As the Copper Canyon's fame spreads beyond Mexico's borders, a steadily growing number of curious, trailblazing travelers are being drawn to the area. Like other do-it-yourself adventurers, I've felt the irresistible allure of this 'Last Frontier.' After all, with genuine cowboys and Tarahumara Indians at virtually every bend, not to mention ancient Spanish missions and lost silver mines, what more could a restless travel writer ask for?
For most people, the Copper Canyon is synonymous with the Copper Canyon Express. If you take the train, I recommend riding from the west (Los Mochis) towards the east (Creel and Chihuahua City). This takes advantage of daylight hours and provides the best views. If you are pressed for time, however, you may find it more convenient to make train connections via Chihuahua City.
Services for tourists on Mexico's national rail system have once again gone into decline. (However, there's hope for the future: the Mexican government may soon 'privatize' its railroads by selling them to private parties.) Regardless of what your travel agent or guidebook may say, don't expect to find a dining car on the first-class Chihuahua-Pacific ("Copper Canyon") train between Chihuahua and Los Mochis. In fact, don't expect to find true 'first-class' service at all, even though you'll be buying a first-class ticket. Pack a good lunch, as well as drinking water and toilet paper.
I'm also sorry to report that delays have been a growing problem between Los Mochis and Creel. According to my sources, the rail line west of Creel has been plagued by washouts, rockfalls, flooded tunnels, derailments and even sabotage by disgruntled ex-railroad employees. Whatever the causes, trains have often been arriving late from Los Mochis. Delays of 2 to 6 hours are common and if it rains hard in the sierra, the daily run might be cancelled.
You may also note bullet holes in a few of the train windows ? last Easter there were at least four robbery attempts during the vacation season. Information on the activity of gavillas (outlaws, desperadoes) is being suppressed here to avoid frightening tourists, but the word around Creel is that the trains will continue to carry heavily armed escorts until things cool down.
I wouldn't cancel a train trip for fear of bandits, but I'd avoid carrying large amounts of cash, uninsured camera equipment or expensive jewelry.
In the unlikely event of a train robbery, be calm, quiet and cooperative. In other words, don't argue; just hand over the loot.
For quick, painless and inexpensive entry into the Copper Canyon from El Paso, take a $5 bus from the El Paso Greyhound depot, over the border to the Juarez station. The bus will stop at the border for a brief baggage inspection. Tell the bus driver you need a tourist card ? it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to run inside to the Migracíon office. (A tourist card is absolutely required to visit Mexico beyond the border zone.) If the driver is impatient, he may leave you at the border. You can pick up the next bus after you've gotten your tourist card. Be sure to keep your bus ticket handy.
As you head toward the Juarez bus terminal, the driver's attendant may offer to reserve a seat to your final destination on the first available bus. To do this, he will radio ahead, make the reservation, then issue you the ticket himself ? at no additional cost. This can be very convenient; on my last trip I stepped off the cross-border bus and jumped right onto a departing Chihuahua-bound bus, without even entering the terminal.
The five hour trip from Ciudad Juarez to Chihuahua City on a luxurious Mercedes Benz, complete with ample leg room, reclining seats and 'inflight' Rambo movies is about $17.00. No wonder the trains are going broke
As in Juarez, the Chihuahua terminal de autobuses is a huge, state-of-the-art bus facility with immaculate restrooms, baggage storage, telephone service, cafeteria and (money exchange). You'll also find a booth selling fixed-rate taxi tickets (downtown Chihuahua is a $5.00 ride).
If you're busing on to Creel or Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, go to the Estrella Blanca ticket booth; this is the only bus line into the Copper Canyon. A ticket to Creel, 4-5 hours away, is about $11.00. There are departures for Creel about every 90 minutes.
Almost all of the public's attention is fixed on the spectacular train ride across the Sierra Madre from Los Mochis to Chihuahua. As a result, a huge area of canyons, mountains and highland forests is ignored by visitors who pass through the Copper Canyon in a matter of hours.
In recent years, however, the dusty rail and logging town of Creel has gradually restyled itself into a regional tourist center and Copper Canyon 'gateway.' The town's small hotels and ho-hum restaurants hardly qualify as exciting, but Creel does provide a friendly, convenient and economical basecamp for explorations into the highland forests and canyons, and tours of nearby Tarahumara communities.
Because information is limited, hiring a local guide can be a convenient shortcut to finding the most interesting places to visit. In addition to daytrips, guides can also provide transportation for longer excursions, arrange meals and find lodging ? valuable services in this rugged country.
As U.S. greenbacks (not coins) spend just as easily in the Copper Canyon as Mexican pesos, I highly recommend that you bring a generous supply of U.S. dollars in denominations of $20, $10, $5 and $1.
"I finally accepted that dollars were universal in the Copper Canyon," Lorena observed, "when I watched a Tarahumara boy in traditional loincloth and headband pay for two Cokes in Batopilas with a one dollar bill."
Nothing unsettles a tourist quite like the outstretched hand of an aggressive beggar. Ironically, tourists often encourage children and adults to beg by distributing treats, money and small novelties. This problem is just beginning to appear in the Copper Canyon, where begging is virtually unknown. (Begging should not be confused with the Tarahumara custom of korima, politely sharing with those in need.)
Simply put, it is not the tradition among Mexicans or Tarahumara to give gifts to strangers. No matter how selfless the intention, unsolicited gifts of money, candy, pens, toys and clothing will quickly turn children into semi-professional beggars. The total quantity of gum, candy and junkfood I observed tourists shoveling into the hands of Tarahumara children outside the Cusarare Mission, day after day, was downright horrifying.
If you'd like to help people, donations left with the Jesuit Mission Store, next to the bank in Creel, will go to support the Tarahumara schools and health clinics in the region. Money, medicines, vitamins, blankets and basic school supplies are especially useful. (Don't bring clothing; the Tarahumara are being swamped with non-traditional castoffs.)
One of western Chihuahua's greatest attractions is the dramatic variety of its scenery and climate. From late autumn through Easter, nighttime temperatures in the pine-and-oak highlands (known locally as the tierra fría or 'cold country') often dip well below freezing. Sleet and snow are not uncommon during the coldest months. The snow melts quickly, but most Mexico-bound travellers would much prefer to use sunscreen rather than gloves and hot water bottles.
Rather than bypass the Copper Canyon in favor of Acapulco or Cancun, however, cold winter temperatures can be avoided with a simple trick: when it's too chilly, go down into the canyons.
This mimics the hard-earned wisdom of the Tarahumara, who use the region's abrupt topography to their best advantage. A few hours of travel to a lower elevation can mean differences of 30 degrees or more in temperature. As spring arrives and the canyon bottoms become warm-to-downright-hot, the Tarahumara (and savvy tourists) migrate upwards again, into the agreeably fresh and cool sierra.
All in all, the best hiking and camping combination (both high country and deep canyons) is probably from mid-October through February or March.
As a general rule, winter hikers and overnight campers should be prepared for both cold and occasional rain: For example, I use virtually the same clothing and gear here that I use at home in the Pacific Northwest. Layering your clothes is especially important, since temperatures on clear sunny days may reach the low 80's in the Alta Tarahumara ? and plunge below freezing at night.
Shoes or Boots?
Last spring I got an unforgettable lesson in 'appropriate footwear' while exploring a canyon near Cusarare with Marsha Hodson, another of the Lodge's guides. We'd just started a steep descent from a Tarahumara cliff dwelling when Marsha suddenly lost her footing and tumbled sideways down a bulging rockface. But for a fallen pine branch that stopped her fall, Marsha might well have gone for the 'big drop'. Considering the circumstances, she was lucky to get by with multiple scrapes and a painfully broken ankle.
Moments before Marsha's fall, we'd been discussing the relative merits ?and hazards ? of so-called 'sport sandals'. We'd both been dismayed by the number of people who come to the Copper Canyon wearing lightweight running shoes and sports sandals. Of course, at the time of our conversation we were both wearing Tevas ? but, of course, we were hiking guides, right?
After a long and very difficult cross-country rescue, Marsha was finally lashed to a homemade ladder and delivered back to the Lodge. Along the way, we had ample opportunity to continue our discussion of appropriate footwear. Needless to say, I've since changed from sports sandals and inexpensive 'lite' hiking boots to top-of-the-line, all-leather Merrell backpacking boots. As Marsha's accident reminded us, the trails in the Copper Canyon are both beautiful and 'unspoiled' by improvements. Loose rocks, scree and crumbly volcanic tuff are very common, as are slippery accumulations of pine needles and oak leaves.
Get the best boots you can afford ? I'm convinced that the price is more than compensated by dramatic improvements in traction, support and overall comfort.