We’d taken the el CHEPE Copper Canyon train. We’d used our feet. We’d even conquered two of the most dramatic driving roads into and out of individual canyons in order to visit the towns of Batopilas and Urique. All that was left was to drive from one end of the Copper Canyon region to the other.
Many locals had assured us that it was possible to drive across the Copper Canyon region from Creel to El Fuerte (even though the region looked completely roadless on every map we looked at) and that the previous rainy season hadn’t done too much damage to the area’s network of dirt roads. Feeling encouraged, we left Creel bound for Cerocahui and the first leg of our intra-canyon road trip.
We left the pavement behind in San Rafael, not long after leaving Creel. Many of the simple dirt roads that eventually took us all the way to El Fuerte were built to give access to the mines in the region and most were not on the detailed maps in our Gia Roji road atlas. The locals and the mine employees all know exactly where they’re going so no one ever bothered putting up any signs either.
The route that first day was pretty straight forward, however, and we found our way to Cerocahui via surprisingly smooth dirt roads that followed lazy streams and passed small fields of corn and beans.
After passing Cuiteco the scenery got particularly gorgeous as we drove through pine and oak forests. We were almost sorry when we reached our final destination but we cheered up knowing that we would have the chance to see Alberto and Francia at Hotel Centro Jade in Cerocahui for the night.
The second day of our intra-canyon road trip got a bit more challenging. The road itself remained in remarkably good shape (though there was still no sign of signs). However, they roads became so narrow in places and the mines create so much big truck traffic that it was slow going. It doesn’t help that the Copper Canyon is a network of different canyons, not just one big canyon, which makes it necessary to drive way up to peaks and passes, then way back down to riverbeds over and over again to get across different canyons. We averaged less than 15mph.
All told it took almost 12 hours over two days to drive less than 135 miles (more than 100 of them unpaved) from Creel to El Fuerte through mountains, valleys and many different environments and climates–when we left Cerocahui it was 60 degrees and forested and when we arrived in El Fuerte it was nearing 90 and desert-like.
Despite the heat shock, El Fuerte charmed us. It’s the most recently anointed of Mexico’s 35 Pueblos Magicos, honored as havens of traditional architecture and religious signifigance.
All of El Fuerte’s central buildings are freshly painted, very well kept and traditional and food stalls in the market serve a mean birria and delicious tacos. When we were in El Fuerte it seemed like half the town was out scraping old paint off the iron benches and metal work in the town plaza as part of one big proud community beautification project as well.
El Fuerte also has a fancy Balderama Hotel which has a huge statue of Zoro who, according to a half-hearted local legend, came from El Fuerte. However, we agree with Lonely Planet on this one: a better bet is to check into the Torres Del Fuerte Hotel.
You’ll be greeted by Jesus, who was actually born in what is now room #2 in this eclectically-restored hacienda just a couple of blocks off the plaza. Jesus is dapper and charming and, along with his wife and son, has brought his family’s former home back from the brink of ruin and opened the hotel.
Parts of the property are 350 years old and by the time Jesus started the hotel project it was in pretty bad shape and most of the original furniture and fixtures were beyond help. Out of necessity, Jesus has amassed a collection of period replacements–from antique wood doors and cast iron railings to furniture and tile work–from around Mexico and the US. Jesus’ wife then placed each piece, adding modern touches (sinks carved from solid stone, plenty of sex appeal (massive candles and plushly upholstered couches) and a little bit of whimsy (bright colors and a leopard-print wool rug) as she went.
Add in a sprawling lush garden, an on-site bar and restaurant (that’s a shocking bargain) and, of course, Jesus and we were tempted to spend an extra day in El Fuerte.
El Fuerte is also known as a haven for more than 60 species of bird and for its bass fishing. We don’t fish but we did take a morning ride in a rowboat down the Rio Fuerte with local guide Chico who was quick to point out osprey, herons and kara karas (which are scavengers like buzzards, but much prettier).
We stopped along the way for a quick stroll to a collection of rocks covered in petroglyphs. Once located on the top of the highest point in the area, an earthquake knocked the rocks down and they now lie in jumbled piles not far above the riverbank.
We were also thrilled when Chico’s son, Sergio, took us on a tour of the Rancho Chinobampo organic farm where he oversees the organic fish project. The farm also currently grows mangos, basil (some of which ends up in Whole Foods), medicinal herbs and lots of experimental plots of staples like jalapenos and cucumbers.
Rancho Chinobampo is one of just a handful of officially certified organic farms in Mexico and it’s taken a unique approach even among that rarified group. The family that owns the farm also owns successful zeolite mines and they’ve chosen to combine the two ventures by using zeolite (a natural substance commonly used in gardening but rarely on this scale) to supplement or even replace soil. Bat guano, harvested by hand, is mixed with it for nutrients. They spray an all-natural garlic mixture instead of pesticide. They also get help from the University of Havana.