Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Big Mexico: Barrancas de Cobre (Copper Canyon)

Saturday morning seemed to come awfully quickly. Our breakfast included the usual Mexican items: pan dulces, stiff coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, plus an egg dish made with the leftover meat from the banquet the night before.

Eduardo, the city tour guide, had also been hired by Nichols Expeditions to take us to Creel where we would meet up with the next set of guides. Eduardo spoke English very well, and had a fondness for cookies. We stopped, north of Cuauhtemoc, to see the Mennonite museum. A large group of conservative Mennonites from Canada purchased many thousands of acres back in the 1920's to start a community. Since then, they have continued to purchase farm land and grow their 'campos'. They are incredibly prosperous, with modern homes that resemble the ranch-style mc-mansions in the Panhandle of Texas. Lining the road, all the way north, were farm implement dealerships, car dealerships, fertilizer and seed stores, just about any kind of industry you can imagine that has anything to do with farming. Most of the apples grown in Mexico are grown in this area, along with oats, wheat, corn, and other staples.
Mennonite Museum near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua

Many of the farms are dairies, and cheese is one of their primary exports. We stopped at a cheese factory and were impressed with how clean it was and how wonderful it smelled. Someone purchased a half kilo of fresh cheese and cut it up for all of us to sample. It had that slight squeek when you bite into it, typical of new cheeses.  The museum was full of old implements, tools and household goods. The building itself was typical of a large family dwelling, complete with pantry on the north wall full of home canned fruits and vegetables, butter churns, wood stove, and an enormous table with a bench seat (for boys) on the wall side, and chairs for the girls (who would be getting up often to serve) on the opposite side. The bedrooms were decked out with normal beds, convertible beds (a bench by day....lift the lid and it's a bed inside), clothing, decorations, Hope Chest, etc, typical of boys' and girls' rooms, plus a salon and master bedroom.

The Mennonites are still in villages all over the huge valley. Some are very conservative, others have become more modern. We visited the home of a conservative family that makes cookies the old German way. The home, yard, barnyard, and grounds were immaculate and manicured. The women still dress in puffy sleeved long dresses, gathered at the waist, with hair pulled back in a bun. The cookies were frozen and there were many kinds to choose from. Most of us purchased a few but were too full from breakfast and the cheese break to eat any. When we finally got around to trying them, they were very soft, more like small cakes and quite sweet.

In the museum, the hostess and other locals spoke German. My tour room-mate Lia is German and she had fun chatting with them in their old dialect. Most speak Spanish too, which they learn in school. Eduardo told us that the children still go only through 8th grade. From the Mennonite perspective, too much education leads young people away from the old lifestyle and religion.

The entire area from Cuauhtemoc north to Colonia Alvaro Obregon is Mennonite territory. They are also a large employer of the Tarahumaras from Copper Canyon, and they've been very generous sending food and needed equipment to those poor people who have suffered so much from the drought of the last three years. There appears to be a loving and strong sybiotic relationship between the Tarahumaras and the Mennonites.

Creel: The route to Creel was curvy and through forests resembling Northern New Mexico. Our guide Eduardo bid us farewell and turned us over to new guides, Noel and Manuel who loaded our luggage into two large vans equipped with seats on the top for spectacular viewing opportunities.

Our guides for Barrancas de
Cobre: Roberto and Noel
The amusing long-toed boots that
men in Chihuahua favor.


Stone Hongos
After lunch at a local restaurant, we headed down into the canyon to visit some Tarahumara villages that have been devastated by the drought. According to Noel they have received less than 6 inches of rain in the last three years!! They've lost entire apple and cherry orchards and have quit planting corn altogether since they've lost three yearly crops in a row. Their agriculture is almost exclusively dependent on the annual summer rains.

The area had some interesting rock formations in the shape of 'hongos' (mushrooms) and the second area had tall slim monoliths like standing monks in their robes. One village featured a store inside a cave where several women were selling things they'd made like wooden dolls, woven belts, toys, jewelry, and musical instruments. The area was dusty and bone dry. Dogs were skinny and worn. It's a wonder anyone is able to survive there at all.

A Tarahumara family compound.

The cave store and it's proprietress.

Little girl with her cat.
The next major stop was in a small town with a beautiful cemetery and church. It was full of people milling around waiting to receive their allotment of food from the government. It was being distributed from the front door of the church. As the newly arrived tourists we were inundated by children and young women selling crafts and chewing gum. The food consisted mostly of wheat flour, corn masa, dried noodles, dried beans, and sugar. Since most of the people had traveled by foot for long distances, it was probably beneficial that it wasn't mostly canned goods.

As the sun began to set, we drove further into the higher reaches of Barrancas de Cobre to our hotel, a primitive log building set against cliffs facing a river, near the town of Cusuare. On the way to the hotel I noticed a clinic and wondered if it might not be a good idea to talk to a doctor. I'd had several embarrassing coughing fits and worried that I might spread this horrid cold to the others in our cramped quarters in the vans.

Church where people received food.
Felicia and I went to see if anyone was at the clinic. It turned out that the clinic is also the temporary home of the doctor in residence. He was there, a tall slim man with the face of a saint. He practically gathered me into his arms and led me back to the exam room where I sat in a chair next to the desk. He never asked for my name, or any details of my health, nor did he weigh me, but he did take my blood pressure. I explained about the cold and the coughing. He shown a light down my throat and pronounced it infected, then rummaged around in some boxes on the floor for a box of pills and gathered a couple more medicines from the amply stocked shelves. He took a magic marker and slowly told me, as he made short deliberate marks on each box......"Morning, noon, evening", three marks on one box. "Morning only, then evening"....two marks on a plastic bottle. "Morning, noon, evening and bedtime", four marks on that box. I realized that my not speaking fluent Spanish may have prompted him to use the technique he probably uses daily with the Tarahumaras to make sure we all know when to take each medicine.

He refused to accept any money. "But I'm not a Mexican citizen" I said. He shook his head and replied, "This is a service of the Government." Wow. Real socialized medicine in action. How wonderful for him to be practicing where he doesn't have to fill out any forms, put information into some distant computer database, or go through all the other bureaucratic crap that Americans have to go through. I thanked him profusely and went back to the room to take one each of those medications as quickly as I could!

Our rustic hotel with kerosene lamps.
In the area around the little hotel there is no electricity, all light comes from kerosene lanterns. It's high in elevation so the nights can range from chilly to freezing. Each room had a bathroom with hot running water, kerosene lamps, and a pot-bellied stove for heat. At the end of the row of rooms was a large dining room with a huge fireplace at one end. We had 'happy hour' with wine margaritas and plenty of beer, followed by dinner with many local dishes, well prepared by our Tarahumara hostesses in their colorful dresses. Back in the rooms, someone had lit the fires and each one was warm and redolent with the smell of kerosene.

A family headed home with food for a week!

Valley of the Monks

A regular Monastery!


  1. Copper Canyon generally refers to three geographical areas consisting of various canyons. However, Copper Canyon is a specific copper mine in the area known as the Copper Canyon, near the village of Tejaban. This great area today consists of mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers and canyons known as Barrancas del Cobre or The Copper Canyon.

    Topographically the Copper Canyon starts at Humira Bridge, and continues to Tejaban, Divisadero and ends above the mining town of Urique.

    The mountain covers approximately 2,500 square miles.

    The major canyons within this system are:

    Canyon Oteros with 3.225 feet deep
    Batopilas Canyon to 5.904 feet deep
    Canyon Tararecua with 4.674 feet deep
    Copper Canyon with 5.770 feet deep
    Canyon Sonforosa with 5.904 feet deep
    Urique Canyon with 6.136 feet deep

    The Copper Canyon is usually compared with the Gran Canyon, which covers an area four times smaller and is less deep than Coper Canyon.

    1. Thank you for the added information. I had been told that no copper was mined in the Copper Canyon System, so it's good to know that's not true.