An Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Six – I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven: Entre Amigos in Urique Canyon

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

My eyes popped open at the first hint of light. “No!” I groaned, still tired from 12 hours of traveling that had me arriving at Entre Amigos hostel well after dark the night before. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping to fall back to sleep, but it was no use; my incessant curiosity demanded that I investigate this latest destination in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

Interior of one of the dorms
Exterior of one of the dorms

Shivering in the early morning chill, I piled on a couple layers of clothes and went in search of a bathroom. The narrow path leading from the dorm, so black and foreboding the night before, wound past papaya trees heavy with fruit, coffee bushes laden with ripe red beans, and giant cactus with prickly upthrust arms. Beyond this Garden of Eden rose the sheer walls of Urigue Canyon, its green carpeted slopes and naked red rocks creating heavenly vistas in every direction.

Spectacular view beyond the garden

It was the itching that brought me back down to earth. With hot water available only in the morning, I’d had no choice but to climb into bed dust-caked previous evening and my skin was screaming for relief. Fortunately Tomas, who along with Maruca oversees the hostel when the owners are in the States, had already stoked the wood-fired boiler, and a blissful hot shower later I felt human again.

Exterior of the shower house
Interior of the shower room
One of the common bathrooms for hostel guests

By this time, mouth-watering cooking aromas were wafting from the kitchen in the main house and my grumbling stomach reminded me that I had nothing to eat. As if omniscient, Maruca appeared and invited me to share their breakfast of fresh-picked papaya and pancakes with honey while I marveled at my surroundings.

Maruca fixes breakfast in the kitchen of the main house

Entre Amigos Hostel happened almost by accident. In 1975, Keith Ramsey needed both a break from graduate school and an adventure. He loaded up a trunk with books and checked out a map of the Sierra Madre Mountains, searching for the place that looked the most empty. In Chihuahua, he met a “crazy Nicaraguan,” Jose Maria Chema Lugo, who invited Keith back to visit once he grew tired of the Sierras. Then, learning that a road had just been completed to Urique, Keith headed down into the bottom of the deepest gorge in the Copper Canyon complex.

Hostel's common room, with library and Internet

“One thing led to another, and the crazy Nicaraguan and I, along with another of my friends from graduate school, Tom Scharmen, bought the pile of rocks that became Entre Amigos,” Keith reminisced. “We started off in tents, taking turns during the early years either working on the place or taking jobs to keep it afloat.” In 1977, when Keith was there by himself, Violeta, a photographer from Chihuahua came through Urique taking pictures. “I happened to be riding a borrowed white horse when I met her, and this probably convinced her I was all right,” said Keith. They were married in mid-1978 and shortly thereafter departed for Oregon, leaving Tom in charge.

The organic garden, with the main house in the background
Gorgeous garlic, fresh picked from the organic garden
Tomas braids the garlic in preparation for hanging up to dry

Soon, another young woman from Chihuahua arrived on the scene. Veronica Fuentes, daughter of one of Chihuahua’s better known writers, Jose Fuentes Mares, was in Urique doing community organizing and other good deeds. She persuaded Tom to teach in the local school, and three years later they also married. During the next five or six years, they started a secondary school in Urique and developed a health program that became the model for Sierras; both programs were eventually taken over by the government. By that time a family of four, Tom and Veronica did whatever they could to scratch out a living: Tom painted signs, played in the local band, got grants, etc., but when their kids reached school age, they moved to Chihuahua, where Tom continued to work for the now government run health program.

More gorgeous scenery at Entre Amigos

Around that time, Entre Amigos developed a loose association with the medical school at the University of New Mexico, becoming the hardship rotation for quite a few doctors and nurses in training. As a result, around 1995 Tom was offered a job and admission to a masters program in public health at the UNM, and  Keith and Violeta took over the responsibilities at Entre Amigos. Tom completed his studies and took a job as an epidemiologist for the State of New Mexico, which he is still doing. Along the way Chema and his wife Susana both died; Chema’s ashes are under the mango tree just outside the door to the big house. Chema was a philosopher and poet in the style of William Blake and wrote prize winning poems at Entre Amigos.

Over the years, various buildings were constructed around the main house for use by the now extended families of the original three partners and friends. But again, one thing led to another and the hostel somehow emerged. The facilities today include two dorm rooms with a total of seven cots, two private rooms, a common kitchen, library, Internet room, common shower house, two common bathrooms, and camping area that can accommodate a considerable number of tents. And perhaps because they never intended to have a tourist business, the partners have kept the rates amazingly low: $7 USD per night for camping and $10 USD per night for a cot in one of the dorms, and guests are encouraged to help themselves to the amazing variety of vegetables grown in their organic garden and the abundant fruit from trees around the property.

Common kitchen for hostel guests

Most guests cannot imagine the work that went into building Entre Amigos. Tom Scharmen clarified Keith’s description of ‘working on the place’ as “a few thousand hours of hard labor that he and I and others performed with hardly any machinery or power other than our own backs.” When visitors commented that he lived in paradise, Tom’s standard reply was always, “Paradise is a hell of a lot of work.”

Keith sums up Entre Amigos this way: “It’s been a great ride for me. One of my guiding rules is to get enough pleasure out of the place that if I have to I can walk away and say that it had been worth it. So far that has always been the case.” Though Keith claims he’s not the least bit altruistic, insisting that he continues to get a lot of good will because of the things his partners did, he gives himself away when he expresses his guiding rule, which says: “How can we hope to prosper if the people working for us aren’t prospering.”  If you visit, you won’t even need to ask Tomas and Maruca how that philosophy has worked out for them. Their love for Entre Amigos shows in everything they do.

Colorful songbirds flit around the grounds at Entre Amigos

Had the partners had never mounted a single philanthropic effort, the joy Entre Amigos has brought to guests over the years qualifies the partners for a spot in heaven. They’ve created a place of great beauty where utter serenity and tranquility reign, and I have come under its spell. At the end of my planned three day stay, I simply could not tear myself away, and so I have extended my stay. For how long is anyone’s guess at this point.

To be continued…

Series NavigationAn Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Five – Finding My Way to UriqueAn Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Seven – Forever Immortalized in the Gossip of Urique

19 thoughts on “An Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Six – I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven: Entre Amigos in Urique Canyon”

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  4. It all sounds too wonderful and interesting to hear the of all the hard work that’s gone in – my sister runs a hotel in Greece and as her holiday customers sit at the bar and tell her how lucky she is, I notice her eyes glaze over and remember all the hard winters they had building that hotel!

  5. What a great story of perserverance. And so beautifully rustic and practical. The garden looks sumptuous and congratulations on a stunning photo of the birds. I love the bathroom and the lovely library. What a fantastic place to be able to visit and stay.

  6. Yes, I want to visit. Identified wity YOUR story and bio. Keep up the good work and I wish you good health and travels.

    • Thank you Don! If you feel the way I did, maybe you should do what I did. Life is too short to be miserable. Appreciate you reading along with me and leaving a comment.

  7. Barb – LOVE the photos you’ve posted along with this great story. It makes me want to visit Entre Amigos Hostel. Would it be a great fit for a family?

    • Hi Shannon: I think Entre Amigos would be a WONDERFUL place for a family! They have a guest house for only $35 per night that accommodates up to four people and it has a private bathroom and kitchen. It would be a great place to take the kids for hiking. There are two Tarahumara villages within walking distance, crazy footpath all over the place, many of which go to old mines, etc. It stays warm year round, although in the summer I’d have to say HOT because the temps go higher than 100 in June, July & August. But it would be lovely for spring break or Christmas break with the kids.

  8. Wonderful piece, beautiful photos, and a great quote, “Paradise is a hell of a lot of work.” I love it.

  9. The Copper Canyon has been on my wish list for years. I am always amazed that so few people have heard about it. It sounds and looks like you’re having a fabulous time. I admire your ability to go with the flow and change plans as circumstances change. Lovely bird photo. Hope the rest of the Copper Canyon trip is a great success. I’m enjoying your blogposts.

  10. Isn’t it so amazing when you can find a piece of paradise that gives us the space and tranquility to decompress. I found such a place tucked away in the mountains in northern Thailand. It changed me in a blissful gentle way.


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