The Copper Canyon

… Kathrine and Christiane wearing “Mexiflauge”…

On our first night in Creel, Jeff called it to bed early and I stayed up in the hotel “lobby” drinking moonshine with some Dutch travelers when two beautiful German travelers walked in.  They came over and joined us and I learned that their names were Kathrine & Christiane (pronounced Ka-trine & Christiana).  We started talking and I learned that they were on a one month bus tour of Mexico following a semester at the Pan-American University in Mexico City.  We chatted about future travel plans, what we were doing for the next week,where we had been, etc.  They both expressed interest in traveling to Las Barrancas del Cobre (The Copper Canyon) but were dismayed to find that the tour only departed every 3 days at it was now (winter) low season.  It looked like the Canyon tour wouldn’t be for another 2 days.

That is when I mentioned that Jeff and I had our own car and we were going to the Canyon the following morning.  I asked if they would like to join us and they happily agreed.  We agreed to meet at 7am for breakfast the next morning.  When I retired to our shared room, Jeff was still awake and he told me that he had met a couple – an American man and his Mexican girlfriend – and they had agreed to come with us to the Canyon in the morning

Oops, looks like we have a dilemma on our hands!  Jeff had given a commitment and so had I.  He asked, “Who do you want to bring along?”  And when I told him that it was two German students he said with disdain (I could almost see him roll his eyes, but it was dark in the room), “Oh great, we’ll be stuck with to Deutsch who will be jabbering in German all day, ‘Ughen flughen farphenugen!’”  I told him that they seemed “cool” and we should take the girls.  He said that he wanted to take the couple; they wanted to see the canyon but were reluctant to go on his bike as there were still ice patches on the roads – I later learned that they were traveling all over Central America on his Harley.

We went round and round on the pros and cons of taking the German girls versus the couple when Jeff finally said, “Your car, you call it.”  I told him that we would take Christiane and Kathrine.  The next morning we went to breakfast and the couple was waiting at the table all ready to go.  Jeff broke the news and explained that we had both committed without the knowledge of the other.  They said that they understood and would make some other plans.  A little while later, the girls joined us and I introduced them to Jeff.

After we climbed into the blazer, the girls (now in the back seat) began a conversation with each other in German and Jeff looked at me with a “see, I told you so” look on his face.  Sensing impending danger I began a conversation with our new German travel companions.  And in no time, the four of us were chatting away like old friends.  Within the hour, one joke turned into two, two into four and soon we were laughing so hard that I thought I might crash the truck.  In no time, we hit it off like 4 old friends and talked and bantered and laughed and the minutes soon turned into hours.

We had no map to get to the Canyon, just some crude directions from the hotel proprietor and my AAA North American highway mapbook that had all 50 sates and “Mexico” on one page.  There were few if any roads on the map for this area and signs on the road were non-existent.  We frequently pulled over to ask the locals which way, “Que direccion via Los Barrancas del Cobre?”  Amazingly, some of them had never even heard of it.  So, on we drove, aimlessly for several hours.  I asked the girls to take some shots with my camera and I ended up with this:

We drove for about 3 hours and I was started to worry that we might never find this huge Canyon.  Our guidebooks said that there are 5 canyons that join into an area that is twice the size of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  I wondered if we might drive right past it and end up Baja!  As we drove, the scenery was stunning: we saw tall mountain bluffs, beautiful valleys and all varieties of high Sierra pine trees and desert Yucca and cactus.  Some rainstorms came and past and we finally pulled over for a nature break and caught this rainbow from a passing storm.

Just as we came to another vista and drove down into another valley, we came to a small town with a “convenience store” that was a small shack about 5′ across.  We approached the clerk and asked if she knew the way to the “big canyon” using our best/worst Spanish with an American accent that was downright embarrassing.  She didn’t answer but instead asked if we wanted to buy a drink?  Ah, I see, I got the hint, “Yes of course, Si, queremos bebidas.”  I bought 4 Miranda orange drinks and the small Indian-looking woman pointed to a side road that led up the mountain.  She made a motion with her arm that I should drive over this mountain.

And so we began up this VERY steep hill that cut back and forth like Pike’s Peak.  The Blazer’s transmission groaned with the load as we worked our way up one cross back and then down the next each time, slowly climbing a little more up the mountain.  About half way up the mountain, I realized that we had only 1/2 tank of gas left – we had been driving for hours and on steep mountain hills.  I can see why so few travel to the Copper Canyon, it is really out of the way.

We finally cleared the summit and started driving down the back side of the mountain.  But still we did not see the Copper Canyon.  We drove along for another 10 minutes as I gingerly applied the brakes and worried about our depleted fuel state.  We had a tall cliff on our left and an embankment on our right that blocked our view.  We had no way of knowing how far this elusive canyon might be.  We finally decided to pull over and climb up the embankment to have a look.

As we climbed the 2 1/2 meter shoulder everyone let collective “oohs” and “aahs.”  Apparently, we had been driving along the rim of the Copper Canyon since we cleared the summit and never knew it.  Standing on the side of the embankment we had a 240 degree view of one of the five massive canyons.  We stood there for 10 or 15 minutes just staring at the vast canyon, its beauty and we just enjoyed the quiet solitude of the place.

We debated driving down into the valley but we could not tell if there was a gas station below.  We could see a small village on the valley floor but no cars or trucks; we only saw donkeys and some carts.  It was like we had taken a time machine 200 years back into time.  We decided that we would just enjoy the view from where we were.  I took as many photos as I could but then could just not do this place justice.  What I really needed was a wide-angle lens; the canyon wrapped around us covering 240 degrees or more.

Jeff broke out some cheese and crackers and some drinks and I set up some lawn chairs.  We hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours so we felt comfortable just leaving the truck in the road.  We sat down for a picnic and just enjoyed the natural beauty of this place.  We watched as the big black vultures circled in the valley, trying to catch a thermal or updraft to sail them higher into the sky.  We watched as squirrels and chipmunks jumped from cactus to tree and as the little larks flew and chirped.  It was a very beautiful place and I wished that I had more time (and gas) to investigate it further.

Before we departed, I took a shot of the 4 of us at the rim of the Canyon.  Our drive back took 5 or 6 hours and we did not arrive back in Creel until after dark.  It was a long day but we had so much fun.  By the evening my stomach and face hurt from laughing so hard.  It was nice to have met such wonderful travel companions so early in my trip.


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La Frontera

…one of Jeff’s “self portraits” and the last chance for American gas; just before crossing over the border into Mexico, photo taken in Presidio, Texas…

I had long wanted to take a trip to Central America and Mexico.  Aside from border visits and to some resort areas, I had not seen much of Mexico.  My plan was to fly to Mexico City and then, by way of public bus, explore outwards throughout Mexico and then eventually work my way south into Central America.  I checked the airfare to Mexico City and found a roundtrip ticket was about twelve hundred dollars.  As I begin to think about the cost of the airline ticket and my choice of transport (local bus), I began to think of a different plan.

Two years earlier, I had bought a used Chevy Blazer.  The truck had over 180,000 miles on it.  But the original owner was a mechanic and took really good care of the truck.  He had the transmission rebuilt at 150,000 miles and the engine ran great.  I picked this 4X4 truck up for only $1300.  When I began to consider that the cost of the airline ticket was about the same as my cost for the truck, I thought, “Why not drive?”  If the truck breaks down, I can just push it off of a cliff and take the bus!

So, I began plotting my strategy: a drive from Texas, down through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador and then back again to Texas.  I had only a few months; depending on how long I could get out of work.  I researched the prices for fuel in Mexico and found that gas is about 100% more than in the United States.  I decided that it might be a good idea to see if I could find other travelers who would be willing to split the costs of fuel and road tolls.  I knew I would be able to pick up other travelers as I worked my way through Mexico and Central America, but wondered where I could find some travelers who might want to begin the journey with me in America.

I jumped on line to a favorite travel discussion site: Lonely Planet Travel Thorn Tree - a travel discussion bulletin board.  I posted the plans for my trip, the start date, countries and locations that I intended to travel to and my expected return date.  Within a week I had about 15 inquiries.  Most were serious, a few only moderately so.  Most though, could not come during the dates that I was traveling; they either wanted to come earlier than I was leaving or wanted to go later.  I also received about 20 emails from people who were planning the trip a year or two down the road who wanted email updates of my progress.

All of the emails of interest that I received washed out, except for one.  I received an email from Jeff, another Lonely Planet discussion member.  He was interested in the trip and asked that I give him a call.  I rang him up and we started chatting on the phone.  He said that he did a search for my LP discussion page login name and read some of my travel posts.  He said that I sounded “cool enough” and he would consider coming along.  We chatted for about 45 minutes and seem to hit it off; he told me about some of his travels and I told him about mine.  By the end of the phone call we agreed to meet in Dallas on 9 December 2001.  He said that he would fly in to Dallas Fort Worth on the 8th and grab a hotel room.

On the morning of 9 December, I drove to his hotel near DFW and knocked on the door.  He answered the door already packed with his bag in hand.  “Justin?  Jeff, nice to meet you.”  We shook hands, he tossed his bag into the back of the truck, turned in his key at the front desk and we were on our way.  We spent the next 12 or 14 hours driving towards Mexico telling travel stories and getting to know each other.

As we traveled the loop around Fort Worth and then west on Highway 20, Jeff told me about some of his RTW (Round the World) trips.  I had thought that I was well-traveled but he was really well-traveled.  He told me about his visit to Laos and how, once he had gotten off of the “beaten path” and into some of the remote areas, the people were truly fascinated to see him; they had never seen a westerner before.  He described how the children all crowded around and wanted to touch his skin, to see if he was real of if their eyes were playing tricks on them.  We talked and talked and the drive 1/2 way across Texas didn’t seem so long.

Jeff had a sharp wit and a sarcastic sense of humor; he was intelligent and articulate, perhaps a bit pragmatic.  He had no trouble voicing his opinion and his stories were interesting and fun to listen to.  We chatted all the way through Odessa and Midland, perhaps the armpit of America, continued west along Highway 20 and at Pecos turned south on Hwy 17.  We traveled south passing through Fort Davis and reached Marfa by sunset.  No, we didn’t see nay UFOs.  By night we drove south on 17 paralleling the western edge of Big Bend National Park and sometime at oh’dark thirty we arrived in Presidio.  We checked out the local hotel and it looked like a nightmare from a movie.  Considering how expensive it was, we decided to just crash in the truck.  We picked a quiet spot and racked out.  It wasn’t too uncomfortable nor cold and by day break we headed into town.

Presidio is just like any other town America with a population of a few thousand.  The “city slickers” draw stares from all of the locals wearing overalls, John Deer ball caps and using some form of tobacco.  We had some hot breakfast at the local greasy spoon, hit the gas station to fill up and then worked out way to the border.

Crossing into Mexico with the intent of heading south – further south than the “Frontier” region requires a permit.  Almost like a visa, but not quite.  The border region with America is a “free travel zone,” but to go into interior Mexico requires a customs form and a nominal fee (in our case, $10 for 90 days).  We filled out the forms and handed them to the clerk along with our passports.  When it came time to stamp us in, the clerk would not stamp Jeff’s passport.  Apparently, Jeff had used up EVERY page of his passport.  It was so full that previous customs agents and border guards had taken to stamping in the margins, on the notes section and even in the back index.  This guard said that Jeff must obtain a new passport before he enters Mexico.

Ugh!  Oh wait, I’ve been to Mexico before.  “Ahem, Jeff,” I mumbled under my breath, “Maybe you forgot to pay the special fee.”  A ten spot later and the clerk stamped Jeff in.  We agreed that first chance in Mexico City we would stop at the embassy and get some pages added to his passport.

Our next stop was at the search area.  We were questioned if we had any weapons, specifically firearms, or if we had any drugs.  We said that we did not and the guard gave the Blazer a nominal search and then gave us leave to continue.

… at the border near Ojinaga, Mexico…

The road to Ojinaga to Chihuahua was long and tiring.  As we dropped down into the valley that separates the cities, we could see that the road wound back and forth like a snake through the desert.  Rather than move earth and make a straight road it wound left and right around every hill and bluff.  It seemed like we hit 180 degree turn after another weaving back and forth for hours.  I would learn later that the “straight” roads were the toll roads that charged to use them.  I also learned that the moderate price paid in tolls more than makes up for the wear and tear on your car, your stomach and on your time schedule.

We reached Chihuahua sometime after lunch and pulled over at a taco stand to eat.  The tacos, fried pork inside small corn tortillas and covered with some salsa verde (green chili) were not bad at all.  I topped them off with a cold coke and in no time we were on our way.  We made a stop at the local bank to withdraw some pesos from the ATM machine and to pay our immigration fees; the Mexican government does not trust the border guards with the cash.  Instead, you pay the local bank and they stamp your customs form for you.  If  your form is not stamped by a bank, you will not be allowed to leave the country when you try to clear customs on your way out of the country.

Driving west from Chihuaha towards our destination of Creel and the famous Barranca Del Cobre, the “Copper Canyon,” we found the drive much more pleasurable.  The road was straight and flat cutting across a high desert prairie that looked much like parts of California (above).  In the late afternoon we turned south and began climbing into the Sierra Madre (southern) mountains.  As we rose higher and higher in altitude I began to notice a drastic change in the scenery.  No longer did it look like Mexico – at least my preconceived notion of what Mexico looked like – it started to look like the mountains of California and Nevada (below).  As I looked around I wondered if we might drive up on Lake Tahoe!

Night descended on us as we climbed higher into the mountains and neared Creel.  We could smell wood fireplaces burning and pine trees and the crisp cool air of the high altitude made me feel like I was in Big Bear or Arrowhead, California.  We actually encountered ice patches on the road slowing our drive a bit.  I kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is Mexico.”  We pulled into one of the hotels recommended in the Lonely Planet Mexico Guidebook and checked for availability.  Luckily, they did have rooms available.  We booked a double room with its own bathroom for $16 per night.  The beds were made of pine logs that were smoothed and lacquered but were not cut and had their original shape.  The entire hotel smelled like freshly cut pine and a burning fireplace.

Some photos of our hotel, the Casa de Margarita posted by another traveler:

As we came into the entryway and kitchen we were greeted by a dozen travelers; a couple from Holland, some football chums from Chile, 4 American girls who just finished a year in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and a cast of people from all over the Americas.  After we placed our bags in the room we sat down for dinner.  The cost of the room included breakfast and dinner!  All of the travelers joined in telling stories of their travels giving recommendations of what to see and what to skip.  The hotel proprietor was selling beer by the bottle for a buck fifty and some local moonshine (mixed with some local fruit juice) for .75 cents a glass.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying the shine so we joined in and in no time we were part of the party.  It was nice to have a drink and unwind in a friendly crowd after two long days of driving.

Jeff really hit it off with the crowd and I thought that I was lucky to have crossed paths with such a likeable character.  I wondered what the next months would have in store for me as I worked my way further and further south into the Americas.


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