The Copper Canyon, the deepest canyon on earth, seven times the size of the Grand Canyon, and what better way to see the sights then on mountain bikes?
Simply getting to the canyon is an effort. My husband Ray and I have undertaken a driving tour Montana to Belize, returning back through Mexico to Colorado, a journey exceeding 8000 miles. I planned this explore of North America, taking the opportunity to visit World Heritage sites, beaches, caves and National Parks. Today, in early May we’ve given ourselves three days at the Copper Canyon. Located mid-Mexico in incredibly rough and rugged country about 500 miles south of El Paso Texas, this remote gaping fissure in the earth is the most incongruous mix of new and ancient, rich and poor, grand and sad. It took us two days of hard driving on winding, steep and bumpy mountain roads to reach Creel, the town closest to the canyon.
Anticipation woke us early and we head to the canyon rim to rent mountain bikes. Entering the park requires one to first run the gantlet of carnny-like barkers imploring you to buy trinkets. Stand after rickety stand of tacky Chinese-made plastic beads mixed with, knock-off branded sunglasses and true local crafts, scrawny flea laden dogs looking for food and small dirty children begging for money.
After breaking free of the hawker’s we walk to the rim, and are taken back in awe! For unlike the Grand Canyon, you simply stand on the abyss. I have a moment of vertigo and have to sit down, slowly scrunching myself forward until I can look over the edge, my feet dangling down, nothing but air for at least a thousand feet. We take pictures already knowing these images will not begin to capture the grandeur and size of what we see.
Going to the ticket booth marked with a picture of a bike, we are met by a man who does not speak any English. Ray and I speak poorly, but can normally get along. The man simply looks at us. I point to the picture of a bike and hold up two fingers, he just stares at us. We are baffled. We try again, the man just walks away. Eventually I go to other ticket booths asking if anyone can speak English, and finally one man, Carlos is called to help us out. Explaining our situation to him, he gets the man to respond somewhat. We still cannot figure out what is going on. Finally, it becomes clear; they do not want to rent us bikes without a hiring guide. Fine, we respond, we’ll hire a guide too.
We wait a very long time for bikes to be brought out. And while we wait I ask,
“Carlos, are you the only one here who speaks English?”
“How many Americanos come here a year?”
“About 20,000, but they all come with guides and are old so they don’t rent bikes, only ride the gondola.” He responds.
A small young local boy of about 10 or 11 years old wheels out three bikes from the next building. Carlos tells us he is our guide. Ray and I both look back at Carlos incredulously. I am 5’3 inches and I tower a full 8 inches over this boy. Carlos understands our amazement and tells us, this is not a kid, he is 19 and his wife is expecting a baby. This fellow, I guess young man, does not speak to be when I walk over to him to introduce myself, nor will he for the next four hours do more than mutter a word or two in a language that is local to this area.
So we pay 450 Pesos, ($26.50 USD) and begin the ride. We had selected Ruta Panoramida, (Panoramic route). An 11 km ride which will take us around the rim then down to the bottom.
The Copper canyon is actually a series of massive canyons in the Sierra Madre
and the rocky trail we ride upon was created thousands of years ago by the indigenous people, the Tarahumara. These people have practiced the survival strategies of occupying areas too remote for “city people”. They move up and down the canyon walls with the changing of the seasons. As a people they choose to remain way-off-the-beaten-path, they remain isolated and independent to avoid losing their culture. The women dress in very colorful dresses, all of the same style, nearly every woman we saw has a baby slung across her back wrapped in a shawl. The people as a whole are very small in stature, speak their own dialect and actively avoid modern society.
May is the end of the dry season and the well-worn canyon trail was covered with a 1-2 inch thick layer of dust and sand. In addition, dry pine needles and dry leaves from scrub Oak, Mesquite and Iron wood often times covered the trail several inches thick which camouflaged the rocks beneath.
I am a competent, mid-level mountain biker, my love being touring. Ray is better (or less fearful) than I. This was by far the most difficult trail we have ever ridden. The grade was tediously steep, both up and down, the rocks themselves slick and simultaneously sharp. We rode switch back after switch back, crossed bridges and track of rickety, thin pine boards which creaked and skidded under our tires, ready to snap at any second.
I re-learned the one great truth of single track-I cannot look at the scenery and bike at the same time. The trail was at times carved out of a sheer cliff, with nothing more than a small rock at the trail edge. Twice my front tire hit those rocks and I heard they cascade down the canyon side for hundreds of feet. Other times the V-shape of the trail, worn by thousands of footfalls was steep enough so as my peddles scraped. The trees and jutting rocks so close you have to zig-zag to get your handlebars through. Almost every second you could miss a turn and tumble to your death, be impaled upon a cactus, or simply smash into a cliff side – all this at 8000 feet of elevation.
It was great! It was wonderful! It was worth every ounce of adrenaline!
At the beginning of the ride the trail was well marked, yet about mid-way down, other trails joined and spilt off. We encountered wooden gates across the trail and rode right through chicken coops and through people’s front yards where sleeping dogs barely acknowledged our presence. Oddest of all was a luxury hotel extending out from the cliff wall just a few feet above hovels where the locals existed on the most marginal of existences.
I was glad we had hired this young man. He stopped a few times to point to and arch or unique rock feature. The trail became increasing steep the last kilometer and finely turned into stairs. Several hundred feet above us was the landing for the gondola. I was totally completely exhausted. The thought of carrying a bike was just too much let alone the act. When from out of nowhere a man appeared, Ray handed him 50 peso, ($3) and pointed to our bikes. He was happy to carry them up as I collapsed onto the bench on the gondola and we rode back to the rim.
It was a wonderful ride.