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Copper Canyon: Getting There is Half the Fun


He was dead, no doubt about it. I leaned over to confirm the rattlesnake's demise eyeball-to-beady eyeball. Coiled in the bottom of a vat of sotol – a powerful relative of tequila distilled from a wild agave found only in the Chihauhuan desert of northern Mexico – there was little likelihood his rattles would suddenly thrum to life.

 

Willing to try anything, Paul Ross samples a supposedly therapeutic sip of rattlesnake sotol. Copyright: Kathryn Means.The shy young norteño in cowboy boots, who looked like he could break wild horses with a whisper, assured me that drinking sotol with a rattlesnake marinating in the vat was an old Chinese cure, something beneficial like sipping ginseng tea spiked with enough alcohol to give you the sweats. Armed with only a smattering of phrasebook Spanish to break the language barrier, I was skeptical. The Chinese introduced the rattlesnake cure when they came to build the railroads and work the gold, silver and copper mines of northern Mexico. They left abruptly in the early 20th century when Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries let them know they were no longer welcome. Goaded by my fellow travelers, I tried to ignore the fingerprints on the dusty shot glass as I raised it to my lips. "A su salud!" I drank to my health.

The bar was in the back room of a souvenir shop in old Casas Grandes, a sleepy town of contented people who chose to let the railroad pass them by. Now they face constant comparison with their forward- thinking neighbors in Nuevo Casas Grandes, a thriving sister city.

I had stopped in Casas Grandes on my way to take a different kind of cure: the soothing restoration that comes from communing with nature in a remote, self-contained universe with its own rules of natural order, chaos and beauty. My destination was Batopilas, a former mining town hidden in the bottom of the labyrinth of canyons called the Copper Canyon.

Nature is the main attraction on the road to Batopilas. Copyright: Kathryn Means. Until recently the canyon lands of northern Mexico were almost inaccessible except by the famous train that skims along the rim. I had taken the train on a previous visit. This time I zipped along on a new highway that connects Chihauhua City, the state capital, to Creel, the gateway to the canyons, and finally to the dizzying overlook at Divisadero.

Traveling by van instead of train, I was free to explore the cultural and archeological treasures of Chihauhau, Mexico's largest state, while I made my way to the canyons. From Cuidad Juarez, the booming border town connected to El Paso, Texas, by three international bridges over the Rio Grande River, I took a three-hour drive southwest to explore the mysterious Paquimé ruins. As a gentle, late afternoon wind rose in the Casas Grandes River valley, I could easily imagine the stir of activity that must have taken place in this maze of spacious, thick-walled rooms, ball courts, ceremonial plazas, and circular bird houses where macaw were raised for sacrifice.A maze of thick-walled adobe is all that is left of the ancestral pueblo of the Paquimé people. Copyright: Kathryn Means.

Though little is known about the Paquimé people – they vanished without a trace before the arrival of the Spaniards – they undoubtedly had contact with the pueblo peoples of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, Colorado's Mesa Verde and Arizona's Canyon de Chelly. Their ancestral pueblo is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A short walk from the ruins, is the stunningly modern Museum of Northern Cultures with artifacts from the Paquimé excavation, shops, an auditorium, children's room and cafeteria. From the museum, I wandered over to Las Guacamayas, an art gallery owned by Luz Marta (Mayté) Lujan, a former curator of the museum. For those who don't speak Spanish, Mayté is a cheerful wealth of information in several languages. Next year she will open a bed and breakfast inn currently under construction adjacent to the gallery. It will be built of rammed-earth adobe, the same material used by the Paquimé.

Twenty-two miles south of Casas Grandes is the most important pottery center in northern Mexico, Mata Ortiz. Visitors who drive the bumpy dirt road are often rewarded with an invitation to the modest ranchero-studio of potter Juan Quezada, whose works are sought by museums and collectors worldwide. Anyone in the village can lead you to this most unassuming man, provided he isn't with a group of students up in the mountains or conducting pottery-making seminars in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico. He reinvented the pre-historic techniques of making multiform, polychrome ceramic vessels using natural clays and pigments. Once he had mastered his craft, he taught it to other members of his family and finally to the rest of the community. Today, every family has one or more potters. Many of them have received international awards and recognition.

Juan Quezada rediscovered ancient pottery-making techniques and became world famous. Copyright: Kathryn Means. Juan Quezada works only on commission these days and his pots sell for thousands of dollars. I seized upon a much less expensive buff-colored bowl made by his daughter Laura, who had decorated it with flying insects. Could she have known when she made the pot that tastemaker Martha Stewart has proclaimed that insect motifs are an haute fashion statement in home décor this year?

Until my first visit to Chihuahua, the word brought to mind my sister-in-law's nervous little dog that could fit into the pocket of a pair of cargo pants, and a TV ad for a chain of Mexican restaurants featuring this diminutive canine. That is hardly the symbol Chihuahua deserves. The State of Chihuahua is an eclectic, colorful mix of ancient ruins, colonial haciendas and modern skyscrapers. Mestizos, Mormons, Mennonites and the indigenous Tarahumara share its mountains, plains, deserts and the deepest canyons on earth. Urban industrial parks filled with manufacturing plants of Fortune 500 companies bolster an economy once dependent on mining and cattle ranching. New golf courses, international hotels and time-share resorts are everywhere, but travelers can still choose to stay in modest casitas in small towns and villages.Chihuahua City is in many ways the Barcelona of Mexico. It is a sophisticated city where long-limbed, smartly dressed young couples crowd chic restaurants and expensive clubs far into the night. Its shops, museums and art galleries cater to those with taste and discretion. But to me, the most fascinating attraction is the home of the controversial hero of the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa. A hugely important chapter in the history of modern Mexico is brought to life in the rambling hacienda that is now a museum. What could be more cinematic than the bullet riddled Dodge sedan the bandit, murderer and national hero was riding in the day he was gunned down in 1923? At the age of 45, he left 25 widows and 24 orphans behind. With so many wives, and reputedly scores of informal liaisons in such a short life, how did he find the time to lead a revolution?

Directly across the street from the Pancho Villa museum is an arts and gems shop full of unusual – some to the point of bizarre – souvenirs. A miniature Day of the Dead tableau, for example, depicted men playing billiards with skulls that may have been made of ivory. It was an appropriate reminder of the skullduggery that brought Villa to power and ultimately led to his murder.

Making a note to read Friedrich Katz's The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, the definitive biography of this many-faceted man-monster, I left Chihauhau to hurry on to Batopilas. In the 1880s, the town was the center of activity for the world's richest silver mine. It was built when mule train over the mountains was the only way in and out and even today it is hidden so deep in the canyon that it has the aura of the last outpost of civilization.

Two dozen Tarahumara working three shifts once hauled a grand piano on their backs down a 100-mile trail to Batopilas from Creel, the mountain town that is the gateway to the canyons. Today, Batopilas is linked to the Creel-to-Guachochi highway by 37 miles of narrow, winding dirt road that hugs the cliffs thousands of feet above the valley floor. Even so, the van I traveled in must have hit rush hour. We passed a camper with a New Mexico license plate and a sports utility vehicle from Nova Scotia, a reminder that many of the Mennonites that settled in northern Mexico on land once owned by William Randolph Hearst, came from Canada's eastern provinces in the 1920s. Halfway down the road, we picked up a group of school children who walk many miles back and forth to the mission school where they board during the week.

Children in a remote Mexican village catch a ride to school atop a van. Copyright: Kathryn Means.Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, the streets of Batopilas, and it is only about one street wide, were torn up to lay a new sewer system and its major hotel, was shuttered until a new owner can be found. Even so, its charm could not be hidden and it is an excellent base for hiking into the canyons. Children dressed in school uniforms and wearing happy faces were everywhere. Families bathed and frolicked in the river.

Outside of town, stands the lonely ruins of Hacienda de San Miguel, built by the last silver lord, Alexander Shepherd, an American who was also the last governor of Washington, D.C. Brilliant bougainvillea draped over the crumbling brick walls cannot disguise a "Gone With the Wind" desolation. To the natives, the hacienda is an unwelcome reminder that their forefathers were once enslaved to work the mines.Sometime during the warm, tropical night in the depths of the canyon, I learned that rattlesnake sotol, though it may cure many ailments, isn't an antidote for Montezuma's ghastly revenge which began to rumble through my gastrointestinal track. Still, I could not leave the canyon lands without a visit to the Divisidero overlook, a favorite stop along the train route from Los Mochis to Chihuahua. The view of three canyons coming together is unsurpassed, but it also gives travelers a chance to buy the handicrafts that sustain the Tarahumara, an indigenous tribe of semi-nomadic cliff dwellers who prefer to call themselves Raramuri, men of winged feet.

A Raramuri woman sells handmade crafts at the Divisadero overlook above the Copper Canyon. Copyright: Kathryn Means.Three days later, thoroughly purged of my excesses, including a few pounds of body weight, I felt so light-headed I looked down to see if I had sprouted my own winged feet to glide through the canyons. In the tropical humidity, my hair had coiled like snakes on the head of Medusa. Was there rattlesnake DNA in the sotol? I may never know, but one thing I do know is that I had merely scratched the surface of one the world’s great wilderness frontiers.

When You Go:

Before visiting Mexico's Copper Canyon, I highly recommend reading the copiously illustrated Mexico's Copper Canyon Barranca del Cobre, published by Richard Fisher's Sunracer Publications (Tel: 520-882-5341. Web sites: www.coppercanyon.org and www.canyonsworldwide.com ). Fisher is a travel journalist, photographer and adventurer who has considerable first-hand knowledge of the canyon lands of northern Mexico. Other experts on the region have also contributed text and photos.

For general information on traveling in Chihuahua, visit www.mexconnect.com. Information on rail tours and hotels and resorts is available at www.mexonline.com/copper.htm. Accommodations in Creel and Divisadero are listed at www.coppercanyonlodges.com.

It is not advisable to travel, hike or backpack in the Copper Canyon region without a licensed guide. Names of reputable guides are available from the concierge at four- and five-star hotels or through your travel agent.

For those who prefer a tour package, among those available is Lindblad Expeditions' Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez tour that combines a sea voyage with a rail journey. For information visit www.expeditions.com or call 800-397-3348.

A maze of thick-walled adobe is all that is left of the ancestral pueblo of the Paquimé people. Copyright: Kathryn Means.

Though little is known about the Paquimé people – they vanished without a trace before the arrival of the Spaniards – they undoubtedly had contact with the pueblo peoples of New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, Colorado's Mesa Verde and Arizona's Canyon de Chelly. Their ancestral pueblo is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A short walk from the ruins, is the stunningly modern Museum of Northern Cultures with artifacts from the Paquimé excavation, shops, an auditorium, children's room and cafeteria. From the museum, I wandered over to Las Guacamayas, an art gallery owned by Luz Marta (Mayté) Lujan, a former curator of the museum. For those who don't speak Spanish, Mayté is a cheerful wealth of information in several languages. Next year she will open a bed and breakfast inn currently under construction adjacent to the gallery. It will be built of rammed-earth adobe, the same material used by the Paquimé.

Twenty-two miles south of Casas Grandes is the most important pottery center in northern Mexico, Mata Ortiz. Visitors who drive the bumpy dirt road are often rewarded with an invitation to the modest ranchero-studio of potter Juan Quezada, whose works are sought by museums and collectors worldwide. Anyone in the village can lead you to this most unassuming man, provided he isn't with a group of students up in the mountains or conducting pottery-making seminars in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico. He reinvented the pre-historic techniques of making multiform, polychrome ceramic vessels using natural clays and pigments. Once he had mastered his craft, he taught it to other members of his family and finally to the rest of the community. Today, every family has one or more potters. Many of them have received international awards and recognition.

Juan Quezada rediscovered ancient pottery-making techniques and became world famous. Copyright: Kathryn Means. Juan Quezada works only on commission these days and his pots sell for thousands of dollars. I seized upon a much less expensive buff-colored bowl made by his daughter Laura, who had decorated it with flying insects. Could she have known when she made the pot that tastemaker Martha Stewart has proclaimed that insect motifs are an haute fashion statement in home décor this year?

Until my first visit to Chihuahua, the word brought to mind my sister-in-law's nervous little dog that could fit into the pocket of a pair of cargo pants, and a TV ad for a chain of Mexican restaurants featuring this diminutive canine. That is hardly the symbol Chihuahua deserves. The State of Chihuahua is an eclectic, colorful mix of ancient ruins, colonial haciendas and modern skyscrapers. Mestizos, Mormons, Mennonites and the indigenous Tarahumara share its mountains, plains, deserts and the deepest canyons on earth. Urban industrial parks filled with manufacturing plants of Fortune 500 companies bolster an economy once dependent on mining and cattle ranching. New golf courses, international hotels and time-share resorts are everywhere, but travelers can still choose to stay in modest casitas in small towns and villages.Chihuahua City is in many ways the Barcelona of Mexico. It is a sophisticated city where long-limbed, smartly dressed young couples crowd chic restaurants and expensive clubs far into the night. Its shops, museums and art galleries cater to those with taste and discretion. But to me, the most fascinating attraction is the home of the controversial hero of the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa. A hugely important chapter in the history of modern Mexico is brought to life in the rambling hacienda that is now a museum. What could be more cinematic than the bullet riddled Dodge sedan the bandit, murderer and national hero was riding in the day he was gunned down in 1923? At the age of 45, he left 25 widows and 24 orphans behind. With so many wives, and reputedly scores of informal liaisons in such a short life, how did he find the time to lead a revolution?

Directly across the street from the Pancho Villa museum is an arts and gems shop full of unusual – some to the point of bizarre – souvenirs. A miniature Day of the Dead tableau, for example, depicted men playing billiards with skulls that may have been made of ivory. It was an appropriate reminder of the skullduggery that brought Villa to power and ultimately led to his murder.

Making a note to read Friedrich Katz's The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, the definitive biography of this many-faceted man-monster, I left Chihauhau to hurry on to Batopilas. In the 1880s, the town was the center of activity for the world's richest silver mine. It was built when mule train over the mountains was the only way in and out and even today it is hidden so deep in the canyon that it has the aura of the last outpost of civilization.

Two dozen Tarahumara working three shifts once hauled a grand piano on their backs down a 100-mile trail to Batopilas from Creel, the mountain town that is the gateway to the canyons. Today, Batopilas is linked to the Creel-to-Guachochi highway by 37 miles of narrow, winding dirt road that hugs the cliffs thousands of feet above the valley floor. Even so, the van I traveled in must have hit rush hour. We passed a camper with a New Mexico license plate and a sports utility vehicle from Nova Scotia, a reminder that many of the Mennonites that settled in northern Mexico on land once owned by William Randolph Hearst, came from Canada's eastern provinces in the 1920s. Halfway down the road, we picked up a group of school children who walk many miles back and forth to the mission school where they board during the week.

Children in a remote Mexican village catch a ride to school atop a van. Copyright: Kathryn Means.Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, the streets of Batopilas, and it is only about one street wide, were torn up to lay a new sewer system and its major hotel, was shuttered until a new owner can be found. Even so, its charm could not be hidden and it is an excellent base for hiking into the canyons. Children dressed in school uniforms and wearing happy faces were everywhere. Families bathed and frolicked in the river.

Outside of town, stands the lonely ruins of Hacienda de San Miguel, built by the last silver lord, Alexander Shepherd, an American who was also the last governor of Washington, D.C. Brilliant bougainvillea draped over the crumbling brick walls cannot disguise a "Gone With the Wind" desolation. To the natives, the hacienda is an unwelcome reminder that their forefathers were once enslaved to work the mines.Sometime during the warm, tropical night in the depths of the canyon, I learned that rattlesnake sotol, though it may cure many ailments, isn't an antidote for Montezuma's ghastly revenge which began to rumble through my gastrointestinal track. Still, I could not leave the canyon lands without a visit to the Divisidero overlook, a favorite stop along the train route from Los Mochis to Chihuahua. The view of three canyons coming together is unsurpassed, but it also gives travelers a chance to buy the handicrafts that sustain the Tarahumara, an indigenous tribe of semi-nomadic cliff dwellers who prefer to call themselves Raramuri, men of winged feet.

A Raramuri woman sells handmade crafts at the Divisadero overlook above the Copper Canyon. Copyright: Kathryn Means.Three days later, thoroughly purged of my excesses, including a few pounds of body weight, I felt so light-headed I looked down to see if I had sprouted my own winged feet to glide through the canyons. In the tropical humidity, my hair had coiled like snakes on the head of Medusa. Was there rattlesnake DNA in the sotol? I may never know, but one thing I do know is that I had merely scratched the surface of one the world’s great wilderness frontiers.

When You Go:

Before visiting Mexico's Copper Canyon, I highly recommend reading the copiously illustrated Mexico's Copper Canyon Barranca del Cobre, published by Richard Fisher's Sunracer Publications (Tel: 520-882-5341. Web sites: www.coppercanyon.org and www.canyonsworldwide.com ). Fisher is a travel journalist, photographer and adventurer who has considerable first-hand knowledge of the canyon lands of northern Mexico. Other experts on the region have also contributed text and photos.

For general information on traveling in Chihuahua, visit www.mexconnect.com. Information on rail tours and hotels and resorts is available at www.mexonline.com/copper.htm. Accommodations in Creel and Divisadero are listed at www.coppercanyonlodges.com.

It is not advisable to travel, hike or backpack in the Copper Canyon region without a licensed guide. Names of reputable guides are available from the concierge at four- and five-star hotels or through your travel agent.

For those who prefer a tour package, among those available is Lindblad Expeditions' Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez tour that combines a sea voyage with a rail journey. For information visit www.expeditions.com or call 800-397-3348.