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I Survived Copper Canyon

Freda Isaksen

Thanksgiving was approaching and because our family has shrunk now that the children are away at universities I suggested that we go on a 3-to-4 day excursion that holiday weekend. Leonard and Joanne thought that we should take a longer trip over the Christmas vacation and maybe their friends Helyse and Fred, John and Cathy, Aaron and Debbie would join us—the more the merrier. “Who will plan this trip?” asks Helyse in San Francisco. “My mother” says Leonard. So where should we go? The first choice was through the Panama Canal, I immediately told them this would mean a minimum of 10 days on a cruise and a cruise did not appeal to any of us. The second choice suggested by Joanne was Copper Canyon in Mexico. So Mother goes ahead to investigate.

After I had spent time planning the whole thing fell apart because in previous years the friends have spent the school vacation skiing at Lake Tahoe and they decided to continue this year. By this time I had become interested in all of the brochures I had collected, so I called my friend Ludmilla and asked “Would you like to go to Copper Canyon for Christmas week?” Immediately she said “Yes, I will send you a check.” I answered “You had better acquaint yourself with what this trip is all about.” Santa Monica City College was advertising an excursion so we booked it to leave December 23rd and to meet our tour leader at 6am. at LAX.

First Day

Eleven other participants met at the airport, we flew to Los Mochis, a city of several hundred thousand people, near the coast in the state of Sinaloa which is agricultural and called the breadbasket of Mexico. Our hotel was comfortable, built in Greek architecture, first class for the area. We all met in the lounge and introduced ourselves over a complimentary cocktail. This group consisted of a family of two parents with two adult sons, a mother with one adult son, otherwise all single women. As usual I was the eldest by many years.

The most important subject to be discussed was the purity of the water. In most cases drinking tap water is a no-no. Do not brush your teeth with tap water, do not lick your lips if they are wet after a shower. All cooked foods are safe, eat only peeled fruits, salads are not recommended. Nobody had any problems throughout the week. We were warned that in Mexico nothing runs according to schedule so be prepared for last-minute changes.

Ludmilla and I took a walk to see the town, it was crowded with shoppers. It had been raining for two days, the streets were muddy and typical of Mexican streets with potholes and uneven sidewalks with no water runoff, so one must walk with great care. I had been bothered with backaches so we found a pharmacia where I bought Advil and Ben Gay at a very cheap price. They will sell prescription drugs without a prescription. Every night Ludmilla gave me back massages after a hot shower, that was a great help. We bought bottles of water to carry with us every day and then spent some time in the open plaza, sitting on a bench and watching the locals.

Our guide Doug recommended a fish restaurant so the group met there and we enjoyed an excellent dinner while we became better acquainted. After this day most meals were included and served family-style. Goodnight and prepare for the

Second Day

Leaving Los Mochis we had to board the train at 6am. which meant we had to get up in the middle of the night, eat breakfast at the hotel and leave at 5am. The train was quite modern, clean, warm and comfortable. A Mexican guide explained the terrain in English. As the sun rose the scenery started to be beautiful and as we approached the canyon it was spectacular. The hills were covered with brightly colored flowering trees, waterfalls were all over. We went through 37 tunnels cut through the mountains and 86 narrow bridges over the turbulent rivers. We crossed the Great Divide three different times as the train wound around the Sierra Madre to reach the top of the canyon. Inside the train as the track bends one can see the front engine and the back of the train at the same time.

Until two weeks ago the train would stop to allow the tourists to get off and take pictures, but banditos robbed them so now one has to stand on the open platform with a camera. At one point some plain-clothed Mexicans came through the train carrying assault weapons, we screamed “Banditos!” but they were security guards. We passed many inhabited villages, everywhere poverty and mud. The dogs look half-starved with lifeless eyes and dull coats. The people look well.

The train was scheduled to arrive at El Divisidero at 1:45pm. It was 4pm. when we arrived. For some reason or other the dining car had not been attached to the train, so we ate our granola bars and crackers, we had been advised to always carry some snacks along. Bottled drinks were sold, also sandwiches which did not look good. Many Mexicans boarded, it is public transportation.

As we disembarked Mexican and Indian women were waiting to sell their homemade wares. Some of our group started buying right away even to outstretched hands even before the train stopped. These peasants do not bargain, in fact they raise the price if you offer them less.

Our hotel was located about 5 minutes walk from the train station. As we approached it we were awed by the scenery. The hotel is perched right on the edge of the canyon, 8,000 feet up from the bottom. Wherever you are at that hotel, you see spectracular views, from the dining room, from the bedroom, all with large picture windows. One must be careful where to walk as nothing is straight or even.

Because we were late arriving it was way past lunch so they served vegetable soup and cheese tortillas, very good. Our itinerary listed a hike after lunch to the Indian caves, everyone started out together, by this time it was 5pm. Ludmilla and I were so occupied watching the ground and our steps that we lost sight of the group and went back, it turned out to be a good thing that we did as they told us it had been rough terrain, even the younger ones turned back as it started to be dusk and the high elevation made walking difficult. The very brave continued to the caves where they saw the Indian men making crude violins and playing them.

This is the handicraft that the men do, while the women weave baskets, sew dolls and if they are lucky enough to own a small loom they weave various items such as belts and purses, all very colorful to sell to the tourists. They pick up seeds from the ground and string them to make necklaces. All through the following days the women in our group would buy and buy. We carried home dozens of baskets, all shapes and sizes, besides the other souvenirs. I bought mostly from the children, they are obviously being exploited as they stand with a few pitiful items for sale. We were told not to give them money without buying. They live miles from the town and walk barefoot or with thin sandals, carrying their wares in blankets, undoubtedly the same that cover them at night, also carrying a baby, through the mud, their thin clothing covered with a shawl, in the cold. We saw no Indian men, they send the women and children to earn a few pesos. They wear very colorful full skirts and blouses, all hand sewn.

These Indians are not to be confused with native Mexicans, they are a tribe of 50,000 whose number has been the same for hundreds of years. They are called Tarahumara Indians and live in Copper Canyon in a very primitive manner and speak their own language. The children do not attend school, the tribe is mostly ignored by the Mexican government. Our guide Doug, an American, has made it his life work to help these people, so he is very knowledgeable. He goes to them at every opportunity and has interceded on their behalf to the authorities, to little avail. He brings them supplies such as cloth for clothing and simple farm equipment. They grow their own food, mainly corn, squash and beans. They grind the corn themselves as was done hundreds of years ago. They all look well fed. They are Catholics, the women give birth to 10 or 12 children, 3 or 4 will survive. There is a mission hospital for the sick in Creel.

It was Christmas Eve, we were served a turkey dinner at the hotel and spent the evening becoming acquainted with guests from other countries. Musical entertainment was scheduled but because of the holiday they did not come.

Third Day

After a good buffet breakfast we drove out to see the surrounding area. We were able to look down into the canyon to see where the Indians live in crude cabins accessible only by foot. In winter they live far down the mountain near the river, in summer they move up higher where it is cooler. Then we took a hike to the caves. After I saw one it was enough. No words can describe the conditions in which these poor human beings live. The caves are absolutely dark, only the entrance gives light. The people sleep on natural shelves of the cave, the floor is the rock. They have a few pieces of crude farming tools, a couple of old saucepans, wood chairs and a table and of course a statue of the Virgin Mary. A pot was on the table, a paper peso attached so one leaves a few pesos. It was raining, the water was seeping through the cave roof and dripping into pans. The family was huddled around a wood fire which had a pipe leading outside to let out the smoke. I felt that it must be humiliating to be stared at, so I stayed only a couple of minutes, others went on to see more caves and take pictures, others stayed at a souvenir store where a fire was burning.

I asked for the restroom, they pointed to a shack outside. I wondered what I would find there in terms of sanitation, fortunately it was locked so I walked over to a nearby tourist lodge, walking into a guest’s unoccupied room and relieved myself.

Because our guide is recognised and has a good rapport with the Indians he can usually get them to demonstrate their native dances and the men to run foot races, they are exceptional runners, can run up to 72 hours non-stop drinking only ground corn in water. It was raining and Christmas Day so they were unwilling to perform, they attend church. They have a church but no school. Doug has been influential in arranging for a teacher at the church but the teacher has never shown up although he is still being paid by the government. The general opinion seems to be: leave them alone so they can preserve their culture.

The hotel had provided a picnic lunch, we prefered to eat it by the fire in the shop before we proceeded by bus to the train which would take us to Creel. We were to board the train at 1pm. It’s Mexico, so it can come on time or hours late, we had to be on time, we waited about one hour either standing around or shopping for more souvenirs from the squatting Indians at the train station. When we entered this train it was quite different from the previous day, very dirty, torn upholstery, cracked windows. You take what you get. Creel is a lumber town high in the Sierra Madre.

During the bus ride to the hotel Doug explained about the two nights we would spend in Creel. The hotel was started recently by a Mexican woman named Marguerita. Until a few years ago not many tourists came to Copper Canyon, as more people became interested in this remote area and passed through Creel she started serving meals in her kitchen at a table for 8 people. After a while she needed to expand so she put a table in a room off the kitchen. Then she bought the house next door, also about two rooms and accommodated tourists overnight, then she purchased a lot and built a so-called hotel. This is where we would stay. It was really quite nice, very Mexican as we entered into a tiled patio that was always kept locked or had a guard outside, there was attractive garden furniture painted with the marguerita flowers. The rooms were comfortable with tiled floors, good showers, attractive furnishings and hand paintings on the walls. Bottled water was ready for us.

Doug told us that on his last visit Marguerita had boasted that she had installed purified water. One of his group happened to be an engineer familiar with water systems. He examined the machinery and OKed it but said it would work better if it were plugged in. This visit Marguerita told him that it is now plugged in and we can drink the tap water, it is pure and safe. Unanimously we voted not to and used the bottled water which Doug ordered to be put in the rooms.

It was about 3 blocks to walk to Marguerita’s Cantina for dinner through rain and mud, transportation was available but it was fun to walk. We wanted the full experience. The front door entered into the kitchen, we were seated in the other room, our group of twelve filled the whole room at one table. There was a large Christmas tree in the kitchen, so the whole place was crowded. As we ate more people came in to wait and stood around until we were finished. We were served very simple Mexican food, not spicy, the salsas are always served on the table separately. I liked the breakfasts best with hot corn gruel, excellent Mexican bread rolls and scrambled eggs. A beautiful, tall, blonde girl served us, when she spoke I detected a British accent. I questioned her presence there, she answered “I’m Scottish.” What are you doing waiting table in Creel? She came to Mexico to learn Spanish, stopped at Marguerita’s to eat and accepted the offer to work in the kitchen for board and keep. Here was this lovely girl washing dishes at the kitchen sink and drying them with a dish towel in front of everyone, while the Mexicans can not find work. Or so I was told.

Marguerita must be the smartest woman in town and the richest. At the second meal she came in wearing a T-shirt printed with Marguerita’s Cantina, the guests were very interested and bought them immediately.

This evening a Mexican woman was scheduled to speak to us about the Tarahumara Indians, she did not turn up. Doug spoke to her on the phone and explained to us that Mexican husbands are very domineering, this lady speaks well when alone but clams up when her husband is present. This evening he wished to accompany her so she refused to come. We watched videos on the subject instead.

Fourth Day

The next day the sun was shining. We drove out, stopped for a hike then proceeded to a Mennonite community. Mennonites are not as ultra-orthodox as the Amish, but there is a strong similarity as I have observed it. They are very self-sufficient. We were expected at a single family community of about 150 members. The matriarch had been a widow with 9 children, she married a man with 11 children, the family has grown through the years with grandchildren, etc. Because of the holiday they were all visiting at one house, they apologised that they could not serve us lunch—which was scheduled—but gave us cakes instead. The community along with others nearby only speaks German. Only Ludmilla could communicate with them. A few of the adults speak Spanish so that they can do business with the Mexicans. They are farmers and very wealthy through their own diligence. The clan left Germany about 100 years ago, went to Canada and the U.S. but had to leave because of their beliefs which were not acceptable in those countries. They do not believe in conscription of the males and do not believe in paying taxes to the government, they are accountable only to themselves. Mexico guaranteed them residency for 50 years, now that time is up they are required to pay taxes, they are moving to Bolivia. The children are very regimented, they dress mostly alike because they buy cloth by the bolt, sew it themselves, quite stylish actually. They conduct their own schools. The married women wear black kerchiefs, engaged girls wear pink and single girls white. The girls wear gaily colored kerchiefs. The children seemed to crave attention and lined up eagerly to be photographed. The adults were reluctant, I had the impression that they throught we were the freaks and could learn something from them. They manufacture cheese, because of the holiday the factory was closed. The cheese is sold throughout Mexico.

When we left the community we were hungry as we had missed out on a German lunch, the bus driver asked us if we would like Mexican food or chicken, we chose the chicken. At the restaurant there was a choice of two items, caldo, which is soup, or broiled chicken. Almost unanimously we chose the soup to warm us up. The waitress came with four bowls of soup which was all she had, luckily I was seated near the kitchen so I got one of the bowls. It was real golden chicken soup with chunks of chicken, rice and vegetables. Could have been Golda Meir’s recipe. They also served enough chicken to serve an army.

Fifth Day

During the night we could hear the storm and awoke to snow-covered ground. We walked over to breakfast, walking in snow is better than walking in mud, for me it was reminiscent of 50 years ago in Norway and I loved it. I did have adequate clothing. This day we drove to Chihuahua.

The bus was a shock, old dirty and no heat. The windshield was cracked, held together with paper stickers. It was snowing as we crossed the mountains, as the snow settled on the windshield wipers they did not work so someone constantly wiped away the snow. The driver’s hands were blue with cold so one of the men gave him his gloves, this was the first snow to fall in 4 years. I do not know how he could see out of that windshield, but he was a capable driver, I’m here to tell the story. He was cheerful and teased us that he only had his license for 2 weeks and had never driven over these mountains before.

Suddenly we came to an abrupt stop. Actually one of the men called out, “Stop.” Ludmilla called out, “Thank God.” They screamed, “You thank God for this?” Ahead some cars were piled up, a propane gas tanker had collided with another car. We were stalled about one hour, plain clothes guards with assault weapons made sure no one drove through. In order to keep up our morale we told jokes. I was so muffled up with a head scarf I couldn’t hear anything other than the laughter. The men threatened to make a fire of our dozens of baskets to keep us warm. The men went outside to see what was going on and returned with snow-covered heads. We said, “Your hair has turned white overnight.” Our itinerary called for sightseeing stops along the way but we were glad to get going to a lower level and to reach our destination where it was still raining.

Our room in the hotel in Chihuahua was on the eighth floor of a deluxe hotel, very modern, with purified tap water. At every other hotel during the trip there were signs in the bathroom not to throw toilet paper in the bowl, throw it in an open bucket. Here in this beautiful hotel no signs but the toilet stopped up. From the window in our room we could see lights over the city, a very nice view. The others of the group went out to dinner and a night club, Ludmilla and I were glad to stay in this comfortable room, take a hot bath and relax after this exciting day.

Sixth Day

This was a beautiful day, sunny and much warmer. We were taken on a half-day tour of Chihuahua, the state capital, a city of 1,000,000 people. We visited the murals of the city’s tumultuous history at City Hall and also Pancho Villa’s home. He had 25 wives, only one was legal. For a bandito and hero of the Mexican Revolution he lived very well. We should have had this bus the day before, it had heating. We laughed when the driver asked if we wanted air conditioning put on.

Everyone went on their own to see the town and have lunch. We had been given a list of recommended restaurants. We chose El Galeon, a fish place. 1 We inquired at the hotel how to get there, the girl at the desk looked at these two old ladies and asked if she should call a taxi. We wanted to walk. “No, no you cannot walk,” she said. How far is it, one hour, a half hour, 15 minutes? “25 minutes,” she said. Then we will walk very easily. We started off evidently in the wrong direction because it became apparent that we were approaching an industrial section where the sidewalk ended. I wanted to give up but Ludmilla said that her father had taught her never to give up so she was going to find El Galeon. She stepped into a store to ask directions, they did not understand us but called in a very well-dressed lady who spoke English. She said, “No, no you cannot walk, it’s too far, there is a bus.” No we are going to walk, we assumed we were part way there already. “Then I shall drive you, my car is right here,” she said. It was a good-looking car so we got in. It took about 5 minutes to get there.

We saw from the outside that it was an attractive place. As we entered the foyer of the restaurant there was a fountain and mirrors where one can see oneself forever. It looked so expensive, we were low on pesos, we hoped they would take dollars or we would do dishes. Inside the restaurant was gorgeous, we stepped into a replica of a sailing ship complete with masts and rigs and shining wood floors and decks. We were the only patrons.

We were led to a well-set table, everything gleaming with crystal and silver but the menu was in Spanish and the maitre d’ did not speak English. I asked for filet fish no chili. He went away and returned with the chef and the waiter carrying a dead fish on a dish. “You like?” he said, yes we like, filet it please. “Soup?” he said, no we don’t want soup. “House,” he said. We thought it might be on the house so we took soup. They treated us like royalty. The cooked fish was served whole, head tail and all, one for each of us, more than a foot long, with a piece of lemon in its mouth. It was delicious, we ate every scrap and the bill was for about 10 dollars, so we had enough pesos. It took 20 minutes to walk back to the hotel slowly.

We went out again to see the town, Chihuahua is not a tourist town. It’s modern with an open shopping mall where we looked at the merchandise, then sat in the plaza, it’s interesting to watch people. There were no souvenirs to buy here, some of the women and men did buy serapes and shawls and wore them at the evening banquet.

This evening we were entertained by folkloric dancers at dinner.

Seventh Day

Homeward bound we traveled by the equivalent of Greyhound bus which was very comfortable, to Juarez, a city of 200,000 people not far from the Texas border. Here we stopped at a very attractive indoor mall where arts and crafts were for sale and we ate a very good Mexican buffet lunch.

We crossed the border in taxis. I sat in front and saw the red light that indicates check engine, I mentioned it to the driver he said, “Don’t worry.” I was surprised at how easy it was to cross the border with a Mexican driver and car, not all of us had a U.S. passport. An American looked at one passport, asked what we were bringing in, when we said baskets the official waved us on. What a beautiful United States on the other side of the border towards El Paso and our flight home.

On this last day one of the young men presented me with a souvenir and said, “I want you to have this because you are the eldest member of our group to survive Copper Canyon.”


  1. A Fish Story is a very similar version of this tale.

Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at

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