Chapter 9.  Copper Canyon, Chihuahua

Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.


Wednesday, February 23, 2000 - El Fuerte, Sinaloa (Milepost 1467, N 26.410, W 108.626)

(Shari) We only drive 47 miles today, but it takes us almost two hours. The narrow road is just littered with potholes and full of traffic. We pass through small villages with smiling, waving people. Finally we turn off to our motel parking lot. As others move into their sites, I watch with amusement the clouds of bugs I see "playing" up and down in the sunlight. I smile until I realize those clouds are everywhere and those bugs bite. I have not stepped out of R-TENT two minutes before I realize I need long pants and sleeves. The bugs are awful. To compound the uncomfortable position, Bert and I are stuck in the hot motor home trying to fix a broken CB. After a process of elimination, we realize the connection to the cigarette lighters are bad and not the CB. We cannot find where the circuit fails, so we splice a new wire into one of our lights. Viola! It works! Later, we meet Philippe, our guide for the next three days. He has a bus take us through the town of El Fuerte and gives us a history lesson. Originally the town was built by the Spaniards as protection from the Indians. Today the town is a tourist mecca due to its proximity to the rail line that takes people up the Copper Canyon. We are here because tomorrow we too board the train to make the 6-hr. journey through the canyons. Our Grand Canyon in Arizona is approximately the size of this system deep in the Sierra Madres. The largest canyon, Urique, is 6136 feet deep compared to the puny 4674-ft. depth of the Grand Canyon. We are all anxious to see this wonderful last frontier of Mexico.

(Bert) From Los Mochis we drive northeast, inland and toward the mountains. We cross a large agricultural plain edged in giant cottonwoods, many 8 - 10 ft. in diameter. Cactus-studded volcanic cones poke above the tilted plains. The area around Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa is called the breadbasket of Mexico. Tomatoes are the chief export crop. We see thousands of acres of tomato plants propped up by wooden stakes. Corn, or maize, is widely planted and is the stable of the Mexican diet. Late in the afternoon, our tour guide Philipe Gonzales meets us at the RV park and a bus takes us the short distance into the center of El Furete. This is one of the oldest cities in Sinaloa, predating the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Already in the 1530s the Spanish tried settling here, but the Mayo Indians kept them out of the area. In 1564 Spanish Captain Francisco de Ibarra founded the city. In 1590 the Indians wiped out the settlement, but in 1610 the Spaniards built the fort (El Fuerte) that made their stronghold permanent. Philipe says the population size has not changed since he was a 10-year-old boy here. The reason, he states, is that whenever a woman becomes pregnant, a man leaves town. We tour the old Downhill Street House, built in 1852 by the mayor of the town. Now it is a grand hotel with tall ceilings, stone tile floors and pictorial wall paintings. Adjacent to the city square, an ancient church is ornately decorated and has a tall spire. Royal palms line the sidewalks of the square. Everything is extremely neat, clean and historically (1399 bytes) Culturally, El Fuerte is the best Mexican city we have visited thus far.

Thursday, February 24, 2000 - Divisadero (Copper Canyon), Chihuahua

(Bert) The train has not yet arrived at the El Fuerte station, but our private railroad car, Domingo Mora, is waiting on the tracks. Our group of two dozen with our guide, Philippe Gonzalez and his wife, has this special car exclusively to ourselves. Unlike other passenger railroad cars, the Domingo Mora is one-third typical cushioned seating compartments, one-third lounge with bar and one-third open-air deck. Removing the outer shell and retaining a 3-foot railing created the deck. When the engine arrives at the station, the workmen attach our car in the last position, giving us a panoramic view in three directions from the freestanding lawn chairs on the deck. Leaving El Fuerte at an elevation of a thousand feet, we travel through arid brushlands, still relatively flat. But soon the ascent begins and we are plunged in the midst of a canyon steeped between enormous stone walls. For hours we wind through scenery so varied and so dramatic it is hard to capture the experience in a few words. A completely new scene appears every 30 seconds. Here are a few postcard snapshots: Steep mountainsides strung with candelabra cactus are adorned like a Christmas tree with bubble lights. Separated only by the length of a few football fields, sheer walls rocket 500 to 1500 ft. above us on both sides of the rail; small cactus cling to niches etched in the walls. Impressive parapets, laid bare of all plant life and soil, reveal a grooved surface painted from nature's minerals in reds, greens, yellows, blacks and whites. Climbing higher, cactus gives way to pine and oak. Below us, connecting emerald pools of crystal clear water form a stream, looking humble now, but showing all the evidence of a mighty torrent when the rains come, for Copper Canyon was carved through these mighty mountains by this stream. Chilly tunnels - dozens of them - plunge us from bright sunlight to instant darkness. The loud clatter of the rail cars and the roar of the mighty engines reverberate against the arched rock passageway and all conversation drowns. Some tunnels pass quickly; others encompass us for nearly a minute; one turns a full 180 deg. within the rock mountain. We pass the same loop in the canyon several times, gaining altitude with each cycle. We pass through a few tiny villages along the approximate 125 miles to Divisadero, but otherwise there is no evidence of human encroachment. We left in early morning, now mid-afternoon we stop at Posada Baranas, Mirador hotel, in Divisadero, an altitude of 7500 ft. The hotel is unbelievably first class in every way. Perched on the rim of the canyon, the balcony of our room hangs over the edge and our view encompasses as impressive a sight as the best of the Grand Canyon. A couple miles across at this point, the canyon scenery could keep my eyes busy for hours taking in the colored rocks, spires, pinnacles, cliffs and changing shadows as the sun sets over the canyon. camera.GIF (1399 bytes)

(Shari) Philippe tells me that this is as good as it gets. The caravan company has negotiated a private car for us and it is first class, Mexican style. By the schedule, the train leaves El Fuerte at 7:40 AM, but we learn it never is on time, especially since the private company took over last July. A bus picks us up at 7:30 for the short ride to the train station. By Mexican standards, the train is early today and we are well on our way by 8:30. We have an air-conditioned seating section behind the small area for luggage and private bathroom. A small nut turns on the water in the bathroom manually when a user wants to flush the toilet. The nut holds two rigged 1-in. pipes together and I found the water runs on the floor if I turn the nut too soon. The next section is a seating section with upholstered chairs arranged in sections of fours (two, facing each other). The next section consists of a small bar like area that opens out into an open air compartment with plastic chairs for "deck" seating. Here is where we spend most of our time. Our car is hooked on the end so we have a pretty good view of the countryside as we chug up the mountain from 800 feet above sea level to 8000 feet. The train makes only two stops on its way to Divisadero but slows down considerably whenever we pass through small towns. Children, adults big and small all wave to us. After we cross a long bridge over a lake, security police board the train. I do not know if this is to protect us from robbers or to prevent others from hopping onto the train for a free ride. Nevertheless, from here on the police are obvious. Up we go, around and around the canyon, walls on either side of us, blasted out of the rock. At one point we see three levels of track and know where we are headed. Winding and twisting, through many of the 87 tunnels and across bridges we still climb. At one point, we do a 180-deg. turn inside a dark tunnel. I yell loudly at Ralph to cut it out and this sets Virginia laughing. Soon everyone wants to know what Ralph did inside that dark tunnel.  Ninety years to build, the track finished in 1961 and opened up the wild canyon to the outside world. It has made the canyons accessible to tourists and I wonder how the shy Tarahumara Indians feel about that. They are so sad looking and rarely look you in the eye. Lining the train tracks with their brightly colored dress, the women hold baskets for us to buy. Most of us cannot resist and spend a little on the hand woven baskets still fresh with the scent of pine from the needles. In Divisadero, a school bus waits to take us to our hotel, the Posada Mirador Hotel. Operating on an American plan with three meals provided each day, the hotel sits on natural rock and appears to be etched out of the cliff. For one night we become modern, luxuriously pampered cliff dwellers too. From our room we enjoy a spectacular view of the canyon shimmering in the setting sun. From our private balcony, I see some people living in shacks attached to the cliffs below (1399 bytes) Later we hike down to them and I cannot explain my feelings as we all spy into their lifestyle. Out of guilt, I think we all buy something and give little children coins for allowing us to take their pictures. We climb back up the cliff, taking the path up and around the hotel. At this altitude it is strenuous and many stop periodically to catch their breath. Over a small wooden bridge on a 45-deg. angle, we cross a ravine. Down ten flimsy steps on a ladder we descend a rock. Up and around we walk through the pine forest, finally approaching our hotel from the rear. Time for happy hour, we find the bar makes wonderful pina coladas. I down two before six o'clock and realize how strong they are only after I stand up to move. Next we are supplied with margaritas and entertainment. A male singer with a guitar and harmonica serenades us royally. He sings a love song to Sandy and she hams up her part. Then he sings to Walt and we all split our sides laughing wondering just what is going on under that serape. Next it is Bert's turn. He evades the singer's attention by scampering under the table, surrounded by howls of our laughter. A delicious fish dinner served family style in the dining room, finishes this spectacular day.

Friday, February 25, 2000 - Creel (Copper Canyon), Chihuahua

(Bert) Highlighting the rim of the canyon, only the thin edge of orange steals away the night. Pitch darkness hides the gulf between my balcony and the opposite rim a couple miles distant. The orange rim illuminates a few wispy clouds stretching above. Morning Venus dazzles. Off to my right in the canyon below, a distant campfire sways upward. Roosters' crows and a baby's cry echo in the stillness. A night bird whistles a three-part song, but I do not recognize the call. As the earth rotates, the horizon clouds turn flame red against a pale yellow sky. Distantly, I hear voices of Tarahumara Indians that live in the canyon. Nearby, hummingbirds arise from stupor, click good morning, and race for breakfast at the feeders above my head. camera.GIF (1399 bytes)  I check my watch: 6:15 AM. Venus dissolves into the blue sky. The hotel staff arrives for duty. Now eight hummers helicopter within 3 ft. of my chair and morning has begun in earnest. I walk into the lobby and find Philippe ready for birding. We hike through the woods toward a small pond and I am surprised to see a thin layer of ice hugging its edge, testimony to the chilled morning. Phillippe is anxious to learn more about the birds and I announce the names as we see them. But then I run across a flock of large sparrows new to me. Later, back at the hotel I match my notes with the book and record Striped Sparrow as a new lifer. After breakfast, a bus takes us to Creel, a wealthy - by Mexican standards - town with an economy fueled once by silver mining and railroad construction - completed in 1961 - later by lumbering and now, increasingly, by tourism. Creel features a bank with ATM, a post office, a museum and a KOA campground. But most importantly to Shari, Creel has lots of shops to explore.

(Shari) What a beautiful sunrise! Yes, I actually am up already. Bert has left the room and I open the drapes, lie back down in bed and watch the sun come up over the canyon. It takes a long time as the shades of dark orange turn to pink and the clouds take on a hue of their own. Finally the sun peeks above the canyon wall and is too bright to watch any longer. I get up, dress and walk down to the lounge where I treat myself to a rare cup of coffee and sit in front of the fireplace to take the chill off the morning. The thermometer reads 27 degrees. This hotel reminds me of Santa Fe with its decor and smells and scenery. Truly a lovely place to be! Buffet breakfast is served at 7 AM: scrambled eggs, pancakes, fresh papaya, bananas and melons, tortillas, beans and biscuits. The waiters joke with us as they pour coffee into the cups asking us if we want margaritas. They like baseball caps and keep taking them from our heads. Also cameras on the table will seem to disappear. All in jest, of course. At 9, the Indians perform outside. The men dance the traditional deer dance, bull dance and mule dance. To me all three dances look alike; except for the noise the animal makes as the dancer "charges" at one of us in the (1399 bytes) A demonstration of a men's and women's game of stick ball is also shown. The brightly colored dress worn by these people belie the sadness on their face and in their eyes. Even the little children display sadness after the age of three or four. No smiles. Heads down. Eyes averted. Women are always working and men lurking in the background. Babies are carried in brightly colored shawls tied on their backs or nursing behind cloths. After lunch we board our bus for the 90-min. ride up more mountain to the town of Creel. This is another town on the rail route turning into a tourist place. More shops of baskets, woven cloth and dolls. Clean streets and a movie set of Indians leaning against storefront walls. Our hotel is not as nice as last night but we enjoy each other in spite of it. Happy hour is another laughing affair with Kim camera.GIF (1399 bytes), Walt, Lee camera.GIF (1399 bytes) and Jim in the TRUTH chair. What does Kim like most about John?  His cooking. What bird trip has been the best to lead for Jim? Ours. Do Lee and Pat take a shower together? No, but someone else he knows does. At only 8 PM we all head for our rooms and I think most of us fall fast asleep. The altitude, the food and drink and the early morning all make us tired.

Saturday, February 26, 2000 - Copper Canyon, Chihuahua

(Bert) Visiting the Tarahumara Indians is like taking a step back a thousand years in time. Much like the Amish try to preserve an older culture, untainted by modernism, the Tarahumara cling to a still older time period in history. From Creel, we head by bus to the rim of the Copper Canyon. Like other places we have stopped, here the Tarahumara women greet us soon after we descend the bus stairs. Actually, "greet" is the wrong word. Instead, they humbly sit on any convenient rock beside our path and spread their wares: intricate, and often colorful, baskets; crudely whittled wooden dolls dressed in native costumes and performing native tasks; roughly formed violins sometimes adorned with engraved designs. Conversation is limited to tourists asking "Cuando," and Indians responding, "Twente pesos" or "Triente pesos." Carmen, who speaks fluent Spanish, gets a few more responses, but even that is very limited. The reaction is not one of ignorance, but rather a matter of custom. Eye contact is infrequent, especially from the timid children. Sad, stoic faces are rarely creased with smiles. It is those faces that I will remember the longest: rounded Asiatic faces, narrow eyes, darkened to a deep red brown through generations in the strong sunlight, capped by jet-black bristle hair. And so sad looking! We venture along the edge of the canyon and come to Divisadero Escalera, the name for a treacherous wooden ladder - a single pine trunk with cross pieces to form a ladder sure to fail OSHA standards. Carmen climbs down to where the ladder reaches the cliff edge, and we all yell to her to be careful. While we photograph her and the tall ladder, she notices someone is coming up from the valley below. Perspiration clinging to her forehead, the Tarahumara lady easily climbs the rungs, carrying a huge bundle of wares on her back. She is followed by a 4-year-old girl who stops near the top of the ladder, out of timidity unwilling to proceed. The lady, who looks middle aged, walks to the door of the bus and spreads her goods. Partly out of admiration for her remarkable climb up the ladder and partly from the quality of her crafts, the ladies in our busload buy many articles from her. Carmen finds out the lady is really only 23 years old. The harsh environment and way of life certainly takes a toll on the aging process. From the cliff, our bus heads to a Tarahumara settlement in the Valley of the Frogs, so named because of the intriguing natural rocks imaginatively shaped into giant 12-ft. frogs and mushrooms. Here we visit a cave dwelling, a home in a high-ceilinged rock cavity, sectioned off with bedrooms behind closed wooden fences, a central working area surrounding an ever-burning campfire whose smoke has charred the cave ceiling. A little girl works her pencil on a workbook entitled, in Spanish, 6th grade Social Science. She avoids eye contact, as does her little brother. In another field, part of San Ignacio de Ararabo, the Indians come running when we stop the bus, spread their wares and more transactions are exchanged. Phillipe notices the infections on a young teenagers face and admonishes him to go to the clinic for health care. Another boy shows Phillipe the makeshift bow and bottle-cap arrow he has fashioned for hunting. Further down the valley, the converted Indians actively use a centuries old Catholic church each Sunday. A modern school is across the dirt road. School is optional for the Tarahumara, as is the Mexican legal system. For the few crimes in their community, they prefer to deal with the guilty using their time-honored traditions of repayment and penitence. Land is fertilized by periodically moving a squared rail fence, enclosing goats, around the field. Corn is the mainstay of their diet. So much of what I see today reminds me of the Anasazi Indians of New Mexico and Colorado, the builders of Bandelier and Mesa Verde and other cliff dwellings. Today certainly feels like a jump back in time to a civilization virtually untouched by an industrial world.

(Shari) After breakfast, we board our bus and visit a number of small Indian villages where the people actually live in caves carved into the canyon. Shacks constructed on the outside of the caves offer additional protection from the elements, although not much. In visiting the Anasazi ruins of the southwestern U.S., I had a picture of this kind of life in my mind's eye. But here is the real thing. Funny how the dirt, trash, corn husks scattered about, torn cloth in a heap, beer cans and dirty children never panned my eye. We women want to take these kids into a bathtub and give them a good soaping. At every place we visit, the women and children come running when they see our bus. They hurry to take their baskets, hand-carved violins and crudely made dolls out of their plastic sacks to display for us. With a four-year-old girl following shyly behind, one tardy woman rushes up a ladder leaning against the cliff. Soon we know why she is in such a hurry. When we return to the bus, she has her wares all neatly laid out against the rocks. I think all of us buy something from her. Again I repeat that I cannot tell you how this makes me feel. Ashamed, guilty, interested, sad, unbelieving, appalled, nosey, sorry, and wanting to help all mixed into one. It is hard to determine the ages of these people. The woman hurrying up the ladder, when asked by Carmen how old she was, retorted 23. She looked 39. I see very few older women and no older men. I do not know how old they are. They look 70ish, but could be 40. Philippe tells us that 50% of the children die before reaching adulthood. I wonder how many of them fall from the ladders trying to reach the top of the cliff. The train is prompt and it is time for us to return to our own houses on wheels with their ice makers, running hot and cold water, side-by-side refrigerators and microwave ovens above Corian counter tops.

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