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Conquering Copper Canyon
Story and photos by Karen Kefauver
The rooster’s crow jolted me awake at 4:30 a.m. The unwelcome wake-up call was the start of what would be the hardest day yet of mountain biking in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. I rolled out of the inn’s warm bed and groped for the lantern. Where were those matches? In the dark, I pulled on my muddy bike shorts, zippered up three layers of bike jerseys and added a florescent, yellow jacket to the bulky ensemble. I realized I would have to carry most of the clothing later, as it grew warmer, and that it would be unwelcome weight during my epic ascent. But I was insulated from the dawn chill and I would also be prepared for snow when and if I reached the top of the canyon. I filled my hydration pack with water and stuffed the other compartments with an extra jacket and a leftover meal of homemade tortillas filled with scrambled eggs and black beans. I threw in a couple energy bars I had brought from home. The metal cleats on my cycling shoes clacked loudly on the cobblestones as I walked my mud-caked mountain bike through the courtyard toward the rutted, unpaved road. I stopped a moment to ponder this ambitious plan that I had plotted out for the final day of my eight-day, guided mountain bike tour of Copper Canyon.
My challenging journey would begin in the belly of the canyon, then my route would rise steeply for more than 7,000-feet of elevation gain during a 42-mile uphill grind on twisted trails and primitive roads that led to a town beyond the canyon rim. That elevation gain and the increased mileage from our usual 15 to 20 miles a day would be painful enough, but I would also have to complete this ride in a single, nearly non-stop effort in order to follow the schedule set by our guides. Our group of five guests from all over the U.S. and from England had decided that instead of starting our ride together in the morning as usual, we would each depart at various times, according to our projected ride time to reach the top.
As I set out alone in the dark, steadily climbing upward, I wondered what predatory animals might be hungry at this hour. I knew that black bear, puma and boars lived in the canyon. As I huffed and puffed up the mountainside, laboring to push the pedals, the canyon floor slowly receded and I felt excited about my endeavor. After a few hours of heart-pounding pedaling, with the sun beating down on me, I stopped on the side of the trail to admire the stunning view of the River Batopilas. Munching on my breakfast burrito, I reflected on the adventures during the past week.
“This trip is not for wimps,” our guide, Andy, had warned us on the first day of biking in Copper Canyon. “This is very challenging terrain,” he said. “On one of our expeditions here, we had 18 flat tires in a day.”
I quickly scanned our group for wimps: Tom, 52, a doctor from Montana; Jonathan, 33, an occupational therapist from Boston; Trevor, 46, a London native working as a computer engineer in Texas; and Rose, 56, a manufacturing executive from Pennsylvania and me, a writer from California. I figured since it was mid-February and we had traveled to El Paso, Texas, from all across the U.S. to join WorldTrek’s knobby-wheeled expedition, that we were a solid bunch. Our guides, Andy and Noé, from Arizona, were both expert mountain bikers and fluent in Spanish. They would help us avoid major catastrophes like falling off the cliff side and careening into stray animals. While one guide drove our support vehicle, the other guide directed us on serpentine singletrack trails and twisted, rocky roads. They swapped tasks daily. Given the lack of decent roads and the scarcity of detailed maps, I appreciated how well they knew the vast Copper Canyon.
Our tour had a rocky start. By the time we finished our hellishly bumpy, 9-hour van drive from El Paso, Texas, to Creel, I felt certain I hated Mexico and its wretched roads. My attitude improved the following day on our first mountain bike ride, an easy spin to visit the Tarahumara cave dwellings, situated a few miles from our inn in Creel, a lumber town that caters to Copper Canyon tourists. I had seen towering rock walls before, but I was stunned to see people living in the dark recesses of the rock towers, without electricity, much less laptops and cell phones.
Throughout the trip, we spotted the Tarahumara on remote trails and met them at the markets where they sold their handicrafts — colorful wool blankets, woven baskets, bags, skirts, blouses, violins, drums and wooden carvings. They are an indigenous population numbering roughly 60,000, who have kept their culture largely intact despite modern influences. They live in homes scattered throughout the hills and valleys and in stone caves around Copper Canyon. Some of the world’s best long-distance runners, the Tarahumara have been known to routinely run several hundred miles in five days during competitions or even just while getting around to perform everyday tasks — farther than I think I’ve ever biked in that time.
The next day, we set out for the canyon’s star downhill attraction for many mountain bikers: the bone-rattling 7,000-foot descent on the road from Creel to Batopilas. Even as an intermediate mountain biker with decent technical skills, this boulder-filled downhill course demanded 100 percent concentration. I focused on making tight turns at slower speeds to avoid getting a roadside memorial with my name on it. I had seen many white crosses marking the spots where unfortunate folks plunged off the sheer cliff. Despite my caution, I still had some problems.
“You seem to have a special rock radar,” teased Jonathan, when he noticed my uncanny knack for heading towards large rocks on the trail. After two flat tires, my steering improved. Cruising at 15 to 20 miles per hour, with the wind whistling in my ears, and the ribbon of river at the canyon bottom growing closer after every hairpin turn, I was living the mountain biker’s dream — a long, spectacular, uninterrupted descent, until Andy stopped us.
“Watch out for the bull around the next bend,” he warned. Moments earlier, Andy had disappeared in a red dust cloud, snaking down the sharp switchbacks to scout the steep trail to the village of Batopilas. When he rejoined us, he reported that a 900-pound animal blocked our path. Avoiding eye contact with the beast, we each rode slowly, single-file past the massive bull. It did not budge.
I continued on that precarious road to Batopilas, barreling around crazy curves and bombing through narrow passageways. Only three cars braved the rutted, rock-strewn and dust-caked road. My biggest concern was accidentally colliding with the pigs, cows, goats that popped up on the trail.
We arrived in Batopilas on the floor of the canyon, exuberant and covered in dust. A tranquil, riverside village and home to 800 residents, Batopilas was founded in 1709 and was once one of the richest towns in Mexico, with tons of silver hauled out on burro trains. Now it supports visitors with a variety of small shops, modest inns and restaurants surrounding the plaza at the town’s center.
The highlight of that afternoon was visiting a small workshop where Ché, an elderly craftsman, made huarache sandals using sturdy leather cords that laced over thin soles made from recycled tire tread. He had learned the trade from his grandfather. Afterward, we found a food cart that sold a popular regional snack, elote, corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese and topped with lime, salt and chile powder.
We would need the extra nutrients for the next day’s ride and three river crossings on our way to the tiny town of Cerro Colorado. After following the Rio Batopilas up-river past cactus, oak, bougainvilleas and mesquite, we found a wide-open spot to cross. Balancing my bike on my shoulder, I carefully picked my way over slippery stones and cut through fast currents that swirled up to my knees. As we cycled through a narrow pass with steep rock walls on either side, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two young Tarahumara girls, dressed in traditional garb of multi-colored woven dresses. We were easy targets for the girls, who scrambled down the steep wall of boulders to playfully ask us for candy and pens.
For our last daytrip from Batopilas, we rode our bikes to Mission Satevó, which was built on the canyon floor nearly 400 years ago by the Jesuits. At the mission we ate our picnic lunch and let the local kids ride our bikes. Dark storm clouds quickly gathered overhead. The skies unleashed a wild downpour just as we finished our five-mile ride from the mission back to our lodging. The pounding rains raged through the night, but stopped in time for our epic climb up the canyon on our last day of the trip.
After polishing off my tasty tortilla lunch, I resumed my climb up the canyon. I pushed toward the top, but I could feel my energy slowly draining with the massive effort of ascending the bumpy, windy road. I am proud that I made it to the top of the canyon. However, I succumbed to exhaution and cold shortly beyond the canyon. Even wearing all my layers of clothing, I was chilled to the point that I pulled out my extra tire tube and wrapped it around my neck like a rubber scarf. Fashion nightmare! I waited for the van to scoop me up for the long drive back to Texas. Of the five of us, only Trevor managed to bike all the way to the top, reaching our destination without assistance.
I hope to return to Copper Canyon again some day to complete that climb that eluded me in my trip with World Trek Expeditions. Sadly, that Copper Canyon bike trip turned out to be World Trek Expedition’s last tour because the company president died unexpectedly a month later at age 33 in Thailand. Fortunately, a number of other touring companies conduct similar mountain bike trips to Copper Canyon. For me, a trip through Copper Canyon by mountain bike felt like taking a journey back through time.
Karen Kefauver is a freelance journalist based in Santa Cruz. To read more about her adventures, visit www.karenkefauver.com