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Confusion in the Copper Canyon

sunny 17 °C

I've read about the Copper Canyon for years - magnificent, wild, massive - it makes the Grand Canyon look like a rock cut (it is four times the size). This is one of Mexico's natural treasures you really have to work to get to - it is that remote. Finding adequate, correct, and current information about train schedules, lodgings, hiking paths, recommended activities, safety, etc. is challenging, but so worth the effort.


The Canyon is not close to anything - it is most sensibly accessed from Chihuahua in the northeast or El Fuerte in the southwest - and train is the only option from the south. You can't see the canyon in one day, so you must stay at least one night in the main canyon area and preferably several to do it justice. Think of the canyon as being on two levels. The upper level is where the train runs and where the towns of Creel and Divisadero are located. You'll find forests of pine, fir and oak, and cooler temperatures. The bottom of the canyon is sub-tropical, with palm, fig, papaya, and avocado trees. Somewhere in the canyon you may also find fields of cannabis and opium poppies, as well as some motivated cartel types who have made safety in the area a moving target in recent years. Apparently that has subsided (the danger to tourists, not the growing), as long as you are with a guide.
But to begin at the beginning, to begin our trip, we drove through the most desolate, dusty, one-horse towns in Sinaloa to arrive at El Fuerte - an oasis set on the Rio Fuerte. A colourful, prosperous, photogenic pueblo that is an attraction all on its own - how we wish we had known in advance that El Fuerte was worth an extra day's stay.


We passed by a stately main square, with an impressive municipal palace on one side, on past the town's museum, and then up the hill to our riverside hotel, the Rio Vista. This was the view from our balcony.


The English-speaking owners ( two brothers) could not have been more welcoming. One of the brothers, Philippe, takes guests on river tours - he launches his boat on one end of the river and then floats down slowly to watch a huge variety of birds. Even from our deck we saw swallows, hummingbird, hawks, doves, orioles, red and black birds and birds with orange and black stripes. (I didn't catch the names, but I think one was a flycatcher). Philippe is also a great cook, and for dinner we had local black bass. Breakfast was served on the deck with this morning view:


We left bright and early to catch our train to Creel. This famous train, called El Chepe, runs a total of 405 miles from Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast through to Chihuahua. The whole trip takes 15 hours, crosses 38 bridges, goes though 80 tunnels and covers a wide variety of terrain from flat agricultural to rolling hills to lake country to canyon country. Our section of the ride took eight hours.


This is the main transportation for locals (and as nationals they pay much less.) Tourists have the option of first and second-class cars. First class have fewer passengers, nicer seats, a dining car, and a more genteel experience (for twice the price.) We got a snack bar, worn seats and free entertainment. This gentleman boarded the train at some point and walked the aisles, selling apples, oranges and tamales. Sales must have been slow, as he quickly moved to Plan B. He wrapped a tie around his head, changed his shirt and with the help of very loud hand instruments that sounded like a cross between maracas and an accordion, began dancing madly down the aisle. My husband joined him with his own distinctive dance moves, much to the delight of the Mexicans.


First class may have missed out on the impromptu talent show, but we both enjoyed the same spectacular views.


We were on the very last car of the train, and had a grand time hanging out with the Mexicans on the outdoor platform. Every once in a while, the conductor would walk through and shoo people back to their seats, but within minutes, the platform between cars would fill up again - the smokers, the photographers and the little kids. It brought back great memories of my childhood train rides to Gaspe - hanging out with your head in the wind like a dog.


This was also the best vantage point for appreciating the engineering marvel of this train track. Here ...one of many tunnels:


Some of the crew that keep this train on track.


Riding over one of the many bridges.


Look carefully at this photo. You can see the train entering into a tunnel on the top left corner. Now look at the curving track below - the train has already maneuvered that track, curved around and come back - an otherwise impossible grade for a train to navigate. We didn't feel a thing.


This track took 90 years to complete, to connect the remote regions of Chihuahua to the Pacific coast and marketing the view to tourists was a secondary priority. Since its completion in the 60s, tourism has grown and the two main towns, Divisadero and Creel, are where most of the tourists stay. The town of Divisadero was the first main tourist stop, and the train stays there for about 15 minutes - long enough to jump off and take in the first real view of canyon. From this vantage point, you can see the many layers of the canyons and peer far down to the bottom. There are a couple of hotels here, and this is one of the two main towns that offer tours to the bottom levels. This was also our first glimpse of the Tarahumara, the indigenous people who live in this area.



Our new friends Bernie and Jody (from Vancouver) snapped this photo of us before we hopped back on the train. As it turned out, we were booked at the same hotel in Creel, so we hung out together for our whole visit. An unexpected bonus of this trip has been the many really wonderful people we've met along the way. Hopefully we will be able to keep in touch with some of them.


Finally, we arrived in Creel, and were met by a man who explained that the hotel we had originally booked was full, but we would be going to the sister hotel. Needless to say, we were unnerved by this news, especially when we saw the exterior of the new place - razor wire, jutting rebar from the roof.
However, like many Mexican exteriors - the charm lay inside the front door. We walked into an open courtyard - quiet, cool, tranquil. Our room was spacious and spotlessly clean - all Mexican tile and furnishings. Included in our room rate of less than $50 was dinner and breakfast - delicious home cooking.
The town of Creel was a bit scruffy - a few historical buildings surrounded by a rather bleak collection of modest homes and businesses.

Now here's where our "Confusion in the Copper Canyon" comes in. Our research was not promising - websites were outdated, train schedules were conflicting, some sites encouraged advance booking, others promised 4-day hikes for thousands of dollars - we could not seem to wade through this mess to find concrete facts. Our impression was that the train ride was the best way to see the canyon (not true), and that Creel was the town with the most amenities and tour possibilities (true). If we had been able to find information that described the difference between top of canyon and bottom of canyon tours, we would have planned it differently. As it was, we stayed in Creel for two nights, and booked a tour to see the area around Creel - interesting enough, but we left knowing we had missed a lot. If any of you are planning a trip to the Copper Canyon, get in touch and we can point you in the right direction. So...back to our tour. We booked a 5-hour tour through our hotel with our English-speaking guide, Cesar.


There were six of us in our group - Cesar picked us up in an aging van without seatbelts (entirely common in Mexico - when I asked Cesar about seatbelts, he just laughed). Our first stop was a food truck so Cesar could pick up his breakfast, and then we drove to the gas station to fill up the van. In the spirit of "going with the flow" (and stifling annoyance about his lack of preparedness), we amused ourselves by taking photos.


Our tour was to take us to a number of places around Creel - a church, some rock formations, a lake, a waterfall and a cave where the Tarahumara people live. The Tarahumara, also known as Raramuri (swift runners) are indigenous people who have lived in this area for centuries - there are reportedly between 65,000 - 70,000 Tarahumara living between the upper and lower levels of the canyon, as well as in the towns. They are famous for being long-distance runners, and for being shy and reclusive. I was under the impression that a "sighting" might be as rare as spotting a unicorn. Not so - The Tarahumara are everywhere, and as Cesar told us, our tourist dollars have been a mixed blessing. When I inquired about the appropriateness of us visiting one of their caves, he assured us that they welcomed the chance to make a bit of money from the sale of their baskets (beautifully crafted from pine needles and grasses), and tips for taking their photographs.




This huge cave is typical of the rock formations in the area - and these enormous openings have provided shelter for the Tarahumara for centuries. They also live in little homes like the ones below - in both cases without running water and electricity.


These little girls were selling their goods, but they did not make eye contact with us. A little boy approached us for money - Cesar had warned us not to give money to the children as it corrupts their way of life, but I fear it may be too late for that.


We left this area feeling very queasy about the whole experience. These are human beings, and walking through their caves felt very much like visiting a zoo. I'm trying to imagine visitors from another country stopping by and observing us as we mowed our lawns and painted our fences and went about our day. Cesar assured us these people are happy in their lives, and possibly some of them are, but we saw no evidence of that. They are abjectly poor and they know it. We saw a young girl going through the garbage in Creel, drinking out of a plastic bottle she found. We saw dead-eyed young mothers and feral-looking young men. Many of them are married at 13 or 14, as they don't go past elementary school, if they go at all. Many children never go to school and the absence of any literacy really shows in their faces. All of this would be different if there was no exposure to the outside world, but the Tarahumara are no longer a primitive, self-contained community, and it would seem the conflicts between the two worlds are causing them harm.

The area is quite fantastic, with massive rock formations, many of them looking like frogs, mushrooms and even an elephant.



The San Ignacio church, one of the few in the area that offers a mixture of Christian/native religion practices.


From here, we drove to the Cusarare waterfall - a mighty roar in the rainy season, and a trickle this time of year. Still, it gave us a chance to get some exercise - 250 steps down (and back up again). On the path to the waterfall, we walked by a number of Tarahumara selling their wares, including this young group. We were struck by their expressions - maybe it is just shyness and reserve, but even the babies looked glum.


As we were driving to the waterfall, this young boy ran across the road, climbed up the ladder on the back of the van and drove with us, clinging to the roof rack. Cesar introduced him to us - his name is Alejandro, and he is a deaf-mute. He has a place to sleep at night, but his family has largely abandoned him, so Cesar has taken him under his wing. He doesn't even know how old he is - Cesar thought he might be 13 or 14. Alejandro was given the job of leading us down to the waterfall - we followed his loping stride and every once in a while he would look back to make sure we were still there.


I pointed to my camera and to him and he agreed to take a photo - it was all Stephen could do not to hug him. When we got back to the van, Cesar had a burrito for him, and we all gave him tips. We drove him back to his home and he watched the van and waved until we were out of sight.


Our confusion still exists about the Copper Canyon. Is this an area that was better left untouched by tourism? Have our pesos made life better or worse? Apparently, there is controversy among the locals about the effects that tourism has brought to the region - the money is welcome, but the inevitable changes are not. Interestingly, we ended out travels through Mexico pondering that delicate double-edged sword of travel. We have no answers, but we'll leave with this image - taken from one of the stops on the way home.


We're in Nogales, Arizona - preparing to begin our drive up the coast and back home. Our heads are full - so many emotions and images to sort out. The trip was impossible to put into words (although I tried!), but it was life-changing for us. I'll get one last post out before we get home - it will be so good to see you again soon.

Posted by millerburr 09:32 Archived in USA

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Wow Ginny, what a powerful post! So many questions, so many unresolved emotions. Can't wait to talk with you face to face!

by Laurence

Wow - inspiring post, particularly your reflections on the Tarahumara communities.

Definitely makes one consider what sustainable wellbeing means to indigenous communities: a dark underbelly of 'ecotourism', or a means to ensure that these communities are not excluded from, or exploited by the global economy? Guidelines for responsible entrepreneurship, joint ventures, and capacity building tools that grow community independence...? Hmmmm.

Thanks for sharing such honest, thought-provoking perspective, and as always, fantastic photos! xo

by Alexandra

Such a thought provoking post. I have yet to visit the Copper Canyon, so I'm viewing it through your photos and words. I love the sign on the train car behind you and Stephen, "clase ecónomica"...sounds so much better than second or third class!
Safe travels home. I've so enjoyed your posts and so happy we met briefly in Oaxaca!

by Marilyn Horn

It is sad to read about the Tarahumara. Their situation seems to me to be etched into their faces. Are we helping or hurting by invading their world? It makes for deep thought. Finally, you are homeward bound! Wishing you a safe journey home.

by Heather

Loved this post. Very powerful. Found it so interesting that the Tarahumara physically looked like Caribs we saw in Guyana. Even their huts were elevated similarly. They also seemed sad and we thought the same as you if they would be better off without our peering, prying and photographing. Good parallel you've painted comparing it to someone observing our everyday tasks in our homes. Doesn't seem right? So happy to hear your travels were safe. Have heard scary stories about Sinaloa. Enjoy the rest of your drive.

by Linda & Gary

BTW...great photos. Enjoyed the dancing story! Good for you guys to chose travelling with the locals. They would have enjoyed it too. That's how you taste the real thing.

by Linda & Gary

So good to see you, too! BUT, I loved your passion,your words and deeds. Never to be forgotten ever. Carol

by Carol Martin

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