I had expected to be riding the bus to Urique, a village at the bottom of Copper Canyon at this point, but instead I was headed up the mountain to the canyon rim. Soon after getting off the Copper Canyon train at Bahuichivo, I discovered the bus for Urique would not arrive for another three hours. One thing led to another, and soon I had let one of the owners of the Cabanas San Isidro Lodge, Mario Munoz Lopez, talk me into taking a tour of his hotel while I waited, assuring me that he would arrange for the bus driver to pick me up on the highway near his hotel.
For more than an hour Mario expertly guided his van over steep graveled roads as we climbed higher and higher through dense pine forests. At the top of the mountain we turned onto an unassuming dirt driveway and into Cabanas San Isidro. I hopped out of the van, expecting a quick tour of the facilities, which appeared to be two single story, motel style lodges. And then I stepped inside and had to pick my jaw up from the floor.
As soon as I could tear my eyes away from a gorgeous hand-painted mural of the canyon covering one whole wall, I began to note the other exquisite details in the lodge’s dining room: tongue-in-groove wooden ceiling, authentic Mexican tile work, decorative brick work, linen clad tablecloths, and a real coffee pot – praise the Lord (many Mexican hotels serve Nescafe). The adjacent sitting room was equally impressive, as was the sunken bar, featuring wood stove for chilly nights, hand-hewn wood furniture, and traditional native instruments used as decorative touches.
In the second lodge building, I continued to be pleasantly surprised. Each room featured windows crafted from multi-colored bottles that suffused the rooms with warm light, hand-painted murals, and large beds with oversize pillows. But as I soon discovered, that was not the end of the story. Across the compound were a series of individual brick cabanas, each one a private unit that was more work of art than hotel room. Around the corner lay another motel-type unit, meticulously designed inside and out. Beyond that, a new building was under construction; Mario hopes to have these newest units available in a month. But even that was not the end of the story.
He led me even deeper into the woods to his traditional sweat lodge, where authentic ritual ceremonies are held (Mario is part Tarahumara Indian) and on to the lodge’s crown jewel, a two story Meditation cabana constructed on the very lip of the canyon. Not only are the upper and lower units exquisitely decorated, the view out the picture window is spectacular, as the entire canyon spreads before you.
The rate for Cabanas San Isidro Lodge is $75 per night USD, which includes three meals per day, and for an additional fee Mario can arrange tours into Copper Canyon or any of the other tiny villages in the surrounding area. I was so impressed by the facilities that I promptly rearranged my schedule to spend four days at the lodge after visiting the village of Urique at the bottom of Copper Canyon. Having stayed longer than planned, we hustled out to the highway, but the bus was nowhere in sight and Mario worried that it might have come and gone. We drove to the village of La Mesa de Arturo, where an old white school bus was parked by the side of the road, but still there was no sign of driver or passengers. “How far away from Urique are we?” I asked, wondering if he would drive me down into the canyon if I had missed the bus. “Two hours,” he said, offering no additional assurance.
Mario finally spotted an elderly man sitting in the yard next to the old bus and made inquiries. “It’s OK,” Mario explained. “The regular bus comes up from Chihuahua, but it is too big to go down into the canyon, so they transfer all the passengers onto the smaller bus and leave the big one here overnight. If the small bus is still here, the big bus has not come yet.” He loaded my luggage onto the bus, and handed me over to the ancient stoop-back gentleman, who ambled over, flashed a mostly toothless grin, and motioned for me to follow him to the cute wooden cabin next door. The old man knocked on the front door and handed me over to the owner with what I assumed to be an explanation that I was waiting for the bus, although his toothless Spanish was unintelligible to me.
The owner welcomed me and invited me in to his house to wait. What to do? I had never before set eyes on this man, and he was big enough to easily overpower me. I took a split second to assess the situation. First, I thought it unlikely that Mario would have left me with people if he thought there was any danger. Second, Mexican values are much different that those in the U.S., in that they think nothing of inviting a total stranger into their homes. To help someone is considered an honor and an obligation. Third, this great big guy was walking with a cane; worst case scenario, I could shove him and run screaming out the front door. Fourth, it was cold outside and he had a nice warm fire going in his Franklin stove.
An hour and a half later I knew all about Carlos Silva’s two sons, one daughter, mother, father, and brother who owned one of the hotels in Urique. I’d had a tour of his house, which was complete on the outside but still a work in progress on the inside. And we’d commiserated over our bad knees, which included his asking my opinion of all the medications he was taking. Carlos was delightful and I was sorry when the old man knocked on the door to tell me the bus had arrived. I gave Carlos a quick hug, added “Te Dios bendiga” (God bless you), and sprinted across the yard. Like magic, passengers appeared and streamed toward the bus. I suddenly realized that, like me, they had all been waiting in various homes scattered around the dusty mesa, and I wondered whether these few poor residents provided shelter every day for anyone bound for Urique.
Gears complained and windows rattled as we pulled out of the makeshift parking lot and began our long ride into the canyon. For the first half-hour, we traveled on a wide, well-graded gravel road that descended gently. Then suddenly, the bus came around a hairpin turn and I stopped breathing. The earth had fallen away and the bus seemed to be suspended in mid air. In the fading light I was just able to make out monolithic rock walls on the far left and right that plummeted 6,200 feet to the canyon floor. The giant hole in the ground that spread before me was Urique Canyon, the deepest of all the canyons in the Copper Canyon complex. Far below, the lights of Urique village twinkled. “My God, we’re going down there?”
We crawled along in low gear, the bus shuddering around impossible switchbacks and washed out areas barely wide enough for one vehicle. Twice we had to pass oncoming vehicles, an inch by inch process that placed the uphill vehicle’s wheels on the edge of the sheer drop-off. I was torn between regret that I hadn’t made the trip during daylight hours, and gratitude that darkness was protecting me from the full, terrifying effect. An hour and a half later, we made an anti-climactic entrance into Urique, where the bus driver stopped to collect the 120 peso ($10 USD) fare, leaving me wondering if it is paid at the end because some of the buses don’t successfully complete the trip.
The bus driver pulled up to the front entrance of Entre Amigos Hostel, beeped his horn a couple of times, and stuck around until someone arrived to open the gate. Tomas and Antonio guided me to my dorm room with their flashlight beams, stopping to point out the shower house and bathroom. Pushing open the heavy wooden door to the dorm, they invited me to choose whichever cot I preferred, explaining that I was the only guest on site. As I picked my way back from the bathroom I momentarily lost the path, but the new moon sky was bright with stars and once my eyes adjusted I found my way by starlight. In one of the most remote places on earth, I crawled under two heavy blankets, let the hemp cot cradle me, and was immediately sound asleep.