I am no stranger to wretched roads. I’ve done the Alcan highway across Canada and to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I’ve done Highway 1 through the length of Baja California. I’ve done miles of gravel. I’ve done mountain passes. I’ve done 20 percent grades hauling a 30-foot trailer.
A one-lane gravel road with hairpin curves along mountain rims? No guardrails, of course. Guardrails are for sissies.
Bring it on.
Well. Let me tell you, the road to Batopilas ain’t like nothing I done before, and I can’t even show you because I was jouncing along in a packed van through the worst of it. And in the dark through the rest.
Batopilas is a tiny town at the bottom of a canyon amid the huge maze of the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon). A single road connects Batopilas to the rest of the world, and it is a one-lane gravel scratch winding way down the mountainside. (I’ve hear there are other “back roads” but I don’t want to even consider them.)
The trip takes 4-5 hours from Creel, the village at the top of the canyon. The Mexican government has been working to widen and pave the road for two years and it will probably still be working on the road a year–or ten–from now. Thus, the road is closed from 6am to 6pm, during which enormous machines cling to the face of cliffs that dwarf them by comparson. Small brown men throw their bodies into the work of moving rock and earth under dangerous and intensely unpleasant conditions. I don’t know how long they work or where they are trucked when they get off work because there are few places to go. The whole operation seems brutal to both men and machines.
The construction means that, although the road is wider in places, it is clogged with haphazard piles of rubble and stone. All the ordinary traffic that connects Batopilas with the outside world plays chicken with earth-movers that are literally clearing the road of rock and rubble ahead of them. Everyone seems to play the game adroitly and with good humor–you can’t indulge in road rage here and live to tell about it–but it’s a long and tortuous way to the bottom.
I shared the ride down the mountain with a family just returning from a vacation in Chihuahua. We queued up in the afternoon midway down to wait for the road to open, which unaccountably didn’t happen until 7:30. By that time, 6-year-old Cesar was running circles around the van, hyped on sugar and exhaustion.
“Cesar, ay,” said his mom, Flores, patiently as her son threw himself over the seat several times.
I’d pretty much been a silent passenger by the window, but now the novelty of someone who spoke a strange language was enough to distract Cesar for about ten seconds. We ran through colors and “How are you.” The grownups drew from long-ago memories and came up with random phrases: Good morning. What is your name?
Finally, because of Cesar’s sugar-laden attention span, I brought forth electronic magic from the depths of my bag. For the next half hour, Cesar was so intensely focused on the games I’d downloaded for my granddaughter, that he sometimes forgot to swallow and would literally drool down his chin. He recognized Fruit Ninja right away (How does this happen in a place so remote?). He made electronic snowcones and did electronic pedicures, and by the time he was finished, he’d worn himself out and the road was open.
I got to Batopilas late that night. Flores had told me to stay at Juanita’s, where there was a courtyard and it was very pretty.
As we unloaded in the dark and quiet street, Flores repeated, “Vaya a Juanita’s. Esta mejor.” She pointed emphatically across the plaza and to the right.
Fortunately, a couple was still sitting in the quiet plaza, and told me which window to knock at. I knocked.
I looked helplessly at the couple. The woman got up and bleated at an upstairs window: “Juan-A! Juan-A!”
Eventually, an older man appeared at the window.
“Tiene huesped,” said the woman flatly, resuming her seat on the plaza.
In a few minutes, to my utter relief, the man shuffled down and ushered me through a hall full of heavy, antique furniture, to a clean but basic room off a lovely, tropical courtyard.
Batopilas is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos–magical towns, and the designation is well-deserved. It’s a sweet little place with a lovely plaza, a handful of restaurants and a melange of hotels, from a backpacker hostel to one fancy place on the hillside.
Batopilas began as a silver mining town owned by an Amerian, Alexander Shepherd, who ran an efficient and lucrative operation there for 30 years. Because of the relative importance of the mine, tiny Batopilas was the second city in Mexico (after Mexico City) to be wired for electricity. (Which is ironic, because there was NO electricity most of the time I was there.)
The process of moving the silver from the canyon bottom to the railhead at Chihuahua, 240 miles (385 km) away was a exercise in dogged tenacity and good logistics requiring a small army of mules and men.
Juanita is incisive and intuitive with a big heart, and I liked her immediately. She hooked me up with Manuel, a local guide, who is cut from the same cloth–direct, intelligent, and gentle.
Manuel lives simply in the mountains. He is part Tarahumara and fondly recalls the traditional ways of his grandfather. He has been a guide for a long time, and although he is now 70, he didn’t hesitate suggesting a 10+-mile walk to show me the church at Satevo and the tiny Tarahumara community nearby. After sitting on buses for two days, I needed a walk. A trek along the river at the bottom of this canyon seemed perfect.