Copper Canyon Hiking, Trek, Trips, Tours, Travel, Vacations

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Classic Pack Burro Hiking Trips into the Depths of Mexico's Great Copper Canyon Since 1970.

COPPER CANYON, Treasure of the Sierra Madre EXPEDITIONS
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Copper Canyon Discovery and Adventure

by Gary Ziegler

A lot has happened in Mexico's Copper Canyon area since it pyroclastic origin some twenty five million years ago. Great mountains rose in a fiery display of smoke and ash. Torrents of rain and wind, cut deep slashes in the raising igneous colossus that we now know as the Sierra Madre, to form immense canyons. Some eleven or twelve thousand years ago, the first humans arrived, migrating bands of nomadic hunters seeking fate and fortune in dangerous unknown lands. During the ensuing millennia multitudes of unknown peoples passed through, some eventually staying to take up residence in the many shelter caves to practice simple farming.

And so it was in the spring of 1541 when a detachment of Conquistadores from Coronado's expedition in search of the seven golden cities of Cebola first encountered a group of naturales, they called Tarahumara. More time passed, the Tarahumara, or Raramuri as they call themselves, planted maize and warred with their southern neighbors, the Tepahuanes. In 1607 an event took place that would change life forever in the canyon country. Jesuit missionaries arrived with mandate from the Spanish Crown to Christianize and civilize, the policy of reducion which changed forever the way of life in Spanish America. The story of of the survival and adaptation of the Tarahumara during the colonial years and later under the Mexican Republic, is a fascinating, complex epic that I leave for a long evening around the campfire.

Mysteries abound in a multitude of inaccessible, forgotten arroyos and cerros that climb and plunge in rugged highlands separating the great canyons. Who built the Mogollon style houses that occupy several cliff sites? Who built the carefully made stone terraces, andenes? What early people lived in round houses? These are a few of many enigmas that capture our imagination.

It was with these thoughts in mind that naturalist guide Amy Finger, author, Carl Franz (People’s Guide To Mexico) and I sat out to explore several new areas in the the rugged hill country north and east of the Copper canyon in November of 1995. With local rancher, Esteban Cobos, we searched the lower Cusarare canyon for evidence of pre -Tarahumara occupation finding a number of shelter cave sites

Our next goal was to locate a new remote route down into the upper Urique Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), by which Amy could bring her small adventurer groups. We were excited to follow a stone paved mule trail that proved to be part of Alexander Shepard's (silver baron of Batapilas) Camino Real, a systems of trails, built to transport silver from the depths of the Batapilas Canyon. Although part of the trail showed recent use by Tarahumara, we cleared and repaired many places to allow our loaded burros to pass. A broad beach camp site at the Urique river was everyone's romantic fantasy. And we were miles away from the backpacking hordes. Wanderings from camp located an abandoned mine with hot springs and a hidden grotto canyon with magical swimming pool beneath a waterfall. We shared the canyon with an Elegant Trogon and Magpie Jays.

In November 1997, Carl and I returned with a group of nine participants. Starting with a pampered night at Skip Mcwilliams comfortable Copper Canyon Lodge at Cusarare, we plunged back into the depths of the main Barranca del Cobre (unfortunately now closed)

From a camp part way down in the canyon, we explored a densely wooded arroyo which showed signs of terracing. Forcing our way through tangled Arizona cyprus and oak thicket, we discovered a series of shelter caves with mortared stone storage rooms. These were sealed with hand carved pine doors secured by a carefully made wood latch system. Metates (corn grinding stone) fired clay pots, bowls and the occasional metal can indicated recent Tarahumara use although no trail was in evidence and the canyon was impassable without machetes. The overgrown farming plots carved out of the narrow steep canyon seemed a poor location. Our theory is that this hidden canyon may have been a refuge and supply depot during periods of armed conflict such as the rebellion against Spanish authority and Jesuit missions in the late 17th Century. The caves may have served as ceremonial sites in recent times or a spiritual retreat for a few nearby families

Setting a beach side camp at the Urique River again, we spent several pleasant days climbing side canyons and examining caves for evidence of pre-Tarahumara occupation. At the upper end of a steep arroyo some 800 feet above the river, we located an undercut ledge walled in with field stone and mortar containing multiple burials. Although the open part of the wall had been badly disturbed by animals, we found several intact decorated clay pots, gourd vessels and most interesting of all, a spinning kit containing a beautifully made spinning whorl. Skeletal remains appeared to be that of a young adult. After photos, we carefully replaced everything and sealed off the wall. Although possibly Tarahumara, I suspect that the burials may date from an earlier time. Pottery type is similar to a Mogollon like style that we have seen elsewhere in the Sierra Madre.

Since these explorations, Amy, Carl and I have visited many other canyons in the Sierra Madre but our favorite route remains the steep trail descending to the Urique River down from near Divisedero. It seems to have a bit of everything, microcosmicly capturing the best of the region within a space of a few few square miles. Fearing that the area would become overused now that three large hotels claim the rim above, we sought alternate routes but have now returned to this most magical of trips. Our concerns were fortunately unfounded as the train touring tourists seem to never venture more than a few hundred yards from the hotels above. Each season we continue to introduce several groups of interesting adventure travelers to the remote wonders of this great Canyon.

Gary Ziegler is an archaeologist, explorer and wilderness guide who organizes expeditions from his 1890s Bear Basin Ranch near Westcliffe Colorado. He has been leading groups and expeditions in Peru and the Sierra Madre area of Mexico since 1970 when he first organized programs in Copper Canyon for Outward Bound and Colorado College. He is published in professional journals and various magazines. He holds degrees in philosophy and geology from Colorado College and completed graduate studies in archaeology in Peru. His expeditions have rediscovered the important Inca ruins of Chorihuayrachia, Cota Coca and llacxtapata in Peru. He is a recognized authority on the Inca and Machu Picchu. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographoical Society of London and the Explorers Club of New York.

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