January 2018: In my quest to see as much of my favorite country as possible, I booked a long weekend trip to Copper Canyon, the largest canyon in North America, which is even larger than the Arizona Grand Canyon. Along with my girlfriend and her mom, our plan was to fly to Chihuahua, rent a car and drive to the colonial era town of Batopilas at the bottom of Copper Canyon. Batopilas appeared to be the quintessential small desert village that resembled the village in the movie. “The Three Amigos,” that I always hoped to find. The only problem was that the bad guys instead of the likeable and clumsy El Guapo and his banditos were narco-traffickers for the Sinaloa Cartel. Batopillas was openly run by the cartel, but I was assured by locals before coming that we would be safe providing we kept out of their business. This is the story of our trip to Batopilas.

 

 

About Batopilas

Location of Batopilas

The location of Batopilas has long been the home of the Tarahumaras Indians, who were initially contacted and converted to Christianity by Jesuit Missionaries via remote missionary posts spread out across the canyon. Later the Spanish miners came, and settlers when silver was discovered in the area.  Despite the remote location at the bottom of the deepest canyon in North America-Copper Canyon and the difficulty of reaching it, Batopilas was once one of the wealthiest silver mining towns of Mexico.  It was founded in the early 1700s and produced silver until the early 1900s. As a result of the millions of dollars that were made in Batopilas from silver mining, there are many exquisite old Spanish colonial buildings. Afterwards the early 1900’s, Batoplias went bust and population plummeted from a high of 6000 to only a few hundred. Cartels have since taken advantage of the areas remoteness to grow marijuana, opium poppies and cocaine and traffic it into the USA.  Batopilas because of its beautiful colonial structures and eco-tourism appeal at the bottom of sheer canyon walls has become a tourist attraction and the town is one of the “Pueblo Magicos’ of Mexico highlighted for their tourism appeal. Although the town’s isolation and narco presence has scared off most tourists, there is an unspoken agreement between cartels and locals that providing the cartels are left alone to conduct their business then they will not interfere with the town’s business. The trickle of adventure seekers that still make it to the town, as long as they are comfortable with seeing armed cartel gunmen in pick-up trucks, are rewarded with a unique Mexican village experience and incredible canyon scenery.

 

 

Cave Dwelling Tarahumaras Indians 

To get to Batopilas, we started in Chihuahua and from there and really anywhere there is really only one road into Batopilas and it is through Creel located on top of the Copper Canyon at 11,000′. Creel is much more touristy and is one of the Copper Canyon train stops.  We flew into Chihuahua rented a car and drove a few hours to Creel, where we explored a few cases where some of the Tarahumaras Indians live.  During the arrival of the Spanish many of the Tarahumaras were enslaved and forced to work in mines. As a result, many flew to the remote canyons and caves to escape where some remain today. The caves were interesting but a bit too commercial requiring entrance costs and were full of Tarahumaras selling handicrafts. I found others that were used for storage but appeared to be abandoned with Tarahumaras living outside of them in makeshift stone houses instead.  I am sure there still are caves in the mountains that are non-commercialized where Tarahumaras still live and zi did some research to find them and even wanted to camp overnight in one of them but we just didn’t have the time needed to find the remote caves and visit Batopilas in the same weekend, so I opted for the touristy easy to get to caves instead as just a sample until we could someday maybe return.

 

 

Paula in front of a door of a cave home with a Tarahumaras woman

Although the views of Copper Canyon were not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon, Copper canyon has its own unique beauty to it.  Instead of a series of canyons, it feels more like being in rigged sandstone mountains pine forests at the top and cactus and desert vegetation at the bottom. The road that cuts through it all to Batopilas is as remote and rough as they come. There were few if no villages along the way and I was a little concerned about banditry but there seemed to be no accounts of this maybe because of the heavy cartel presence. The roads were steep and our little Honda’s brakes were squealing as we descended sometimes at a 30–35-degree bank with 1000′ sheer cliffs at our side with either no railing or some that were damaged from a car that already went off the side of the cliff taking most of the railings with it. Although the road was paved, this just made it worse since the potholes were the kind that can remove a tire if you’re not careful or an entire bumper.

Copper Canyon

Copper Canyon

Paula overlooking Copper Canyon

Good stretch of road to Batopilas

Then there were rockslides or just random boulders in the middle of the road. This was not the kind of road to drive fast on or at night. Luckily there were few other cars, and I was able to drive slow enough to spot any rocks around blind bends or potholes. The drive down to Batopilas took hours from creel and the more we descended, the more our brakes squealed, and it seemed was metal on metal now and the brakes felt like they were beginning to fail and smoke. Luckily, we were at the bottom of the canyon and the little town of Batopilas was onsite, but I also knew that we wouldn’t be able to drive out of this town with the current state of the brakes and at first glance there didn’t appear to be many mechanics or options in town. Batopilas, a small village stood on the banks of a river that cut through huge, towering sandstone mountains on all sides of us. I was excited to explore the area but also a little nervous about how we were going to fix our car in this cartel-controlled town.

 

Rockslide that we had to drive around dangerously close to a cliff’s edge

Batopilas is a sleepy town with few people and vehicles on the streets. As we drove across the bridge over the river into town, I asked a few bored looking villagers for instructions to our hotel. Our hotel was in an old building hundreds of years old once a brothel for miners looking to spend their hard-earned money and later a wealthy business owner’s mansion. We were the only guests of the hotel and the manager, a kind friendly man who went out of his way to help us during our stay.

 

 

Local guys in Batopilas that helped us find our hotel 

Our hotel from the outside

My first order of business was to address our rental car’s brakes. I was about 12 hours away from Chihuahua and it was the weekend and no one in the rental car agency answered the phone, so a replacement car was out of the question. Our only option was to fix the brakes somehow in town or take public transport back to Chihuahua on our last day. The mechanic in town inspected the brakes and informed us that it would be suicide to drive back and that it would take a week for him to order new brake pads and rotors because the whole thing was completely shot.

 

Our decimated brakes

For the next two nights, we had a great time exploring Batopilas, eating at the family run eateries that made incredible traditional local food. We had a birthday dinner for my girlfriend, and we even had a Mexican cake baked in town that took 12 hours to bake for her birthday cake. Batoplias was like traveling back in time. Everyone traveled at a slower pace and due to the lack of modern amenities meals, and drinks were made via traditional old-fashioned methods.

 

Street scene Batopilas

Street scene Batopilas

Town center Batopilas

Yes, there were also the armed gunmen that work for the cartel that patrolled the town in the back of flashy pickup trucks. These men were a constant fixture in town, and I would see them in trucks or sometimes just walking around town with assault rifles. During my morning walks I would see them cleaning their rifles in the river water.  They were clearly not policemen and there was something sinister looking about them and we usually avoided direct eye contact unless it was by accident, and I never pointed my camera at them except for one time when I heard them about to drive around the corner and I captured a photo of them unnoticed from a distance with my zoom Lense. When I asked the manager who they were, he answered very diplomatically and said they are security for the town. I didn’t probe anymore. I read that this is the typical response from most villagers. I imagine the cartel patrols the town in case a rival cartel tried to encroach on the neighboring farms where many of their drugs and shipment are gown and kept awaiting a mule to be smuggled into the nearby porous and remote Texas border. Given how remote the area is and probably to avoid an all-out war, the federal government allows them to operate with some level of impunity providing certain lines are not crossed.  Although these gunmen would glance at us when we walked past them, they didn’t seem to care much about our presence. This didn’t mean that they weren’t dangerous, however. I read that one of the town’s mayors was assassinated by them and another mayor had an attempted assassination and only a few months after our trip an American trekker was murdered by cartel gunmen in the mountains outside of town because they suspected he was an agent with the American Drug Enforcement Agency. I never did find out what the outcome of the murder was but i believe the cartels did handover the man responsible to the Federales.

 

My only photo of cartel gunmen

We loved our hotel. For decades it was abandoned and when the new owners purchased it, they renovated it in accordance with the old photos and stories of how the hotel and its grounds looked like. The paintings, furnishings, and courtyard with lush vegetation was heavenly and we loved exploring the hotel grounds especially at night when it took on a haunting magical feeling. 

 

Paula in the window of our room looking out over the street

Paula in one of the hotel rooms

Paula looking at the ceiling murals

Paula in the outdoor area

Since we didn’t have a car, the hotel manager drove us around the outskirts of Batopilas down 4wd track roads and showed us a 300-year-old mission church and some of the Tarahumaras villages. We also walked across a suspension bridge over a picturesque section of the river. We tried swimming but the January water temperature of the river was just too cold. The highlight was exploring some of the old adobe ruins of Batopilas that are now abandoned and overgrown by cactus and vegetation. The ruins were expansive, and we walked around by ourselves exploring not sure where we were careful to avoid accidentally stumbling into an area controlled by the cartel where we weren’t welcome.

 

Paula going for a swim

Abandoned adobe ruins

Abandoned adobe ruins

Old Spanish Mission

Tarahumaras Indians

I didn’t get to visit the Tarahumaras Indians as much as I had hoped to. They are the native people of the region, and they are fascinating. Like all indigenous people they have suffered greatly at the hands of the invading Spanish forces and settlers. They have been converted to Christianity but practice a hybrid of traditional beliefs with Catholicism. The women wear a unique hand embroidered colorful dress while the men wear rope sandals and a white skirt. They are shy people and usually averse to photos except in the Batopilas area, where I imagine they are more agreeable to be photographed because there are few visiting tourists.  The Tarahumaras are incredibly strong and adept to living in the mountains. They commonly walk days across the mountain terrain and pride themselves in their endurance, considered among the world’s fastest long-distance runners and even have a competition that men partake in that involves running hundreds of miles and days across the mountains in rope sandals kicking a small wooden ball.  The Tarahumaras are so strong that they are believed to be able to chase down and hunt a deer on foot.

 

Tarahumaras man

Tarahumaras man and his dog

Tarahumaras Girl

Tarahumaras Girl

Tarahumaras Woman

Tarahumaras Girl

We were never able to replace our brakes or get a replacement car, so our only option was to travel all the way back to Chihuahua via public transport. Luckily there was a minibus that was scheduled to leave at 4am to Creel. The bus was overcrowded, and we were jam packed locals. It was a cold, long and miserable drive up the canyon to Creel. Once in Creel we transferred to a larger more comfortable bus. We finally arrived in Chihuahua for our flight back to Tijuana after approx. 15 hours of travel.

 

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