Copper Canyon, Northwestern Mexico: Our van climbs slowly along steep canyon walls to a height of 8,000 feet. I can see the Batopilas River as a speck far below.
At one point on this dangerous road, the “Newfie” in the front passenger seat shouts at Oscar, our Mexican driver, “Oh look! Is that an eagle or a condor flying to our right?”
Oscar instinctively looks and our right wheels are now riding along the outside edge of the wall.
“Don’t distract the driver!” I yell.
Another Newfie in the backseat is now crying and draining his Tequila bottle. I’m in the middle with one arm stretched across the backseat patting his hand and silently praying, “Fight on Manitoba, fight on!”
Who knew travelling solo at 60 would be so much fun?
The Adventure Begins
Let me preface this by saying I began my adventure with a tour company, but the guide abandoned us midway. What to do? Complete the journey solo, of course!
The lesson: You can hook up with a travel group and pay the big bucks, but with a bit of moxie you can see the exact same touristy spots at half the price. Just research the trip online and contact the hotels directly. When travelling solo you’ll pay a tad extra for accommodations, but having your own private room is worth it.
All you need is a carry-on bag, your camera and a good attitude. Remember: you are lifting and carrying your own luggage, so pack smart.
Flying one-way from Winnipeg to Phoenix, I transfer to Aeromexico and touch down in Los Mochis. The local bus stops right at the Los Mochis airport and for around $1 takes you directly to the heart of the city. Or catch a taxi for about $12 for the 20 minute ride to town. Tip the driver, he’ll remember you.
The room at the Hotel Santa Anita is modern and the food in the downstairs restaurant is excellent. This hotel is just a short walk to the Plaza Fiesta Mall and the marketplace. The hotel concierge will gladly give you directions.
There are not a lot of gringos in Los Mochis; in fact, I’m the only one that I see. But that’s no problem as everyone is friendly and pleased to help.
The local women do not wear shorts in public because showing your bare legs is customarily frowned upon. Even the teenagers wear leggings under their shorts.
I meet up with my tour guide a day early. She and her Mexican friends invite me to visit Topolobampo, a seaport about 20 km from Los Mochis on the Sea of Cortez.
We tour Topolobampo and then walk the black sand beach watching local teenagers drive their quad vehicles up and over the sand dunes.
These kind local folks are happy to have me tag along. They show me places I never would have seen had I been in a large tour group. Travelling solo has its perks.
Chihuahua Pacifico Train
Up at 4:30 a.m. and at the Chihuahua Pacifico “Chepe” train station for a 6:15 a.m. departure.
Our guide purchases the Primera (first class) tickets, but next time I’ll buy the Economy ticket and ride with the locals at the back of the train. Same train, same scenic views and the Economy ticket is half the price. Two police officers are commissioned to ride the train daily, so you’re perfectly safe. Several years ago the Chepe was robbed on a regular basis, but no more.
The train chugs along at about 30 mph, climbing and winding its way through the many tunnels and across unbelievably high trestles. We disembark in the town of Bahuichivo and the local bus (a passenger van) drives us to the small town of Cerocahui.
I spend the next two nights at the Hotel Mision. My spotless room comes with a wood burning stove and dozens of large hummingbirds zip back and forth outside the dining room.
Explore the town and check out the original jail, complete with no beds, no electricity, no toilets, no running water. It’s a Mexican jail in the boonies and they still use it if necessary.
After dinner, the hotel owner tells me, “There is a big celebration in town tonight, so stay in the hotel.”
Raised in the North End of Winnipeg, I’ve seen a lot, but I’m not stupid so I take his advice and stay in the hotel.
By midnight guns are being fired in to the air. Turns out, tonight’s party is a rite of passage in honour of the 15-year-old girl who wore the beautiful blue gown I saw earlier this afternoon. Now I understand – there are too many men and not enough available women in town.
I lock my hotel room door and stoke the wood stove.
Next morning the local guide takes several tourists up the mountainside to the Urique Canyon overlook where we can see the town of Urique and the Urique River 7,000 feet below. I want to reach out and touch what looks like a miniature town.
The Mexican Tourism Department paid $350,000 pesos, or approx. $30,000 USD, to build the new state-of-the-art tourist bathrooms at the overlook, but since they haven’t yet figured out a way to get water up there, the facility is kept locked so that the local Tarahumara people don’t move in as squatters.
On the 15 mile ride back to the Hotel Mision our driver stops to pick up several Tarahumara people sitting along the roadside. The Tarahumara are a Native American tribe that lives in the Copper Canyon and often practices a traditional lifestyle. The Tarahumara on our bus are heading to the Catholic Mission School, still managed by nuns, to pick up their children for the weekend.
I later visit the school and learn the children are taught reading, writing, basic math skills and personal hygiene.
The next day our motley group of two Newfies and one ‘Toban board the train and travel a half day to the Hotel Mirador, perched precariously on the edge of the canyon walls.
The hotel’s expansive main dining room has a massive roaring fireplace and a computer in the lobby for those who need a fix. All the private rooms have sliding doors out to the balconies overlooking the dramatic drop below. Because it has not rained in this region for several years, the wooden balcony railings are tinder dry and loose.
While mystified with the expansive views, I remain with my back clinging to the wall. The Newfies by comparison lean over their balcony next door.
“It’s a long way down, eh?” they shout.
Early the next morning when the first rays of the sun slowly climb the canyon walls, the combined mosaic of colour and texture is pure brilliance. Spectacular and spiritual is the only way to describe it.
I brave the balcony with coffee in hand, stand outside in the coolness of the morning, and just breath it all in. In the distance I can see the smoke curling from the morning fires at the mouths of several caves where the Tarahumara still live.
The Sky Tram
The Sky Tram is about three miles down the road from the Hotel Mirador and for $16 descends midway into the Copper Canyon. Or, if you are really brave and sure footed, you can walk the many swinging bridges over the gorges and eventually end up at the same midway point. I choose the Sky Tram.
Descending in the tram, I look up and the Hotel Mirador is a mere speck perched on the canyon walls above us. There are scorpions here, so beware of where you walk.
About five miles down the road from the Hotel Mirador is The Hotel Divisadero, which is also perched on the rim of the canyon. It is famous for its beautiful hand-carved painted wooden door displaying a Tarahumara woman in traditional costume. The inside of the hotel is just as nice as the Mirador and prices are comparable.
Directly across the road and running parallel to the train tracks you’ll find the local market selling food, crafts and baskets.
Next morning I leave the Hotel Mirador and wait for the Chepe in the newly built wooden shelter. Several Tarahumara women quietly sit and weave baskets beside me.
For over an hour the women do not speak because a stranger is amongst them. Then, without acknowledging my existence, they very slowly start a humorous conversation, while a two year old child plays with the baskets at his mother’s feet.
I am very lucky to have witnessed this interaction as the Tarahumara are known to be extremely shy.
It is at this point in the trip that our tour guide leaves us. I’m on my own now in the middle of the Copper Canyon and the Newfies think I’m leading the way? Funny eh?
Sierra Madre Hiking Lodge
Back on the Chepe we roll into Creel, a small town out from the pages of time. The town runs along both sides of the tracks, with a general store, fabric store, grocery store and hotel. There is also a main street with touristy shops, home-style restaurants and bars. The elevation is high and the temperature is cool here at night, so pack a light jacket.
Our Mexican driver, Oscar, meets us at the train station and drives us 20 miles north of Creel to the 100-year-old Sierra Madre Hiking Lodge. There’s no electricity in the lodge, so oil lanterns are used. The rooms are spotless and have running water and toilets. You bathe in the light of your lantern. It was heaven.
The cook and her two daughters allow me to hang out with them in the kitchen as they make the entire dinner by candlelight. We eat in the main lodge with the fire blazing and the candelabra illuminating the long wooden dining table. I feel like John Wayne in an old western movie.
The lodge owner pours margaritas as the Newfies and I gaze at century-old pictures hanging on the walls depicting stories of days gone by.
Up at 6 a.m., I hike up the hill and pass through the valley to view ancient hieroglyphics painted under a cliff outcropping. Even the Tarahumara are unsure of how old the markings are or who painted them.
Some of the Tarahumara now live in single stone houses. They have next to nothing and when food is scarce, they cook rats. I am absolutely humbled by all of this.
By 8 a.m. we’re off to Batopilas. It’s a ride I shall never forget; as we turn off the pavement, our day-long journey takes us on a single lane dusty dirt road (it has not rained here in over two years) alongside canyon walls at heights of 8,000 feet.
As we pass the small dusty town of La Bufa, our driver stops and points to an outhouse resting precariously on the edge of the cliff. This outhouse is used every day and the human waste goes… You guessed it. The town even has security guarding the town’s most famous treasure.
About 15 miles past La Bufa we approach a wooden bridge made out of stacked 2×12 planks. Oscar cautiously keeps the tires right in the middle of the planks while crossing over the gorge. There are no guard rails. My Newfie friend is lying flat out in the backseat. I’m thinking now would be a good time for a shot of tequila. But he already drained the bottle.
We pass through a man-made tunnel in the mountain and drive into the preserved northwestern historial town of Batopilas around 4 p.m. The first thing I see is several men sprawled out on the sidewalks.
“Que pasa?” What’s happening? I ask Oscar.
“Tequila!” he replies.
We head for the Riverside Inn where we stay two glorious nights. This beautiful historic hacienda was originally owned by the wealthiest man in town when silver mining was in full production a hundred years ago. Now it is owned by an American who rents out the rooms. We had full run of the place.
I spend an afternoon just snooping around and find many old clay wine carboys. Wow.
My room still has the original stone floors, but hot water and a clawfoot bathtub have been added. There are no door knobs or traditional locks on the doors; you just slip an iron horseshoe through the latch inside your door.
After exploring the Lost Cathedral, Mission Satevo, we leave Batopilas.
There’s only one road in and one road out, and the return trip is just as scary, but now I know what to expect. My Newfie friends polish off their tequila by 7 a.m. and are happily snoring in the back seat. I’m wide awake, sitting in the front seat with one hand on the door knob and eyes glued to the road. Oscar has to stop several times on the return trip to pull in the van’s mirrors while other vehicles squeeze by. No room for error on this road.
Back on the Chepe, the train’s dining car serves decent but expensive burgers and beer. The marathon ride from Creel to El Fuerte takes about seven hours and by 7 p.m. we chug into the town of El Fuerte.
Hotel El Fuerte, a beautiful colonial hotel, was built within an original Spanish fort and boasts of being the birthplace of Zorro. This is no doubt the classiest hotel in town, with beautiful flowered patios and very good food – but it’s also expensive.
End of the Trail
When you are ready to leave El Fuerte, you have a choice of either taking the Chepe train to Los Mochis for around $20, or the local bus for $6 which takes you directly to the main bus terminal. I choose the bus.
Please remember the shy people of the Copper Canyon are gracious, kind, humble and very poor. When you decide to go on your exciting adventure, please tip them well.
Take along a Spanish dictionary and learn a few simple words.
Always be polite, compliment the locals and smile. If they smile back, it’s worth every penny of your adventure.