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National Geographic Traveler


National Geographic Traveler

Explore Mexico’s Copper Canyon – land of wild ravines and forest highlands, home of the hardy Tarahumara.

By Rob Schultheis, Photographs by Joe McNally and Phil Schermeister

Excerpt from magazine article.

Into a Canyon, Back in Time
Into a Canyon, Back in Time

The journey to Batopilas exceeds all expectations. We cross canyon after canyon, past Tarahumara and Mexican villages, orchards, and farms; through dense forests of pine, fir, hemlock, and oak; by eerie stone formations shaped like toadstools, parasols, pagodas. The Basíhuare and Urique rivers boil away into lost chasms. As we travel farther south, we enter the territory of ever more traditional Tarahumara, the ones the Mexicans call Cimmarones, The Wild Ones. Many of the Indian men we see along the road are in aboriginal garb; bare feet, white muslin kilts, loose shirts, and scarlet headbands. It adds immensely to their aura of dignity of strength. These people have chosen to eschew material wealth. They lead a harsh, austere life, but in a sense they are also aristocrats, noblemen of the Neolithic. No one else could have survived here as they have.

Up until now I haven’t really seen the big canyons; I have been exploring around the edges. All that changes just after we pass through the sprawling, ramshackle town of Quírare, on a sky-scraped saddle.

We wind through more forest and crags, and then, suddenly, the earth falls away and we are on the rim of Batopilas Canyon.

Tarahumara in traditional clothing

Chunel pulls over, and we get out. Below us, the road snakes away in dizzy zigzags and heart-stopping hairpins, crossing steep slopes of scrub jungle and hanging deserts studded with monster cactuses, winding between massive stone buttresses. At the bottom, more than a vertical mile below, the river batters its way down a bed of alluvial debris. Miles away, on the opposite canyon wall, more forests and cliffs soar to the sky. Here and there are the tiny patches of Tarahumara fields scratched into the ridgelines, with lonely cabins trailing blue plumes of wood smoke.

The ride down is, well, call it an adventure. Chunel is having trouble with his aged truck. It keeps dying, and he restarts it by coasting until we pick up enough speed to jump the motor in second gear. This definitely adds to the inherent excitement of descending 5,500 vertical feet. There are many places so exposed that if we went over the edge, we wouldn’t stop falling until we landed in the Río Batopilas. In addition, Chunel continues his guide duties as we ricochet down the barranca wall. See, over there, the Tarahumara man climbing the cliff? See the big cactus? It is called the pitahaya, says Chunel, pointing with one hand, holding the wheel with the other, and turning to smile enthusiastically at me as we slew around a curve six inches from the gulf of thin air. I’m sure it’s actually safe but it also is definitely exciting.

We finally reach the river and continue on toward Batopilas. The road roller coasters along the southern side of the canyon, high above the river. We pass by abandoned mines, tiny hamlets of one or two or three shacks and shanties, through surreal forests of ten foot-tall upside-down candelabra cactuses, wiry trees with leaves like smoke, wrought-iron thorn bush. There is a well-trodden trail on the opposite riverbank, all the way down the gorge. Chunel tells me it is called the Camino Real, and that up until 15 years ago, when the final leg of the road was completed, it was the only way to reach Batopilas. Today it is still used regularly by Indians, gold and silver prospectors, and the like. Signs of the Tarahumara are everywhere. Chunel points out trails carved in impossible slopes, cabins perched on airy pinnacles, fields clinging to mountainsides. I see a Tarahumara fish trap in the river, an ingenious rock-walled chute leading downstream to a manmade pool, a design thousands of years old. A few miles farther down the road, we pass two Tarahumara men trotting along with enormous peeled logs the size of telephone poles on their backs. They are bound for Batopilas, Chunel says, where they will sell them for roof beams; they still have ten or fifteen miles to go. I ask if we can stop and offer them and their cargo a ride. They wouldn’t accept, Chunel tells me. They always carry the logs like that; that is what they do.

And then, at last we come to Batopilas. Imagine Tahiti, Treasure Island, hidden away in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We pass the majestic bougainvillea-covered ruins of Hacienda de San Miguel, built by turn-of-the-century expatriate silver mining tycoon Alexander Boss Shepherd, and then we re-cross the Rio Batopilas on a high bridge into the outskirts of town. Batopilas is much bigger than I had expected, strung out for over a mile along the river. We bump down the narrow cobblestone street, past gardens bursting with tropical flowers, mangos, bananas, papayas, lemons, and oranges. Palm trees sway in the sky. The air is languid, lazy, at least 30 degrees warmer than on the canyon rim.

The wealth around Batopilas was first discovered in the late 16th century. Mines were built and passed from company to company. The town boomed during the gold and silver rush of the 1800s, and most of the beautiful buildings in Batopilas today were built between 1880 and 1910. Now, according to rumors and tales going around the barrancas, the local economy is at least partially based on contraband and smuggling. There are stories of marijuana and poppy fields hidden away in the Sinforosa, the next great valley to the south, of mule trains loaded with secret cargo crossing the mountains on back trails to the seacoast, of armed federales manning roadblocks, looking for smugglers. Who knows? When I ask Chunel, he just shrugs, winks, and laughs. Whatever they do for a living, the people of Batopilas are definitely friendly; everyone we meet seems to know Chunel, and we are greeted with smiles, cries of Buenos tardes, and the soft, formal handshakes of old-fashioned Mexico.

We check into the Hotel, across from the town church, and then head out for an afternoon walk. We visit the old Shepherd estate, and then we explore one of the silver-mine tunnels west of town. Luckily, I have brought my headlamp with me; the torch Chunel improvises out of a length of dead cactus refuses to keep burning no matter how many times he lights it.

The maze of shafts seems to extend forever; Chunel tells me that the mine reaches all the way to the far end of Batopilas, close to two miles away, and that there are more levels below us. In its day this was a hectic, bustling place, with thousands of miners, riotous cantinas, hustlers, and fortune hunters from everywhere; the Shepherd family hauled in a grand piano over the Camino Real for their fetes and soirees. Now the wildness of the barrancas has returned, re-conquered. The fever and the glory are gone.

We make our way back out into the waning daylight and amble back into town. Birds twitter in the jade green trees. A horseman canters across the plaza, leading a string of pack burros. A Tarahumara man and his young son sit in quiet companionship on the steps of the church, watching the world go by. The bell tolls for evening Mass.

We end up at Michaela’s for dinner. This, it turns out, isn’t exactly a restaurant; it is Michaela’s front porch, and the menu is whatever the smiling, idle-aged proprietress happens to have cooked for her family. Tonight that means tuna-noodle casserole, beans, tortillas, and salad, A couple of other foreigners are dining at the next able, and I get to talking with them. One is Canadian, the other American; there are six or seven other tourists in town, they tell me, including a couple of Australians, a Frenchman, and a German. They themselves have been in Batopilas for a week and a half, and they are finding it hard to leave. The bus to Creel leaves three times a week, at 4 a.m., and they just can’t bring themselves to get on it. I can definitely understand. I have been here for no more than a few hours, and I am already fantasizing about staying on; riding a horse up the gulches and draws above town, coffee at Michaela’s while the warm spring rains fall outside, a thousand and one dazzling sunsets on the walls of the gorge¦Yes, it would be beautiful, indeed.

But it is almost time to go. The next morning we drive the last five miles down-canyon to the abandoned mission church at Stevo. No one knows who built this pale dusty red edifice, with its lofty, airy dome and belfry or when. Some say the Jesuits back in the early 17th century used Tarahumara to do the labor, but by the time the church was completed, the Indians were so disgusted with working for free that they refused to worship there. Or so they say. Like so much, it is a mystery.

We park in the dusty desert out in front and go inside. The interior of the church embodies the historical layers and human subtleties of the barrancas: On the altar are the gaudily painted, life-size religious statues so popular in Mexico; the whitewashed walls are stained with purple berry juice, representing the blood of Christ. There are a pair of crypts set in the brick floor; I lean down and read the inscription on one: Marina V. de Ontiveros Abril 24, de 1881. I find an inscription dated 1630, on the big black iron bell in the belfry. Who knows what it all means?

Every corner and niche contains a talisman: a poker-faced wooden Tarahumara mask, a rough-hewn cross, a wreath of thorns, an ancient iron baptismal font, a painting of a bleeding, tormented Christ. Stevo is a shrine to fierce, tangled faiths, to dark, knotted histories no one will ever unravel or truly understand. Like the canyons, it seems beyond our knowing. Outside, the dust blows in the wind, the Río Batopilas rolls away from us, down its measureless gorge, into the unknown.