Difference between revisions of "Copper Canyon"
Revision as of 18:09, 27 March 2008
The system of canyons here is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the neighboring United States, although the Grand Canyon is larger overall than any of the individual canyons of the Copper Canyon system. The Copper Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though the area would be Mexico's star national park, it thus far has no official status as a park as efforts to make it so have been hampered by disagreements between loggers and the native Raramuri.
This area is rich in biodiversity, cultural history, and is the site of a growing tourist infrastructure. The town of Creel is probably the most popular gateway to the canyonlands. But the town of Hidalgo de Parall to the south of Chihuahua City is a good alternative and is useful for exploring the largely overlooked Sinforosa Canyon. Within the canyons lie the towns of Batopilas and Urique. Life moves slower in these towns, and it can be hard to imagine you are in the same country that counts Mexico City, Acapulco, and Cancun among its attractions. Shops and restaurants tend to be simple affairs that open late and close early. That does not prevent them from being very charming and the small towns in the canyons are great places to slow down and unwind. There are historic Catholic churches often run by Jesuit missionaries from other parts of the Latin World. But the real attraction of the canyonlands is the natural splendor of the area. There are numerous waterfalls and hot springs hidden away in the backcountry. These are reached by hiking, horseback, or guided treks with burros. Camping out under the stars is wonderful on the countless sandbars that line the area rivers. The area does see other travelers and tourists but is hardly overrun. Rather, the small towns seem to have the right balance; enough other visitors so you can meet hiking partners and put together expeditions. But not so many that getting away from all traces of civilization is anywhere near difficult.
The area was mostly uninhabited before European arrival. Once Spaniards began forming ranches on the plains of Chihuahua the Raramuri began moving back into the canyons. The almost militant Jesuits soon followed. The Jesuits were forced out of Mexico after the Spanish crown discovered they were smuggling gold back to Europe; leaving the Raramuri in peace. Franciscans replaced the Jesuits throughout much of Mexico but never succeeded in penetrating the Sierra Tarahumara. Today there are a few Jesuit missionaries back in the area. The lack of any church leadership in the area for hundreds of years resulted in the hybrid Christian-traditional religious beliefs that the Raramuri exhibit today.
Flora and fauna
The most comfortable time to go is early spring to early summer and late summer to late fall.
The Chihuahua al Pacífico Railroad, known as El Chepe, is a rail line that runs from the Pacific coast at Los Mochis to the city of Chihuahua, passing through the canyonlands. While the train ride is lauded as one of the most spectacular in the world, the reality is that the really scenic parts of the journey are between El Fuerte and Creel, especially between El Fuerte and Bahucivo where the train rapidly ascends many thousands of feet. The route from Los Mochis headed eastwards is more scenic because the westward train often passes through the most scenic areas after nightfall. This is really only an issue in the winter when days are short or if the 2nd class train is running way behind schedule. Regardless, neither direction offers direct views of the canyon itself. First and second class are available in separate trains, with the first class train leaving earlier. First class is mostly for foreign tourists and costs twice the rate of 2nd class, but allows you to hop on and off, whereas 2nd class tickets must be entirely used up in one day. 1st class tickets should be purchased in advance through a travel agency to avoid disappointment, while 2nd class tickets can be purchased on the train from the conductor.
Copper Canyon is well served by bus service. Buses run from El Paso-Juarez to Chihuahua ($25USD) and from Ojinaga-Presidio to Chihuahua ($12USD) regularly. From Chihuahua you can continue on by bus to Creel ($20USD) or transfer to the train.
If you have your own private vehicle driving on the Mexican toll roads is very easy, and corruption appears to be a minor issue in Chihuahua outside of the Juarez area.
Mountain bikes, ATVs and four wheel drive trucks can be rented in downtown Creel to explore the outlying area. Unlike most other parts of the Copper Canyon area, unguided day trips are possible out of Creel. Daytrip destinations include the Valley of the Monks, and the Valley of the Frogs. Recohuata, a developed hot springs area, is also within 10 miles of Creel.
There is literally a maze of Raramuri trails running through the area. They run in all different directions, are unsigned and seem to have no concept of grade or steepness. Hiring a guide is a good idea. Someday perhaps an ambitious volunteer will try to make some kind of signage and map system for all the trails. Right now, well, it's an adventure.
Camping areas can be found just about anywhere, but for those not willing to rough it, a very wide range of accommodations is available in the vicinity, from hostels in Creel and Urique to dedicated 5-star luxury lodges that cater to package tourists. It is better to book a minimum 2 months in advance. 4 months or more is best (this applies only to the upmarket luxury lodges, simple guesthouses only fill up just before Easter and campgrounds always have space available).
There are dedicated campgrounds in Creel and Urique, most other places you can camp wherever you find an unoccupied sandbar. Oftentimes the best option is to go up to a rancher or farmers house and ask permission perhaps offering a small payment. This gives you a little extra protection from theft or harassment.
In the more remote and rugged canyonlands hiring a local guide is strongly recommended as the landscape and climate are harsh and unforgiving of errors. In addition this is an area of drug cultivation, and unaccompanied American tourists (usually groups of motorcyclists) have disappeared in the past, presumably killed by norcotics traffickers. The area south of Batopilas towards Durango is an especially intense zone of narco activity.