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Copper Canyon Blog

Grand Canyon vs. Copper Canyon

So we’ve all heard that the Copper Canyon in Mexico is 3 or 4 times larger than the  Grand Canyon, right? Well here’s a statement made by the Mexico Tourism Office back in 1987 for a major newspaper publication which reads in part:

“The maximum depth of Copper Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon (neither is considered the world’s deepest). Grand Canyon is up to 5,300 feet deep. The deepest part of Copper Canyon is 12, 140 feet, from the top of Mohinara Mountain to the canyon floor.” You decide.

I’ve traveled on foot a number of times in Copper Canyon. Skip McWilliams’ Canyon Crossings are epic. I was fortunate enough to participate several times on these life-changing hikes. I would venture to say that if you were to hike from the deepest part of the Copper Canyon, to the top of Mohinara Mountain, it would take two weeks or so. Factor in weather and injuries. I’ve encountered hail, rain, wind, scorching sun, gorgeous perfect weather,and even flooding in the rivers. Our head guide once was blinded in one eye by a poking branch. Another time, our guide slid down a slippery slope (no pun intended here) and broke his ankle. We had to leave him there and fetch a pick up truck from the Sierra Lodge to haul him off the mountain. Lucky for him it was the last hours of the hike.

An unlucky hiker

High Tea at Dusk in a Mexican Canyon

Cooking boiled eggs over an open fire-lunch on the trails

Dusk in the Mexican Sierras…sparks flying up into the starry Sierra sky, lazily floating, landing on the patch of ground where we set up camp for the night. The hiking group included a young, slender, sun-bleached blonde gringo Zay, an aspiring actor, and his entourage of director, cameraman and gaffer, along with a few gringos who came along for the grand adventure. Tarahumara guides and tortillas girls rounded out the group. We were filming an adventure-packed hiking film for an English travel channel program.

The Tarahumara girls set up their little tortilla center near the blazing fire, quickly and efficiently mixing and patting the dough to form perfect little circles. We had a surprise for the grumbling, tired, and hungry crew. One of the hikers in the group ran an authentic English food market on Hudson Street in New York City—Myers of Kesswick was the name of the shop that sold meat pies, sausage, cheeses and tins of food straight off the boat from England. We knew these Englishmen were secretly yearning for some real English tea and crackers. We had arranged with Peter Myers to bring along some of his finest teas and crackers. For added effect, we had packed dainty doilies, china tea cups and saucers, and an ornate tea pot. We arranged all of this on a huge boulder to the side of the fire, out of the glowing light. A few moments later, the tea was ready and biscuits and cookies were arranged on the doily. The cups were passed around the circle of gringos, film crew and Tarahumaras. The Tarahumara girls held their tiny rose-covered tea cup between their fingers and looked at it with confusion at first, then gingerly put the china cup to their lips. Giggles erupted, everybody enjoyed the spontaneous high tea moment, then retired to their tents and sleeping pads near the fire.

 

The Land that Time Forgot

High Sierra Nights

We’re in Tarahumara country now. This is their land. Ancient foot trails etched on mesas and along the river carve a tale of life in the High Sierra country for some 50,000 semi-nomadic Tarahumara Indians. Walking or running was once the only means of transportation; minus the chance ride to town in the back of a pickup, it is much the same now. This is surely the land that time forgot.

I’m lying beneath heavy woolen blankets, and a crackling fire in the small black wood stove takes the night chill off my tired body. Light from the flickering fire dances along the varnished log walls of my room. I’m staying at the Sierra Lodge and I am exhausted from hiking, yet my mind races, not quite ready to succumb to sleep. The room at the lodge is simple and inviting. Striped cotton curtains hang over the windows looking out over the porch and to the Cusarare River and mountains beyond. There’s a pitcher of drinking water on the dresser, and a terry robe hangs nearby. I’ve left the kerosene lamp on low, the one that sits on a small shelf in the bathroom. The door to the bathroom has one of those frosty windows so I can see the flickering lamp flame. My belly is full from the gourmet meal prepared by Marta and Maria. Chili Relleños served on large platters, a meal fit for a five star restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. Salsa prepared by hand, presented in small clay bowls. The ever-present Marta with a steaming pot of coffee at my side, asking: “Mas Café?” “Si, mas por favor,” I reply. Earlier that evening, lodge guests milled around the tall bar near the giant stone fireplace. Monce, the lodge handyman, had built a fire. Maria mixed up a batch of her famous margaritas, serving round after round, it seemed, until my cheeks were flush and I was smiling too much. Then dinner was served. The beautiful Mexican plates and cups were

Dinner at the Sierra Lodge - Photo by Ivan Fernandez

set on the long, dark varnished table. Pitchers of some exotic red-colored (Hibiscus!) juice were set about the table. I remember the warmth of the fire and margaritas, and the mood of the folks seated at the dinner table. At that moment there was no place I would rather be—ever. We were in a place without electricity. That also meant no phones, internet, hair dryers, TV; just the magnificent High Sierra valley and the warmth of the rustic yet elegant Sierra Lodge.

I finally drift off to sleep, already expecting the soft knock on the door as one of the Tarahumara women brings steaming-hot coffee with a splash of milk—just as I like it.

 

Canyon Trekking and Its Perils—and Rewards

If you would have told me years earlier that I’d be sleeping with Tarahumaras in the dirt near a blazing campfire at the site of a long-ago abandoned stone dwelling in a waist-high grassy valley, deep in the recesses of Copper Canyon, Mexico, I would have laughed and said, “No way, not me.” But then, I found myself a few years later doing just that. My daughter didn’t like the idea of her middle-aged mom taking off on her own to do a Copper Canyon Crossing. Heck, she didn’t even know where Copper Canyon was, or who the Tarahumara Indians were, and that they would be my guides for a week. I kept a lot of the details to myself. No sense in stirring up trouble.

It’s sometimes difficult to express my emotional connection to Copper Canyon and the people who live in the remote high country Sierras and in the bottom of the canyon. Over time I hope to make it crystal clear to everybody, including you.

Canyon crossing with Tarahumara girls

I remember one particularly difficult day; I think it was the fourth day of our 8-day Canyon Crossing. We’d been scrambling up some pretty narrow trails, and the going was slow. I remember clinging to the wall of a huge cluster of boulders. The only way to reach our camp site was to go through this narrow pass. There I was, leaning flat against the rock wall, my feet planted on this incredibly narrow rock ledge, the exact width of my foot. The ledge ended right there in front of me and I had to go around the boulder. Sahjuaripe was my guide. He spoke only Tarahumara. He was on the other side of the rock face. He turned to me, showed me with his hands where to place my feet, and held his hand out to me. I was terrified. I knew I had to put my complete trust in my guide. I clung to his leathered hand, stepped slowly on the little rock protrusions made by Tarahumaras centuries earlier, until I was safely on the other side. It was exhilarating! I thanked Sahjuaripe profusely. He gave me a half smile, took a swig of water from his plastic coke bottle and turned to walk to the bottom of the canyon.