Copper Canyon - Mexico by Habeeb Salloum
be taking one of the world's most breathtaking train journeys", Miguel my Mexican guide in Acapulco, appeared to be starry-eyed
after I told him that I was flying the next morning to Chihuahua
to travel through the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), also
known as Sierra del Tarahumara after the local Indian tribe who
inhabits the area. He continued, "It's one of the wonders
of the world. Its grandeur and beauty will take your breath away."
He sighed, "You're lucky. I wish I was going with you."
Photo © H Salloum
That night, I thought of Miguel's words, hardly sleeping a wink,
so great was my excitement. Before travelling to Acapulco, Mexico's
renowned seaside tourist resort, I had read much about what travellers
have characterized as one of the Western Hemisphere's great scenic
and spectacular canyons. Even before Miguel had described it in
glowing terms, I knew that a traveller through that canyon would
cross some of the world's most awesome landscape, carved over
millions of years by the natural elements. The next morning my
excitement mounted by the minute as I waited for the plane to
take us to Chihuahua - the capital of the sparsely populated state
of Chihuahua. With an area of 247,000 sq km ( sq mi), it has only
2 million inhabitants, but it is the largest state in the country,
consisting of rich farmlands, arid deserts, grasslands, deep canyons
and steep-rugged mountains.
A few hours later, while still thinking of its canyons
and mountains our plane landed in Chihuahua - a sprawling city of 1
million located on a high plain, noted for its zero unemployment and
as the home of Miguel Hidalgo, father of Mexican independence, and General
Pancho Villa whose armies in 1910 overthrew the dictator Porfirio Díaz.
It was to be the starting point of our journey through one of Mexico's
most noted mountain attractions which draws hard core packers, mountain
bikers, hikers, naturalists and even senior citizens. Most travellers,
in order to relish this picturesque countryside, take the 673 km (417
mi) train trip which runs between Chihuahua and Los Mochis on the Pacific
coast. One of the most scenic train rides on earth, it is a journey
through an extraordinary and wondrous landscape.
Built over a 90 year period, the Chihuahua- Pacifico Railway, known
as El Chepe, traverses through one of the most rugged areas in Mexico.
It was completed after extraordinary efforts in 1961 and is considered
to be one of the great feats of the 20th century. Portrayed as an engineering
marvel, it passes through 86 tunnels and over 222 bridges - one almost
a mile above the canyon floor.
The train functions as a cargo corridor connecting Mexico's northern
interior with the Pacific coast. However, in the last decade tourism
has taken on an increased importance and the train ride is now advertized
by Chihuahua Tourism as an exciting journey through one of the natural
wonders in the world.
Well do the tourist officials have a point. The train passes through
the wild and rugged Sierra Tarahumara, a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental,
with peaks reaching 2440 m (8,000 ft). An enormous geological complex
carved by seismic volcanic activity, rivers and wind erosion over eons,
the Sierra Tarahumara encompasses an impenetrable maze of 200 gorges
which combine to form a series of six massive interlocking canyons,
known as the 'Copper Canyon'. Combined, they total 1452 km (900 mi)
in length and are North America's largest canyon systems - four times
larger than the Grand Canyon. Some, from their snow-covered peaks to
their semitropical canyon floors, are deeper than the Grand Canyon by
some 305 m (1,000 ft).
An impossible barrier, it is still un-breached in many places by road
or even trail. Only a few Tarahumara Indians who live in the Canyon's
depth and still fewer miners are familiar with its few uncharted footpaths.
Much of the canyon system is still beyond the cutting edge of civilization.
Our intention was to ride El Chepe, but only after we had toured a part
of the route by bus. We were told that this would give us time to stop
at interesting places and, hence, make the trip more rewarding. Leaving
Chihuahua behind, we drove through a rich agricultural-scenic countryside.
In the heart of this well-tended farmland, we stopped in the town of
Cuauhtemoc - a trading centre of 200,000 for a series of Mennonite settlements,
or as they are locally called, camps. These camps, which occupy a 100,000
ha (247,000 ac) area, were established in 1922 by some 2,000 Mennonites,
a hard-working Germanic Protestant sect, who were fleeing from government
regulations in Canada and the U.S.A. Today, over 50,000 descendants
of these early settlers still speak Low German, the language of their
ancestors, but have adapted well to most aspects of the Mexican culture.
They have made the region the most productive area in the whole of Mexico
- noted for its apple, peach and pear orchards; bean, corn, potato and
grain production; but, above all, for its white cheddar-style cheese,
found all over Mexico. We stopped at one of the many small cheese factories
run by one of the Mennonite families. The young lady managing the attached
store, selling homemade breads, cakes, sausages, and the famous home-made
cheese, was efficient with her customers, almost all Mexicans - a good
number coming from distant places. Mennonite cheddar-cheese is much
sought after throughout the country and, along with the other agricultural
products produced in the camps, have made this Germanic sect beloved
to many Mexicans.
From Cuauhtemoc we drove through well-tended apple and peach orchards,
then drove across juniper and oak-covered hills, in places dotted with
corn fields and scattered apple groves. At La Junta, we turned southward
and were soon driving through rolling hills covered with coniferous
forests which continually thickened as we climbed upwards. At the 2,440
m (8,000 ft) level, we stopped in San Juanito, a lumber town, defusing
the aroma of wood-resin everywhere. The coldest town in Mexico, it reminded
me of a Canadian or U.S. mountain lumber town. A short time later, as
we approached Creel, a rugged lumber, mining and ranching centre, a
lady sitting next to me remarked, "Look! It's the wild west!"
I glanced below me. The town located in a high valley and surrounded
by mountain peaks looked like it could very well have come out of a
A scrambled collection of rustic homes and artisan shops, Creel, considered
to be the gateway to the Copper Canyon, is the largest urban centre
in the Sierra Tarahumara. Located 335 km (200 mi) from Chihuahua at
an elevation of 2,312 m (7,708 ft), it is a frontier village of some
6,000 with a somewhat rough reputation.
The starting point for all activity in the region, it has some 20 hotels,
numerous restaurants and many shops. Its popularity as a tourist stop
is constantly growing. Hotels and tour operators offer escorted trips
and treks around the area and backpackers and hikers begin from here
to explore the surrounding countryside with its Alpine forests, hot
springs, lakes, waterfalls and native cave hamlets. After exploring
the city we left for a tour of the countryside, during which we visited
the tree-encompassed Lake Arareko, the Jesuit mission of San Ignacio
and the Valle de los Hongos, noted for its bizarre balancing rock formations.
However, the highlight of this tour was a stop at one of the Tarahumara
cave homes. It was a journey into the distant past - the time when most
people in the world lived in the primitive fashion as do the Tarahumara
Tarahuma Women © H Salloum
Creel is the heart of the Tarahumara Indian territory. Its shops overflow
with their artisan products. Here, from necklaces to woven belts, one
finds the best of their handiwork. The streets are filled with colourfully
dressed Indian women and young girls offering their handicrafts for
sale. Shy and humble, the older women never push their products on visitors.
The Tarahumara or Raramuri (foot runners) as they call themselves, are
probably the most isolated and nomadic- indigenous peoples in North
America, living in the same primitive way as had their legendary ancestors.
Retreating deep into the back country to escape Spanish enslavement,
missionary indoctrination and later settlers, they have been able to
preserve much of their culture. Scattered over 25,900 sq km (10,000
sq mi) of mountains and canyons, the 50 to 70 thousand Tarahumaras,
noted for their running abilities and endurance, are the most authentic
Indian group in the Americas. To outsiders, they are somewhat invisible
and cannot be seen unless they so desire. Living close together in four
to five family units, it is almost impossible to tell their number and
location. Nevertheless, they are everywhere in this region of Mexico.
Extremely shy, most Tarahumaras, with the exception of those working
in towns, have little contact with visitors. Eking out a living from
simple subsistence farming, they live in caves or huts in the inhospitable
canyon system: high on the cliffs sides in summer; and lower down near
the canyon floors in winter.
However, some reside in towns and have become skilful workers, employed
in construction. They learn quickly to operate heavy machinery and other
equipment. The government has built for them boarding schools where
they are taught, besides Spanish, their own language. Many are today
quickly joining the Mexican mainstream but, at the same time, more than
any other indigenous group, they are proud of their history, retaining
their language and culture, especially their folklore. In the afternoon
that day, we drove to the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge, a rustic cabin-style
lodge located on the edge of a stream, running between pine-covered
mountains - an ideal atmosphere for hikers and nature lovers. From this
pastoral abode in the wilderness, we began our walk along the river
bank toward the 30 m (98 ft) high Cusarare Waterfall - some 4 km (2.5
mi) away. About half way, some of the older members of our group turned
back; the others reached the falls, then returned tired but content.
As we sat by a fireplace, much needed due to the lodge's elevation,
enjoying tea and cookies, an American girl from Boston working as a
guide beamed, "Do you like our beautiful and clean-fresh world?
It's unspoiled nature at its best." Early the next morning we drove
44 km (27 mi) through rugged forested mountains to Divisadero del Barranca,
located on the Continental Divide. Here, half way between Chihuahua
and Los Mochis, the El Chepe stops for 15 minutes at a breathtaking
lookout where passengers can enjoy a spectacular view of the three canyons
The amazing sweeping vistas of the jungle canyons with their yawning
chasms and plunging rock walls create a world of make- believe. In the
clear and crisp mountain air flowing through the unbroken ocean of pine
forests we gloried in the best of what mother nature had to offer. We
could see for, perhaps, 100 km (61 mi) the wondrous view of where the
Urique, Copper and Tararecua Canyons meet - for travellers on El Chepe
this sight is the highlight of their train journey. Walking along the
rim of the Urique Canyon some 2,370 m (7,800 ft) above sea level, I
could not get enough of the grandeur below. The shining citadels of
rock bathed in coppery-green iridescence and reaching up to a clear
blue sky made for a scene of engrossing splendour. The only distraction
were groups of people making their way down to the Urique Canyon's floor,
some eight hour trek down and 12 hours back, with usually a camping
stop overnight. The whole aura for me was a rivetting tableau, too beautiful
to leave - a scene from the land of fantasy. From this gripping site,
we made our way to the train station where we planned to take El Chepe
to Los Mochis, hoping to enjoy to the utmost the other scenes which
the Sierra Tarahumara had to offer. The station, one of the region's
most popular stopovers, was a melee of activity. Food and handicraft
vendors were everywhere. It was a shopper's delight, giving us a chance
to buy Tarahumara handicrafts and a brief glimpse of Tarahumara women
weaving baskets, indifferent to the clamour around them. The calmness
of these working women contrasted vividly with the chatter of the passengers
waiting to board.
The panorama seen from the left side of the train is much more eye-catching
than the view on the right. Soon we had choo-chooed past Guiteco, set
in the middle of apple orchards. Thereafter, the train began its precipitous
drop to sea level as it careened along the rim of a canyon. Now the
air became warmer and, as we moved forward, the vegetation gradually
became tropical. At the lumbering town of Bahuichivo, a group of tourists
got off to visit Cerocahui, a historic-picturesque town. Nearby, one
can witness from the Gallegos Lookout one of the most beautiful sights
in the Sierra, the Urique Gorge, town and river.
Onward we traversed a spectacular landscape. On and on the train wound
its way into the canyon regions, passing through an endless array of
tunnels and trestle bridges. It was a breathtaking ride, made charming
by cascading waterfalls and colourful wild flowers intermixed with a
blanket of shrubs and trees, growing out of a landscape of huge rock
walls, soaring above the canyons. All these spectacular sights of an
awe-inspiring terrain we enjoyed from our vantage point while seated
in a comfortable train. The 40 km (24 mi) stretch between Bahuichivo
and Témoris when the line plunges 610 m (2,000 ft), threading
through 16 tunnels, was vividly described by Joe Cummings when he wrote
in his Northern Mexico Handbook: "Looking over the scene from one
of the rail cars is like finding yourself miniaturized and magically
transported into an elaborate toy train set-up."
After stopping awhile in Témoris, overshadowed by towering cones
of rocks, we passed through a 1819 m (5,966 ft) long tunnel - the longest
we traversed during the trip. Westward from Témoris, we continued
the downward descent, crossing the Río Chímpas and Río
Septentrión. From the Loreto Station, we travelled through a
relatively uninhabited jungle-like countryside. Continuing past El Fuerte,
called the 'gateway to Copper Canyon', we moved through the state of
Sinaloa until we reached Los Mochis, a modern and prosperous agricultural
city of 400,000 with a good tourist infrastructure, but with a mundane
aura - an anticlimax to an awe-inspiring journey. The pride of the Mexican
rail system, our choo-choo had taken us through a maze of misty, pine-clad
mountains whose faces fall down to roaring rivers, meandering through
the canyon depths below. Amid these marvels of nature, it is said, the
ghost of Pancho Villa, an outlaw-made-general who is said to have married
27 women, haunts the valleys and mountain crests. The mind-boggling
scenery we had witnessed throughout our bus and rail journeys makes
this and other tales of fantasy seemingly come alive.
© Habeeb Salloum July 2003
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