By Alison Gardner, Editor of Travel with a Challenge
The 25 million square mile Copper Canyon system in northwestern Mexico forms a network of deep cut valleys, house-sized caves, fragrant oak and pine forests, mountains, rivers, thermal springs and waterfalls. Only a fraction of the region is even now accessible to visitors, but it is a fraction well worth the introduction.
For the majority of visitors, this will undoubtedly mean taking the bird’s eye view and sticking mainly to the railway route and its easily accessible station stops; for the more active and adventurous, there are various levels of guided day hiking, horseback riding, camping or 4 wheel drive vehicles which allow a deeper appreciation of the more challenging areas between the rim and the bottom of the canyons.
Urique Canyon is more than a mile (1,879 meters) deep. Chihuahua State Tourism
Divisadero viewpoint. Alison Gardner
Fifteen million years of intense volcanic activity and subsequent cracks and faults in the landscape laid the foundation for the geological formations we see today. Over time, the elements have done the rest, creating habitat for 290 migrating and local bird species, 30% of all the land mammals found in Mexico, 87 species of reptile and 20 species of amphibian. The longer a visitor stays in the area, the more likely there will be a personal experience some of these natural treasures first hand. A knowledgeable local guide is the best investment a visitor can make in this kind of geographically bewildering country.
In their own right, the flora, fauna, geology, and dramatic weather systems are worthy of a journey into this rare natural environment. However, it is the hardy, reclusive indigenous folk that add human color, history and spiritual interest to any visit.
The Tarahumara people have adapted to their challenging environment over many centuries. Chihuahua State Tourism
A Tarahumara festival. Chihuahua State Tourism
Roughly 50,000 Tarahumara, or Rarámuri as they call themselves, survive today in scattered family units working tiny agricultural plots on ridge tops and in deep valleys. They are Amerindian descendants of those who fled into this inaccessible region to avoid Spanish rule some 450 years ago. Though always marginal agriculturalists in a challenging terrain, their enviable lung capacity and endurance allow men, women and children to tackle steep rocky paths at a run with only leather thongs on their feet. Many of today’s fastest cross-country runners are Tarahumara from the Copper Canyon.
The Easter Week (Semana Santa) festival is a particularly colorful and moving celebration that the Tarahumara graciously share with visitors who demonstrate respect for this solemn spiritual occasion spread over a number of days. They do not share many of their ceremonies, so this is indeed a privilege to be cherished.
A colorful mural at Divisadero’s Posada Mirador Hotel honors the Tarahumara people.
A Tarahumara farm family. Alison Gardner
A new interest in such quickly-disappearing customs and spiritual traditions and a growing interest in this still-pristine wilderness have encouraged small-scale tourism operators and lodgings to spring up in the past decade. Both small group tours and independent travel require advance planning because accommodations and English-speaking guides are still relatively limited.
Based in Arizona, photographer, expedition leader and book publisher, Richard D. Fisher, has done much in the past two decades to document and champion the Tarahumara. These people are truly the passion of his life, as demonstrated in his extraordinary photography of the region as well as in his efforts to deliver urgent emergency food assistance and seeds to inaccessible areas where the people are suffering through an eight-year drought. Now here’s a volunteer vacation opportunity for Travel with a Challenge readers!
To learn more about Richard’s photo-rich publications and guidebooks focusing on the Copper Canyon and to receive an update on his tax deductible Tarahumara outreach, visit www.coppercanyon.org.
Click here to return to Mexico’s Copper Canyon Introduction page.
Click here to learn more about the network of small towns and colorful lodgings along the Copper Canyon railway route.