Adventure Ivan

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Through the Copper Canyon, a travel tale of Barranca del Cobre

After arriving at Choix, we’re at the foot of the mountains that snake around Barranca del Cobre, the famous Copper Canyon, a network of six canyons, that together form a geological formation larger and deeper in size than the famous Grand Canyon.

So it shouldn’t be so hard to find it then, right?

After lunch in Choix, we ask a few people, how to get through the canyon, and each person has a different set of directions, but the best ones come from the police. They tell us, there is no road through the canyons, it’s too dangerous, head back and drive around them, plus even if there was a road, you certainly wouldn’t be able to drive it in that van of yours.

So what’s the danger of the place?

Given how remote the region is, and how sparsely developed it is, it’s become a great region for growing cannabis and opium, and with the money from sales to the American market, the cartels have moved in to enforce their dominance over the region and there is an understanding between them and the police, that generally, in the Copper Canyon, the cartels ARE the law.

Using our scale map of the state, that shows a nice road leading through the canyon, and the directions from the local guys who drive 4x4s (we ignore all the other directions people give us), we eventually find a road into the canyons, and at every fork, the lack of signs doesn’t strike us with confidence, especially given that the paved road ends before we make any progress.

Darkness descends and some time after the fifth intersection where we’ve had to guess which way to go; in the dead of night, you can’t tell which road takes you up into the mountains, and which road will loop around into a dead-end at someone’s farm, we find a house with the lights on, and decide to ask them for directions through the canyon.

Picture the situation for a moment, it’s night time, you live in a remote and rural region, not particularly blessed with tourists, especially ones who drive around after dark, in a region known to be fraught with cartel violence and cannabis and opium cultivation. Someone pulls up to your house, and starts walking to the door, trying to get your attention, are they here to kill you? To harm your family?

Certainly those were the thoughts running through the farmer’s head as he came outside wielding an arm-length machete, and it was only just before letting out his battle cry and protecting his family, that he realised, we were a pair of tourists, out in the wrong neck of the woods, asking how to get through the Copper Canyon, at night, in a car not built for the road.

Shock and awe is the best way to describe the reaction, followed by a flurried rush of directions with a hint to hurry up and get off his property. No well-wishes unfortunately.

Hang on, you’re saying, how can the region be so difficult and dangerous to travel, people visit all the time, it’s in guidebooks and documentaries, you’re just making things up for attention. Not quite, see a lot of people do visit the Copper Canyon, however, the sheer majority of them travel the Copper Canyon by train. We shy away from that style of travel, and choose to stumble our way from adventure to adventure, collecting stories and experiences along the way.

Not long after stumbling upon a mine, we decide that there’s no point navigating the road any further in the dark, and that it’s time to setup camp for the night. Since it’s so dusty, and so few good places to pitch a tent, and because we worry about a driver coming along in the night, seeing our tent at the last minute, and running us over in our sleep, we decide to sleep in the car, which we have setup for sleeping the three of us, albeit a little cramped, it’s certainly manageable.

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The next morning, we awaken to find ourselves, deep in the Copper Canyon, and head down to the river to explore, thanking our lucky stars for stopping when we did and not missing this beautiful spot in the middle of the night.

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Closer to the river, a tree, growing on a little piece of dirt, barely sitting above the water.

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Once more, as with our journey to the Cave Paintings in Baja California, we stop by a roadside shrine, this time to the Virgin de Guadalupe, and given how much driving we have left to do, we decide to stop and try and get some good blessings for our trip.

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The original inhabitants of the lands making up the Copper Canyon system, are the Turahumara, also known as the Rarámuri.people, famous for their running ability. The very name means those who run fast. (Aside: for those interested in reading a little more about the abilities of the Turahumara people, have a read of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall). Legends abound about their running capabilities and how they can run over 300 kilometres in a couple of days over mountainous terrain for hunting and evading their enemies.

At some point, we pass through one of their mountain towns and cemeteries.

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After a few hours drive, we face our first big stumbling block, one of our great car tires, which we’ve repurposed for off-roading has decided, it no longer enjoys the punishments of the dusty road, littered with rocks and holes, and having suffered a puncture, has deflated to the point where we are driving on the rim itself.

This is our first, puncture along the length of the trip, excluding one we suffered in Tijuana when we woke up to find one of the tires had a hole in it, though we assumed someone punctured it on purpose, for reasons unknown. Still, this was not too bad considering we’ve managed to get our car from Vancouver, Canada, down the west-coast of the US, Washington, Oregon and California states, along with a diversion through Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and down the length of Baja California including much off-road punishment in the Big Bear campgrounds, the Cave Paintings in Baja, and now, part way through the Copper Canyon, the tires certainly lasted longer than anyone could have expected, and we should have prepared a little better than we did. In our defense, we had enough food and water to survive a few days.

We find the spare,tire, attached to the underside of the car, in a rather strange system that is beyond our comprehension, we twist the loosening bolt and the cable to loosen the tire comes down, but the tire remains wedged firmly in place, and no amount of hitting, prodding, poking or kicking will make it budge. Would have been nice to know this before we arrived here.

After an hours waiting, a passing car stops, and the Turahumara driver agrees to help us out, eventually breaking off the bolt holding the spare tire, a smaller “space-saver” tire, which reduces the ground clearance significantly when we place it on the car, more than enough to make it much more difficult to drive through the copper canyon, especially with all of the rocks on the road.

Sooner or later (read: barely a couple of hours later), we come across a particularly tricky situation, a fork in the road, both roads lead to rather steep inclines, the first of which, our van fails to ascend. As we near the second of the forks, and once more, seeing the steepness of the incline, and the amount of loose gravel and rocks, we give it a little more gas, hoping that momentum will pull us through.

One third of the way up the slope, we start to slow, and fearing we won’t make it all the way to the top, we floor it. A front-wheel drive, fully loaded van, with a mini-spare in place of the full tire, a lot of rocks on the road, at maximum revs.

Barely a few seconds, but the sudden loss of momentum, and the sound of escaping air confirm our greatest fear, a second puncture. We were just barely able to get the car over the hill, and nurse it along to flatter ground, where we stop to remove the wheel.

Having only minutes earlier passed a dump truck, we know that we don’t have long before the driver would pass us, and maybe he knows how far it is to the next town.

The driver of the truck, seeing our perilous situation, stuck in the Copper Canyon, with two punctured tires and no more spares, takes me in his truck, while Marc and Andrea stay with the car. Half an hour of slow driving later, he drops me off at a little town telling me they’ll have someone that can fix tires.

In fact this town of barely fifteen homes has a mechanic that can fix tires and a few teenagers working tire repair on their own. Very good news. The first tire is reasonably easy to fix, and only takes a couple of patches, the second though, is a different story. Somewhere between maximum throttle going uphill, a lot of rocks, or limping on just the rim, has caused a look of disbelief on the eyes of the mechanic. He’s found upwards of six holes in the tube, and worse, a couple of holes in the sidewall of the tire.

It can’t be fixed he tells me. I tell him, we need it done, or a spare. Both stores are searched, no one has a single 14” tire, none of the vehicles here have 14” tires, it’s not a common size (as we find time and time again later). Time to do the impossible, fix the unfixable.

The next few hours, the repair guy fixes the tube, so that its consistency is now somewhere around 50% tube and 50% patches, and more amazingly, they use mountain ingenuity to tape a section of spare tire to the outer wall, to repair it. This is not a safe situation to be driving in, as that patch could burst off the wheel at any point, and instead of the tire puncturing and deflating, it will suffer a blowout (rapid loss of pressure, leading to an explosion).

While waiting for the glue to dry, I walk around the Tarahumara village, as the kids teach me their swear words in English and Spanish, unfortunately they didn’t have any in their language. I contemplate challenging one of the kids to a running race, to see if he in fact has the spirit of a marathon runner, but given my own fitness, I realise it wouldn’t take much to beat me.

After having waited long enough for all of the patches and glue to dry, the villagers wish us a LOT of luck in crossing the canyon, they tell me it’s only three-four more hours of driving and that we have crossed the most difficult parts already.

I catch a lift with one of the locals back to our car, giving him money for petrol (after some very steep negotiation), and we get the tires replaced just as sunset starts to descend. After a whole day spent waiting in the sun fixing both punctures, Marc, Andrea and I are tired of the canyon, and decide it’s time to just drive and make it to the other side before any more bad luck falls upon us.

Just after 10pm, we see the lights in the distance signaling a town is close, and that we’ve arrived to Batopilas. We decide after all the dirt and dust, that we’d like a hotel, and arrive in the town to find them all closed. Eventually, a car approaches us, one of the guys gets out, and in his broken English from several years in the States, we understand that he’s offering us a place to stay with him.

Given that we like the option of a warm shower and a place to sleep, and that the man seems genuine in his offer, we take him up on it, and drink beers and chat with him before bed. We fall asleep to the sound of his wife coming home, finding strangers in the house, having an argument with her husband, and leaving to spend the night with friends. Oops.

The next morning, we find the wife has returned and we have breakfast together, before seeing the sites of the town and continuing on to Creel.

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Mural at the school in Batopilas.

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Arch tunnel that we drive through after arriving in Batopilas.

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After all of the dust from the two days of driving, maybe they should rename it the dusty canyon.

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Directions, along dusty roads, to small towns, in the canyons.

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As we approach Creel, we stop to admire the view.

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Through the canyons, passes El Chepe, the train from Chihuahua to the Pacific coast. This isn’t the passenger train, but rather a diesel locomotive with a large load of cargo, and we count, at least six people riding on and between the wagons.

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Some Raramuri writing, with what appears to be a Spanish translation:

Raramuri:

Napusíne muku tási tamí galíliga rekási nibilé chó tamí naláchisi.
Pe jóchi bí tamí pási a´lí pe pólisi.
Má ta suwisáa ká pé ta ripúga jú.
Jípe ne akáme eyénachi tamí galési kíli!

Spanish:

Cuando me muera
no me hagan un ataud
ni se pongan a llorarme.
Tirenme en un agujero
y tapen me después.
Ya muertos no somos
más que basura.
Ahora que estoy viva
¡quiéranme bien!

English translation:
When I die,
Don’t make me a coffin,
or mourn my passing.
Throw me in a hole,
and cover me with dirt.
Since I am dead,
I am no more than garbage.
While I’m alive,
take care of me!

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The town of Creel, with the Chihuahua/Pacific train tracks passing through the centre of town.

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A Japanese cherry blossom tree in Creel, Mexico.

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Some local kids trying to sell their souvenirs.

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From the Baja Ferry to the Copper Canyon

Following our Mexican trip in Baja California, we decided to take the ferry from La Paz to Los Mochis/Topolobampo. We found the schedule for the Baja ferry, said goodbye to our friends Leon and Karla, and took the ferry from Baja to Sinaloa.

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After arriving in Los Mochis late in the evening, our first port of call is to find some dinner. Having been used to driving fast in Baja, we continue to do the same in Sinaloa, and find it very strange that late at night, everyone is driving the speed limit on this long, wide, straight road.

We don’t pay much attention as we overtake the cars, and in the distance, spot our place of dinner, a roadside taco stand along the highway just before the Pemex (Mexican national chain of petrol stations). We step on the brakes to pull over to the stand, and are INCREDIBLY grateful to have seen him, because opposite him, hiding in the bushes, is a police car, on the lookout for some easy money.

As we sit on the side of the road waiting for our tacos to be made, we see the first victim speeding past just as the police lights come on and the police car gives chase. Fifteen minutes later, as we are now eating our dinner, the police car returns to his hiding place, and waits for five minutes before another driver is speeding by. Seems like those guys have an easy recipe for making money that evening, and we understand why so many of the drivers were driving so slow on this road.

After dinner, we start looking for a hotel, and it’s in Los Mochis that we had one of the best hotel experiences ever. In some places in Mexico, there are hotels available for a man and to visit his partner (or partners), discreetly, without letting too many people know he is in such a place (example, his wife).

The hotel is operated in a don’t ask, don’t tell manner, and the one we visited works as follows. You arrive at the entry gate to the hotel, and the reception tells you if there are rooms available over the drive-thru intercom, and how much it costs. You agree to the price, drive into the hotel. Each room has a lockable garage so that nobody can see the cars parked there, you can pay the money through a discreet payment window so that you don’t have to see the receptionist, and they’ll give you the key.

Since this happens to be the cheapest hotel in Los Mochis, we decide to spend the night there. The room is huge, they have a bed that is so large that all three of us can fit comfortably. They have a large TV, with a large selection of porn and regular cable channels (I think we watched Men in Black that night), There are boxes of tissues everywhere, the room is ridiculously clean, but best of all, are the cut out red cardboard love hearts taped to the ceiling. Best night ever.

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The Sinaloa take on convertible, and the Sinaloa version of a school bus.

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We arrive to El Fuerte, a small town in Sinaloa, a magical town (pueblo mágico), from where it’s possible to take the train through the Copper Canyon.

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Town gargoyles in front of the church and a Jesus mural.

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The main streets of El Fuerte, 5 de Mayo, in honour of the Mexican defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla and M. Hidalgo, representing Miguel Hidalgo, a Mexican Priest and a leader of the Mexican War of Independence.

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A view from the fort in El Fuerte, over the Rio Fuerte.

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A sketch of a Mexican independence fighter (possibly Zapata) with the Virgin de Guadalupe on the right.

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The conquistadors defeat of the natives.

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The town council in El Fuerte, Sinaloa.

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As we leave El Fuerte, in the distance, we can see the mountains that let us know that we are getting close to our destination, the copper canyon.

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We have arrived at Choix, the start of the famous Copper Canyon.

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Cabo San Lucas (Southern Tip of Baja)

Heading south from Todos Santos, we eventually hit the end, Cabo San Lucas, or just Cabo, is the southernmost point of Baja California.

In La Paz, we picked up a couple of friends, Andrea, a friend we met back in Vancouver, and Leon, a Mexican from the capital. In Cabo we stay with a friend of Leon’s, a masseuse by the name of Karla.

She shows us some of the sights of the city and we all explore the city together.

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Behold, the power of the blue pill.

Cabo has a lot of little art galleries, where the art is a blend of traditional styles (such as the skull art, popularised in Oaxaca) mixed with modern shapes and colours.

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It’s here in Cabo, over three months after setting off on this road trip, and four thousand kilometres from Vancouver, that I bump into my former employer walking down the street during his vacation. Talk about a small world.

So our plan for Cabo, is to visit the southern most point, and that can be done via boat, that takes you to the southern tip of Baja, to a nice beach where you can see the point where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean, a point known as El Arco de Cabo San Lucas.

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Along the way, a seal resting on a rock, except if you think about it, how did he get up there, no there’s no camera trick here, no gradual incline that’s hidden from view. Want a hint? He’s VERY lazy.

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On the right, the famous arch, on the left, the beaches of the peninsula, one in the Sea, one in the Ocean.

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The southern point.

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From the beaches, comes a nice little find, a tourist boat, it’s writing says:

WELCOME – THE ♥ LOVErs BEAH

Couldn’t have put it better my self.

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Returning from the beach, we explore the marina, which has a few nice little cactus gardens, and a dolphin swim park.

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From Cabo San Lucas, we head north east to Cabo Pulmo National Park, a beautiful park where we all camp on the beach, with a few travelers that we met biking the Baja Coast, and some couch surfers who just finished a sailing trip from Panama to La Paz.

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One of the beaches near where we camped.

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One of thousands of crabs that we’d seen running around.

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A silly homeless dog that decided to play with us.

After the second day camping here, we’re woken up by park rangers, who inform us about an earthquake of the coast of Japan that may cause a massive tsunami to hit the Baja coast?

So we pack our things, and jokingly talk about heading back to Todos Santos to surf this once in a lifetime wave, a la Point Break.

Thankfully, there is no tsunami. The next destination, the Mexican “mainland”.

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Todos Santos, South Baja Surf Town

Todos Santos (literally: All Saints), is a town on the Southern end of Baja California, and because it faces the Pacific Ocean, it receives some pretty good surf, and is quite a popular spot for it, so we join the locals for a surf session.

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On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair… This isn’t the hotel from the famous Eagles’ song, but the starting lyrics aptly fit it, and for those of you that want to take a photo, too bad, there’s a pole to ruin your view.

Since Mexican beaches are public property, and don’t belong to anybody (despite what resorts in Cancun would like you to believe), we put up our tent at one of the nicest beaches in the area.

Overlooking the water, Hacienda Cerritos,  perched on a cliff, slightly pricier accommodation at $545 USD (no that’s not a mistake) per night, however you’re welcome to have a look around, to see if it suits.

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Pool and Spa, overlooking the beach where we camped.

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View of the resort from the pool bar.

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Hacienda, from the sea (the cliff isn’t that big).

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Ceiling mosaic in lobby.

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View from one of the Gazebos.

Todos Santos, small, not too busy, and very welcoming area, with a pretty town, and even nicer beach.

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La Paz Fair–Mini Carnival

We come into La Paz during Carnival celebrations, and the town is busy with their annual fair. The shops are mostly the same as the ones back home, but here you also have stalls setup for:

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The religious.

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The mask aficionados, and …

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The party boys.

Then there’s the food …

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and sweets.

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And of course, what carnival is complete without ladyboys?

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Then there’s the crowd of Mexicans dancing salsa, banda and norteño.

But my favourite attaction of all, was this game. And it’s so simple to setup.

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  1. Get a large table and split it into small squares, make them about double to triple the size of the largest available coin (10 pesos).
  2. Mark the squares with numbers for payoff, this is a multiplier, land a coin on the 3, receive 3 times your investment back, land it on a 10, get 10 times.
  3. Make the smaller payoff squares larger, and the larger payoffs smaller and harder to reach.
  4. Make your participants stand at least to feet from the table (60cm).
  5. If a coin lands FULLY in a square, it wins and receives a payoff, if even the tiniest amount of the coin extends over the boundaries of the square, it loses.
  6. Employ a young kid to collect money and entice people to play the game.
  7. Get some shills to start playing to encourage others to watch how easy the game is.
  8. Give the kid a stick with a magnet on the end to make it easy to collect the coins.
  9. Collect the profits.

This game is so ridiculously simple in concept, and it does well at enticing Mexicans to play, no need for tokens, just use the small change in your pocket, any number of plays, quit whenever you want, or have another go and see if you can get 10x your investment.

Watch the video to see how much money was being made.

Coin Toss Game, watch the money roll in