When we climbed down off the train in Bahuichivo we met a man named Mario and in many ways he and his family personified a delightful new sense of Mexico that we came to appreciate during our Copper Canyon adventure.
Mario and his extended family own and operate the San Isidro Lodge situated in the mountains above Cerocahui (Grasshopper Hill in the Tarahumara language), which is a 45-minute drive from the train station in Bahuichivo (Land of Mist). We were the only guests being picked up at the train on the day we arrived, but we soon learned that an empty seat is rare in a vehicle traveling through this mountainous region and we left the train station with a van full of people needing rides.
As we left town we came across a spray painted plywood sign leaning against a rock, saying “desviación” (deviation). We turned off the paved road and headed up the bumpiest, muddiest, steepest road I’d ever seen; basically we were just four-wheeling cross-country. Mario said that the government is paving the road between Bahuichivo and Cerocahui. It was pretty obvious that working in the rainy season presents a problem as we drove through huge muddy potholes and watched the road crew trying to pull two huge backhoes on treads out of the mud.
With plenty of bumps and jostles and heads banging against windows, we finally arrived in the charming village of Cerocahui. Mario has lived in here all of his 49 years, and as he said, he knows everyone and everything about the town, and he loves it. There is plenty to love here too; rolling green fields all around town, a town square surrounded by small businesses, and the Mission Cerocahui built by Jesuit missionaries in the 1600’s that is still in use today. We wandered through the church and it was wonderfully cool and quiet with beautiful original carvings and thick rock walls. Then we stopped at Mario’s brother’s house for a quick visit before we headed up the mountain toward the lodge.
Our stay at the San Isidro Lodge opened a window on a world of Mexican ranch life that displayed a simple charm everywhere we looked. The land that the ranch is on is actually owned by the Tarahumara Indians, and is deeded to Mario and his family by benefit of his grandmother having been full-blooded Tarahumara. In the culture of the Tarahumara, land is passed to families as long as the land is worked. If the land isn’t being used then that portion is given to another family. It’s a communal life in that everyone helps everyone and in the smaller villages, the crops and animals are taken care of by everyone in the village.
Our room was in a tiny little cottage with some rustic decor and some great paintings of local animals on the walls. We had the run of the ranch so we walked all over, checking out the sweat lodge, the views from the cliffs, the chickens, cows, and horses all wandering free, AND the Christmas turkey! The land area is small and there is a project going in every corner. We enjoyed all our meals in the main house, cooked and served by Mario’s sisters and everything was yummy.
The highlight of the trip to Cirocahui was our drive down into the Urique Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America. Mario loaded us up in the van at 8:00am and off we went for an adventure. The first of the drive was uphill and across the plateau, and then we started down, down, down….to Urique.
Nestled in the very bottom of the Urique Canyon is the pueblo of Urique which is the county seat. The word “Urique” comes from the Tarahumara word “Uli” meaning land below which to them is synonymous with hot land (The “Uli” was followed by “-qui”, a meaningless ending added to words so they sound better, thus “Uliqui” which the Spanish changed to “Urique”). With an elevation of 1,757 ft. Urique is characterized by a tropical climate, ideal during winter months but almost unbearable during May and June when temperatures can reach 120˚F. The summer rains supposedly cool things off, however it was mighty hot during our visit!
The road down into the canyon was incredible, in that it was barely even a road in places. Consider that we were traveling from 8,000 feet down to 1,700 feet in a relatively short distance. The people of the county used to have to walk down to Urique to get their car licenses or registrations or do any other county regulated work, until the 1970’s when the road was built. When the engineers arrived to build the road, the story goes that they were having trouble figuring out where to put it on the steep rocky cliffs, until a local said that they should just follow the burro trails. Marty’s response to this is “how did the burro know where they wanted to go?”
Thankfully we didn’t have to walk, but there were times when I wondered at our sanity in driving down a dirt road that hadn’t been improved since the 70’s. Exciting, beautiful, scary, and fun! Incredible views of the mountains, the river valley, and the villages perched here and there on the cliffs. We passed Tarahumara schools, small farms, herds of goats, a few cows and burros. On the way back up the mountain we picked up a van load of people walking; an older couple who turned out to be Mario’s aunt and uncle, a Tarahumara mother and her little girl, and the teacher in the Tarahumara school on the mountain. The feel of a handshake with a man who has lived on a ranch in these mountains all his life is a feeling I’ll not forget any time soon; like warmed smooth polished leather.
After our Urique adventure, we headed back to the ranch and watched the thunderstorms move in. Every afternoon lately we’ve been having these great storms with lightning flashing across the sky, sudden winds, and pounding rains – it’s awesome!
The next day we took a hike out to some waterfalls near the town of Cerocahui. Mario’s brother, Luis, was our tour guide and he showed us where the Tarahumara caves were and led us up to the falls. It was a beautiful hike and all the more enjoyable with Luis, our newest amigo!
We were sad to leave Cerocahui and Bahuichivo, but it was time to head back to the train station to catch our train to El Fuerte. While we were waiting for the (late) train, I decided to channel my Mom, who used to put pennies on the train tracks; I put a peso on the tracks and watched the train wheels pound it into a smooth flat disc. Then another big thunderstorm rolled right over us as we were standing in the outdoor waiting area (under a metal roof). When the lightning and thunder hit at the same moment, we decided it was time to move inside, and it was just in time because the rain and hail soon swamped the area, and even started leaking through the windows to make a puddle inside. It was a crazy wild storm made all the more interesting because we were crammed into a 20′ x 20′ room with 100 of our closest friends!
We were soon rolling again, this time down the mountain, through the 86 tunnels and over the 39 bridges, winding across our path and watching all the new waterfalls that had appeared from the storm. Next stop El Fuerte, down in the valley, the valley so low, where it was hot there, why we went I don’t know….(sing it!!!). El Fuerte is a nice colonial town with stately buildings and cobblestone streets, and lots of history. Unfortunately because of all the recent rains (when we arrived the streets were flooded), it was so humid that we could barely breathe and the bugs in our room kept us up most of the night.
We did our touristly duties, exploring the town, sitting under a shade tree in the square, eating quesadillas in the local eatery, reading about local history, and climbing up into the towers of the rebuilt fort. With shirts wet with sweat and faces red we soon retreated to our room and thankfully we were moved to a relatively bugless room with a resident gecko and an air conditioner that cooled us back to a pleasant 98.6.
The next morning we boarded our bus (on time until we had to stop twice to be searched by Federales!) and headed back up the coast to San Carlos where Happy Dance was waiting. Our trip to Copper Canyon was full of incredible scenery, crazy road trips, and encounters with awesome people. For us it was all about getting to know another side of this friendly, frustrating, colorful country. Es muy bonita!!