Tarahumara Indians have always held a fascination for me. The world’s fastest long-distance runners, they have maintained their traditions, their language, and their lifestyle, despite huge difficulties.
Copper Canyon has also been a huge attraction for me. I grew up near the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. Many US Americans had never even heard of the Copper Canyon, yet it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site about four times deeper and fifteen times larger in area than our beloved Grand Canyon—great views, hiking, biking, and rafting abound.
As if the above two draws weren’t enough, The El Chepe steam train through the Copper Canyons is said to be one of the most spectacular journeys in the world. I just had to see this place!
So, traveling to the Mexican state of Chihuahua and traveling through the Copper Canyons was high on my list of things to do while living in Mexico. It was the first big trip we planned after settling into Mazatlán, during Semana Santa/Holy Week 2009 (April) when Danny was out of school. It was perfect timing, since I had long heard about the wonderful Holy Week and Easter festivities of the Rarámuri (or “Tarahumara,” as they are known most commonly in English and Spanish), and I was eager to witness and participate in some if possible. We had a TERRIFIC trip, with memories of a lifetime, and I would highly, highly recommend you visit.
Planning the trip was far from easy. At the time there was very little to be found on the internet. Most of what we found were package tours, and we hate package tours. We wanted to head out exploring on our own, make our own discoveries. I planned to blog about our trip, in order to help others in similar situations by sharing what we learned. But, amidst the settling into our new life, I never found the chance. Well, it’s never too late! In this post I share with you our itinerary and a bit of what I remember now, a year and a half later, in hopes that it might help or interest you.
We began our trip with a six-hour or so drive from Mazatlán to El Fuerte, in the northern part of our state of Sinaloa. El Fuerte is a beautiful little town with a large fort rising over it; thus, the name. The fort was originally built in 1610 by the Spaniards to ward off the natives. It is one of the “Pueblos Magicos,” and we very much enjoyed the brief time we spent there, on our way in and again on our way home. It has cobblestone streets, gorgeous mansions from the gold and silver mining days, and a central Plaza de Armas. The plaza is home to a beautiful church, Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, built 1760-1804, as well as Los Portales and the Casa de las Culturas. We enjoyed walking around town, and there is a lovely lagoon as well.
We stayed in a very spacious, comfortable and affordable room at Hotel El Fuerte, a gorgeous 300 year old hacienda. We loved the house: the numerous patios, corridors, jacuzzi, and garden, the furniture and artwork, were all beautiful. The service was friendly and efficient, and breakfast was also very good. We parked our car in their enclosed parking area for the duration of our trip, as we would board the train through the canyon the next morning.
We ate dinner (comida or lunch) in a small family-owned restaurant, and had cocktails during “El Zorro Happy Hour” at the Posada del Hidalgo. It is supposedly where Don Diego de la Vega, or El Zorro, was born. The pool area was beautiful, but the event was too campy for our tastes. We did enjoy domino time at our poolside table afterwards, margaritas at hand.
Any trip through Barranca del Cobre involves a ride on the incredible Chihuahua al Pacífico steam train, nicknamed “El Chepe.” We were so excited! Completed in 1961 after nearly 100 years of construction (beginning 1863, with a pause for the Mexican Revolution in 1914), it is a modern marvel of engineering, starting at sea level in Los Mochis and climbing to 7,500 feet (2400 meters) near Divisadero. The railroad passes through 86 tunnels and 37 bridges in its 408 mile (650 km) journeyto Chihuahua City. At quite a few points on the ride you look from the train windows straight down more than a mile to the bottom of the canyon.
You’ll see that there are two classes of tickets for El Chepe. We bought first class tickets, because we wanted to be sure we would be comfortable, and it included the dining car. For the price it seemed well worth it, but we never really saw what economy class looked like, so we can’t comment on it.
The ticket thing was kind of weird, at least to us. It worked great though. We had made a reservation by phone, and that was it. We didn’t have a ticket, didn’t pre-pay. So we were a bit worried when we arrived that they would not have a record of us. It was crowded over Holy Week, and we wanted to be sure we’d get where we were going. Absolutely no problem. We arrived at the train, paid in the station prior to boarding, and were ushered to seats without incident.
We chose to board El Chepe in El Fuerte rather than Los Mochis because it departs El Fuerte at 8:40 in the morning, allowing a leisurely start to the day. It leaves Los Mochis at 6:00 am (a bit early for us), and we had heard there wasn’t much to look at from the train those first 2 1/2 hours. The train had comfortable seating, a terrific dining car, and a bar area with tables on which to play cards or games. Standing between the cars to better look up at the mountains and down into the canyons was pretty exciting, too. Riding the train, in and of itself, was a major wonderful part of our trip.
It took a lot of research, but I had learned that there were Tarahumara fiestas in Cerocahuí, in the plaza in front of the church, Thursday through Saturday. Cerocahuí, then, is where we were headed.
We stayed on board about four hours, arriving in Bahuichivo at 12:39. From the station the hotel van picked us up for a 35-minute ride to Cerocahuí, a small town with a Jesuit Mission founded in 1694. Cerocahuí is the gateway to the Urique Canyon and a beautiful overlook, Cerro del Gallego. It is a very small town. There seemed to be a couple of very basic places to stay (looked like extra rooms in homes or boarding houses), and a few homes that opened their kitchens as restaurants a few hours a day. Not many shops, either. I can only imagine how quiet it must be when the town is not having a major festival as it was when we were there. It’s beautiful country for hiking, horseback riding, or biking. It’s important to realize that the towns in the canyon are mostly very small, and very isolated. It’s hard to imagine life there without the train.
We stayed at Hotel El Misión. It’s also a beautiful old hotel, right on the central plaza across from the cathedral. It is laid out around a central courtyard, and the rooms have beamed (viga) ceilings.
After a quick walk around the grounds and vineyard, we walked around the town plaza, which was filled with booths for the Semana Santa town fair: food stands, game stands, and people selling everything from CDs to kitchen items.We learned that what we call “tostilocos” in Mazatlán are “dorinachos” in Cerocahuí (a bag of tortillas chips with goodies on top).
There was much excitement in the air. The courtyard in front of the church was crowded with people preparing for the Good Friday procession. Kids were having a grand time running around squirting shaving cream at one another. No church bells sounded that day, and the marchers only used percussion instruments. This seemed to be important, as several different people explained it to me throughout the afternoon and evening. We talked to a few gentleman with percussion instruments and crosses, who were preparing for the procession.
We had heard and read that the Tarahumara are a very closed and private people. I will say that our experience was that many if not most of them were shy, but they were by and large extremely friendly and welcoming. Most readily agreed to my photographs, and were happy to explain to me a bit of what was going on around us. I loved their clothing and was excited for the opportunity to view some of their ceremonies and dances.
Something we’d like you to know about food and lodging in Copper Canyons: in our experience, there are very few dining options in most of the towns in the canyon. With the exception of El Fuerte and Creel, all the hotels on our itinerary included three meals a day in the price of the room. When we went hiking or on a trek, the hotel was happy to send a picnic lunch. There are two things to know about this. First, they do this because there really are no other dining options in the towns. Second, you will be eating in groups, mostly with tour groups, and have maybe two choices for your meal. The food was good, you just need to be ready to eat when they say eat and not be craving something special.
After walking around and spending time in the plaza, we returned to the hotel. In the lobby they had a trio playing music, and the wine was really good. The Jesuits of centuries back kindly had the foresight to plant grapes, and the hotel still has a vineyard and makes wine from those Old World heirloom species of red grapes.
We were enjoying that wine and a wonderful dinner in the hotel restaurant when we heard noises outside. It was the Good Friday procession, right in front of our window! What good fortune! The village priest and a large crucifix led the way, followed by, it seemed, everybody in town. Many were carrying torches, and the percussionists we’d seen earlier had all joined in. The procession made several laps around the church and then dispersed.
The next day we learned that they had gone behind the church to continue the festivities, and we just hadn’t realized that. Live and learn, and by Saturday night we we knew not to make the same mistake twice!
Friday night we walked around the village a bit. It was dark and difficult to navigate, as there are no streetlights. Very few places to eat, and very little partying—all seemed quiet. The fair in the plaza shut down early. We spent some time in the hotel lobby reading, playing cards and dominoes, and turned in fairly early.
Saturday morning we woke up to a wonderful breakfast in the hotel, and then took an early morning walk around the village. One of the memorable things we noticed was that houses had water heaters that looked like those we are used to, but the water was heated with a wood-burning fire beneath rather than by gas or electricity.
We had made arrangement with a local guide, Juan, to take us on a hike. He took us up to Lion’s Head rock. The view down on the village from up there was beautiful, and it was fun to get out and see how people farmed in this barren terrain. The houses were so simple, and there was quite a bit of livestock as well. During our stay in Cerocahuí we did two hikes with Juan, and greatly enjoyed both of them. He told us about an old mine we could have visited, but we didn’t have time, and he gave us an option to go horseback riding as well. We hiked down a river to see waterfalls. It was a dry time of year but still impressive. Visitors in the rainy season would really see something. There is white water rafting nearby in season as well.
I believe it was Juan, but perhaps someone else we met, who told us a bit about the local beliefs around Holy Week and Easter. These days, Wikipedia even has an entry about the Tarahumara, which includes some explanation of the religion. What was fascinating to me was that he talked about the Bible, but it was a Bible unlike any I have ever read. Juan told me a story of a huge flood, and people building a large boat to save their lives and those of all the animals. And, when the sun came out, a rainbow appeared, a dove returned with an olive branch, and Jesus appeared on earth. Not quite the Noah and the Arc story that I grew up with. It could have been that the person who told me the story was confused. But, it made me feel like thousands of years ago a few Franciscans had taught these people Catholicism, and since then it had mixed with native beliefs into the interesting “mash up” that it has become today.
Saturday afternoon we took a ride out to Cerro del Gallego. We were told we were going down into Urique Canyon, and were a bit disappointed that we only went to the lookout point rather than down to the river. But, the views of the canyon were indeed incredible, and we very much enjoyed meeting several women there who were selling handicraft items. Danny especially liked a toy snake made out of acorn caps strung together, with a painted wooden head—a toy snake that now resides on our front table.
That evening we went to Easter mass in the church. After mass they pushed back the pews to make room for dances. Nearly the whole town poured in; the place was packed! The dancers wore colorful headresses, made out of cellophane folded into flowers and accented with streamers. Each dancer carried a maraca and kept time to the music.
After the dancing we spent the rest of the evening in the field behind the church, chatting with the locals around several campfires. The moon kept things well lit, and there was torch light as well. Parish members had set up a small shrine, which they told us symbolized Jesus’ tomb. A band played for a while. There was a small building in the field behind the church, which looked to us to be the parish or community kitchen. Many of the parish women were in there cooking stew and passing it around, and lots of men from the village were eating and drinking their fill. We were offered food and tesguino (locally brewed corn-based beer) and merrily shared in the festivities. Greg bonded with a little old guy just over four feet tall who spoke his native dialect rather than Spanish. He wore the famous Tarahumara huaraches. He seemed convinced that Greg understood everything he said and carried on an evening-long conversation with him. It was a wonderful, memorable evening.
We were delighted that we had been able to witness both the Good Friday procession and the Holy Saturday dances of the evening before. We would have liked to have also seen the burning of St. Judas, but due to Danny’s school schedule we hadn’t been able to arrive in time. We left Cerocahuí by van the next morning, after another hike with Juan, to catch the train from Bahuichivo at 12:39.
This time we only got an hour on the train. But, boy oh boy oh boy, what an hour it was! The views were breathtaking and non-stop! We felt we could see forever: blue skies, mountains, lakes, rivers, canyons, sheer drop offs, 180 degree switchbacks…
At 1:40 we got off the train in Posada Barrancas, Copper Canyon, the highest point on our journey. There was a LOT of action here, a large market of crafts sellers and incredibly wonderful looking street food! We were so excited.
We were picked up at the train station and taken to our hotel, Mansión Tarahumara “El Castillo.” Again we were extremely pleased with our lodging choice. Our room was at the very, very tippy top of the hotel site, right on the rim of the Copper Canyon. Through the picture window in our room, even from a laying-down-on-the-bed position, all you saw was canyon. It was awe inspiring!
We ate a terrific dinner (lunch) in the hotel restaurant, and then set out for a hike into the canyon. There is a trail that leads right from the hotel along the canyon wall. It passes several cave homes as well as freestanding homes of the Rarámuri (Tarahumara). A gentleman from the hotel accompanied us, in exchange for a tip. He told us a lot about the canyon as well as the Rarámuri way of life. The cave homes reminded me of northern Arizona, where I grew up. Except, in Arizona, we think of the cave dwellings as prehistoric Indian homes. Here, families are to this day living in the caves along the canyon walls.
We saw a chicken coop on stilts, literally hanging over the edge of the canyon. We saw snake skin hanging on a clothesline to dry in the sun. Residents hike miles down into the canyon to farm, only to trudge miles back up the canyon walls to come home at dusk. It definitely reminded me of the Hopi lifestyle near where I grew up, except much, much poorer. A couple of women had put out some handcrafted items such as violins, in hopes of selling to tourists such as us.
We were so excited about all we were seeing. We spent time visiting handicraft vendors, because they were all dressed so colorfully and their wares were so fascinating. Loads of flutes, violins, and hand drums. Music is obviously important. Pottery and baskets. Weavings and shawls—at this elevation you definitely need a shawl.
The service in Mansión Tarahumara was again excellent. They have a glass-walled restaurant bar up top where we were, in addition to the larger one with the lobby down below. We very much enjoyed our dinner and our breakfast. We were fascinated by the intercultural interaction between a group of Spanish tourists and the hotel staff. The staff complained a lot about how pushy and arrogant they were. As with the English language, similarities in language can mask huge differences in culture!
Monday, April 13, Posada Barrancas – Creel
Monday morning we had booked a tour through the hotel. They took us quite a few places, including “Balance Rock,” a huge boulder that looks to be verrrry precariously balanced on the edge of a mile-plus drop off to the canyon floor. As we walked from the parking area past handicraft vendors to the rock overlook, we crossed a bridge across the gorge. At one extension was a glassed-over area in the floor, where you could stand and look straight down to the canyon floor. Danny and I loved it, but Greg was too chicken to stand there. He, on the other hand, had to hike out to Balance Rock and “ride the rock.” Unbelievable! I guess he trusts what God has made, but not what humans have!
We wanted to arrive at the train station in plenty of time, as the previous afternoon we’d seen all those incredible vendors and all that FOOD! We did, we bought, we ate, and it was all great. We left at the same time we’d arrived the day before: 1:40. That’s how it works here in the canyon. This time we got an almost two hour ride on the train to Creel, arriving at 3:24 pm. Again, the view from the train was incredible. Once you make it to Creel, however, you are through the canyon.
Creel is on flat ground, though surrounded by some hills and Lake Arareco. And it is much more of a city than what we had seen thus far. It felt to me like a Wild West town, with saloons and such. We spent two nights here at the Best Western Lodge and Spa.
After checking in and getting settled, we walked down the main street, checking things out and looking for something to eat. There were a lot of souvenir shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Pizza! Danny was delighted, and it was a big change from what we’d been eating.
In the evening we walked down the main street, looking for something to do. We weren’t hungry. A bar wasn’t appropriate with Danny along. So, we ended up back at the hotel watching a movie on TV. A nice change of pace.
On Tuesday we rented bicycles and set off to see Lake Arareco and the Frog Rocks. The hotel gave us a wonderful map of the area, which seemed very easy to follow. Except, we got lost 🙂 No big deal, as we just pedaled farther than planned. We had a blast! It felt so good to ride—perfect weather. We had a picnic at the Mushroom Rocks, sitting up top one of the larger outcroppings. It was pretty fun when a vanload of Mexican tourists stopped to take photos and there were the gringos perched up top of one of the rocks, eating lunch! We rode past cows, saw a huge cave home, saw lots of laundry hanging along fencelines, and ate a lot of dust.
We returned to the hotel tired, and hungry, and decided to have dinner in a restaurant we’d seen the previous evening. I’ve since forgotten the name, but it was on the opposite side of the street from our hotel, down quite a ways. Traditional, and very good, Mexican cooking. We ate chile colorado that was some of the best we have ever had the pleasure of tasting! We visited a bit with a few other patrons who had been staring at us. Several groups of strolling musicians wandered through, serenading the diners. It was a beautiful cap to a wonderful day. I’m pretty sure we spent the evening packing our suitcases and watching another movie. I’m sure there was some wine and beer and soda involved.
At some point during our stay in Creel we also visited the museum, which is located on the railroad tracks downtown. It was small and simple, but we very much enjoyed the Rarámuri displays, and the short explanations of various aspects of Rarámuri lifestyle and culture. I wished we had known some of that information prior to our trip, rather than at the end.
We could have continued our journey by El Chepe train to Chihuahua City. But, we hadn’t planned that, choosing instead to get back home for a couple days of R&R before school started again.
On the way to Creel we’d taken four days by train. Now, we were going to go back the other way in one fell swoop. We were curious how that would be, and whether we’d get sick of the train that we had so loved thus far. The answer? No! We loved El Chepe! We left Creel at 11:15 am and arrived in El Fuerte at 6:10 pm. Not that long, but such a beautiful ride. We jumped off the train in Posada Barranca so we could buy more of that incredible food we’d tasted on the way out. We spent a lot more time in between cars, enjoying the view, watching the people along the tracks. We were going to miss this wonderful journey.
And what a wonderful way to end it! Back at Hotel El Fuerte, where it had all begun!
The last leg of our journey was the drive back home. Our car was retreived, safely and soundly, from the parking area in the back of the hotel, and off we went! We had enjoyed a most terrific journey. Despite all that pleasure, it was still a thrill to come around the curve on Highway 15 and get our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean again, indicating that we were almost home.
|Rio Fuerte on the El Fuerte side–entrance to the canyon|
The five major (20 total) canyons that are collectively known as Copper Canyons span more than 370 miles (600 km) in length and 150 miles (250 km) in width—25,000 square miles of canyons in the Sierra Madre mountains. Six rivers have carved the canyons, all merging into the Rio Fuerte and then to the Sea of Cortez. The vistas and the terrain were absolutely breathtaking. There is quite a bit of water, rivers as well as lakes and waterfalls. Terrific hiking, bicycling, rafting, rappelling… It’s an eco-tourist’s dream.
|Rio Fuerte as seen from high in the canyon|
It is a Mexican National Park in addition to a UNESCO World Heritage site. Combine that with the opportunity to experience a bit of Tarahumara culture, and this trip ranks very high on my life list of best journeys, along with ventures in northern Thailand, Borneo, Guatemala, and amongst the Uros Indians of Perú.
I have been told there are only about 70,000 Tarahumara. They seemed to live mostly outside. They worked outside, they cooked outside, they seemed to eat and relax outside. The weather is harsh, with very hot days and cool nights. In winter it gets cold. Most of the Tarahumara we met, especially the children, had runny noses and coughs. It was sad to see so many of them sick, and from what we observed they are quite accustomed to living with colds. We were told they refuse modern medicine, but use medicinal plants.
Their native language is part of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. Many of the Tarahumara that we met were bilingual in Spanish and Rarámuri, but they spoke a very different version of Spanish than our gringo version, so it was quite a challenge communicating.
I loved their colorful clothing, and the way they braided their hair with bright ribbons.
National Geographic profiled the Tarahumara people in November, 2008, in an article entitled, “A People Apart.” I found a clip on YouTube from an interesting-looking documentary called, “Tarahumara: Pillars of the World.”
The Tarahumara are world famous for long-distance running. The amazing thing is that they run in huaraches, very basic, flimsy-looking-to-me, huaraches. Here is a video a visitor shot of a Rarámuri friend tying his huaraches.
I have now read a terrific book about the Tarahumara, entitled, “Born to Run.” I wish I had read it before traveling to Barrancas. But, hey, there will be a next time!