Mexico’s Hidden Shangri-La

by Kelly Fenstermaker

It’s six-thirty in the morning, and Batopilas is waking up. The sun’s first rays have tipped the mountains that surround the little Mexican town, coloring them a soft gold. Children walk in the streets on their way to school, the girls dressed in neat pink uniforms. Dogs stretch and abandon door steps where they have spent the night, like sleeping guardians. Residents and shop owners emerge to sweep the narrow cobblestone streets of yesterday’s debris.

In the middle of town, a narrow foot bridge spans the Batopilas River that separates the main part of town from a smattering of adobe dwellings attached to a hill on the opposite side. Already, a few inhabitants of the hillside have begun to make their way down steep paths to the bridge and into town.

This was my last day in Batopilas. I had arrived with a tour group of twelve, led by Jim Glendinning, author of the guidebook, “Adventures of the Big Bend .” He leads small, personalized group tours to Copper Canyon and Batopilas twice a year.

Our adventure began in the Mexican border town of Ojinaga, Chihuahua , across the Rio Grande from the U.S. town of Presidio We boarded a bus in Ojinaga, and three hours later arrived in Chihuahua City. From there we rode the train for five and a half hours to Creel, gateway to Copper Canyon. Although Creel is a lumber town, it is charming, oriented to tourists with numerous hotels and bed and breakfast lodgings.

Creel was our first introduction to the Tarahumara Indians that live in relative isolation throughout Copper Canyon. They come into Creel to sell their handmade crafts and textiles, brightening the streets in their colorful native attire. These people are so striking that it’s hard to keep from staring.

The Tarahumaras, who prefer their indigenous name, Raramuri, have remained the most compact and unmixed of any of the Indian tribes in Mexico, deliberately choosing a life that is virtually untouched by modern civilization.

Before venturing on to Batopilas, we spent the night at the Sierra Lodge, a short drive from Creel. The rooms are lighted by kerosene lamps and warmed by wood-burning stoves. Some guests might find the lack of electricity an inconvenience (no hair dryers or electric razors) but to most, the charm of the place more than makes up for it.

Moments after we arrived at the lodge, several Raramuri women appeared with their adorable doe-eyed children and spread out their crafts on the veranda steps. At very modest prices you can buy colorful hand-made shawls, woven baskets, striking clay necklaces and animals carved from wood.

After a four mile hike to a nearby waterfall, dinner was waiting. We found the dining room lit by the warm glow of kerosene lamps and a fire in a big stone fire place. Pitchers of Margaritas waited at the bar. The dinner, like all the meals there, was delicious, accompanied by an endless supply of wine provided by our host, Jim Glendinng.

Early next morning, we piled luggage and ourselves into the van which would take us 6000 feet down to the bottom of the canyon, and to Batopilas.

For this leg of the journey, Glendinning had contracted with Ivan Fernandez, of The 3 Amigos and Copper Canyon Conexions, to accompany us. “He’s a Mexican Indiana Jones,” quiped Glendinning. Sure enough, Ivan looked the part with a Panama hat, kerchief knotted at his throat and walking shorts.

The drive began easily enough. Slowly making our way downward, we passed acres of logged pine forests, resulting in extreme soil erosion. By lunch time, we had passed the worst of it, and our driver pulled off in a clearing with a view of the canyon below. “Relax, enjoy yourselves,” urged Ivan, now dressed in a starched white chef’s apron. He and Pedro, the driver, set up tables and chairs, and began to prepare an elaborate meal, including steak and pork fajitas, huacamole and quesadillas made with local Mennonite cheese.

After lunch, the road began its plunge into the canyon which, together with the five other major canyons of the Copper Canyon region, is four times larger than the Grand Canyon. At this point, the pavement ended and the road narrowed into dizzying switchbacks, sometimes barely wide enough for a single vehicle.

The drive was both wonderful and terrible. The worse the road became, the more dramatic the scenery. My discomfort at wondering whether we would survive was matched by the thrill of the fierce magnificence of the canyon. Its jagged bluffs and dome-like shapes, one of which looked like a birthday cake, changed colors as the light faded from ochre, chocolate and rose to orange and purple.

What is usually a four or five hour trip (without stops) took us much longer, due to the two hour lunch and getting out a couple of times to walk down the road. “I want you to experience the canyon first hand,” insisted Ivan, “not just from inside a vehicle.” He was right. Outside the van, we were truly a part of the landscape, and besides, I felt much safer on foot.

On the road, Ivan gave us a brief history of Batopilas. Silver was discovered in 1632 by the Spaniards, but it took Alexander Shepherd, a former politician from Washington D.C. , to bring it to full production in 1882, forming the Batopilas Mining Company. At their peak, Shepherd’s mines were the wealthiest in the world, paying around US$1 million in dividends per year. Eventually, the silver depleted, and the mines were closed in 1913. Batopilas dwindled from a population of 8000 to 1200, once more lost to the rest of the world.

It was night when we arrived. After many twists and turns through narrow streets, Pedro pulled up in front of the Copper Canyon Riverside Lodge, painted white with blue and green trim, by far the most elegant hotel in town.

Once the home of a wealthy merchant, this elaborate three-story Victorian mansion has been transformed into a fantasy hotel. The salons are decorated with ornate Victorian furniture upholstered in plush velvet, and the walls hung with paintings in heavy gilt frames. One of the room’s lofty ceilings has murals depicting the town’s history. The artist included the transport of a piano carried across the mountains by teams of Tarahumara Indians, in the 1800s.

With only 15 rooms, we had the place to ourselves, and it seemed more like our own private home than a hotel. There are no locks on the rooms or a sign outside to identify it as a hotel. No one enters who is not a registered guest. Here we had lovely rooms with high ceilings and huge bathrooms featuring elaborately painted claw foot tubs.

On our first morning, I wandered down to the dining room for a cup of dark, rich coffee. Gregorian chants and classical music echoed through the high-ceilinged rooms. After a Continental breakfast, we were ushered to Carolina ’s restaurant for a “real” breakfast of huevos rancheros, huevos con papalotes de castilla (eggs scrambled with cactus fruit,) beans and fresh tortillas. Every morning and evening we dined at Carolina’s. We were on our own for lunch.

Throughout the town, where there seem to be more burros than cars, stately buildings erected during the heydays of Baltopilas Mining Company, line the narrow cobblestone streets, grand, but somewhat faded leftovers of a time when the town prospered and enjoyed the latest improvements.

Since then, the tempo has changed. Television has not yet come to Batopilas, and phones are a recent amenity. There were none in our hotel, as is the case with most other establishments. There are no taxis, but you can easily walk everywhere since the town is only three miles long, squeezed between the river and the mountains. You will not find a bank in Batopilas, either, so come prepared with U.S. dollars or pesos. All transactions are in cash.

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If you come to Batopilas to shop, you may be disappointed, but it can be a welcome relief from the more commercial spots with glitzy stores and vendors hawking their wares. There are, however, a few interesting places to spend your money. One is the studio of a German artist on the main street in the north end of town. You can buy one of his original paintings for several hundred dollars or a postcard FOR A FEW CENTS.

Taller Guarache makes custom thong sandals, like the ones worn by the Tarahumaras. The shop is located in the small plaza near Carolina ’s. A calico cat is often seen napping under the workbench outside in front.

A high-end silver shop in one corner of the Riverside Lodge sells jewelry and some gift items, such as hand woven Indian baskets and music DCs.

You can also buy a “Batopilas” T-shirt in one of the little shops around town selling souvenirs and basic clothing.

Most of the restaurants are in private homes, with two or three tables out front. For a few pesos (one US dollar equals $100.80 in Mexican pesos,) you can have a satisfying meal of Mexican dishes such as enchiladas, tacos and crisp chicken fajitas. For dessert, stop at the helado (ice cream) store just off the square.

Be sure to visit the Lost Cathedral of Satevo, built by Jesuits in the18TH century and known for its unique design and use of materials. It’s a nice walk to Satevo for those willing to make the four and a half mile trek to get there. The road winds along the river, passing gardens bursting with bougainvillea, hibiscus, poinsettias, mango trees and a popular morning glory tree, bare except for orchid-like blossoms.

The Cathedral was built with bricks imported from Belguim, rather than of adobe or rocks, as were most other cathedrals and missions of the same period. Its dimensions are identical to those of the great cathedrals of Europe, although an abbot was never in residence here. Why it was built this way, or why it was built at all, in the middle of nowhere, remains a mystery.

On the opposite end of town, you can walk or drive along the river, flanked by an old stone aqueduct, built by Shepherd in 1892. It generated power for his reduction plant and supplied water for the town. Batopilas still relies on it for its main water supply.

On the edge of town, opposite the aqueduct, Shepherds Hacienda San Miguel, built at end of the 19th century, stands in ruins, overgrown by vines and purple bougainvillea. In the same complex are the remains of an assay office, reduction plant, refectory, stables and workers’ quarters. It’s worth a visit.

On our last night in Batopilas, Glendinning and Ivan prepared a surprise for us. After dinner, at the hotel we were greeted by a band of Mariachis. As they played into the night, we drank tequila and sangria, danced and sang with the band.

Now a veteran, the trip back to Creel and the Sierra Lodge didn’t seem quite as perilous, and it was certainly much shorter. After one last night at the Lodge, we were on our way home, safely escorted by Jim Glendinning. Across the border and back in Persidio where we picked up our cars, Batopilas seemed almost unreal, a memory of another world that ended long ago.

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If You Go
Avoid visiting from Easter to September when it is much too hot.

 

 

Email or phone Jim Glendinning for more information and space availability.
jimglen2@sbcglobal.net            432.837.7320