Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Copper Canyon - Part 4 - April 18 - 28, 2015

Into The Canyons

We knew that, in addition to taking in views of the canyons, we wanted to travel into them. 

Down Into The Wild

Our research found several options: backpacking tours, burro-supported hiking tours, local buses and public combi-vans to the town of Urique (of ultra-marathon fame) or the Pueblo Magico town of Batopilas, and guided tours using private transportation. We chose the guided tour option because:

  • six months after hip surgery didn't seem like the right time to undertake the canyon descent / ascent, even with a burro to carry luggage (one tour company warns of a total elevation change of 1,500 meters / 5,000-ish feet); and
  • even as frugal as we are, subjecting ourselves to a local bus or public combi-van on The Road To Batopilas seemed pound foolish.

Through our hotel in Creel we hired an English-speaking guide named Samuel (Spanish pronunciation: Sam-well) and a sturdy, new-ish four-wheel drive SUV. We had enjoyed our Creel area day trip using the services of one of the hotel's guides, so we had reason to trust that Samuel would also be a good guide and driver. And he was.

Samuel's Sturdy Ride

FYI, our three day adventure, including hotel, breakfasts and dinners, cost 9,000 pesos ($600-ish) before tips. A Big Name In Canyons Tours company charges over $900 U.S. to take two people on essentially the same tour, hotel or meals not included. [Travel Tip:Tours are usually priced for four people because the big expenses are transportation and guide/driver. Find fellow travelers and your trip will be more affordable. Trust in a less well known company, and your travels can be less expensive still.]   

The Road to Batopilas

Early in our drive Samuel informed us that he was a Baptist and recovering alcoholic and did not drink. And though we got somewhat tired of his one religious-themed CD, after a day on The Road to Batopilas we agreed that there were benefits to having a steady-handed driver who had renounced the evils of drink.

The road is almost all paved at this point, so the "OMG, we almost died!" reports about this drive that are sprinkled around the Internet can be discounted. But they shouldn't be completely ignored. Challenges remain. 

For the first couple of hours out of Creel the road was good and we enjoyed the spectacular views. We passed isolated farms that helped us understand the need for boarding schools for Tarahumara children. 

A Tarahumara Farm - Note 
Non-Combustible Engine Plow, Red Truck and Dirt Road

We stopped for a river view.

Bryce Viewing - Note Good Road

The View

We stopped for lunch at a place with a spectacular view of the canyons, and dined in the company of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Lunch With Non-Baptist Approved Protection

The beauty of our lunch spot was, uh, somewhat disrupted when Bryce picked a shell casing from a large-caliber handgun from the ground. We didn't see any other casings lying around, so we decided to conclude that this was evidence of someone's enthusiasm for the spectacular view as opposed to . . . something else.

               Travel Tip / Warning: Our concern that this random shell casing might be evidence of "something else" was the result of a warning we found in all of the travel literature about independent travel in the canyons area. Everyone writing about this area - not just the usually scare mongers like the U.S. and Canadian state departments - advises against travelling outside of Urique or Batopilas without the company of a guide with local knowledge. The reason is that the canyons area drug business operators often use violence as a business dispute resolution technique. While travelers are not common targets of this violence, it is always possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, based on our experiences in Batopilas (to come) - we strongly support this advice. 

Back to the Road: As we got further into the canyon the mountains began to fight back against modernity. In places, it seemed as though the roadsides was crumbling as quickly as the road was being built. 

Warning: Rock Slide Area

We eventually reached a point where the paved road ran out. 

Four Wheel Drive Territory

Construction was continuing to make progress, and sometime soon-ish (next year?) there will be a spectacular new bridge to cross. 

Big Job

Some four and a half hours after we left Creel our hotel was on the horizon. 

La Hacienda Rio Batopilas

The Hacienda Rio Batopilas clings to a hillside about two kilometers before the road enters the town of Batopilas. It overlooks the Batopilas river. 

Clinging . . . 

The property was originally the home of a local mine owner and it is located between two entrances to one of the area's many now-closed mines.

A Warning For Anyone Thinking Of Walking
Into The Dark, Dank Tunnel

The family that owns and operates the Margaritas hotels in Creel purchased the property, refurbished the old hacienda and added a wing of rooms. We stayed in the original hacienda portion of the property.

Original Hacienda Portion To The Left

NOT A Handicapped Accessible Property

The hotel is lovely - even though it was eerily empty during our stay (we were the only guests). Part of the charm is that it is in a very remote area - so if you go, don't plan on internet connection or television. One night we were without electricity for awhile (reading tablets with their own light - a good thing as long as the batteries last).

On our last evening road construction came within a couple of hundred feet of the hotel - with a bang. We heard the dynamite blast and ran to close our windows to shut out the cloud of dust. Thankfully, by the time we left the next morning the road was sort of clear-ish. Earlier in the day we had talked to a couple of road construction equipment operators who were returning to Batopilas, exhausted after a long, dirty day on the job. They told us the road was supposed to be finished in two months. We wished them buena suerte (good luck).

Comida Corrida Doña Mica

The hotel's restaurant is open only when a large tour is booked, and then staff is brought in from Creel. The breakfasts and dinners at the hotel in Creel weren't the high point of our visit there so we weren't disappointed with the idea of dining in Batopilas

Happily, we were way more than "not disappointed" with the little comida corrida (prix fixe) restaurant Samuel took us to. Doña Mica offers basic meals prepared with care and skill. Everything was fresh and flavorful and made to order. There isn't a set menu - the proprietress (apparently the daughter-in-law of the now deceased Doña Mica) greets guests with a recitation of what she can make. Doña Mica restored our faith in small town cooking! 

The entertainment at Doña Mica comes from looking through dozens of calling cards tucked under the plastic table coverings. We spotted a number of boat cards and we left an Abracadabra card. Let us know if you spot it! 

There are occasional power outages in Batopilas - but don't worry, Doña Mica has a number of Fanta bottles with candles to deal with this contingency. 

A Romantic Candlelight Dinner At Doña Mica's


Batopilas was founded in the early 18th Century and became a bustling mining town in the late 19th Century. The town is quite charming and is busily spending the restoration money made available as a result of its recent Pueblo Magico status. 

Downtown Batopilas
Colorful Homes

The Plaza
Ongoing Restorations
Pedestrian (And Wheelbarrow) Crossing

But Pueblos Magicos money isn't the only source of cash in town. 

Sicarios Sightings In Batopilas

One afternoon we saw a new pickup truck parked across the road from the hospital in Batopilas. Four or five young men wearing very sophisticated looking body armor and holding lethal-looking automatic rifles were sitting on the sides of the truck bed. At first we thought they were ejercito (army) personnel -- until we realized they weren't wearing uniforms. In response to our questions, Samuel explained that they were "men working in drugs" but that we shouldn't be concerned because they didn't want "anything to do with tourists."

We had read that we might see sicarios (the literal translation is "hitmen", but the word is often used to refer to general narco enforcers) in or around Batopilas, but it was shocking to us that they were parked, weapons on full display, across the street from a hospital where children were playing on the front porch. We never did find out why they were at the hospital.

That evening, as we left town after dinner at Doña Mica's, Molly saw one of these sicarios (or, in the interest of accuracy: a young man wearing body armor and holding an automatic weapon) sitting inside the open door of the municipal building. 

The next evening the truck was again parked downtown, with two armed men (the ones that drew that night's short straws, we suppose) sitting on the edge of the truck bed. 

These men are apparently a common sight in town. As people pass them, they avert their eyes. They are the classic elephant in the room.

Mision San Angel Custodio de Satevo

Tour guides like to call this former Jesuit mission in the tiny hamlet of Satevo the "lost cathedral". The story is that the mission, which was built in the 1760's to proselytize the Tarahumara was forgotten until the late 19th Century when it was "found" by miners traveling to Batopilas from Urique. Of course like many "discoveries" the local Tarahumara people knew the church was there all along . . . 

We had the experience of "discovering" the mission during an eight kilometer walk along the Rio Batopilas. It came into sight as we walked around a bend in the dirt road between Batopilas and Satevo . . . a beautiful old building in an unexpected place.

Hey, Look . . . 

We've Discovered A Mission

Our walk along the river was full of discovery. We found where some Tarahumara women do laundry, some local guys fish and others recreate (dropping into the river from a rope swing) and lots of cows and goats hang out. 

We saw more spectacularly isolated Tarahumara homes.

NEVER Complain About Your Commute Again

Hacienda San Miguel

Another "must see" in Batopilas: the ruins of a mining hacienda (a residence and the offices and support buildings for the mine) built at the end of the 19th Century by an American, Alexander Shepherd.  

Before he arrived in Batopilas Mr. Shepherd served as the head of the public works board of the District of Columbia and, subsequently, as the Governor of the District. But apparently he was so corrupt - he approved development projects in areas of the District in which he and his friends owned property -  or so incompetent, or both, that he was fired by Congress in 1874. A couple of years after he was fired he declared personal bankruptcy. Yet he still managed to have $600,000 in 1880 (back when $600,000 meant something!) to buy a silver mine in Batopilas. Hmmmm. 

Shepherd died in Batopilas in 1902. His successors abandoned the mine and the hacienda during the Mexican Revolution (1910 - 1920) and the hacienda was stripped of everything valuable. 

Today travelers can see some amazing ruins.   

The Ruins, Looming Over the Rio Batopilas

The Former Swimming Pool
(Yes, In The 1880's!)

The Stables

Intrepid Explorers Molly and Samuel

And if the story of a disgraced political boss becoming a silver baron isn't interesting enough, the hacienda is now owned by a man with plans to turn it into a hotel; bit by bit - by himself. We could hear him working inside one partially finished building while we were there. 

We hope he has more financial support for his vision than the 50 pesos people pay to tour the ruins. 

The Future Hotel Hacienda Batopilas

Dodgy Neighbors

There is another problem with the planned hotel at Hacienda San Miguel, which we discovered as we approached the ruins. The closest neighbors are drug thugs. 

The single-lane dirt road to the hacienda was blocked by the truck we had seen parked outside of the hospital and elsewhere in town. The truck was parked in front of a house and six or seven heavily armed men were milling around it. We suggested to Samuel that we might not need to go see the hacienda ruins after all - as interesting as they might be . . . 

Samuel once again assured us that the "men who work in drugs" weren't interested in tourists. He drove up to them and asked if we could pass to the ruins. The oldest man of the group seemed to be in charge. He directed one of the others to take the truck up to a turnaround and let us pass. He did, we did, and we made it to see the ruins. 

But we didn't stare or take pictures. 

The drug business in Mexico is a complicated issue - way too complicated to deal with in a travel blog. The thought that sticks with us is how public their display of armor was. And so casual it shivered our spines.  

Our other observation is that in a small town everyone knows everyone, even the scary guys. And everywhere life goes on: the building gets painted, the meal gets prepared, the road gets built, the clothes get washed and at bedtime prayers go out for the children to be safe.

* * * * * *

Thus ends the story of our trip to Batopilas and our first personal encounter with the drug business in Mexico. For those interested in traveling in Mexico, please note: No Tourists Were Harmed In The Making Of This Blog Post. 

Our next stop was a National Park. Surreal. 

No comments:

Post a Comment