Mexico: Copper Canyon country

A scenic train ride through Mexico's gigantic river canyons takes you to the hide-out of the native Tarahumara Indians (who can put away their beers...)

4 mins

It had been many years since the last bandit attack, but the guards on the Chihuahua al Pacifico were still carrying rifles, just to be on the safe side. This handsome train, painted forest green with yellow trim and a red engine, was carrying me up and over the Sierra Madre Occidental, one of Mexico’s wildest frontiers.

On board, though, the atmosphere was one of quiet anticipation. Running between the coastal city of Los Mochis and Chihuahua City on the other side of the mountains, the Chihuahua al Pacifico is often cited as the world’s most scenic rail journey under 1,000km. And as we trundled on, I couldn’t argue. I spent the whole journey – indeed, most of my time in the Mother Mountains of the Mexican West – suffering a mild but persistent vertigo (so much of the landscape being vertical) and wandering around in a state of wide-eyed confusion and wonderment.

Deeper than the Grand Canyon

At one time, riding these rails really was a risky business – and not because of the precipitous bridges and long drops. Bandits were known to hop on board and, in 1998, a Swiss tourist was murdered in a robbery-gone-too-far. But that day, though tragic, had beneficial consequences, provoking improved security on the train – and making safer the most interesting and spectacular part of the Sierra Madre.

They call it Barranca del Cobre – Copper Canyon – but it’s actually a whole system of gigantic river canyons, four of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon. In winter, you can stand on the rims in snow and pine forest and look down on parrots flying over semi-tropical jungle at river level. 

It’s also the homeland of some 50,000 Tarahumara Indians, a tribe that never surrendered to the Spaniards and is only now beginning to assimilate into Mexican culture. In remote areas you can still find Tarahumaras wearing pleated loincloths, living in seasonal caves and running the traditional 60, 80, sometimes 100-mile footraces.

The Tarahumaras call themselves the Rarámuri, the Running People, and are generally considered to be the greatest long-distance athletes in the world; I once watched eight of them trounce a world-class field of ultra runners in a 160km race at high altitude in Colorado. But, in one of those head-scratching paradoxes that Mexico is always throwing at you, they are also extremely heavy drinkers, believing their fermented corn beer is a sacred gift from God.

Most visitors to the Canyon content themselves with the spectacular ride along its rims, but I was heading into its very heart. My destination was a small Tarahumara village at the bottom of Urique Canyon, the deepest canyon of all. It was called Guadalupe Coronado and I had heard it was one of the last places where you could see the Tarahumara Easter celebrations with the full complement of fertility rites, mock battles and ritual drunkenness.

The train entered the mountains through the cactus-studded canyon of the Septentrión River. The guards stationed themselves on the platforms between the carriages and the foreigners crowded around them, trying to capture the scenery with their cameras. The canyon walls climbed up into immense towers and battlements; you could have hidden the Empire State building in some of the side canyons.

Three-hundred-metre waterfalls appeared, along with long-tailed tropical birds and dense clouds of yellow butterflies.

Hair-raising hairpin 

At Témoris the train executed a double-hairpin ascent of the canyon wall, a marvel of engineering, and then chugged across a high pine-forested plateau. Most passengers were going on to Creel, an old logging town now sprouting new hotels and tour agencies, but I got off at Bahuichivo, a better launching point for Urique Canyon.

It was a small squat town with a raw frontier feel. Logging trucks rumbled and splattered through the muddy streets. Tarahumara women with broad, copper-skinned faces sat on rock walls dressed in traditional printed skirts, blouses and shawls, some of them breast-feeding three- and four-year-old boys. A Tarahumara man in slacks and a straw cowboy hat offered to sell me a hand-carved violin and a stuffed squirrel – tempting souvenirs but I had no room in my backpack.

I found a minivan going down into Urique Canyon, driven by a friendly, competent-looking man who introduced himself as Rosario Herrera, known as El Güero, The Lightskinned One. I was nervous about the road, which was narrow, unpaved, potholed, littered with rock fall and slippery after the recent rain. It snaked and hairpinned its way down the side of the canyon with sheer, queasy drop-offs of 300m or more, but 

El Güero was a careful driver, and in the backseat four schoolgirls sang Mexican pop songs. I started to relax and enjoy the ride. We stopped to pick up two silent, stone-faced Tarahumaras, waiting in the middle of vertical nowhere, and then three refugees from a breakdown. Now 15 of us, and our bags, were squeezed into the minivan.

Wild marijuana

An atmosphere of mutual tolerance and cordiality prevailed. People smiled a lot and attempted to make space for their neighbour. At the most spectacular overlook, with the green Urique River visible 1,200m below us, the driver stopped and beckoned me out. I admired the view and then we talked for a few minutes about the road, his family, the “double-crazy” Tarahumara Easter festivities.

Then I realised he was waiting for me to take a photograph. “I am a gringo without a camera,” I said. “I keep meaning to buy one but I never get around to it.”

“Then you must look with your eyes and make a strong memory,” he said, and we got back in the minivan.

By the time we reached the old colonial town of Urique on the riverbank, it was dusk, and the streets were busy with Mexicans celebrating Maundy Thursday, as well as donkeys, mules, horses, pigs, goats and chickens. On the edge of town, I found a campground and hostel called Entre Amigos and rolled out my sleeping bag among fruit trees and marijuana seedlings. They didn’t look deliberately planted. The plant has been cultivated so extensively in the Sierra Madre that it now grows wild.

On the afternoon of Good Friday I hitched a ride out to Guadalupe Coronado and one of the strangest, most fascinating events I have ever witnessed. Isolated from outside influences for centuries, the Tarahumara religion is an intriguing blend of half-absorbed Catholicism and native shamanism, and it places an extraordinary emphasis on the redemptive power of alcohol. When I arrived, the Tarahumaras had been drinking the sacred tesguino – fermented corn beer freshly brewed in big earthenware jars – for 24 hours, and had already adopted their festival roles.

Some of them were painted head to toe in black-and-white stripes, wearing hats with cardboard deer horns, turkey feathers and blue twine chinstraps. These were the diablitos, the devils, and their job at the Easter ceremony was to represent evil and create chaos. They danced to scratchy, out-of-tune violin music, accompanied by periodic drumming. They wiggled their painted backsides, threatened the spectators – I was one of eight wide-eyed outsiders – and snatched away our possessions, sometimes refusing to give them back. And all the time they laughed a peculiar, stylised chortle: “Heh-heh-heh! Hah-hah-hah!”

The devils had an effigy of Judas made out wood and straw with a plastic bottle full of murky corn beer for a bladder and a carved wooden erection about 60cm long. They took turns dancing with Judas on their shoulders until they collapsed under his weight and fell sprawling into the dust, and then installed him opposite the old whitewashed Jesuit church.

Easter: A dangerous time of year

Unpainted Tarahumaras brought out effigies of Christ, Mary and God on wooden platforms and paraded them around. God had a beard and a long green robe. His right hand was held up and turned outward; over the years all his fingers had broken off except the middle one, which was sticking defiantly up.

Four centuries ago some hardy Jesuit missionaries had come through the Sierra Madre on mules and given the Tarahumaras a smattering of Catholicism. One of their conversion techniques was to stage Easter morality plays, organising the Indians into groups of soldiers and Pharisees and getting them to re-enact the persecution of Christ.

Then the Jesuits were removed from Mexico by the Spanish crown in 1767 and the Tarahumaras were left to their own devices for the next two centuries. They blended what they knew of Catholicism with their own traditional shamanic beliefs and rituals, and slowly and gradually they found their way towards what we were seeing in Guadalupe Coronado.

In the Tarahumara universe, Easter is the most dangerous time of the year, because this is when God gets into his annual drinking bout with the Devil. Normally the Devil’s powers are fairly limited. He can make people fight, kill each other and commit adultery during drinking sessions, and that’s about it. But when God gets drunk at Easter, the Devil has a real chance of creating fires, floods, disease, famine and serious cosmic havoc.

Sobering up

The Tarahumara Easter rituals are designed to make sure this doesn’t happen and it’s absolutely essential that the Tarahumaras get drunk. Only then can their souls leave their bodies and travel to God’s assistance.

So they kept scooping up gourds of corn beer from the big earthenware jars and downing them in one. I tried a few myself and it tasted like watered-down Guinness with lawn clippings in it. It wasn’t that strong but by the morning of Easter Saturday they had been drinking for 36 hours straight. People were now reeling and staggering. It was time for the grand dénouement.

They filled the floor of the church with water and the devils went inside and rolled around in it, washing off their painted stripes and becoming human again. The women pulled the coverings off the saints and then the cleansed devils rushed out of the church, fought a mock battle with the Pharisees, who wore tall pointed turkey-feather hats, and then both groups ripped Judas apart and set fire to him, saving the big wooden penis for next year.

Good had triumphed over evil, God was sobering up and cosmic catastrophe had been averted for another year. It was time to pass out and move on.

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