Creel - Gateway to Copper Canyon

Trip Start Apr 11, 2010
Trip End May 20, 2010

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Flag of Mexico  , Northern Mexico,
Monday, May 17, 2010

Creel is the main town and tourist center of the Copper Canyon region, but still only a town of about 5,000 people. Most travelers get to Copper Canyon via CHEPE, the train that runs between Chihuahua to the east and Los Mochis near the Pacific coast, and get off at Creel for stays in the area and to book trips into the canyons.  As such, Creel is a rather touristy spot, but a thoroughly different type of tourist than what predominates on Baja California.  Around Copper Canyon the backpacker type is king, much more the types of travelers you might see in Peru, Ecuador, or Guatemala than the sun-seeking Americans who flock to Mexican beach resorts.  Thus, Creel is filled cheap restaurants, guesthouses, and basic hotels, bars and Internet cafes.  The town itself has few attractions per se, just a small paleontology museum and an artisan center.  The travelers were strangely absent, though, despite it being a good time of year to visit the canyon, and the multitude of town businesses catering to them were virtually empty.

Creel is also the center of the very traditional Tarahumara Indian culture, with a population of about 70,000 in the canyons and the high sierra region of northwestern Mexico.  The Tarahumara are best known for their ceremonial use of peyote and for foot races over huge distances that involve kicking and following small balls.  Tarahumara men dress much like other Mexicans, but the women are still almost all clad in distinctive long skirts, shawls, and kerchiefs over their heads, the large majority of them carrying at least one young child or baby in front of them in a strap slung over the shoulder.  Many women were sitting with vast displays of handicrafts to sell to the now non-existent tourists, their supply ever growing as they wove more baskets for customers who weren't around.  Their asking price for two quite attractive baskets I bought was so low I would have been ashamed of myself if I had engaged in the price haggling usual for such transactions.

In the late afternoon I decided to visit the San Ignacio Mission, a Tarahumara settlement around an old mission church a few miles out of town.  Their lands contain several attractions including the Piedra de Elefante (Elephant Rock), Valle de Los Hongos and Valle de Las Ranas (valleys of mushrooms and frogs), and other weirdly shaped rock formations.

Yolande, the American tour operator in El Fuerte, advised me to camp a short distance farther from town at Lago Arareko.  She suggested bringing tortillas and other food since some Tarahumara would probably visit the campground and were used to getting some food in exchange for pictures.  I had bought some tortillas and baloney in Creel to be prepared, but when I got there the lake and the large shady campground were totally deserted.  Not only was no one currently there, it didn't look like anyone had camped there for quite some time.  I was honestly quite weirded out by such isolation in an area where there has been some violence and decided to head back to town for a cheap room.

As I was paying my 200 pesos ($16) for a fairly nice room with TV and hot shower, I couldn't help but notice the newspaper headline of another "Bano de Muerto", the recent discovery of a roomful of severed heads and limbs in Juarez.  The headline was the last straw;  I decided at that point to cut my trip short and head for the border in the morning instead of spending several more days in the Copper Canyon area to go to Batopilas and Basaseachi Falls.  After almost six weeks on the road I was feeling a bit travel weary; I wasn't enthused about punishing my poor car with another 5,000 descent into the canyon on rough dirt roads; and it suddenly seemed not the best idea to be around should the narcos decide to change their strategy and make an example out of a tourist.

I have to admit to feeling somewhat ashamed of myself for being like one of those stereotypical tourists who goes to the Grand Canyon, snaps a few pictures from the rim, and moves on.  Copper Canyon is a magnificent place, and I vow to return sometime for at least a week to do its sights justice, sometime after "La Violencia" has calmed down.
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