-wheeled to four-legged transport, but the streets are still dusty in the dry season and muddy when it rains or snows.  

Although the town itself is not terribly scenic, it has the best infrastructure for canyon excursions both major and minor, as well as tour operators and local guides. Several shops sell authentic Tarahumara violins, baskets, woodcarvings, and other items. Creel is a good base for treks into Copper, Oteros, Candameña, Batopilas, and Tararecua Canyons. It’s a long day trip to Basaeachic National Park, where you can see Mexico’s first and second highest waterfalls. There are basic lodgings there for those who don't want to hurry back the same day. 

Five miles from Creel within a small valley, San Ignacio de Arareko is an enclave of Tarahumara homes attached to a sweet mission church. Walks, hikes, and bike rides in the surrounding area can be arranged in Creel. A common tour includes visits to Bisabirachi, which in the Tarahumara language means “Place of Erect Penises”: a reference to its monolithic rock formations. (Tourism folk call it the Valley of Monks; go figure.) Also included on most tours are Valle de Hongos (Valley of Mushrooms), Valle de Ranas (Valley of Frogs), and other areas where huge rocks have weathered to resemble different shapes. A brief stop is usually made at Lake Arareko, where visitors are accosted by shy but persistent Tarahumara women and children selling souvenirs. The lake is worth spending more time than most tours allow, and it’s possible to rent rowboats for fishing or to bike the perimeter. 

Another popular outing from Creel is Cusárare, with its appealing mission church and religious art museum. Cusárare Falls is a bit disappointing in the dry season but quite pretty the rest of the year; it’s about a two-mile hike through a pine-oak forest. About 15 minutes outside Creel, Cusárare has a wonderful lodge called the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge (800/776-3942 in the U.S., www.sierratrail.com). There's no electricity, so neither phones nor TV will distract you from reconnecting with the alpine surroundings. Yummy meals are served in the dining room, where a giant fire often roars on the hearth. 

Other excursions are bit farther afield. The Recohuata Hot Springs have been channeled into four cement swimming pools among pine, poplar, and oak trees. Go for the day or camp out under the starry sky. Rukiraso Waterfall, at the head of Tararecua Canyon, is accessible by mountain bike or high-clearance vehicle. 

Creel has no fancy hotels, and the only chain is an uninspiring Best Western. Margarita’s (tel. 635/456-0045) and Margarita’s Plaza Mexicana (tel. 635/456-0245) are both inexpensive hotels with genuinely friendly staff and low-key, pleasant accommodations. My favorite restaurant in Creel is Tungar, the no-frills "Hangover Hospital," which serves delicious pozole and stingray tostadas. It’s directly across from the train station. 

Named for a former Chihuahua governor, Creel is also the jumping off point for trips to Batopilas: 75 miles and five hair-raising hours away at the base of Batopilas Canyon. Precious metals were discovered there in the late-17th century and, amazingly, this was the second place in the country, after Mexico City, to get electricity. Buildings constructed during the Porfiriato have a grandiose air that is quite incongruous with the modest, isolated Batopilas of today. One of these was the home of Alexander Shepherd, a mining entrepreneur largely responsible for Batopilas' successes. The aqueduct built to supply the town and the mines is still in use today. In addition to these sites, don't neglect to visit Satevó Cathedral, four miles away. Walking downriver from Batopilas, it’s quite a shock to come across this attractive, multi-domed church beyond a bend in the river. Documents referring to the church’s original construction have been lost, and no one seems to know why the church was built here, far from any indigenous population.  

Avid hikers can trek to villages above Batopilas, or go on overnight backpacking trips following el Camino Real, the “Royal Road” over which mule trains once carried tons of silver to Chihuahua City. A rugged hike of two to four days gets you to the town of Urique. It’s worth mentioning that almost all hiking within the canyons should be done with a local guide who can skirt the well-guarded marijuana fields that are planted here and there throughout the Sierra Tarahumara. 

Batopilas has only modest accommodations, but then how many visitors come expecting turndown service with a Godiva chocolate on an eiderdown pillow? After a death-defying ride into the vertiginous canyon and all the walking, fresh air, and simple, healthful meals, you’ll sleep like a baby in even the most rustic accommodation. And that’s what a trip to the Copper Canyon is all about.

Reading List 

The following books are found in libraries, used bookstores, and on internet book sites like Barnes & Noble (bn.com) and Amazon.com. 

History of the Copper Canyon and the Tarahumara Indians, Carl Lumholtz, Grant Shepherd, Rick Fisher. Sunracer Publications, Tucson, AZ, 2001. 

Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country: A Hiking and Backpacking Guide, M. John Fayhee. Johnson Books, Boulder, CO, 1994. 

Mexico’s Copper Canyon Trail Adventure, Richard D. Fisher, Sunracer Publications, 2003. 

Tarahumara: Where Night Is the Day of the Moon (Second Edition), Bernard L. Fontana. University of Arizona Press, 1997.