Panorama

    

Travel Not for Spectators

Max Anderson throws himself into a massive Mexican canyon with 40,000 Indians and NO RULES.

Canyons and Indians Silver mines, Indian haunts and trapdoors: Max Anderson visits the massive Copper Canyon where he discovers Mexican adventure is there for the asking.

Written by Max Anderson for Panorama Magazine (Australia), Photography/Joy BellPanorama Magazine

Excerpt from magazine article.

SECRET INDIANS’ BUSINESS

It’s (Copper Canyon) not one vast canyon network, it’s 20, great chasmic complexes among the gnarled plateaulands between Chihuahua State and NW Mexico. Forty thousand people have succesfully bunkered down in here, evading even Western influence. Not bad, considering the US is only 400 kilometres north.

“I’d rather you didn’t say where this cave is,” said Ray, Lodge guide and reluctant Westerner. “We like to keep it secret.”

I tried to say, “It’s an easy secret to keep” Copper Canyon being four times larger than the Grand Canyon but the breath wouldn’t come. We were stepping painfully up a steep trail, stopping to suck oxygen out of the altitude. 2300 metres afforded huge views: desert pine cast a khaki patina over the canyon walls, broken only where sheer-sided hunks of mountain burst through, punching at eagles in the blue sky. On the canyon’s dry, flat floor, where it sometimes floods, were corn field worked by sedentary Indians with handmade ploughs.

“There,” said Ray, pointing.

High amongst the grey rock, obscured by a gauze of green needles, was a shallow cave looking like a box at a primitive opera. Built into this was a square hut no bigger than a cubby house, made of split log timbers the colour of burnt treacle. I scrambled to reach the hut and pushed a small wooden door into the cramped, dark quarters, thick with earthy dust. Flies circled into the light shaft; two complete earthenware bowls lay on the timber floor and on the wall was a plaster crucifix.

I mouthed a silent “wow”.

Ray sat in the open part of the cave, gazing out onto the world of the Tarahumara Indians a remote and hostile land that once provided a sanctuary from all things not Tarahumara. The cave ceiling was fire-blackened, toothless cobs of corn lay scattered in the dirt beside a stone metate, a depression worn in its centre from grinding maize.

“The Tarahumara have always known about this place, but a westerner found it four years ago. We keep it secret because well, I’d hate to see those bowls end up in Santa Fe,” said Ray.

“How old is it?”

“Maybe 100 years, but the Tarahumara won’t say. It’s hard to get much out of them. Which is kinda understandable.”

Perhaps the recent tourist invasion will prove more tolerant than the Spanish invasion 500 years ago. “These Indians are by nature a sly and crafty folk,” wrote a Jesuit priest in 1681, “they show no aversion to sin…a lazy indifference to everything good, unlimite sensual desire, an irresistible habit of getting drunk…”

“And will we see Tarahumara people?” I asked.

“The nomadic ones? No. If they were using this cave, they’d have heard us coming half an hour ago. They’d be long gone. Though one time, I was sitting on this slope and I felt a presence. I looked up and there above me was a Tarahumara warrior, with two burros (donkeys). He was staring right at me. I said ‘Kwira’ (hello) but he said nothing just kept staring.”

The Tarahumara were the shyest people I’d ever encountered, saying exactly nothing as Northern American visitors bought beaded trinkets and fresh-smelling grass baskets from them. But somewhere out here, away from the lodge, beyond the fields, semi-nomadic Tarahumara were still moving their livestock and possessions among the barrancas.

the wind roared gently over the rolling vista. “There’d probably be caves throughout this area,” I said.

“All over.”

“So can I head out to find some?”

“Sure. I’ve got to get back to the lodge, but keep drinking your water…” he shrugged, “…you’ll be OK.”

I shouldered my pack and headed west to a dark point I’d spotted among a herd of elephant-sized boulders. Sweating hard, lips cracked from the hot, dry wind, I climbed rock walls, squeezed through rock corridors, eased myself off ledges. And every time I reached up to take a handhold, I sweated a little more in anticipation of a sound that went “shicka-shicka-shicka”.

Amazing to think a landscape of canyons could produce super-human runners, like the Tarahumara. In the 1880s, an Indian runner carried a mail delivery 900 kilometres through the canyon lands in six days. He rested a day then repeated the journey. In 1994 a team of nine Indians were entered in the gruelling Leadville Trail 100—a run of 180 kilometres across the Colorado Rockies above 3000 metres. Of a field of 150, half never made it. The team of Tarahumara took first place and all places from fourth to 11th.

It took me over an hour to cover the kilometre to the boulders with the dark spot and the dark spot turned out to be nothing more than a shadow. So I sat and watched the eagles turning in the hot sun for a while, then began to re-negotiate the rock obstacles down the canyon slope. Ten minutes later I walked into the remains of a native cave thick with undisturbed dirt, a collapsed door, broken pots and a simple rock painting on the back wall of rock. though exhausted by sun and scramble, I buzzed with excitement. Hard climbing, soft archaeology and adventure for the asking.

HAZARDS OF RECKLESS LIVING

Not so far to the north, it’s an irony that the land of the free is actually trussed up with a million US federal regulations. South of the border anything goes.

“So can I ride on the roof of your car?”

“Sure you can!”

It was six hours down into the canyon lands, from Creel to Batopilas, sitting in a seat bolted to the roof of a 4WD. The hazards were various and nefarious: falling rocks, stray cattle lurking around hair-pins and sheer drops down cactus-clad slopes on a barrier-free road. But hey, what’s a little death when you can sit on top of a six-litre Chevy drinking chilled Tecate beer in 38 degree celsius heat?

The country had dried out: desert lands filled with organ-pipe cactus were framed by soaring mountains, curiously more out of “The Hobbit” than “The High chaparral. One of these was flecked with specks of fire sending up towers of smoke. “Indian campfires,” said an American visitor. But he was wrong. If the Sierra was among high Indian terrain, Batopilas and its surrounds were pure cowboy country.

Miguel’s store in Batopilas

Batopilas: populations 1150, a thin streak of settlement following the long elbow of the Batopilas River, broad and shallow. Think white stucco haciendas, a church, a square, pistol-packing hombres in fat, pick-up trucks on skinny, cobbled streets. The road from the mountains down into the settlement had only been sealed a matter of years.

In the early morning, after an erratic town bell marked 10-ish, I stood in the white square populated by children tormenting dogs, and young soldiers in fatigues. I sought out an officer directing olive-painted Humvees and trucks.

“Why is the army here?” I asked.

“We’re burning the marijuana fields,” said the officer. “Local people grow it illegally in the mountains.”

“So can I go along with you and watch the burning?”

He considered. “It’s hard marching into the mountains. But sure. Call headquarters in Chihuahua and you can get clearance.”

but a poor decision involving a burrito and a fly-blown roadside stall meant this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity literally went down the toilet. (the high point of my day was running full-tilt for a bathroom; moments before reaching the seat of solace, a trickle of SPF15 sunblock rinsed into my eye, causing agonizing blindness long enough for me to knock myself nearly unconscious on the low-hanging toilet door…)

The next day, consigned to less demanding distractions, I talked with an old man with eccentric silver hair and black eyes. He was Carlos Ruiz, a prospector, and he’d helped a Canadian company strike a major gold deposit in Urique canyon. “Their shares went from $US1 to something like $US40,” he blustered. “I have them my charts but what did they give me Nothing!”

“There are minerals around here?”

“Minerals?!” He said, his eyes wide. “This canyon area is more rich than canada more rich than Australia. In this river you can pull out gold and silver. There are not many places in the world you can do that.”

UNDERGROUND TREASURE

“Hmmm mine. Hmmm silver.”

Young Juan groped for English like I groped for breath after the two-hour hike up to the abandoned silver mine. The landscape was all dusted thorns in sapping heat. The mountains appeared made of smoke, so savage was the haze.

“Hey, cool mine!” said Tecate Bill. I liked Tecate Bill, the wild, bearded man of New York who was never without a beer can. the night previous he’d abandoned his stifling middle-class compadres at the beautiful Riverside Lodge to buy a chunk of hallucinogenic mushroom off the street.

We were standing amongst buzzing mesquite trees and small ruins of mine buildings. Before us was the mine entrance, a giant wormhole.

“So can we go in?”

“Hmmm sure. Hmmm follow?”

It smelt of cold, dry clay; pieces of ‘Chicago Pneumatic’ engine were scattered around. We walked deep into the mountain until our torches were the only source of light, picking out graffiti on the head-height tunnel, a mix of Mestizo (what people call “Mexican”) and Tarahumara. Underneath a picture of a skull were the letters J-U-A-N. Juan rubbed them out with his finger before walking on. Occasionally our torch would pick up glittering rock, but it was usually the dull sheen of bronze.

Another tunnel opened to the left, straight down, black and strong smelling. It was a great slash of mouth with pit props for teeth. A tossed stone clanked and clanked as it fell hundreds of metres down the gullet.

Other tunnels opened, some straight overhead, similarly reaching into blackness, and soon the tunnel was branching everywhere and we were turning left, right, right, left, for maybe a kilometre. Fears of getting lost and roof collapse were tangible, but Bill and I had a nagging urge to strike it lucky.

“So can we keep going?” we asked.

Shrug. “Hmmm sure.”

My torch hit some white quartz, a big white leech on the black rock. Only it wasn’t quartz. Ruiz had told me, “Quartz is the mineral associated with gold; calcite is where you find silver. Do you know, they’ve pulled out pieces of silver the size of your palm from these mines?”

And there in the calcite. Silver! Bill and I laughed and whooped and the fever was upon us. We reached for rocks on the floor and used them to hammer at the calcite which gave up bite-sized pieces spotted with silver.

“Here, let me put those in my pocket, we’ll share them later,” said Tecate Bill.

“Ohhh no! Let me put them in MY pocket and we’ll share them later…”

A slab of calcite threatened to come loose and we both imagined those palm sized-discs beneath. “Never a goddamn packaxe around when you need one,” croaked Bill as we hammered, filth with dust.

At this point a trickle of dust started falling around our shoulders, there was a sudden chill in the air and our labours ceased abruptly. Juan began to retreat. We wiped our hands on our trousers and followed, heading for the light.

THE SECRET TO BE TOLD

I’d wanted to spend longer in Batopilas. There was much left to be done. Like visiting the mysterious church of Stevo whose history is lost. I’d read a recent report from an American that he’d found a trapdoor behind the altar that led down into catacombs. Only…he and his colleagues had baulked at the idea of delving into the darkness.

What was down there? I was dying to know. Then I thought, maybe someone else could get along there, lift the trap, take a look around. Maybe they could write and tell me about the adventure.

So can you do that?