Into the Heart of Tarahumara Country, Copper Canyon, Mexico

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15575A, International

Highlights

  • Explore one of the world’s most scenic canyons by train and on foot
  • Witness rural Tarahumara Indian village celebrations
  • Camp in a Tarahumara village
  • Discover neotropical birds and exotic plants of four climatic zones

Includes

  • Four-day burro-supported trek, camping through spectacular scenery and visiting a remote Tarahumara Indian village
  • Three-day exploration of Batopilas, a mining town deep in Copper Canyon

Details

DatesApr 12–25, 2015
Price$3,835 (10–12)
$4,435 (or fewer)
Deposit$200
Capacity12
StaffTim Wernette

Trip Overview

The Trip

The Sierra Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) is a high and rugged section of the Sierra Madre Occidental and one of Mexico's premier attractions. The term "Copper Canyon," or "Las Barrancas del Cobre," refers to one of the Sierra's most salient geographical features: its vast network of canyons, of which at least four (each over 5,400 feet deep) are deeper than the Grand Canyon. This region harbors four distinct climatic zones: the highlands up to 8,000 feet, with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir; the pinon-oak-juniper at slightly lower elevations; the tropical deciduous thorn forest just below the canyon tops; and the canyon bottoms, with tropical-subtropical riparian forests.

These forests contain the largest stands of old-growth forest in the Americas and produce more pine and oak than any other area in the world. Mexican wolf, black bear, and puma live in the highlands. Wide-ranging mammals include white-tailed deer, coyote, bobcat, javelina, ringtail, coati, and river otter. Over 200 migratory and indigenous bird species have been spotted here, including eared and elegant trogon, solitary eagle, squirrel cuckoo, crested caracara, green parakeet, and military macaw.

The 25,000 square miles of Copper Canyon are also the traditional homeland of Mexico's 50,000 Tarahumara, whose lifestyle is in many ways much the same as that of their ancestors. The majority of Tarahumara live in caves, along rivers, and in small log cabins on the canyon floor, cultivating the land, using time-tested methods. Life in this rugged wilderness has made them adept at maneuvering the steep mountainsides on foot; they are noted for their long-distance running ability, even up and down the steep mountain trails. We will undoubtedly find groups of Tarahumara women and children making beautiful woven baskets, belts, and wooden figures to sell.

Before we head to Copper Canyon, we'll spend a day exploring the country around El Fuerte, boating and birding on the Rio El Fuerte and visiting a local Mayo Indian village to observe their culture and tradition, including native dance performances.

We will begin our journey to Copper Canyon on the first-class Copper Canyon train of the Chihuahua al Pacifica Railway. We start near sea level, passing over 26 bridges and through 50 tunnels in 200 miles to reach an elevation of close to 8,000 feet. We will disembark at Posada Barranca and meet our outfitter, who will guide us on a five-day, burro-assisted trek to a remote Tarahumara Indian village, where we will witness rarely seen festivities. The burros will carry all our gear except for a light day pack. The remainder of our trip will be spent in comfortable hotels on the rim near Creel and at river-level in Batopilas, one of the most remote towns in North America. Throughout our trip we will hike in the canyons and visit historical sites.

Itinerary

Note: Itinerary is subject to change due to weather conditions or other factors.

Day 1: We meet at the airport in Los Mochis in the early evening and take a van to our comfortable lodge in the charming colonial riverside town of El Fuerte. After settling into our rooms, we have a delicious dinner at the lodge and get acquainted at our orientation meeting.

Day 2: The first full day of our trip will be exploring the area around El Fuerte. In the morning we'll take a boat tour on the Rio El Fuerte, seeing many regional birds on the river and along the lush banks and visiting some ancient Native American pictographs. After lunch we'll visit the local Mayo Indian village and witness some of their culture, quite different from that of the Tarahumara Indians in Copper Canyon. We'll return to our comfortable lodge for dinner and overnight accommodations.

Day 3: After meeting our outfitters as we disembark the train, we are transported to Mansion Tarahumara where we'll have a late lunch and then take a scenic two-mile walk to the canyon rim before dinner in the evening.

Day 4: After a hearty breakfast we'll meet our local guides and watch the arrieros (burro drivers) pack up our gear for our hiking and camping over the next five days. We'll carry a day pack with hiking essentials and begin our trek along trails that are used daily by the Tarahumara Indians for commerce and commuting to work. The Oteros drainage lies to the west of the ridge, standing high above the Urique River. We'll probably have lunch in an apple orchard, part of Rancho El Manzano, where the parents of one of our guides (Jilo) settled about the time the railroad was constructed. The camp for our first night is in a bowl formed by the junction of two ridges, with some unusual and beautiful rock formations. We descend 1,200 feet, 5 miles.

Days 5: We continue our descent toward the Rio Oteros, camping at Arenales ("arena" means "sand" in Spanish), which is above a sandbar at the confluence of the side drainage we've been descending and the Rio Oteros. If it's warm/hot, the cool water of the Rio Oteros will feel very refreshing. We descend 1,200 feet, 6 miles.

Day 6: Today we ascend to the rural Tarahumara Indian village, and we'll have some good views of one of the Rio Oteros narrows. We cross over numerous ridges to the pastoral, remote village located on a tributary of the Rio Oteros. The setting is inspiring, with thousand-foot cliffs surrounding the little adobe homes, dotted with fields of corn and the freshly whitewashed visita (church) sitting peacefully on its promontory in the middle of the rancho.  We'll likely be greeted by village dogs, burros, and chickens, and probably some of the village children and elders.  If we're fortunate, the gobernador (mayor) of the rancho will provide some musical entertainment for us and we'll witness some of their spring festivities and celebrations. We ascend 900 feet, 6 miles.

Day 7: We'll ascend the secluded valley of Arroyo Reedyua, where we'll visit Mogollan-era cliff dwellings and pictographs and camp on the last night of our trek. Ascend 800 feet, 4 miles.

Day 8: We ascend back to the rim on the last day of our trek and welcome the hot showers and civilization of Mansion Tarahumara, our hotel for the night. Ascend 900 feet, 6 miles.

Day 9: After breakfast we travel most of the day in our private van, driving 5,000 feet down through several different ecological zones to the remote town of Batopilas on the Batopilas River. The site of one of the richest silver strikes in the world, Batopilas is a throwback to an earlier, quieter era of Mexico. There we will most likely encounter traditional Tarahumara coming into town to buy staples and then returning on the town’s footpaths to their cave dwellings. We spend three nights at a comfortable lodge near the river.

Day 10: In the morning, we hike on a lovely trail by the river and visit a school and community near Batopilas. After a riverside picnic, we visit the ruins of the mining company that once dominated the town and region.

Day 11: We spend the morning hiking on the Camino Real, the original "Royal Road" used by mining companies to transport their silver ore by burros up to Mexico City. Expect wide views of the river and surrounding desert countryside. We have lunch at the Satevo church/mission, which has been lovingly restored. We van back to Batopilas and relax at our lodge.

Day 12: Today we leave Batopilas and drive up the canyon to a lovely lodge in the pine forest, where we take a hike to a nearby waterfall.

Day 13: A short ride from the lodge takes us to Creel, the hub town of the Copper Canyon area. Here we’ll have time to shop for souvenirs if we want. We take the late-morning train back to El Fuerte, arriving there for a late dinner.

Day 14: A taxi ride takes us back to the airport at Los Mochis and our flights home.

Photos

Details

Getting There

We will meet in the early evening of Sunday, April 12th, at the airport in Los Mochis (LMM), which is accessible by Aeromexico from a couple of western U.S. cities. The trip concludes on Saturday, April 25th, at the Los Mochis airport. Group transfers will be provided between the airport and El Fuerte, which is a 1.5-hour drive away. Please do not make non-refundable travel arrangements until notified to do so by the trip leader.

Accommodations and Food

Our meals will be tasty, plentiful, and nourishing. All of our meals are made from scratch in the restaurants we visit and on our trek. Vegetarians will be accommodated easily since most meals in Mexico include beans and rice.

We spend nine nights in lodges, ranging from a rustic guesthouse to comfortable lodges, and four nights camping in tents on our trek. Our outfitter supplies roomy two-person tents, which the crew sets up and takes down for us. All of our lodges feature double rooms with private bathrooms. We will use a portable outhouse on our trek.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is moderately strenuous; during the burro-assisted trekking and camping portion, we will be hiking up to six miles per day at elevations from 5,300 to 7,700 feet, with daily elevation changes up to 1,200 feet. Temperatures usually range from 55 to 75 degrees on the rim and from 60 to 85 degrees in the canyons. This trip will appeal to participants who are in good physical shape and who enjoy outdoor activities as well as new cultural experiences.

Equipment and Clothing

Broken-in hiking boots, hiking poles, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and day pack are the basic equipment needed for the trekking portion of this trip. Our outfitter will provide two-person tents. A complete packing list will be sent to each trip member by the trip leader.

References

Maps:

  • Touristic Guide of Sierra Tarahumara, Chihuahua

Books:

  • Cummings, Joe, Northern Mexico Handbook. Moon Publications, 1998.
  • Fayhee, John, Mexico's Copper Canyon Country. Cordillera Press, 1989.
  • Fontana, Bernard, Tarahumara: Where Night is the Day of the Moon. Northland Press, 1979.
  • Kennedy, John, The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Beer, Ecology, and Social Organizing. AHM Publishing Corp., 1978.

Conservation

The ongoing drought continues to be a major problem in the mountains of the Copper Canyon region. The Tarahumara, as well as the local mestizo population, practice dry farming, and are thus susceptible to prolonged periods of little rain. As well, the peoples of the region are dependent on rainfall to recharge the water table and on the springs to supply the drinking water -- some of which are drying out.

The ongoing development in the region is very controversial. Tourism officials in the state of Chihuahua are planning a canyon rim complex (more hotels, etc) to coincide with the completion of a new airport in Creel. This development will, of course, make some people very rich and tourists happy, but there is no evidence that it will help the Tarahumara or their culture in any way. The encroachment of "chabochi (Anglo) culture" continues to the detriment of the native population. One of the major hotels in a town on the rim, for example, continues to dump black water into a populated canyon below, even while insisting that repairs are taking place. The drug cartels are pushing their cultivation of poppies and marijuana deeper and deeper into the canyons, displacing traditional Tarahumara cultivation. The article, "A People Apart," by Cynthia Gorney in the November 2008 issue of National Geographic has some good, current information on the region.

Staff

Leader:

Tim Wernette has been leading Sierra Club Outings since 1980, including service trips, water/rafting trips, and international trips to Central/South America (Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador/Galapagos Islands, Peru) and Asia (Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam and Laos/Cambodia). Tim is semi-retired and works part-time doing gender equity educational work in Arizona and volunteers in Saguaro NP. Tim has visited Copper Canyon three times prior to our trip: once on a private trip with his work colleagues, as a trainee and as a Sierra Club leader in 2013.

Associate Leader:

Holly Wenger

Contact the Staff

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