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The Road to Batopilas

Above the vertiginous depths of the Barranca del Cobre a narrow dirt road clings to the canyon walls. The road meanders its way through a valley vista of rock, eucalyptus and cacti, winding down towards the lush undergrowth of the canyon floor. This is one of the most beautiful areas in northern Mexico and one of its best-kept secrets.

The Barranca del Cobre, also known as The Copper Canyon, is a series of canyons and gorges reputedly four times deeper than America’s Grand Canyon. The Chihuahua-Pacifico Railway snakes its way through the length of the Barranca del Cobre, from Chihuahua in the east to Los Mochis in the west. Six hundred and sixty-five kilometres of railroad roves its way across grassy plain before entering the tangle of undergrowth, eucalyptus and succulent cacti that characterise the canyon.

Strategically situated along the Chihuahua-Pacifico Railway, Creel is a popular town for travellers seeking to explore the Barranca del Cobre. Its hostel, Casa Margaritas, is a perennial favourite. Casa Margaritas organises excursions around the canyon to sights such as the ‘Valley of the Mushrooms’ and ‘Elephant Rock’, as well as excursions to the small town of Batopilas, secreted away in the depths of the

Barranca del Cobre. Thus I found myself a member of a veritable United Nations cramped into a white minibus laden with backpackers and luggage, lurching along the dirt road leading to Batopilas.

The road through the Barranca del Cobre is a series of switchbacks, in many places barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Until I looked down at the crumbling edge of the road, disconcertingly close to the wheels of the bus, I had not realised the precarious nature of Mexico’s canyon roads. The road to Batopilas is worn in the middle, suggesting that drivers cautiously avoid traversing too near the edge.

A fellow passenger, Bob-from-New-York, has appointed himself the role of commentator for the entire journey. Having claimed the jump seat for himself, Bob has a clear view of the road and bellows a running commentary in his thick New York accent. “Man, oh man, you guys don’t want to be sitting up here!” There is a hairpin turn ahead and it is the first of many.

Our cheerful bus driver laughs maniacally as he negotiates the bus around an angle so acute that a bicycle would have difficulty turning. The bus is silent as everyone holds their breath and looks at the valley below. The view to one side is sheer rock face and stubby trees. Innumerable cacti cling to the canyon slopes at impossible angles, their cylindrical bodies worshipping the sun. To the other side are the green and ochre coloured depths of the canyon. With noses pressed against the glass, all eyes peer down, down, down.

Bob loudly addresses the bus and asks somewhat naively, “Why are there so many white crosses beside the road?”

These crosses stand alongside most Mexican roads with saddening regularity and attest to the dangers of motoring. The British Backseat Joker sitting behind me mockingly pipes up that these crosses are memorials to burros that have fallen into the canyon. With a nod of total belief, Bob accepts this creative answer as fact, failing to notice the rusting metal skeletons crumpled at the bottom of the canyon or the giggles from the backseat.

The bus finally stops its lurching and bone-jarring motion for a brief respite and photography stop. Jorst, the Dutch manager of ‘Casa Margaritas’, had assured everyone that this trip would only take a few hours. This estimate proves only a few hours short of reality but then this is Mexico, where the national philosophy is “manana, manana,” the Mexican equivalent of “yeah, yeah, whatever!” When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Mexico, wind your perceptions back to Mexican time.

Looking into the distance, the valley walls seem to undulate and move away into the distance. An effect is created by the evaporation of oil from the leaves of the eucalyptus trees, which also shroud the walls of the Barranca del Cobre in a faint bluish-green haze. The formidable ‘Mountain of Seven Tiers’ graces the other side of the canyon. It is an immense formation of grey rock that has been carved out over time to resemble an enormous wedding cake, decorated on every layer with small plants and stumpy, gnarled trees. Cacti, eucalyptus and other hardy plants thrive in this dry climate, worshipping the ferocious blaze of the sun.

A large flower-like cactus explodes from tiny crevasse between yellow-coloured rock at the side of the road. Its fronds are a brilliant shade of green. An aloe-like gel oozes when its thick leaves are split. It is a perfect balm for the spiky black barbs that graze curious fingertips. As I rub my fingertips with nature’s balm I gaze down at the dirt road meandering through the depths of the valley. It is barely discernible amidst the hazy, green undergrowth. We have a long way to go and it seems to be continually down.

Back on the bus and the road winds on. We pass another small white cross, nestled in the ditch between the road and the canyon wall. To the incredulity of all, Bob exclaims, “Man, there are a lot of burros in this country!” Although Mexican roads are reputedly dangerous, some such as Bob might argue they are of trivial danger compared to the burros that hurl themselves from the canyon walls.

The bus jars to a sudden halt. Dust and rocks fly from beneath the wheels as the bus stops, inches away from an oncoming vehicle. Another bus is attempting to round the blind corner of the road. Our driver calmly smiles, and attempts to negotiate a way past the other vehicle. This is more disconcerting than the near crash itself. To one side is immovable rock face, to the other the edge of road and the likelihood of a rapid descent to the bottom of the canyon. Luckily for us, the latter isn’t in the day’s events plan.

Our surroundings change as the road draws closer to the canyon floor. The air is cooler here. The smooth light bark and tall, thin trunks of eucalyptus trees contrast the stumped greenery and rocky outcrops of the upper reaches of the canyon. Fallen eucalyptus leaves scatter themselves over the long dried tufts of yellowing grass and a rapidly bubbling stream carves its way through the canyon.

I look upwards. The Barranca del Cobre is bathed in the last fiery streaks of the sun as the afternoon sun heads west. The shadows lengthen and the canyon walls darken to hues of purple and dark green, then finally to dusk and darkness. The lights of the bus jerkily illuminate the road. As we near Batopilas, the lights of the small town twinkle through the dusky light beckoning us ‘home’ for the evening. The road to Batopilas has jarred and jostled us to the end of our journey. I just hope that on the return path our driver will be wary of the falling burros.

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