Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | January 11, 2009


"Without fear, travel has no meaning." - Keath Fraser


From Creel, a smoky northern Mexican town, a single road pierces the sprawling Parque Natural Barrancas del Cobre, descends into a canyon deeper than Arizona’s famous Grand, and dead-ends at the town of Batopilas. The Barrancas del Cobre – or Copper Canyons – is a massive wilderness of interconnected canyons, home to bears, pumas and pines in the uplands, and jaguars, parrots, and fig trees in the lowlands. My travel partner Vikki and I contemplate the odds of us, our two dogs and our aging 4WD Subaru station wagon making it there – and back – in one piece.  

“It’s 6000 feet straight down, no guardrails. One wrong move and you could easily kill yourself,” warns Jerry, an Aussie traveller who has recently taken the bus there. “Sometimes we’d meet another vehicle coming around a blind curve and we’d both slam on our brakes and sort of skid around each other.”

“It’s dangerous,” concedes Casey, an American living in Creel. “There’s no search and rescue if something goes wrong. But it’s also one of the best things you can do in this part of the world. The road is half the trip.”

We decide that if we are to die on this road, we’d rather do it to ourselves than hand the honour to some bus driver.

The adventure begins, as it so often does, when we pull off the blacktop and onto a dirt road. From there we begin the slow, switchback-ridden descent to the river far below. I sit perched out the passenger window, gaping at the breathtaking view. My mind boggles at the sheer space; the far side of the canyon is so far away, it’s more like observing something astronomical than terrestrial.

Vikki doesn’t have to touch the gas pedal for over an hour. Slowly, gravity pulls us like a black hole into the shadows at the bottom of the chasm, leaving behind Creel’s cold winter temperatures for a semi-tropical microclimate. Then we follow the modest river that has carved this trench, passing shrines to Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgen de Guadalupe, who smiles enigmatically as we cross narrow, guardrail-less wooden bridges. The wheels of countless vehicles have worn micro-canyons of their own in the dirt of the road, and the Subaru’s belly keeps scraping against the road’s mountainous interior. We stop at one of the few houses we find – the home of an American couple, who take us on a tour of their oasis of fruit trees amidst the dry scrubland of the canyon, and let us fill our shirts with oranges. Finally, just as darkness is descending, the squat buildings of Batopilas suddenly rise from the barrens around us. It has taken six hours to cover 130 km.

Batopilas is an odd mixture of the old world and the old west. Founded in the 17th century by Spaniards after silver was discovered nearby, it boasted a population of 7000 at its peak and was the second city in Mexico to get electricity. Today, its population is a tenth that, and the decaying hulks of stucco buildings, now home to nothing but riotous bougainvillea, litter the town. The narrow streets leave barely enough room for the big, shiny pickups that cruise through, men in white Stetsons at the wheels and rancheros crying plaintively from their stereos.

With the silver gone, the new treasure is drugs. The area around Batopilas is known as the Golden Triangle and is one of the world’s most productive regions for cultivating marijuana and poppies. I’ve read reports of Tarahumara Indians – the long-time residents of these canyon-lands – being enslaved by narcotraficantes and forced to work their crops or be killed; of Catholic priests who denounce the traffickers only to be “disappeared” shortly thereafter; of a group of American naturalists raped and pistol-whipped after stumbling into a field of poppies. I wonder: we have survived the road, but will we survive Batopilas?

Ironically, the town is officially “dry”, but on this Saturday night the beer is clearly flowing in every dark corner. It’s unfortunate, because this is one place where prohibition might not be such a bad idea. The Tarahumara Indians are dedicated brewmasters and consumers of a beer-like concoction called tesgüino. It is usually made of maize, but can also be prepared from cacti, fruit, wheat, or seeds – basically anything fermentable they can get their hands on. The purpose of drinking tesgüino is nothing less than complete intoxication – a state that is reached at gatherings called tesgüinadas. These drinking binges can last days, and serve as the main form of social interaction for a people who spend most of their lives on isolated family farms. Often a tesgüinada is called in order to get some communal work done, but, in a pattern that’s repeated itself since the dawn of time and across every culture, more drink goes down than barn goes up. Trials are also an occasion for going on a bender – the usually shy Tarahumara find the alcohol facilitates the need to be confrontational. For them, justice may not be blind, but at least it’s blind drunk.

Tesgüino is the glue that binds their society together. One researcher estimated that the average Tarahumara spends at least 100 days a year preparing, drinking, and recovering from this drink of the gods. It sounds like a whole society of first-year university students, except for this unsettling twist: during a tesgüinada normal societal laws are suspended. Even murder is understood as no more than an unfortunate accident.

All told, Batopilas after dark is a foreboding place. We find a hotel willing to accept dogs – basically a concrete shack – and while its owner does a thriving drive-thru business selling packs of Tecate beer out his window to passing vehicles, we unload the car. A dead-faced youth leaning against a wall in a wife-beater shirt takes a keen interest in us, and later, coming back from dinner, we catch him standing in front of the door to our room, listening.

But the final straw comes when I go to the car to fetch something and find that it has moved. Somehow, a ton of steel, rubber and plastic has been lifted and rotated 90 degrees.

I return to the room, bolt the alarmingly small latch, and take up battle stations. Vikki and I spend the night with the light on, rocks and Swiss army knives within reach, too scared to go to sleep, yet too exhausted to remain conscious all night, while a freak wind storm rallies every loose molecule in Batopilas in an apocalyptic assault on our feeble shelter. 

The next morning we are jolted awake by a deafening crash followed by a vainglorious “cockle-doodle-do!” A rooster has dive-bombed our tin roof. After a stunned silence, we begin to laugh – first at the cock, then at the car-moving prank, and finally with relief for the morning light. We are still alive.

The shadowy menace of Batopilas has lifted – the plazas fill with playing schoolchildren, the darkness of subsequent nights is illuminated by insanely idiosyncratic festivities, and Vikki even turns up a gold nugget while panning in the river. Things are starting to feel almost too safe. Maybe I’ll see if I can find myself a nice lukewarm jug of tesgüino.

Copywrite Sean Butler 2002 


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