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We Drive Deeper into Copper Canyon

May 11, 2021

The night at Hotel Paraiso del Oso was peaceful and quiet. It was our best night in a hotel on this trip. The morning was cool and clear as the sun was hidden behind the nearby mountain peaks. We all took our time getting ready before leaving at 10 am.

We drove in a southwesterly direction from Cerocahui, through Bahuichivo and on to Termoris. It was another mountain road that wound up and down through the mountains and small valleys. We had another encounter with the cartel as we entered Termoris. They must have had notice that we were driving their way, as there was a car waiting and they flashed their lights for us to stop. Eva and I were near the front so we stopped and they just asked where we were going and if all seven vehicles were a group. We told them we were tourists on our way to Chinipas to camp for the night. They smiled and told us to have a good day and enjoy our trip. They drove to the back of our convoy, turned around and sped past us back to town. Others in the group saw the AR-15s in the back of the car noticed that they were radioing to town that we were just passing through (or they were radioing to ambush us as we left town, but we evaded them by stopping to eat lunch near the horse racetrack at the edge of town).

The other interesting thing we saw were two different military convoys protecting refrigerated trucks carrying Covid vaccines. We assume they are delivering the vaccines to the small towns and need to ensure the narco cartels to not hijack this important payload. When we arrived in Chinipas, the convoy was at the clinic dropping off the vaccine.

The rest of the afternoon we continued on our way to Chinipas. We actually got a few minutes of rain as we drove the dirt roads. It was a slight help in keeping the dust down, and it made our van really dirty. We arrived in Chinipas around 4 pm. As we wandered our way through town, a police officer offered to escort us through town to the edge of the river where we set up camp on a gravel bar. We all sat in the shade of our vehicles, but it was still hot. After the sun went down the temperature became more bearable, and once it got dark it was quite pleasant outside and we enjoyed the evening. As we were turning in for the night the police came by and assured us they would patrol the area to keep us safe.

May 12, 2021

We left camp at 8:45 am, which is good as the temperature in the valley was rising. We took another winding road that followed switchbacks up the mountain side. Once at the top of the mountainside, we drove our way across the higher valleys until we descended down into the next valley. This drive was about 65 miles, but took 5 hours to complete.

We did stop at a nice green oasis in the mountains where a lady had a small tiende. We always try to stop at some of these small stores, just to buy something to support the locals since business has been so bad. However, at this tiende, we got lucky. The lady said she had made tamales this morning and they were still warm. Several of us bought tamales for lunch and they were very good. I told her they were the best tamales I have ever had.

When we arrived in Los Tanques, we were finally off dirt and back on pavement. We aired up our tires and continued another 25 km to Alamos. We stayed at the Hotel DoLisa, which was a very nice hotel. The rooms were large and clean, the shower was hot, the beds firm and best of all it has air conditioning. It was the nicest place we have stayed at so far. Later in the evening we walked down to the town square to eat dinner. They have a very nice square with a large church. The people there were very nice and suggested a few places to eat. We ended up eating at the Charisma Restaurant. It was good, but a little expensive for Mexico.

A Long Drive to Cerocahui

May 10, 2021

Last night, after mid-night, I were waken up by a group of kids riding in the back of a truck. They stopped on the road and started signing. After a while they continued up the road and I could hear the singing echoing through the valley. Eva only woke up when a second truck with a loud speaker followed the first. The second truck was campaigning for a local politician. The next morning we learned that they were singing to celebrate Mother’s Day, which in Mexico is May 10th, regardless of what day of the week it was.

Speaking of politicians, it is campaign season in Mexico. The election is not until June 6th, but every town we have passed through is covered with posters and signs for all the different politicians. Even the villages of only 10-15 houses have signs. Many vehicles have large stickers, signs and flags on them for the political party of their choice. In the evenings, there will be small parades of cruising around the town square. It seems that without the TV coverage that the US has, the campaigning in Mexico is more grass-roots and local.

We left the campground at 9 am and drove 7 km up the river to Guadalupe Coronado to visit the mission. This mission was more colorful that others we had visited.

We parked next to the school and the head teacher came out and opened the mission door for us. We were able to give him more school supplies and treats for him to distribute to the kids. This school is larger, with 180 kids total. The teacher was very grateful for the supplies.

We drove back through Urique and started another climb up the mountain. This was not the longest climb, but it felt the steepest. We went from 1800 ft elevation to over 6500 ft in only a few miles. The road was narrow and had many switchbacks. Near mountaintop there was a nice rest area with overlooks and tables.

We ate lunch before continuing over the top of the mountain, driving to Cerocahui, a nice colonial town that was still high enough in the mountains that it was not too hot.

We stopped at the local mission, near the town square. This mission was different than any other’s that we had seen. It was in active use and had beautiful stained glass windows. The outside was also different, and looked similar to the churches in Russian that we had seen. 

After leaving town we stayed at Hotel Paraiso del Oso, just outside of town in the forest. This is also known as the Yogi Bear Hotel, named after the rock formation above the property.

This is a pretty nice hotel, but has been hit hard by the pandemic. The owner said in March 2021, he did not have a single guest for the entire month. Like everyone else, he was glad to see us. He is a American that moved to Mexico 31 years ago to build the hotel and run a travel service. The rooms were nice and they served a good dinner for the group.

Up and Down Another Mountain

May 8, 2021

We pulled out of Batopilas at 9 am to explore a new route to Urique. The route took us from about 800 ft elevation to around 7000 ft as the road took us steep and winding switchback, across a high mountain plateau, and down another steep mountains side to the Urique river valley. The distance we traveled was only 41 miles, but it took us 7-1/2 hours, with about 6 hours of driving time.

After crossing the Batopilas river, the road used switchbacks to climb the very steep mountain side. The road was not real rough, but we used low gear and 4×4 to get around many of the steep curves. Many of the curves were so tight, that I had to do a 3 or 4 point turn to get our long van around the corners. We only had one truck pass us the entire day. It was a old pickup truck with 11-12 locals in it. They were going fast and probably made the trip from Batopilas to Urique in 2-3 hours.

Once we climbed the steep mountainside, it was a long trip across the mountain plateau. The road was still steep and rough, but we were up in the wooded pines and the temperature was much nicer. There were many homes and ranchos spread across the mountain. These are usually small adobe brick dwellings with corrugated steel roofs. Some of them had solar panels. It looked like most of them had a water tank with a plastic pipe running from a creek or spring. It seems that 1/2” poly pipe has been a real blessing to these people. It is cheap and easy to run and it crisscrosses the roads and mountain side supplying water to their homes and animals. While descending to the Urique river, the mountain side is so steep that they suspend the water pipes above the road, using a few branches to hold it up. At one point we had to use the broom to hold the pipe up so the van could pass beneath. After we cleared the pipe, I noticed the family sitting outside the house, about 50 feet away, watching closely. They didn’t say a thing, but I was glad I saw the pipe before I damaged anything.

We stopped for lunch at a small school, tucked in the pine trees on top of the mountain. It was Saturday, so the school was closed, but it gave us a spot in the shade to eat. We were only parked for a few minutes, when three kids, ages 8-10, showed up. They lived just over the edge of the hill and their mama was the teacher of the school. They have 10 grades in the school, and currently only 10 students. We gave them some fruit snacks, and as a group were able to give them pencils, erasers, paper and Play-Doh. Eva made them promise to give the school supplies to their mama/teacher. The kids are very polite and many times they will ask for an extra snack or two for their younger siblings that are home. It was very obvious that this school needed all the help they can get.

As we were eating lunch, four more smaller children showed up. They were ages 4-8, and were a lot shyer than the other kids. As I walked towards the van, a 5 year old Tarahumara girl saw me and hid behind the van. I got a few fruit snacks, but I couldn’t find her. She was hiding behind a rock, but came out when I held up the snack. Eva sat by all four of the children and talked to them for a while. They all live on the mountain top, and seemed they were all cousins. After a while, a young lady came up the hill. She had walked to the teacher’s house to get homework for her daughter that had missed class. Most of the kids appeared to be Hispanic, but the two youngest looked Tarahumara. The young lady said they were her adopted brother and sister.

After lunch we continued across the mountain plateau until we came to the edge of the mountain, and the switchbacks that took us down to the Urique river valley. It was as steep as the climb up and I used 4×4 low to creep down the mountain side. As we descended, it was amazing to see the rugged places that the local people lived. We have heard that many of them do not own the land, but the government lets them live there for generations.

Once we arrived at the bottom, we crossed the river and continued 4 more miles up the river to Urique. Urique is the heart of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. The Urique canyon is the deepest canyon in north America and the town of Urique is at it’s deepest point. We found a nice riverside campground just past town. The owners were very glad to see us and only charged $150/night to camp. She will also cook us any meal we want, if we just give her time to get the food. After setting up camp, it was still hot, so many of us jumped into the river to cool down. The water was clear and not too cold. We sat in the river as the sun went down and enjoyed the evening.

May 9, 2021

Today was a rest day as we continued to camp along the Urique river. Eva and I walked 1/2 mile into town and explored the main street. It seemed that every building was someone’s house with a small store or restaurant on the bottom floor. Not everything was open, but some of them were.

It was a very hot day so we tried to stay in the shade, or we sat in the river to cool off. For dinner we had Teresa, the campground owner, make us dinner. They have an open-air eating area by the river. For dinner she made discado, which is meat, vegetables and sauce, cooked in a disc over an open fire. She also made tortillas on the wood burning stove. It was a nice place for dinner. Through out the day the temperature in the van was over 100 degrees, but it cooled down to 85 degrees by the time we went to bed. At night we opened all the windows and it cooled to 72 degrees by morning.

A Trip to Batopilas

May 7, 2021

Today we drove to Batopilas, a small town at the bottom of Copper Canyon. It was 140 km, or about 88 miles, but it took almost 5 hours to make the drive. We drove through many small Tarahumara villages. These villages had a mixture of old and new. We saw farmers using a horse or mule to plow their fields. There were also women filling buckets of water and carrying it on their head up the hill to their home. However, there were some dwellings with nice vehicles parked out front, and many homes had satellite dishes on the roofs.

We were able to see cave dwellings, high on the cliffs, that are still used during the summer months by the Tarahumara people. We stopped at a small tiende (store), situated high on a cliff overlooking the river valley. We stopped for a view of the valley, but a young girl, maybe 12-13 years old, scrambled up and opened the store. It appeared that she lived at the store by herself. She had a small garden and an outhouse perched on the edge of the cliff that overlooked the switchbacks below. We bought a couple of baskets and snacks from her and Eva gave her a couple of fruit snacks.

I had seen pictures of the road that descend from the top of the mountain to the river just outside of Batopilas, and was looking forward to the drive. The road was paved, but it has over 100 switchbacks to get you down the steep mountain. It was a beautiful drive that took us from over 6000’ to 3000’ in just a few miles. The views of the surrounding mountains were beautiful, but you had to keep your eyes on the road as you twisted your way down the steep cliff.

The drive into Batopilas was more challenging than the switchbacks. The roads are small and narrow, and driving a large van kept me looking in the mirrors and stretching my neck to make sure we didn’t hit anything. While coming down the switch backs, a man stopped us and told us about his restaurant in town. He was glad to see tourist and it sounded like a good place to eat. The biggest problem was finding a place to park. We circled through the small streets. Everyone else found a place to park, but with our big van, we finally ended up parking under a bridge, in the dry wash that ran through town. It was close to the restaurant, so we just had to climb our of the wash and walk down the road. Restaurant Carolina was just part of Carolina’s home, but the food was very good. 

After eating we continued down the dirt road next to the river to Satevo. This was a small town of 500, but was the home to the “Lost Mission”, a catholic church built in the 1600’s. As we parked a man came up with the key and for a small fee, allowed us to enter the church for pictures. It is still an active church, even with the cows that wandered through the grounds.

While in Satevo, we met a young lady that Frenchie has know for over 20 years. He met her when she was about 6 years old. She has epilepsy, and he has been able to help her with her medication and even gave her father a ride to get more medication a few years ago. We all donated a little money and she was very grateful. She rode with us in the van to see a potential camping spot and Eva was able to talk to her for a while.

We decided to camp along the river in Batopilas. There was a nice flat sandy spot at the edge of town where the kids were swimming in the river. We all set up and enjoyed the evening. It had become very hot when we descended into the canyon, about 95 degrees, but as the sun went down, it cooled to 85 degrees.

This was the hottest night we have ever spent in the van. We opened all the windows and used the fan to blow on us throughout the night. By morning it had cooled to about 70 degrees. It was also the noisiest night we have had. All night long there were noisy cars, music, frogs, roosters, dogs, people yelling and other noises we could not identify. But once it cooled down, I was able to get some sleep.

Riding El Chepe

May 5, 2021

The adventure today was something we had been looking forward to since we heard of Copper Canyon. El Chepe is one of the most famous train rides in the world. The Chihuahua to Pacific railroad traverses some of the most rugged and scenic country in North America. The tracks run from Chihuahua to the Sea of Cortez near Los Moochis, but the most exciting and beautiful part is from Creel to El Fuerte. This section descends from 8000’ elevation at Creel to near sea level at El Fuerte. The railway clings to the sides of sheer cliffs and descends in gigantic loops and tunnels as it plunges from one canyon wall to the next. The total railway had 37 principle bridges and 87 tunnels between Chihuahua and the sea, with most in the 170 miles section that we rode. This is over 11 miles of tunnel and 2.25 miles of bridge. The railway took 90 years to build and was finished in 1961.

Our adventure would span over two days as we rode El Chepe from Creel to El Fuerte and back. We left Creel at 11 am for the 9 hour ride. We rode the regional train that had many stops at both large towns and small villages. The train would even stop for a single person standing alongside the tracks. We even had to stop for cows on the tracks.

The train’s interior was not in great shape, but not too bad. At least the air conditioning worked well as the temperature rose as we descended the mountains. The train had several vendors selling food and at least 3-4 armed guards (sidearms and AR-15) to protect us from the banditos (drug cartels). There was also a guy that would go from car to car singing a song about El Chepe.

During much of the ride many of us stood on the platforms between the cars. This was the most exciting spot to stand and hang your head out the window to look at the train and the scenery. You had to be careful and watch for limbs and branches that hung close to the train. The rock cliffs and tunnel walls were also only a few feet away as we sped by. A few of the tunnels were over a mile long and we were in total darkness for a few minutes. 

We had a 20 minutes stop at Divisadero where there was a mad rush from the train to the vendor area to get lunch. There were several vendors selling gorditas (small pita sandwiches made from different colored corn tortillas). They cooked the food on 55 gallon barrels with a fire underneath. We hurried to get the food and ate fast, as we didn’t want to miss the train. We worried too much, as there was plenty of time before the whistle blew and the train left the station.

The section of tracks before Temoris was the most fun as the train steeply descended the canyon walls passing through many tunnels and winding through switchbacks to get to the canyon floor where you crossed the river on a sweeping curved bridge.

The final section was a little flatter as we finished the ride into El Fuerte, arriving around 8 pm. Frenchie, Eva and I rode in a taxi, driven by a wanna-be race car driver. I felt lucky that we made it to the hotel alive as he sped the 6 kilometers to town. We stayed at the El Fuerte Hotel, a very nice hotel that appeared to be an old hacienda that had been remodeled into a hotel. The hotel was filled with antiques and had several courtyards with many balconies. We ate dinner at another nice restaurant and since it was such a nice warm evening, we took a walk around the town square before returning to the hotel. 

May 6, 2021

We thought the hotel was great, until we tried to take a shower in the morning. The water temperature was 1-2 steps cooler than lukewarm. I was surprised that Eva went ahead and showered, but it was much shorter that her normal shower. After getting dressed, Eva and I took another walk around the square before taking the same taxi back to the train station. This drive was even quicker, as there was less traffic at 7:30 am.

While waiting for the train we witnessed a cattle drive of about 40-50 head past the train station. We were also being eaten alive by the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Fortunately the train was only a few minutes late and we quickly boarded for the ride back to Creel.

The return ride was a little calmer as we mostly stayed in the cabin and rested. It was still a 9 hour ride, but it was nice to see the scenery again.

After returning to Creel we picked up our laundry and visited the Tarahumara museum before getting some ice cream at the town square. We later returned to camp to clean things up and relax for the night.

Exploring the Canyons, Cartels and Creel

May 3, 2021

It was another quiet and warm night and both of us had a good night sleep. We left Rancho Lorenzo at 9:00 am with the plan to take the scenic route to Creel. We could of taken the main highway and it would be a 4 hour drive, but we decided to explore a new route that would take us over the mountain and across the canyon to Creel. This route would take 2 days, but we would see the small towns and villages in the canyon.

The drive was another winding drive up and down the mountain peaks, climbing as high as 8800’ in elevation. We passed through many small villages and the scenery was beautiful. Just before noon we arrived at Uruachi, about 35 miles from camp. As we pulled into town, the local police stopped us to discuss why we were in town. We think that someone in a previous town had called ahead to let them know we were coming. 

The police officer was very nice and welcomed us to town, but recommended that we not continue on our trip to Creel. He would not stop us, but suggested for our safety we go back to the main highway for our trip to Creel. He said the area we were headed to contained two competing cartels. There was a risk that we could be mistaken for cartel members, given the rigs that we were driving. He also suggested that we be in town and avoid driving at night.

We continued into town and found the only open restaurant for lunch. At the restaurant Tino talked to the ladies and their recommendation mirrored the police officer’s. During lunch we decided to follow the local’s advice and go back to the main highway for our trip to Creel.

As we left town there were two armed cartel members ensuring that we left town. We waved as we drove by and they waved back. We don’t think that they want to harm us, but there is a risk of mistaken identity, especially at night.

We drove back to the main highway and continued towards Creel. It was another beautiful drive through the forests and mountains and we stopped several times for the beautiful views. We arrived in Creel around 4:30 pm and camped at the old KOA campground. It was empty and we were the only ones camped for the night.

May 4, 2021

Today was mostly an off day as we explored Creel and sat on the shady hotel porch, where some of the group was staying. We did take a short trip to the Tarahumara village of Cusarare. We visited the mission and bought a few baskets from the locals.

Eva was like the Pied Piper as she gave some fruit snacks to a few children, then more showed up and followed her back to the van for more snacks.

We also made a stop at an artisian shop near Lake Arareko and bought a few items. The craftsmanship of the baskets look very nice and it’s hard not to buy something from them since tourism has been down for the last year and they really need the money.

On the way back to Creel we took a side trip to the Valley of the Monks. This is a Tarahumara village that is built among various rock formations. It appears the community is trying to make some money by charging $40 pesos/person ($2.13 USD) to drive through the area. There were some beautiful rock formations, but it was sobering to see how poor the people were and how they lived.

It must have been wash day as we saw several groups at the river washing clothes. The river was mostly dry, so they had to dig a hole in a moist area of the riverbed and wait for the water to fill the hole. This water was then used with a rock to clean the clothes. The clothes were then hung on the barbwire fence to dry.

More Caves and Finally a Shower

April 30, 2021

Our morning adventure was to visit Cueva Grande (The Grand Cave). We were camped about 1/2 mile from the trailhead and it was a short hike down into the canyon where the cave was set into a cliff wall. This cave had several different rooms and extended deep into the cliff. The cave was in a deep shady canyon that had a nice view over the river valley.

From Cueva Grande we drove back down to the river and crossed the creaky old suspension bridge. We took some time for pictures and a video of us crossing, high above the river.

We had a steep climb out of the canyon to another cliff area where there were several more caves. We hiked to the overlooks for Mirador (Lookout) and Nido del Aguila (Eagles Nest). These dwellings were in caves, high on the cliff face with no access.

Our final hike was to Cueva de la Serpiente (Snake Cave). The trail included a semi difficult climb down a crack in the cliff. Eva was hesitant to try it, but in the end she climbed down and back up without a problem. This cave dwelling was my favorite to explore. It was in very good shape and extended through the cliff face to a narrow canyon. This gave the dwelling a back balcony with another fantastic view. The cave is named after the serpentine carving in the floor that winds through the many rooms. It was difficult to see in pictures, but was an interesting feature to the cave. This was my favorite dwelling to explore. It was nice to be in these area, by ourselves, without other tourists.

The hike back wasn’t too bad and after a quick lunch we were back on the dirt trail climbing over mountains and driving through valleys heading towards Madera. As we got closer to town the road was really dusty and was crawling with log trucks traveling to the sawmill.

We found a hotel in town and we were all able to get rooms for $400 pesos (about $22 USD). I was the first to take a shower and ended up with a cold drizzling shower. I later found out that they just turned on the boiler when they saw us pull into the courtyard. Eva waited an hour and had a much warmer drizzling shower. 

We had dinner at a local restaurant as a group. After dinner, Eva and I decide that the beds and linens in the room left a little to be desired, so we raised the top on the van and slept in our own bed. This was a good choice and we had a great night sleep. It was not too cold, and pretty quiet, given that we were in town.

May 1, 2021

We left Madera around 9 am for a day of driving. The highway to Cascada de Bassaseachic was paved, but it climbed up the Sierra Madre mountains and across the plateaus. The road was very winding and we were continually climbing or descending. The portion of the road through the mountains was 81 kilometers, but only ~20 km as a crow flies. The drive from Madera took about 5 hours, but we did stop for lunch on the banks of a small river.

Cascada de Bassaechic is Mexico’s second highest waterfall at 890 ft. The falls define the north end of Barrancas Del Cobre (Copper Canyon). During the high water season, the falls are majestic and there are clouds of mists that fill the valley as the water falls. However, we were here during the dry season, and it had been a very dry winter in this part of Mexico. The falls were just a single strand that seemed to break up and evaporate in the wind. When the wind was calm, the falls reached about halfway down the cliff.

Waterfall during the wet season.

Waterfall that we saw.

Zoom up on waterfall.

Even though the waterfall was small, the views of the canyons were awesome. Eva and I hiked down to a lower viewpoint that put us near the level of the falls and gave us a better look.

After visiting the falls, we drove back down the canyon about a mile to the campground at Rancho San Lorenzo. This is a beautiful ranch in the woods and rocks owned by Fernado. Frenchie has been camping here for years and knows Fernando quite well. Fernando stopped by and told us stories of owning this ranch and about the area. He was very happy to have us there and mentioned that tourism is picking up slowly, after being stopped by the pandemic. Rancho Lorenzo is a little expensive at $20 USD/night, they do have a nice camping area with bathrooms and showers. 

We plan to stay two nights at this campground and have a day off for Sunday. 

May 2, 2021

We all slept in late and had a leisure morning eating breakfast and sitting around camp. Several of us took a short hike from the campground to the Arroyo del Durazno (Peach River). Later in the day we all took showers. They have a continuous hot water system so there was enough hot water for everyone, except me. About halfway through my shower, the heater ran out of propane and I ended my shower with a cold rinse.

“When will you ever be on this trail again?”

April 28, 2021

After we ate breakfast we spent some time talking to Lupe and Dora in their rustic cabin. The morning was stormy and alternated between rain/hail/snow and wind. Around 9:30 am Lupe offered to take us to see the 4 arches on the mountains just north of El Willy. He rode in the van with Eva and I and guided us through the ranchos to a gate. This gate took us to a rancho that was owned by a guy from Chicago, but managed by a local rancher. From the gate it was 2-3 miles of rough narrow road with a couple of difficult spots, but we were able to make it through without too much difficulty. We were able to park at the old ranch headquarters.

Lupe said it was a short walk to see the arches and he was correct. We walked a quarter mile to the pastures where we could see the arches across the river and up high on the mountain ridgeline. We took a few pictures and Lupe crossed the fence and started walking across the fields to the river. He convinced us all that we should hike to the arches. He had never been this way, but climbed to the arch by taking horses through the river from El Willy.

About halfway across the field the wind kicked up and the rain came down. No one was prepared because we were expecting a short walk to view the arches. We ran back to a tree to huddle under while storm alternated between rain and hail.

It only lasted 10 minutes, and we were all standing there debating to whether to forget the hike and get back to the cars before it rained again. But Lupe continued across the field towards the arch. He turned and said “When will you ever be on this trail again?” We all agreed that we would never be back so we continued on the hike. 

The next obstacle was crossing the river. It was only ankle deep, but 20-25’ across. Most of us took off our shoes and waded across. The rest tried to get across on a log and rocks, but in the end, everyone got wet. Once we crossed the river it was a climb up the mountain. We were looking for a path to see the arches and also it look like a few caves in the cliff. It was quite a climb up the mountain that was covered with slick shale and loose dirt. It took us 1-1/2 hours to work our way up the hillside and around a cliff until we were below the arches. It was close enough for us and we took pictures and enjoyed the view of the four arches and the valley below. It was a quicker hike back down and across the river. The entire trip took about 2 hours 45 minutes. We were all glad we listened to Lupe.

Once back to El Willy, we left town and drove south a few miles to the “Valley of the Caves”. It cost $150 pesos ($8 usd) to enter, but only another $50 pesos ($2.14) to camp. It was a tight and winding road down to the valley, but once we entered the river valley, there was a broad grassy area next to the river to camp. We set up camp and ate a late lunch.

This valley contains several caves that were formed in the compressed ash layers left by volcanic action. The oldest caves have shown occupation from back to 5500 BC. Other caves were dated back to 950-1060 AD. From the valley you could see several caves a couple of hundred feet up the cliff.

Later in the day we walked to the Cueva de la Golondrina (Swallow Cave). This cave had several ruins of the rooms and walls that were built in the cave. This was a large cave that could have housed several family groups.

After exploring Swallow Cave, Jeff, Wendy and I crossed the river and climbed up the cliffs to the other 5 caves that were high above the river valley. These were the older dwellings that were difficult to get to, but had beautiful views of the valley. One interesting cave had a keyhole entrance that made it unique.

April 29, 2021

First thing in the morning we drove to the main cave of the park. Cueva de la Olla is unique due to a large olla (pot) shaped grainary that dominates the entrance of the cave. The cave also includes many rooms and walls that made up the ancient dwellings. The cave was high on the cliff, but the walk up the rocks was not too difficult.

We stayed in the park until 10 am, when the gates were opened and we could exit. We spent a full day of driving south from the El Willy area, south to Madera, mostly on dirt roads. The dirt road took us through thick forests as we crossed several mountain ranges. There was very little traffic between El Willy and El Largo. We stopped at a small town named Colonia Hernandez and visited a tienda, which are small stores that people usually run out of a room in their house. We like to spend some money in these small towns. Covid has taken a large toll on these small towns and people have been glad to see us come through. It took about 3-1/2 hours to reach El Largo where we had lunch at a local restaurant. 

In El Largo we were able to get phone reception, so Eva called the kids to make sure they were all okay. After eating lunch we continued south towards Madera. The road was paved all the way, so it was an easy 45 mile drive. Our plan was to spend the night at the hot springs, about 20 miles outside of Madera. Before leaving town we learned that the hot springs were closed, but we could camp on the river near the springs. They have overflow pipes from the pools that feed the river and it would be nice to soak under those pipes. There were also several caves in the area that we could explore.

The drive from Madera was a bumpy dirt road with many switchbacks going up one side of the mountain and down the other side. It took 2 hours to drive the 20 miles to the hot springs. We arrived and found the gate was locked that kept us from reaching the river and a good camping spot. We all waited while Frenchie explored further up the canyon towards Cueva Grande. After a half hour he radioed back that he had found a spot near the cave parking area, so we all drove a few more miles to a very nice spot in the woods. To get to the cave we had to cross an old suspension bridge. It’s carries the logging trucks so we assumed it was safe, but it made a lot of noise as we crossed it. It was a warm and quiet night.

The Pottery of Mata Ortiz

April 27, 2021

The night was not calm. The wind blew pretty much all night. There were also some big gusts of wind that blew through the night. The only thing good about the wind, is while the wind blew, the dogs and roosters were quiet. About 3:30 am, everyone else came out of their rooms to move their rigs from under the trees to the open parking lot. We didn’t move at that point because we were parked next to a building and not directly under the trees. But around 5:30 am, there were several huge gusts of wind, so I decide to get out of bed and back our van about 50 feet into the open parking lot. After that, I just got dressed and tried to nap in the van seat.

At this point, we have our entire expedition team together. Frenchie, our leader, lives in New Mexico and has been traveling to Mexico his entire life. He also lead last year’s Baja trip. Tino, from California and Jeff and Wendy, who live in their RV, where part of the Baja group. We also have Gus, who is from California, but now lives in Mexico. We also have Chris who lives in Arkansas and JC, who lives near Bisbee, AZ. This gives us seven vehicles in our group. This seems like the perfect size for the expedition.

We had a great breakfast at the hotel. They served fresh tortillas, huevos, frijoles, papas and fruitas. The first activity for the day was a pottery demonstration from the Rosa Loya family. They live just over the fence from the hotel and Frenchie has known them for years.

Mata Ortiz is known around the world as the a center for pottery in the style of the ancient Mogollon pots found at the ruins in Casas Grandes. In 1976 an anthropologist worked with a local artist to create the pottery industry in Mata Ortiz. Today, many families in Mata Ortiz create pottery that is sold world-wide. The quality is quite high and prices at the US galleries can be 3 times the cost of buying it in town from the families.

We had our demonstration from the Rosa Loya family. Most of the artist specialize in just one portion of the pottery process, from mining the clay and preparing the raw materials, to creating the pots (ollas) or painting the designs. Rosa’s family does the entire process. Her son-in-law showed how he makes the thin walled ollas while Rosa demonstrated the painting of the unique designs. The designs are so delicate, that she uses a home-made brush made with a Bic pen and three hairs from her granddaughter neckline. 

The designs are unique and are painted with “slip” made from different clay’s to get the appropriate color. After the ollas are formed and shaped, they are sanded and painted. Next the ollas are polished using a hard stone with soap used as a lubricant which seals in the color. The final step is to fire the ollas. If everything is not perfect, the pot may crack or even explode in the firing process. Upon firing the ollas and the painted design will change colors to give the ollas the final look.

They were very gracious in sharing their home and the process they use to make the pots. Eva wanted to buy the matrimony pot, but they did not have one completed. So, Rosa will paint the custom design, that Eva chose, and have the pot ready for us when we return through Mata Oritz in 3-4 weeks from now. The matrimony pots are unique with two spouts to signify marriage.

After our time with Rosa and her family we loaded up and drove back to Casas Grandes for gas and to visit the Paquime ruins. However, the ruins were closed, so we will visit them on the way back through the area. We were able to get gas and then started our drive south, into the mountains. We drove 40-50 miles to El Willy to camp for the night. El Willy is named after the Williams Ranch, that was started by a Mormon rancher in the late 1800s. There are only 32 families in the village, so it is quite small.

We stayed at a campground ran by Lupe and Dora, Americans from El Paso, that built the lodge and campground on the land were Dora was born. We also met Randall and Susan, who live in Tuscon, but have a home in Mata Ortiz. They are on their 205th trip to this part of Mexico. They are very informed on the history of this area and the Mexican Revolution. Randall has written a book that talks about the pottery, the settlement of the Mormon communities and the revolution. They spent some time telling us about this area of Mexico.

After setting up camp, Eva and I took a long walk through the town looking for the trail that would take us down to the river. We never found the path, but we did have a dog follow us back to camp.

It had been a very windy day, but up in the mountains at 6500’, the wind was not as strong and by sundown it had calmed down. We spent the evening around the campfire.

Into Mexico

April 26, 2021

Eva and I woke up early to get our last shower in the US. Since there is no daylight savings time in Arizona, the sun comes up early so the group was ready to head to the border at 7:30 am. We crossed the border from Douglas, AZ to Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.

The border crossing was interesting as Frenchie, our group leader, was able to drive right through, but the rest of us were pulled aside for secondary inspection. The custom agents spent the most time on our van as they had me open all my tool bags in the rear bumper box.

After the inspection we spent about an hour getting everyone through the visa and TIP (temporary import permit) for the vehicles. We were the only group in the office, but there is a lot of paperwork to bring a vehicle into Mexico. You essentially leave a $500 deposit that is returned when you take your vehicle out of the country. Last year when we traveled to Baja, the TIP was not required, so it was a little easier. 

Once we were done with the paperwork, we loaded up and drove through Agua Prieta to the #2 highway and headed south-east through the Mexico desert with our plan to reach Nuevo Casas Grandes by lunch to meet with our final traveling companion.

The #2 highway paralleled the border as we crossed northern Sonora until we hit the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. At that point we climbed the mountain pass and crossed the continental divide into the state of Chihuahua. Highway #2 is like many Mexican highways. There were smooth wide sections and there were other paved spots were the pavement was broken and as rough as cobblestones. The edge of the pavement also ended at the white line on the side, with no shoulder except a 3 foot drop off. There were also many sections of dirt and rock roads where the highway was still being built. This variety of road surfaces could all occur within 2-3 miles of each other.

After crossing the continental divide we descended into the Chihuahua desert. I believe the road improved in Chihuahua and the towns and farms appeared more prosperous. Due to Covid many restaurants were closed or for take-out only, but we found a small burger place near the Casas Grands town square and ate lunch in the park.

 We continued towards Mata Ortiz where we planned to spend the night, however, we took a small detour to Colonia Juarez to drive through this Mormon colony and see the temple that was built several years ago. It was interesting to see the US/Utah influence on the town layout and architecture. It looks more like a small town in Utah, than Chihuahua Mexico.

We arrived in Mata Ortiz around 4 pm and stopped at the Adobe Hotel. Everyone else got rooms in the hotel, but we slept in the van in the parking area. It was very windy when we arrived, and the wind continued through the rest of the evening. It was too windy and dusty to do much, so we sat at the hotel and talked. Mata Ortiz is famous for a style of handmade pottery and several vendors brought the pottery by for us to look at. It was pretty expensive, but very intricate and beautiful.

Later we had a simple but good dinner at the hotel and the winds calmed a bit, so we hope to have a calm night sleeping in the van.