Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Big Mexico: Batopilas Canyon

The Tarahumara ladies, who made such a delicious dinner the evening before, outdid themselves with breakfast. Their biscuits, made-from-scratch and baked in a wood stove were some of the flakiest, most delicate I've ever eaten. (No offense to my mother!)  In addition they served up some delicious huevos rancheros. 

After that hearty start, we headed further down towards Batopilas Canyon, the deepest of all in the Copper Canyon system. This system is larger than the Grand Canyon and deeper. However, it's not as wide, and therefore not quite as dramatic....until you're driving on a single lane dirt road with huge trucks barreling around the corner, coming your way, and the only way around is down a 2000 foot drop off. Ah, but that's a different kind of drama.

Dick on top!
Our day started out with Dick Opsahl, our fearless leader, climbing up onto the truck. He was ready to go an hour before any of the rest of us. When you're approaching 80, you have to keep moving, and in his case, keep everyone around you moving too!

We visited another Tarahumara village called Bisihuare that featured a number of cave homes. It reminded us New Mexicans of Bandelier National Monument, where the Puebloan ancestors lived in villages partially embedded in natural caves along the south facing walls of Frijoles Canyon. 

It was Sunday and people were on their way to Mass at noon, walking into town from miles around. It is a Tarahumara tradition to run, they are famous for their ability to go long distances running barefoot or with leather and old tire sandals. But mostly the people we saw were walking, usually carrying babies and loads of goods. 

Basihuare is a substantial town with a large boarding school, church, some small stores, and a large area of scattered homes surrounded by fields and orchards. An almost dry river runs through it which is used for irrigation and laundry. 

We hiked around a bit, saw the church and visited with a few locals before reboarding our trucks and heading on down towards Batopilas Canyon.

We'd been told we would have lunch at a scenic spot, so we all expected to hike down some trail and be given a sack lunch with a burrito or a sandwich with some potato chips and a bottle of pop. Imagine the surprise when both trucks suddenly turned off the paved road and headed down a single-lane rutted dirt track for half a mile to arrive at a beautiful spot set up with a long table, white table cloth, cutlery, dishes and wine glasses! We were amazed and delighted. And our lunch was a sumptuous feast cooked over a wood fire on a specially made metal grill. The meat dish contained bacon, sausage, beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and lime juice. In addition the men baked quesadillas with cheese and chile on the flat part of the grill, and served guacamole with totopos (corn chips) and a good Chilean wine. 

Our little picnic spot featured an amazing vista out into Batopilas Canyon. The day was cloudy with fog hanging in the lower valleys giving the view the sense of depth and distance that it deserved. 

Looking down into Batopilas Canyon.

Back on the paved road it wasn't long before we could see the latest government efforts at widening and improving the road. Huge machines were removing pieces of the mountainside shoving the tailings out and down to create a wide smooth path. We were routed onto a narrow dirt passage with a spectacular drop off on the passenger side. I mentioned the phrase "bus plunge" and was promptly asked not to use that term again!  The view down, straight down, way down......about 2000 feet, was spectacular. A tiny stream trickled through the bottom of that deep canyon, but in fact the whitish ripples were rapids on a fairly substantial river. "Bus Plunge" really was the perfect descriptor. 

Our little dirt track widened out slightly to become a winding, twisting single lane road that inched its way down the side of the steep canyon. I asked Noel "What happens if a car comes in the other direction?"

View from the top of Batopilas Canyon
"We work it out." is all he said. He was calm and in full control. We all had seat belts, not that it would do us any good if we rolled over the edge. The road was dry and a bit rocky. There was good traction, so really, unless the brakes failed, we would reach Batopilas in about six hours. 

The long and winding road.....

Many opted to walk or run down the first couple of miles.

That silver sliver is a rather wide river.
Evan and Dick about to ride to the bottom
on the top of the truck. 

Century plants were everywhere.

View into the upper portion of Batopilas Canyon
The vegetation was dry, but seemed
to be surviving the drought.
Our adventure was just getting started. Apparently morning is when many vehicles enter the canyon and in the afternoon many leave to go back up.  In some places the road was wide enough for one or the other to move over to the side but a couple of times the vehicle facing us was a large commercial truck, and we had to back up. Once we rounded a curve and were almost hit head-on by a truck. Rarely was there less than a 200 foot drop on one side of the road or the other. 

Noel had explained that the crosses on the sides of the road, called descansos, are for people who died in an accident. The little structures with saints inside are capillas (little chapels) and are erected to say thank you for the survival of someone in an accident. I noted there were far more descansos than capillas. 

But we made it without a scratch. Batopilas is an interesting Mexican (as opposed to Tarahumara) town. Everything there has been carted down that treacherous road, yet the prices of food, dry goods, and gasoline was not exceptionally inflated. It has a small military base, a substantial river though drastically reduced by the drought, and a suffering economy due to both drought and fear on the part of tourists to visit Mexico. Batopilas has always been a major center of activities for tourists to Copper Canyon. Runners from around the world come here to run with the Tarahumara, take part in their annual super marathons, and the canyon is genuinely photogenic and spectacular.  People are hoping that the road widening will be completed within the year and will result in stimulating the economy. I suspect that it will line the pockets of quite a few people, and may indeed help the locals in the long run. On the other hand, I'm grateful to have experienced it in its primitive state. Next time I visit here, it just won't have quite the same thrill. 

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