Sierra Madre: Part Three

...Rounding the corner my eyes fix on the machine guns in the men's hands, and the large bags thrown over their shoulders. My heart beat quickens as I study their appearance; they had no uniforms, and they were glaring at me with the same degree of intensity. I tell Doron to hold his position as I roll towards them on the narrow mountain track...

Ancient grave markers stand guard at the Tubares Mission
Day Five: Casa Colorado, Tubares, La Mesa de Arturo and Cerocahui

We are camped in the compound of Petra and Antonio Portillo Castillo, at Casa Colorado. They were wonderful hosts, but between the heat, roosters and dogs, there was little sleep for our team. This being our fifth morning in the canyons, we had acclimated to waking with the sun, breaking camp and preparing our breakfast; our improved efficiency requiring few words to be spoken.

On this trip, Doron and I had made communications a priority, fitting the Toyota's with powerful 2M radios and a Globalstar satellite phone provided by Creative Communications. The performance of both were impressive. I made a sat phone call to the States on our morning at Casa Casa Colorado. The inquisitive stares at this "gringo" talking to a stick were amusing.

Casa Colorado is just northeast of the Rio Fuerte, sitting on a bluff, overlooking the largest of the barranca rivers and the mission at Tubares. Until the spring of 2003, this area saw little traffic, as the ford at Tubares of the Rio Fuerte was considerably more challenging than the Urique crossing. But that has all changed, as a single lane, high capacity concrete bridge was constructed over the Fuerte, allowing easy access to the El Sauzal mine by employees in Choix.

The Mission at Tubares:
We crossed the new bridge and drove down to the Tubares Mission in the very small village of Tubares (maybe 12-15 casitas). The mission is a third the size of Satevo, but has a beautiful bell tower. Most of the main walls have collapsed, destroyed by the heavy summer rains. However, as with many of these ancient structures, there is an effort to save her, and a group of University students are working to rebuild this mission, originally constructed in 1701 by Jesuit missionaries and the local Tubares natives. The Tubares culture is pre-hispanic and pre-Tarahumaran. This reconstruction is supported by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). These students are working hard to preserve the history and culture of this area, including making the replacement bricks by hand, in the same fashion as the original structure, drying the bricks on huge pallets before adding them to the walls.
To the south of the mission is a large grave site, marked by large headstones, several six feet tall or higher. A three foot stone wall surrouns the cemetery, and is connected to the walls of the mission. The most prominent feature of the mission (and this area for several miles), is the bell tower, standing at least four stories tall and containing eight belfry's, each with a different bell. These bells provided a means of communication to the surrounding area. Each bells tone eliciting a different action. One for Mass, another for danger, etc.

From Tubares we had just over four miles of good road before turning north, away from the route to the mine. The overall road conditions of this track are much more eroded and slower than the route from Satevo to Tubares. With the creation of the bridge and improved dirt road, there is little need to use this trail now, as the next village is not until Piedras Verdes, over 20 miles to the north. These villages get their supplies for Cerocahui and do not need to travel south.

I was glad to be traveling slower again, the thick fauna increasing the sense of remoteness, the branches encroaching on the trail, creating a canopy over the vehicles as we travel deeper into the land of the Tarahumara.

The trail began climbing again, gaining from the 1100 foot elevation at Tubares to nearly 8,000' at Mesa de Arturo. We had to cover 35 miles to reach Cerocahui that day, so the pace was hurried, moving along the tight switchbacks and crossing several arroyo's. The track became so overgrown and narrow that I began doubting my route, thought we were traveling in the approximate direction of Mesa De Arturo and our next waypoint.

Doron takes a picture of the trail ahead, en route to Piedras Verdes
We traveled over 10 miles before seeing another person. The elderly gentleman was sitting on the side of the road, the afternoon sun causing sweat to pour down his ancient, textured face. He didn't react much when Stephanie stopped the truck and I leaned out the window to give him a "Hola". I spent a few moments talking with him to confirm our route, but he was only familiar with Piedras Verdes Pueblo, possibly the furthest north he had traveled in his lifetime in the canyons. After our conversation, I reached back into our Engel fridge and pulled out a cold Coca Cola. First, I reached my hand out of the truck to shake his, thanking him for the advice. He gingerly pulled his arm away from his waist and gripped my hand with a strength that belied his years. His skin was so coarse as it grated against mine, a life of manual labor against one of relative comfort. Then I reached out the window with the Coke, his eyes lighting up and a broad smile stretches across his toothless gums. He thanks me with sincerity, his hands trembling as they clutched the nearly frozen soda. It is said that Coca Cola is the most recognized brand in the world. In Copper Canyon it surely is!

Shortly after leaving the old man we came to a small mining operation, with horizontal shafts cut into the mountain. The deep azure blue of the oxidizing copper running from the gash in the mountains side. Just after the mine we passed a beautiful Tarahumaran rancho, perched on a knoll overlooking a hundred miles of the canyons beyond. The summer rains had mad the grassy hillside healthy, and the woman's sheep grazed contently on the dense feed. I wonder how often she looks out over her million dollar views...

By this time of the day we were looking for a place to stop and eat. There were few options on the narrow trail, as there were no pull-off's. We stopped at a wide cutout and considered stopping there, but decided against it in the hope of finding something better.

A million dollar view of Copper Canyon
I put the Tacoma in drive, and eased off the brake, the truck starting to roll forward and down hill to the next turn. I was just enjoying the view, and the cooler temperatures higher in the mountains. As I rounded the turn I looked forward down the trail, and immediately locked my brakes. My hand shook as I grabbed the radio, "Doron, hold your position. I have two men walking towards me with automatic rifles. They are not in uniform and are carrying large bags over their shoulders". I sat there for a moment trying to decide what to do. "I am going to drive by them slowly, I will let you know if it is safe". I crept the truck forward in their direction. They were studying me with an expressionless intensity, but neither had moved their hands to the weapons grips. In a split second I decided to release some tension and smile, then wave. Stephanie and I both waved in their direction. The lead man look his hand from the guns barrel and waved back, casting a thin smile. They looked our way for a moment as we passed, and then continued up the trail. I radio to Doron that we passed safely, and the Land Cruiser drove by them without incident.

With the machine guns safely behind us (we hoped), we continued to the Piedras Verdes Pueblo, a small village tucked into the mountains at 4,200 ft. The village supports many of the miners of the area and their families . Children smiled and waved as we passed. From the pueblo, the pace improved and the road widened. We found a nice pull-off and had (a late) lunch. During lunch we were passed by the first other car of the day. In over 20 miles we had not seen another vehicle.

From the pueblo it is another four miles to La Mesa de Arturo, a larger town with several stores, a school, and a successful logging operation. Just north of town is the turn-off to Urique, another colonial era village, which is located at the bottom of Urique canyon (Urique Canyon is the deepest of the barrancas at 1879 meters). Urique is the county seat for the area. We continued past the road to Urique, and on to Cerocahui. The 10 miles from the Mesa to Cerocahui are fast, on a well maintained and wide dirt road. The road makes a tight turn to the west, and breaks through the tree line, giving us an awesome view of the town and valley below. Wildflowers filled the valley, accompanied by a small river that cut wide, sweeping turns on its path to the deep canyon beyond. We had stuck gold in Copper Canyon!

Looking down to the town of Cerocahui, alive with wildflowers