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Beyond Mexico's Copper Canyon

Don't go! It's too dangerous! That's what my well-meaning friends (and the media) say when I tell them I will travel through Juárez City, Mexico to reach the Copper Canyon area of Chihuahua.

The current truth is murders by the thousands are the horrible result of the escalating drug cartel wars. Despite efforts by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Juárez is one of the most perilous cities in the hemisphere.

With trepidation about the Tex-Mex border, friends Craig and Barb rendezvous with my husband Lee and me in El Paso, Texas. A hotel van shuttles us to El Paisáno bus station. Once across the Río Grande via the Bridge of Americas, all passengers are directed to disembark while masked and armed soldiers search everything. No one asks for our passports, nor instructs us to fill out any paperwork for an entry visa. After an apparently satisfactory inspection, we simply re-board.

Proceeding beyond Juárez's near-empty streets and storefronts, we pull into the central bus station for a hectic transfer to Chihuahua City. Following another token rummage through our backpacks by more masked guards, we race to catch the Mexican omnibus we think we missed. Time begins to play with us.

Sitting comfortably in the reclining seat, listening to soothing salsa music as the desert landscape zooms by, it occurs to me I am in the country accidentally.

After a 5-hour bus ride, we check into a downtown Chihuahua hotel and meet our world-class guide Raúl, who briefs us on the 3 night/ 4 day hike in Urique Canyon (6,135 feet-deep) and Batopilas Canyon (5,900 feet-deep) of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains. Both canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon; Urique is the deepest in North America and eighth in the world.

In the morning Raul drives us to Creel, a lumber town of 5,000 that is the gateway to the Copper Canyon, where we board the Chihuahua Al Pacífico (nicknamed Chepe) to experience a 60-mile portion of the 410-miles of rail between Chihuahua and Los Mochis. In 1872 (pre-1914 Panama Canal completion) an engineer from the USA conceived the idea to build a railway from the sea to the interior for logging and mining interests. There were many geographic obstacles as well as the 1910 Mexican Revolution, preventing this dream from becoming a reality until 1961.

Twelve miles south of Creel, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the locomotive chugged around El Lazo (the loop), an amazing engineering feat whereby the train turns 360 degrees in on itself, a brain-teaser closely followed by my first eye-popping-wow of the Barrancas del Cobre ( Copper Canyon). The name is something of a misnomer. This world-wonder is actually six massive gorges with copper-colored lichens dotting the 25,000 square mile area in the Mexican State of Chihuahua (the largest of the country's 31 states).

The native Tarahumara women at the rest-stop in Divisidero, dressed in the age-old traditional headscarves, multicolored blouses and skirts, are busy making and selling baskets, bracelets and other handicrafts tourists routinely purchase. Most men roaming the streets wear blue jeans and cowboy hats, but a few of the males are robed in the more traditional brilliant tops and loincloths.

The Tarahumaras call themselves Rarámuri, meaning fleet of foot. For decades their skills at navigating these rugged mountain trails have produced some world-class runners, most wearing shoes consisting of a piece of rubber tire laced with thin strips of leather. In his book, "Born to Run," Christopher McDougall writes about the first 51-mile ultra marathon challenge (2003) held in the canyons of Urique and Batopilas. By 2010, the race has swelled to over 400 contestants. The top 5 finishers were all Rarámuri competitors-winning prize money plus a one-ton supply of corn.

Raul cautioned us to respect the local people by not snapping photos without permission. Smiling and speaking in my broken Spanish I ask some of the Rarámuri children if I can take their picture. They all respond with the same two English words, "One dollar".

The Rarámuris are the last indigenous tribe living in Chihuahua as their Aztec ancestors did after escaping enslavement by the Spaniards over 500 years ago. Semi-nomadic, they move south (down the mountain) in the winter and north (back up) in the summer, taking advantage of the temperature and weather extremes. By learning how to cultivate and use the 350 species of plant life, these self-sustaining people have adapted to the rigors of mountain living.

By mid-afternoon our group disembarks the train and re-embarks a waiting van, transporting us four hours and more than 5,000 feet down a narrow, dusty switchback road to the city of Urique. In one day we have traveled 14 hours by van and train. At a modest hotel near the end of the road in Urique village, we dine in an attached restaurant serving beef from the local, athletic cattle (healthy but chewy) and instant coffee. A quick warm shower (once I figure out the hot knob is on the right) relaxes me prior to slipping into bed. The sweet perfume of bougainvillea is the last thing I remember before drifting into slumber.

Heeeeeeeeee Haw! Jarred by the braying of what turns out to be our hired pack animals, I am introduced to our Burro-men handlers Don Tonio (age 67) and his nephew Gilberto (age 21). The boys (as I affectionately call them) tend to the 2 mules and 2 burros that will carry our gear up and down the 10,000-feet elevation differential over the course of our 4-day trek.

Prior to our arrival, Don Tonio proposes to Raul a different 40-mile route, as the main corridor has had too many recent bandito attacks. This alternate passage is new to everyone, including the animals.

As we walk beside the river, Raul entertains us with interesting facts about the canyon's sub-tropical floor. There are wild figs, kapoc, mezquite, apples, orchids, and a variety of sinister thorns. At a prickly pear cactus farm, we sample one of Mexico's main food sources. Expertly scraping off the spiny thorns, Raul presents me with a clean piece speared on the tip of his knife. The delicious flavor, similar to sweet peas, bathes my mouth with moisture.

Raul is well versed on a variety of topics: the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego, Mexico's 1810 Independence from Spain, a political history of how NAFTA has affected this area. His intellectual horsepower stimulates lengthy discussions.

High noon. The road becomes a path with a noticeable ascent. Crossing a barbed-wire fence, we leave civilization and enter an unmarked zone. Don Tonio makes puckered-kissing sounds and shouts "Arríba" to coax the animals upwards rather than backwards to their home. The afternoon temps are approaching scorching.

Conversations cease. Focusing on the next point of shade, sipping water every 10 minutes by necessity, I grow concerned about my depleting supply. An occasional but infrequent breeze is welcome.

The higher we Gringa girls go, the more we lag behind. We can scarcely take 20 paces before needing rest, to allow our heart rates to lower. Our plodding is poco a poquito, little by littler. The scalding sand and hot orange clay of the mountain walls are taking their toll.

Ahead of us, now atop a cool slope in the mountain's saddle, Craig and Lee are worried. While Craig arranges a mule rescue with Raul, Lee comes back down to pour some precious water over us in an effort to cool our lobster-red faces. My head feels like Mount Vesuvius ready to explode.

Oh, those beautiful mules! They carry us from the inferno, past the narrow drop-offs and up to a shade tree, where we are greeted like royaltyS except for the little asterisk of a venomous coral snake, recently immobilized for our safety.

I can see El Pié (the foot), our evening's destination, but we are still at least an hour from the water cistern. Fortunately most of the remaining journey is downhill. Meandering in a dry, boulder-filled riverbed, the Rarámuri children hear me before I see them. I say "Cuira" (a phonetic Hello of the unwritten Rarámuri language) and soon I have a Pied Piper-line of children escorting me up to the community center.

While Raul negotiates our evening's headquarters, I gratefully accept and greedily guzzle a liter of filtered water from a natural spring. I force down some dinner (fresh spinach and jicama with lime juice), but find it easier to share my food with some of the children. As the setting sun looses its intensity, slowly my heat-exhausted body begins to recover. Raul brews some bay leaf tea for our sore muscles. Nightfall comes as a balm.

Morning arrives first to my ears: roosters, burros, goats, and the hum of thousands of bees in a giant mesquite tree. Day begins quickly. The children feed the animals and the mother prepares corn tortillas in her wood-fired stove. As we break camp, giggles from high above are overheard. Fifteen boys in single file make their way down the mountain path to the boarding school where they will spend Monday through Friday before returning home. Like dominoes falling into each other, these kids come to a halt and stare shyly at 4 pasty-white gringos stuffing their tents into bags. Hiding behind a huge boulder, their curiosity slowly overcomes their timidity and I begin taking their photos and showing them their image on my digital camera. They are fascinated.

Saying "Ariosiba" (Ramámuri good-bye), we take a goat trail out, begin an arduous climb-taking plenty of breaks to enjoy the dramatic vistas-and tackle 3,000 feet of elevation at an acceptable pace.

Shortly after lunch, we notice Don Tonio laying flat on a rock, not caring it's loaded with cow-pies. The poor man is not well after consuming some eggs. Raul finds the water source and camp is established near a fenced area with 2-padlocked homes connected by a path lined with brilliant red geraniums.

During breakfast Raul extols the benefits of the common lime. Holding the magnificent fruit between his thumb and forefinger, Raul says, "We Mexicans put lime on everything, except pinto beans and coffee. Lime is useful for flavoring not only our food, but our underarms and breath as well. Truly limes are a gift from God."

While sipping camp coffee, an elderly man respectfully calls down to us, "Cuira." Raul motions him to approach. The gentleman (nearly blinded by cataracts) says his name is Martin, and is checking to see if his neighbors have returned from Batopilas. Raul states no one is here but asks if Martin will convey our thanks to the owners for their hospitality (After all we are camping on their property). Martin informs us this hacienda is called La Viñata (meaning place where alcoholic beverages are made). When Martin shuffles away, Raul explains the older generations often change their names to more popular ones. Perhaps next year Martin might become known as Barack?

Our trek next brings us to an intersection of 3 canyons, Urique (west), Sinforosa (south) and Batopilas (east). Gazing down the vistas I understand how this is Mexico's premier world wonder. The only blemish on the landscape is a gold mining operation. With the aid of binoculars, I can observe some of the 2500 people employed by a Mexican and Canadian partnership.

Back on the trail, soon we stand above Batopilas, now some 5,000-feet and 6 hours below. The old bridge, built in 1870 for silver mining extractions, is visible from our vantage point.

We reach a shaded plateau above El Píne, the only level spot capable of sustaining two households. Adobe houses, 20 paces apart, stand on one-half of a hockey-rink-sized peninsula of land, with drop-offs surrounding 75% of it.

Dinner is a time for Korima, mutual sharing of food. The residents like the granola bars we provide and we enjoy their fresh-made corn tortillas. Afterwards, the kids and I teach each other songs and play games. They are wonderful jump-ropers, but the surprise of the evening is grandma, who randomly hops in, jumping more times than anyone.

Dusk turns to twilight and the mothers instruct the reluctant children to quickly herd up the animals and put the newborn baby goats into their pen. In the dark, the 2 fathers return from the field, astonished to find 7 unexpected guests. Raul makes introductions and good-naturedly explains the situation.

Lying in my tent, I listen to the sounds of both families settling down by firelight. Each family shares one long bed extended across most of the room. There is quiet chatter, a few giggles, a cough and an occasional whimper from the baby. Then total silence.

For my 2:00 AM nature call, I put on my headlamp, take a single step out of the tent, and gently lower myself down the embankment to a place of safety. Getting back up requires the use of all four appendages. I am pleased: I hadn't disturbed any of the other 23 people or 100 animals occupying this tiny piece of ground.

At dawn the cooing doves and cud-chewing goats offer a pleasant change from the jarring noises of the burro "alarm clock". I give a squeamish "ooooh" after I discover I slept on goat fertilizer.

Sitting on a rock I observe the wonderful families we have had the unexpected honor of spending an evening with. There is no electricity, running water, nor television. Their 2 room-homes are built over dirt. Yet these tribal people are the most gracious, fun loving, subsistent, functional folks I have ever had the privilege to be with. I'm glad I didn't listen to the media or I would have missed this unforeseen encounter.

We leave all the food and goods we no longer need. They aren't sure what to do with the dental floss but I explain it's great thread for mending.

On the fourth day we walk into the now bustling town of Batopilas. It was a ghost town between 1910 and 1992. Because of the silver mining boom of 1870, it was rumored the city streets were once paved in silver. Batopilas is proud that it was the second city in Mexico (behind Mexico City) to get electricity.

Once the hike is completed, we return to mechanized travel on a narrow, hair-raising road lacking guardrails and full of sharp switchbacks, making it back to Chihuahua for our farewell dinner.

Waiting for Raul to transport us to the Juaréz-El Paso border, we spend a few hours exploring the Pancho Villa House and Museum. To some, Pancho Villa was a hero (First commander of the Northern Revolution); to others, a villain who lived and died by the gun. He robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. When Raul's grandfather was a small boy, he was held hostage in a cave where Pancho Villa was hiding while recovering from a bullet wound to the leg.

The museum was the home of Pancho Villa and his only recognized spouse Luz Corral (he had 25 unofficial wives). Doña Luz opened their dwelling to the public and lived there until her death at age 90 in the year 1981. Villa was ambushed in 1923. The Dodge car he was gruesomely assassinated in is on display in the courtyard. After Doña Luz died, the 50-room building became a museum with displays and artifacts from the Revolution.

Heading back to the USA, I worry there might be a problem with my "paperless" (no visa) status. Walking across the bridge (we need exact change, in pesos, to get the turnstile to work) the wait in the long line goes by quickly. Our bags are x-rayed for an easy, uneventful re-entry.

This has been a most unique adventure. It has beauty, culture, exercise and goodwill. My thought process goes from "This is different from my world" to "I am part of this world." I learn to value each breath even as it leaves me breathless. The Rarámuri live among wonders. I realize my time spent with them is a privilege.

At times I wonder if I will make it. My real discovery is that doubt is what leads me to the place that is waiting.

Written by Polly Keith Scotland, a Registered Dental Hygienist living in Bemidji, Minnesota USA. She works and travels with her dentist husband.


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