Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mexico’s Copper Canyon Adventure

rainonthewindowIn October 2010, as the fall winds and rain pummeled our Seattle area home, we headed south to the sun. The goal was Mexico’s Copper Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Mexico. To reach our destination we signed up for a Grand Circle Travel tour that, over a two week period, would sweep south from Tucson Arizona through Casa Grandes and Chihuahua to Divisadero. After a train trip through the Copper Canyon the tour would head for El Fuerte, on the west side of the mountains, before turning north to San Carlos for a few warm days on the Gulf of California. From there it would be back to Tucson and, finally, wrapped in rain gear, home.
9 Folk Dancers El Fuerte (6)     It seemed like a good idea when we signed up for the trip. By departure time our attitude had changed. According to the press, drug violence and unrest was sweeping the border area and the U. S. State Department had a “do not travel” advisory in place for the State of Chihuahua, our first stop. We considered cancelling but didn’t want to forfeit our entire trip fee. Grand Circle assured us the area was safe and that “previous trips had no problems.” That didn’t mean our trip would be so lucky but, with a sense of adventure, we packed up and headed south.
     (We later learned many Mexicans are very frustrated with the news reporting in the U.S. While there are drug related killings it is usually druggy to druggy, isolated to a few small areas and tourists are not involved. But the news has devastated the tourist industry which is very important to the Mexican economy.)

Day One; La Posada Hotel, Tucson
     1 la posada tucson (2)There is much to do in Tucson if you have a car. It is hard to get to the sights in the sprawling city without one. We rented a car, shopped and visited the Pima Air Museum, an 80 plus acre collection of planes from the 20th century. Some are nicely restored and inside for viewing. Others are sitting out in the dry sun waiting for love and attention. If want to see about every plane made the last century this is the place.
     We returned to the hotel in time for the 6:00 trip briefing from our leader, Bacho Lopez. Bacho was an experienced Mexican national who had an answer for every question the guests could pose. Most guests (37 guests, guide and driver) were veterans of at least one other Grand Circle trip. We were the rookies. We found it interesting that he addressed one bus trip issue head on; bus etiquette.
     mexico busGuests can get territorial about their bus seating. They grab a seat on day one and won’t give it up until the tour ends. Some are ok with that and others find it very annoying. Bacho informed guests that each day they would move back two rows from where they were the day before; no quibbling. The decision went down ok so I assume most guests had faced the issue before and knew it was an equitable solution. It reminded me of a school bus driver dealing with elementary students. Oh well….
     Not yet knowing any of the other guests we climbed in the car and headed for a nearby recommended Italian restaurant, Guiseppe’s Restorante Italiano, for dinner. It was jammed, unusual for a Monday night. We ate at the bar and had a wonderful meal with great atmosphere.
     Returning we set to packing, ready for an 8:00 AM departure.

Day Two: Tucson to Nuevo Casa Grandes
     The tour began, bright and early. Luggage out at 6:30, bus on the road at 8:00. It made sense as we had an eight hour trip ahead of us.
     We headed east on I-10 toward New Mexico where, at Deming, we turned south for the border. After a few rest stops we passed through the little town of Columbus, near the border, whose claim to fame was being raided by Pancho Villa in about 1916. We crossed the border at the Mexican town of Palomas. It was pure Mexico border town with unfinished buildings and a chaotic customs check point. The bus was passed after a dog went over the luggage. We were allowed to drive into town for lunch while our paper work was processed at the nearby immigration office.
2 Palomas Border Crossing (4)     Lunch was at the “Pink Store,” a combination craft shop and restaurant. Our order had been phoned in so the lunch for our big group was handled with wonderful dispatch.
     Rolled into the Nuevo Casa Grande and the Hotel Hacienda about 6:00 with rooms efficiently pre-assigned. The hotel was clean and well run. In the US it would be a 2 to 3 star but here it was very nice and there were no complaints. We were assured the water and ice were ok but we were cautious anyway.

Day three; Wednesday, Nuevo Casa Grande and Mata Ortiz
     Day three was devoted to tours in the local area, the furthest spot being about 20 miles away.
     First a bit of geography. Casa Grande was the big town in the area until the railroad arrived early in the 20th century. The line bypassed Casa Grande so a new town, Nuevo Casa Grande, grew up several miles to the north on the rail line. Now the new town boasts a population of about 60,000 vs. only about 5000 in the old town.
     Our first stop was a lapidary shop in the older town, Casa Grande. Fearing a standard tourist trap I was skeptical but the owner provided an excellent demonstration of how they made jewelry grade stones from local sources. They make jewelry and sell polished stones to artists all over North American and Europe. It was an impressive, well run operation.  
     Then we were off to a small Mormon community, Juarez, that dates back to the time of Utah statehood. To join the Union Utah had to prohibit polygamy. Mormons that practiced it fled to Mexico and set up new communities. Juarez is a survivor of that exodus. Polygamy is no longer allowed. The town of 1200 is home to a small but beautiful Mormon Temple and the entire town is orderly and clean, reflecting the Mormon influence. About half the current population is Mormon. Most farm, raising apples or peaches. It was quite a lovely little oasis in a green valley. A local provided a tour and history for us.
3 Mata Ortiz Pottery      Mata Ortez was the next stop. In the 1970’s a local revived a lost pottery making tradition in the small, declining town. Now pottery is made in small shops all over town in a very traditional way. We received an excellent demonstration of the pottery making process. It is interesting that they are able to do most of their work with materials they find in the hills surrounding the town.
     Then lunch in Nuevo Casa Grande, a stop at the cash machine and return to the hotel. We were on our own for dinner and found excellent steak at Pompeii’s, next to the hotel.

Day Four (Thursday) Nuevo Casa Grade to Chihuahua via Paquime
     3 Paquime (27)The day began with a bus ride to Paquime (900 AD to about 1250 AD). The ruins were discovered last century and efforts have been made to excavate and understand the people who lived here. The civilization disappeared before the Spaniards arrived so they can’t be blamed for its demise. After a quick lunch at the hotel we set out on a four hour ride to Chihuahua.
     We arrived at the Sicomoro Hotel about 5:30, settled in and then did a brief walking tour of the area. The hotel is modern and clean. The bathrooms rate four stars. Chihuahua is a big city but very orderly and clean. Traffic moves with good order and, overall, it defeats the stereotypes created by tawdry border towns. There is a modern mall next door and we were about a block from a large grocery store.
     After a welcome drink from the hotel it was dinner on our own. Later one of the bellman surprised us all with a wonderful piano concert in the bar.

Day Five, (Friday) Tour Chihuahua
     We had a lazy 9:00 AM start with a new, local guide. We wandered around the town, visited a park, the “state capital” (we ran into the new governor in the hall) and cathedral. We wrapped up the tour with a visit to the Pancho Villa home and museum. In the U.S. we tend to view him as an outlaw largely because he raided and burned a city in New Mexico in 1916. But here he is a hero of the revolution. I guess it’s a matter of perspective.
     Back at the hotel for lunch on our own. The guests went their separate ways, some siestas, some shopping and a few just sitting around the pool. It was a nice time to do nothing. We swept through a few stores, hiked about a mile to Starbucks and then settled into the room. 5 Chihuahua Dinner Out (8)
     Dinner was at private homes in the Chihuahua. One group went to Bacho’s and others to the home of family and friends nearby. Everyone had a good experience. Some of the hosts spoke more English than others which added to the adventure.

Day Six, (Saturday) Chihuahua to Divisadero on the rim of the Copper Canyon.
     A long day on the bus was broken up by several excellent stops along the way.
     Our route took us on a gentle climb toward the mountains. The gain in elevation brought a change in temperature and the types of farms we passed. The sameness of the desert was soon left behind. Apple, pear and other fruit orchards appeared. Then we wound through rocky country that reminded us of the high desert of eastern Oregon, in the Blue Mountains.
     6 Mennonite Farm Visit (2)Late morning we visited Mr. Parker and his family at Village B-2 in a Mennonite colony near the highway. He invited us into a meeting room where he answered questions about the history of the colony and their faith in general. His wife and daughter then opened up their home and were waiting for us with coffee, cookies, local crafts and cheese for sale. Very enterprising!
     The home itself was very Spartan reflecting the teachings of his religion.
     Further down the road we pulled into a gas station and boarded a yellow school bus for a 3 km dirt road ride to a delightful restaurant in an apple orchard. It was like an oasis in the farm country. Bacho had called ahead so tables were preset and hot soup and cider was waiting at each place.
     From there it was into the winding mountains and finally to Divisadero and our hotel which, as advertised, was right on the canyon rim. Bacho warned us that this hotel was more “rustic” than others on the trip but most guests found the place charming and more than adequate.
     7 Divisadero Area Scenes (2)For the first time on the trip we were advised not to use the tap water for anything but washing. Bottled water was available in the rooms and a large container of purified water was spotted on each floor near the rooms. The night was cool and some had trouble keeping warm in their chilly rooms but our Seattle blood kept us comfortable.
     All meals were included and served family style in the restaurant. Choices were limited, a minor inconvenience for those on a special diet but we found the meals tasty and interesting.

Day 7, (Sunday) Divisadero and the Tarahumara
     The day dawned sunny but chilly. However, as soon as the sun reached us the chill was driven away. Our coffee maker was kaput so we nobly suffered until the restaurant opened for breakfast. We could now say we were really “roughing it.”
bachos photos (70)bachos photos (64)
7 Tarahumara Village Visit (11)     Most of the group opted for the Tarahumara Village tour. In two vans and a suburban they bounced out of the hotel parking lot at 9:00 on a 45 minute trip to the village that included 7 km of exciting dirt road driving as they descended into canyon to reach the village. The villagers were gracious hosts and, in addition to being able to purchase crafts, guests were able to see how the villagers lived and worked.
     In the afternoon we bussed along the canyon rim, stopping at viewpoints and visiting the new tram that takes visitors across an arm of the canyon for some “up close and personal” views of the canyon. Sadly the newly opened tram was experiencing some electrical problems and was not taking guests.
     That evening we joined two other couples for a sunset party on the canyon rim with wine, crackers and Mennonite cheese.
     Divisadero was a laid back place where life progressed on a routine, 24/7.
Without air conditioning and little traffic the rooms and hotel were very quiet. Morning began with the crow of the roosters giving the place a farm-like feel. We would rise and take a shower with an interesting water system that spurted and spit water before settling down to a steady steam. The sink faucet performed the same little prelude.
     Meanwhile, in front of the hotel the regular native vendors would arrive and spread their baskets, carvings and other wares on the ground, on bulkheads or on crude tables. It was as if each had a pre assigned spot that was respected by the others. Once set up they would sit on a blanket and weave baskets while waiting for customers. For many of the women weaving was like chewing gum. They did it unconsciously. They talked, they named their prices and interacted with each other without breaking from the weaving pattern.
     Across the narrow drive, in the formal market area at the train station, other vendors arrived and set up their stalls. Most of them were Mexican selling crafts they had purchased from others along with standard souvenirs; t-shirts, baseball caps, etc. At the top, beside the train tracks, the food vendors set up their stoves and began food preparation so they were ready when one of the infrequent passenger trains arrived at the station. The food smells were delightful, attracting a regular canine population which hung around the station and the hotel grounds. (We assumed none of the local dogs made it into the tacos!) bachos photos (79)8 Divisadero Area Hike
At the end of the day, as light faded, the vendors faded as well, leaving few traces of their presence. The native vendors would wrap their wares in bundles and trudge away while the more formal vendors would box up their goods, load them in trucks or SUV’s and disappear. The next day the routine would be repeated.
     The evening would end with an occasional dog fight or just a lonely howling dog sitting somewhere near the hotel.

Day 8 (Monday) Divisadero to El Fuerte via the Copper Canyon

     8 Divisadero Area Hike (22)While waiting for the noon train our guide took us on a short walk in the woods above the hotel. The Taramaras knew we were coming and, even in the woods, there were chances to purchase crafts. That would seem intrusive but they apply no pressure. Instead they sit, weaving their baskets, awaiting your inquiries. We passed several homes cut into the rocks on the canyon wall; very primitive.
bachos photos (8)     At noon we boarded the Chepe taking our assigned seats in our assigned car. Our train was made up of the engine, dining car, bar car and three passenger carriages. They were very comfortable and the air condition worked well. The first half of the six hour trip was a surprise and slight disappointment. We expected to find tracks carved into the canyon rim with expansive views. Instead the train wound through rolling cattle country; pretty in its own way but not what was expected. 8 Train Views
     Later that changed as we began our descent from the high country down a series of narrow and scenic canyons. The track twisted, turned and doubled back on itself through a series of trestles and tunnels—an impressive engineering feat.
     It was nice to move from the passenger car to the bar car from time to time to change the view and take a bit of refreshment.
     Finally, after over six hours of travel, we arrived in a darkened El Fuerte. November 1st, the night of the dead and the cemetery we passed on the bus was crowded. On that day family members bring food, gifts and picnics to the cemeteries in a show of remembrance for the departed.
9 El Fuerte Hotel (2)     The gaily colored Hotel El Fuerte was a delight after a long day of travel. Our room opened onto an exterior corridor as did the others. After dropping luggage in the room we gathered for a welcome drink and dinner.

Day 9 (Tuesday) El Fuerte and the Mayo Village
     After breakfast it was back on the bus and off to the Mayo Village, Teheuco.
9 Day of the Dead (3)     First stop was the village cemetery, which was still recovering from the previous nights festivities. The cemetery was covered with flowers, gifts and candles for the dead. Bacho was embarrassed by the amount of trash the visitors had left behind. But the rest of the village and all of the homes, was very tidy so it was clear the cemetery mess was an anomaly.
9 Visit to Village of Tehueco (12)     The old and nearby church was visited and then we walked to our first home visit; a family making corn tortillas. They demonstrated how they made them from the corn to the frying pan. Served with beans and onions they were very good.
     We moved a few doors down to a mask makers home. There is a certain mask design, native to this area. We would see more of the masks at a later native dance demonstration.
     The homes are simple, clean adobe structures. Low trees provide shade to the homes and yards. They have an inside kitchen, for winter cooking, and an outside area, under cover, for warm weather cooking. They live much like they have lived for centuries. Electricity and an occasional TV are the only apparent concessions to modern times. The residents, themselves, dress and look like any other Mexican nationals; no “native” dress for this tribe.
9 Tehueco School Visit (6)     Next stop was the village school. Grand Circle travel has a foundation that provides support for projects in communities they visit. In this area, the school is the beneficiary.
     Though the school and most shops were closed to commemorate the day of the dead teachers and many students were on hand to greet us at the school. Each guest was matched with a child/guide. Kathy was matched with Thomas, a first grader well turned out in a crisp red and white checked shirt. We toured the banos, paid for and constructed by Grand Circle. Then on to the classroom which grew quite stuffy with 40 adults and 20 ninos scrunched inside. The students sang, the visitors sang, school supplies were presented and then we moved to the covered outside play area for a student dance demonstration.
9 Tehueco Native Dancers (19)     We bid farewell to the kids and moved to the front of the school for a native dance demonstration. New dance forms and instruments were on display.
     We felt very welcome in the village and the adults and kids seemed to enjoy showing us around.
     We returned to El Fuerte for lunch. Most ate at the hotel while eight of us opted for a recommended restaurante, El Meson Del General, across the main plaza; very good.
9 Folk Dancers El Fuerte (2)The hotel provided us with local dancers for happy hour—very energetic and colorful.

Day 10 (Wednesday) On to San Carlos
     Off to a 9:00 am start for San Carlos. Had a little confusion on the bus seating as some of the “kids” were unable to get the seats they wanted. But all was worked out and a strained peace reigned.
     The trip north, on highway 15, the main road along the west coast to the Arizona border, was uneventful. At noon we stopped for lunch in Navojoa at the home of a family that runs a hotel in El Fuetre and a restaurant in San Carlos. It was a spacious old place that is only available for special events and Grand Circle tours.
     Then in Obregon we had our first taste of Americana; a Walmart. We swarmed the place purchasing tea, wine, snacks and souvenirs before reboarding the bus. The air was dry and hot all day, in sharp contrast to our time in the mountains. While ok in the shade it was scalding in the sun.
     Arrived in San Carlos at sundown and settled into the rooms before a dinner at the hotel.
     San Carlos is a pleasant little town, much like I suspect Cabo San Lucas was before it exploded with tourism. This area has a delightful marina which is relatively quiet this time of year. Noted for spring and summer fishing efforts have been made to boost tourism and there are many half empty subdivisions in the area. Our hotel, the Marinaterra, sits in a complex at the boat harbor. It is some distance from the restaurant strip and most of the shops which can be reached by cab or bus (or walk if you don’t mind dusty streets.) A large pool with smaller kiddy pools and a cold hot tub are located on a deck below our room. A separate pool and beach complex is available for guests about 200 yards to the west so we had choice of two pools and a beach to select from
San Carlos was a relaxing way to end the trip.

A Word About Stone and Tile in Mexico: In a country short of wood, stone and tile predominates as a building material and even the simple red bricks create beautiful designs. In our San Carlos hotel, for example, the floors were surfaced with a marble looking stone tile. The outside deck was a simple square red brick tile and the deck railing was topped with a large glazed ceramic tile of some sort. Similar beauty and variety was present in all the hotels on the trip.

The old and eclectic Hotel El Fuerte was perhaps the most beautiful with its bright colored ceramic tiles on walls and floors.

Travelers in Mexico should keep their eyes open to the variety and beauty of the stone like materials that have been a mainstay in Mexican construction for centuries with impressive results.

Day 11 (Thursday) San Carlos
     11 hotel marina terra san carlos (6)Our room faces a nearby twin peak that stands as a regional landmark. The Spanish name, inspired by the shape, means upside down goat udder. At night the sun goes down behind it leaving an orange sky in its wake. In the morning the new sun paints the peaks with a golden brush. The peaks are stunning whether the sun is coming or going.
     Today we are going on our last “included” tours. We have chosen to pass on the sunset cruise, nature cruise and desert ride and get as much pool time as possible.
11 Cactus San Carlos (4a)First stop was a cactus field where Bacho did an excellent job explaining the role of the cactus in the desert environment while showing the various types that are found here. Then it was on to Institute of Monterrey’s pearl farm. We were skeptical about that one but it was very interesting. The owner showed how they “farmed” oysters to achieve consistent results in a relatively short time. By raising oysters in the farm they avoid depleting the natural stocks. .
bachos photos (28)     The first two stops took us to well into the afternoon so I would have been happy to skip the tour of Guaymas but, since it was in the brochure, we did the drive tour and stopped briefly at the waterfront where we learned that Holland America has added this port to some of its cruises. Since the town has not been spoiled by too much cruise traffic it might be a nice stop but, in the heat, we were ready to move on.
     Bacho dropped some of us at the other end of San Carlos so we could lunch at Charlie’s Rock, a waterfront restaurant with open air seating on the upper deck. The view and food was wonderful—fish and shrimp—but the flies (non biting) were an annoyance. The bus returned to fetch us back to the hotel where we could finally head for the pool at about 3:00.
     The poor sunset cruise people barely had time to sit before they had to mount up and head to the marina.

Day 12 (Friday) San Carlos
     Today was the day to relax; no tours, no schedule, no nothing until dinner. The only challenge was deciding which pool to visit and then, once there, which lounge to settle into. We headed to the “beach pool”, riding on the hotel golf cart. After wandering on the beach and sunning by the pool we moved back to the hotel.
     Before settling in at the pool I walked along the edge of the marina in an effort to reach the opening where the bay met the Gulf of California. It was a nice walk but the beach ran out before I reached the Gulf. It was then back to the hotel pool for the rest of the afternoon.
     Dinner was at the Cotton Club, a wonderful discovery at the end of a dirt road near the former Club Med. It is hard to imagine how a fine restaurant can survive in such an isolated location but I hope it does. The beach front location and facility were wonderful.

Day 13 (Saturday) San Carlos to Tucson
     Homeward bound we were on the bus at 7:30 on the way to the U. S. of A. Mid morning we took a potty/craft break at the home of an ironwood carver. It was an interesting demonstration of the carving art and resulted in the addition of several objects d’art being added to our collection.
     Some distance south of the border we passed through a Mexican check point where we removed all the luggage from the bus and passed it through a screening. I’m not sure what they thought we might be trying to take out of Mexico but those were questions one doesn’t ask of a person with a machine gun. A few miles further on we passed through a second screening. This time we only stopped while the guards walked through the bus.
     The big inspection loomed ahead; the U. S. border. With some foreboding Bacho indicated border waits from one to seven hours had been experienced on past trips. We were fortunate, slipping through in 90 minutes with a bit of adventure tossed in.
     As expected the bus was diverted into an inspection area and all the luggage was removed and scanned. While this was going on we were able to watch the dismantling of a Jeep Cherokee in the next bay. Apparently the drug dog had detected the scent of 6839219_600x338marijuana. That info plus whatever other data they gleaned from their electronic detectors led them to the gas tank which they were in the process of removing when we arrived. While we watched they removed the tank and then proceeded to lift about 140 pounds of marijuana in plastic wrapped brick sized blocks from the gas tank.
     We were advised the driver was in government provided bracelets and the Jeep now the property of the U. S. Government. It will soon be available for purchase at auction in Tucson.
The drug dog handler, a friendly young man, handed one of our travel mates a marijuana laced purse to demonstrate the dog’s olfactory ability. The handsome black lab paced through the group before sitting beside the purse carrier, its trained response when it finds drugs. A very interesting demonstration.
     Mexico had been most interesting and fun but it was nice to feel the U.S.A. under our feet. By 6:00 P.M. we were rolling into the La Posada Hotel in Tucson and the tour was winding down. Bacho and Grand Circle had done an excellent job. The trip lived up to its expectations. it seemed like we had just departed it was nice to be almost home.
     We had traversed the Copper Canyon, learned a great deal about Mexican history and culture and made new friends. Now we could remove one more item from our bucket list.
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  1. Hi Steve, Thank you so much for taking us along on your tour of the Copper Canyon. Sam and I have always wanted to do that trip. We had a marvelous time with you and Kath.....Have a great holiday and love to you both..Sandy for Sam and Sandy

  2. Great rendition Steve! Jackie and I were fortunate to enjoy your and Kathy's company frequently on the trip. We did suffer more than you "Northerners" at night in Desidoro but easily made up for it with a fantastic day renting a car in San Carlos with the wonderful Mexican-American travelers who were with us on the trip. Pepe, our leader that day, was a real hoot and great guy who had travelled that area several times in his past - as had Jackie as a child. Can't believe I actually passed up "pool time" for that fun side trip.

    We all were so very fortunate on this trip to have such a compatible and interesting group of fellow travellers. We learned as much from each of them as we did from this fascinating trip. But, much of that compatibility was easily attributable to our excellent Program Director, Bacho. Don Hardy