Before I knew it, I had been at Entre Amigos Hostel in Urique in Copper Canyon, Mexico for an entire week and had done little but walk to town a couple of times and cook delicious meals from ingredients plucked from their organic garden. I also realized that the local Tarahumara (Raramuri) Indians were rarely seen in Urique; if I expected to experience their culture I would need to visit the smaller villages in the area. Of the two Tarahumara villages within hiking distance, I chose to visit Guadelupe Coronado because I was told the seven kilometer walk was level, which would be better for my still recovering hip and knee.
I set out in the early afternoon on the dirt road that follows the Urique River upstream, hoping to escape the worst of the midday heat and still arrive in time to shoot photos of the towns historic mission church in the golden afternoon light that precedes sunset. Though it is possible to drive to Guadalupe vehicles must ford the river at one point, making 4-wheel drive an absolute necessity, but since I was hiking I could simply cross on the swinging bridge. At the ford, I headed up the hill and stepped carefully over the gap between the first metal tread and the rocky lip to which the suspension bridge was attached. Holding onto the thin metal wire handrail and mesh netting that make up the sides of the bridge, I picked my way to the middle of the river and stopped to watch tractors and heavy dump trucks crawl around the river bed, working around the clock to construct a new concrete bridge.
I was sadly considering that the old swinging bridge will soon be abandoned when I reached the last third of the span. Here, the platform changed from metal steps to rough wooden planks; many were severely split and wobbly, while others were missing entirely, leaving dizzying gaps to the shallow waters a hundred feet beneath my feet. Gingerly, I tested each plank before applying my full body weight, gripping the metal cables in the event that one gave way. As I hopped over a missing plank that had been stuffed with a tree log I admitted that a new concrete bridge wasn’t such a bad idea. Finally stepping onto terra firma on the other side, I shuddered and looked back across the canyon. Two Tarahumara women were setting down their 50-pound sacks of groceries to rest before crossing the bridge; thank God I made it across before they added their weight to the flimsy span.
On the other side the road diverted into a side canyon and began a gradual climb. The terrain was greener here, with blooming trees and a forest of giant cactus with upthrust limbs. A smaller stream ran below the road, pooling turquoise beneath enormous pink boulders. In some areas, the path turned to fine white sand, an indication of the floods that inundate these valleys every summer when the rains come. After two hours of walking it seemed like I had come much further than seven kilometers (4.2 miles) but still no village was in sight. A local man walking in the opposite direction assured me that the town was not much further and pointed to a steep red hill just ahead, telling me to take the left branch at its base. Someone has a definite sense of humor if they think this route is flat, I thought.
I slogged up the steep hill, determined to make it to Guadalupe. At the top I stopped to catch my breath and felt eyes on me. A group of young Tarahumara girls, dressed in vividly colored traditional skirts and blouses, sat on the edge of the road, swinging their legs over the canyon gorge. They eyed me suspiciously and averted their eyes as I approached. “Kuira Ba.” I said hello, the only phrase I know in Tarahumara. Still they would not look at me. Switching to Spanish, I asked permission to take a photo. They glanced up cautiously, but no permission was forthcoming. I asked their names; no response. Finally I held out the camera and showed them some digital images, again asking if I could take a photo. When the boldest of the girls showed a flicker of interest and nodded slightly I quickly snapped her photo and turned the camera around so she could see herself. She giggled and squealed, pointing to her image while the others scrambled up from the ground to see. Before long, all of them wanted their photos taken. It was a sign. The village couldn’t be far now.
Thirty minutes later I was about to give up when I turned a corner and passed through a gate and a cattle guard. Surely this meant civilization was near. I trod down a long, steep incline, with the river below on my left and a red canyon wall soaring above me on the right. Beyond one last curve the canyon wall fell away and I was looking down on a lush green valley with cultivated fields, rimmed by craggy mountains on all sides, in the middle of which a small village was clearly visible.
Though it looked fairly close, it was another half hour before I reached the village, just in time to capture a photo of the old mission before the sun dropped behind the mountains. A dozen or so single story adobe homes were scattered around the dusty square but not a person was in sight. Even the school yard was deserted. As I stood quietly surveying my surroundings, a slight motion caught my eye. Beyond the church, a door of one of the houses had been partially opened and several sets of young eyes were peering out at me. I walked toward the house but the door was hurriedly closed. At the front fence I waited; little by little the door was cracked open and the eyes reappeared. Eventually the camera game won the kids over and they, too, were giggling over their photos.
Too soon, I waved goodbye. I had at least a two hour walk ahead of me and daylight was fading. While I wasn’t worried about walking the road at night – the moon was full and I was prepared with a flashlight – I was freaked out by the prospect of crossing the suspension bridge in the dark, sure I would plunge to my death. An hour later, the last rays of the sun were trickling away when I heard the welcome sound of a vehicle approaching from behind. As always in the remoter parts of Mexico, the driver was happy to give me a ride and soon we were sloshing through the river. From my seat in the bed of the pickup truck I looked up at the suspension bridge, glistening under a luminous moon, and said a silent prayer of thanks that I didn’t have to cross it a second time.