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Urique Canyon
Copper Canyon, Mexico
April, 2000
by Brian Teraoka
The Motorola Hiking Club trip to Mexico began in earnest as the early morning flight left several members of the group tired while other members were ready for action as the clock reached 6:00 AM at the gate in Sky Harbor Airport.

Everyone seemed in a jovial mode as the trip of the lifetime began to unravel before us. On this trip we had 15 people from Arizona: Rudy Arredondo, Barb Brackett, Gary Cleveland, Jeannie Colton, John Hilty, Mike Humphrey, Gloria Jiang, Marie Koesterer, George Mansor, Scott Mostashari, Ben Olbrich, Steve Schauer, David Self, Brian Teraoka and Chuck Williams. The 4 people from Mexico were: David Andujo, Paco Ortegra, Daniel and Ivan. Mexico_2000
Hiking down the Copper Canyon trail.

The short flight to El Paso was pleasant as the empty plane soared skyward. Everyone’s luggage arrived safely at the other end at the small, new airport. We waited and kept waiting for Mike to appear at the airport who drove to Texas to visit his parents who live outside of El Paso. Mike carried the fuel (airlines forbid carrying fuel on the planes) for the trip so we couldn’t start the trip without him. I started making contingency plans to leave without him as we approached the hour mark.

Suddenly he appeared and we started boarding the taxis for the short trip to Juarez to our rental cars.

We hit the Mexican border station and went to apply for tourist cards. You don’t need a tourist card for the border towns, but since we were headed for the interior of Mexico we needed to get them. We had a minor problem with semantics as in “Birth Certificate” versus “Certificate of Birth”. One allowed you in while the other did not.
Mexico_2000
Farm along the trail.
They forgot all about that problem when they discovered Steve’s passport with a visa entry to Mexico when he went to Cancun last year, but he didn’t have a visa stamp when he left Mexico. In theory he stayed in Mexico all this time without the proper paperwork. They told Steve he would have to go to another remote location and be processed. Of course our great negotiator and translator Rudy asked if we could pay a “fine”. After slipping some money in the passport, the gracious border guard finished the paperwork and we left for the rental agency.

The small Avis rental agency located in an office building was busy as we tried to check out our 3 vehicles. We got a Suburban, Cavalier and what we called the “Mystery” car that turned out to be a Monza. We thought we got “no deductible” insurance to avoid any problems if we got into an accident, but it turned out to be 10% deductible. I wasn’t very happy since we paid higher rates than the other rental agencies to get the “no deductible” insurance for the cars. Avis corporate headquarters told me in so many words that they don’t really care.
Chihuahua
Church in Chihuahua city. We stayed in
Chihuachua on the way to Copper Canyon
They didn’t do an investigation or really cared about total customer satisfaction.

We packed up the vehicles with our gear and started our long drive to Chihuahua. We tried stopping at several banks in Juarez to complete the tourist card requiring you to pay 160? Pesos to the bank. They don’t allow the border guards to collect money because the money doesn’t always end up in the right place. Since the upcoming weekend was Easter, the banks in Juarez had a 4 day holiday which meant we couldn’t complete the tourist card. I was afraid of hitting a checkpoint without having all the proper paperwork done. The fear of paying an additional “fine” as we reached a checkpoint manned by the military floated around my mind.

The area between Juarez and Chihuahua reminded me of driving toward Tucson from Phoenix. Basically a desert with shrubbery splashed across the landscape with farms and homes dotting the area. The sky was clear and it was smooth sailing as we crossed the landscape.
Paco was our point of contact in Chihuahua who works at the beautiful Motorola plant there. We tried making an Iridium phone call to Paco telling him we would be late, but we were having trouble. Iridium is a constellation of low earth orbit satellites which provide phone service anywhere in the world. It was created at the Motorola plant in Arizona, but due to its high cost and large handset its demise is near except for the secret military contract we have to keep the satellites alive (only kidding). Barb did make a connection with her boss who relayed the message to Paco. Later in the trip, I found out that Paco got the message that we were coming, but didn’t realize we were late. We finally made it to the Motorola plant in Chihuahua that makes the facilities in Arizona look bland. The Chihuahua facility has a soccer field, a playground for kids and the architecture for the building was marvelous.

Another interesting feature of Chihuahua city was the gigantic beautiful art sculptures at the various entrances to the city. The contrast of the sculptures as you enter the city from the dry, parched outlying desert seemed something out of a fantasy, a yin-yang of culture and elegance versus the harshness and coldness of the desert.

Paco led us the Hotel Palacio del Sol in the heart of Chihuahua. It’s a beautiful hotel with lush interiors and a service staff willing to please. After having the bellboys deliver everyone’s luggage to the rooms, we took off to the Cathedral San Francisco that was about 2 blocks away. Everyone started to breakup after taking pictures of the Cathedral which was currently having mass. Some people went back to the hotel to eat where we received a free drink coupon, other people went to explore the city and others went shopping. I decided to go shopping along the small side streets bustling with vendors. The women seemed to love shopping since the prices on certain items were extremely inexpensive. We hit a supermarket to get some snacks. To my surprise, 6 packs of Mexican beer such as Dos Equis were about 6.5 Pesos or 70 cents compared to $6.00 in Arizona. I decided to do some “carbo loading” before the hike with my recent purchase.

We were up again at 6:00 the next morning waiting for David A. to arrive. David A. is the person who originally invited us to the backpacking trip and works at the Motorola Chihuahua plant.
Due to last minute Motorola business plans he was in Schaumburg, but scheduled to return the previous night. I received a phone call in the lobby of the hotel from David A. who was stuck in Mexico City due to a storm. He was wondering if Paco showed up yet.

No Paco or David A. This trip was going to get interesting. As I turned toward the cars, Paco had shown up all ready to go and just needed to pick up Daniel.
Canyon1
Copper Canyon is made up of several canyons compared to Grand Canyon. Looking out at one of the canyons.
Our first stop of the morning was the train station to pick up some tickets for the Copper Canyon train ride since we arrived too late the previous day to purchase tickets. We drove through the city admiring some of the beautiful public building along the way. We finally made it to the train station and entered the small, newly refurbished building. We passed through the metal detectors as the studious guards stood by intently looking for any wrongdoers. After picking up the tickets, we starting our journey again to the promise land.
Canyon0
Copper Canyon lookout. Vendor selling woven baskets.
After looking for a place to eat at one of the smaller cities along the way that were closed due to the early hour, we finally stopped at “Futurama?” which is similar to a super Wal Mart store. It has a large grocery department along with household merchandise. Everyone started loading up on breakfast food and additional supplies for Copper Canyon. I found Tequila in gallon plastic bottles for 3 or 4 dollars.
I was tempted to buy one just for a test, but at the last minute decided to be a good boy and minimize my drinking on this trip.

Our next destination was Creel, which is the largest city in the Copper Canyon area. It’s has one main road where most of the stores are located in a 200 yards strip. People were ordering some ice cream and the next thing I knew someone had ordered a pizza and we were having lunch in Creel instead of driving on to Divisadero where we start our hike.

Creel was filled with tourist due to the Easter weekend and the images of crowded tourist trap started filling my mind. The local native population called the Tarahumaras filled the streets. The women wearing very colorful clothing while the men wore normal street clothing.
Canyon6
Hotel Tarahumara
We next drove another hour to Divisadero where the best view of the canyon is located. The road to the overlook was extremely crowded due to the holidays, but we managed to find a spot to park.

Vendors were everywhere selling T-shirts, baskets and any tourist items one could imagine.

The overlook was marvelous as I mapped the area where I would be backpacking within the hour.
A short drive to the Hotel Mansion Tarahumara where the trailhead began and where we would be spending the night when we came up filled my view.

After finding some parking at the extremely crowded hotel, I rested easy now that we could finally begin our hike.

We were several hours behind schedule and I was afraid of hiking in the dark.
Canyon7
We stayed here. It’s at the edge of the canyon.
The hot, scorching sun pounded on us as we started late going down the trail. Our large group of 17 people started immediately breaking up to smaller groups.

A head count revealed we were missing someone and a quick check revealed Scott was left behind. Several people dropped their packs and went after Scott as the rest of the group marched down the trail using radios to communicate about any forks in the trail. The first several miles were relatively non-eventful. The trial gently following the terrain until we hit a lookout.

People were starting to fall behind and the worst was yet to come.
Canyon2
Copper Canyon lookout.
The lookout provided a needed break for several people and a beautiful view of Urique Canyon. As we started on the next leg of the hike, we got hit with several injuries. We had Marie with a twisted knee and Mike with a sprained wrist and possibly a rotator cuff injury. The trail had grown steep, rocky and slippery as people gingerly made they way down. I discussed with Paco in making a dry camp along the trail because the pace was too slow and we would be hiking in the dark on the dangerous trail. The problem was there was no place to set up a camp along the trail and several people were low on water and wouldn’t survive without a refill.
Canyon8
Hiking down Copper Canyon
I started hiking at a faster pace in hopes of reaching the base camp where other Motorolans from Chihuahua had settled the previous day in hopes of getting some help.

The next thing I knew I was alone and following the wash. I looked up and couldn’t see anyone on the trail. I’ve given my radio to one of the members of the group earlier in the hike and now I was wondering if I took a wrong turn somewhere.
As afternoon turned to dusk, I started convincing myself that I must have taken a wrong turn and I needed to retrace my steps. I then saw Gary coming down the trail by himself and was wondering if he was sent to look for me. The good news, I was on the right trail, but the bad news was everyone was still way behind him. I started off again with Gary who had a radio. We wouldn’t be able to reach the beach on the river in time before dark, but made it to the springs in the wash.
There were several people already camping in the springs and I was hoping they were our fellow Motorolans from Chihuahua, but they were other backpackers from Mexico. The area was filled, but the other gracious people down there made some room for us. After settling in and resting a bit, I started going back up the trail to see if anyone needed any help. The trail was getting extremely dark, the full moon blocked out by the canyon’s wall. Canyon9
Stream along the trail.
UC_105
River at the bottom of the canyon.
I was hoping everybody would make it down okay without any more injuries. People were carrying multiple packs to relieve the load of the 2 injured backpackers.

As the group started trickling in, the problem of where to camp arose. The bottom of the springs was already crowded, but another spot on the bottom was located along with areas of the trail. I found a beautiful spot along the stream and hoped everybody would have a good night’s sleep to finish off the short journey to the bottom of the canyon the next day.

The water from the springs was warm which didn’t help our tired, hot and thirsty group. I know Recohuata Hot Spring is located in region, so having tepid water here didn’t surprise me. I found some luminescent insects along the stream banks hiding in the undergrowth, but I didn’t have my flashlight with me to see if they were fireflies.
The next morning was pretty uneventful except for Scott who started going in the wrong direction and headed back up the trail. Rudy tracked him down and guided him to the camp at the bottom of the canyon. Paco spoke to a guide who was packing gear for the group at the springs into getting us 2 horses and 5 burros for the next morning to insure our injured backpackers would get out okay.

Canyon11
Bottom of Copper Canyon. Set up camp on a sandbar.
The campsite at the bottom was along a cool, refreshing river on a little, white sand beach created by the river and wind. Our group was the only one there and we took over the area as people cooled down in the river. Several people took day hikes down and up the river looking for the tropical jungle that turned out to be at the springs where we spent the previous night.
In the afternoon two new strangers arrived who turned out to be David A. and Ivan who were Motorolans from the Chihuahua plant. I was extremely pleased to finally meet David A. who I spent the last several months corresponding with in planning this trip.
Later that evening the big event was calling home using the Iridium phone. Calls were placed to locations in the U.S. and Mexico. I’m pretty sure we’re the first group to make Iridium phone calls from the bottom of Urique Canyon and also be the last. Well, maybe not, I heard we have a potential buyer for Iridium.

The next morning we started up the trail as the sun rose to greet us. The people bringing the horses and burros would start down the canyon about the same time.
Mexico_2000
Hiking down the Copper Canyon trail. Make sure
you wear study boot with good ankle support.
Several people left the previous day to spend the night at the springs while others started hiking out before daylight using flashlights to guide their way. We marched in the cool recesses of the shade provided by the mountains as we slowly made our way up the trail.
Canyon12
Part of our group.
Some people filled their water bottles at the spring while dropping their packs for pickup via burro. As I listened to the chatter on the radio, some people were making great time against the rugged mountain before us. I decided to walk with Marie who had twisted her knee on the way down in hopes she would be okay on the way up. Marie and I were resting at one point when we met Barb, Jeannie and David S. on the trail.
We decided to continue our journey up the trail together.

It started to get hot as the sun relentlessly found us with its warming rays. We soon met the caballeros on the trail on their way to the springs and they told us where they left a horse for Marie on the trail. We found a beautiful new friend for Marie after hiking several more minutes. It was love at first sight for Marie as she admired her horse that would carry her out to freedom.
UC_107
Hiking out of Copper Canyon.
As the rest of the group kept going up the steep, rocky terrain under the blasting furnace of the sun, the pace started to get slower and slower. Each shady spot on the trail being a place of refuge from the tormenting sun that laughed at our predicament. We finally made it to the top after a perilous journey. After checking on the status of the other people on the trail and paying off the caballeros, I started toward the hotel where a cool drink at the bar was waiting for me.
Barb and Jeannie cleaned up and left immediately for Creel for Easter Mass at the local church we passed several days earlier. We wouldn’t see them for several hours as they lingered around Creel taking in the quaint little town.

After having some Chicken Ala Orangé for dinner at the hotel, our group would now break up to 2 groups. The first group would stay in Creel the next day and then drive to El Paso for the flight home the day after that. The second group would take the train from Creel to Los Mochis. Spend the night in Los Mochis, take the train back to Creel, spend the night there and then drive back to El Paso for the flight home.
By this time, we also tell everyone to arrive at the designated meeting spot 30 minutes early to ensure we would leave on time. So we told everyone to meet at 5:30 AM and we left at 6:00 AM as planned. We drove to Arareko Lake, but found the lake to be polluted with trash from the nearby campground so we left without exploring the lake.

The other group found the lake to be pretty clean (were we at the wrong lake?) as they raced across the lake in rental boats.
Canyon13
Flower at the bottom.
We arrived in Creel just in time for breakfast at the Motel Parador de la Montaña where would be staying after our train ride to Los Mochis. We set off exploring the town of Creel after we finished breakfast. The town was cluttered with your typical tourist shops, but one of the more interesting places was the dinosaur museum. If you have ever been to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., you wouldn’t give this place a second glance, but considering it’s in the middle of nowhere is pretty impressive. The museum isn’t very large and their collection is very small, but it’s nice to see the effort in bringing a museum into a small town.

Our group spent their time buying food and drinks for the ride on the train that left at 11:30 AM. The time soon arrived as people took their overnight packs from the cars and headed for the train station. It’s a small little train station, but without the police or metal detector. Everyone seemed to have recovered from the hike except for a small problem with mites. Some people were covered with mite bites and were extremely itchy. The good thing about the pharmacy in Mexico is you can basically get any non-narcotic drug without a prescription. I did check my backpack when I got back to Arizona and did find a mite crawling in my pack.
The train seemed to have changed from what was described in tour books and web pages. A dining and bar car was added along with increasing the length of the trip from 5-6 hours to 10 hours. The bar car was very popular with our group as we drank and took in the sights. A drought has been plaguing the area for the last several years turning everything brown. Train1
The Copper Canyon train ride.
The hours started to drag on, but considering several cars seemed to have derailed and were left abandoned along the track along with new track material, I guess it was a good idea to slow down the train.
Train2
A special spot along the trip was Divisadero where we stopped several days earlier. The train station is filled with vendors selling various items. The food vendors cooked on top of 55 gallon drums heated by pieces of wood creating delicious creations. My favorite was the chile rellenos, a large, deseeded mild chile stuffed with cheese, coated with a light batter and then fried on top of the 55 gallon drums. It was a bargain at 10 pesos as I remember biting into the rich cheese tempered by the mild chili.

We finally made it to Los Mochis, but it was too late to see the city. A bus from the Hotel Santa Anita was at the train station picking up guest so we hopped on board and made a short trip to the hotel. Everyone checked in and met in the dining room except for Barb who was now fast asleep in her room. A lot of restaurants have chips and salsa on the table to munch on until the ordered food arrives. This place had sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce on the table along with some great dressings in additional to chips and salsa.

Los Mochis is medium sized agricultural city close to the ocean allowing great seafood and vegetables to mix together in harmony. As we feasted on the great dinner (I think everyone ordered seafood except for the 2 vegetarians in the group), people dreaded waking up in several hours to hop on the 6:00 AM train back to Creel. After dinner, several people went to their rooms, while others headed towards the bar for a nightcap and some great music and the last group went to find a 24 hours store to buy some food and drink for the train ride back.
Train2
Once again we arose early in the morning to take the hotel’s shuttle bus for the 6:00 AM train to Creel. The train station had a metal detector in the doorway along with studious guards checking each person and luggage.

I boarded the train and waited for the train to depart the station. Scott had brought some cat food along and was feeding a stray dog at the train station as I looked out the window.
We were very familiar with the train by now and people soon disappeared to the bar car as the hours passed. The girls made friends with 2 elementary school girls who were sisters from Chihuahua and played cards with them.

We stopped at Divisadero again and had some great food. Our next stop would be Creel where we needed to get off. Most of the people came back to the seating cars to get ready to debark.
Train4
Entering a tunnel.
As the train arrived at Creel, I got off assuming everyone else knew to get off. Well, poor little Marie was still in the bar car not knowing it was our stop.
Creel
Statue in the town of Creel.
Gary raced down the train as people bounced off him as he struggled to reach Marie who was several cars down. He pulled Marie off the train before it continued its journey to Chihuahua.

We spent the rest of the day shopping, eating and drinking in Creel. The food at Restaurant Veronica provided an excellent dinner as sautéed slices of beef was piled high in the serving dish along with tortillas. It was really inexpensive, yet extremely tasty to my palate. Too bad they didn’t have a branch in Arizona, but then they would raise the prices, alter the flavor for gringos, and I wouldn’t enjoy it as much any more.

The items to buy here are the handcrafted items produced by the Tarahumara Indians. The intricate woven baskets made from palm fronds reminded me of the baskets created by Indians in the Southwest region of the United States.
I also saw some beautiful black polychrome pottery at one store that reminded me of the Indians of New Mexico, but I never could find out where it was created. Something about me not speaking Spanish and the owners not speaking English.
Train6 Train7
Vendors sell woven baskets by train station.
Jeannie was looking for a fake Rolex, but none could be found in the town of Creel. I’m glad because I want Creel to sell Mexican craftworks and remain true to its roots. I’ve seen too many border towns selling everything under the sun to make a dollar and becoming like all the other places losing its identity under a sea of trinkets.
I opened the door to my room that night to let some fresh air in and to my surprise I heard someone singing “Lo Siento” or “I’m sorry/Excuse me”.

The singing got louder and louder and it was Barb, Jeannie and Marie stumbling back from a night on the town. I was just hoping they didn’t wake up the other guests who were mostly likely thinking “Damn Gringos”.
Train8
Vendors selling delicious food by train station.
We awoke early next morning for our final leg to El Paso. Everything went pretty smoothly as I think everyone was looking forward in going home. We did get our tourist card validated in Chihuahua and went through the military checkpoints without any problems. The group who didn’t take the train ride did get stopped at the checkpoint and had to show their tourist cards. It was lucky they got their cards stamped in Creel while we kept missing the bank’s hours or the line was too long.

We waited at the El Paso airport for several hours whittling away the time reading, contemplating or drinking. Everyone was excited about going home after an interesting time into the interior of Mexico. As we boarded the last flight to Phoenix on Southwest Airlines, I kept thinking about where my next backpacking will lead me.

At the airport in Phoenix we had our farewells as people rushed to their love ones. Everyone loved Mexico, but going home to Arizona was the sweetest joy of all. There really is no place like home.
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updated February 1, 2018