Copper Canyon, located in southwestern Chihuahua, is Mexico's answer to Arizona´s Grand Canyon. In fact, the Mexican peaks and valleys dwarf those found in the Grand Canyon. Copper Canyon is one of those must-see natural wonders.
Crossed by one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world; the South-Western Sierra Tarahumara quarter of Chihuahua State remains one of the most visited areas of Mexico. Piercing the very heart of Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon), the Chihuahua al Pacífico railway links Chihuahua city to Los Mochis, Sinaloa. Spanning 624 km (387 miles), Chihuahua al Pacifico passes over some 39 bridges; through 86 tunnels and climbs a graduating slope to a peak 2,425 meters high. It narrowly misses out on the title of longest railroad in the world, surpassed by the Trans-Siberian network running from Moscow. But that's not the reason Chihuahua al Pacífico has held esteem since completion in 1961. It is the dramatic voids and gorges over which it passes, that have led to it's becoming one of the most popular journeys in America.
Occupying a large portion of the North American tectonic plate, Copper Canyon forms part of the notorious “Ring of Fire”; a horseshoe belt of volcanoes and seismic faults around the Pacific, considered to be the most active area for earthquakes and eruptions in the world. Copper Canyon is a predominantly dormant area, however it's situation upon the Ring of Fire is partly responsible for the climactic steep cliffs and seemingly bottomless chasms.
Reached by an unkempt dirt-track five hours from Creel (the main departure town for Copper Canyon destinations), Batopilas at first glimpse resembles a cowboy movie town. The “town that time forgot” exudes an archaic charm befitting of it's 19th Century silver mining history. Lofty adobes of semi-Renaissance styling rise up from rocky plinths. A splash of striking blue catches the eye; twin domes peeping above the Central Plaza buildings – it's the tiled blue facade of the aptly named Fantasy Hotel, a huge chunk of a building resemblant of a mosque. Batopilas main attraction lie 10-50 minutes walk from the town. The opulent terracotta ruins of silver magnate Alexander Shepherd's former mansion lie hidden just below Batopilas, along with the 16th Century domed “Lost Cathedral” of Satevo – home to the Jesuits of the 16th Century.
The four largest canyons, named after their respective rivers: Cobre, Urique, Sinforosa, and Batopilas, plunge to greater depths than those of the Grand Canyon. The Mexican peaks dwarf those of Arizona, and the town of Creel is the highest point on the Chihuahua al Pacifico rail route, at 8,000 feet! Bounded by aromatic pine trees and mountain-peak horizons, little architectural heritage before the 19th Century exists, save for the dotted white Franciscan churches and stuccoed mansion. The Museo de las Tarahumaras is by far the most interesting attraction, exhibiting the history of the native Tarahumara tribe.
It's heart may be pure, but the true attractions of Creel lie among the rocky ravines and steep slopes falling away from the town. The San Ignacio Ejido on the edge of town comprises vast agricultural plains, interspersed by rocky outcrops and rock formations – which strangely resemble a familiar fungus. This is the Valley of Mushrooms where rocks have faces, and nature has carved a forest of toadstools from the soft apricot tinged rock. The distinctly phallic “Stone of Fertility” is a quirky sight, revered by many for it's alleged fertility-giving properties. The horse-shoe shaped Lago (Lake) Arareko lies not far from the “fertility valley”, and offers splendid fishing opportunities for large-mouthed bass and mojarra, as well as the opportunity to hire rowing boats along the shore.
Archaeological attractions are plentiful within Copper Canyon, however some of the most intriguing are to be found to the West of Ciudad Madera, within Huapoca Canyon. The Cueva del Nido and Serpiente caves can be reached via an hour's drive from the city, but the most curious are The Cuarenta Casas (40 Houses) just North of Parque Natural Barrancas del Cobre. The modest cliff-face cave dwellings are over 1000 years old, and are thought to have been inhabited by early Paquimé Indians. One such cave known as the Cueva de la Momia was discovered to contain the mummified remains of an early Paquimé male – his tomb is now the Captain Leal Museum within Ciudad Madera, and well worth a visit.
Visitors seeking a little cultural familiarity during their forays into the Copper Canyon will find Los Mochis to be the highlight of their exploration. With modern amenities such as ATM's and a small international airport, one will feel rather more connected to the modern world, than within the picturesque town of El Fuerte. Los Mochis marks the end of the Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad, and the beginning of the “changed world”.