Ten Days in the Sierra Tarahumara

Photos from around Creel (4 photos)

Lake Arareko near Creel

It's been two weeks today since I arrived in Guadalajara. A break from traveling in part motivated by the hectic pace of my first two weeks in Mexico spent exploring the Copper Canyon (also known as the Barranca del Cobre or the Sierra Tarahumara) in northern Mexico. That pace was necessitated by the tremendous scale of the canyons themselves where the next town, the next view, the next waterfall is a long bus ride or hike or mountain bike ride from the last; and always on a steep, winding path, trail or road. I began to compose this article in my head as I kicked an orange fallen from one of the many orange trees lining the streets here in Guadalajara. The kicking a ball on a path would be very familiar to the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyon; it is a game they play from very young. Except that the flatness of Guadalajara would be completely foreign to them. Their lives are lived in a rather different terrain making the game with the ball rather more challengingóplayed on a narrow, steep, winding path with a group of friends, each trying to control the ball.

This game was one of the reasons speculated by Runner's World magazine for the amazing long distance trail running ability of the Tarahumara Indians. In the article Secrets of the Tarahumara they try and explain how a fifty-five year old chain-smoking, moonshine-guzzling Indian in sandals made from old tires was able to easily beat a field of super-elite athletes in a 100 mile ultra-marathon race in the mountains of Colorado and any other time they could be bothered to compete. The article doesn't really come up with a satisfactory explanation for these incredible feats.

Down into the Canyons (5 photos)

Canyon view on road to Batopilas

If anyone has the answer it is a character of the canyons known locally as 'Caballo Blanco' (White Horse). I met Micah (his real name) my third day in the canyons as I was waiting for our bus departure from Creel (the traveler's hangout at the top of the canyons) to Batopilas, a town at the bottom of the canyons.  Micah had been profiled in the Runner's World article and although their were no pictures of him in the article, I knew immediately who it was when he walked into the souvenir shop which serves as the ticket office and waiting room for the Batopilas bus. His distinctive laugh and character were unmistakable. He's lived in the canyons for 12 years, doing daily runs in the canyons and getting closer to the Indians than probably any gringo has and managing to improve his trail running ability to the point where his best time in the43 km (27 mile) canyon traverse from Batopilas canyon to Urique canyon is 6:35 albeit still about an hour and a half slower than the usual winning time of one of the locals in his annual canyon race.

The reason Micah was waiting for a bus with us illuminated also the terrain of the canyons and how running in the canyons is in fact a very efficient means of transport. Micah had twisted his ankle two days before while doing the run from Batopilas to Urique. He was an hour out from Urique when it happened so he was forced to continue on, limping into Urique. But now instead of a 6 hour journey back to his home in Batopilas running; he was forced to do the trip in two days by bus and train: a 4 hour journey by bus from Urique up to the canyon top at Bauchivo, a 2 hour train ride from Bauchivo to Creel, an overnight in Creel and then, finally, a five hour bus ride down back into the Batopilas canyon.  The first two hours of that bus ride were uneventful. In fact, I was surprised at the quality of the roads given how few people live down here. But the pavement ended and the churning, winding road the final 2 Ω hours down into the canyon began. Along with stunning views as the road switchbacked endlessly down the canyon side. A friend the day before actually did this segment while on the top of the bus. I settled for trying to capture photos from the bus window, annoying the locals sitting around me with the wide open window letting in the chilly morning air and dust.

I wasn't sure what to expect when we arrived at the town of Batopilas. It is incredibly remote but has some rather surprising history including the distinction of being the second town in Mexico (after Mexico City) to have had electricity. It was an important silver mining center and one of the benefits of that wealth was their own hydroelectric dam. The town itself is a narrow ribbon of houses and road clustered beside the river in the small open area at the bottom of the canyon. We stayed at the Hotel Batopilas where the vieja who owned it had no idea how old her building was. She was proud of the meter (3 Ω foot) thick walls though which certainly indicated its ancient age.

Photos from Satevo, the train and Cerocahui (6 photos)

Sergio enjoying the view out the train window

Information lost in history seems to be a bit of a theme in Batopilas. The next day we hiked to Satevó, a small village 8 km from Batopilas. According to the small marker outside the cathedral, Satevó has a population of 146. What is not known to any of the locals is why Satevó, which was not even populated until fairly recently, has a cathedral which can seat hundreds of worshipers. The mysterious lost cathedral of Satevó.  While the terrain of the walk was not difficult, we followed a road along the river, the hike still proved to be challenging due to the heat and lack of shade. While the towns at the top of the canyons are cool and full of pine forests, the bottom of the canyons are tropicalóthe pine trees stop and instead you'll find growing bananas. And so while I had planned to try and find a guide to take me on the 2 to 3 day hike to Urique (wasn't planning to run it myself), this shorter hike made me realize how challenging that hike would be as you would not only be dealing with the heat but with a climb out of one canyon and descent into the other all while carrying your pack.

Discussion »

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  • John: I’ve always wanted to hitch hike across the USA.
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