The Aztec yellow Hummer plunged into the river torrent with the confidence of a Bradley tank, dislodging rocks and small boulders in the process. We hardly noticed the water rushing past the doors, or the holes underwater big enough to swallow a Jeep, as we indulged in Mexican pastries and strong Chiapas coffee thoughtfully provided by the Mirador hotel’s concierge. Let nature dare get in the way of this Eco-expedition.
Our gang of six adventurers consisted of Luis the hotels Hummer pilot, two red-jacketed bird watchers from Panama (retired US Foreign Service), two doctors from the US resplendent in matching L.L. Bean outfits, and myself – intrepid writer on a wildlife article assignment.
Ensconced in the hotel’s new Hummer H2, we were well insulated from reality. Mexico’s Copper Canyon is roughly four times the size of America’s Grand Canyon ranging in geography from semi-tropical desert canyons to snow covered Alpine forested mountains. At over 8,000 feet at its highest point – it’s almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. And it looked like more snow for us today in this little known world of lost civilizations and ancient Indian tribes.
The hotels specially designed Hummer had both interior, and outside seating on a partially covered platform – perfect for wildlife photography. And the Panamanian Red-Jackets seemed to be hogging it as they jockeyed from one photo shooting position to another.
But they were good folks – eager to share their passion (read obsession) for birding with the rest of us. “That Charlie Sutton from Panama is amazing,” I thought as I watched him talk a woodpecker down out of a tree. He and his wife Gabriela came to photograph exotic birds – endemic species of micro hummingbirds, rare Pygmy Owls, and Eared Quetzals – much prized for their colorful plumage by the Aztecs.
After climbing out of the river, the Hummer trundled along a dirt road traversing pastures scattered with goats, horses, range cattle, fat Abyssinian burros, working sheep dogs, unemployed mangy dogs, two gallo’s fighting over hens, a fox on the run, a coyote looking for trouble, a gorgeous lynx still in possession of its hide and… Indians.
We rumbled through a pastured valley dotted with patches of snow. Interspersed among the trees were small, fairy-tale like log cabins, wooden shacks and stone huts. They were Tarahumara Indian dwellings, hand built of local materials. The mountainside and cliffs shelter their homes from winter storms and summer heat. A year-round spring emanating from a crevice in a solid rock wall provides water. Having survived in these canyons for thousands of years, the Tarahumara have had little use for the Aztecs, Spanish, or even the modern Mexicans of today.
Their history predicts they’ll still be here growing corn, and dancing their ritual dances – long after the current “civilization” in Mexico City is gone. The thought of this must be perplexing to Mexican government social workers.
The H2 floated over mud-rutted roads past electric blue painted barn wood homes and into the Cusarare Mission courtyard. Big Sky country forested peaks surround the valley, whose mountain peaks are capped by immense boulders balanced precariously upon each other as if stacked by a giant child. The Persian blue winter sky overhead is streaked with billowy jet contrails reminding us that over the horizon – another reality exists. The Indians can see it too – but true to their ancestors – they stubbornly resist.
Built of stones, the church’s unplastered walls have small rocks stuffed in the cracks of the larger ones. Rough-hewn wood doors and windows echo the weathering of centuries gone by while above in the belfry, ancient bronze bells hang on frayed ropes. I imagine an old priest advising a young Indian boy to watch his head before ringing them.
Monolithic mushrooms and frogs of stone the size of cement trucks appear in front of us as though we had suddenly entered a prehistoric theme park. This is the Valley of the Frogs (or Valley of the Mushrooms). It’s all so surreal; Salvador Dali would be at home here. The light is fading so we save the journey to the Valley of the Breasts for another day.
We cross the river on a treacherous suspension footbridge hiking a quarter mile to Cusarare waterfalls. A boulder along the riverbank shelters two Indian girls of five or six years, layered in brightly colored skirts and sweaters against the brisk air.
They sit quietly tending a small campfire under the rock overhang, blackened by many ages of campfires. Mother could be a mile up the canyon walls in a stone hut on a rock ledge, or unseen just ten feet away.
Ever present, the shy Tarahumaras are seen only when they want to be. This forested fantasyland climaxes for us when upon rounding a giant boulder, a miniature Niagara Falls appears. Cusarare Falls at perhaps 150’ across and 100’ high – is natures mountain equivalent of a tropical beach paradise. For want of a tent and a .22, I sadly decide I am condemned to return to my city home.
A half-days horse ride or half-hours H2 rumble away on a Tarahumara ejido (reservation) is a mission church and Sacred Art Museum containing 16th, 17th and 18th century artwork commissioned by the Jesuits. Inside the mission, the walls are now silent and bare, as the paintings of saints and angels had been stolen decades ago. Indian designs in red paint decorate the lower interior wall wainscoting instead. Almost miraculously, the paintings were recovered, and then hidden for thirty years under the church floorboards for safekeeping.
Now the paintings along with others collected from the region, are preserved in a new museum built nearby by the Mexican government. It’s mind bending to think that here is a world-class art museum – hidden away in a mountain meadow village hundreds of miles from “civilization.” But to the Indians – the art is not lost or hidden, for they know right where it is. Tarahumara women now care for the church and the museums historic paintings.
Luis halted the H2 on a large shale shelf bordering the river. He began searching the shoreline for rock carvings. Unfortunately, the river had moved in recent years. We scattered up and down the rivers edge, and it wasn’t long before we discovered the rock art 40 yards downstream. Worn but still legible were spirals, suns, and graphic symbols crudely carved with stone into stones centuries ago. Archaeologists tell us that people the world over, have been expressing their lives and dreams by carving or painting images on rock surfaces for over 40,000 years.
Frescoes, paintings on canvas, and spray painted walls may be modern mans continuation of this primal urge. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the Indians respect and protect the Jesuits religious paintings – seeing the artwork as another doorway to the spirit world.
I came to learn about the Mexican Babasuri – a type of ring-tailed cat best described as a cross between a cat and a raccoon. And I spotted one running into the brush in our headlights that eve. But collectively, our group was interested in everything – the diverse plant and animal life, the Indians, the incredible canyons, abandoned mines and ancient architecture.
Archeological ruins can be found of three distinct pre-Columbian peoples. Some built near inaccessible city-fortresses under cliff ledges, others round houses of stone, and others maze like adobe walled compounds. Little is known of these predecessors of the Indian tribes who inhabit the canyons today.
One can visit this land of mysteries by taking a one-hour flight from Cabo San Lucas – the Copper Canyons newest gateway – to Los Mochis on the Mexican mainland. Board the train in Los Mochis and enjoy the 417-mile train ride through the mountains and canyons in heated and air-conditioned first class coaches and dining cars.
Famed as one of the most spectacular train rides in the world, the train crosses 37 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels. A whole book could be wrote on this train route that took almost 100 years to build.
Visit MexicosCopperCanyon.com and you can view photos and read articles about the canyon, the Indians, and the Balderrama hotel chain of boutique hotels strategically placed along the canyons rims and in isolated villages.
You can hire guides, and travel into the region by burro, bus, van, or Hummer. You can get off the train at any of the 7 stops along the route for a day or forever – and explore and discover until your family and friends come looking for you.
Writer David Mandich lives in Los Cabos Baja California Sur. He can be reached at: angelswrote.wordpress.com
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