South by West- camping from Alaska to Nicaragua

Travel time: January 2003 - January 2008  |  by Jerry Bazant

8- Scared shitless in Copper Canyon


Scared shitless; From mule trail to truck trail; Bottomless ditch; Endless hairpins; Hitchhikers to nowhere; Where is La Bufa? Flat tire in Batopilas; Visit Satevo!
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When I looked out of the truck window I was scared shitless. There was a sheer drop 2000 feet, straight down  to the bottom of the canyon. What are we doing on this road? Are we mad, crazy or just stupid? [ If I knew what was waiting for us further down, I would probably shit my pants].  Well, it was Gilbertos fault.
 
Gilberto was the night security guard at the Viajero Mexicano campground in Creel. During the day he worked as a turist guide. He took us to Divisaredo to peek into the Barranca de Cobre, or the Copper Canyon. The view was magnificent  I wanted to see at least part of the Barranca de Cobre. Gilberto suggested we drive to Samachique, where the road to the canyon starts.  At this junction is a bus stop and restaurant and he knows the owner. We could take the camper off the truck and drive to La Bufa, part way down the canyon.  Unfortunately it was 3 PM by the time we dropped the camper off it and Gilberto had to catch the 5PM bus to Creel.
 

...Gilberto our guide. He assured us the camper will safe here. We came back 5 days later & nothing was touched. Our fear was groundless...

...Gilberto our guide. He assured us the camper will safe here. We came back 5 days later & nothing was touched. Our fear was groundless...

I read about the road down into the Copper Canyon in the Lonely Planet: "....It is the best road for scenery and the worst road to travel on. The bus leaves Creel at 7AM, for Batopilas, the town at the bottom of the canyon. It returns next morning at 4 AM. It leaves so early because it is cooler and the engine will not overheat....". Well, if a bus can go there, no reason why I  should not be able to drive part of the way to La Bufa.
 
Batopilas owes its existence to a fabulously rich silver mine discovered at the bottom of the canyon some three hundred years ago. Everything was carried down to the mine on a precarious mule trail. When Henry Ford invented the Model T, it was decided that where mule can go, the car can go too and the trail was made wide for the the Model T. Over the years as trucks got bigger and heavier, the mule trail got wider and little better. Even now It could not be called a road. It is a dirt track, very steep and winding, just wide enough for one truck, with a bottomless ditch on one side.

...driving down this road was a challenge. Most visitors take the bus...

...driving down this road was a challenge. Most visitors take the bus...

 
Top part through the first canyon was not that bad. Pine trees grew along the side of the road and were blocking the view down into the canyon. They also gave a false feeling of security that if the truck went over the edge, trees would catch it. Then we entered a different climate zone and instead of pine trees there was an occasional cactus here and there. Now the the steep drop was in full view and I learned very quickly to focus my mind and eyes on the road and not to look sideways.

The grade of the track was very steep.I drove for FIVE hours in first or second gear,climbing or braking through hairpin curves. Curves are built for the full turn of the steering wheel and it is theoretically possible to close one's eyes at the beginning of the curve, turn the wheel full bore and safely come out on the other side. But I never tried it.

...combination of a hairpin curve and a tunnel. Don't look sideways...

...combination of a hairpin curve and a tunnel. Don't look sideways...

 
My biggest fear was meeting another truck. There were some turnouts on the road, for two trucks pass, but that meant that one truck must back up, possibly trough the curve. Scary.
 
We drove on, for three hours, and there was no sign of La Bufa, whatever it was. At one point there was sort of a parking spot with two houses, a few kids and many goats. I stopped there to steady my nerves, looked down and counted ten hairpin curves stacked up, one above the other. Down at the bottom was a bridge over the river.

...our hitchhiking friends. They lived somewhere in that hill behind them...

...our hitchhiking friends. They lived somewhere in that hill behind them...

In one curve we passed three Indian kids about 10 years old  waving at us. Sue waved back. Few seconds later I saw in the mirror the kids are running behind the truck and jumping in.  When we made it to the bridge, kids banged on the cab to stop. They jumped off, we took a picture and I asked where they live. One pointed at the side of the canyon, "over there". There was no sign of any habitation.
 

...the rickety bridge did not look very solid. So I walked it first...

...the rickety bridge did not look very solid. So I walked it first...

Well, at least we were at the bottom of the canyon. Maybe we missed La Bufa and Batopilas would be around the corner. I was so wrong!! The road started to climb again. Instead of dirt track, the surface was smooth rock, with loose gravel. Our 2WD truck skidded and lurched, wheels had no traction. After a while there was a house here and there, built into the slope and cows loitered on the road.

Then we saw a cemetery and later a sign "La Bufa." We made it! There was not much to see, just few houses, one had a sign "Hotel". A long ridge of sand was extending into the canyon, like some fool was trying to build a dam across the canyon. [ Later we found out that La Bufa was a big silver mine and the ridge of sand was mine tailing that was dumped into the canyon.]

 

...how many curves going down? I stopped counting...

...how many curves going down? I stopped counting...

Batopilas was now only one hour away, so we pressed on. I could not drive back anyway, my nerves were shot. Just past La Bufa the dreadful thing I was so scared of happened. Out of the curve barreled a truck!!!

I started to panic. I have to stop, Sue has to get out and direct me to the edge of the road so the other truck can pass. Is there enough room?  Before I had time to do anything, the truck swung to my side and I swung instinctively to the other side, inches away from the rock wall. Few seconds later we passed each other with no space between us. So this is how they do it!  Driving on the wrong side so the outside driver can see the edge of the road!!

...this bull believed that he was here first and had the right of way...

...this bull believed that he was here first and had the right of way...

But the worst part of the trip was coming. Suddenly the road was only as wide as the truck, diving steeply down, through two hairpin curves. The road was full of small rocks, our truck  was sliding sideways, towards the edge, refusing to turn,  behaving like a mule. There were four crosses painted on the rock wall, staring at me. Strangely, my only concern was how I would be able drive back on these curves. 

...the first view of Batopilas was not very encouraging...

...the first view of Batopilas was not very encouraging...

Suddenly there was a bridge over the river and we were in Batopilas. First impression was of a rundown town that had been abandoned long time ago. Town built around mule wagons. The main street was strung along the river and had elevated sidewalks like in Alamos. Streets were paved with cobblestones, with potholes and pigs on the street.  Trucks had side mirrors turned back.

We drove slowly, looking for Hotel Mary near the church. I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw two kids riding in the back of our truck! Eventually we came to the church and I went to look for the hotel. When I got back, the kids were yelling "pinchado, pinchado" pointing at the rear tire. What? Flat tire? Everything looked fine but one kept pointing on a spot and when I put my hand there, I could feel the escaping air.  Shit, this was a bad luck/good luck situation. Bad luck because we got a hole in the tire. Good luck that it happened in Batopilas and not on the road and that the kids noticed it before the tire was flat.

...streets were not car friendly, they were built for mule wagons...

...streets were not car friendly, they were built for mule wagons...

They directed me to the Llantaria- tire repair shop. Two guys installed the spare tire, pulled the leaky tire off the rim by hand, found the nail, fixed it and put the spare back. They charged 40 pesos, about $6!! Gave them all my change, about 20 pesos. This was accomplished in a record time of 15 minutes.  [Previously, at home, just putting the spare tire back underneath the truck was a nightmare taking me nearly 45 minutes!]
 

What was there to do the first night in Batopilas? There was the church across the street so we went to the evening mass. Somebody was definitely looking out for us on the way down and we were grateful. Inside were about 20 pre teenage girls with two nuns keeping them devoted, maybe two dozen other woman and one man [that's me]. The girls really knew how to sing and pray. After the mass the priest came to talks to us. "You have to see the old church in Satevo it is very, very old. If you wish I will arrange a guide to drive you there." He said. We agreed to meet the guide next morning......
 

...Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is busy on this road, looking after her people...

...Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is busy on this road, looking after her people...

© Jerry Bazant, 2009
You are here : Overview The Americas Mexico 8- Scared shitless in Copper Canyon
The trip
 
Description:
This journey in our pick up truck camper took us West from Ontario to British Columbia and Alaska, then South to Nicaragua. Later we trailered a sailboat and cruised the coast of BC, Alaska and Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Details:
Start of journey: January 2003
Duration: 5 years
End of journey: January 2008
Travelled countries: United States
Mexico
Guatemala
Belize
The Author
 
Jerry Bazant is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 12 years.
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