Logbook: Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico - December 8-15, 2005
For a number of years, we've had an interest in seeing Mexico's Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon). The Copper Canyon intrigued us because we heard it was bigger than the U.S. Grand Canyon. Between the two of us, we've visited the Grand Canyon seven times, including our rim-to-rim hike in May 1999, six weeks before our wedding. The Copper Canyon is actually a series of six canyons, which together are four times larger than the Grand Canyon, and four of their six canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon.
We visited the Copper Canyon in December, leaving Slip Away in Marina Mazatlan during our travels. Getting to the Copper Canyon involved a series of buses and trains, which is always an adventure. We made no advance reservations, but we had a copy of Lonely Planet Mexico in hand, as that was the recommended source of information on hotels and sights. Prior to taking our trip, we also got input through e-mail and conversations with a number of cruisers who made this trip.
We woke up early on Thursday, 12/8, and by 6:30 a.m., we were out on the street waiting for a local bus to take us to Mazatlan's Central Bus Terminal, where we would catch a bus to Los Mochis. By about 7 a.m., our local bus still hadn't showed up, and we were getting impatient, so we flagged down a pulmonia (one of the local taxis here - looks like a golf cart) to take us there. We caught a 7:30 a.m. bus to Los Mochis, and arrived there at 1:30 p.m. Upon arrival, we found our way through town to a different bus to take us to El Fuerte, which was recommended to us as an interesting town and a good place from which to catch the Copper Canyon Railway. We caught the bus to El Fuerte at 2:30 p.m. and arrived at 4:30 p.m. We found a good hotel a couple of blocks from the bus stop (Posada Don Porfirio - $40/night), dropped off our bags and went out to explore.
El Fuerte (The Fort) is a Spanish colonial town, population 11,000, with nice ambience and architecture. We spent a couple of hours walking around town and visiting the local sights - the municipal palace, plaza, church and a replica of the original fort for which El Fuerte was named. We had dinner at Restaurant El Supremo and enjoyed the "lobino" (fresh water bass - a local specialty). We also had a beer at the Tecate Bar - great atmosphere and $1 beers.
The next morning, at 9 a.m., we caught the Primera Express (first class) train to Creel. The Copper Canyon Railway (Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico) runs from Los Mochis to Chihuahua; it is 655 km (400 miles) long, with 36 bridges and 87 tunnels. It took several decades to build and opened in 1961. The scenery along the way is beautiful.
The trip to Creel was 7 hours, so we arrived there at about 4 p.m. About an hour before Creel, the train stopped for 15 minutes in a town called Divisidero, which had beautiful canyon views, but the room prices at the few hotels here were over $200/night, which doesn't fit into our budget now that we're unemployed.
Creel was recommended by a number of sources as a good place from which to base a visit to the Copper Canyon. Creel's population is about 5,000, and it is the center of the Tarahumara Indian culture. The Tarahumaras are easily recognizable in town by their brightly colored clothing. They also weave beautiful baskets, which were for sale in the shops and on several street corners in town, as well as at some of the train stops.
Creel's elevation is about 7,500 feet, so it was pretty cold, but we were prepared with layers of fleece and cold-weather clothing. If the sun was out during the day, the temps were pretty pleasant (hi 50's to lo 60's). At night it dipped below freezing, so we stayed at a hotel that we knew had heat (not all of them do). We stayed at Hotel Los Pinos ($23/night).
Our first full day in Creel, we did a 6-hour horseback ride to the Tararecua Canyon, Rukiraso Waterfall and some petroglyphs. It was great to be out riding a horse in the fresh mountain air. We rode through some Tarahumara "neighborhoods," and their houses were pretty basic - usually built from stone, adobe or logs, with a wood fire for heat and outdoor plumbing. Tararecua Canyon is one of the smaller canyons, but it was beautiful. The petroglyphs looked a little too "restored" to us.
After our day of horseback riding, we would have liked to spend the next day hiking. Although Creel was recommended as a good place from which to visit the canyons, we were pretty far away from them (about 20 miles). So, we either needed to rent a car (very expensive) or take a day tour to see the canyons. None of the day tours we found were hiking tours. The only tour option we could find to see the canyons was hiring a guide to drive us around in a Chevy Suburban. That didn't sound very appealing to us, but since our options were limited, we decided to try it. We met a guide (Manuel) in town the day we arrived, and he took us on a five-hour tour to the Tarahumara Indian Reservations of San Ignacio and Cusarare, Cusarare Waterfalls, Lake Arareko and some other local sights. Manuel didn't speak any English, but we muddled through with our basic Spanish and lots gesturing. We were able to hike for about an hour on the trip - about 3 miles round trip to the Cusarare Falls, which were quite beautiful and reminded us of Yosemite. We also really enjoyed the Tarahumara Indian Reservation at Cusarare. We were there during Virgin Guadalupe Day celebrations, and we arrived in Cusarare just in time to watch a ceremonial dance for the occasion. Despite starting out the day with quite a bit of skepticism, we enjoyed the tour and would not have seen these sights without Manuel and his Chevy Suburban.
After two days in Creel, we were feeling like we were missing out on the canyons. Although the countryside and sights we saw on the horseback ride and Manuel's tour were beautiful, the only view we had of the great canyons was the 15 minute train stop at Divisidero. When we expressed this to Mika (an American guy we met in Creel and who lives in Batopilas), he assured us we would see the canyons on our way to Batopilas, our next destination.
We were looking forward to moving on from Creel to see the canyons, but we also ran into another quirk in this town. After our days of sightseeing, we looked for a bar to sit down and have a beer. It was late afternoon (4 or 5 p.m.), and we had a hard time finding one that was open. We could get a beer at one of the small local restaurants, but that was like sitting in a noisy coffee shop. Tio Molca's Bar had a great fireplace and atmosphere, and it was supposed to be open at 3 p.m., but we rarely found it open before 6 p.m. (and sometimes not even then). The one bar that was consistently open was at the Best Western Hotel, which had great ambiance, and we really liked the bartender, but it was twice as expensive ($3 beers) as any other place in town. The challenges of traveling!
On Monday morning (12/12), we caught the bus (actually a van) to Batopilas, which is at the bottom of the Batopilas Canyon. It was an 85 mile trip from Creel to Batopilas, and it took 5 hours. The first 2 hours were spent on a paved twisting and turning road. The last 3 hours were spent on an unpaved twisting and turning road. There were no guard rails and the drop-offs were a little scary at times! We started out from Creel with 11 people in a 13 passenger van. When we got to the unpaved road, we picked up three more people (local Tarahumara Indians), and the two of us shared our three-person bench seat with two other people. It wasn't so bad for Jan because she was on the inside wedged between Rich and the window. The Indian guy who sat on the end rode three hours on one cheek, while his wife (who sat between him and Rich) got motion sickness and started throwing up shortly after she got on the bus. When she started puking, the other bus passengers quickly passed their extra plastic grocery bags to her, and fortunately, there were enough to get her to the bottom of the canyon. Attitude - the difference between ordeal and adventure . . .
On the way to Batopilas, we passed through the Copper, Urique and Batopilas canyons. The scenery was gorgeous, and the bus stopped at a couple of places along the way so we could get out and take a few photos. The elevation at Batopilas is about 1,900 feet, so it was much warmer than Creel. We stayed at Hotel Juanita ($30/night), which had a nice courtyard and a balcony overlooking the river. We thought the balcony would be a nice place to enjoy an afternoon beer, but we couldn't find a place in town that would sell beer "para llavar" (to go). So, we drank a soda on the terrace, and then we went to the Swinging Bridge Restaurant for a beer.
Batopilas is a community of about 1,500 people with an interesting history. In the late 1800's, Alexander Shepherd (a former mayor of Washington DC who was ousted from elected office due to [unproven] corruption charges) moved his family to Batopilas and formed the Batopilas Mining Company, which very successfully mined silver in this area for over 40 years. He also brought some technological advances to this town - a hydroelectric plant, which made Batopilas the second city in Mexico to have electricity (after Mexico City), and he also built an aqueduct. At it's peak, there were as many as 10,000 people living here.
We had one full day (not enough) to explore Batopilas. A couple of people told us that we could hike along the river to the "Lost Cathedral," a beautiful, impressive mission built in the 1700's in the middle of nowhere. It was about 10 miles roundtrip, but the road was pretty flat, so it wasn't too difficult. It was a sunny and warm day, and the scenery along the way was very pretty.
The next morning, we caught the bus back to Creel at 5 a.m. to start our trek back to Slip Away. This time, the bus was a small school bus, and everyone pretty much had a seat to him/herself. Since we weren't wedged into our seats, we really had to hold on - literally a white knuckle ride! We arrived back in Creel in time for a late breakfast, and at 11:30 a.m. we boarded the Copper Canyon Railway to Los Mochis. We arrived in Los Mochis at 10 p.m., caught an 11:30 p.m. bus back to Mazatlan, and arrived back at Slip Away around 6 a.m. Fortunately, most long-distance buses in Mexico are quite comfortable, so both of us caught some shut-eye from Los Mochis to Mazatlan.
We enjoyed our trip but would do a few things differently if we went back. We would definitely go back to Batopilas and would spend more time there. Creel wasn't as appealing to us because we would have preferred to be on the rim of the canyon, not 20 miles away. Divisidero is right on the canyon rim, but their hotel prices were too expensive for us. However, on the way to Creel, just before the Divisidero train stop, there was another stop called Posada Barrancas (also called Areponapuchi, or Arepo). There were some reasonably priced hotels/guesthouses at this location, and it's right on the rim of the canyon. If we went back, we'd probably stay there. Perhaps we could have done more hiking there, and we understand horseback rides and other "tours" are also available from that location. From Posada Barrancas, one can either take a bus (cheaper and faster) or the train to Creel to see that town and/or catch the bus to Batopilas.
Also, since the two of us have visited the U.S. Grand Canyon a number of times, we couldn't help but make some comparisons between it and Mexico's Copper Canyon. After much discussion, we came to a couple of conclusions. First, Mexico hasn't yet figured out how to "share" their canyon with the rest of the world. We saw only one tour bus in Creel, which was a good thing, but at times it was difficult for us to find information. As we said earlier, we couldn't find any hiking tours, and although there are some trails (mostly used by the Indians), they're not marked, and we doubt that there are any trail maps. Perhaps a way to do a "trek" through the Copper Canyon is through an organized adventure travel group. One of the benefits of the lack of marketing of Mexico's Copper Canyon is that we showed up with no reservations and had no problems finding a place to stay. We were traveling off season and understand it is busier at other times of the year. But, that's quite a difference from the Grand Canyon, where we had to make our reservations at Phantom Ranch two years ahead of time! Sadly, another difference we saw at the Copper Canyon, and one we see throughout Mexico, is trash. As we rode horseback along a creek, we could tell that the water had been higher because of the ragged plastic bags caught up in tree limbs laying in the creek. Americans in general are more aware of litter and keeping our country clean. Mexico's not quite there yet, and although it seems they are working on it (we see a few "Clean Up Mexico" billboards around), they've got a long way to go.
Maybe some day we'll get back to the Copper Canyon, but I don't expect it will be in the near future. If we go back 20 years from now, it's possible that it will be filled with tour buses, but we believe there's a chance that not much will have changed.