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Travel Stories

At the Heart of Mexico's Copper Canyon


Chihuahua al Pacfico Railroad conductor

Tarahumara home

At the Aljaba Children's home
by John Gozigian

[From Spring-Summer 2008]

I can’t remember where I was exactly. Memory is a funny thing, sometimes vivid and colorful, but usually (at least in my case) hazy and difficult to retrieve. All I recall is that I was riding in a Suburban taxi on the way out of one of the three major canyons that comprise Mexico’s Copper Canyon (the Spanish plural barrancas del cobre better describes the network of canyons than the singular English sobriquet). It was either Batopilas or Urique and I was feeling nauseous and light headed due to an exhaust pipe seeping carbon monoxide into the vehicle’s interior. This, along with the bumpiness of the road, the constant switchbacks and the inexorable climb, contributed to the otherworldliness of the experience.

Somewhere along the way we made one of many stops to pick up or drop off fares. It was still dark, so it must have been early in the trip. The Suburbans coming up out of the canyons typically leave at about 5a.m. in order to reach Creel, the largest town on the canyon rim, in time to catch the first west bound train that rolls in around 11a.m. Though the canyon bottom is tropical, in winter the canyon walls get very cold at night. On this particular morning, the temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing. As we pulled to a stop I could barely make out the silhouettes of a couple ramshackle buildings beside the road. As my eyes adjusted I could begin to discern the shapes of two Tarahumara girls in traditional dress standing stock still against the wall of one of the buildings. With bare legs, light cotton dresses, heads covered with scarves, and flat-soled slippers they were not what I would consider to be properly attired for the elements. I couldn’t make out the expressions on their faces but knew from many other encounters with the Tarahumara that there was no trace of discomfort. They didn’t board the Suburban, and before I could invent a backstory for their presence there the driver pulled onto the road and continued the trip up the canyon.

Until recently this was typical of my contact with the Tarahumara people, usually through a bus or train window, or a brief encounter with a child selling handicrafts or asking for pesos. The Tarahumara are subsistence farmers in the rocky and drought-prone Sierra Madre region of Chihuahua, Mexico. Over the course of Spanish colonization and subsequent mestizo expansion they retreated into the rugged valleys and canyons. Because of this relative isolation, they have managed to maintain their language, culture and genetic uniqueness. In addition to the geological wonder of the Copper Canyon, the Tarahumara are one of the main attractions in the area. Barely two miles outside of Creel you can still find Tarahumara living in cave dwellings and existing as they have for millennia.

The area, known alternately as the Copper Canyon or Sierra Tarahumara, was virtually inaccessible to motorized transport until the completion in the 1960’s of the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad. Today, it’s easy to visit the canyon by rail. The most popular trip begins in the town of Los Mochis on the Sea of Cortez and travels east through the colonial villages along the Rio Fuerte, then up above 7000 feet along the canyon rim and over the continental divide, through Menonite country, and finally to its terminus in the capital city of Chihuahua. I’ve always traveled east-west starting in Chihuahua City but the west-east trip is considered better for viewing the canyon.

My most recent trip to the canyons was in December of 2007. This time it was not for pleasure, at least not in the usual sense of the word. A friend and former co-worker, Luis Vargas, had moved back to his native state of Chihuahua three years ago to do missionary work. Because of my relationship with Luis and ties to the region through many current co-workers, several of my colleagues and I were interested in getting involved in some way to help out. Luis' work put us in contact with the Aljaba Children's home, a refuge for Tarahumara kids who are orphaned, abandoned, abused, or whose parents simply can't provide for them. The Aljaba provides a warm bed, three meals a day, school tuition, clothing and access to medical care. Apart from that, the kids really have nothing in the way of material possessions. Luis recommended these kids as worthy recipients of our efforts and fundraising. We spent a long weekend in Creel with the kids and for the first time, in more trips than I can remember to the Copper Canyon, spent time with the Tarahumara and learned a few words in their native Raramuri language. Although in the past they had seemed so exotic and foreign to me, I realized then that these were just regular, funny and innocent kids who just happened to be born in very different and difficult circumstances.

The Aljaba was founded and is currently funded by Ray "Black Buffalo" Wilson of Native American Indian Missions-Black Buffalo Trails, a non-profit organization. Currently, Aljaba is home to about 58 kids who are cared for by Lino and Lupe, the husband and wife directors. The mission of the Aljaba is to support and provide for these children without taking them out of their ethnic and cultural milieu. It's expensive to operate this facility in Creel, but all agree that keeping siblings together and keeping the kids near their extended families and native culture trump the expediency of dispersing them among foster families throughout Mexico.

My trips now to the canyon have taken on a sense of purpose. But, I’ll still find time to hike, mountain bike, drink Sotol (the local version of tequila) and wander Tarahumara footpaths.

Details:

Copper Canyon Tours:
There are many tour operators that offer Copper Canyon packages. The tours typically include hotel stays at origin and destination, private railcars, meals, tours and overnights in hotels at one or two stops along the canyon. One of the most spectacular stops is Divisadero (“viewpoint” in Spanish). Divisadero is simply a few small hotels, a rail side flea market and a nearby Tarahumara village. It is widely considered the very best canyon view in the region. These tours are great for older or less intrepid travelers. For those with a working knowledge of Spanish and a good pair of shoes, self-outfitting is a good option.

How to Get There and Around:
Aeromexico, Mexicana and most U.S. carriers offer one-stop service to Los Mochis and Chihuahua City from major U.S. gateways. Many points of interest within the canyon are only accessible by rail, with local shuttle service connecting rail stations with points around and in the canyons.
For information on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, go to www.chepe.com (in English and Spanish). There is virtually nowhere in Mexico, no matter how remote, that’s not accessible by public transportation and a little shoe leather.

Photographs by John Gozigian

John Gozigian lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but his heart lies in Latin America. He first ventured out of upstate New York more than 20 years ago to spend a year living in La Serena, Chile, followed by a year in Sevilla, Spain. Since then, he has traveled frequently throughout South America and Mexico. Although English is John’s first language, it is likely that he dreams in Spanish. Recently, he began working with Tarahumara children in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. When not dreaming in Spanish, John specializes in restaurant and brewery start-ups and operations.

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