BATOPILAS CANYON

Just beyond Kirare, the landscape suddenly unfolds to reveal the breathtaking expanse of the Batopilas Canyon. The lure of precious metals attracted the first visitors to this remote canyon but even the most avaricious treasure hunter would have interrupted his hurried journey to contemplate the magnificent panorama. Dizzying switchbacks descend a steep-sided canyon wall for 6,000 ft. (1800m) to a tiny bridge that crosses the silvered snake of the Batopilas River. Directly across the chasm, the Seven Steps rise precipitously toward the heavens. Perhaps it was here that Father Sun and Mother Moon of Tarahumara legend, descended to earth to bless their children.

Seven Steps
Seven Steps
From its headwaters near Tonachi, the Batopilas River winds along a tortuous, horseshoe shaped path to join the Rio San Ignacio. Both the river and the canyon take their name from the 17th century mining town that was once renowned as a prodigious source of Mexican silver. Although Spanish adelantados (advance guards) discovered native silver glistening in the river in 1632 and attracted a small community of miners, the town of San Pedro de Batopilas was not established until 1709 when the Batopilas mines were discovered. Today the town is known only as Batopilas, a word derived from the Tarahumara 'bachotigori' meaning 'near the river.'

Accompanying the early miners and settlers were Jesuit missionaries who followed the section of El Camino Real that passed through the Batopilas Canyon. In 1745, the Nuestra Senora de Loreto de Yoquivo Mission was built in Yoquivo, now a small logging community located about 7.5 miles (12 kms.) to the northeast of Batopilas. A circuitous trail passes from Satevo to Yoquivo and then to La Bufa or Batopilas before following the main road by the river back to Satevo. Signs mark the dirt road to Yoquivo from the main road before reaching Batopilas. However, inquiries must be made to locate the trails that lead from La Bufa and Satevo to Yoquivo. Although it is also possible to begin a hike in Yoquivo, transportation between the nearest town, Guachochi and Yoquivo is unreliable and it is difficult to organize a trek from Yoquivo which has few services. Still, the path between Yoquivo and La Bufa is quite scenic and a strenuous option for the determined trekker.

Iglesias San Miguel de Satevo
Iglesias San Miguel de Satevo
Very little is known about the Santo Angel Custodio de Satevo Mission because a fire destroyed its buildings and original parchment records in the late 1800s. Only the church, Iglesias San Miguel de Satevo, remains and is estimated to have been constructed between 1760 and 1764. Today, there are no Tarahumara living in the small community at Satevo but the size of the church and its location at the widest part of the Batopilas River indicate that it was once a fairly large Tarahumara community. Satevo is an easy 3.7 mile (6 km) walk from Batopilas along a graded dirt road that eventually comes to a bend where the glistening, whitewashed contours of the solitary church seem to materialize amidst the vastness of a wide, blue sky and the greenery of canyon walls interspersed with rocky outcroppings. There is a graceful, three-tiered bell tower but it cannot yet be seen because the structure blends with the surrounding red and ochre hills from which its bricks were made.

On closer inspection, the church boasts 3 domes (a large main dome above the sanctuary, a medium sized dome over the library that once connected the church with the monastery, and a small dome above the bell tower) and 4 half domes that have all been plastered except for the bell tower dome. Some of the exterior walls have also been plastered but the original building was built entirely of fired brick and mortar. Bricks were molded, dried and fired on site while calspar taken from the silver mines was burned with river sand to make a durable limestone and sand mortar. Evidence of an oven for this purpose can still be seen to the side of the church. The process required large amounts of water for steam and children passing by carrying their water buckets remind us how little the rhythms of everyday life have changed deep in the barrancas.

Large wooden doors open to expose simple wooden benches on a stark stone floor. Wherever the pavement is uneven marks the presence of graves, some of which are inscribed with names and dates. Locals say that the unmarked grave at the very threshold of the church is that of an unnamed architect who fell to his death while placing the last brick in the church. However, one of the most interesting features of this church is the dominance of statues and portraits of the Virgin on the altar while the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sits unobtrusively to the side of the altar rather like an afterthought. The wall behind the altar is painted with blue pigment taken from a nearby copper mine but striated watermarks hint at an ongoing struggle with time and nature. There are other signs of deterioration: faded wall drawings and inscriptions, crumbling brick arches and gaping cracks in the walls. Still, this old mission church stands with a compelling dignity offering the visitor a shaded respite from the scorching sun.

Batopilas River
Batopilas River
Iglesias San Miguel de Satevo in the Distance
In his book The Silver Magnet, Grant Shepherd described his family's first picnic at Satevo where they encountered the remains of holy men strewn on the floor of the crypt located below the raised altar. It is not known if the vandals found the silver and gold that they were looking for but it is unlikely that they discovered one of its subtle treasures, its superb acoustics. A visit to the Iglesias San Miguel de Satevo is complete only when music fills the air, restoring the very soul of this lovely church.

The prolific mines of Batopilas Canyon have been the source of numerous personal fortunes. During the Spanish era, Don Angel Bustamante accumulated enough wealth to purchase a marquisate to become the Marquis de Batopilas. His local residence was the 18th century, La Casa Barffuson, one of the oldest buildings in Batopilas. The War of Independence from Spain brought about the expulsion of many Spaniards and mining production ceased for about 20 years. In the 1840s, Mexican Dona Natividad Ortiz and her associate Nepomuceno Avila reopened some of the closed mines and located several new veins. By the 1860s, the Americans began to arrive in Batopilas, the most notable being Alexander Shepherd, the last governor of Washington DC, who acquired his initial holdings in 1880. Much of Batopilas today reflects the work of this man who was responsible for the construction of most of the existing building and facilities.

The town of Batopilas is unusually placed along a narrow stretch of the river. It is three miles long and confined in width. To the north of Batopilas, a stone aqueduct accompanies the river into town. It was constructed by Shepherd mainly to generate the hydroelectric power needed to light the mines and to operate the foundry that he built to eliminate the expense of shipping raw ore out of the canyon. Today, the aqueduct remains the town's source of water and electricity. It is an easy, pleasant walk along the 3.5 mile trail that follows the aqueduct to the old dam. Once a part of El Camino Real, there are sections where the original stone pavement can still be seen. The path passes some small farms growing fruits and vegetables as well as a few swimming holes in the river that are refreshing when water levels are safe. On arriving at the main bridge into town (also built by Shepherd), it is impossible not to notice the great stone wall that anchors a huge tescalama tree with sinuous roots weaving in and out of the stones. Beyond this wall is the ruin of Shepherd's adobe mansion, the Hacienda San Miguel. It is now densely overgrown with striking purple bougainvillea and a jumble of shrubs and bushes. Instead of using the main bridge to visit the mansion, most visitors like to cross the swaying footbridge providing much amusement to the more agile locals.

Batopilas Canyon
Batopilas Canyon
Although mining continues in Batopilas on a modest scale, the old mines now generate interest among travelers allowing the little town to capitalize on a growing industry in tourism. Many mines around Batopilas can be visited with some lovely views along the way. Across from the Hacienda San Miguel, a path leads steeply up the side of the canyon to the abandoned Penasquito silver mine. This 4.5 mile loop trail terminates at the southern part of the town. Another path starts at the south of Batopilas and enters a wide arroyo that forks to Arroyo Camuchin to the right and Arroyo Taunas to the left. Arroyo Camuchin is the gentler path that passes some small ranchos and through a thorn forest to the overgrown adobe ruins of a Camuchin community about 3 miles from town. Just beyond the ruins is the entrance to the Tescalama mine named for the unique fig tree at its entrance while across the arroyo, the Rosa Linda mine can be seen. Arroyo Taunas leads to a very scenic overlook after a steep climb out of the arroyo. Old mines can also be seen along this trail that requires 5 to 6 hrs. of hiking. A good variety of birds and butterflies are found in both arroyos and lesser long-nosed bats, Leptonycteris curasoae, live in many of the abandoned mines. Warm temperatures and the availability of food support large groups, especially in the summer months when the females gather in 'maternity colonies' where they give birth and raise their young.

Some of the best views around Batopilas are found in Yerba Anise and Cerro Colorado, tiny villages high on the mesas above the town. The path to Yerba Anise begins at the trailhead across from the Hacienda San Miguel but continues steeply up the canyon past the turnoff to the Penasquito mine. This is a favorite hike for naturalists because birdlife and wildflowers are plentiful. Cerro Colorado is a small mining community that is about 5 hrs. walk from Batopilas. Some trekkers incorporate the Cerro Colorado hike into a multi-day trek to Urique or to El Tejaban. The trail begins to the north of town at Las Juntas just beyond the old dam. A newly graded road follows the Arroyo Cerro Colorado for about 2 hrs. before the road ascends steeply through oak forests. The little hamlet of Cerro Colorado is located on the mesa in the shadow of the peak bearing the same name. From Cerro Colorado, there are several trails to the town of Urique. The most direct passes up to Yesca and then down to Urique. A longer route follows the ridge between the Batopilas and Urique Canyons before dipping into the Urique Canyon where the trail alongside the river is taken northwards to Urique. These multi-day treks should only be attempted with the assistance of an experienced guide.

Best Times to Go:
Exploring the Batopilas Canyon is best during the dry, cooler months of November to April. May is already quite hot and summer months bring rain and humidity. When planning a trip, remember that the rim can be very cold from December to February.

Getting There:
Batopilas is most popularly accessed from Creel along a road that is paved all the way to Guachochi. At Samachique, about 44 miles (70 kms) from Creel, road signs indicate the turnoff to Batopilas. It is an unpaved road that passes through Kirare before descending the canyon to follow the river to the town of Batopilas 34 miles (55 kms.) away.

Buses depart from Creel to Batopilas on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and return on Wednesdays, Fridays and Mondays. Hotels in Creel maintain current bus information and can also arrange for private transportation that may be more convenient.

Clothing/Gear:
Warm weather clothing, good walking shoes, brimmed hat, insect repellent and sunscreen are adequate for exploring the Batopilas area. In winter months, bring a light sweater for cool evenings. Additionally, backcountry trekkers need backpacking gear, an emergency first aid kit, snake bite kit, compass, flashlight and water filter. Personal toiletries, batteries for flashlights and cameras and film are not available in Batopilas.

General Information:
Most of the accommodations in Batopilas are very modest and there are only a handful of restaurants and eating places. There is one four star hotel, the Riverside Lodge, but it can only be visited as part of a prearranged package. All hotels can help with hiring a guide or organizing an overnight trek.

Plan to be incommunicado during a visit to Batopilas. The public telephone does not always work and the postal service is unreliable. Also, there are no banks so travelers should have enough pesos or US dollars on hand for the duration of their visit as cash is required for all transactions.

Planning Tips:

  • Except for hikes along the river, it is very easy to get lost so it is best to hire a guide who will also reduce the likelihood of wandering onto land used by drug cultivators.
  • Don't assume that it will be easy to reach a point of interest on a map just because it seems to be nearby. This is a region with very rough terrain.
  • Don't hike alone. These trails are isolated and it would be difficult to find help should you need it.
  • Abandoned mines can be dangerous places so exercise caution and common sense around these areas.
  • Be sure to carry an adequate supply of water. Water taken from the rivers must be boiled or filtered.
  • Do make a contribution for the renovation of Iglesias San Miguel de Satevo.

Important Resources:

  • Casa "Real de Minas de Acanasaina"
    Donato Guerra y Pablo Ochoa Batopilas,
    Chihuahua, Mexico Caseta
    Tel: 52-649-456-0624, 0632, 0633 (This is a public telephone. Ask to speak to Sr. Martin Alcaraz Gastelum or someone from La Casa "Real de Minas.")

Sr. Martin Alcaraz Gastelum owns and operates a small, clean hotel near to the main plaza. Eight rooms, seven of which have private bathrooms, are positioned around a gated courtyard. A communal kitchen is provided for the convenience of guests. Meals may be arranged at a nearby restaurant.

Related Books:

  • Mexico's Copper Canyon Country, A Hiking and Backpacking Guide to Tarahumara-land by M. John Fayhee (revised 1994) describes his personal experiences in one of the most extraordinary canyon systems in the world. Details about several hiking trails in the Batopilas Canyon, helpful information and maps are provided.
  • The Silver Magnet by Grant Shepherd describes his family's fascinating experiences in Batopilas. It is filled with snippets of information about the mining company, local history, interesting people and describes in detail, the difficulty of accessing the canyon over a hundred years ago when everything, including their grand piano, was carried in on the backs of the Tarahumara. This 1938 publication is out of print but may be available at the library.
  • Northern Mexico Handbook by Joe Cummings is a Moon Publication. Of all the general travel guides to Mexico, this is one of the best guides to the Sierra Tarahumara region. It is well-written, thoroughly researched and includes a comprehensive section about Batopilas and the nearby hiking trails.
  • Backpacking in Mexico by Tim Burford gives a detailed description of his hike from Yoquivo to La Bufa as well as helpful insights about trekking in Mexico.


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