Discovering the Heart of Copper Canyon
A lone Tarahumara woman sits in the shade of the trees on the edge of the cliff above our hotel. I watch her from the hotel terrace about a hundred yards below. I can tell who she is from the bright pink skirt, yellow print blouse and the green scarf that frames her dark hair and skin. She sits quietly after a long day of weaving baskets and dealing with tourists – a difficult transition for a shy tribal woman whose culture is not open or aggressive.
I am traveling with my husband on a guided tour of Canyon del Cobre, known in English as Copper Canyon, Mexico. Legend says the name originated from the intense yellow-orange reflecting on the sandstone and shale cliffs. This relatively unexplored area is located on the western side of Central Mexico in the Sierra de Tarahumara. The western entry point is Los Mochis, a harbor town that services the agricultural valley on the continent side of the Sea of Cortez across from the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula.
A chartered bus had taken us on the paved road from Los Mochis to its end-point at the town of El Fuerte, located at the base of the Canyon. From there, the Chihuahua-Al Pacifico train line is the only way to proceed. The air was heavy and wet as we drove to the train station the next morning under dark skies. From the bus window, we watched children walking to school. Their dark hair and complexions were enhanced by their uniforms: white shirts and black pants and skirts. Backpacks bobbed as they walked. The schools are K-6 and 7-11. Then those who qualify are off to the university. The rest stay to live and work in this rich agricultural valley.
The train sped along, climbing out of the valley. Oak, manzanita and madrone trees soon filled the hilly terrain. Our guide, Bryan, pointed out the sesame fields as the train rolled past. McDonalds buys all of these seeds for its sesame seed buns through a distributions system set up by local food brokers.
We soon reached the section of the track that rises quickly to 4200 feet by snaking back and forth over three levels of tracks across and through these cliffs, using a system of switchbacks and tunnels that is one of the engineering marvels of the world. As I finished lunch in the dining car, I looked down on Temoris, where the climb began, and watched a waterfall tumble from the side of the cliff.
A few minutes later the train arrived at the San Rafael switching station and stopped to change train crews. Tarahumara women and their children came to the train windows with their hands full of baskets to sell. One woman had a baby on her back, tied on in bundle fashion with a large blanket. I noticed the cement block homes of the train crew behind the tracks. Their children, wearing the same uniforms we saw in El Fuerte, were coming home from school.
In another 15 minutes the train arrived at Posada del Barranca, the stop for our hotel. We were now at 7200 feet. The view from our room balcony was of the jutting canyon walls thickly covered with green vegetation and, about a hundred yards down the cliff face, a cave dwelling of a Tarahumara family. Wooden boards seal off the opening of their cave and provide a front door entrance as well some protection from the elements. I could see the family members walking the trails and doing household chores on the ledge in front of their home. Archeologists theorize that the Tarahumara were contemporaries of the Anasazi, “The Ancient Ones,” from the American Southwest.
Bryan led us down one of the rock and dirt trails to the Tarahumara dwelling. He told us it is known only as Cueva del Chino, a name of unknown origins. As we stood beside the family garden of squash, peaches and apricots, he and the patriarch, El Chino, a man of about 60, greeted each other by lightly touching the fingers of their open hands in the accepted manner. Soon El Chino treated us to a demonstration of traditional Tarahumara violin playing using his hand-made instrument.
The families in this group, now about 17 strong, work corn fields and orchards that stretch for miles through the canyon. Their homes, a few under construction, made from wood and cement, thread their way along the ledge of the cliff from the original cave. Other groups of Tarahumara families live deeper in the canyon, some over 100 miles from the nearest roads. They travel the distance by foot over the course of the day on trails that weave through the forests and along the canyon walls. Reflecting on that, I now understand their name for themselves, Raramuri, The People of the Swiftly Running Feet.
The Tarahumara will stay in this canyon as their ancestors have for centuries, adapting to their environment and surviving with their culture intact. We will move on to another valley town in a lower part of the Canyons. I know, though, as we reboard the train, that my visions of the deep and verdant canyon walls glistening from the sun and of the Tarahumara people and their enduring way of life will remain with me forever.
Marsha Black has been traveling and writing about her travels for many years. She is a businesswoman and grandmother with a passion for photography and a great traveler’s tale. Her photography is exhibited regularly at Reed’s Camera Shop in Walnut Creek and at Brewed Awakening in Berkeley and on her website, www.visualtravels.com. She has been published in travel journals and webzines such as International Travel News and American Women Road and Travel.
Copyright © 2006 by Marsha Black. All rights reserved. NNNo part of this article may be copied or reproduced without permission from the author.