. . . and when we got off the train, we were in
Creel is the very definition of a laid-back mountain town: cool mountain air smelling of pine trees; cowboys; trucks; companies offering mountain bike and horseback riding tours; t-shirt shops; indigenous women and children selling tourist articles; and some very basic restaurants. (Warning: the one espresso machine we found in town doesn't operate until mid-afternoon . . .!)
Creel is also one of the primary departure points for those who want to go down into the canyons or get as close as casual travelers can to the indigenous people of the area, the Tarahumara. [For those that are interested in a little bit of information about this indigenous group we've added a few paragraphs at the bottom of this post with some links.]
We hadn't made hotel reservations but the crew of Full 'n By had recommended the Hotel Casa Mexicana to us. We rolled our suitcases through the small, animated crowd of hotel touts gathered around the train station. No one from Hotel Casa Mexicana was in evidence, but we finally understood that the representative of the Casa Margarita's hotel would get us to the Hotel Casa Mexicana; the same family owns both hotels.
Hotel Casa Mexicana is a very clean and attractive motel-style place with a pleasant courtyard. Breakfast and dinner were included for about $50 US a night. And - this is important in a town located at 2330 meters (7500+ feet) - heat was included. [Travel Tip: Some hotels charge extra for heaters to be turned on.]
|Hotel Casa Mexicana|
We had been warned that the included breakfasts and dinners would be unexciting, so we were not disappointed.
An Aside On Our Dining Experiences: The majority of mid-range restaurants in Small Tourist Town, Mexico are best described as . . . uninspired. Most offer the same menu and the cooking reflects a passion for the art reminiscent of public school cafeterias we have known. So, unless we are experiencing travel dining fatigue and want something calming (a club sandwich can be found in most restaurants), we follow our taste buds to the best-smelling taqueria or tortaria in town and tell ourselves we will worry about our waistlines later.
Tour Package #1:
After visiting several tour companies and hotels we realized they all offer the same five basic mini-van day trips. We booked a Tour #1 through our hotel.
There are more adventuresome ways to see the area around Creel: mountain bikes, a four-wheeler, a scooter and horses are some of the transportation options available. And for those that enjoy the challenge of finding their own way around, it is also possible to do a self-guided tour (i.e., rent a four-wheeler, get a map). For us, a van tour was just fine. We enjoyed our guide and the young Japanese tourist who was the only other person on the tour. And even better, we didn't have to drive the extremely sketchy road to the Cusarare waterfall. Travel Tip: Costs are based on a group of four or more; if you can find fellow travelers your costs will be lower.
Stop One - Tarahumara House: The Tarahumara originally lived in caves, and some families maintain these traditional dwellings.
|Home Sweet Cave|
We were told the one large room wedged beneath the side of a hill, was home to ten people. The food preparation area made Molly feel very spoiled for complaining about some of the Airbnb kitchens she has known.
Unsolicited and Random Thoughts On "Poverty Lifestyle Tourism": Travelers and tourists are often offered the opportunity to visit communities that, by choice or otherwise, maintain a culture that differs from the majority culture. We have visited Maya communities in Chiapas; the people of the floating islands in Lago Titicaca, Peru; various non-Thai communities In Thailand; and on this trip, Tarahumara communities.
Many of these minority cultures are economically marginalized. And that sometimes leads us to wonder about the ethics of what, in our more cynical moments we think of as "poverty lifestyle tourism". We want to believe that we are there to learn about and honor a unique culture. We worry that we are perceived as (comparatively, very) wealthy, condescending gawkers. We know that the money we bring isn't a real solution to the problems of a marginalized community (inadequate clean water, transportation, education and health care, to name a few). But it is also true that tourism money can help and that a robust tourism industry can focus governmental attention on a community's needs. For example, the solar panel that generates light for the cave we visited was probably paid for, at least in part, by tourism pesos.
These are issues that every (comparatively wealthy) traveler, particularly those from Developed Nations, must deal with. We will continue to struggle with them though, at this point, we still believe that visiting in as culturally sensitive a manner as possible is better than ignoring these communities.
Travel Tip: Look for the tip box in the cave.
Stop One, Continued: Our tour guide explained that the Mexican government has assisted the Tarahumara in building small homes to replace their cave dwellings. We don't know why the family in the cave chose to remain in their cave -- just one of the limitations of being a day tourist.
|A Tarahumara Home|
Stop Two - Lago Arareko: This is a pretty lake outside of Creel. We took a short walk and purchased a pot-holder from a young woman that followed us. We asked for a photo in addition to the potholder and, though she was shy, she agreed to pose for us.
Side Note Re: Shopping: Travelers have many opportunities to purchase baskets, dolls and potholders from Tarahumara saleswomen and saleschildren. We chose to make most of our purchases from the Artesanias Mision, a store near the train station and on the main square in Creel. We are told that the store's earnings support a hospital that provides free medical care to the Tarahumara.
Stop Three - Cusarare Waterfall: We chose to walk about a mile to the falls, though there is a (very patchy) road that can take visitors closer. Along our path we passed many Tarahumara saleswomen and their pre-school aged children. Every day is Take your kid to work day in the Tarahumara world.
|Across A Swinging Bridge|
A young Tarahumara boy began to follow and point to various turns in the trail. Bryce learned that his name was Arturo, and asked him if he would be our guide to the falls. The offer was for a "guide fee" of ten pesos. Arturo solemnly agreed to this engagement. The path to the falls was well marked, but Arturo was charmingly serious about his guide responsibilities. He ran ahead of us, and pointed which way we should go at every turn.
Bryce learned that Arturo was six years old and that he attended a boarding school for Tarahumara children which was closed on that particular Tuesday. When our "tour" was finished, Arturo happily posed for a picture.
|Bryce and Our "Guide" Arturo|
The waterfalls are very pretty, even at the end of the dry season. They must be spectacular in July and August, when the rains come.
The path to the bottom of the falls includes over 200 steps. Bryce decided his new hip had been through enough already, and stayed above to chat with Arturo. Molly made it to the bottom of the 200 stairs. . . .
|Molly At The Falls|
. . . and eventually, veery sloowly, back to the top.
Stop Four - San Ignacio Mission: This 18th Century mission is located in the San Ignacio Ararejo Ejido (an ejido is a communal land ownership area established under Mexican law). It is a lovely place.
Stop Five - The San Ignacio School: We stopped at a boarding school for Tarahumara children. Our tour guide explained that there are several of these boarding schools in the canyons area because many Tarahumara live in areas without roads and others are without reliable (or any) motorized transportation. Children who are not able to walk to school on a daily basis attend schools where they are housed and fed from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon. They return home during the weekend.
We were happy to see the school was closed for the day - that meant our friend Arturo was legitimately free-lancing at the Cusarare waterfalls, and not skipping school. In response to our questions we were assured that the schools were culturally sensitive to the Tarahumara and that the classes were taught in both Tarahumara and Spanish. We hope that is also the assessment of the children and their parents.
Stop Six - The Valley of the Frogs and Mushrooms: Big rocks are a thing in the area. One can't take a tour and not be shown these amazing rocks -- so, it's best to just get into the idea.
|El Elefante (The Elephant)|
[Included Here Because It Was Bryce's Favorite Big Rock]
|The Frog -- Uhm - It's Behind Us!|
|A Mushroom - |
This One Wiggles When Pushed
Molly's favorite rocks weren't frogs or mushrooms or elephants, but little ones used, along with some plastic bottle caps, by some local children to build a doll house. These moments of universality make traveling fun.
|Too Small For Barbie|
In sum: We enjoyed the tour, and felt that we learned something about the area and the Tarahumara people. FYI, we paid 500 pesos each (about $67 US for both of us) because we were a group of three. Travel with friends that equal a group of four and you'll get a better deal.
Next Post: The other thing to do in Creel is to leave town - and take a trip down into the canyons . . . which is what our next post will be about.
Some (Very Basic) Information About the Tarahumara:The Tarahumara originally inhabited much of the area that is now the state of Chihuahua, but retreated to the canyons area when the Spanish arrived and made life . . . difficult.
After several centuries, two general groups of Tarahumara have evolved, the alta (upper) who live at the top of the canyons, including the area around Creel, and the baja (lower) who live in the canyons. There are differences in dress and culture between these two groups, in large part because the climate differs so radically between the top of the canyons (e.g., Creel at 2330 meters / 7,644+ feet) and the bottom (e.g., Batopilas at 764 meters / 2,506+ feet).
The alta Tarahumara men all seem to dress in "traditional Chihuahuan" style - blue jeans, boots and cowboy hats. The same is also true for most baja Tarahumara men, though some baja Tarahumara maintain traditional dress.
|Traditional Baja Tarahumara Dress|
Tarahumara women wear traditional clothing more often than the men. They dress in brightly colored skirts and blouses. The alta Tarahumara also wrap in warm shawls.
|Traditional Female Dress - Alta Tarahumara|
The name the Tarahumara people use for themselves, Raramuri, translates to something like "those who run fast". The men compete in a traditional game called rarajipari, in which teams, in relay, kick a wooden baseball sized ball for miles - wearing leather sandals. In the past two decades many Tarahumara have become celebrated ultra-marathoners. The town of Urique hosts an annual ultra-marathon, the Ultra Marathon Caballo Blanco.
There is so much to say about these people and their culture that we can't begin to cover it here. For those that want to know more, see this interesting National Geographic article.