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Journey into the Copper Canyon

Canyon Views

Copper Canyon, Chihuahua Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason December 2018

Having always been an avid planner with a precisely booked schedule, it can be difficult for me to adjust to an unexpected bump in the road.  As destiny would have it, a horrifying illness left me incoherent and unable to move from my anticipated 8 hour stay in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, for three delirious days.  I decided not to fight it, cancelled all of my hotel reservations and threw caution to the wind.  Best decision I've ever made.  What should have been two rushed nights in the sleepy town of Creel turned into one of the most memorable fortnight of my life.  From Basaseachi National Park to Divisadero, Batopilas to the San Ignacio Mission and the down-time needed to feed my hungry soul meant a week in the lands of the Raramuri peoples was where I was meant to be.  

Young Raramuri girls

Near Divisadero, Chihuahua Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason November 2018

When I first boarded the El Chepe, I was still too ill to really appreciate the magnificence of riding along the main artery of the Canyons in Chihuahua.  The ebb and flow of the El Chepe line represents an important aspect of life for today's Rararmuri, as so much of their economy depends on the passengers the railway brings. 


The Raramuri are organized into two distinct pastoral groups - those who live in the high altitudes of the canyons, and those who reside in the tropical lowlands.  Historically, the Raramuri peoples migrated between these two landscapes, moving to the warm lowlands as winter settled in - but of course, colonization by the Spanish resulted in the Raramuri peoples being dispossessed of most of their lands.  For the most part, the Raramuri people have rejected settling into small communities or towns, preferring instead to live in small communal clusters with vast plots of land surrounding them.  Though they lost most of their lands to the Spanish, they remain in possession of more land per capita than other indigenous groups of Mexico, likely only through default of how sparsely populated the region is and their insistence on refusing to live in villages.  As one travels through the lands of the Raramuri, you will see modest homes with vibrant laundry hanging on the lines - and that infamous patch of corn.

Young Raramuri girls selling pineneedle baskets

Valley of Mushrooms & Frogs, Chihuahua Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason November 2018

One of the auspicious benefits of cancelling my plans included landing on the doorstep of La Troje de Adobe in Creel.  They had been booked when I originally made my plans, but with a three day delay, I ended up reserving a full week there.  Little did I know Angelica was an anthropologist who worked extensively among the Raramuri people for years, or that her husband Memo would turn out to be an amazing guide and interpreter who was an ecologist throughout his career.  Once they learned of my interest in indigenous culture, they went out of their way to introduce me to areas of interest, and to discuss many aspects of Raramuri realities.  This is one of the reasons why I am using the name Raramuri, as opposed to the more commonly known descriptor Tarahumara.


Tarahumara is said to mean "where the night is the day of the moon," whereas the term Raramuri translates as "the light-footed one."  Upon learning that the Raramuri peoples self-identify as Raramuri, I used that term when I spoke with weavers and was met with many a surprised smile.  There is speculation that the Spanish simply misheard the word Raramuri, and came up with Tarahumara as a result.  Today, linguists use Choguita Raramuri as the language name

"Only" Maria

Divisadero Adventure Park, Chihuahua Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason November 2018

When our group arrived at Divisadero Adventure Park, I wasn't really sure what to expect.  As I entered the park, I spotted a Raramuri weaver and made a bee-line to see her collection.  She was weaving a basket, which she set aside so she could sell me some pieces.  I asked about the basket she was weaving and she let me take some photographs.  She told me to return in one hour, and the basket would be finished.  In retrospect, I realize that we were not communicating clearly - between my fractured Spanish, and her speaking Spanish as a second language.  When I returned an hour later, she indicated that I could take more pictures!  She told me her name was Maria - so I asked for her last name.  She shook her head and said "No - ONLY Maria."  She then went on to tell me her parents had died when she was a baby - so she does not have a last name.  I couldn't figure out who taught her to weave, but she was more than willing to show me her pine-needles and sotal, which is a fibre harvested from an agave-like plant that grows in Chihuahua and is harvested and distilled into a spirit similar to Mezcal.  As she shaved off the sharp barbs of the sotal, the rains hastened, and she stopped to pack up her baskets.  The entire market closed while I was there, due to the heavy rains.  But Maria insisted that I come back again in another hour.

While the rest of our group was off on zip-lines, riding ATV's and climbing out onto terrifying cliff-edges that would make any mother's hair stand on end, I spent my time drinking coffee in the adventure park cafe, and riding back and forth on the busy Gondola that was too fogged-up for decent views of the Copper Canyon - measuring the minutes of each hour before I could return to find Maria positioned under the smallest piece of shelter that was keeping her dry.  There she sat with her packed bags of baskets, still weaving this beautiful basket.  I was so happy that I was able to purchase it from her - as she completed it about ten minutes before our group departed.  I paid her more than she was asking, simply because she had taught me so much about the process, materials, and had allowed me to take photographs.  I truly hope when I return to Divisadero, I will meet Maria again. This wonderful experience will remain my fondest of all, in the Canyons.

Perhaps one day I will delve more into the other details of this wonderful journey, as I booked some amazing tours while I was in the Canyons. Basaseachi National Park was impressive and the journey to Batopilas a really wild adventure. As I am here to scout around for a future tour, I don´t want to give too many details - but please get in touch if you are interested in visiting this region.

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