Copper Canyon (Spanish: Barranca del Cobre) is a canyon system in the Sierra Tarahumara in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. There are many ways to explore Copper Canyon such as hiking, biking, driving or horseback riding. The most popular way is by train, as the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico or ChePe, runs along the main canyon called Canyon Urique, between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, on the Gulf of California.
The system of canyons here is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the neighboring United States, although the Grand Canyon is larger overall than any of the individual canyons of the Copper Canyon system. Though the area would be Mexico's star national park, it thus far has not been designated as a park as efforts to make it so have been hampered by disagreements between loggers and the native Raramuri.
This area is rich in biodiversity, cultural history, and is the site of a growing tourist infrastructure. The town of Creel is probably the most popular gateway to the canyonlands. But the town of Hidalgo de Parall to the south of Chihuahua City is a good alternative and is useful for exploring the largely overlooked Sinforosa Canyon. Within the canyons lie the towns of Batopilas and Urique. Life moves slower in these towns, and it can be hard to imagine you are in the same country that counts Mexico City, Acapulco, and Cancun among its attractions. Shops and restaurants tend to be simple affairs that open late and close early. That does not prevent them from being very charming and the small towns in the canyons are great places to slow down and unwind. There are historic Catholic churches often run by Jesuit missionaries from other parts of the Latin World. But the real attraction of the canyonlands is the natural splendor of the area. There are numerous waterfalls and hot springs hidden away in the backcountry. These are reached by hiking, horseback, or guided treks with burros. Camping out under the stars is wonderful on the countless sandbars that line the area rivers. The area does see other travellers and tourists but is hardly overrun. Rather, the small towns seem to have the right balance; enough other visitors so you can meet hiking partners and put together expeditions. But not so many that getting away from all traces of civilization is anywhere near difficult.
The area was mostly uninhabited before European arrival. Once Spaniards began forming ranches on the plains of Chihuahua the Raramuri began moving back into the canyons. The almost militant Jesuits soon followed. The Jesuits were forced out of Mexico after the Spanish crown discovered they were smuggling gold back to Europe; leaving the Raramuri in peace. Franciscans replaced the Jesuits throughout much of Mexico but never succeeded in penetrating the Sierra Tarahumara. Today there are a few Jesuit missionaries back in the area. The lack of any church leadership in the area for hundreds of years resulted in the hybrid Christian-traditional religious beliefs that the Raramuri exhibit today.
Flora and fauna
Very little scientific study has been done on the wildflowers since the late 1800s and early 1900s until the 21st century. A visitor to the Copper Canyon region in 2004 saw many beautiful flowers but discovered that no field guide had ever been written for the Copper Canyon so she decided to write one. After three more trips to do the research, she found a botanist to work with her who then identified the plants and a professor from a university in Chihuahua translated the text into Spanish so the guide would be bilingual. In July 2009 the first Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Mexico’s Copper Canyon Region by Linda J. Ford was published. She created a very user friendly guide so when the casual visitor is touring the canyon in the months of September and October when the wildflowers are in bloom, he or she will have the opportunity to identify over 140 different species of wildflowers.
The most comfortable time to go is early spring to early summer and late summer to late fall.
Because of the difference in elevation from over 2,550 m (8,000) feet at the high plateau and canyon rims to the bottom of the canyons at 550 m (1,800 feet), four very distinct climate zones with a wide variety of vegetation have resulted.
In the highlands is the Madrean Conifer Forest with fir, pines, Douglas fir, and red Madroño trees. Going down in elevation, there is the Pine-Oak Woodland with pine, live oak, and agave. Continuing down, next comes the Arid-Tropical Deciduous Thorn Forest with scrub oak, mesquite, and cardon. The last zone located at the bottom of the canyons is the Tropical-Subtropical Riparian Forest that has fig, sycamore, ceibas, grasses, reeds, and palms.
During the winter months, the temperature can drop below freezing at the rim of the canyon while down in the canyon, the climate is subtropical. During the summer months, afternoon rains often occur. As a result of these rains, the streams and waterfalls begin to flow and the vegetation including wildflowers come to life in late August, September, and early October. In addition to abundant wildflowers in the fall, the temperatures are also more moderate at the rim as well as in the canyon that time of year.
The Chihuahua al Pacífico Railway, known as El Chepe, is a rail line that runs from the Pacific coast at Los Mochis to the city of Chihuahua, passing through the canyonlands. While the train ride is lauded as one of the most spectacular in the world, the reality is that the really scenic parts of the journey are between El Fuerte and Creel, especially between El Fuerte and Bahuichivo where the train rapidly ascends many thousands of feet. The route from Los Mochis headed eastwards is more scenic because the westward train often passes through the most scenic areas after nightfall. This is really only an issue in the winter when days are short or if the 2nd class train is running way behind schedule. Regardless, neither direction offers direct views of the canyon.
The railway comprises 652 kilometres (405 mi) of rails with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels. The total trip takes approximately 15 hours and passes through towns, and the towering cliffs of the canyons. Along the railway, many Tarahumarans lay out their food, crafts and other wares for sale.
First and second class are available in separate trains, with the first class train leaving earlier. First class is mostly for foreign tourists and costs twice the rate of 2nd class, but allows you to hop on and off, whereas 2nd class tickets must be entirely used up in one day. 1st class tickets should be purchased in advance through a travel agency to avoid disappointment, while 2nd class tickets can be purchased on the train from the conductor.
As of 2009, a first class train leaves from Chihuahua and Los Mochis every morning, whereas the second class train only leaves from each station 3 times a week (it will depart from Los Mochis one night and Chihuahua the next, and take 1 day off per week).
Copper Canyon is well served by bus service. Buses run from El Paso-Juarez to Chihuahua (US$25) and from Ojinaga-Presidio to Chihuahua (US$12) regularly. From Chihuahua you can continue on by bus to Creel (US$20) or transfer to the train.
If you have your own private vehicle driving on the Mexican toll roads is very easy, and corruption appears to be a minor issue in Chihuahua outside of the Juarez area.
Fees and permits
Mountain bikes, ATVs and four wheel drive trucks can be rented in downtown Creel to explore the outlying area. Unlike most other parts of the Copper Canyon area, unguided day trips are possible out of Creel. Daytrip destinations include the Valley of the Monks, and the Valley of the Frogs. Recohuata, a developed hot springs area, is also within 16 km (10 miles) of Creel.
There is a maze of Raramuri trails running through the area. They run in all different directions, are unsigned and seem to have no concept of grade or steepness. Hiring a guide is a good idea. Someday perhaps an ambitious volunteer will try to make some kind of signage and map system for all the trails. Right now, well, it's an adventure.
- Raramuri Indians - Known in Spanish as the Tarahumara, they are among the largest and most traditional native American societies in all of North America. They are known for their running abilities. They are shy quiet people and do not like to have their photos taken due to religious beliefs.
- 1 Candameña Canyon. The least touristed and least explored of the seven canyons of the park.
- 2 Piedra Volada Falls. Highest waterfall in Mexico, at 463 meters.
- There are numerous hot springs in the area. The most developed and well known are the Recohuata (Recowata) Hot springs near Creel which have been channeled into a series of concrete pools. The area is clean and well maintained and while developed it has a very nice rustic charm that blends well with the natural beauty of the area. Lesser known and undeveloped are the Basirecota Hot Springs down the canyon from the Cusarare area. These springs are much hotter than the ones at Recohuata. Farthest off the beaten path and probably nicest of all are the Owerabo hot springs deep within the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon). These are undeveloped and form natural pools; they also mix with a waterfall that plunges down into the area from the cliffs above.
Camping areas can be found just about anywhere, but for those not willing to rough it, a very wide range of accommodations is available in the vicinity, from hostels in Creel and Urique to dedicated 5-star luxury lodges that cater to package tourists. It is better to book a minimum 2 months in advance. 4 months or more is best (this applies only to the upmarket luxury lodges, simple guesthouses only fill up just before Easter and campgrounds always have space available).
There are dedicated campgrounds in Creel and Urique, most other places you can camp wherever you find an unoccupied sandbar. Oftentimes the best option is to go up to a rancher or farmers house and ask permission perhaps offering a small payment. This gives you a little extra protection from theft or harassment.
In the more remote and rugged canyonlands hiring a local guide is strongly recommended as the landscape and climate are harsh and unforgiving of errors. In addition this is an area of drug cultivation, and unaccompanied American tourists (usually groups of motorcyclists) have disappeared in the past, presumably killed by narcotics traffickers. The area south of Batopilas towards Durango is an especially intense zone of narco activity.