Christmas morning in Urique. A shadow hung over the tiny town at the bottom of the canyon. The murder of a policeman the day before (by a relative, I’d heard, although pretty much everyone in town is related) put a damper on the festivities. Kids played on the sidewalk with their new toys as they always do, but I saw at least one red-eyed (and drunken) local leaning against a wall, literally crying in his beer.
I had walked into town for mass, but there was none. I’m not sure if it had to do with the tragedy or if I’d gotten the time wrong. So I began hiking downriver to Guapalayna (gua-pa-LAY-na), the next, even tinier, town.
Guapalayna has a skosh over 400 inhabitants, mostly indigenous Tarahumara. Traffic along the road was heavy for these parts, which was surprising given that the road had recently been washed out, and even at best was dicey. As I walked along, the local priest drove by. I had met him at mass the previous Sunday. He had looked intelligent and kind and had a nice smile, but his eyes slid past me while he was still shaking my hand. I got the message–too much on the guy’s mind for chitter-chat.
By the time I got to Guapalayna, he was ringing the bell for mass.
Mass in Guapalayna on Christmas Day was a sorry affair. I walked through a gauntlet of drunken men to get to the church, which was almost empty with a handful of women, mostly in traditional dress, scattered throughout the pews, A handful of their children hung around the back of church. Only one hombre carried the banner for his gender that morning.
The first order of business was to tell the children to sit with their mamas. Clearly, this priest knew the ropes.
A stray dog wandered into church. From his chair on the altar, the priest tried to shush him out, but the dog ignored him and sniffed amiably about. A young girl had barely launched into the second reading from the Bible when Dog #2 trotted in. Dog #1 wasn’t about to give up his territorial imperative and within minutes, a nasty fight broke out the back of church. Women scuttled out of the way. One woman tried to sweep them out of church with a broom, which was about as effective as a feather. Finally, the sole hombre assumed his manly mantle and began seriously beating them with a stick–and still it took a while before one dog broke away and made for the door.
In the brouhaha, no one had noticed a small child standing in the doorway. The losing dog paused for a nanosecond, glancing at the child standing there at eye-level. For that split second everyone held their breath, but the dog turned and bolted out the door.
It was hard to regain a semblance of recollection after that, although the poor priest tried hard. He bantered with the kids; he was animated; he encouraged, but it had to be tough, especially following on the heels of the events in Urique.
I was walking back to Urique in the late afternoon when a truck stopped to give me a lift. This is common in Mexico, and I hopped in the truck bed.
The driver got out and companionably offered me a beer.
A mile or so farther, two guys got out to pee. They were both roaring drunk and one guy’s face looked like he’d run into a sidewalk–or a fist.
At that point, I decided it was a good day to walk, so I did.
The next morning, I chuffed up the hill with my rolling backpack to catch the van back to the top of the canyon. Five incredibly scenic miles up (bumpy ride and dusty windows prevented photo, but I tried, folks), I was, once again, waiting in Bahuichivo for the last half of the train ride through the Copper Canyon.
I’d end the day at El Fuerte, a sweet colonial town at the western end of the train ride.
I’ve thought a lot about my experience at the two canyon-bottom pueblos–Batopilas and Urique. The are both remote, former mining towns. They’ve been around for centuries, so the people are used to taking care of their own. The drug trade, while not exactly operating openly, isn’t too hidden, either. I saw the new trucks zipping through the plaza in these tiny towns, and I heard about the marijuana fields (which are no longer so lucrative) where corn and beans used to grow.
I don’t know how things operate in these village, how power is stratified and shared (or not). I can’t say the narco presence affected me, but now having been to a lot of other places in Mexico, I do think there was a tension, an unease in those towns.
I might have projected some of that feeling, but the fact is, narcos aren’t good for the neighborhood. Even though the drug traffic represents ONE-QUARTER of the Mexican economy (the other three-quarters come from tourism, oil, and income sent home by migrants), the intangible cost of drug trafficking is brutal–in extortion, violence, fear, murder. That’s why, I think, groups of homegrown militias have sprung up in some of the pueblos in Michoacan to protect themselves. The situation is “muy complicado.” I don’t understand it, but that’s the shadow side of this sun-drenched country.
As a tourist, I felt it was prudent to stick to the well-trodden paths in this part of the country. Not every tourist does, and most of them end up just fine. I talked to several more adventurous types who walked or biked over the mountains from Batopilas to Urique. They saw unmistakeable signs of narco activity, but they weren’t personally threatened.
But then there was the Swiss biker who recently disappeared in Guerrero, a state farther south. So, there’s that.
PS:I will be posting more photos of the Copper Canyon on my FB page: www.wanderingnotlost.org. Check it out and please “like” the page.