Despite visiting Mexico on two previous occasions, I had never experienced the authentic flavours of this country. A day trip to Tijuana from San Diego reminds me of seeing a donkey being painted to look like a zebra on the side of the street and having 99 cent margaritas in a tacky fluro-covered bar. My other trip was a brief stop in Cancun, en route to Cuba. Here, I recall witnessing a boat load of Cuban refugees slowly sailing towards the shore and on hitting the sand running for their lives. A surreal and powerful image.
When the opportunity arose to venture into the real heart of Mexico with a group of travel writers and bloggers, I jumped at the opportunity. I was headed to the state of Chihuahua, the largest state in the Mexican republic. David Hensleigh – a delightful American, Chihuahua fanatic and emerging travel operator was to be our numero uno guide, along with his brilliant team of locals. Dave has been coming to the Copper Canyon/Chihuahua region for five solid years, spending 3-4 months here annually. These travels have inspired him to develop custom made culinary, indigenous language, running, adventure and cultural experiences. On hearing Dave talk of this area and its people, you are immediately touched by his passion and enthusiasm. For Dave it goes beyond tourism. It's a personal wish to help the people, their economy and livelihood, to grow and develop after a period of time that has been damaging on both a local and international scale. The reputation and recent security warnings due to heavy violence related to drug cartel warfare, territorial killings and associated power wars has meant locals have been living under a sense of fear at times, businesses have closed and tourists have stopped coming.
I flew direct from Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas where I was to meet the rest of the group. However, as my flight was delayed, I missed the border convoy and was rolling solo for the first leg of my Mexican adventure. I got a hold of Dave who broke down the steps needed to reunite with the group. 'Catch a taxi to the Cordovo bridge, roughly a fifteen dollar cab ride and you'll end up in a car parking lot. This is as far as you can go. Cross under the metal caging on the right hand side and go over the river. Here you'll be crossing the border. When you get to the other side you'll see a small immigration room and a bald man named Ture will meet you and sort your visa and connect you with the rest of the group.' As I hesitantly accepted these instructions, Dave threw in, 'I know this sounds like a movie, but it'll all be alright and we'll see you soon'. I was on my way and crossing the border. The sign read 'You are now leaving the United States'. Cars queued, as sellers paced between a captive market selling fried pork rind and piñatas.
I carried on past the huge 'No More Weapons' sign made completely from handguns and soon found myself warmly welcomed by Ture and travelling into the heart of Juarez, Mexico - a notorious city (population two million) associated with drug cartel related issues. Reunited with the group and an informative guide Julian, we spent the afternoon learning some fascinating core history of this area – revolutions and US relations - whilst touring the beautiful Victorian-era history museum. Then onto a colourful local market full of potions, lotions, religious statues, herbs and crafts from all over Mexico, finishing up at the local cathedral.
That night our group was treated to a huge welcoming feast at our Best Western hotel. Delicious barbecued marinated steak, baked potatoes, roasted spring onions, sizzling platters of cheese and chorizo, soup, beer and various Sotol blends from the area. Sotol is a distilled spirit similar to Mezcal and Tequila and is known as the state drink of Chihuahua. Later to downtown Bar Kentucky – a famous 1920's venue visited by the likes of Marilyn Munroe who celebrated her divorce from Arthur Miller here, Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, Ronald Reagan and many others. It is also the supposed birthplace of the much loved Margarita, of which we enjoyed several.
Dave met us the next morning. He had come straight from competing in the Juarez marathon and shared stories of Raramuri (indigenous native) friends and runners he'd encountered at this international event, in which Kenyans took out the top four places. The group gathered for our journey onto Chihuahua city with a couple of wee side trips. One of which was a terrific burrito truck stop restaurant for lunch. For just under two American dollars we were treated to crispy shredded beef with hot salsa wrapped in a fresh tortilla. Palate pleasing in the extreme! Then onto the Samalayuca sand dunes. White sandy cloud-like dunes billowing to the horizon. No wonder the area was chosen to film the opening scenes of Star Wars - a super dramatic landscape and in vast contrast to everything else around it.
In the late afternoon, we arrived in Chihuahua, a city founded in 1709. Our accommodation was a hacienda, now named San Felipe El Real Hotel Boutique, once belonging to Luis Terrazaz, an infamous Chihuahuan governer who ruled in the 1860's when Mexico was under French occupation. My room was divine – a colonial style set up, with a great mosquito netted bed and wonderful period furniture and trimmings.
A walk around the area brought us to a stunning baroque church, past a shop selling incredibly detailed leather cowboy boots and saddles and in another over-the-top Cinderella-like dresses tempting 15 yr old girls for their Quinceanera celebrations. Dinner that night was at the hacienda - yet another delicious feast. Home cooked gorditas stuffed with beef, mince, mushrooms and onion, plus a simple but delicious potato and onion soup.
Greeted by train conductors dressed in peaked stiff hats, gold buttoned jackets and bow-ties our next trip was a 6am 'Chepe' (Chihuahua Pacific Railroad) train headed for Creel with our new guide, Fredrico (Freddy).
We watched the sun rise slowly over the Sierra Madre - cowboy, cattle and Mennonite country - through big windows and from comfortable seats. The Mennonite communities (similar to the Amish) migrated from Canada and settled in the state of Chihuahua between 1923-27. Ranches, random lone cowboys by the train tracks, horses, cows, undulating hills, nut plantations; pecan, walnuts, almonds and apple orchards and small villages fringed the winding river that ran beside us for almost the entire journey. From sandy dry plains and salt bush, the scenery became greener with mountain ranges on either side whizzing by as we sipped coffee in the dining car. Between carriages there were viewing areas to feel the wind in your hair and capture some of the beautiful images passing by.
It's a half day of travelling to get to Creel (8000 feet above sea level) - a charming rustic Mexican chalet town.
The sight of changing gold autumn leaves, billowing chimneys, the aroma of wood burning, BBQ meat and food cooking greeted our senses. Our accommodation was in the Parador Lodge – an open plan hotel with beautiful wooden beamed ceilings, eye catching murals depicting indigenous scenes, a dining room with Mexican woven table cloths, seats made from stretched hide and wood, a great open fireplace and comfortable rooms.
I noticed a world of safety in Creel, seemingly far removed from modern day city living. Where children walked along the train tracks to school and dogs roamed off leash all over town. Mennonite, Raramuri, local and tourists mixed together in harmonious union.
Great hills, boulders and pine trees ringed the town. A statue of Christ Jesus stood on a high peak with arms outstretched. In the afternoon we met an indigenous woman who lives in a cave – kind of stuck between worlds, selling beautifully crafted mementos for tourists with a view overlooking fields, horses, a few small adobe houses in the distance and a stack of recently harvested blue corn.
We were told 55,000 indigenous people still live in caves; 3-5% of the entire population. In this natural area where many of the native people dwell there are several rock formations that have earned names like the Mushroom rocks, Frog rocks and Valley of the Monks or Penises, depending on who's saying. The latter definitely have phallic resemblance!
We spent the afternoon exploring, which included a visit to a small, stark village church built by the Jesuits, before a sunset walk at Lake Arareko. After a huge day of travel we headed home to do, what else?... but drink some margaritas and have a small fiesta! Arriba! Our guide Freddy, his homemade margaritas and traditional songs accompanied by guitar playing, made for an evening of sheer delight.
The next day we reboarded the Chepe train to travel into the heart of the Copper Canyon. We stopped along the way to collect passengers in Divisadero - a food stop with many sellers and a decent sized craft market. This was a chance to grab some lunch – blue corn gorditas stuffed with beans and cheese, but, most importantly, to take in the first sighting of the breathtaking canyon.
The Copper Canyon is four times the size of The Grand Canyon and formed by 7-10 million years of volcanic eruption in the time of the dinosaurs. Spectacular. On we travelled through truly breathtaking scenery to our last stop Temoris, where in the distance a great waterfall gushed from a mountain top. We were surrounded by soaring peaks and greenery.
Dave had organised for us to travel by van back up through the canyon to one of my favourite places, Cabanas San Isidero Lodge - wonderful adobe accommodation, with superb hospitality in the middle of nowhere.
Rising to the sun filtering light through the trees, an excitable dog greeting me, jumping, rolling and begging for attention, a horse whisking its tail back and forth in a small yard with a big mother pig latching onto the last moments of sleep as her brood of wee piglets vied for warmth and scrambled one over the other, was a vision indeed.
The lodgings sat right on a canyon drop, dramatic cliffs and endless pine forest that painted the vista green and brown. It was a peaceful world where nature and man married really very effectively.
We gathered for breakfast - another delicious feast of huevos rancheros – a fried egg smothered in salsa, refried beans, cheese, tortillas, and all the trimmings.
A few of the others had the opportunity to have some healing time with the resident medicine man. Each had a marijuana based ointment rubbed on areas of pain and had been realigned, pushed and stretched and sat glowing at the dining table.
After we ate, we had the chance to speak and mingle with a couple of Raramuri runners Miguel, 28 and Leonardo, 22. Both were dressed in traditional garb - a linen-like skirt, billowing blouse and famous huarache shoes made from rubber and simple leather lacing. There are four indigenous groups in Mexico of which the Raramari or Tarahumara people are renowned for their world class high altitude running skills and endurance ability. 3000 Ramaruri live in the state of Chihuahua. Dave is a keen runner and has been connecting with a number of local Raramuri with an interest to help them compete outside of their local area. He has previously self-funded and backed runners travelling to Colorado and is looking to support in whatever way he can those that desire to travel outside of Mexico with their skills.
As we travelled down into the valley to the closest town and train station, the land opened wide, the green and rolling hills were expansive with small houses and larger ranches dotted casually throughout the landscape. Our train was running late and as seemed the fashion; all is on Mexican time. There is no rush, no stress, it is what it is and that is a hugely refreshing factor from city living. The train finally arrived and we ventured back over rail road traversed the previous day, past a small waterfall, deeper caverns, pine trees, oak and cactus to the town of San Raphael - home to the newly built adventure park and world's third largest zip line. A breathtaking joy-laced ride over magnificent canyons. Seven zip lines in total with two bridges in between take you on a journey four kilometres long, with a gondola returning you to base station. It's a seemingly terrifying journey, but once zipping through the mountain air, with the sun on your face and spectacular views all around, it was increasingly liberating and empowering. It's a truly outstanding set-up and world class adventure not to be missed.
At the Hotel Mansion Tarahumara 'El Castillo', the group buzzed over the experience, with cold beers and cocktails in hand. As our adrenalin evaporated into the sunset, the dusk colours hovering over the canyon were simply stunning. Squash soup and chicken cordon bleu with vegetables for dinner was a meal fit for a king and served in an equally fitting environment - a grand dining hall with murals depicting Spanish knights on horses, all part of our turreted hotel, reminiscent of medieval times.
The sun sparkled afresh over the canyon, literally on my doorstep, the next morning. We were headed to Casas Grandes - an area populated heavily by Mormon and Chinese communities. Like all good road trips we must stop for lunch and Dave knew just the spot. An unassuming wooden house on the side of the road – a truck stop. Home cooked food served at long communal tables – hearty soups, enchiladas, hamburgers and steak with the obligatory side of salsa. Delicious. It wouldn't have been a proper lunch without some Sotol. Our group had managed to meet up again with our mate Freddy who was now on a trip through Dave's company Authentic Copper Canyon taking an American couple on a Tequila, Sotol and Agave drinking experience. He came armed with his own bottle and before long we were sipping and tasting various famous blends from the region.
That night we arrived at a wonderful set-up with a fascinating American couple Emmy and Spencer who have been based in Casas Grandes for many years. Spencer's love of yard sales meant there was plenty of vintage-feeling decoration, patchworks quilts on bed and generously sized rooms opening onto a large earth courtyard. We drank local wine and ate cheese from the Mennonites before heading to another fabulous bed and breakfast Hotel Y Galera De Arte run by the spirited Mayte. Mayte is a business woman with a gallery nurturing the talent of the local potters whose very high quality, fine work is in demand. She showed us through her home – which she had designed and help build, with raw wood and all sorts of homely artistic quirks. We then enjoyed margaritas and mouth watering tacos which tempted us back for second and third helpings.
The following day we stopped into a local church with walls covered in angelic murals and cloudscapes, then onto the UNESCO protected archaeological site of Paquime, settled in 1350CE. The afternoon was spent in nearby Mata Ortiz - a quiet, dusty village, renowned for its pottery. We popped in and out of artists houses where we were presented each time with an amazing variety of work. Beautiful, unique presents will be in my family's Christmas stockings this year!
Our final evening was spent at Hacienda de San Diego - a major highlight for me. A grand crumbling mansion surrounded by open plains, mountains and never ending blue skies. Once belonging to Governor Luis Terrazaz, this hacienda was just one of up to fifty haciendas he was awarded at the time. The family who have restored and now occupy one quarter of the hacienda have roots back to the revolution, when Luis Terrazaz was overthrown. Generations have remained on the land, tending cattle and allowing tourists to visit and dine with them. It was a magnificent evening - full of story telling and delicious food. You could feel the history whispering from within the walls. The perfect finale to an epic week.
Up before the sun had risen, it was time to head back to the USA. Breakfast hamburgers and coffee were organised and before you knew it we were on foot passing huge metal fences reaching to the horizon to meet our US connecting driver to head for the airport.
This Mexican adventure was one that, not only opened my mind to a country I'd not properly experienced but, showed me day in, day out, a land rich in spirit, hospitality, sensational food, natural beauty, history and traditional living. A country that is evolving and dusting itself off after recent turmoil. As our prime host Dave expressed on our first day – their resilience, hope and passion is unrivalled.
If you would like any further information on travelling with David Hensleigh to the Chihuahua State or for general information please see his website www.authenticcoppercanyon.com