Back in December of 2004 I traveled with a group of four wheeling friends to Barrancas Del Cobre, a Parque Natural in northwestern Mexico and home to Copper Canyon, Mexico’s answer to our Grand Canyon. We traveled a dirt road the 90 mile milk run from the rather touristy town of Creel, on the rim, deep into the canyon to the old silver mining town of Batopilas, then 8kms further down the river to the “Lost Mission” of Satevo. This three domed cathedral was built by Jesuit missionaries sometime before 1750 and stands out in these rugged remote canyons like a space ship in an Amish field. Known for over a century only to the local Tarahumara Indians, its existence was “lost” to the knowledge of the outside world until a mining boom created Batopilas around 1880.
After reaching the mission in 2004, our travel plan was to then do some “real” four wheeling and head northwest to Urique and on westward to Chinipas on some very remote, rough tracks before reaching civilization at Alamos, near the coast. However, it was raining during our entire trip. Locals in Batopilas assured us that we would never be able to cross the swollen river at Urique and thus would have a long backtrack to Creel. We opted on the safe side and headed back the way we came. Ever since that retreat I’ve wanted to return to the area and complete that run…
Kat and I arose from a rough sleep and watched our ferry dock at the tiny port of Topolobampo. Bleary eyed, I drove Charlotte from the bowels of the ship and on to the Mexican mainland. Kat climbed in and we looked at each other.
“Well, I’d really like to take you to Copper Canyon… the back way,” I said.
“Let’s go!” replied my ever adventurous soul mate.
We headed for the port exit. Passing through the parking lot we noticed several Overland vehicles gathered. We stopped and met the group, a bunch of Germans with three Toyotas, a Land Rover and a Ford Raptor (!) They were also heading for Copper Canyon and for about five minutes we almost joined them. The Land Rover was having electrical trouble (of course) and they indicated they could be a while. I foresaw what that meant… add a vehicle, add an hour. We said goodbye and headed off on our own adventure.
We hadn’t gone 20km inland when I passed a cop waving his radar gun out the window of his menacing looking Dodge SRT patrol car. The lights came on and I was busted. I was going 43mph. He was a typical tough guy cop with a trailing sidekick. He repeatedly demanded my license, ignoring my dumb, “No hablo espanol, habla Inglés?” and “No comprendo señor.” I comprendoed all right. He clocked us at 70km in a 60km zone. About 42 and 36mph. A 6 mph ticket, but you’d think I’d just outrun Mario Andretti while getting away from a bank heist. He started babbling something about going to the station with him tomorrow (today was Sunday) to pay the fine, which was 1200 pesos or roughly 100 bucks. I tried to explain that we were not going to be around mañana, but of course he knew that. He wrote 1200 on a piece of paper then 900 ahora (now) next to it. Yeah, I got it. Been here before. I offered him a 500 peso note ($40) which he quickly pocketed with his first smile. He then explained to his partner how they were not going to inconvenience us with a ticket and a trip to the station since we were on vacaciones. Hope they had a nice day with lots of beer on us. Welcome to the Mainland Amigos!
We headed north on the four lane toll road for about half an hour before getting itchy feet for a back road. We turned east on the first one we came to and quickly learned that our Garmin GPS is a great urban tool. Put it on a back road in Mexico and it’s not worth the dust it collects on our dash. It thinks it knows where it is though, and we spent the rest of the day thinking it did too as we followed a very circuitous route from El Fuerte towards the town of Alamos. We never did make Alamos that day but we sure saw some great thorny desert and neat hidden Ranchos. We camped hidden under a bridge and finally found Alamo around ten the next morning. A wonderful breakfast was had in a beautiful courtyard restaurant, the gas tank was filled and we headed out for day two of our backwards jaunt to the Lost Mission.
Now following our paper National Geographic map, we headed into the Sierra Madre mountains on a still fairly smooth dirt road, heading for the village of Milipillas. We crossed over the first of what, over the next two days, became many spectacular passes. Each one offered tighter, steeper switchbacks and a rougher surface than the last; and the views – the pictures will never do justice to the jaw dropping sites we took in.
Late in the day we passed through Milpillas. This was a REMOTE town, 80+ rough miles from anywhere. The main track through town was a creek bed complete with hub deep water and the roughest holes and ruts yet. The buildings were the usual tumbledown shacks with broken junk everywhere. However, just about every other house had a new pickup and/or a shiny quad. The kids were dressed in sports clothes and the women in tight jeans and the latest fashions. At the school yard, teenagers were working on laptops! It was all very weird. What business are these guys in???
We drove on. The Nat-Geo Map was proving to be very inaccurate as well, so we were now following the Garmin again which was assuring us it knew where it was taking us. (We’re either slow learners or eternal optimists) After another hour at 10 mph in 1st or 2nd gear, and with the light fading, we reached a dead end. The “road” turned into a quad track and then a horse path. But ‘ol Mr. Garmin still insisted we were headed for Chinipas. We turned back and ran into three caballeros on mules who, through sign language, indicated the road to Chinipas was back another direction out of Milpillas.
Since it was now dark, we made camp for the night and broke one of our cardinal rules. We camped alongside the road in plain view. We hadn’t seen another vehicle on the “road” since around 2pm so we figured we were safe. We made a nice dinner, played music and crashed around 8pm. Around 9 we had our visitors. Two drunken teenagers in a Suburban pulled in, blocking our escape route. With stereo blasting they banged on Charlotte’s windows until I opened one a crack and acknowledged their presence. In their inebriated state their Spanish wasn’t much better than mine, so playing dumb seemed to be the conversation of choice. Eventually they tired of getting no fun out of this game and returned to their car. As a last gallant act of bravado, the passenger grabbed one of our folding chairs we had left out (another rule broken) and they roared off, poor Red Chair dangling out the passenger window.
We spent the rest of the night with one eye open and discussed our mistakes in the morning. We were lucky this time. From now on we hide before camping, no matter how hard finding a spot is. A moment of silence was observed for Red Chair. In a way it seemed fitting that it went on to a new home in Mexico. It was given to my daughter Emily, 12 years ago by Coco, our iconic Mexican friend in Baja. It was the Energizer Bunny chair. It had out lived at least five other el cheapo folding chair partners and was still going strong. I hope its new owner treats it well.
We drove back into Milpillas and began our new form of navigation – ask the locals. After several inquires it became apparent the road we wanted wasn’t out of Milpillas, but Chinacas, another village not on any of our maps, yet another hour back down the trail we’d covered yesterday. Leaving Milpillas, we were flagged down by Fren who needed a ride to Chinacas. Fren was an old rancher who now only owned about 100 head of cattle and a small Ranchito back near Alamos. He had a long way to hitch-hike but didn’t own a pickup because driving made him nervous. His body language indicated so did mine. Before getting out he showed us the correct road and the Lost Gringos were once again headed for the Lost Mission.
The next day was spent again crossing amazing switchback laden passes with spectacular views and dizzying drop-offs into the canyons below. The roads didn’t require four wheel drive but they were rough enough for only about ten to fifteen mph – all day! We dropped into Chinipas around noon and followed a local pickup as he picked his way through the wide river to access the town. Yes, following the locals is the only way to go! Mr. Garmin didn’t even show the river. Once in town we had a nice encounter with a young high school boy who proudly practiced the English he had been learning in school by explaining our next leg towards Témoris and the famed Chihuahua-Pacifico Railroad. He directed us out of town and on to the next pass, this one more exciting than the last and with the added bonus of passing by the huge Palmero Mineral open pit mine half way up. We have no idea what they are mining but there sure is a lot of it!
Two hours later we were through Témoris and now following the rail lines of one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. The Chihuahua-Pacifico Railroad was completed in 1961 and features 39 bridges and 86 tunnels. One section drops 7,000 feet in 122 miles and there are several curved bridges which reverse the direction of travel and one that creates a complete 360 loop on itself as it allows the train to climb and descend these wild canyons.
We turned southeast away from the train at Bahuichivo and had a yummy chicken dinner at a little restaurant that doubled as someone’s house. We munched our bird while the friends he was pecking around with that morning, eyed us from the front yard.
After a nice HIDDEN camp spot under a full moon, we began our fourth day of awesome dirt roads, endless switchbacks and breathtaking views toward the town of Urique which lies deep in the actual Barranca Del Cobre Parque Natural. We were getting close now to country I had hoped to see back in 2004. Almost at the bottom of the most spectacular set of switchbacks yet encountered, we picked up Alfredo. Alfredo was walking a bull down the steep road with his son, when our arrival spooked the animal and it got away. We stopped so the son could catch the critter and struck up a conversation with the old man. His legs were killing him and he asked for a ride. He was 62 and looked 75. He had lived all his life in Urique. He showed us where he’d gone to school, and explained how he once crushed his leg and required eight surgeries. Now he “exercises every day and is never sick.” We dropped him off in front of a restaurant he recommended and, after declining to join us, hobbled off towards his casa somewhere in the village.
We had another great meal, one of what was becoming our daily routine; wake up in Charlotte about 6:30; lie around talking until 7:15 when the sun comes up warming things; get up, make coffee and do a bunch of stretches and exercises before firing up Charlotte; climb behind the wheel and drive. Sometime during the day we pull over to cook or we find a good restaurant and have a big pig-out, our one meal of the day. Then drive a bunch more until it is time to look for a camp spot before dark. By 6:30 it is dark, and we are munching a light snack in Charlotte if it is cold or there are bugs, or out under the stars watching the full moon rise if it’s nice out. We’re in bed by 7pm reading or playing cards. It’s a rough life but someone’s gotta do it.
During our meal in Urique we struck up a conversation with two local guys. Neche was a Tarahumara Indian and Jose was Mexican. When we left, Kat was touched when Jose looked her straight in the eye, shook her hand and sincerely said, “You will always have a friend in Urique.” Such a scary place, this Mexico!
We drove down river a bit and crossed a BRIDGE! Damn, that wasn’t there in 2004 or we would have completed this trip then. The Urique River had been the one too swollen to cross, halting our progress. Beyond the bridge we again started climbing, yes, the steepest, tightest switchbacks yet. By late afternoon we were at probably the most remote area of our journey, at about 7,000 feet and not even sure we were on the right track to Batopilas. We hadn’t seen another vehicle all afternoon but that wasn’t unusual. Over the last four days since leaving Alamos, we had seen less than a dozen vehicles on the actual “roads” we were traveling. There were vehicles in the towns but they didn’t travel far. We camped that night in an open field up on a ridge above the road where we couldn’t be seen. We actually figured it was more likely we’d be visited by a native Tarahumara Indian than anyone driving these roads. We’d seen lots of these locals shyly peering from their low doorways or walking the roads following their cows or goats. The men seemed to blend into the surrounding terrain but the women are memorable in their brightly colored skirts and long braided hair.
By 10am, the fifth morning since leaving the pavement back along the coast, we dropped into the river bottom a few km from Batopillas. We had just completed the last of what seemed like 10,000 switchbacks and peered over maybe 1,000,000 feet of sheer drop-offs. We’d accomplished what I hadn’t been able to do in 2004. We had even done it backwards and totally alone. I think the roads are a bit better now and signs indicate they will continue to improve, a bummer for us off-road thrill seekers. This is a bucket list trip you guys – you know who you are – better get down here and do it!
The river was running about a foot deep so Charlotte got a much needed undercarriage washing in the clear water. She looked so good we decided we needed an undercarriage washing as well! Out came our onboard shower setup, heated by Charlotte’s engine. We enjoyed the hottest shower since leaving home, standing along the river bank to the curiosity of the Mexican onlookers. Crazy Gringos.
Feeling renewed, we drove the few miles into the old mining town of Batopillas. This place has seen better days but still features some great old, turn of the (last) century buildings built when it was a booming silver mining town in the 1890s. Some things never change though. When I drove through here in 2004, the river had just receded after flooding the town due to a big rain storm. This time it was obvious the same thing had just happened within the last month. Everywhere were buried trucks and piled up sand and debris. We saw numerous, less than five year old pickups filled with sand and water. I saw the same thing in 2004. You’d think they’d learn to park on higher ground when it rains. It’s funny how expensive things like pickups are abused and beat to crap from day one like they are easily obtainable and affordable. Maybe they are? What kind of businesses ARE they in around here???
Our first priority was finding some gasoline. Charlotte’s tank holds 18 gallons and we carry another 15 in cans. Normally that should cover at least 425 miles. However, all the slow going and steep grades did not agree with her digestive system. She had drunk to the tune of roughly 8mpg (!) over the last four days. Despite only going 10 to 15 mph, we were in 1st or 2nd gear the whole time and still turning 2500 to 3500 rpm, so the distance covered verses engine work ratio didn’t add up to an eco friendly number. I knew we couldn’t make it the 90 miles to Creel on the juice we had left, and of course, Batopillas still doesn’t have a nice Pemex station, despite all those new trucks around. We resorted to asking around and were directed to the local entrepreneur selling gas out of his house in five gallon jugs. We bought ten questionable (and rather strange smelling) gallons and he calmly siphoned them by mouth into our tank.
Next we wandered around the town for a bit, but finding no good restaurants or very friendly people (just like 2004) we got outta there and went down-river the 8km to the infamous Lost Mission at Satevo. Along the way we pulled over and Kat cooked up a really yummy chicken in tomatillo sauce concoction that was way better than any restaurant in these parts. The mission itself is in much better condition than it was in 2004. The large crack that was slowly breaking the main dome in half has been repaired and the whole exterior has a new surface. Still, the locals weren’t friendly and the place was locked up (just like 2004). It still felt kinda creepy so we took the picture and got outta there too. Seems like a great place to spend four days getting to right? Like many parts of this trip will be, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
We backtracked through Batopillas and hit the 90 miles towards Creel. But the fun wasn’t over. In 2004 this run had been a dirt road along the river and a big batch of switchbacks leading up to the rim and out to civilization. The road had been rough but nothing like what we’d just come through. This time, shortly out of town we hit… pavement! It was nice new pavement with gutters, sliced mountain sides, a white line, the whole bit. It lasted long enough that we started taking bets on how far it would go. Then the slides started. Did I mention there were signs it had rained recently? Words can’t describe what we saw. Check out the pictures. What was once another beautiful canyon with a small road, has been decimated with a tremendous gash that runs its length with huge land-fills and slices through mountainsides. But the worst part appears to be a total lack of stabilization engineering. Just months after being cut, these mountainsides are crashing down onto the fancy new ribbon of tar, making this journey much more frightening than any cliff-side we had recently negotiated. We stupidly stopped and took pictures, wondering when the next rock would come crashing down to squash the three of us. Once it got dark it got even better. The finished road ended and the construction site began. There was nowhere to pull over and camp, as men and machines were running at full tilt, trying to finish the mess they’d started while mother nature was coming along right behind them and undoing it all. We were stuck right in the middle. For a while it felt like I was driving through a huge gravel pit on the edge of a cliff, dodging Euclids and Catapillars; earth shaking creatures of the night with blinding eyes, trying to devour the damned tourists in the hippy bus.
Finally this man-made hell spit us out on top of the rim and deposited us back on the old paved road I recalled from 2004. It was still 70km to Creel. We found a spot in the trees to hide and welcomed the peace and quiet of the night. The next morning, heading towards Creel, I shifted into fourth gear for the first time in five days and reflected that for three of them, I hadn’t gotten out of 2nd! We rolled into Creel around 10am and gave Charlotte a breakfast of proper Pemex Premium. Next we cruised Main for our own breakfast. Creel is a rather large, rather dirty, little railroad town whose main claim to fame is being a jumping off point for tourists on tours bound for Copper Canyon. We dodged the usual crap fair goods for sale on the sidewalks and had a decent brekky in a place with menus in English – always a bad sign that you’ve strayed too far toward the beaten path.
So beat it we did, down the pavement and back towards the coast. We made a quick detour to Basaseachi Falls, the third highest waterfall in North America. In 2004 it appeared to be the swiftest waterfall in N. America, but this time it couldn’t have won a pissing contest at a Fifty Year high school reunion.
Mexico Highway 16 though, I’ll put up against any windy road in the world for the having the most turns and shortest straights for over 250km. It is relentless. In a fun car it would be amazing. Someone needs to put on a rally here. Charlotte was rarely out of 2nd or 3rd gear all day but she seemed to be savoring her Premium. Her gas gauge was barely moving. We camped another uneventful night hidden up a logging road and arrived in Ciudad Obregon around noon the next day. A Wall Mart and a Home Depot were the first signs to greet us. Back in the real world, uggh. On to Mazatlan…
The rest of the day was a steady slog south-ward, down the same toll road we had bailed off of six days before. The biggest event of the afternoon was watching Charlotte’s odometer and gas gauge compete with each other. Her mileage on that Creel gas was amazing. She went from her worst tank ever to her best tank ever, back to back! The worst was 82 miles on 10 gallons. The best ended up being 338mi on 18 gallons. A normal tank is 250-260 miles tops. Hummm, don’t know if she likes or hates this new lifestyle but she has been a Swiss Watch since receiving her new alternator. I’m down with the good vibes.
By the time we passed through Los Mochis, the town just inland from Topolobampo were we got off the ferry, it was dark again. The traffic was hell with trucks and buses weaving all over and cops flying by with lights ablaze (I think they just do it for fun or to let you know they’re around). Every type and condition of car, from speeding new Cameros to smoking Bugs and beat pickups, were clamoring for limited road space. It was the kind of driving conditions that warrant the don’t-drive-at-night rule. But there was nowhere to pull off. Shops, shacks, sheds, trucks, dogs, donkeys, trucks, cars, trucks, barricades, flashing lights, loud music, trucks. I drove on, and on. Suddenly we spied a MOTEL sign on the opposite side of the divided highway. Yes! There would be no camping tonight. There couldn’t be. After three more km up the road there was a hole in the divider. U-turn. We headed for one of the most bizarre motel setups we’ve ever seen. We pulled in through a big arch and followed a tight driveway to a gate with a sliding slot-like box protruding out of the wall next to it. Suddenly a woman’s voice screamed at us from a loudspeaker hidden in the overhead rafters. Not understanding Screaming Spanish, I yelled back that we wanted a room and did anyone in the wall speak English? Eventually a fat guy with a dangling cigarette and a dirty, wife-beater T-shirt (tank top) appeared with a clipboard and asked us how many hours we wanted. “Oh, a No-Tell Motel,” Kat chirped. We told him “Toda la noche” and he relieved us of 270 pesos (about $23) for presumably the whole night. “Key?” “No,no, just go park in the garage next to 106.” As I drove under the now open gate I noticed the sign read 270p = 6 horas. Hummmm. Could be a short night. It got better. We drove down a narrow lane with garage doors and little windows lining both sides. We stopped at 106 as an automatic garage door opener exposed what lay inside. Charlotte was too tall to fit under the roof, so we parked alongside and entered the dark cavern. There was an unlocked door at the back of the garage that opened into a surprisingly clean and cheery room, complete with Greco-Roman ceiling soffits. We moved in, marveling at the lazy-Susan-like canister build into the outside wall, presumably for when the wife-beater comes ‘round at 2am and announces “times up or pay up.” Despite the plastic sheets and tepid shower water, we slept. No one spun the Susan-thingy. In the morning we worked on this blog before the phone rang and a nice calm voice told us it was time to leave. The gate was open for us and we puttered out of the compound and once again joined the hellish traffic towards Mazatlan, still 390 miles south.
The traffic eventually let up until there was practically no one on the four lane road. However, the expensive toll booths never did, and by late afternoon, as we approached the tourist Mecca of Mazatlan, we were flat out of pesos.
We had planned our arrival in Mazatlan to coincide with the vacation plans of my old travel buddy, Ian from B.C. Canada. He and his family were staying at a fancy resort for two weeks along the beach just north of downtown. Seemed like a good address to head to. Mr. Garmin, now completely in his element, lead us straight there. We bribed our way in to the gated compound with promises of renting the most expensive suite and staying a month. Once past the guards, we rolled past groomed grounds and spewing fountains as gardeners grimaced and pasty skinned, plump patrons shrunk back in fear. Charlotte, with her dead cow head leading the way, roared up and around the pristine concierge’s roundabout in a cloud of self induced dust and screeched to a halt. We had arrived at our next adventure.