Into a Canyon, Back in Time

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.

…The next day, after the sun burns away a morning fog, I catch a ride out to the Copper Canyon Lodge, near the Tarahumara hamlet of Cusárare‒”Place of the Eagles”‒some 13 miles south of Creel.

There are hotels that are merely places to stay, and then (rarely) there are Hotels with a capital “H” that seem to embody the very essence of where they are. This turns out to be one of the latter. Most of the employees are Tarahumara, and their lives twine through the hotel. Indian farms extend right up to the dusty parking area, and bright-eyed children shout and play on the long veranda. The rooms are log and plaster, heated by wood stove, lit by kerosene lamp; there is no electricity. Meals are served at big communal tables in a dining room with a stone fireplace in one corner. The hotel chef is a merry little Tarahumara woman who cooks like an angel. The place is a veritable Hotel Paradiso.

I have brought a couple of reference books on the Tarahumara with me, and I spend the midday hours studying up on these fascinating people. They live on corn, beans, and squash; cattle, sheep, and pigs; apples and peaches raised on their hard-scrabble farms. They are also master hunters and gatherers, scraping an incredible array of edibles from the austere landscape: catfish, eels; the flesh of deer, opossums, wolves; insects, worms and grubs, snakes, toads and lizards; berries, fungi, Cactuses, 13 kinds of roots, and 39 varieties of weeds. To the Tarahumara, their world is a gigantic delicatessen, a salad bar as big as the state of Vermont.

Tarahumara in traditional clothing

They are also undoubtedly the greatest natural runners on earth; they call themselves Rarámuri, “The Runners” or “The Running People,” and there are many tales of their prowess on foot. Men and women alike regularly compete in ultra-marathon races called rarajípari, which can last several days and nights and cover hundreds of miles of rugged country. In competitions, they dribble carved wooden balls around circular courses. Tarahumara deer-hunting technique is simple: They chase an animal until it collapses and then finish it off with poisoned arrows or stones.

One of the other hotel guests is a stocky, mustachoed Californian named Candelario Ramos. Like me, he is an enthusiastic hiker and outdoorsman; unlike me, he speaks fluent Spanish. A perfect traveling companion. We decide to team up for a couple of treks into the backcountry.

We talk with Liliana Carosso, the charming young Argentinean woman who manages the hotel, and she advises us to start out with the easy hour-and-a-half round-trip down Cusárare Creek to Cusárare Falls, It is a nice warm-up stroll, she says, and tomorrow we can do something more ambitious. Fine‒off we go. The trail heads west from the hotel, crosses a wooden footbridge over deep green pools, and follows the creek from there, along gravel bars and sandy beaches where Tarahumara women scrub laundry. Some of them have arranged displays of clay pots and pine-needle baskets, wooden dolls and bright woolen bags, an impromptu trailside bazaar. I buy a sublimely graceful little basket from a girl so shy she doesn’t look at me once during the whole transaction, just smiles off to one side, blushing furiously.

Liliana has told us to keep our eyes peeled for both bald eagles and eared trogons‒small, iridescent, orange-plumed birds renowned for their beauty. We don’t see either today, but Candelario glimpses a ringtail, cousin to the raccoon, leaping away across the boulders beyond the stream, and we find the tracks of ringtail, coyote, and deer on the banks. The view of the falls themselves, at dusk, is breathtaking: thin tresses of white water plunge a hundred feet to a seething cauldron below. Beyond, Cusárare Canyon winds away between cliffs and timbered crags. We are hovering at the edge of Terra Incognita…the Void of the Canyons.

The next morning we set out on a much more ambitious tramp, to the Recohuata hot springs at the bottom of Tararécua Canyon. Liliana warns us that we will never find our way there without a guide, so we hire one, a broad-faced young Tarahumara named Antonio. The hotel kitchen supplies us with three lunches of fried chicken, ham-and-cheese sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, and bottled sodas. By 9:30 we are out on the trail, accompanied by one of the hotel’s resident dogs, a spry little dust-color creature who obviously has designs on our larder.

We begin by retracing yesterday’s route along Cusárare Creek, and then Antonio leads us on a steep side trail up over the ridgeline to the north. It is Sunday, and the trail back down to Cusárare is busy with Tarahumara couples and families on their way to Mass. Antonio stops to chat with them in Tarahumara, a quicksilver tongue that delights the ear, but after a while the trail empties, and our guide goes into high gear, scooting along as if he has electric motors in his calves and wheels in the soles of his feet. By Tarahumara standards he is just ambling along, but for Candelario and me the pace is exhausting. We zoom over one mountaintop, and another, and another. Every 20 minutes or so we beg for mercy and flop to the ground, gasping for breath, while Antonio regards us with bemusement.

After a couple of hours, during one of our halts, Candelario engages Antonio in conversation in Spanish, and then bursts into laughter.

“¿Qué pasa?”

“I told him we were tired,” Candelario replies. “And he said he was a little tired too. He told me he spent the last three days and nights tracking stray cattle through the barrancas; he hasn’t slept since Wednesday night. He got home early this morning and was going to rest up, but then Liliana told him there were two turistas who needed a guide into Tararécua Canyon. He decided it might be fun, and he could use the money.”

I look at Antonio, at the wry grin hovering around the edges of his mouth, and then I can’t help it, I start laughing too. So much for trying to match a Rarámuri on the trail.

We trudge on. The views are astonishing, cloud’s-eye vistas of wooded mountains and coiling stony gorges. Finally, after a good four hours, we reach the rim of Tararécua Canyon and start down. The thousand-foot descent takes another 45 minutes, slipping and sliding down sharp switchbacks, over loose rubble and dust, past cliffs and parapets of lichen-spattered volcanic duff. We reach the bottom, follow the headwaters of the Río Tararécua a few hundred yards along the boulder-strewn canyon floor, and then, at last, there they are: the crystalline geothermal waters of Recohuata, gushing from the north wall of the gorge.

This is heaven on‒or in‒the earth. Someone has hauled pipe and concrete down here and built a primeval open-air bathhouse on the mountainside.

Candelario and I strip down to our hiking shorts and jump into the lower tank; Antonio hops into the one above. The water is blood warm, with the faintest scent of plutonian sulphur, subterranean salts, and ores. We float there, drinking sodas, gazing up at the looming canyon walls. Hawks curve and soar above the rim rock. Below, the green torrent of the Río Tararécua boils through water-polished blocks of stone. Butterflies with glimmering wings flash by on a warm breeze.

Too soon, it is time to go; the shadows are lengthening across the canyon, and we don’t want to be nighted on the trail. We lunch, feed the scraps to the dog, and we’re off. Antonio sets an even faster pace than he did this morning, and we follow as best we can. Our route across the rolling highlands is different, more direct, than the one we took this morning; Antonio wants to get us home before dark. A good idea, as Candelario and I are wet, and the temperature last night at Cusárare dipped to 25 degrees. No guide wants to freeze-dry his clients.

Sunset catches us on the last big summit before the valley of the Río Cusárare. The air turns icy; the twilight fades. We hike the last mile along the creek in near-darkness, arriving at the hotel just in time for dinner. Perfect timing. The cook has outdone herself: We feast on corn soup, sweet-cured pork chops, French fries, refritos, tortillas and butter, and sliced bananas drowned in condensed milk‒washed down, in my case, with two stiff margaritas and three bottles of soda. Well, it was a long hike. When I’m ready to turn in, Candelario is still sitting at the table, regaling the other hotel guests with tales of our great trek. More power to him; I am fast asleep the moment my head hits the pillow.

(Next day) I settle in one of the benches on the porch. I get out my maps and guidebooks and start looking for new destinations, and I find a village called Batopilas, at the dead end of the road a little over 80 miles southwest of Creel, in the depths of the Río Batopilas gorge. You just can’t go any farther. It sounds intriguing; I have to go.

Liliana helps me hire a guide, a man named Jésus Manuel Olivas, otherwise known as Chunel. The next morning he and I head out for Batopilas in his battered old Ford pickup.

A word or two about this Chunel. He spent his childhood roaming the barrancas with his father, who was a trader with the Tarahumara, and by now, in his 61st year, he knows the country better than any other living man. He is a legend, and he looks it: lanky, weathered, hawk-faced, with fierce, kindly eyes and extravagant grizzled sideburns. The old cowboy hat sits on his head as though it has been there forever. He limps slightly, from a broken leg suffered a couple of years back, but he is still fit. According to Liliana, he regularly out-hikes people half his age on multi-day treks through the canyons. A classic character.

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.

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 of rough dirt road. 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 Réal, 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 Río 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 Mari, 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 Réal 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; a room at the Mari, 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 Sátevo. 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. Sátevo 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.

One last bit of adventure. We are driving east from Batopilas, a few miles beyond town. We round a corner, and there, blocking our way, is a pickup across the road, with three big men standing next to it. The three big men are armed to the teeth. Among them, they have an M-16 assault rifle, a snub-nosed submachine gun, and three pistols. “Federales,” Chunel says to me. “They look for the smugglers.” I should be nervous, I guess, but somehow it just seems part and parcel of life in the Barranca del Cobre. We stop and explain ourselves, and after a few uncertain moments they tell us we can go. As we drive off, a pickup full of men from Batopilas is pulling up at the roadblock. The federales are glaring intimidatingly, but the Batopilas crew don’t seem impressed; they are laughing together, joking and wisecracking, as they get out of their vehicle. Well, people are tough in the canyon country.

Here is a beautiful video, giving you a picture into the lives of the Tarahumara Indians. Enjoy!