Copper Canyon Diary (1 of 6)

Wednesday May 13th, 1998

Unlike the majority of my other forays into the world beyond my own small one, this jaunt is not water related; there will not be a dive shop in sight!!

I had long heard stories of a huge canyon system in the heart of Mexico, one that dwarfed even the fabled Grand Canyon. For decades, travelers from the US have experienced this marvel from the windows of a train which has its railhead in Creel, deep in the heart of Mexico. And I know of many people who have taken advantage of this opportunity to visit Copper Canyon from the relative comfort of a rail car.

Mike and I chose to visit the great canyon in a more intimate manner, declining the famous train in favor of a more direct contact with the environment.

We departed from DFW at 1120 aboard a small commuter plane belonging to Aspen Mountain Air, associated with American Airlines. The flight to Chihuahua City took slightly over 2 hours and was essentially uneventful with the exception of my constant, hacking, irritating cough. I had been sick for 2 weeks with sinus and cough. The cough never seemed to stop, and had kept me awake all night – what a way to start a vacation! I’m sure the folks near me on the plane wondered how I escaped quarantine!

Chihuahua City was a pleasant surprise. It lies in a broad, level plain with craggy, desolate peaks rising on its perimeters , somewhat reminiscent of Alpine in the Davis Mountains. The area is a big agricultural center with huge fields of corn, potatoes, and onions. The livestock: horses, cattle, goats, and the usual huge complement of dogs, are fat and healthy. The city is clean and the residents friendly.

We were met at the airport by a small Mexican in a starched white shirt and our names on a scrap of paper. He spoke no English, but had no trouble making it clear that we were to accompany him. Obediently, we followed him to our vehicle – a white Suburban with a frame and 2 race car seats welded on its roof! We later found this to provide a wonderful and exhilarating vantage point from which to observe the canyon as we traveled from top to base.

Mike and I had an immediate request each: he, for a place to purchase cold beer, and I for a farmacia to purchase cough syrup. He assured us that both needs would be readily met.

We picked up 3 more travelers at the San Francisco hotel downtown: Jan, from San Diego, drives a fire truck! One of those huge things with two drivers, one in each section; Cheryl, a travel agent from Minnesota; and Chuck, a retired civic appraiser from California is traveling alone. They had all arrived the day before.

While rounding up our fellow travelers, Pedro gave me ample time to go to a nearby farmacia. In my limited Spanish, I managed to convey my needs and was given a foul tasting and smelling brown elixir which I was able to pay for in US$. While waiting in line, a helpful citizen pointed out to me a bag of leaves which he identified as laurel and he recommended, in Spanish of course, as a cure for my cough if steeped and taken as a tea. The leaf looked very much like bay leaf…maybe? I did not doubt his veracity, however, I did decline.

The 4 hour drive to the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge was spent getting to know our companions, eating and napping. The Lodge had sent a packed lunch of cheese, avocado, tomato, chilies, and lettuce sandwiches, and a cooler of beer and sodas.

Sierra Lodge

Sierra Lodge

The highway, the Camino Real, is excellent and delivered us nearly to our door in Cusarare, just outside of Creel, in the late afternoon where the manager, Mara, and trail guide, Ray, were standing on the steps to greet us. We were welcomed more as family than paying guests, comfortably and with warmth. Ray is a retired engineer and friend of the owner, Skip McWilliams. He is a very well educated, articulate man who has an obvious love of the canyon and its inhabitants, the Tarahumara Indians. Mara is from Chihuahua City and is tall, slender, educated and possessed of a classic, penetrating beauty such that it is difficult not to stare.

The owner, Mr. Skip McWilliams, is an American who also owns the Riverside Lodge in Batopilas where we will spend 3 nights. As the week wore on it became very apparent that he has impressed on all of his employees the concept of personal service, as every need, desire, or whim is met instantly and with great charm.

The rooms are spotlessly clean, log cabin style with tile floors and Indian furnishings and design. The beds are topped with fluffy white down comforters and the towels are the largest, fluffiest , thirstiest, whitest that I have ever seen.

There is no electricity, so there are kerosene lamps in adequate numbers scattered throughout the establishment. Every night just at dusk an Indian man comes to the room and lights all the lamps, and builds a fire in the wood stove sitting innocuously in the corner of the room. With the comforter and flannel sheets turned down, it is a most inviting scene and one which belies the cool temperatures of the 7000 foot elevation.

In the morning at 0730, the guest anticipates a soft tap on the door, followed by a Tarahumaran woman delivering his choice of coffee or the local hot chocolate, or both if desired. The gentleman who follows her will light the lamps and stove so that the guest will find only warmth and comfort on arising to meet the day.

Our trip falls at the end of the region’s dry season, so the ground is brown and dry, most of the foraging animals thin. The best time to visit is probably November when, I have been assured, the mountains are blanketed with green. It is hard to imagine, things are now so dry. However, where there is water, anything will grow and flourish, from fruit to orchids.

Meals at the Sierra Lodge are communal, with breakfast at 0800, lunch at 1330, and Margarita time at 1830, followed by dinner at 1930. The price is all inclusive except hard liquor, and the bar is honor system. The beer was on the free list, so Mike was happy.

After a brief “settling in” period we met with Ray in the dining room for drinks and a brief overview of the activities and hikes available to us here. We will have two nights and one day here before going on to the Riverside Lodge in Batopilas. From the many options, Mike, Jan, Cheryl, and I chose for tomorrow’s hike an all-day, 14 mile hike to a canyon overlook and then back by some spectacular waterfalls near the Lodge. Chuck chose to take a tour in the Suburban which included a 2 mile walk and accompanied by the cook and a picnic lunch.

The Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge is situated in the middle of a Tarahumaran ejido, or communal ranchito consisting of an extended family. The Lodge employs Tarahumaran guides and some of the women work in the Lodge. Two of the older women accompany extended expeditions as tortilla makers and have no trouble at all keeping up with their well-shod clients wearing only huaraches, or barefoot! You would have to see this country to readily appreciate that accomplishment!

Cave Dwelling

Luxurious Tarahumaran Cave

We slept well, nestled snugly down under our comforters. The elevation provides for a quite chilly night. Cheryl and Jan opted to sleep in the nearby Tarahumaran cave. A mere 5 minute walk from the Lodge, the cave lies above a small stream and offers comfortable shelter from wind and weather. Its heavily sooted ceiling offers testament to many, many years of continuous human use. But I’ll bet the ghosts of the Indians never saw anything like what goes on there now! The Lodge has moved in 3 beds with brilliant white linens, fluffy bath robes for lounging, kerosene lamps and a fire to warm your toes before turning in for the night. And the fire lighting, coffee, hot chocolate ritual extends over here too!!

Read all six parts of Copper Canyon Diary
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

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