Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Copper Canyon, Chihuahua

It was a long weekend, but was not a long enough one to plan something "big" and "far". I had heard of a canyon in Mexico, greater and deeper than the american Grand Canyon (GC), though I haven't ever been to GC. With the ongoing recession or economic turmoil or any other fancy names which you would like to call it, it was either now or never situation for me to hit the great Copper Canyon (CC), read in Spanish "Barranca del Cobre". A matter to ponder over...had this very same canyon been located just a little north, in the so called U.S of A, it would have been known by even the most untaught, unschooled and unaware Uzbekistanian urchin...but just that it's located on the southern side of Rio Grande, it's not known to most of the mortals.

Most part of CC lies among the Sierra Tarahumara range of mountains, located in the largest Mexican state of Chihuahua, with parts of it spanned across it's neighbouring state of Sinaloa. Just for your information Chihuahua is known for it's beef, cheese, apple and Chihuahuan dogs. (remember that Paris Hilton's Tinkerbell?) The Chihuahua-Pacifico (ChP a.k.a Chepe) railway line traverses the canyon, starting at Chihuahua city and running all the way to Los Mochis in Sinaloa, stopping at various places during the course. There are 4 trains plying on these iron lanes everyday, 2 from Chihuaha and 2 from Los Mochis. The first class train starts at 6 in the morning from both sides, while the second class train starts an hour later, at 7. Detailed prices, stops, arrival and departure timings, route map, touristic attractions are all provided in the official Chepe website.

Since the train departs Chihuahua at 7 in the morning, it was a tad risky for us to reach Chihuahua by a night bus from Monterrey (Monterrey - Chihuahua by us takes 11 hours). From Monterrey, we boarded, at 12:40PM, the Matamoros-Ciudad Juarez bus, which runs for 22 long hours crossing 5 states (in case you're interested: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Durango and Chihuahua). We reached Chihuahua central bus station at 11 in the night stopping at cities Saltillo, Torreon, Palacio Gomez enroute. Note that Chihuahua follows PST zone which is about an hour delayed from that of Monterrey CDT. Roundtrip bus tickets cost us around 1000 pesos/person, taxi cost us 70 pesos to get us to our hostel "Casa de Chihuhua". The best part of this hostel is that it's located in such a location, that you stumble on the threshold of the hostel you'll bang your nose against Chepe train station. The hostel is maintained extremely clean and the hostel boy was very friendly. The rules of the hostel are nicely written, this one is the best, "Couples hoping for a torrid night should look for another place as our hostel is too compact for these activities."

The next morning, the hostel boy advised me to buy the tickets earlier than the departure time to avoid the crowd. It was terribly cold outside, atleast I felt so being used to the heat of Monterrey. The counter was already crowded, more by travellers than locals.

Old man at the counter: Como te llamas? (He had write my name on the ticket)
Me: Sachin
Old man: Francés? (Probably that was the worst guess of his life)
Me: No, soy de India.
Old man: Oh! Es muy cerca de aqui. (smiling and trying to hide his stupidity)
Me: Si, claro. (wearing a mocking smile)
Old man: Que tengas un buen viaje, bienvenido a Chihuahua.
Me: Gracias. Hasta Luego.

He was impressed that I was from India, he then looked for a tourist guide which is usually given for first class people, handed over along with tickets and signalled me from inside to shove it inside my sweater and not to show it to others. I returned to hostel, grabbed the bags, bought a couple of burritos for breakfast and boarded the train. Boarding was like a déjà vu, an officer in uniform at the door of each compartment, he checks the ticket and ushers you to your seat. The train is of verdant green colour with about 7 air conditioned bogies, each with 68 seats and 1 pantry car. At 5 minutes past 7, the train started moving at snailpace with it's hooks and hinges clamorously sounding due to it's slow movement.

The initial part of the journey reveals, like most train journeys, the uglier part of Chihuahua city. But in no time, the engine was hauling us among the picturesque, auriferous plains with bales of grass dotting the harvested plains here and there. The whole journey was spent at the opening in between the carriages with the 17-40mm lens mounted on Lokesh's Rebel XTi (A zillion thanks to him for lending me his camera)...I should have probably struck a deal mentioning that I didn't need a seat. I met a certain Jose, a 75 year old gentleman who lived down the canyon somewhere. We struck a conversation ranging from languages in India to drunkards in Mexico. It was rather too cold to stand at the window, a hot cup of Maruchan noodles in the pantry (normally opens at 8:30) was very warm and welcoming.

After Cuauhtémoc station, the plain landscapes metamorphoses into magnificent mountains and verdant valleys with sparkling waters flowing, llamas, cows and horses friendlily grazing. The train started cruising up the mountains revealing steadily the beauty of Sierra Madre, there were some corn fields among the mountains with rustic houses, countrymen working in the fields, ploughing their lands on tractors or cowboys on horses, herding the livestock...a delight to eyes. The vegetation on the mountains gradually changed to pine trees. By about 1:15 in the afternoon, the train stopped at Creel.

Creel is a major touristic destination on Chepe line. Almost all foreginers in the train alighted here, more locals boarded. Creel, as such, is just a town without any places of interest, but around Creel there are many waterfalls (Cascada de Cusarare, Cascadas de Basaseachi etc.), lakes (Lago de Arareko) and numerous trekkable valleys. One has to rent a 4x4 for exploring most of the places here. The train stopped for about 5 minutes before the engine started hauling us westwards. The officer told me that we had about two hours of journey remaining.

I grabbed another cup of coffee, sipping it, sticking to my beloved place inbetween two bogies. The train passed through countless tunnels, one of which was quite long...the train passed for 3 whole minutes before we could see light. The train was attaining newer heights, I felt as though we were passing on a magical ridge conneting all the mountain summits. The next important stop was Divisadero, the only station in which train halts for 15 long minutes.

In Divisadero station, we witnessed crowds of Tarahumaras (more about them later) selling food, artwork, shawls and sundries. This is the station where every tourist get off the train to have a breathtaking virgin view of the magnificent Copper Canyon. It was first time in my life, I was seeing something like that...chains of high cliffs and deep ravines all sticthed perfectly to form a mindblowing landscape. I clicked a couple of shots, wanted to buy some gorditas to eat but the train started honking. We boarded and got ready to alight the train in next station, Posada Barranca which is just 4kM from Divisadero. Divisadero has just one hotel on the canyon edge and that's not for travellers, it's meant for rich gringo or european tourists.

Posada Barranca has a small makeshift railway station. A señora had come to pick us from the station, the cabaña was about a kilometer away from the station. We got refreshed by the lunch served in cabaña, consisting of "Chile Rellenos" and frijoles. Sun was steadily heading his home, ithout wasting much time, we head to la orilla del cañon (the edge of the canyon), around a kilometer away from the cabaña, towards the railway line. After crossing the railway line, a stone stairway on the right leads up the mountain which ends at the edge of the canyon. It was a bit too late, only the tops of the cliffs were illuminated by golden light of the setting sun, while the ravine remained dark...but the landscape in front of us was an exhilarating one. The weather was mindnumbingly fingers were benumbed and handling the camera was never so difficult. We remained there until it got dark and returned to cabaña for dinner.

We wanted to hit the canyon edge before sunrise, but when I opened my eyes I could see that we were too late for it. But we still hurried to get some early morning shots. Weather was colder than the previous night, all we did was clicks, clicks and more clicks. We kept hopping from one boulder to another on the canyon edge, to get differnt views of the great Copper Canyon. At some places, I was on extreme brink of the canyon for shooting...any wrong step would have led me 800m straight down. It was like memoirs of my death encounter. We spent about an hour and a half before we returned to cabaña for breakfast (delicious Huevos Mexicana, Frijoles and el cafe).

We were then advised by the cabaña people to go for a trek to some ranchitos, instead, we hitch-hiked a truck carrying Tarahumaras to the village of San Rafael. Before I get any further on my travelogue, let's talk a bit about Tarahumaras...

...One of the main reasons I decided Copper Canyon as my destination for the long weekend was an article in the November 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine, titled "A People Apart". Tarahumara are the indigenous people who inhabit the Copper Canyon area, they call themselves Rarámuri. They were the people who resisted the Spaniards conquest and have still preserved their indigenousness greatly. They still wear their traditional attire consisting of colourful frocks, scarves and their special footwear, el huarache (souls made of worn-out tires, tied to leg using string). I was surprised to note that they wear huaraches even in the biting cold of the canyon.

Rarámuris seldom talk to tourists, they hate being photographed but they don't object when you click at them. Most of them live in highly isolated villages which requires time and energy to reach by foot. Probably that's the reason that most Tarahumara's are known for their stamina and many of them are marathon winners. Their main diet is maize, beans and dairy products. Semana Santa, during Easter is the biggest among all festivals and that's the time one has to visit them to see their celebrations, but I wasn't that fortunate. Most of them speak Spanish, though I heard a couple of talking in Rarámuri tounge; all of them have adopted Catholicism and visit churches. Being Catholics, they haven't given up their traditional customs and rituals.

It's hard to live without being influenced by the modern world, they're gradually changing...Tarahumaras like soda, Maruchan noodles, sabritas (potato chips) and canned foods. Some of the younger generation couldn't resist the comfort of the sneakers, they've given up traditional huaraches. I heard that some Rarámuris have taken to Marijuana cultivation, which definitely is lucrative than growing maize or beans. Most Tarahumara villages are still dark, without any signs of electricity in the near future. I heard most Tarahumara men work at construction sites, while most women sell arts and sundries at tourist hotspots and children are provided education in special school for indigenous.

That was a very brief introduction to Tarahumara tribes. When I was shooting them and trying to talk to them, I felt as though I was on a NatGeo mission, given that I had just read about them.

San Rafael is a tiny village, about 10 minutes drive from Posada Barranca. There is nothing much to see or do there, but if you're into some serious Tarahumara photography then be there on Sunday for most Tarahumaras visit the Church for the mass. A truck hitch-hiked us back to Posada Barranca, where we started our trek to Ranchitos.

You gotta take a trail which is off the road to San Rafael, just on the outskirts of Posada Barranca. For nearly 2 hours of trekking, you don't see any signs of civilization. You walk through the roads which takes you along the ridge of the mountain, one can see vivid stone formations resembling mushrooms or phalluses. We passed through grazing fields crowded by cows and many apple farms. We encountered a house, which looked forsaken but when I shouted someone from the inside responded. He asked us to continue ahead to see some caves which were built by the indigenous Tarahumaras long ago, but we never found them. We met Alejandro (our cabaña owner) enroute, who promised to wait for us at the aforementioned house). We walked for about an hour, passing near a Tarahumara village which was separated by a river. There were certain people, who didn't respond upon my shouting...the dogs continuously kept baying. Our search for the caves were in vain, we returned tired and sad. On our return journey Alejandro told me a lot about Tarahumaras, some of which I've summerized in the passages about Tarhumaras.

He said one important thing, especially for visitors, "You must not visit any Tarahumara village without any guide, especially during any celebrations. Once they drink, they become animals. They don't see you as a different person, they may lose respect and you don't know what may happen. If you have a guide atleast he can talk with them". I don't know to what extent was his statement genuine but as a travelogue, it made whole lot of sense for me to add this part.

We reached cabaña almost at sundown, my legs were terribly paining as a result of trek. Señoras had prepared delicious carne con papas (beef with potatoes), served with spagetti and beans. We met a topography student from Chihuahua over the dinner, he gave us a sad news that they were planning to build a 6Km long cable car in the canyon. I was glad that I witnessed the virgin beauty of the canyon. Tourism industry sells itself to the shittiest ideas if it's money matters. Alejandro agreed to kindle the fire in the hearth of our room and the night was warmer and nicer.

We had huevos con salchicha (eggs with sausage) and coffee for breakfast, before Alejandro dropped us at Divisadero in his truck. Starting from Divisidero, we traversed the edge of Copper Canyon all the way to Piedra Volada. There are pavements, man made bridges and canopied view-points along the edge and hence more touristic, nevertheless the vistas kept changing and we could perceive the canyon from various angles and places. Piedra Volada was the most tourstic and hence crowded among all the view points, an awe-inspiring giant rock is miraculously held at the edge of a precipice. We then started heading back to cabaña, it was 10:15 in the morning and we had to walk another 40 minutes to reach cabaña, if we didn't have to miss the bus. Thankfully, we thumbed our way across in a jeep which dropped us all the way till our cabaña. We relaxed a while, before we packed-off to the bus-stop which was at stones throw away from cabaña.

At 11:30, we boarded the bus which charged 250 pesos per person to drive us to Chihuahua city, about six hours long journey. Jackie Chan's movie was played back to back on TV, the landscape was beautiful outside, the same auriferous fields which I had seen during onward journey. We reached Chihuahua by 6 and roamed around in centro for sometime. We inquired for a place to have good Chihuahuan carne, none of them were of any help. I had to settle down for an OK kinda hamburger before we took the taxi to the bus-station.

The taxi driver, pointing to one of th closed bars, observed, "This is the bar which got closed recently after 18 people were shot. 11 of them died and 7 of them injured." I asked him if crime was so common in Chihuahua to which he responded, "Almost 1 person dies everyday as a result of crime and nearly 5 bars have been closed in the recent past because of shoot-outs." I thanked God that we were still alive, and continued to bus station.

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