Copper Canyon: 3,000 feet down lies a world lost to time


October 20, 1991|By Mary Mapes McConnell

Three turkey vultures soared without effort on an invisible thermal rising up the cliff. More than a thousand feet down, the ground leveled out enough for someone to have built a stone house. It was so quiet I could hear the wind sigh.

Mexicans call it "la Barranca de Cobre," or Copper Canyon, one )) of five huge, branching chasms that slice through the western flank of the Sierra Madre in northwestern Mexico. Mexico's Copper Canyon, like Arizona's Grand Canyon, is one of the world's largest, deepest and most labyrinthine gorges. But like the sun and the moon, their characters are vastly different.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, whose vivid red sandstones were deposited by ancient seas, Copper Canyon is of volcanic origin. Its gray-black walls and deep green vegetation cast a darker, almost brooding spell. There is some question over which canyon is deeper, but there is no debate on which one is wilder. This is rugged, vertical country, and the depths of the barrancas are as remote today as they were a century ago when they provided refuge for Geronimo's warriors and the revolutionaries who rode with Pancho Villa.

I had joined a hiking group in El Paso, Texas. From Chihuahua, we boarded an early morning train bound for the Sea of Cortez. Our destination was the Continental Divide, on a high plateau amid old-growth forests. It was midafternoon when the train pulled to a stop at a logging station called Divisadero Barrancas. Our first glimpse of Copper Canyon mesmerized us, and from our hotel we watched night fall and the canyon disappear.

The next morning a mestizo wrangler aptly named Geronimo appeared with the burros that would carry our camping equipment. We started down through stands of oak and mountain mahogany and before long met an Indian man and woman on the trail.

They were Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous tribe that has lived in the barrancas for centuries but never merged into the general Mexican population. The difficulty of the canyon terrain and the marginal human existence it affords have preserved the tribe's traditional culture. Scattered settlements of Tarahumara

cling like colonies of cliff swallows to occasional breaks in the canyon walls.

By scratching out patchwork fields of corn and beans and tending herds of goats, the Tarahumara manage to get by today as they have always gotten by. Proud and independent, they have survived Spanish conquistadors, Apache raiders and Mexican governments that largely ignore them.

Footpaths in the canyon are unmarked. Narrow and rocky, they have evolved over centuries into a tangle of crisscrossing tracks. We headed down the trail ahead of the pack train, which rapidly overtook us. Soon they were out of sight, but in the canyon stillness I continued to hear the rasp of hoofs on stone.

Three thousand feet below the canyon rim we reached a hot spring, where our tents were already set up. A dozen orange, lemon and banana trees grew near the spring. No one lived here, but when I woke up the next morning I saw two Tarahumara women near the grove. They were using handmade hoes to repair the little stone-lined ditches that channeled water from the spring to the trees.

We were eager to reach the canyon floor. A talus slope that didn't look natural turned out to be mine tailings from an old Spanish gold mine. After all, this was the same wild country where Humphrey Bogart found his ill-starred fortune in John Huston's movie "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The trail was as steep as a staircase, only 18 inches wide and edged with 400-year-old Spanish rockwork.

Over the last major drop, we finally caught sight of the Urique River. Its pale green channel curved from left to right. Giant boulders formed a set of rapids whose white foamy water sparkled in the sunlight. We forded the river to make camp on a crescent of white sand.

Copper Canyon is so deep it contains several climate zones. From a temperate climate at the rim, where it snows in the winter, it gradually changes to a subtropical zone at the bottom, where maguey cactus and century plants reach enormous size. The floor of the canyon would be Edenic if it weren't for the mosquitoes, sand fleas and biting gnats.

Too soon it was time to make the long climb back to the top. The next morning, near the top of the canyon, we visited a prehistoric cliff dwelling built by ancestors of the Tarahumaras. On the dusty floor under the broad overhang we found human bones, bits of cloth, decorated potsherds and tiny, desiccated corncobs.

Back at the hotel, we washed off the dust, devoured a meal and went to bed exhausted. By the time the eastbound train arrived the next day, it was hard to leave without one last glimpse of the barrancas -- a magnificent, timeless world unbound by schedules.

If you go . . .

American Wilderness Experience offers 11-day Copper Canyon treks, which include six days of hiking and camping, from November through April. $1,045 all-inclusive from El Paso, Texas. Call (800) 444-0099.

Copper Canyon Lodge offers a variety of five- to eight-day packages priced from $498 to $1,220 from November through February. The tours start at the Copper Canyon Lodge in Creel, a village in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountains. Options include hiking, bicycling and four-wheel driving tours. Call (800) 77-MEXICO.

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