The area known as the Copper Canyon of Mexico really is a complex of about 200 canyons situated in the Sierra Madre, wedged in between the Sonora and Chihuahua deserts. These deep canyons are of relatively recent geologic age, and therefore their steep slopes take a V-shape, rather than the vertical wall shape characteristic of box canyons. The Spanish language has a word for this: "Barrancas", rather than "Canon".

These lands are challenging to visit and explore, as the rugged relief has confined roadbuilding to just a few unpaved tracks, the minimum needed for logging some of the pine forest and for extracting the ore from a silver lode. The easiest access the region is by rail travel on the "Chepe", the Chihuahua to Pacific line. This railroad runs from the coast of the Sea of Cortez at Topolobampo to the city of Chihuahua in the high desert. A major engineering feat, it climbs from sea level to 8,000 feet in just over 200 miles of track, using 36 major bridges and 86 tunnels. It took 90 years to complete…

In late April, our Stanford Alumni Travel/Study group of about 40 gringos hopped onto the train at the station on the outskirts of the market town of El Fuerte. This town, founded in the mid 1500s, is the focal point of a fertile and irrigated plain whose main crops include corn, tomatoes, and sesame. These crops take their water from the Rio El Fuerte, a large river descending from the Copper Canyon range which has been tamed by a system of three dams. Although April is the tail end of the dry season, the river was still fairly full and provided a secure habitat for swarms of diverse stinging insects. An initial encounter taught me not to overlook the judicious application of "jungle juice" before heading outside!

Our Mexican guide Cesar, a native of Chihuahua, was not only deeply knowledgeable about the history of the environs, but also a fountain of insight into the Tarahumara, the name given to the tribe of Native Americans who inhabit the Copper Canyon region. In addition, Cesar had at one time been employed as a trainmaster by the railroad, so he was able to share a wealth of detail, practically by the mile, along our route.

These isolated mountains and barrancas constitute the Tarahumara homeland(they call themselves "Raramuri", or "foot runners" due to their ability to run for hours). Living in rugged and hardscrabble isolation has sheltered them from many of the changes of the past four centuries. As a people, they are shy, quiet, and live in scattered small settlements (some live in caves), raising corn, beans, chickens, and goats. They mostly continue to shun contact with the outside world, although a few small communities exist around missions, established by Jesuits in the 1600s, now offering boarding schools operated both by the Mexican government and by private charities. The Tarahumara send their children to these schools for at least the elementary education years, attracted by their assurance of regular meals, running water and health care. The development of tourism, as well as the expansion of these small communities and their schools, suggest that the Tarahumara will slowly be brought in closer to the Mexican economic and cultural mainstreams.

The Tarahumara women are proficient weavers, using primarily the long needles of the Apache Pine to create attractive baskets. Some of them sit for hours at the train stations, or on the front steps of the few hotels, weaving and selling their handicrafts. It's clear that these people are ambivalent, at best, about the growing encroachment of development and modern civilization.

Our stops included the Mision inn in Cerocahui ("place of the praying mantis"), The Lodge at Creel (a logging town), and The Mision in Posada Barrancas (spectacular canyon rim views). Accomodations were comfortable and the scenery quasi-hypnotizing. We explored Cusarare ("eagles’s nest") and Pittoreal, the local name for the Mexican Ivorybill Woodpecker, a large (2-3 feet) bird now thought to be extinct. We visited both adobe and cave dwellings, as well as mission churches and schools.

Our faculty leader was John Rick, professor of archeology, who displayed stone tool-making skills as well illuminating for us some of the history of Chihuahua, the living patterns of the Tarahumara, and the history of maize domestication. We also learned from him the source of the expression "Ai Chihuahua", conveying that disaster is imminent, which came about following the violent raids by large horse-mounted Comanche war parties during the 1850s. These came screaming from the Texas Panhandle all the way through Chihuahua, capturing women, children and livestock and killing or destroying the rest. Not a single hacienda or town was safe from these seasonal attacks.

At the end of the trip, we returned by ferry to La Paz, across the Sea of Cortez, and a flight home. When returning from foreign travels, one of the things we we usually look forward to is an early visit to a local Mexican restaurant – but not this time!


The Sierra Tarahumara in upper right. Our voyage along the rail line in black.

Urique Canyon

Urique Canyon, deeper than the Grand Canyon, with the town of Urique on the riverbank.

Cesar Catellanos

Cesar, Guide Extraordinaire.


Cerocahui: Domed and steepled Mission on the left, boarding school in foreground.

Baskets for sale

Tarahumara mother and daughter peddling baskets trainside (with rare smile).


Tarahumara women's footrace with forward ring toss.


Perilous crossing onTarahumara infrastructure.


Statue of Zorro in courtyard of our hotel in El Fuerte.The Posada del Hidalgo is the birthplace and former home of Don Diego de la Vega, Zorro's namesake.


Box lunches being consumed in the shade of the Bahuichivo water tank, waiting for the Chepe.


Mayo indian demonstrating tortilla-baking on a drum lid perched over an open fire.

Mayo Dance

Mayo performing Deer Dance to rasp and gourd music.The Mayo tribe lives on the plain surrounding El Fuerte, and the Mayo are much more integrated into Mexico's economy than are the Tarahumara.


Tarahumara souvenirs. Basket in foreground is woven from pine needles, the others from palm fibers.


Tarahumara playing native musical instrument.

Rim Hotel

Canyon rim hotel at Posada Barrancas.


We traveled from La Paz and back on the CALIFORNIA STAR. Our cabin was very comfortable, up high and forward. We shared the ship with about two hundred 18-wheelers!