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.
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.
Closer to the river, a tree, growing on a little piece of dirt, barely sitting above the water.
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.
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.
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.
Mural at the school in Batopilas.
Arch tunnel that we drive through after arriving in Batopilas.
After all of the dust from the two days of driving, maybe they should rename it the dusty canyon.
Directions, along dusty roads, to small towns, in the canyons.
As we approach Creel, we stop to admire the view.
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.
Some Raramuri writing, with what appears to be a Spanish translation:
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!
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
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!
The town of Creel, with the Chihuahua/Pacific train tracks passing through the centre of town.
A Japanese cherry blossom tree in Creel, Mexico.
Some local kids trying to sell their souvenirs.