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Mexico's Copper Canyon: Adventure and Discovery


Author: Gary Ziegler

A lot has happened in Mexico's Copper Canyon area since it pyroclastic origin some twenty five million years ago. Great mountains rose in a fiery display of smoke and ash. Torrents of rain and wind, cut deep slashes in the raising igneous colossus that we now know as the Sierra Madre, to form immense canyons. Some eleven or twelve thousand years ago, the first humans arrived, migrating bands of nomadic hunters seeking fate and fortune in dangerous unknown lands. During the ensuing millennia multitudes of unknown peoples passed through, some eventually staying to take up residence in the many shelter caves to practice simple farming.

And so it was in the spring of 1541 when a detachment of Conquistadores from Coronado's expedition in search of the seven golden cities of Cebola first encountered a group of naturales, they called Tarahumara. More time passed, the Tarahumara, or Raramuri as they call themselves, planted maize and warred with their southern neighbors, the Tepahuanes. In 1607 an event took place that would change life forever in the canyon country. Jesuit missionaries arrived with mandate from the Spanish Crown to Christianize and civilize, the policy of reducion which changed forever the way of life in Spanish America. The story of of the survival and adaptation of the Tarahumara during the colonial years and later under the Mexican Republic, is a fascinating, complex epic that I leave for a long evening around the campfire.

Mysteries abound in a multitude of inaccessible, forgotten arroyos and cerros that climb and plunge in rugged highlands separating the great canyons. Who built the Mogollon style houses that occupy several cliff sites? Who built the carefully made stone terraces, andenes? What early people lived in round houses? These are a few of many enigmas that capture our imagination.

It was with these thoughts in mind that naturalist guide Amy Finger, author, Carl Franz (People's Guide To Mexico) and I sat out to explore several new areas in the the rugged hill country north and east of the Copper canyon in November of 1995. With local rancher, Esteban Cobos, we searched the lower Cusarare canyon for evidence of pre -Tarahumara occupation finding a number of shelter cave sites

Our next goal was to locate a new remote route down into the upper Urique Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), by which Amy could bring her small adventurer groups. We were excited to follow a stone paved mule trail that proved to be part of Alexander Shepard's (silver baron of Batapilas) Camino Real, a systems of trails, built to transport silver from the depths of the Batapilas Canyon. Although part of the trail showed recent use by Tarahumara, we cleared and repaired many places to allow our loaded burros to pass. A broad beach camp site at the Urique river was everyone's romantic fantasy. And we were miles away from the backpacking hordes,muchileros.Wanderings from camp located an abandoned mine with hot springs and a hidden grotto canyon with magical swimming pool beneath a waterfall. We shared the canyon with an Elegant Trogon and Magpie Jays.

In November 1997, Carl and I returned with a group of nine participants. Starting with a pampered night at Skip Mcwilliams comfortable Copper Canyon Lodge at Cusarare, we plunged back into the depths of the main Barranca del Cobre

From a camp part way down in the canyon, we explored a densely wooded arroyo which showed signs of terracing. Forcing our way through tangled Arizona cyprus and oak thicket, we discovered a series of shelter caves with mortared stone storage rooms. These were sealed with hand carved pine doors secured by a carefully made wood latch system. Metates (corn grinding stone) fired clay pots, bowls and the occasional metal can indicated recent Tarahumara use although no trail was in evidence and the canyon was impassable without machetes. The overgrown farming plots carved out of the narrow steep canyon seemed a poor location. Our theory is that this hidden canyon may have been a refuge and supply depot during periods of armed conflict such as the rebellion against Spanish authority and Jesuit missions in the late 17th Century. The caves may have served as ceremonial sites in recent times or a spiritual retreat for a few nearby families

Setting a beach side camp at the Urique River again, we spent several pleasant days climbing side canyons and examining caves for evidence of pre-Tarahumara occupation. At the upper end of a steep arroyo some 800 feet above the river, we located an undercut ledge walled in with field stone and mortar containing multiple burials. Although the open part of the wall had been badly disturbed by animals, we found several intact decorated clay pots, gourd vessels and most interesting of all, a spinning kit containing a beautifully made spinning whorl. Skeletal remains appeared to be that of a young adult. After photos, we carefully replaced everything and sealed off the wall. Although possibly Tarahumara, I suspect that the burials may date from an earlier time. Pottery type is similar to a Mogollon like style that we have seen elsewhere in the Sierra Madre.

November began a new season. Amy and I accompanied fifteen enthusiastic trekkers, then returned with a smaller group over Christmas to face El Nino weather at its worst. As sometimes happens, the heavy snows forced unforeseen but wonderful experiences. Among other events, we spend a great cultural night all sleeping in our Mexican staff's adobe farm house and another night at our old divisidero hot springs camp below trees teaming with ripe oranges. We however, look forward to the warmer weather of the upcoming March trips.

We plan addtional trips and explorations for 1998/99 then an `end of the Millennia party', the ultimate celebration, at Copper canyon Lodges' elegant, restored Vitorian hacienda at Batopilas.