(These are posts copied here from my blog.)
I'm headed to Copper Canyon with a bit of trepidation that I usually reserve for trips to Colombia, Guatemala, Palestine, or Baghdad. The newspapers are increasingly full of stories of raging drug wars in northern Mexico, and an occasional story of a massacre among the Tarahumara due to drug trafficking. I've asked around as to whether this is a stupid time to travel, and no one seems to have a clear sense. I've read that the violence is not targeted against tourists--i.e., it appears to be a struggle for control of the drug trade in Mexico rather than common crime or kidnapping seemingly wealthy people for the income. I commented to my colleague Sylvia a couple months ago that this must be a safe time for tourists because drug gangs don't care about anyone else. She retorted that their lack of concern for anyone else was precisely what made travel dangerous.
So, in a couple days, I'm getting on a bus in Tucson, taking it to Los Mochis, and then getting on the famous train through Copper Canyon to Creel. I first made this trip 20 years ago, mostly because I had heard stories about the Tarahumara being the most "primitive" Indigenous people in Mexico, and I wanted to see for myself. What struck me was the beauty of the Copper Canyon. In the United States, people think about the Rockies as being scenic, but most do not realize that going north into Canada or south into Mexico the extension of this mountain range quickly becomes much more stunning.
More than a decade ago when I taught Mexican history for the first time at Illinois State University a student told me that she had just come back from Creel and that a dramatic growth in the tourist industry was having an extremely negative effect on the Tarahumara and the environment in the Copper Canyon. Ever since then, I've been trying to figure out a way to get back to see for myself. Last winter when I went to visit my parents in Tucson I kicked myself for not taking advantage of the time there to duck back across the border and check out the scene. So, this year, I schedule in extra time for the trip. Is traveling as a tourist to Creel to see if it really is as bad as I've heard like taking meth to see if really is as bad for you as they say?
I hope to bring along my OLPC laptop
(if I can manage to get Ubuntu installed) and report along the way. We'll see how it goes
After a long day of travel, we arrived at Los Mochis tonite. Los Mochis is the western terminal of the train, and early tomorrow morning we head out to Copper Canyon.
I was concerned about safety (because of the ongoing drug wars in Mexico), but on the bus down from the border today I saw little reason for concern. Is this because it is safe, or is this like Colombia where everything seems so normal until you get into the middle of something you really don't want to be in?
I spent much of the last 2 days trying to get Ubuntu installed on my little green laptop, and finally succeeded. It is nice having such a small, light laptop for travel, tho it is a bit slow and this tiny kid-sized keyboard is going to drive me crazy. And I haven't figured out how to get photos from my camera onto the laptop (and, by extension, this blog). But no pix for today anyway--just sitting on the bus all day.
Last nite I couldn't upload my blog entry from Los Mochis because of java errors, and tonite we arrived in Creel only to find all of the Internet cafes closed. Who ever heard of Internet cafes being closed on Sunday nites? And I can't find a feral Internet connection. So, who knows when I'll be able to upload my blog entries.
We woke up early in Los Mochis this morning and went to the train station that was a real zoo. We waited in a long line that didn't move to get tickets when they finally told us just to get on the last car on the train. It was a first class train, but the last car was labeled economic class. Oh well, at least we were on the train.
It was a beautiful sunny (tho cool) day, and I jump back and forth btwn my seat and the vestibule btwn the cars to take pix w/o the glare of the windows. The train runs late, of course, and it is almost 6pm by the time we arrive in Creel.
We are staying at La Portada de la Montana, which is really way more expensive than what it is worth. We walk around town scoping out tour options for tomorrow and end up back at the backpacker hangout Casa Margaritas where I stayed 20 yrs ago. Have I really become one of those people about whom I used wonder why they payed so much more than what I was for basically the same thing?
Security note: Things seemed normal on the train, except there were 2 security people, one with a side arm and the other with a (M16?) machine gun. I couldn't figure out if they were providing security for the train, or if they were hired guns for one of the groups on the train. In Creel, 2 pickups w/ heavily armed federal police go down the main street. I see a wanted poster for 3 narcos wanted for the massacre of 13 people in Creel. While eating dinner, I see the federal police go by again, this time w/ 3 pickups. But this place is full of tourists, esp. Mexicans for the new year.
Today we found a tour to take us around to some of the sites in the Copper Canyon. I have been reading John Hart's new book on silver mining in the Sierra Madre, and really wanted to visit Batopilas where the mines are, but that is a 2-day trip (one there, and one back), which is more time than we have. We are taking the train back tomorrow already.
So, today we had a 16-year-old kid drive us around in a fancy new red Dodge pickup, probably paid for with drug money. We first went to the Cusarare falls, and I kinda wished I had come alone so that I could just hike around there all day (it is a bright, beautiful mountain day). We also visited a couple Jesuit missions, and a laguna where we ate lunch (and where it would have been nice to hang out all day since it was so beautiful outside). On the way back to Creel we passed by some rock formations and entered a Tarahumara house, that felt so voyeuristic.
Creel has much more of a developed tourist industry than it did 20 yrs ago when I was here last, but it seems that the place has come to ok terms with the influx. It appears that the local communities where we went were charging the 15 peso entry fees, tho I have no idea how that money might be divided up internally. With a lot of national tourism, it rather reminds me of Banos in Ecuador. It is a nice, quiet place to escape for a few days.
And so I pound this out on my little green laptop on a roof-top patio in our hotel. The keyboard is too small for my fingers, so I tap stuff out letter-by-letter, which gets old after a while. And the sun is setting and in this mountain climate that means it gets cold fast. So, I think I'll go try to find a hotspot to see if I can post this to my blog.
Just to close off this story, we had a rather long but rather uneventful trip back from Creel. As always, the train stops at Divisadero where everyone gets off and for 15 minutes to run to the edge to take a picture of the deep Copper Canyon, but it is hard to do this if you do not know that we are there and the conductor never seems to announce it. The train was not too late leaving Creel in the late morning, but arrived back at Los Mochis about 1.5 hours late. We grabbed a taxi to the bus station, arriving just as the bus was supposed to leave for Tucson. Fortunately, a very friendly driver waited for us to purchase tickets. The weather continued to be bright and sunny, but cool, and it was a very scenic trip back down through the mountains.
As we were going to the train station in Creel, a tour guide named Pepe that we had met when we got off the train stopped us and said he had been looking for us, because he had been thinking that if we left really early in the morning we could
make it to Batopilas if we left really early in the morning. Unfortunately, the point wasn't that we wanted to make a one-day trip (which would have been a very long
day), but that we only had one day in Creel. I asked about security, and he said it was fine, but the police presence and writings on the walls indicated that there were still tensions in the air from the August massacre (see Creel killings: Massacre of family escalates Mexican drug wars
and Massacre in the Sierra Tarahumara
John Hart's book The Silver Of The Sierra Madre
ends with the comment about Batopilas:At present, the new bonanzas of tourism and marijuana provide unprecedented levels of income to the rural folk. ... For now, however, prosperity is offered by the Sinaloa Cartel. This time, the batopilenses have no expectation of Las Hadas.
and our Lonely Planet tour book says:Batopilas can be a little rough around the edges. The military recently razed the marijuana crops in the surrounding area, effectively bringing the local economy to a grinding halt. As a result, the town has seen an upsurge in robberies and kidnappings. Foreign tourists aren't usually targeted, but do yourself a favor and be vigilant here.
We spent the night on the bus, and arrived at the U.S./Mexico border in the morning, where we waited for about 1.5 hours to cross while birds flew freely back and forth over the iron fence.
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