Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Adventure Travel in Mexico's Copper Canyon

Just one of the fabulous views in the Copper Canyon

If the beaches of Mexico are a little too touristy for your liking, not to mention reminiscent of a bad MTV spring break special, you will want to head further north in your search for relaxation and adventure. The Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, offers endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, rafting, and more, in an area that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

The Barranca del Cobre is a series of interconnected canyons located in the state of Chihuahua, part of the Sierra Madre range. Claims in guidebooks vary from its being four to more than seven times larger than its US rival. So remote are parts of the region that the area was not properly mapped until 1986. Today, it remains blissfully serene, home to the Tarahumara, Mexico’s largest native population, who have lived here for thousands of years. Instantly recognizable by their colorful clothing and distinctive footwear, they continue to live in dwellings that are built into the sides of the canyon walls.

Tarahumara homes in the canyon walls

Your trip will undoubtedly begin in the small town of Creel, known to tourists as the gateway to the Copper Canyon region. In addition to a few small hotels and a town square that provides delightful opportunities for people watching, you will find a number of shops geared towards the adventure traveler. Here you can rent mountain bikes, buy maps, and find a guide. The cost of renting a fully equipped mountain bike for one day is about 180 pesos ($14), a small price to pay for what is considered some of the best and most challenging biking in the world. The 50 kilometer la Onza, (Copper Canyon Race) attracts hundreds of racers every July, as does the Cristo Rey race in September. 

Street in Creel

If rock climbing or rappelling are more to your liking, there are some excellent opportunities within a short drive of Creel. In fact, the Cueva de Leones offers some of the best hard climbing in the region, all within walking distance of town. But remember, a map is essential if you plan to explore the area without a guide. Trails are not signposted; they simply branch off in every direction – a spider web of pathways across thousands of square miles. To hike to the bottom and back will take several days so be sure to have sufficient food and a means of purifying water. A better option is to join one of the guided trips that are available - Amigo Trails Travel and Umarike Expeditions both have offices in Creel.

Trails vary from short and relatively easy day rides (or hikes) to extremely strenuous multi-day trips. If you choose one of the latter, whether on foot or on bike, be sure that you are fit enough to manage the changes in altitude. In addition to the risk of minor altitude sickness (the canyons range in depth from a little over 4000 feet to 6100 feet), trips to the base frequently involve tricky river crossings. The area’s remoteness means this is no time for false bravado. However, hiking is one of the best ways to experience the canyon’s magnificent vistas and to truly sense their greatness.

Whatever means you choose to make your way through the Canyon, you will be treated to a wonderful glimpse of life untouched. Home to more than 290 species of birds, it is a twitcher’s paradise. Waterfalls and incredible rock formations lay seemingly at every turn, and you will often see deer and black bears. This is one trip where you will definitely want to have your camera with you. 

Mulatto tree - one example of the fascinating flora within the canyon

The Copper Canyon is a largely unspoiled, natural wonder that offers adventure seekers a chance to enjoy the excitement and the beauty of one of North America’s lesser known treasures. From scenic vistas to rocky trails, the Copper Canyon is one trip you won’t forget.