By Dennis and Susan Ross of the S/V Two Can Play
For a number of years, we've had an interest in seeing Mexico's Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon). The Copper Canyon intrigued us because we heard it was bigger than the U.S. Grand Canyon.
The Copper Canyon is actually a series of six canyons, which together are four times larger than the Grand Canyon, and four of their six canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon.
We visited the Copper Canyon in October, leaving our sailboat, Two Can Play, in Marina Mazatlan during our travels. Getting to the Copper Canyon involves a train ride. We made advance reservations and we had a copy of Lonely Planet Mexico in hand, as that was the recommended source of information on hotels and sights. Prior to taking our trip, we also got input through e-mail and conversations with a number of cruisers who made this trip.
El Fuerte was recommended to us as an interesting town and a good place from which to catch the Copper Canyon Railway.
El Fuerte (The Fort) is a Spanish colonial town, population 11,000, with nice ambience and architecture. We spent a couple of hours walking around town and visiting the local sights - the municipal palace, plaza, church and a replica of the original fort for which El Fuerte was named. We stayed at Posada del Hildago, which is the birth home of Zorro.
The next morning, at 9 a.m., we caught the Primera Express (first class) train to Creel. The Copper Canyon Railway (Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico) runs from Los Mochis to Chihuahua; it is 655 km (400 miles) long, with 36 bridges and 87 tunnels .It took several decades to build and opened in 1961. The scenery along the way is beautiful. We recommend sitting on the right side of the train to have the best views for photos of the canyons and bridges.
The trip to Creel was 7 hours, so we arrived there at about 4 p.m. About an hour before Creel, the train stopped for 15 minutes in a town called Divisidero, which had beautiful canyon views.
Creel was recommended by a number of sources as a good place from which to base a visit to the Copper Canyon. Creel's population is about 5,000, and it is the center of the Tarahumara Indian culture. The Tarahumaras are easily recognizable in town by their brightly colored clothing. They also weave beautiful baskets, which were for sale in the shops and on several street corners in town, as well as at some of the train stops. Be sure to take small dollar bills since the baskets are inexpensive and change is scarce.
Creel's elevation is about 7,500 feet, so it was cool, but we were prepared with layers of fleece and cool-weather clothing. If the sun was out during the day, the temperatures were pleasant (high 60's to low 70's). At night it was cool, so we stayed at a hotel that we knew had heat.
Although Creel was recommended as a good place from which to visit the canyons, we were pretty far away from them (about 20 miles). The only tour option we could find to see the canyon was hiring a guide to drive us around in a Chevy Suburban. We met a guide (Pepe) at the Best Western the day we arrived, and he took us on a five-hour tour to the Tarahumara Indian Reservations of San Ignacio and Cusarare, Cusarare Waterfalls, Lake Arareko and some other local sights. We were able to hike for about an hour on the trip - about 3 miles round trip to the Cusarare Falls, which were quite beautiful and reminded us of Yosemite. We also really enjoyed the Tarahumara Indian Reservation at Cusarare. We enjoyed the tour and would not have seen these sights without Pepe and his Chevy Suburban.
On our second day in Creel, we travelled with Pepe by van to Batopilas, which is at the bottom of the Batopilas Canyon. It was an 85 mile trip from Creel to Batopilas, and it took 5 hours. The first 2 hours were spent on a paved twisting and turning road. The last 3 hours were spent on an unpaved twisting and turning road. There were no guard rails and the drop-offs were a little scary at times.
On the way to Batopilas, we passed through the Copper, Urique and Batopilas canyons. The scenery was gorgeous, and Pepe stopped along the way so we could get out and take a few photos. The elevation at Batopilas is about 1,900 feet, so it was much warmer than Creel. We stayed at Hotel Juanita ($30/night), which had a nice courtyard and a balcony overlooking the river. We thought the balcony would be a nice place to enjoy an afternoon beer, but we couldn't find a place in town that would sell beer "para llavar" (to go). So, we drank a soda on the terrace, and then we went to the Swinging Bridge Restaurant for a beer.
Batopilas is a community of about 1,500 people with an interesting history. In the late 1800's, Alexander Shepherd (a former mayor of Washington DC who was ousted from elected office due to [unproven] corruption charges) moved his family to Batopilas and formed the Batopilas Mining Company, which very successfully mined silver in this area for over 40 years. He also brought some technological advances to this town - a hydroelectric plant, which made Batopilas the second city in Mexico to have electricity (after Mexico City), and he also built an aqueduct. At its peak, there were as many as 10,000 people living here.
A couple of people told us that we could take a tour along the river to the "Lost Cathedral," a beautiful, impressive mission built in the 1700's in the middle of nowhere. It was about 10 miles roundtrip, the road was pretty flat, so it wasn't too difficult a drive. It was a sunny and warm day, and the scenery along the way was very pretty.
I would say that seeing Batopias was our highlight of the trip. Copper Canyon is wonderful to see on the rim, but until you experience the stages of the canyon as you travel down the steep sides, seeing the changes of terrain, and flora and fauna you really experience what it would be like to live in this area.
Staying at the Mirador on the rim was wonderful, though expensive, experience. Our room and balcony had fantastic views of the canyon. The gourmet meals were well worth the price! We were up a day break to watch the sun come up over the deep canyon.
We were thankful we did the trip when we did since it wasn't too cold, and the aspen trees were beginning to change color. We were told that in July and August, during the summer rainy season, the rivers are full and many more waterfalls can be seen. After November there is a threat of snow or ice making the road to Batopias dangerous.
FLASHLIGHT, MATCHES, WATER, EYE DROPS, LIQUID BENEDRYL, DEET SPRAY FOR INSECTS, BANDAIDS, ASPERIN, ACE BANDAGE, SPANISH DICTIONARY, SMALL CHANGE, and TOILET PAPER!!
"Copper Canyon For the Independent Traveler" By Dottie Atwater
Located in the mountains of northwestern Mexico, the Copper Canyon area is actually a series of six massive gorges - a vast maze four times larger and 280 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. To be in the midst of its awesome grandeur is nothing less than a spiritual experience.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad, completed in 1961, offers accessibility to a small number of the spectacular chasms. However, the train travels well back of the rim, giving few glimpses into the canyons themselves. To truly experience the magnificence of this remote wilderness, you must get off the train for several days and descend into the heart of the rugged canyon depths.
I made the excursion to the Copper Canyon area in December of 1997. It was a grand adventure, enhanced by the fact that I made no advance reservations (other than my plane tickets). I had, however, gotten information on the Internet and had a general idea of my schedule and the hotels I might choose. I've come to love the adventure of traveling alone and traveling cheap. Relatively cheap anyway. I eat simply but well. I like a room to myself. I don't hunt for the very cheapest accommodations and transportation, nor do I tolerate shared bathrooms. Even so, traveling as I did you can (excluding airfare) have a wonderful 10-day Copper Canyon excursion for less than $400. Here are the nuts and bolts: I flew to El Paso, Texas, then crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico by bus. I continued by bus from Juarez to Chihuahua, and then took the train to Creel, which is a popular "jumping-off" place to visit the canyon depths. In El Paso I stayed one night at La Hacienda Airport Inn, 915-772-4231, about $47 including tax for a single room with a AAA discount. They have a free airport shuttle, and more importantly, free transportation to the Greyhound station for the bus trip across the border to Juarez. (I was told a taxi costs $30.)
Plan to be at the Greyhound station by about 8:30 a.m. The bus departs every hour and a half unless it is late...and the fare is $5. Remember that El Paso is on Mountain Time, and just across the border, the time is an hour later because Juarez is on Central Time. The trip itself takes only about half an hour. Just across the bridge into Mexico, the bus will stop at immigration. Go inside the building and get your tourist card validated. (Best to pick up one in advance from AAA or a travel agency and have it already filled out.) Re-board the bus, which will continue on to the main terminal in Juarez. You might be able to buy your ticket for Chihuahua on the bus. Otherwise, go inside the terminal and take your pick of numerous bus companies, with departures for Chihuahua every half-hour. The first-class buses have bathrooms and all cost about $18. I rode Transportes Chihuahuenses.
If you have time, Chihuahua is worth exploring for a couple of days. I stayed two nights at the Hotel El Dorado (a Days Inn) at Calle 14a and Julian Carrillo, $26 a night for a single ($30 for a double), including the 17 percent tax. A taxi from the bus station is about 20 pesos, less than $3. The room was quite comfortable, but if you are a light sleeper, request an interior room; traffic noise can be loud in the rooms facing the street.
From Chihuahua, I took the first-class train to Creel. It departs daily at 7:00 a.m. Be at the CHP train station at 6:00 to buy your ticket, or even better, visit the train station between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m. the day before your departure to buy the ticket. I planned to travel the entire 406 miles from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, near the Pacific coast, with a stop-off in Creel. My train ticket cost $58, which included a 25 percent surcharge that allowed me to get off at Creel and re-board the train at a later date. In retrospect, it would have been cheaper (and no problem) to buy a ticket only to Creel, and a few days later buy one from Creel to Los Mochis. (There is also bus service between Chihuahua and Creel.) If you'll return to Chihuahua from Creel, just buy a one-way ticket to Creel.
For the return you might choose to travel by bus. Or if you return by train, just hop on and the conductor will sell you a ticket when you're underway. Leaving Chihuahua, the train runs first through open plains and rolling hills. The first stop is Cuauhtemoc, established by Canadian Mennonites in 1921. The area is noted for some of Mexico's best apple orchards and its fine white cheddar cheese. The altitude increases en route and about five hours from Chihuahua you arrive in Creel at an elevation of 7,708 feet. The small frontier logging village is a popular stop-over point for exploration of the region's waterfalls, alpine forests, hot springs, and native villages. From here, travelers can also venture by bus to Batopilas, about 80 miles from Creel and almost 6,000 feet in the depths of a remote canyon.
As I stepped off the train at Creel, I was able to understand a youngster who asked me if I wanted to go to Margarita's. "Sí," I replied, as Margarita's was a hotel on my list of possibilities. He grabbed my duffel bag and off we went. My room had its own bath and was quite nice for the price 150 pesos a day (less than $19), breakfast and dinner included. Margarita's was home to many young people, as she also offers dorm accommodations for less than $4 a day including two meals. The meals, which were served at a big table, provided a wonderful opportunity to meet other travelers. The first night at dinner we had eleven nationalities represented. With several of my new friends from Margarita's, I made the strenuous hike to Rocohuata Hot Springs in the bottom of 1,500-foot deep Tararecua Canyon. It's a 45-minute drive to the canyon rim. The guide who drove us there and then waited to drive us back to Creel charged 60 pesos each, or about $7.50. The hike down over a narrow path with many switchbacks, sometimes treacherous from loose rocks and gravel, took an hour. At the bottom we could relax in the soothing hot waters. The hike back up took almost two hours with many brief stops to catch our breath.
Whether by local tour vehicles or hiking, interesting attractions abound with Creel as your base. San Ignacio Mission is a short walk to the south. The Valley of the Monks, about six miles from Creel, is a stunning valley of free-standing rock spires. Lake Arereco is a beautiful mountain lake nearby. Drive to the area of Cusarare Falls, and then hike about 45 minutes to the 100-foot falls themselves over a well-maintained trail.
From Creel, I left by bus at 6:00 a.m. for the 80-mile trip to Batopilas, formerly the site of the world's richest silver mine. Each one-way bus fare is 80 pesos, or $10. The bus departs for Batopilas every other day, and makes the return trip to Creel on alternate days. Batopilas began to boom in the 1740s and local legend says its cobblestone streets were once paved with silver. It is inaccessible except for one narrow gravel road that plunges almost 6,000 feet to the canyon floor via an incredible set of switchbacks clinging to the side of the canyon for mile after breathtaking mile.
The bus trip to the bottom of the canyon takes seven or eight hours. Batopilas (population 1,150) occupies one single, narrow street along the river with towering canyon walls rearing up in all directions. Temperatures are some 30 degrees warmer than at the top of the canyon and you find that forests of cactus have replaced stands of pine. With near tropical weather in the winter, the summer months are said to be almost unbearably hot and humid. (In the picture you can barely see the white streaks, which are the switchbacks of the road that we would eventually reach on our downward journey.)
The mysterious Tarahumara Indians, who number about 40,000 and are the second largest indigenous group of native Americans on the continent, inhabit caves throughout the area of the canyons. Most of these peaceful, reclusive people speak only their own language, not Spanish. They are known as powerful runners and are said to be able to run a deer to exhaustion.
Several new friends from Margarita's and I stayed at Hotel Batopilas. My room with bath was $5 a night. No, that's not a misprint--$ 5! It was very basic, but comfortable enough. As is usual in Batopilas, ask the hotel owner to light the water heater about an hour before you want a shower. Most hotels are similar and the number of rooms are limited. If you prefer more luxury at still a reasonable price, you might want to make an advance reservation at the newer Casa Real de la Mina. It's very nice and I hear that they do honor their reservations unusual in this remote area where most succumb to the first person who shows up with cash. They quoted about $23 for a single, $25 for a double. The phone number is (91-145) 6-06 32. If you don't speak Spanish, ask someone who does to make the call for you're unlikely to find anyone by phone who speaks p Places to eat in Batopilas are limited, too. The patio at the Hotel Mary has good food but slow service. (Who cares? Here you don't need to be in a hurry.) Dona Mica serves wonderful meals on her front porch. Ask directions to her house and make reservations in advance to eat whatever she cooks that day. (It's to the right just past Casa Morales, a little store that gives good exchange rates for dollars to pesos.) There's also the Swinging Bridge Restaurant and Carolina's, neither of which I tried.
In Batopilas, we took a magnificent two-hour hike along the river to the Lost Cathedral of Satevó, a 400-year-old cathedral constructed in the likeness of the great cathedrals of Europe. No records exist about who built it or why. Burnt candles on the stone floor show it's still in use. I took the picture along the hike. You can barely see the cathedral on a hill above the river.
Another day, a short hike took us to the ruins of the Hacienda San Miguel. Here are the remains of the lavish gothic-style mansion built by in 1880 by Alexander Shepherd, owner of the Batopilas Mining Company. Billions in silver left on the backs of mules for the five-day trip over a narrow, winding path. The mines made Batopilas one of Mexico's wealthiest cities in those days. A tropical riverside oasis, Batopilas is a haven for ecological, cultural, and historic exploration. It's wise to plan at least three days here.
When you're ready to return to Creel, the bus leaves at 5:00 a.m. You'll arrive about 1:00 p.m. and could get a bus to Chihuahua that afternoon. However, it's more relaxing to spend another night in Creel and take your choice of the bus or train the next day. Copper Canyon will be enjoyed by anyone with a sense of adventure and a reasonable level of fitness. I recommend staying four or five nights in Creel and a minimum of three nights in Batopilas. When to go? Almost any time of the year, I'd avoid the canyon depths in the summer. Batopilas in the winter is wonderful. Winter days in Creel at the canyon rim are usually sunny with temperatures in the 60s to 70s, but nights can reach the low teens. There can be short stretches of snow from December through February. (When I was there in December, we did have snow in Creel for a couple of days.) During the fall, you'll find almost perfect temperatures in both Batopilas and Creel. Go! Partake of the magic!
A Visit to the Bottom of Mexico's Copper Canyon By Stephanie Bernhagen
Words can not do the trip to Batopilas in the Copper Canyon justice. We have to rank it among the most awesome sights we have seen. Drive time from Creel is 4 ½ to 5 hours. Allow more time if you are stopping for lots of pictures and/or lunch (that you packed) on the way. The total distance is about 87 miles, with about 40 miles of that being gravel/dirt. We learned before leaving Batopilas that going just ahead of Holy Week is a good time to go as the road has been graded and big rocks removed for the many people who will be traveling the road during Holy Week.
Be sure to stop at the Pemex just before the turn to Batopilas for the bathroom, and fuel if needed. You won’t get fuel in Batopilas. There are no lights or running water in the Pemex bathroom. They must use buckets to flush with.
The road from Creel to the Batopilas turn is as good as any good US highway, with beautiful mountain scenery. As you leave Creel look to the right and you will see people living in caves on the edge of town.
When you make the turn to Batopilas you will quickly realize what you are in for over the next 3-4 hours. The road is now dirt and becomes rough. Rather we thought it was rough, but it was a highway compared to what lies ahead. The scenery for the first 14 miles or so will make you think what am I doing this for? Actually this road has a government stamp for RVs as they have brought a trailer to the village of Kirare (Quirare)! You will also see a small house with a solar panel and satellite dish. The fun is about to begin!
You will now start down a good grade through a canyon and along mountainside with only one lane and few pull off spots. Time to pray you don’t meet anyone before you get through this section. Once through this section you will continue your descent into the canyon along switchbacks that seem to go on forever. There are several good spots to take pictures of these switchbacks.
By now you may have already found that the natives and Indians get around by hitching rides. When we were close to Batopilas an Indian hopped in the back of our pickup for the rest of the trip. He was dressed in the traditional wrap-around shorts. His being along met we had to go slower so he wasn’t bounced around any more than necessary. When we reached Batopilas he jumped out and disappeared. No thank you. Use your own judgment whether you want to pick these folks up. Safety probably isn’t an issue though.
The road into the canyon continues up and down and winds around with awesome rugged scenery with every color you can think of for the last 25 miles. There are a couple of spots that were steep enough that our 2-wheeldrive truck had a little problem with traction – but it doesn’t take much for that to happen. There are only one or two other sections where the road is narrow without many pullouts. You will be watching for rolling dust in the distance to assure you have enough time to find a pullout. We only had a problem with this once on our return trip where two cargo trucks were coming at us. We got over at the last minute.
None too soon you will see the bridge over the river to Batopilas. As we drove into Batopilas Paul asked if this was the only road as much of it is only one lane wide. Expect to pull over and let others through and with the pickups you may need to jockey to get around corners.
High clearance vehicles will have no problem making the trip but you may find using a tour guide easier than driving. The stress of driving that far on rough, narrow roads with some good drop-offs is tiring. Paul and I were exhausted and both needed a nap when we arrived in Batopilas and again when we got home.
While in Batopilas we met five American’s and their guide – Sam. He had brought them down in a van. They said he was good about explaining what they were seeing and stopping for photos. His English was good too. Here is Sam’s contact information:
Samuel Zamarron Perez
Casa De Huespedes Perez
Calle Oscar Flores #257
Creel, Chih., Mexico
Sam can make hotel arrangements at Chula Vista for 80 pesos per person. We are not familiar with this hotel, so can not speak for the accommodations.
Sam was agreeable with making reservations for the hotel we stayed at, which was Hotel Juanita. Hotel Juanita was one of three hotels recommended by The Three Amigos in Creel. The Three Amigos are a wonderful resource for the area. They rent Nissan Crew Cabs for trips to Batopilas and also rent bikes for day trips, but they did not push their services on us. Here is how to get in touch with them: Av. Lopez Mateos #46, Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico, C.P. 33200, 01-635-456-0036 or 01-635-456-0546, 3 Amigo's Adventures.
Back to Hotel Juanita, if you are driving yourself drive all the way through town and turn left right after the plaza (Plaza Principal). This turn is challenging for pickups, but is doable. At the next corner turn left and park. Hotel Juanita is on the right. We paid 300 pesos for our room – the penthouse on the third floor. It was large, had four single beds and a good size bathroom. There was a window you could step through onto the roof patio overlooking the river where you can watch the kids play in the water and the mothers do the laundry while you have happy hour or watch the sun set. We don’t think there are any washing machines in town. The shower water is not exactly hot, but the temperatures in Batopilas made the warm shower feel refreshing. There was no problem with our dog staying either. If you want the room we had ask for #10. I am sure the other rooms are equally acceptable, although we didn’t see any of them.
After we got settled we were up for the 4.3 mile trip down a narrow road on the edge of the mountain to Satevó cathedral. From Hotel Juanita back up on to the block you came around and continue through town. I was amazed to see a guy rebuilding engines right in the dirt street. Don’t put it in my vehicle! Stay to the left and follow the river. You can see Satevó cathedral off in the distance with a swinging bridge in the foreground.
We walked around Satevó cathedral admiring the exterior work. When we were at the back of the cathedral we greeted a fellow and asked about getting in the cathedral. He went and got a key and let us in. One of the interesting things he pointed out was that people are buried in the cathedral floor. We tipped him for letting us in.
We walked around town a little bit, than started looking for the restaurants that The Three Amigos had recommended. We could only definitely locate one of them – Restaurant Carolina’s. To get here walk up the same block you went around the Plaza Principal on and take a left to a second plaza (Plaza Chica). Restaurant Carolina’s is on the left side of the second plaza.
When we looked in the restaurant, even though it was early, we found the five Americans and their guide Sam. They invited us to come join them. We had a nice visit while we ordered and ate. It seems the five of them had driven one of their motorhomes to El Fuerte, where they hopped on the train and went to Creel. In Creel they hooked up with Sam for their trip to Batoplis. They were none too pleased when Paul told them how cheap the train is if you buy your own ticket instead of a package like they bought.
The meal at Restaurant Carolina’s was good. We had number 5 & 9. One was shredded beef tacos and the other was like a Mexican hash. We checked out the breakfast menu and made arrangements for the restaurant to be open for breakfast. I’m not sure if you need to make arrangements, but it was good to make sure we had a place for breakfast. Breakfast was among our best meal in Mexico, if not our best meal. Paul had pancakes and I had eggs and shredded beef. Yum! The Americans were back to join us for breakfast. They commented on how good the coffee was at Carolina’s. They also serve espresso & cappuccino. But bring your own chocolate! There are no sweets in town!
Bring lots of film or digital camera picture capacity.
First you will be changing back to Mountain time. This is important to know if you want a hot shower. Be sure to ask what time the water will be hot for your shower! You may even have to ask when they will have water. It has been intermittent, so bring plenty of water with you. When you go shower, send the man first since it gets hot first, & while he is showering women run the hot water in your shower. It will take at least 5 minutes to get there.
Booking the First Class ChePe train has never been easier. Simply choose where and when you want to go, the press the "submit button" at the bottom of this page. You can even request prices for hotels, transfers and tours using the "Special Requests" window at the bottom of the page.
First class train departs daily from Los Mochis and Chihuahua. Tickets must be picked up from the train station or conductor. You can pay for the ticket(s) by cash or major credit card (Visa or MasterCard only). We recommend arriving at the depot at least 60 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Approximate one way fares (taxes and fees are extra):
|Chihuahua||6:00 am||---||8:45 pm||$126|
|Cuahtemoc||8:15 am||$25||6:23 pm||$109|
|Creel||11:15 am||$56||3:24 pm||$69|
|Divisadero||12:34 pm||$66||2:05 pm||$63|
|Divisadero||12:54 pm||$66||1:45 pm||$63|
|Posada||1:00 pm||$67||1:40 pm||$56|
|San Rafael||1:18 pm||$69||1:30 pm||$55|
|San Rafael||1:25 pm||$69||1:20 pm||$55|
|Bahuichivo||2:17 pm||$75||12:27 pm||$49|
|Temoris||3:15 pm||$82||11:26 pm||$41|
|El Fuerte||6:10 pm||$107||8:30 am||$17|
|Los Mochis||8:50 pm||$122||6:00 am||---|