Copper canyon. November 28 through December 3, 2001.
We arrived back in Mexico on November 27, after celebrating Thanksgiving in the US. After making final arrangements with the boatyard, and packing two small backpacks, we left Wednesday November 28 for the Copper Canyon in the Sierra Tarahumara, which is part of the Sierra Madre. We took a local bus from San Carlos to Guaymas and a regional bus from Guaymas (in the state of Sonora) to Los Mochis, Sinaloa, which is the western terminal for the Chihuahua al Pacifico train. The bus ride was about 6 hours to cover maybe 400 km with 2 stops on the way. It was not very fast but we got to watch the movie “The Exorcist” on the way… In Los Mochis, we bought our train ticket and settled in a slightly musty, ugly but cheap hotel room. Bright and early in the morning, we got up to take a taxi to the station, as the train left in pitch darkness at 6 AM.
The train ride is one of the best ways of seeing the canyons and the most popular.
The Copper Canyon is actually only one of the several canyons in Sierra Tarahumara but the name is often used to refer to the region. These canyons represent North America’s largest canyon system; at least 4 canyons are deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. None are as wide, but together they have nearly 4 times the volume of the Grand Canyon.
The train goes from Los Mochis, on the sea of Cortez shore, to Chihuahua on the other side of the Sierra Madre. Until 1992, this was the only commercially viable route across the Sierra Madre Occidental, and for a reason: it is costly to climb from sea level to 7700 feet (2340 meters), crossing the continental divide 3 times in the process. The railway passes over 37 bridges and 86 tunnels and climbs through twists and turns and loops onto the walls of the canyons and through the conifer-forested Sierra.
In one of the canyon, we felt magically transported onto a toy train, as we could see three levels of railway circling up around us on the way up the gigantic walls. The views were breathtaking.
The express train ride took ten hours to cover the 356.5 km (200 miles) to Creel, our destination, so “express” is a relative term. Fortunately, the seats are like larger airplane seats with plenty of legroom. It was pretty cold when boarding at 6 AM and the heater in the car took a long time to warm up the train, so we started with a hot breakfast in the diner car.
Then we alternated between tacking pictures and reading our books. At 4 PM, we disembarked in Creel, which is a small tourist and logging village (3,600 inhabitants) perched at the top of the Sierra Tarahumara and a good spot from which to start excursions in the canyons. At 7668 feet (2338 meters), it was also significantly colder than San Carlos and I was happy to have two layers of fleece with me in the evening.
We took a private room at Casa de Margarita’s, which, according to our guide and other cruisers, is a backpacker’s favorite. We were not disappointed with the crowd. The hotel, which offers dorm beds as well as rooms, and includes two meals in its low price ($8 per night for a dorm bed, $28 for private room), attracted backpackers, bikers and low-budget long-term travelers from around the world. The dining room resonated from German, English, French, Spanish, Danish, etc. Many were on multi-months tours of Mexico or Central America.
We met bikers intending to bike down to Chile; a family taking a vacation from 6 years of teaching on the Yukon border of Canada; a English, Flemish and Spanish teacher from Belgium on a 4-months tour to improve his knowledge of Central America; a American anthropologist visiting her ethnobotanist friend who was studying the herbal remedies of the local Tarahumara indians; etc. Nobody found it strange here that we were taking a few years to sail around North America. It was very refreshing and reminded me that there are many ways of visiting the world. It also reminded me of vacations my family took through Europe using the youth hostels network.
We do not know where or how we contracted it, but both Clark and I became sick with violent diarrhea, another form of Montezuma’s revenge. Clark started it the first evening we arrived and had an agonizing night without enough drinking water to compensate for his severe fluid loss (tap water was not drinkable). I purchased water and antibiotics the next day (no prescription is needed in Mexico for antibiotics) and he spent the day in bed, feverish, while I went out for a short hike with other hotel guests.
The next day, he felt better and we went on a guided tour of the region. That evening, I became sick so quickly that I entered in state of shock, feeling I was freezing and panicky, just as described in first-aid books. Clark recognized it, forced me to drink and piled all the blankets on me. I was soon feeling better, but I still had to spent the next day in bed with fever.
I understand why this disease kills so many kids in poor countries, it is really fast and severe.
The guided tour took us down partly in the Copper canyon to the village of Cusarare and the Cusarare falls, which were quite pretty, nestled in the forest between canyon walls.
The village had a mission church simply decorated with red patterns on the white walls.
Next to the church, we saw our first tarantula.
We also visited Lake Arareko, a serene horseshoe-shaped lake, and the Valley of Mushrooms, were old eroded volcanic extrusions take the shape of mushrooms, frogs, birds, etc.
It was an eerie landscape of rocks surrounding small Tarahumara farms.
The Tarahumara indians survive mostly with subsistence agriculture, growing corn and beans as well as tending small vegetable gardens, and raising cows, goats, chickens and horses.
Their methods are still primitives, we saw them plowing a filed with a mule and separating the wheat from the chaff by throwing the mixture into the air to have the wind carry the chaff away, just like in paintings I have seen in museums and history books. The fertilizing is done by having horses eat the corn stalk in the field. They also weave colorful shawls and belts and make baskets and bead jewelry to sell to tourists.
Apparently, many still live in the many caves in the regions. The Sierra Tarahumara is not their original home however, they were chased there from the more fertile Chihuahua region by the Spanish jesuits. We visited one of the caves were a family still lives and I bought a pretty bracelet from them.
We had initially planned another tour to the third highest waterfall in North America, but after having been sick, we were not in the mood for a 6-hour bus tour and 3 hour hike to the Basaseachic Falls. They are currently the only canyon feature protected by a national park designation. Clark also thought that the altitude was making his cough worse and was eager to return to sea level.
So, on Monday, December 3, we took the train back to Los Mochis, and then the bus back to Guaymas and then San Carlos the next day.
We do recommend the Copper Canyon to anyone interested in canyons, although the colors of the Copper Canyon (despite its name) are not quite as beautiful as the Grand Canyon which, at least in my memory, has much more peach, purple and orange in its rocks. You may want to plan to spend several days to take excursions to the falls and to the bottom of the canyon, where near tropical conditions exist. The small village of Batopilas was recommended by many backpackers but it is another 5 hours in bus from Creel, down the canyon along a hair-raising winding road for which travel sickness medication is required.