We departed Isla Espiritu Santos, Jan 2nd, with our buddy boat Anjuli bound for Topolobampo, a small rustic city about 200 nm north of Mazatlan. Getting into the marina harbor was a bit of a challenge with a shallow entrance with breakers along the sea buoy, long 10 nm main channel and a secondary shallow channel at high tide with limited buoys and markers for another 4 nm. It is so far inland that the city’s underdeveloped sanitation system creates very murky water. But we didn’t come here for the marina, it was a place to dock and leave the boats for a train excursion to Copper Canyon.
The four of us departed at 6:00 a.m on a train headed for Creel. The 9 hour train ride wound through a high mountain range with spectacular scenery, deep canyons with boulders larger than sailboats, a 1000 meter tunnel followed by 85 shorter tunnels, numerous primitive towns, 4 different forests – ( more on that later) of varying species of trees, a high bridge that crossed over the mountain lake, and a gained elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. At 7,700 feet is the small town of Creel where the Tarahumara, an indigenous Indian tribe reside.
Copper was actually mined back in the late 1800’s but today the feature is the deep canyon and in some places, is actually deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The water and wind eroded the geological formations where giant boulders balance atop pinnacles several hundred feet tall.
The Tarahumara tribe took up residence in some of the caves, and a few families continue to live there today. Some live in primitive dwellings on the rocky hillsides. We saw a few of the people disembark from a bus carrying large 50 pound sacks of staples, waited at the roadside for the pack horses to arrive and carried it home. A very proud, spiritual people who lived off the land growing corn and beans found peace and meaning with nature’s geological formations. Most of the people now live within the small town of Creel in primitive dwellings, some with thatched roofs, outdoor cooking accommodations and stick limb outhouses. They wear their colorful traditional dresses but a few women wear tennis shoes replacing their leather sandals. They have dark, deep set eyes, rarely smile at you and weathered faces reflect their meager existence. The women weave baskets and shawls and sell them sitting along the sidewalks or stand at the train stations hoping tourists will purchase their works. The children walk with handfuls of baskets and other trinkets hoping tourists will purchase something from them. They perform all the menial labor jobs of running a small town catering to tourists. Surprisingly, we met very few Americans. Mostly Europeans and South Americans arrived and this is the peak of tourist season.
When we arrived it was raining off and on, we were totally unprepared for cold windy weather. We didn’t bring any warm clothing and being so accustomed to mostly 80 degrees living in shorts and t-shirts, we didn’t even think about hats and gloves. Our first clue that we might be cold was the Europeans boarding the train at 3000 feet wearing fur lined parkas, hats and gloves with wind blown faces.
The hotel was very nice with colorful tile and stone. Large tiled bathroom with hot water too,(the marina here doesn’t have that) but the propane radiant heat couldn’t keep us warm enough. It was very cold sleeping in our socks and clothes.
The second day out was sunny but cold and a little more tolerable. We visited the museum, entry fee was 10 pesos, just a token. There is a mummy in a glass case with no environmental protection. The cold air may be enough to prevent further deterioration. It appears to be a very small person, perhaps a child as the Tarahumara people are not small boned. It is amazing to see, most of the skin was still intact. The body was preserved with palm fronds and mud, and the arid heat made for rapid drying. The extreme cold preserved it from decay. A picture shows the mummy when it was unearthed, it was in a position that is difficult for the human body to maintain at time of death. The rest of the museum was full of pictures of the tribe’s people, pictures of the Copper Canyon developer and later generations, tools used by the Indians, baskets, and some Christian influence artifacts. In whole, the museum catalogs the Indian tribe and history.
Back to the Forests. There were lush tropical, dry, and pine, changing with elevation. Coming up the mountain from sea level we passed large farms with modern disc and plow equipment, but the workers pick the crops by hand. Bus loads of workers picked the crops of giant tomato plants, potatoes and green beans. It looked just like the farm lands in Oregon with migrant workers.
As the train climbed we watched the cactus covered hillside change to greener foliage and flora. We passed through hillsides of green deciduous trees inter populated with pink blossom and white blossom trees, alder, oak, and madrone. Further up, the forest changed to tropical trees as the canyons provide hot humid air. Mango, banana, guava, orange and grapefruit trees were growing everywhere. There were trees with large fluffy balls hanging from the limbs.
Even higher, the rocks became house sized boulders, columns of solid rock, compressed hardened ash pillars, covered with various fauna and trees. A yellow bark tree grows very tall and the exposed yellow roots twist themselves around the rocks, hanging along the cliff walls. The lodge pole pines were the last forest at the highest elevation. Dry dirt covered with deep layers of pine needles, giant boulders provide root protection for the tall windswept pine trees. The bear grass like plants similar to Oregon’s high desert and alpine scenery send up tall stocks of flowering bulbs. Breathtaking scenery, you can’t pull yourself away from the windows.
Divisadero, the last stop before Creel, the train stops for 20 minutes to allow passengers to disembark and take pictures overlooking the deep canyon. Food vendors line the streets with hot grills and pans of various meats, beans and cooked cactus. For 20 pesos = $1.15 US, you can purchase scrumptious Gorditas made with corn, filled with potatoes, or meats and beans. Truly mouth watering food. Children sell bags of delicious apples, and the Tarahumara women sell their hand woven goods.
If you have a bucket list, make this place a destination. We won’t forget this place, and even still, I ponder the Tarahumara people and their traditional way of life is endangered.