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One thing that I really enjoy about working at enXco is the chance to get out of the office to project sites and cruise around on quads (ATVs) while getting paid. Pretty good gig right?

 

I really wanted to get “out into the canyon” our second day in Creel. It seemed like the best way to do that was to take a tour on quads (cuatrimotos – such a better word). So Natalie and I tandem-ed on one while our guide Omar led us around the spectacular Barranca de Tararecqua. The whole region is more Yosemite and less the Grand Canyon.

At the base of the canyon are some hot (luke warm) springs and some pools that the locals built to capture the spring for swimming. We spent the afternoon swimming, lounging, eating, and chatting with some other tourists before climbing back on the ATVs for the trip home. This time the tour turned out to really be worth the money as Omar led us to some vistas and overlooks that we never have found on our own.

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Creel, Chihuahua

Creel is the quintessential tourist mountain town. It kind of reminds me of Park City Utah, Mexican style. Small logging towns, local Raramuri indigenous settlements, and impressive rock formations surround the welcoming spot. After all the heat of the coastal deserts of northern Mexico, Natalie didn’t believe me that Creel was in the mountains, and cold. I managed to convince her to pack her thermals and warm clothes. The first night we declined our hotels offer to start a fire for us in the wood stove in our room. How cold could it really be? We should have taken a hint from the 5 blankets on the bed. By the end of the night we had on our winter hats, all our long underwear, sweat shirts and all five blankets. We had them light a fire the next night.

The problem with taking the train (other than the expense of the train itself – US $180 roundtrip) is that you become very isolated and dependent on your hotel or tour operators to see or do anything in the canyons. The tours are very expensive and generally have minimums as to how many people need to sign up in order for the tour to go. We really wanted to overnight in Batopilas but we needed four other tourists to make it happen. We quickly gave up on that idea. Both days in Creel we took tours with our hotel, really nice guys and probably the cheapest in town but they would bait us with an English speaking guide and the switch out the guide in the morning so the English speakers could stay and hustle more tourists for the hotel and the tours.

The first day we spent traversing the area around Creel, we visited various rock formations – the Valley’s of the Monks, Frogs, and Mushrooms. As well as Tortuga rock and something that looked like a tooth. In retrospect we should have just rented mountain bikes and explored ourselves. We also visited two late-fifteenth century Spanish Colonial Missions. The second mission, in the town of Cusarare’, was restored in 1973. Recovered from the original mission were several 17th and 18th century Catholic frescos by Miguel Correa. The depth of the collection, several other works have been acquired for the museum, was astonishing considering its location.

The bulk of the tourists that visit Cusarare’ primarily go there to see it’s waterfall. I decided to hike up the river and walk out the dry center of the river to the edge of the waterfall. It was a pretty spectacular view from the top looking over the edge.

Finally we visited a cave dwelling of one of the local native Raramuri. The Raramuri (also incorrectly called the Tarahumara) are a indigenous tribe of about 60,000 living in the Sierra Tarahumara. The women wear brightly colored, handmade clothing and sell impressive artesian crafts. The men are famous for their ability to run extraordinarily long distances at high speed, but you would see men, women, and children cover impressive distances on foot. The Raramuri were originally plains dwellers but were pushed into the mountains by the Spaniards. Many of them still live in cave dwellings but the majority have built rustic wood cabins adjacent to their still functioning caves. The cave we visited was obviously partially a tourist trap but we observed several similar active dwellings in the region.

Our last night in Creel, we ended up at a small café on the main drag in town. Café Leña is run by a small family that makes its own silver jewelry (there is no copper in the region despite the copper tourist trinkets – plenty of silver though), runs the café, and performs classical Mexican folk music. The man was incredible, I don’t think I’ve been as inspired by a coffee shop performance since the days of Jason Mraz at Java Joes in Ocean Beach.

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About ten years ago, I went to a presentation in San Diego with a friend, Chuck Cleeves. The presentation was about kayak trips through Copper Canyon. Ever since I have been a bit fascinated with seeing it. The guidebooks tout it as deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon. That is a bit of a falsification in my book. The term Barranca de Cobre, was first used by Spanish conquistadors who mistook the green lichens that covered the walls of the Barranca de Urique for copper. There are several canyons that make up the canyon system – in general the region is the Sierra Tarahumara, a subset of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. The quintessential picture of “the Copper Canyon” is actually the confluence of the Urique, Cobre and Tararecqua canyons from the Divisadero train stop.

Our original plan was to cross the international border at Juarez and drive through the Copper Canyon region to the coast. For more on why we didn’t do that, see the El Fuerte post. In my opinion the “right way” to really experience the canyon region is to drive from Chihuahua to Creel, explore the canyons including trips to Urique and Batopilas and then drive back out the way you came to Chihuahua. You need a light, but capable, 4×4 for this. A late 90s extra cab Tacoma with mountain bikes in the back would be ideal. We didn’t make it to the spots around Divisadero (the train stops there for 15 minutes) and the newly installed cable car. The government has massive plans to develop the region for tourism, perhaps you’ve seen the catchy “Ah, Chihuahua” ad campaign. I guess it is a reason to come back some day. You can’t do it all. While Chihuahua is a really amazing place, the government better take some action on the narcotrafficantes if they want more tourists – American and Mexican.

Considering we were on the coast the next best way to see the canyons is to stash your rig at an RV park or storage spot in either El Fuerte or Los Mochis and take the train. This is the main tourist circuit. At the train station we were greeted with a bus full of retirees from the US. One such gentleman asked us about our trip; he thought it was wonderful. He went on to talk about how all you hear about in the States is the violence at the border but once you get South of the border it is totally safe and the Mexican people are some of the most friendly in the world. I didn’t have the heart to ruin his trip and tell him that if he wandered away from the main tourist routes that he was actually in the most dangerous part of Mexico. Naiveté can be so much more rewarding. On the second part of his diatribe I agreed vehemently.

The train ride is the second best I’ve experienced; the first being the Alaska railroad from Anchorage to Denali. If you ever do that trip, spring for the Princess Cruise glass ceiling cars. If you ever take the Copper Canyon train, take the Clase’ Economica (second class) train. Don’t spring for the Clase’ Primera, (especially east bound) it is not worth the extra money unless you have a scheduling conflict.

The scenery from the train is awe-inspiring. The pictures really speak for themselves – as bad as they are: train photography is very hard. I’ve included a few shots here, but you can cruise over to my flickr page for the whole set. You can really see the varied ecologies and ecotones as you transition from lowland desert, through sub-tropical rain forest, to high alpine forest.

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