El Barranca del Cobre–the Copper Canyon–is an expanse of wilderness in the Sierra Madre mountains in northern Mexico that is deeper and larger by many times than the Grand Canyon.
It is inhabited by thousands of indigenous Tarahumara, a people known for their ability to run long distances, usually in sandals, and who often live as they have since time immemorial. Sometimes still in caves and often in abject poverty. It is also frequented by narcos, who conduct their dirty business from expensive new trucks equipped with guns and pagers and who inhabit an underworld that I know nothing of.
Tourists, however, rarely see the drug traffickers. Tourists come to take the train–the Chihuahua-Pacifico Ferrocarril–or, fondly, El Chepe. The train route is an engineering marvel that makes a cannonball run 418 miles through the canyon, crossing 37 bridges and going through 86 tunnels and, once, doubling back on itself in the process. The views are spectacular and experiencing the canyon by train adds to the romance.
My plan was to take the bus rather than the train from Chihuahua to Creel because it was easier and cheaper, and I’d heard that the views along that stretch are pretty mundane. From Creel, a pretty village on the eastern end of the train route that caters to tourists, I’d descend (and I mean DESCEND) to Batopilas, another tiny village at the bottom of the canyon. From there, I hoped to make a fairly short but difficult crossing to Urique at the bottom of another canyon and from thence back to the top to finish the train ride west to El Fuerte, again along the most scenic parts of the train ride.
That was the plan.
I’m still shaky when it come to making transitions that involve catching buses and arriving in strange places in the dark without reservations. So, getting off the bus in Creel, the first thing I noticed was the cold. Then I noticed the horde of young men crowded around the bus.
“Where are you going? Where are you going?”
“Casa de Huespedes. Mario Lopez.” I threw out the name that a nice kid in a taco shop had given me. He said that his cousin ran a place (which my guidebook confirmed.)
“She’s yours.” I was shunted off to one of the kids. It was like falling into a mosh pit.
The overamped kid whisked me to a white van and his sidekick grabbed my bag and threw it in the back with more fervor than finesse.
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry. We go to Mario’s,” said the kid.
I was trying to figure out whether worry might indeed be the most rational response. Whether it were possible that I might disappear never to be seen again or whether I would land safely just a few blocks away at Senor Lopez’s family-run hostel.
I hate it when I think like this. The more I travel in Mexico, the more I find that people are mostly sweet and helpful. They work hard and are just trying to earn a living. But their systems work (a lot) differently than ours in the US–more by seat of the pants than by schedules.
But they work, nonetheless.
We barrelled through the still-bustling streets and roused Mr. Lopez. His young son and infant daughter were still awake, and his house was warm and cluttered. I was quickly dispatched to the dormitorio run by his parents around the corner, which was a rustic and leaky log cabin.
“Mi casa es su casa,” said Luli, Mario’s mother, in a grandmotherly way from her overheated kitchen amid delicious smells.
In the morning, my casa was freezing. Frost sparkled on the tin roofs of the sleeping village. Steam and woodsmoke haloed the village in the rising sun. I was freezing, too. I daydreamed about storming the casa of little Luli, which, after all, was mi casa, too.
“No hay,” she said when I asked what had happened to the heat. Apparently, there was a problem with the stovepipe. There was no further offer forthcoming. I was left to my own devices.
What to do. What to do. These are the moments when I feel bereft and orphaned.
Within a few hours I:
1) Learned that the bus to Batopilas (the tiny puebla in the canyon) left that afternoon–and there would not be another for two days
2) I could get a nice room with heat at Mario’s if I wanted it
I decided to make the run to Batopilas. While Mario and his family were truly delightful, Creel was not a two-day town.
Now, I have driven the length of the Alcan Highway to Alaska and the length of Highway 1 through Baja California. I am no stranger to bad roads, but the road to Batopilas was the most truly awful road I’ve ever experienced. Bar none.