Down the Rabbit Hole
03 March 2015
NOTE: It is important to understand the story I tell about the Copper Canyon and the Tarahumara Indians is from our experience alone; either what we witnessed or what were told by various guides and people in the area.
January 25, 2015
When the six of us made plans to travel through Copper Canyon, there was one thing we all agreed we wanted to do - head down into the bottom of the canyon. We had heard it was not to be missed. Particularly Batopilas, an old silver mining town, a place that would take us back in time. Sitting alongside a river, we had read that it was a lush, sub-tropical area, where we would see Tarahumara Indians in their natural habitat, and people commuting in and out of town on horseback.
We were also warned that it was a minimum four-hour drive down a winding road, part of which, was dirt, and all of it, precarious, at best.
Well, at least that part was true.
Our guide, Cesar, picked us up at our hotel in Creel around 0830. Cesar Gonzalez Quintero is a short man with a muscular build, dark hair and eyes, and a handsome face. His jeans and shirt are tight-fitting and he always wears a cowboy hat. The day we met him, it was black. Today it is white. Cesar is a born-again Christian and a reformed alcoholic and on the front seat, next to him, sits his ever-present Bible.
We met Cesar a few days ago at the Hotel Mansion Tarahumara where he offered us a ride to Creel. The fee was up to us, he said, as he had dropped some people off at the Mansion and was going back to Creel anyway.
We had been waiting for the train (it passes through once a day), but this sounded like a good deal so we took him up on it. Besides, Maria (aka Linda Hunt) recommended him as an excellent tour guide and we were looking for someone to take us down to Batopilas. By the end of our scenic drive to Creel, it was decided Cesar was our man.
Creel is approximately 8000 feet above sea level and Batopilas is 1500. The drive down the mountain is 140 kilometers but would take us four to five hours because of the winding road.
We learned our first stop was at to be at Cesar's mother-in-law's house (where his wife was recovering from an appendectomy) to pick up his lunch. We told him that when we had ordered our sandwiches, we had bought one for him, but he politely declined.
"Don't worry." He said. "It's on the way."
Next stop was to put 1000 pesos worth of fuel in the tank, and then I had to stop the truck to get some photos of the cemetery on our way out of town. The cemeteries in Mexico are revered and are decorated with flowers, photos, crosses and other adornments.
Finally, we were on our way.
Cesar speaks English rather well (and Mary speaks fluent Spanish) so we were able to learn some of the history of Creel and the Tarahumara Indians as we began our descent.
Creel is a town of a little over 5000 and was once called "Sequarchee," place of the tadpoles. In the early 1900s, it was renamed after the governor at the time, Enrique Creel, after a very powerful man in the business world. Cesar was born and raised in this town and his mother owns two hotels. One is in Creel and the other is in Batopilas.
As we continue along our drive, he shows us the Apache Pine. With its long needles, it is used for weaving. There are Weeping Pine trees and the Madrona tree that has a red bark. Later he will point out a Kapoc tree with white flowers that look like cotton balls. Still later, he will show us how the Indians use the pine trees to store their hay as hay needs air to stay fresh. We ask him about the Tarahumara Indians and he begins to paint a picture that sheds some light on this reclusive tribe.
The Tarahumara Indians are Catholic, yet some of their beliefs and rituals sound more tribal than Catholic. He tells us they believe they have many souls, not just one. When a person is ill, their souls are unbalanced. The Shaman must either smoke or drink a potion of crushed peyote and water to cleanse and heal the souls.
When one of the Indians dies they wrap their body in a blanket and leave their favorite food for them overnight. When it is gone in the morning (they think the spirit has eaten it - but we're guessing it was probably an animal), then they tell the soul to go away. They bury their dead simply and quickly and they want nothing to do with them after that. They will play drums to keep the spirit away.
They marry and have children at a very young age - as early as fourteen years old. The elders arrange their marriages and yes, inbreeding can be a problem. The marriage ceremony is very simple. It is usually a small gathering and the governor of the tribe presides, telling them they must follow the law. The church is not necessarily involved. If divorced, the women cannot remarry.
And, of course, they are some of the world's fastest runners. Running is a way of life. For both men and women. Long distance running is their forte and they can run for days on end. They can even out run a deer. They make a concoction called corn beer and this is considered to contribute to their endurance as it is high in carbohydrates and low in alcoholic content. They run barefoot or wearing hand-made sandals.
For sport, they compete in races and they play a running game where they kick a wooden ball no bigger than a baseball, wearing a white and red ceremonial dress. They play one on one and they move this ball, either with their feet or a stick, through the canyon, miles at a time. When it gets dark, there is one runner who carries a light beside them.
Cesar stops the car and lets us out to walk.
"I will pick you up down there." He points to a curve down the way.
With no other traffic on the road it was a nice walk in crisp, cool, air. We had a chance to observe our future path that would lead us down switchbacks and around rock slides with boulders so large, it was quite terrifying. I couldn't help but wonder when the next slide might arrive.
When riding in the car again, Cesar pointed at the goats, high up on the mountain. "One wrong move of their foot and a rock can come tumbling down. They can be very dangerous to cars." He said, as I looked out the window to my right and noticed how we were driving along on the edge, with only a mere foot of sand and pebbles between us and the cliff that dropped hundreds of feet down. My heart skipped a beat.
This went on for hours until finally, we came to the end of the paved road and proceeded onto the dirt road. The terrain was changing and now Cesar pointed out the Cardon and Organ Pipe cactus, as well as the Octopus Agave that crawled out from the rocks with its many arms. We passed large bulldozers that were working to finish the road as we headed toward a bridge. Here we got out too, and walked across the bridge with Cesar following us in the truck.
Once down the mountain, the road led us to Hotel Hacienda del Rio Batopilas (or The Antique House by the River) where Cesar pulled over.
"This is where we will stay." He said as he began pulling plastic bags from the back of his truck. "I'll be right back."
One of the caretakers came out to lend us a hand as we unloaded our gear. Cesar came back and we followed him up to our rooms on the second floor overlooking the river. There are no other guests that we can see. It seems we have the entire hotel to ourselves.
Cesar confesses that this hacienda is owned by his mother. She bought the Antique House by the River several years past. At that time, it was a run-down building that had once housed some of the wealthier silver miners in the prime of this town. Cesar's mother obviously has an eye for style for her remodel turned this building into a cultural landmark. Authentic in its architectural history and beautiful to the eye.
It is built into a hill that stands across the river. Using indigenous stone, a wall protects the ground from crumbling down onto the road. Bougainvillea cascades from the hill, draping the stone wall with its fuchsia facade. The Hacienda is two stories high. Stone and tile and wood are what is used to create this masterpiece. Inside, the rooms continue with the theme of stone floors and wood-beam ceilings, along with brightly colored tile that decorates the bathrooms. Each room has its own style and color. The furniture is large, and made-up of heavy wood that is intricately carved. Despite the grandeur of the heavy furniture, the rooms are sparse; two beds beside a bedside table and an armoire. Nothing else.
We settle in and take a nap before venturing into town.
"Oh, oh, oh... I need a bathroom!" This is me not twenty minutes after we have walked into town. The only problem is, we can't find a bathroom. Nothing is open. The hotels looked locked down and besides a few tiendas...well, there is nothing. I walk into one of the tiendas with a desperate look on my face. The nice lady points me into her home where I am welcome to use her bathroom.
We continue walking toward the plaza.
"Oh, oh, oh.... I need to find a bathroom!" I say. Jay responds in dismay. "Didn't you just use the bathroom, Terri?"
"Yes, but my stomach...oh, oh, oh!"
No restaurants are open, either. We see one sign that says, "Bar." We head there. Surely they will have a bathroom. They don't.
Well, they do. Only it doesn't work, is more like an outhouse and the door barely closes. Desperate, I decide this will do. We finish our one beer and leave this very funky "bar."
It is 4:45 pm. We have walked from our hotel - one half mile on a dirt road, over a bridge and another half mile on paved road into town. Cesar is to meet us here at 5:30 pm to take us to the one restaurant that will be serving us dinner. That is forty-five minutes away and my stomach is crying out to be released. There is no way I can walk back to the hotel in time to...well, you know.
Meanwhile, we have walked down through town. We see no Tarahumara Indians. The aroma of marijuana seeps through the air. Men with automatic weapons ride in the back of trucks. A Mercedes pulls up to the curb and a nine year-old jumps out of the driver's seat. A man washes his car. He is bending over and sticking out of the hip of his jeans is a pistol. We are the only gringos in town. We all agree, something is not right.
My stomach growls again.
We sit in the main plaza to wait for Cesar. I am not sure that my body will wait, but what are the options? We sit on a bench under a tree where the bees are hovering. Next to us on another bench, are old men. I think they might be discussing the politics of Batopilas. At least, that is what I imagine. In front of me are three small children, playing tag and laughing.
Slowly, the sounds of the bees buzzing and the children's laughter and the men's conversation, as well as my friends' talking, starts to become muted. If this were a sound mix, their voices would fall deep into the background and a loud drone would take the foreground. My eyes lose focus and before I can stop it, my stomach wretches up what I wouldn't let loose by going to the bathroom.
Here I am, in the middle of town, throwing up. Jay holds my hair while I shake and release and cry. I am at once embarrassed and relieved and horrified.
"Where is Cesar?" I want to know.
He arrives about ten minutes later and then proceeds to talk it up with the locals.
"Really?" Oh, please, Jay, get Cesar. Tell him I need to go back to the hotel."
Jay rallies Cesar and escorts me back to the hotel. Thankfully.
The next day brings enough relief that I can join the group on our trip to The Lost Cathedral.