People talk about the drive down to the town of Batopilas, deep in the Copper Canyon in Mexico, as a “white knuckle” trip invoking phrases like “death road” as their eyes glaze over and their hands begin to shake. Sign us up!
Driving the “Death Road” to Batopilas in the Copper Canyon
The mostly-dirt road that descends 6,000 feet (1,828 meters) in 6 miles (9 km) to the town of Batopilas deep in the Copper Canyon is narrow, bumpy, and steep. The conspicuous lack of guard rails (or guard anything) between you and the sheer drop-offs do nothing to help the road’s bad reputation.
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 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.
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. After another hour or so we finally reached the town of Batopilas.
Arriving in Batopilas
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.
A church renovation gone wrong
Besides the drive down, another major draw of Batopilas is the Lost Church of Satevo about 8 miles (12 km) out of town. Romantic pictures of this beautiful falling-down domed church appear on many official Chihuahua tourism posters and brochures and we had been looking forward to seeing it. 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 structure 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 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 spectacular driving loop. But for us, the only way out of Batopilas was back the way up the road we’d come in on.