It was 20 years ago when my brother and I made our first trip into the depths of Copper Canyon, Mexico. Barranca del Cobre, as it is called, is a group of canyons consisting of six distinct canyons in the Sierra Tarahumara in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. The overall canyon system is larger and portions are deeper than the Grand Canyon. This was an adventure we took on dirt bikes, my brother on a XR250 and me on a Honda XR500. It was a trip right out of a National Geographic magazine. When we returned home I vowed to make a return trip one day.
A year ago I bought a BMW R1200GS Adventure and made plans to keep the promise I had made to myself and return to Copper Canyon. I had been telling my girlfriend (now my wife) that I was going to drag her down there with me when I went, so she rode with me for all but the worst sections of off road. I signed up for the repeat trip through MotoDiscovery™, a company who has been doing trips into Mexico and other parts of the world since 1981. They take care of all the hotels, most of the meals and provide a translator, guides and a chase truck. Booking through a tour group relieved me of many worrisome phone calls and making reservations in a country I’m neither familiar with nor can speak the language.
Day 1 of the of the seven-day 1200-mile adventure found 13 bike riders, two of whom were guides, one jeep, and a chase truck leaving El Paso, Texas and crossing the border at the Santa Teresa Border crossing. There was no use getting in a hurry going through the border customs even though there was no crowd. Seems several of us had one thing or another that they wanted corrected. Finally we were through and on our way down Highway 45 headed for Chihuahua where we would spend the first night.
It wasn’t long before we ran into the first of what turned out to be three military checkpoints we encountered on the trip. The guards, equipped with G3 assault rifles, took a leisurely stroll past our bikes, requiring us at random to open our saddlebags for a quick peek inside. A few minutes later we were on our way. I’m not saying we were riding too fast but I think the speed limit was set too low. Nevertheless, we didn’t encounter any speed traps and, for that matter, rarely saw any type of police other than in the villages and cities.
Things were going smoothly, and we pulled the string of bikes to the side of the road to regroup only to find a few missing riders. A few minutes later one of the others rode up and informed us that at lunch one of the guys forgot to zip up the bag on the back of his bike, and all his important papers were scattered down the road, and he and another rider were scouring the roadway looking for them.
On the road again I caught a glimpse of something falling out of the tail bag of the rider in front of me. We turned around and retrieved the item which turned out to be a badly damaged glove. I was curious as to why anyone would even bother to carry such a beat-up item. We caught up with the pack a few miles down the road at a Pemex (gas station) where everyone was refueling. We took the glove over to Randy who was filling up and noticed the Mexican station attendants were keeping their distance from him. It wasn’t long before we figured out the mystery of the damaged glove. His tail bag had shifted and had made contact with the exhaust, melted through and had caught his paperwork on fire not to mention that his fleece coat and gloves didn’t take kindly to that sort of heat. The small fire was quickly stomped out and we didn’t blow up the Pemex station in the process.
On down the road and into Chihuahua we pulled into an underground secure parking area at a modern multistory hotel in the middle of the city. After cleaning up and meeting in the hotel bar to re-hydrate, we took taxis to a very nice local restaurant for dinner.
We left Chihuahua the next morning about 8 a.m. among the rush hour traffic and soon found our way out of town on Highway 16 headed towards our next stop of Creel. The countryside was beginning to turn from the wide open spaces to more hilly and winding country much more to our liking. Late morning we made a right hand turn onto a secondary road and followed it through areas that continued to become more remote. One of the things you learn quickly, is when you come to a town that isn’t on a major highway at the entrance, exit, and sometimes in between, there are these huge speed bumps. Usually they are marked, but in any case it is better to slow down for them. Another thing you learn is that kids love to see the bikes come through town. They all run out to watch and wave.
We came upon this small village around noon and found a small diner where we all had tasty burritos. At the diner the pavement ended and the road turned into gravel, but then this trip was designed for dual purpose bikes so this is what we all had been waiting for. Other traffic became almost nonexistent as we made our way through the miles of rolling hills passing the occasional small adobe farmhouse. One thing that impressed me was the skill with which the farmers have built rock walls out of the rocks collected from their fields. They are truly craftsmen.
We rolled into another small village and stopped in front of a small remote one-room school. While we all took pictures the chase truck parked in front of the school was busily working on a secret project. They have balls. Mostly soccer balls. One of the tour group’s previous customers started www.reboundsports.org, which collects new and used balls and distributes them to kids in these little villages through the help of tour groups like MotoDiscovery™. All the kids and their teacher stood in the playground in formation that would make a drill sergeant proud. The now inflated balls were clandestinely handed to us and we did our best to keep the secret but kids are smart and knew something was up. Pandemonium erupted as the word was given and the balls were hurled into the playground among happy screaming children. As we rode away from that little village in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Mexico we all had that good feeling that we had somehow made a kid’s life a little happier.
A few of the riders unintentionally decided to make a little side trip. By the time they finally figured out that a turn had been missed they had traveled quite a distance down a miserably rough road that ended overlooking a very spectacular canyon that most people will never see. The rest of us waited where gravel again met pavement at another Pemex not far from Creel. From here the group divided into two groups. One rode into town, and the other took a side trip to Divisadero, which is an overlook into one of the canyons. On this 40-km side trip we were warned about several railroad crossings we would encounter. The crossings aren’t marked real well, and let’s just say whoever is the biggest has the right-of-way.
The road was a continuous series of never-ending curves through pine forests and ended at a spectacular overlook. Native Indians are there hand weaving baskets for sale. I was amazed that they just sit there quietly in their colorful dresses doing their thing with zero pressure for you to buy anything. We jumped back on the bikes and made a quick trip into Creel to meet up with the rest of the group at the hotel.
The sun peeked through the window of the hotel alerting us we were burning daylight on Day 3. After a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant we loaded up and put rubber to the road. A quick stop at another Pemex at the edge of town had us loaded with fuel for the 86 miles to Batopilas. The first 46 miles were more good roads and magnificent scenery with one curve this way then one that way with a scattering of cows, goats, donkeys and other assorted creatures who all seemed to like the road as well. We all stopped for a photo session at a bridge over a gorge with a clear water stream about 100 feet below. At this stop there was another shrine. Ever so often beside the roads there are these little shrines which usually contained pictures or statues of Jesus and/or Mary.
On down the road we pulled into another Pemex to refuel only to find out that they had no fuel. I had run into this before in Mexico and just because a station is there doesn’t mean they have fuel. One of the guys was riding a KTM940 that could only go about 100 miles before sucking vapors, but today’s ride was only 86 miles total and the next 40 were pretty much downhill. This is where my wife got off my bike and hitched a ride with the chase truck. A couple of more turns down the road we again turned off pavement onto the gravel road to Batopilas. At this point we were at about 7,000 feet in elevation and had only 40 miles of precarious road to travel while descending 5000 feet to about 2000 feet.
At the turn-off we each waited for our opportunity to battle with the rocks, road, and the various mechanical monsters that were in the process of converting the smooth gravel road into a mine field of ruts, berms and frame benders. We sat there and watched as one bike hit a big rock and took a quick left through the ditch and into the bank, breaking off his windscreen, all the while one of those giant dump trucks was coming down the hill at him. Remember, in Mexico who ever is the biggest has the right-of-way.
As you can imagine the construction area was, let’s say, just a tad dusty. Anyway, the construction crew was helping us out by using a water truck and a fire hose to wet down the dust, and us, as well as making the surface of the road into a poor man’s ice skating rink. It was at this point I knew I should have installed knobby tires instead of those dual-purpose tires which, are in reality, just street tires. A few hundred feet later, with a death grip on the handlebars, I was back on my way on dry ground.
A few miles later I came upon a collection of our group in the middle of the road. One of them had somehow crashed in the road and bent his shift lever. A little muscle and a pair of vise grips soon had all of us on our way winding up and down through the forest on the road to Batopilas. The occasional construction pickup would come blasting the opposite direction raising such a cloud of dust you had to pull over and let the dust clear before proceeding.
A few more miles and turns later we rounded a corner and suddenly a view of the entire earth opens before you. This is the vista whose photograph has become famous. It has been published in many formats and many forms for many years. This is the view that will be burned so permanently into your brain that not even years will erase. Looking down off the edge of the earth you can see miles and miles of tight switchbacks carved into the mountainsides leading their way to a barely visible bridge crossing a tiny stream down at the bottom of this magnificent canyon. One by one as our brains become saturated with the view, we pull away from the vista to make our entrance into the canyon below.
I particularly preferred riding the track that was furthest from the edge as the road is rough and guard rails are nonexistent. On one corner of a switchback is a little shack that has a sign indicating it is a restaurant—one with no customers. Continuing down switchback after switchback you sometimes catch a glimpse of one of the group far below making his way to the bottom. Then a guy on a bicycle appears slowly peddling his way up the mountain. I think one of the group talked to him and he was from somewhere in Europe. Wherever he is from he must be tough to make that ride.
Finally, I reached the little bridge over the tiny stream which in reality is a decent size bridge over a small river. It has two tracks of boards running the length of the bridge. Crossing it gave me some serious pucker factor hoping my tire didn’t hook in the crevasse between the loose boards and throw me over. I got the same feeling you get when standing at the edge of a tall building or a cliff—that quivering, not-so-sure-of-yourself feeling. Safely on the far side I stopped for a while and threw a few rocks into the clear water and starred up to where we had come from.
From here the road began to climb the far side of the canyon, again following the curvy road. Another few miles down the road the group had stopped at the small village of La Bufa. The village really is a collection of a few shacks, one that claimed to be a resort hotel. A small shack about 8’ x 10’, on the right side of the road turned out to be a convenience store of sorts. It had a refrigerator with the ever-present Cokes, bottled water, and other assorted items. I got a Coke out of the frig and the proprietor, an old crippled up Mexican with only one hand, told me how much it was. Me being an illiterate in his country, I just put a handful of change on the counter and he pulled out a couple of coins and put them in his pocket. I thanked him and enjoyed the cold drink.
Sitting outside of this shack was an older Tarahumaras Indian, identifiable by the white loin cloth type pants he was wearing. He was sharpening his hatchet using what appeared to be a chunk of broken roof tile. I was prepared for this and provided him with a metal file I had brought with me from the States. No words were spoken but his gesture was of thanks and he began using the file to sharpen his hatchet. I hope it serves him well for many years.
From here the road never ventured too far from the river but continued to rise and fall along the cliffs over it as it winds its way down through the canyon. Everything was going well, a sure sign of impending disaster. Then while making another of those right-hand hairpin turns, with me following my instincts and staying away from the cliff side of the road, my front wheel suddenly found some deep loose gravel. It cranked me into the mountain wedging me into a small ditch and into the wall. I was going slow in first gear so it wasn’t a big deal other than the embarrassment and breaking off a fog light and bending my windscreen brackets. I still have the scratches on the windscreen to remind me of that moment. With the help of a couple of riders that came by I was soon back in the saddle. Another few miles and we arrived at the bridge that crossed the river again and into the town of Batopilas. We followed the narrow street lined with brightly colored buildings through town until we arrived at our hotel. It was a very nice place with rooms surrounding an open courtyard which sported a fountain along with flowering and fruit trees.
Dinner that night was at a local restaurant, actually the home of a local family. We ate delicious soup followed by a real Mexican meal that was prepared on a wood stove. There were small bowls of a red sauce that, if you were brave or stupid, you could spice up your meal. I guess I fall into the stupid category because I tried just a dab on some refried beans. However you want to describe HOT, this was it. Following dinner in a small courtyard in front of the restaurant we were treated to some music performed by the restaurant owner’s two young sons. They were self-taught, and one played the trumpet and the other a trombone. You could tell their father was very proud of them as they belted out some old Beatle’s tunes. Returning back to the hotel another surprise awaited us. In the open courtyard we were greeted by a four-piece Mexican band. As they played traditional songs we passed the tequila until it was gone. The perfect ending to a great day of riding.
Day 4 of our trip was a non-riding day which gave us a chance to explore the area. Batopilas has a population of about 2000 and was originally formed as a silver mining town by the Spanish conquistadores in 1632. Twenty years ago the road ended in Batopilas with only a narrow donkey path leading out of town. Now the road continues for a few more miles to the Mision de Satevo. We contracted with one of the previous evenings musicians to take us there in his pickup, whose wheels were missing several lug nuts. Riding in the back of his pickup sitting on some old bench car seats down a narrow rough road with a drop-off into the river on one side is an experience not to be missed. The Lost Cathedral, as it is known, was built in the middle of absolute nowhere. It is a very large structure with several domed roofs and no one is for sure when it was built. Some say in the early 1600’s, others in the 1760’s. Regardless, it is a magnificent structure considering until just recently there were no roads leading to it. It has undergone some renovation and is looking pretty spiffy.
Back in Batopilas there is an abandoned large castle-like home and foundry which was built there in the late 1800’s by Alexander Shepherd. He was the last governor of Washington, DC before he bought the silver mine and moved to Batopilas. He formed the Batopilas Mining Company and mined and processed the ore into silver bars with the aid of up to 1500 workers. Between 1880 and 1906 20 million ounces of silver were taken from the mines here. The silver was hauled up the same road we had just come down two bars to a mule and up to 100 mules at a time. In town there is a museum with artifacts of the old mine.
On Day 5 we geared up and made the return trip back to Creel taking the same switchbacks, only in reverse. Some of the road work had been completed so the trip back up was easier than going down. At one point the road was blocked with dirt and rock that was being pushed down from the hillside on the right, and on the left was a steep embankment that dropped about 15 feet into a creek. I sat there for a few minutes while the dozer continued to make it even more impassable. Then a kind construction worker moved a few of the bigger bowling ball size rocks from the edge that dropped off into the creek. Assuming this was as good as it was going to get, I slowly made my way along the edge hoping I wouldn’t highside into the creek.
Sitting outside at the hotel in Creel we exchanged war stories and sipped on various ice cold beverages. Gene, the chase truck driver, came by riding a motorcycle while delivering trays of goat cheese and watermelon without stopping. He would prepare the trays, set them on the tail gate of the truck, then ride by on the bike, pick them up, and deliver them to us.
Leaving Creel on Day 6 was chilly and in the 30s. We were back on pavement and headed for Casas Grandes. The first part of the day we wound our way through hilly pine forests slowed down by trucks loaded with logs. After a couple of hours we stopped at a restaurant in a small town to warm up and have the Mexican version of the Grand Slam breakfast. From here the roads opened up with little traffic surrounded by some fields and in the distance mountains speckled the horizon. It had warmed into the low 60’s by afternoon and it was quite a pleasant ride. According to our maps there was no road where we were. I have found that maps of Mexico aren’t very reliable and a GPS can point you to a city but can’t tell you how to get there. We pulled into a Pemex at the edge of Casas Grandes and regrouped. From here we made a short trip to the Paquime Archaeological Zone. There we toured the ruins which were built by the Paquime people from about 1060 to 1340. Arriving at the hotel in Casas Grandes we pulled our bikes through the walkway into the courtyard and parked them around the hotel’s pool.
That evening we were treated to a fine filet mignon dinner at the home of a local chef and were catered to by his son. This was our last dinner together as a group and toasts were made and stories told. The group left early the next morning as some had to catch flights out of El Paso. Some of the group split off as they headed their own ways toward home. The rest of the group quickly disbanded once we hit El Paso as we each had our own version of reality to return to. I had completed my mission and made good on my 20-year old goal to once again return to Copper Canyon.
By Jeff Hower