SIERRA TARAHUMARA, (COPPER CANYON), MEXICO

Beautiful lily, in bloom this morning, guard me.
Drive away sorcery. Make me grow old.
Let me reach the age at which I have to take up a walking stick.
I thank you for exhaling your fragrance there, where you are standing.

A Tarahumara Prayer

Darkness comes quickly to the rugged canyon lands of the Sierra Madre where stars twinkle exuberantly against the blackness of a night sky unencumbered by ambient light. As the moon makes her journey across the heavens, the sounds of distant drumbeats race across the high sierras echoing their message throughout the canyons. This is Tarahumara-land where drumbeats tell of dancing and the dance is a Tarahumara prayer. In recent years, most of their prayers have been for rain but the Raramuri (also known as the Tarahumara), who have preserved their culture better than other native American groups, also dance to give thanks for their blessings.

Claret Cup Cactus
Echinocereus triglochidiatus
Sharing a common ancestry with the fierce Aztecs who settled further to the south, the Raramuri are a gentle, reticent people who occupied the fertile valleys of the Papigochi and Conchos Rivers as well as the plains of Central Chihuahua. They grew mainly maize, beans and squash utilizing irrigation canals that were noted by early Jesuit missionaries. They are particularly knowledgeable about more than 250 different varieties of edible and herbal plants that they use for food and medicines. The Raramuri are remarkable for their longevity and stamina as long distance runners with the ability to chase game, sometimes for days, until the animals collapse from exhaustion.

The discovery of precious metals in the region early in the 17th century brought Spanish miners and settlers who enslaved the Raramuri to work the mines and fields and to transport their goods across terrain that was too rough even for horses. To escape the forced labor, the Raramuri retreated deeper into the remote sierra and canyon country now known as the Sierra Tarahumara. Here, they live in small, scattered communities. Their ranchos or communal farms are usually found along wide sections of rivers and streams but can sometimes be seen perched on the slope of a precipitous cliff. Deprived of their productive lands, the Raramuri keep herds of sheep, goats and cattle mainly to produce the manure needed to farm the shallow soils of the barrancas as well as for food. Their homes are simple huts but some of the more reclusive Raramuri still live in caves, migrating to the barrancas (bottom of the canyons) in winter and to the sierras (plateau and mountain areas) in the summer.

Mother and Child
Mother and Child
Harmony with their environment and with each other is the basis of Raramuri culture. The system of korima assures the less fortunate of help in times of need. One aspect of this is their social gatherings where food and tesguino (maize beer) are served. Those who are able will provide a feast in exchange for community help with projects such as the construction of a cornhouse. These gatherings provide the opportunity for a nutritive meal in an honorable exchange. Many social commentaries focus on the alcoholism and ill-health of the Raramuri today but overlook their decreasing ability to adequately feed themselves. This is due to the continuing loss of their land as well as soil erosion and water pollution wrought by mining and logging interests. The more reclusive Raramuri who are able to maintain their traditional way of life remain as healthy and robust as they were described by Carl Lumholtz a century ago.

Prior to the Raramuri, the Paquime civilization dominated the northern portion of these remote canyon lands. They were farmers and traders who established themselves strategically at the juncture of the rivers that flow to the Gulf of California and the River Conchos that joins the Rio Bravo del Norte (also known as the Rio Grande) to empty into the Gulf of Mexico thus controlling the ancient trade route linking the eastern and western shores of Mexico. The main archaeological site located near Casas Grande is the great city of Paquime whose construction began around 1200 and reached its prominence as a trade and ceremonial center in the 14th century when it was destroyed and abandoned. Other remnants of the Paquime civilization include adobe cave structures that are estimated to be about 800 to 1000 years old. They may have served as guard posts to maintain and protect these old trade routes and some can still be seen in the cliffs overlooking the Huapoca Canyon.

Temoris Station
Two Levels of Track
Temoris Station
Although the early Spanish missionaries and miners used these old routes to penetrate and extract the mineral wealth of this harsh landscape, it was not until the 20th century with the construction of the Chihuahua Pacific Railway that they were effectively revitalized for trade and tourism. The 588 mile (941 km) railway begins at Ojinaga where the Rio Conchos meets the Rio Bravo del Norte and ends at the west coast port town of Topolobampa. Construction of the railway began in 1898 and was completed in 1961. It represents one of the major engineering feats in Mexico and in the entire world boasting 99 tunnels, 39 bridges and numerous switchbacks that drop over 7000 feet from the sierras to the coastal plain in only 122 miles. One of the most dramatic sections of the railway is the approach to the Temoris station where three levels of track hug the mountainside while the most spectacular view is undoubtedly the lookout at Divisadero. Here, the Urique, Copper and Tararecua Canyons flaunt their breathtaking beauty.

Although the 'Barranca del Cobre' is a canyon along one section of the Urique River, the name has come to be associated with the entire canyon system of the Sierra Tarahumara that comprises more than 20 canyons of which 5 are longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. Millions of years ago, tertiary volcanoes deposited their ash to form massive plateaus from the mountains of the region. Later volcanic activity created gaping cracks that were eroded by rain and subterranean water resulting in a wild, divided land that is among the most rugged in North America. Within this extensive canyon system, rivers are rendered unnavigable by great boulder fields and some of the highest waterfalls in the world.

Mile deep canyons have starkly different environments on the sierras and inside the barrancas. On the high plateaus and canyon rims with altitudes over 8000 ft. (2400 m), the climate is temperate (cold winters, mild summers) with heavy summer rains. Beautiful, fragrant, coniferous forests of pine and Douglas fir cover these highlands where the black bear, puma, Mexican wolf and mountain lion live in the more remote regions. These animals are rarely seen and are threatened with extinction in the Sierra Tarahumara. Summer rains herald verdant mesa tops that are gaily colored with wildflowers from the end of September to October. At lower levels, 6000 to 8000 ft. (1800-2400m), other species of pines, junipers, and numerous oaks occupy the expansive forests while shade- tolerant Madrona trees grow in their understory presenting a striking contrast with their smooth, red-colored bark. Around Basaseachi and Madera, alders and poplars add blazing color to the forests in the fall. These woodlands give way to brushwood and scrubby trees on canyon slopes below the rim between 4000 to 6000 ft. (1200-1800m). Many have adapted to arid conditions by dropping their leaves during long, dry spells. At the bottom of the canyons, tropical conditions prevail and where water is available, huge fig and ceiba trees can be found as well as a variety of
El Divisadero
El Divisadero
grasses, reeds and palms. Jaguar, jaguarundi and ocelots favor this warm environment but they, too, are infrequently sighted. Badgers, otters, skunks and squirrels are plentiful and birds are well represented with 290 species of which 24 are endemic. Among the more unusual are the impressive green, red and blue parrot (Ara militaris), the mountain cockatoo (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) and the coa (Euptilotis noxenus), all of which are threatened.

The early explorers of Mexico were commissioned to explore and secure new lands for the Spanish Crown. Lured by tales of great wealth, they combed the country of its treasures by plundering native tribes and locating almost all of the precious metals that had cropped out of the ground. Expeditions were organized and new settlements established at the expense of the explorer who hoped to recoup his investment by finding new mines or capturing fertile lands. Soldiers were recruited with the promise of encomiendas which were grants for the employment of native people who were supposed to have been paid for their services, protected and 'civilized' by conversion to the True Faith. Missionary priests accompanied the expeditions for this purpose.

Large silver deposits were found to the north of Mexico City in Zacatecas in 1540 encouraging further exploration of the northern territories. Francisco de Ibarra and members of his expedition to Paquime in 1565 were probably the first Europeans to penetrate the Sierra Tarahumara. Later, Gaspar Osorio reached Chinipas (southwestern region of the Sierra Tarahumara) in 1589 and by 1590, silver had been discovered in the canyon lands. Prospectors arrived along with priests who established several missions. Under the guidance of the Padres, mission churches, schools and other buildings were constructed but some of the early 17th century structures were razed when the Tarahumara and other tribes revolted against their enslavement and the devastating effects of European diseases that greatly reduced their numbers.

Gorditas
Gorditas
El Divisadero
The main road that connected Mexico City, the southern seat of power for the Spanish Empire, to its northern outposts became known as the legendary El Camino Real. This 1200 mile (1935 km) road passed through Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua and El Paso del Norte to reach Santa Fe in New Mexico. It was not a fixed route but a series of routes that changed as circumstances warranted. Weather conditions, hostile tribes and new or abandoned settlements all determined the specific route taken. Travel along the portion of El Camino Real that passed through the Sierra Tarahumara was relatively difficult due to the formidable terrain and the ferocity of neighboring tribes. Many of these legendary trails remain and today, the Sierra Tarahumara offers some of the best opportunities in North America for hiking and authentic backcountry exploration. Other than those places now accessed by roads, travel through the Sierra Tarahumara is much the same as it was for the early explorers 400 years ago.

Specific information about the major canyon systems of the Sierra Tarahumara is outside the scope of this page but will be added over time. The main canyons are:

1. Urique Canyon and Copper Canyon with adjoining Cusarare and Tararecua Canyons
2. Batopilas Canyon
3. Huapoca Canyon
4. Candamena Canyon
5. Oteros Canyon with adjoining Chinipas and Septentrion Canyons
6. Sinforosa Canyon

 Best Times To Go:
Due to the altitude, Creel is comfortable most of the year except December to February when the temperature is very cold. Wildflowers on the sierras are at their best from the end of September to October after the rainy season (July to September).

Summer months inside the canyons can be uncomfortably hot, especially in May and June. The rainy season from July to September brings some relief from the heat. The canyons are considerably warmer than the surrounding rims so March to April and late Septembers to October offer visitors the best balance of comfortable weather inside the canyons and on the rims.

Getting There:
The Chihuahua Pacific Railway is a favorite means of accessing the Copper Canyon area and most travelers begin their journey in Los Mochis or in Chihuahua.

Los Mochis is reached by air or by bus from major Mexican cities that include Mexico City, Hermosilla and Chihuahua. There are direct flights from Los Angeles and Tucson in the US. The Sematur ferry provides service to the nearby port town of Topolobampo from La Paz in Baja California while the excellent Coastal Highway 15 connects Los Mochis to Hermosillo and Nogales in the north and Mazatlan and Guadalajara in the south.

Chihuahua may be accessed directly by air from the US via Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Tucson and El Paso as well as from major Mexican cities that include Mexico City, Ciudad Juarez and Hermosillo. Bus service is available from most Mexican cities. From the US, buses leave hourly from the Greyhound bus station in El Paso and cross the border to Ciudad Juarez where regular expreso buses depart to Chihuahua. Highway 45 is the main road between Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua.

Creel is the most popular base for exploring the canyons. It may be reached by train from Los Mochis or Chihuahua. There is also a daily local bus service from Chihuahua.

Clothing/Gear:
Clothing should be season appropriate. Remember that inside the canyon is most comfortable when it is quite cool on the rim. Hikers and backcountry explorers need regular hiking and backpacking gear, rubber soled canvas shoes (for river crossings), an emergency first aid kit, snake bite kit, compass, flashlight, water filter, insect repellent, sunscreen, camera and lots of film.

General Information:
Travelers on a tight schedule who plan to take the train should make arrangements before leaving home so as to maximize the time available to explore and to ensure a seat on the side of the train with the view. Tickets may be purchased directly from the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway or through local travel agencies who will charge a modest fee for their service. They will also make arrangements for an overnight stay at a local hotel and transportation to the train station early the following morning.

The easiest way to explore the canyon area is to take day trips from a specific base. Creel offers the best tourist infrastructure and the most variety of day tours. It is a good base for visits to the Copper, Cusarare and Tararecua Canyons. Cerocahui is convenient for accessing the Urique Canyon. Batopilas Canyon is best explored from Batopilas although accommodation options are somewhat limited. Madera is a large, modern town with basic tourist facilities and is a convenient base for visiting the Huapoca Canyon. Although rooms are available near to Candamena Canyon and the Basaseachi area, Creel or Tomochi are the nearest towns with reliable tourist services. The Sinforosa Canyon, Oteros Canyon and its adjoining Chinipas and Septentrion Canyons are remote and difficult to access. Insufficient roads and drug cultivators contribute to the inadvisability of visiting these areas alone without appropriate arrangements.

Day tours and hiking trips are easily arranged at any local hotel. Taxi drivers also make excellent guides and offer more flexibility than the hotel tours. Other than day hiking trips, any exploration of the canyon lands will require advanced backcountry skills even when accompanied by a guide. There are no manicured trails with signposts or rangers looking for lost souls. Maps may be confusing or inaccurate. Trails are more apt to lead from pasture to pasture rather than from village to village and shelters are the rocky overhangs and caves used by the Raramuri. There are no provisions available except in the main towns so all food and water must be carried in. This type of trip is best done with a group. For those who want to put together their own expedition, the local hotel will help to hire a burro and guide. A good knowledge of Spanish is helpful as it is unlikely that the guide will speak English.

Planning Tips:

  • The Chihuahua Pacific train trip is considered to be one of the most exciting train rides in the world and should be included with any visit to Las Barrancas del Cobre.
  • Purchase tickets in advance to ensure reserved seating as well as the opportunity to travel on the side of the train with the view.
  • Pack a picnic breakfast and lunch for your train trip. Grocery stores in Los Mochis and Chihuahua have a good selection of fruit, cheese, bread, canned goods and bottled water.
  • Do read about the area and the Tarahumara before you go. Their culture is particularly interesting to those with an interest in herbal medicines or native American traditions.
  • Patronize the mission store in Creel as the Tarahumara benefit from all sales. Topographical and road maps of the area can be purchased here.
  • Do be considerate of the Tarahumara who are uncomfortable with unwanted attention. This includes taking photographs without permission and people snooping around their homes.
  • Hire a guide when hiking in the canyon areas. Even with topographical maps, it is very easy to get lost. Also, a guide will 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.
  • Be sure to carry an adequate supply of water. Water taken from the rivers must be boiled or filtered.

Important Resources:

  • Viajes Flamingo
    Leyva e Hidalgo, Box 159, Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico
    Toll Free: 1-800-896-8196
    Tel: 52-668-818-7046, 7189
    Fax: 52-668-818-3393
    Email: viajesflamingo@mexicoscoppercanyon.com

    Viajes Flamingo, in association with Balderrama Hotels and Tours, offers a full range of services for the visitor to the Copper Canyon. This travel agency charges a modest fee for purchasing first class tickets from Los Mochis to Chihuahua in advance and will make arrangements for an overnight stay in Los Mochis at the Santa Anita Hotel and early morning shuttle to the train station. They can also help with making hotel reservations in Creel and Batopilas.

    There are several luxurious Balderrama hotels in towns along the Copper Canyon Railway. The Balderrama Posada Barrancas Mirador is particularly notable because it sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking one of the most spectacular views of the Copper Canyon. Some of the best values in Copper Canyon tour packages are available through Viajes Flamingo and include train tickets, transfers and luxurious hotel accommodations.

  • Chepe, Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico
    Tel: 52-614-439-7211, 7212
    Tickets may be purchased from the Chihuahua al Pacifico railway by contacting them directly.


  • Expediciones Umarike
    Apartado Postal #61, Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico C.P. 33200
    Tel: 52-635-456-0632
    Mobile: 52-614-406 5464
    Email: contact@umarike.com.mx

    Expediciones Umarike offers mountain bike and rock climbing excursions in the Sierra Tarahumara. Arturo can provide information and maps for those who want to explore the more remote trails of the region. Customized treks with a guide may be arranged for a minimum of two people. Expediciones Umarike is located on Avenida Ferrocarril where visitors can buy a cup of cappuccino, access the Internet or rent climbing and camping gear and mountain bikes.

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 some hiking trails, helpful information and maps are provided.
  • Unknown Mexico: Explorations in the Sierra Madre and Other Regions 1890-1898 by Carl Lumholtz recounts his travels through the region with emphasis on its natural and cultural history.
  • Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara, a Photohistory of the People of the Edge by W. Dirk Raat is a beautiful volume that tells the history of the Tarahumara.
  • Tarahumara: Where Night is the Day of the Moon by Bernard Fontana offers a glimpse of Tarahumara life in some exquisite photographs.
  • Mexico's Copper Canyon 2000 by Richard Fisher, Kit Williams et al. is an informational guide to the region that is filled with beautiful photographs, detailed descriptions and recommendations for favorite backpacking and hiking trails. This book is published by Sunracer Publications, PO Box 86492, Tucson, AZ 85754, Tel. 520-882-5341.
  • 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 the train schedule, highlights of the Chihuahua al Pacifico rail journey as well as suggested hiking trails.


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