You Can Get There From Here – Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico

This post is part 9 of 9 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

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 figure out a Copper Canyon road trip route that would allow us to drive from one end of the Copper Canyon region from the town of Creel to the town of El Fuerte.

Copper Canyon road trip

Many locals had assured us that it was possible to drive across the Copper Canyon, even though the region looked completely roadless on every map we looked at. We were also assured 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 Copper Canyon road trip.

Driving across the Copper Canyon most of the roads, nearly 10 hours worth, were simple dirt roads which weren't even on our detailed road atlas. One of the many switchback roads up, down, over and around the mpountains can be seen in the background.

The “roads” that traverse the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madre mountains are simple dirt tracks. You can see one switch-backing up, down, over and around the mountains in the background.

Leaving the pavement behind

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 ever present Virgen de Guadalupe watches over the roads through the mountains.

The ever-present Virgin of Guadalupe watches over the roads–and the drivers–throughout the mountains.

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.

Heading out of the Sierra Madre mountains down to the Rio Fuerte.

Unlike this doomed truck we were heading out of the Sierra Madre mountains down to the Rio Fuerte.

Day 2 driving the Copper Canyon

The second day of our Copper 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, the 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.

Panorama from the bridge over the Rio Fuerte. At this point we thought we were done with the mountains, but there was still a bit more to go on the remaining three hours to El Fuerte.

As we crossed over the Rio Fuerte we thought we were done with the mountains but there were still more ups and downs ahead of us before we reached El Fuerte. (Click image for full size panorama)

Road along the Rio Fuerte heading out of the Sierra Madre mountains and the Copper Casnyon region, heading down to El Fuerte.

That faint ribbon of road visible to the right o the bank above the Rio Fuerte is what took us out of the Copper Canyon region toward El Fuerte.

The road followed the river for some time. Here an old church lays in ruins.

The road followed the Rio Fuerte for quite a while but we passed very few villages. This one was dominated by the picturesque ruins of an old church.

All told it took almost 12 hours over two days to drive less than 135 miles (56 km), more than a third of that unpaved, from Creel to El Fuerte through mountains, valleys and many different environments and climates–when we left Cerocahui it was 60 degrees F and forested and when we arrived in El Fuerte it was nearing 90 F and desert-like.

Charmed by El Fuerte

Despite the heat shock, El Fuerte charmed us. It’s the most recently anointed one of Mexico’s elite Pueblos Magicos, honored as havens of traditional architecture and religious significance.

The picturesque colonial town of El Fuerte.

The colonial town of El Fuerte was recently designated one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos.

Church on the plaza in El Fuerte.

The church on the plaza in El Fuerte.

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.

For reasons we're still puzzling over almost all of the lamp fixtures on the outside of buildings in El Fuerte had this same gargoyle design.

For reasons we’re still puzzling over almost all of the lamp fixtures on the outside of buildings in El Fuerte had this same gargoyle design.

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.

Hotel Torres

The sexy and eclectic open-air lobby of the Torres Del Fuerte hotel.

The Rio Fuerte.

The Rio 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).

Chico, our guide in El Fuerte, on a birdwatching boat trip on the Rio Fuerte.

Chico, a guide in El Fuerte, took us on a birdwatching boat trip on the Rio Fuerte.

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.

Cerro de la Mascara (Mask Hill), near El Fuerte has many Nahuatl petroglyphs.

Cerro de la Mascara (Mask Hill), near El Fuerte has many Nahuatl petroglyphs.

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.

organic farm

Coming soon to a Whole Foods near you! Basil growing in a mixture of zeolite and bat guano at Rancho Chinobampo organic farm.

Check out our Copper Canyon road trip driving SPOT data, below.

Drive Across the Copper Canyon, Mexico from Creel to El Fuerte


Read more about travel in Mexico

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6 comments on “You Can Get There From Here – Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, Mexico

  1. Pingback: Vegetables with Taquitos in El Fuerte

  2. Eric,
    Very fascinated in your accounts of driving around and through Copper Canyon, especially the latter. Was wondering, in your journey from Creel to El Fuerte, were you concerned at all about fuel for your vehicle. Did you take any extra gas in cans, for example?
    I’m considering doing something similar, but a tad concerned about the mpg on my Titan pickup.

      • Karen,
        Thanks for your quick response. I’ve long had a desire to explore (at least, visit) the Copper Canyon region and yours has been the most helpful in providing information (and encouragement!)
        I see that you are now in Colombia. My parents were missionaries there in the early 60s (as well as Mexico, before and after) in Bogota and Cali. I am looking forward to reading your posts.
        Buen Viaje!

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