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Life at the Edge
The Tarahumara of Copper Canyon

I’m standing alone on the lurching metal platform between rail cars as the El Chepe Express roars up the canyon. Steel wheels howl and screech against the tracks below as diesel fumes blow past. No seats out here, only a white-knuckle grip on the metal rung bolted to the frame.

Just a few feet past the door, inside their upholstered compartment, my friends lean back in reclining chairs and sip cold cervezas as the Mexican landscape rushes past tinted windows. I could easily join them to escape the noise and the vapors.

But I am here to feed a habit. I love trains. And for the sheer joy of sticking my face into the wind, feeling the click and sway of the rails beneath me, and watching the deepening barrancas of Copper Canyon whiz by, there’s no better place to be.

Tarahumara women at Copper Canyon, Mexico - © Eric Lindberg Photography  

Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, is not your standard-issue, south of the border tourist destination. Those seeking beachside margaritas and mariachi bands should look elsewhere. Even the name, as promoted by Mexico tourism, is misleading.

There is more than one canyon here. Copper Canyon is just one of a dozen colossal canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental region of northern Mexico. Some are deeper than the Grand Canyon. While lacking the dramatic geology of the Grand Canyon, for sheer size these vast canyons easily dwarf their northern neighbor.

The train trip from El Fuerte to Copper Canyon is one of the world’s great rail journeys. Starting near sea level, it follows rivers up deep ravines, crossing bridges and ducking through dozens of tunnels on the 8000 foot climb to the canyon rim. But for many visitors, the lure of the place goes beyond the geography of this enormous labyrinth. Equally intriguing are the inhabitants.

After five hours the train reaches the top and pulls into Divisadero Station. Stopping to buy hot gorditas (thick corn tortillas filled with meat, eggs, cheese) from the ladies on the platform, I take the long staircase down to the Urique Canyon overlook. But it’s not the dizzying view that has me gaping. It’s the local color that catches my eye.

At canyon’s edge a dozen indigenous Tarahumara women hunker on the stone patio selling aromatic pine needle and reed baskets, homemade violins, and small cloth dolls. Each woman is wrapped gypsy-like in brilliant blouses, skirts, shawls, and scarves. Elsewhere this frenzy of magenta, indigo, saffron, jade, turquoise, and butterscotch might seem garish, but here in this spare land of rock and pinon the vibrant hues against rich brown skin are enchanting.

Five centuries ago the Tarahumara entered these remote canyons to evade Spanish invaders. They lived in near-perfect isolation, tolerating occasional inroads from Jesuit priests and explorers. Beginning in the late 1800s, mining and logging brought roads and a hint of modern life. The Tarahumara reacted by retreating further into the barrancas.

In 1961 another event shook the Tarhumara world. The Chihuahua-Pacifico (Chepe) train track from the coast inland to Chihuahua City was completed. With it came the next wave of outsiders.

Tarahumara woman in Copper Canyon, Mexico - © Eric Lindberg Photography  

Today the Tarahumara find themselves between two worlds: the pastoral ways of their ancestors, and the 21st century of cell phones, laptops, and tourists in search of authentic indigenous culture unblemished by life beyond the canyons.

On this warm winter afternoon the women pay scant attention to tourists examining baskets. One by one we wander to the edge of the overlook, where an iron railing is all that prevents a rapid freefall into Urique canyon. Beyond, stretching for miles to the far horizon, is a geologist’s fantasy, a massive chasm interrupted by mesas and ridges and eroding pinnacles, a tortured topography fading into the hazy distance.

To the Tarahumara, I am a chabochi. Chabochi translates to “person with spider-webbing across the face,” and it was first meant for the bearded Spaniards who drove them far up these canyons centuries ago. Today it refers to anyone not Tarahumara.

Each year more chabochi make their way to Divisadero Station and to Creel, the small town where the adventurous stock up before descending into the canyons by jeep road or on foot. Tarahumara stroll the sidewalks or stand shyly in the shadows. Most avoid eye contact.

Rustic lodging, restaurants, mountain bike rentals, and most recently, Internet cafes encourage extended stays. Guided weeklong trips into the canyons offer a more intimate experience with the subtropical world deep in the canyon.

But spending more time here doesn’t necessarily mean closer interaction with the Tarahumara. My attempts at conversation in fractured Spanish were met with averted eyes and a few mumbled words. No one pressured or hustled me; instead, the Tarahumara kept a distance. As a tourist, I felt they could easily take or leave my presence.

The Tarahumara, a reserved people with a long history of adjusting to the outside world, have adapted in various ways. Jobs in hotels or as guides are an option. Some men leave and find work outside, sending money back to family. Women have found a tourist market for their woven baskets. Others abandon the canyons for Mexican cities.

But many remain, growing corn and beans, raising cattle, sheep, and goats. They migrate during the year, moving to cooler grazing areas elevations in summer, returning to the balmy canyon depths in winter.

After stopping at Divisadero, it would be a mistake to board the train again and continue to Chihuahua City or El Fuerte. To come for a few hours and not spend at least a night at the canyon is to miss the subtle yet bewitching moods of the barrancas: morning light spilling down the mesas, clouds scudding across the clean Sierra Madre sky, the cacophony of distant roosters announcing dawn.

The shocks on our van whimper as we bounce down the rutted dirt road into the canyon. Guide Gustavo Renteria is taking six tourists into a valley below the canyon rim, to a scattered community with a humble chapel. Corn fields lie fallow in the hard winter light, empty but for a swayback donkey nibbling at dried husks in the broken dirt.

Tarahumara woman and girl at Copper Canyon, Mexico - © Eric Lindberg Photography  

But our arrival triggers life. As we approach the first settlement, children emerge from small casitas and race down paths toward the dusty road. Gustavo and his white van are well known here. The kids wait expectantly by the road until we pull up next to them.

We are fortunate to be here on the day when Gustavo brings gifts to the children. Mangoes and oranges. School books, pencils, and toothbrushes. Hair clips for the girls. Dog biscuits for the mutts. Gustavo is gentle with every child. We pass out goodies and are repaid with shy, sweet smiles.

Going deeper into the valley, we stop whenever two or more children appear. Most dwellings are adobe and wood. Some are caves, or shacks built beneath a rock overhang. Most do without electricity or plumbing. Life here is basic, with few distractions or modern comforts. But change is coming to Copper Canyon, and odds are the Tarahumara won’t evade this outsider as easily as they did previous ones.

A massive development project is planned, including a new airport, resort hotels, a 1.5 mile, 60-person gondola into the canyon, and a tourist-oriented Tarahumara “village.” Local opinion is mixed, with environmental and cultural issues unresolved. To many it’s unclear how the Tarahumara will benefit.

Still steeped in familiar ancestral ways, the Tarahumara stand at a crossroads not of their choosing and watch as the modern world hurtles toward them. Like indigenous cultures everywhere, they don’t have the luxury of deciding whether the old or new will serve them best. Within the span of a generation, what was once considered timeless has become finite.

Still, a few things remain as they have over the centuries. Canyon nights are quiet with few reasons to venture outdoors. But step away from the muted hotel lights and overhead sparkles a surreal sky unsurpassed in the world. Copper Canyon lies in one of the rare remaining areas in North America with a night sky free of artificial light. Each evening I stand on the veranda of my canyon-side room, awed by the starry spectacle and mindful of what I miss by living in a city.

The chabochi will keep coming. And as they have for centuries, the Tarahumara will adjust. But this time they have run out of remote barrancas in which to hide. There is no place left to retreat. Just how the Tarahumara will withstand this latest invasion is a question that for now has no answer.