Friday, January 11, 2013
Mexico’s Copper Canyon was the third choice for this year’s Holiday trip. Rejected was Ethiopia’s Afar Region and the Balkans (too dangerous or too cold!), so I was left scrambling. In a stack of possible excursions was a clip from the National Geographic about Mexico's Copper Canyon.
CalNative had a a ten day independent tour to the bottom of the canyon, including train ride and accommodations. We paid extra for two trips into the canyon - one with Don Diego. the colorful American operating a lodge near Cerocahui and another via cable car from the canyon’s rim at Posada Barrancas. A slippery drive on a wet, partially completed road for a two day stay at Batopilas, a colorful, remote mining town, was included in the tour.
It turned out to be an excellent choice: a combination of walking and sightseeing in some of the most beautiful country in the world.
There were four of us, two Brits and two Americans, who had traveled together in various combinations over some five years. All ladies of a certain age. Last year it was Rajasthan and the year before, Oman. Three of us did a four day pretour stay in Mexico City - one had been there before and the other was conversant in Spanish..
Mexico City is a big sprawling City with wall to wall people. And security throughout the center of the city: locals and federales. Many with AKs and protective gear. Some with black ski masks. Male and female. Two small attractive women in uniform were the subject of many photographers. Mexico was determined the Holidays go peacefully, particularly when there were demonstrations protesting fourteen imprisoned individuals. I observed no conflict.
We took trains and buses to the Xochimilco Floating Gardens, sadly neglected, and the Teotihuacan Pyramids, a day’s excursion. Visitors were in a festive mood and included a dozen or more Sisters of Mother Teresa viewing the site. Otherwise, mostly local families. I did crawl up the first Pyramid but simply viewed the other two. We had packed some lunch, so ate near the Museum, a nicely designed building with interesting artifacts.
The last day we went about the Templo Major and museum, just back of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Walking around, one realized how late in the day the North Americans appeared on the scene and how low we were on the cultural totem pole compared to the Mexican-Indian culture.
We met our fourth member at the airport where we all flew to Los Mochis, the jumping off point for the tour. There it was a night ride to El Fuerte with only a checkpoint stop. We had arranged for an extra day in El Fuerte before boarding El Chepe, the Copper Canyon Railroad, famed for its twists and turns and tunnels as it winds up into the Sierra Madres. Our adventure began but without Walter Houston and Humphrey Bogart.
We were met at the first stop by Doug (Don Diego) Rhodes who could certainly qualify as a Readers Digest, Most Unforgettable Character. Ex-Army, ex-NASA, ex-cop, ex-tour guide, he settled in the area twenty-two years ago and now runs a lodge, Paraiso del Oso, for visitors such as us. Affable and knowledgeable, he provides social services for many of the local Tarahumara families in the area. As I found out, he is known from one end of the Canyon to the other. We stayed two nights, spending a day down the road to Urique.
On to Posada Barrancas, on the edge of the canyon, every room with a spectacular view. One of us hiked, two of us did the cable car and adjacent walks and the fourth stayed abed - cold and cough and temperature laid her low. So from there to Creel where there was a clinic -turned out the ailing one had a cold, a negative reaction to the wood fire smoke - sole source of heat at Paraiso - and a bit of high altitude sickness. Medication helped but even more so, the descent to Batopilas.
There, as at other stops, the local Indians were selling their handicrafts. Colorful and peaceful, there was no pressure to buy. Their work was excellent and we bought bits and pieces. The hope is they will not be contaminated by tourists.
Batopilas was the charmer. A small, mining town located on what may have been a stream, but now with the rains, was a full sized river; it was a high point of the trip. We walked to the Lost Cathedral and to the ruin of Alexander Shepherd’s Hacienda, Shepherd, a runaway from Washington, DC, bought the mine in the eighteen-eighties and built bridges, viaducts and a hydroelectric plant. From a look at his crumbling hacienda, he lived high on the hog. All in all, I walked some 15K while the others, who also went along the wet and muddy aqueduct, totaled 20 K.
The ride between Creel and Batopilas was extraordinary: partly paved but often wet dirt. Enroute, we stopped at various scenic spots: waterfalls, lakes and volcanic eruptions of old. The Valley of the Monks was high on the outstanding sights of the trip. Back at Creek for a night, there was time to walk about the small Mexican cow town. And again, I grabbed onto the slow operating computer - wanted to be updated on the world’s affairs.
The train ride from Creel to Chihuahua was long and less scenic. We came into Chihuahua late at night where there occurred only glitch in the well planned program. No one met us and we were overcharged for the taxi to the hotel. However, there was prompt reimbursement the next day - a staff change meant someone just didn’t get the word.
Two of us took a included tour the next day, in and about Chihuahua while two others went about on their own - we met up for a mid afternoon meal, our final gathering as we all flew out the following morning. Chihuahua is a good sized city with momentos of both Indian and Spanish heritage. From the Cathedral to the Capital’s historical murals to Pancho Villa ‘s residence - I saw it all despite closure of most museums. Our guide took time and energy to make sure we appreciated Chihuahua’s past and present.
Accommodations: Ranged from Holiday Inn in Mexico City and Chihuahua and Best Western in Creel to the basic Paraiso del Oso near Bahuichivo and Hotel Juanita in Batopilas with Posada’s Hotel Mirador‘s spectacular views making up for its touristy ambiance. All different, a contrast with one another.
Food: Ah, that’s a different story. There were several really nice meals but then, in Mexico City, I had the worst meal of a lifetime at a vegetarian restaurant. This was not a gourmet's journey - some of the meals were ok, some were suffered. But then, I avoid the nightshades which limits me. The cost of nearly half were included.
The tour: California Native did an excellent job of preparing and executing the tour. They rate an A+.
Comment: It is too bad that there were not more visitors. The local economy is suffering from lack of tourists. Apparently, fear of drug traffickers and personal safety issues keep people away. The Mexicans seem determined to keep the peace -- cops of one kind or another were evident throughout. One guide said the difficulties developed when the past President decided to make war on the drug cartels while likely, there will be some sort of accommodation with the new regime - thus, less conflict but more drugs. We certainly didn’t feel unsafe.
N.B: Also trains run on Mexican time: consistently late up to two hours or more.
Cost: $1765 for the California's Native's tour including the extra night at El Fuerte plus 800 Pesos apiece for trip to Urique. Approximately 1570 Pesos for shared hotel room in Mexico City. Air fare San Francisco-Mexico City-Los Mochis; Chihuahua-SF was $856.47. Cat care: $650.