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This article was originally published in The People's Guide To Mexico Travel Letter, issue #4
If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then Mexico's northwestern Sierra Madre, and the awesome barrancas of the Copper Canyon region, are worth at least a thousand pictures. Judging from the steady click of camera shutters as our van descended the gravel road, past the sheer flanks of the Mesa de Quimoba, my fellow passengers were well on their way toward achieving that goal.
Like others before me, my first feeling upon reaching the ancient mining town of Batopilas was one of undisguised relief. Long years ago, a trail-weary traveller offered an apt description of this broken, volcanic terrain when he said, "The principal feature of the country is inaccessibility."
Even with thirty years of Mexican travel under my boots, our descent through some of North America's deepest, most remote canyons left me awestruck. Reflecting for a moment on the high sierras we'd crossed and the dizzying precipices we'd peered over, it struck me that Batopilas's original Tarahumara name: "Place Beside The River" was something of an understatement.
As we bump slowly down the town's one-and-only street, I gradually return to terra firma. Adobe houses, terraced gardens and small shops crowd the foot of nearly vertical canyon walls. Children frolic in the river where Spanish explorers once found polished chunks of pure native silver. Relaxing in the warm breeze, I savor the fragrances of Old Mexico, of orange blossoms and wood smoke, of toasting corn and frying onions ? and yes, there's also the rich scent of burros and barnyards, as well as unmistakable signs that we'll share the narrow sidewalks with turkeys and other incontinent livestock.
Lounging in the plaza one afternoon, I watch a pair of high-spirited young cowboys race their mules over the cobbled street. A few minutes later the town marshall saunters by, a huge silver-handled pistol casually stuffed in the belt of his jeans. Across the way, Tarahumara families in white loincloths, long skirts and brightly printed blouses gather on the front steps of the Jesuit padre's house.
Near the local taco shop, children skip rope as their older brothers and sisters jostle and flirt around a portable tape deck. On Saturday night, there'll be a dance in the old jailyard, with ear-splitting music and small Gatorade bottles of moonshine lechugilla passing from hand-to-hand.
As the days pass, I methodically explore the town's old-fashioned stores and corner tiendas. I watch an old carpenter rip planks from a heavy pine beam. His hundred-year-old table saw, one leg leveled with a silver ingot, is powered by an antique gasoline engine. A Tarahumara Indian hewed this beam by hand from a pine log in the high sierra, then carried it to Balopilas on his shoulder, a round-trip of three days.
The owner of a small drygoods store traces his family back to the 18th century. A self-appointed sidewalk historian, he happily fills my ear with legends of fabulous silver bonanzas and lost gold mines. When pressed for details, he assures me that Batopilas was founded by Spanish prospectors "¡ Hace un chingo de años !" ("A helluva long time ago!").
Having survived nearly four centuries of isolation, floods, revolution, bandits, mine disasters and Indian revolts, it is small wonder that self-reliance is bred into the local blood. Along with a characteric dry, irreverent humor runs a strong current of superstition and skepticism. Batopilas is the 'real' Mexico, where myth and magic are as much a part of daily life as the satellite dishes perched atop adobe houses.
Tourist-to-local: "Excuse me, but why aren't there any signs on the streets and shops here?"
Local-to-tourist: "Because we already know where everything is."
Forget the silver mines and hidden treasure! Batopilas is the rarest of discoveries: a genuinely 'quaint' Mexican village that hasn't yet been groomed for tourists, television commercials or travel agency brochures.
Like many other visitors before me, I find myself intoxicated by a heady sense of contentment and deja vu. Batopilas gradually reveals itself as the Mexico of my earliest memories. In gratitude, I kneel beside my bed every night and utter a fervent prayer: "Please, don't let them ever pave that blasted road!"
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