Copper Canyon Adventure Tour
May 6 - 13, 2005
I purchased a KLR 650 Kawasaki dual-purpose motorcycle last fall and I spent the winter on the Internet looking for places to ride and explore. Although there are many areas nearby, I kept running across trip descriptions by people who had taken their KLR 650s to Mexico to explore the rugged Copper Canyon area. Although these canyons are larger in area and deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, I had heard little of them before this. The more trip accounts I read, the more I wanted to see this area for myself.
The KLR 650 motorcycle has developed a cult following of riders. This motorcycle has been manufactured with virtually no changes since 1986. It is a simple, durable, rugged machine that has been proven over and over by people who have taken it virtually everywhere in the world. There are many, many groups who publish lots of information on the Internet. An outfit called Rosen's Rides got an awful lot of good press for their adventure tours of Copper Canyon. I checked out their web site and I was hooked. A couple of phone calls later and we were booked for the May Basic Copper Canyon Tour. An important consideration was that Linda would be able to share this adventure - she would ride in the support vehicle and enjoy the experience without having to endure "too much" adventure.
After a little research, we decided to rent a pickup truck and haul the KLR 650 to Douglas, Arizona where the tour began. On May 3rd, we loaded up the pickup, a Ford F150, and headed south.
The trip was everything I had hoped for, and more. Our group was made up of a great group of people, an attorney, a doctor, a sheriff's captain and his wife - a nurse practitioner, a technical illustrator, and yours truly - a retired engineer and his retired administrator wife. It took only a few hours and we all seemed comfortable, swapping stories about our lives and past adventures. It was a very interesting group.
The balance between riding and relaxing was perfect. Each day we started out early, enjoyed plenty of riding, and ended early enough for some sight seeing and relaxation. The accommodations were excellent and the food was delicious. Justin is an excellent guide - he had stops scheduled at various points of interest that were close enough that our group didn't get too spread out but far enough apart to allow for spirited riding. Justin's comments and explanations were interesting and educational.
I've included a map of Mexico - our ride was entirely within the state of Chihuahua and if you click on the state of Chihuahua a more detailed map will be shown with our route drawn on it. Click here to see the map.
The first day and a half was basically a 400 mile highway ride to get to the Copper Canyon area near Creel. The last 65 miles or so into Creel gave us our first taste of dirt road travel in Mexico. It was the easiest dirt road we would encounter - it was wide enough for two cars to pass and the surface was generally good. Speeds of 50 mph were easily maintained on much of the route. We suspected that this was just to "get our feet wet" - and we were right!
Just before we left the pavement, we visited the 809 foot waterfall at Basaseachi National Park, the 28th highest waterfall in the world. While there, we had my favorite meal of the trip - a mixture of meat and potatoes wrapped in tortillas. We were ready to begin our adventure.
Creel is a great place from which to explore the Copper Canyon area. The famous Copper Canyon Railway passes through here. We arrived here in the late afternoon of our second day. We checked into a great Best Western motel, sent a few emails, and spent some time exploring the town.
Creel is fairly small with a population of less than 5000 people so our explorations didn't last too long. We ate a great meal, and went to bed to rest up for the next day, which was going to give us our first taste of some real adventure.
The elevation of Creel is over 7800 which makes for cool evenings. In the morning we found frost on the bikes and when we took off the temperature was 38 degrees. Our destination for the third day was Batopilas a famous mining town that sits at the bottom of the canyon at an elevation of about 1500 feet.
The first leg today is about 50 miles of pavement - an excellent highway providing plenty of twisty, mountainous riding. This was as enjoyable a ride as I have ever had.
Once we left the pavement, our adventure began in earnest. If you do the math, from Creel to Batopilas the elevation drops over 6000 feet. Most of this drop occurs in a 9 mile series of switchbacks which descends down a nearly vertical face to the Rio Batopilas. The road is narrow, rough in spots, very dusty, and since it is the only way into Batopilas, carries some traffic. In most places, meeting an oncoming vehicle produces some adrenaline. Thankfully, traffic was very light. Once we got to the bottom of the canyon, we had 20 more miles to the town of Batopilas - silver was mined in this area from the 1700's until about 1920. It is the site of Mexico's first hydroelectric power plant and the second city after Mexico City to have electricity.
The Copper Canyon area is home to a group of Native American people called the Tarahumara. There are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 of them living in these canyons much as they have for centuries without benefit of any of our modern technology. They are a proud, quiet people and are known to be expert farmers and excellent long distance runners. Throughout this area we ran across many families, dressed in their traditional clothing, on the roads walking to visit friends. We respected their wish not to be photographed.
Batopilas is another small village - about 1000 people. It basically consists of a single street alongside the Rio Batopilas. When we arrived about 4:00 PM, we parked our vehicles in a locked enclosure and checked into a really nice hotel. From the street, you really couldn't even tell it was a hotel. We passed through a wrought-iron gate into a small courtyard which was magnificent. In its center was a water fountain - a canopy formed by a couple of mango trees and a mandarin orangetree provided shade. Arrayed around the courtyard were our very comfortable rooms. We stashed our gear in our rooms and sat around the fountain talking and enjoying cool drinks. Some of us decided the customary siesta would be in order. When dinnertime came, we marched down the street to a small, family run restaurant and had another fantastic meal. Ride & Sleep & Eat ..... I love it!
The next morning, day four of our adventure, we rode about 6 miles downstream of Batopilas to see the Lost Cathedral at Satevo. All the records of this cathedral have been lost and the builders are unknown - it is thought to have been built in the late 1600s. It has recently been restored and looks like it is currently being used.
On the way back to Batopilas, we took a longer, much more interesting route. This was not an easy ride - the road was very rough and contained many steep switchbacks, several of which were covered with egg-size, loose rocks. This resulted in much sliding around and some difficulty remaining upright. We all made it without major incidents, although one of our guys spun out in a particularly deep bunch of loose rocks on a particularly steep switchback and required a little assistance.
On the way out of town, we stopped at the ruins of the hacienda of Alexander Shepard who, in the late 1800s, ran a large silver mine and was responsible for much of the early development of Batopilas. He was an ex-governor of Washington D.C. and was thrown out of office in 1880 after some questionable dealings.
After we left the Shepard hacienda we headed back up to Creel by the same road we came down. The ride was just as spectacular but a little quicker and easier - going uphill gravity works with you instead of against you. We pulled into Creel early in the afternoon. Before we could relax, a couple minor repairs had to be made, a set screw on a radiator fan had to be replaced, a few bolts were lost from a windshield, and a malfunctioning clutch safety switch was disabled.
We again stayed at the Best Western. For dinner, instead of eating at the motel restaurant, we walked down the street and ate in a local restaurant. Again, the food was excellent and I think we all ate a little more than we intended. After dinner, we walked around town a little and retired for the evening, looking forward to another great day tomorrow.
Again, it was cool when we got moving in the morning of our fifth day - the bikes were coated with a layer of frost. We started the day with another great breakfast in the motel restaurant and headed for Justin's Copper Canyon Moto Lodge near Cerocahui. After about 30 miles of spectacular mountain highway riding we stopped at the famous overlook at Divisadero. Again, I have no words to describe these vistas. Shortly after we left Divisadero, we again left the pavement and traveled by mountain logging roads to Justin's place.
My stomach had been acting up since before I awakened this morning and by now I was feeling very poorly. On the advice of our doctor, I had been chugging Pepto-Bismol every couple of hours since breakfast and so far I was still able to function. Unfortunately, I remember little of the remainder of today's ride - it seemed like it took forever, the road was rough and dusty, and it was very warm. Eventually we arrived at our destination and I promptly crashed in our room. I made a brief appearance for dinner, but wasn't able to eat much and promptly crashed for the duration.
Since we were scheduled to stay here for two nights, I pretty much decided that I would sit out the next day's ride so I could be ready for our ride back out of the canyons and back to the border. I awakened several times during the night feeling nauseous, but I continued to chug Pepto-Bismol every couple of hours and never did get really sick - I just felt on the verge of being really sick.
Day 6: When I woke up this morning, I felt pretty good. I decided that if I could keep some breakfast down, I would participate in the day's ride to Urique. I was able to eat some scrambled eggs and some rice - it didn't fight back, so I suited up and got ready to go.
We rode into the village of Cerocahui a village of about 1000 residents and the home town of Justin's wife's family. We briefly stopped at the town square where Justin's wedding reception was held - he said the whole town turned out. We also visited t the local Mission built in 1676. It is in wonderful condition and is very beautiful.
We then continued on to the village of Urique which is at the bottom of the deepest canyon in the Sierra Tarahumara and North America - it is 6200 feet deep. We stopped at a Urique Canyon overlook which had some tables and other facilities - Justin said he and his wife were married at this overlook. This is indeed, a proper place to begin a life together.
Several villages are visible along the bottom of the canyon. In the photo below, Urique is just off my right elbow and another village is upstream and another downstream.
The road to the bottom of this canyon was much like the descent into Batopilas. Most of the descent, over 5,000 feet, occurred in one 9-mile stretch. There were slightly fewer switchbacks, however, the road was somewhat steeper, and much narrower.
I decided that I'd take my time getting down to the bottom and stop to take some photos - I got so engrossed in the ride to Batopilas that I forgot to take photos except at the overlook and the bridge at the bottom.
As we proceeded downward, the temperature proceeded upward - I'm guessing that it was 90 or better at the bottom. Urique has a tropical climate and temperatures reach 120 in May and June. Avocado, grapefruit, papaya, orange, mango, and lime are a few of the edible crops produced in this Canyon.
We had another delicious lunch in a family-style restaurant in Urique - we ate in a kind of covered patio environment. A large number of green plants on two sides provided a cool environment. It wasn't air conditioning, but it felt mighty good to me.
After lunch we headed back up the canyon. I'm always surprised how different an area looks going the other direction - indescribable. My KLR mysteriously wouldn't rev up past 4,000 rpm as I started to climb. I was a little worried it would quit before we got back to Justin's place. Strangely, near the top, it started to run great again and it's still running great today.
We relaxed a little around Justin's Moto lodge and enjoyed each other's company. Some of the folks hiked around, exploring the area but I was very tired - I guess I hadn't fully recovered from my digestive problem - and I retired early for a nap. For dinner, Justin's wife and mother-in-law presented a bunch of old fashioned fried chicken and it was delicious. I ate waaaay to much but it sure went down good.
Tomorrow was going to be a long ride and I was still beat, so I hit the rack fairly early again - I could hear the folks talking outside and they all seemed to be enjoying the evening.
Day 7: Today we start heading back to the border. The first 30 mile dirt ride was really interesting - it pretty much follows the train route - except the train goes over bridges to maintain a fairly flat grade and the dirt road goes up and down the canyons and across the stream without benefit of bridges in many cases. The water crossings proved to be no problem - the stream was low and the water was only about 18" deep at the two "best" crossings. We took plenty of photos of each other playing in the water - sorry Bill, I can't find one of you. In addition to the photos, I shot a little video of David's crossing. Check it out.
We hit the pavement and aired up our tires for the 185 miles to Gomez Farias. We stopped in Creel to gas up and we stopped at the Best Western until the support truck showed up. Justin loaded up his bike in the support vehicle and took over as sag driver.
When we got going again, I was surprised at how different Mexico looked on the way back. I noticed agriculture and economic activity all along the way - something I completely missed on the way down. I must have been distracted by my anticipation of the adventure on the way down.
One of the guys had been riding a rental KLR 650 and it decided to quit running about halfway to Gomez Farias. When the sag truck caught up, he traded for Justin's bike and rode it into Gomez Farias - our only mechanical failure on the trip.
Over another great dinner we discussed our strategy for the next day and the final day of our adventure.
Day 8 - The Last Day: We got up early this morning and hit the road at 7:00 AM. It was chilly, it was 36 degrees as we pulled out. I felt great!
The plan was to ride to Casa Grande, top off the gas tanks for the final 140 mile ride, then eat breakfast. The roads seemed very tame after our previous 6 days in the mountains and we made good time. By the time we hit the restaurant we had a bunch of hungry people and we arrived none to soon for me. I ate until I couldn't stuff any more down. After breakfast, we made our run for the border without incident. I got stopped at a couple of military checkpoints, but my "dumb American" routine (I didn't have to act at all) got me through.
We all met up at the motel, loaded up our bikes, said our good-byes and headed for home.
Everything seemed surreal - one minute we're on our adventure ride, and the next we're back in our air conditioned pickup cruising down the highway as if we'd never been gone.
As we entered the outskirts of a small town, a memory came to me of our entrance into a Mexican village - a bunch of kids running out into the street - Justin pulling a big wheelie down the street followed by kids laughing and screaming. Sometimes it was a little dangerous by US standards as kids ran up to the moving motorcycles attempting to land a high five - but there were no incidents and it was fun. A little further down the road and another memory came to me: This time we're all standing on the Rio Batopilas overlook contemplating the 5,000 foot drop in the next 9 miles - I have a feeling of anticipation and the adrenaline is starting to pump. The sight and feeling is breathtaking. That evening, as Linda and I are relaxing in a motel, another memory surfaces - I'm taking a siesta in my cool room after a long day's ride, listening to my wife and co-riders outside relaxing in the courtyard. The fountain is making soothing water noises, birds are singing and everyone is laughing and sharing their life's adventures.
It occurs to me that I've made many, many memories these past 8 days and over the years I'll take them out and savor them many, many times.
It had been a hell of a trip. Great People! Great Accommodations! Great Food! Great Roads! and most of all GREAT ADVENTURE! Several of the folks are talking about coming back for one of the Advanced Tour.
Rosen's Rides - Thank You! Especially Justin, Raul, and their families.
Also great thanks to Bill, Charlie, David, and Ed & Chia for providing great companionship, interesting conversation, good advice, and lots of ideas for places to ride.