Some towns just feel disappointing before you even get there. Guachochi–the gateway to the Sinforosa Canyon, one of the deepest in the entire Copper Canyon system at over 6,000 feet at it’s most dramatic point–definitely gave us that vibe.
Luckily, we spotted a sign marking the turn off for the canyon while we were still on the outskirts of town and we quickly made a right, crossing our fingers that we’d miraculously be able to camp out by the canyon instead of settling on what was sure to be a lackluster (at best) guest room in Guachochi.
After about 12 miles of dirt road which was practically destroyed in places by the steady convoy of logging truck driving in and out of the area we finally reached the gate to the Sinforosa viewpoint. The old man at the gate told us he locks it up at five and if we’re not out by then we’re in for the night. He also said our ten pesos per person entitled us to camp out at the veiwpoint if we wanted to. We hurried down the final mile of dirt road to check out the canyon and the camping.
Sinforosa Canyon with the Rio Verde far below as seen from the Sinforosa viewpoint.
The Sinforosa Canyon seemed more jagged than the chasms and slopes we’d been seeing for the past 10 days or so as we traveled through the Sierra Madre. From where we were standing the canyon walls were even too sheer for cactus, scrub trees or brush to cling to. This meant the underlying rock–with all it’s color, shape and striation variations–was much more visible than in other parts of the Copper Canyon that we’d visited. Here more than anywhere else, it felt like looking at the Grand Canyon as the evening light created contrast and surprisingly vibrant colors on the world of rock below us.
Sinforosa Canyon in the evening.
Opportunities to camp are not routine in Mexico and they can sometimes mean nothing more than a sort-of flat spot to pitch a tent. Out at the Sinforosa viewpoint, however, a range of flat spots had been cleared and a covered pavilion with a huge brick fireplace in the center had been constructed along with bathrooms with running water and ample trash cans.
As the sun sets we set up house in the pavilion, happy that we always travel with enough food and water for at least one night of unplanned camping so we can take advantage of opportunities just like this.
A dirt road leading down from the main overlook and camping area brought us to this bridge over a deep and narrow side canyon cut by the Rosalinda Waterfall. The red-roofed pavilion makes a spectacular camp site.
After crossing the bridge the trail heads deeper into the Sinforosa Canyon, eventually reaching the bottom.
The next morning we walked a mile or so down a dirt road beyond the rim-top viewpoint and camping area. As we headed toward the spring-fed Rosalind Waterfall we discovered two more covered camping pavilions–one of which is right on the lip of a side gorge cut by the cascada. There’s no bathroom or running water down at this pavilion, but if we had it to do over again we’d drive the extra mile to this stunning location. Next time…
One of three covered camping pavilions with fireplaces along the rim of the Sinforosa Canyon. Pity about the view...
A panorama of the Sinforosa Canyon from the Sinforosa viewpoint. (click image for full size panorama)
People talk about the drive down to the town of Batopilas deep in the Copper Canyon as a “white knuckle” trip invoking phrases like “death road” as their eyes widen. This is because of the narrow and bumpy condition of the steep and mostly-dirt road that descends 6,000 feet in six miles–and because of the conspicuous lack of guard rails (or guard anything) between you and the sheer drop-offs into the abyss that exist all along the way.
Of course, we had to do it.
The first half of the drive from Creel to Batopilas was on a paved road with beautiful vistas.
Our journey started off pleasantly enough with good pavement and even better views heading out of Creel. Then we traveled over a stretch of road on which our biggest challenges were the workers and huge trucks frantically widening, grading and prepping the surface for impending pavement. So far, so good.
Once the pavement ended, things got VERY interesting as we began a 6,000 foot drop to the canyon floor. From this vista point you can see the Batopilas River and the "road" still nearly 4,000 feet below us.
Switchbacks are the best (ie, the only) way to drop 4,000 feet in just a few miles.
Once the real descent started, however, the road narrowed to about 1.5 car widths in most places. Throw in increasingly tight turns around blind corners eventually culminating in an epic multi-mile stretch of switchbacks, the likes of which we haven’t seen since India and Nepal, and you’ve pretty much got the picture.
Random goats, donkeys and cows were also on the road taking up valuable space but, thankfully, there weren’t a lot of other cars. We only encountered two other vehicles and both times we were lucky enough to be on a section of road that was wide enough to allow us to just squeeze past each other.
This aerial photo (not ours) dramatically shows the road down to the Batopilas River.
Negotiating the seemingly never-ending switchbacks down to the Batopilas River.
Batopilas was the only area of the Copper Canyon where we saw Tarahumara/Raramuri men (not just women and girls) in traditional clothes.
As the road neared the river it eased out of switchback mode and adopted gentler turns and inclines.
After a few hours of extremely careful driving we reached the Batopilas River, crossed it and began a much more reasonable gentle ascent on a wider road on the other flank of the canyon. Another hour or so on and we finally reached the town of Batopilas.
The ever-present Virgin of Guadalupe watched over us on the creaky wooden bridge over the Batopilas River.
Not there yet: Once we reached the bottom and crossed the river we immediately started climbing up the other flank of the valley to the town of Batopilas.
The town of Batopilas is a former silver mining town largely founded and furthered by Alexander Shepherd who was once the mayor of Washington D.C. The richness of the area’s mines made Batopilas an extremely important and powerful place despite its remoteness–so much so that Batopilas was the second city in Mexico to get electricity, after Mexico City.
Today it’s a sleepy long and narrow town stretched out between the Batoplisa River on one side and rocky once-silver-laden cliffs and hills on the other. Batopilas manages to cram in not one but two plazas. Don’t miss the surprisingly compelling (and free) museum off the main square. The young guide on duty the night we went in read his explanations in English from a notebook with a “script” in it.
Oh, and don’t miss meals on the open-air patio at Dona Mica. There’s no sign but its right across from Carolina’s restaurant which we found less delicious and more expensive than Dona Mica. The food isn’t fast at Dona Mica, but it is home made and delicious. We had one of the best Mexican breakfasts here. It took half an hour to get our plates but there was plenty of strong freshly brewed coffee (not Nescafe!) to ease the wait.
The road followed the river into the town of Batopilas.
Besides the drive down, another major draw of Batopilas is the Lost Chruch of Satevo about eight miles out of town. Romantic pictures of this beautiful falling-down domed church even appears on many official Chihuahua tourism posters and brochures. We had been looking forward to seeing the church and we hurried over a road so bad it made the road down from Creel seem like a superhighway just in time to catch sunset light.
Imagine our disappointment when what we found was not the crumbling exposed brick and vibrant domes shown in the tourism publications but an ugly, boring mono-chromatic church being used as a battleground by village kids playing loudly inside and a garbage dump by everyone else.
We later learned that a “restoration” in 2007 was responsible for erasing the charm and the life from the structure. Even Batopilas locals hate what was done and don’t even get professional architects and renovation experts started on the subject. If you ask us, this is one church would have been much better off if it had remained lost.
The famous Lost Church of Satevo is a sad example of "renovation" gone horribly wrong. Above is a photo found online (not ours), of the picturesque church as it used to look. Below is our photo of the church as it looks today.
The Mexican government is nearing completion of a new dirt road that will connect Batopilas with the town of Urique in the neighboring Urique Canyon, creating a spectactular driving loop. But for now, the only way out of Batopilas was back the way up the road we’d come in on–to Eric’s delight and Karen’s resignation.
Whenever you put the words “canyon” and “hike” together you know it’s going to be steep. That’s a given. It’s also a given that you never completely appreciate a canyon by simply peering over its rim.
With that in mind we added local guide Gustavo Lozano and local pony man Pepe to our motley crew and hit the trail bound for the Urique River at the bottom of the Urique Canyon, nearly 4,300 feet below us.
Unlike other canyon hikes that we’ve done–including twice into the Grand Canyon (once from the South Rim and once from the North Rim) and, more recently, to Havasu Falls–this time we had the luxury of a mule to drag our camping gear down and back up.
Initially we had reservations about this. Over almost two decades of hiking and trekking around the world we have always carried our own packs–partly out of pride, partly out of an uneasiness about forcing an animal to do our work for us and partly out of sheer cheapness. The mule wasn’t our idea but since it was there we added our packs to its load with an apologetic little nod and took off with just day packs on our backs.
Pepe from Cabañas Diaz and Dave Hensleigh of Authentic Copper Canyon (in the back) traveled on horses. We opted to use our legs but we did ultimately let the mule carry our camping supplies.
The first hour of the hike and two miles or so of trail took us up-and-down into the canyon past sparely populated Tarahumara/Raramuri villages surrounded by steep fields until we reached a saddle in the ridge with a huge mesa in the middle of the canyon visible to our left. This, we learned is a stop on a massive new gondola (teléferico) being built.
When it’s done next year it will be take people in 60 person gondola cars more than a mile from a station on the rim near Divisadero to the mesa top in the midst of the canyon. Besides 360 degree views of the colorful rock, lush vegetation and awesome depths in this section of canyon, there are also rumors of a restaurant on the mesa.
Even more incredibly, there appear to be plans to ultimately extend the gondola from the mesa all the way down to the river at the canyon floor taking people down and back up in smaller 10-person gondola cars. Time will tell.
For now, the only way down is on foot or horseback so we pressed on.
Look closely on top of the mesa in the upper right hand corner of this photo and you can see a tower being built for the new tourist gondola (teléferico) that will ultimately span a massive section of canyon.
Looking down into Urique Canyon with the mesa and gondola tower on the left and Dave Hensleigh of Authentic Copper Canyon and his trusty steed on the right. (click image for full size panorama)
Dave Hensleigh (upper left) of Authentic Copper Canyon never seems to get tired of the Copper Canyon even though he sees it almost every month with the groups he brings down from the US.
Any reservations we may have had about not carrying our own bags disappeared as soon as we left the saddle and continued descending past the mesa. That’s when trail conditions went from “steep canyon hike” to “treacherous rock-strewn vertical obstacle course.”
Honestly, this trail was one of the hardest we’ve ever done, not because it was any steeper or any longer than other canyon hikes. Actually, it was much shorter than the Grand Canyon. What wore us out was the quality of the trail. Much of the hike required total focus just to stay balanced and upright as we hiked down steep inclines that were covered with 4″ of sliding round rocks and gravel then strewn with ankle-twisting mini-boulders. At times it was like walking down a slide covered with ball bearings and volleyballs.
Did we mention the giant swarming wasps and often sheer and substantial drop-offs along the trail?
Suffice to say we were glad for our boots and poles and our point6 wool socks as we slowly picked our way down, down, down–ultimately losing almost a mile in elevation over the course of about five miles from rim to river.
Karen carefully picking and choosing her way down the steep and unstable trail to the Urique River in the bottom of the Urique Canyon.
About a third of the way into the canyon the trail veers off into this side valley which leads to the river. Even this deep into the canyon we still can't see the Urique River.
The canyon is so steep that the Urique River doesn’t come into view until we’re nearly at the bottom.
Our first view of the Urique River, 4,300 feet below where we started on the rim.
After a long, hard, hot hike we cooled off in the clear water of the Urique River at the bottom of the Urique Canyon.
After a long, hard, hot hike we cooled off in the clear water of the Urique River at the bottom of the Urique Canyon.
A full moon rose over the canyon making it almost bright enough to read.
Our comfortable camp on a sand bar by the Urique River under a full moon that was so bright it actually made it hard to sleep.
After a great night of grilled chicken and a nice bonfire and no run-ins with scorpions we awoke knowing only half the job was done. We’d managed to walk into the canyon, now we had to manage to walk out. Despite our best intentions to get a bright and early start to avoid as much heat on the mostly-exposed trail, we still didn’t get packed up an on our way until after nine.
Walking up the trail proved easier than walking down since the risk of sliding was reduced so we were able to make fairly decent time, ultimately returning to the rim–hot and tired–in about five and a half hours. The mule, with our bags, made it in less than three.
What goes down must go up....local guide Gustavo Lozano leads the way back up and out of the Urique Canyon.
The view from the mesa where the gondola that's being built across this section of canyon will ultimately stop. A sliver of the Urique River is visible more than 3,000 feet below. (click image for full size panorama)