travelog 99

Barrancas de la Sinforosa

30 million years old. 1830 meters (6000 ft) deep. 120 km (74 miles) long. In places deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. "La Reina de las Barrancas", translates to "The Queen of the Canyons". We are talking about the Sinforosa Canyon, part of the Copper Canyon system in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The name "Barranca del Cobre", comes from the copper-green color of its cliffs. The huge canyon system is more than 600 km (370 miles) long and 250 km (150 miles) wide, consists of 6 canyons whose rivers all merge into the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez. The entire system belongs to one of the most biologically interesting areas in the world. It is home to the Tarahumara or Raramuri as the indigenous people call themselves. The Spanish arrived in the early 17th century and searched for gold and silver. Some of these mines are still working and producing today.

The best starting point for a visit to the Barranca La Sinforosa is Guachochi. Guachochi, "Place of Herons" in Raramuri, lies at an altitude of 2400 m (7875 ft) at the edge of the second deepest canyon of the Barrancas del Cobre. The town is known for its "Ultramaratón de Los Cañones", a race that goes from Guachochi down to the river and back up again. This crazy race takes place at the end of July and goes over 65 km (40 miles) or 100 km (60 miles), naturally all on foot. Usually the Tarahumara win, running in simple "huaraches", sandals with soles made of car tires. They have explored these canyons on foot for hundreds of years and know the treacherous terrain. During the rainy season the river that has to be crossed several times during the marathon can rise suddenly. In 2008 for example, a Kenyan was carried away by the river and his body has never been found. From our first visit in 2001 we remember Guachochi as a small logging town with a few little stores and not much more. In December 2010 it feels more like a town with a large access road and exaggeratedly many streetlamps, traffic lights, hotels, fashion shops, restaurants, and several gas stations. It's not a very attractive place but then we did not come here to see the town.

We follow the signs to the Barranca de Sinforosa through the backyards of Guachochi. Not long ago a "mirador", a view point, was built at the end of the road. In 2001 we covered the 18 km (11 miles) to the view point on a very bad dirt road, paid 10 pesos per person to get through a locked gate, and camped right above an abyss of about 1800 m (5900 ft) with an incredible view on three sides into the Sinforosa canyon. In 2010 the condition of the road is much better. It is still a dirt road and during the dry season the car gets completely covered with red dust, but we manage the 18 kms in relatively short time. We pass an old logging settlement where only the small old wooden houses remain standing in the yellow grass. The sawmill next door is still working. Fields lay fallow. Between the trees little Tarahumara houses are hidden and curious children watch us. At the entrance gate there's a new small store where you can buy everything you need for an excursion from umbrellas to t-shirts, batteries, crackers, sodas, beer, and much more. The entrance fee is still 10 pesos per person. Toilets, garbage cans and the lookout terrace are new additions. The lookout terrace was built exactly at the place where we had camped in 2001. The steep slopes are covered with Agave shrevei ssp magna, just through flowering. There's also A. wocomahi and a Dasylirion. The views deep down to the bottom of the Sinforosa canyon and over endless ridges of the Sierra Madre Occidental are breathtaking. Another new addition is a dirt road that goes down 4 km to the Rosalinda waterfall, as a hand-written sign announces. The old man at the entrance gate later tells us that the road only goes down to a suspension bridge and that it's not advisable to drive down, not even with a 4x4. Just the day before they had to tow a car back up with heavy machinery. It's already pretty late in the afternoon and we decide to postpone the visit to the waterfall for another day.

Back in Guachochi we first heat up our hotel room with the gas furnace. There's even wireless Internet available. And just next door we find a comfortable restaurant with a wood-fired stove and a colorfully decorated Christmas tree. After a hot coffee next to the crackling fire we already feel warmer. After we have ordered the food it suddenly gets dark. CFE, the state-owned electric power company propagating their showy motto "una empresa de clase mundial" (a world class company) on its cars, has failed again. Quickly candles are unpacked and placed on the tables in empty coke bottles. It's a very romantic pre-Christmas evening in Guachochi. The cooks fortunately use gas in the kitchen and work under candle light. We enjoy a romantic dinner and later get comfortable in our snug and warm hotel room.

The next day is dedicated to an excursion to the Cumbres de Guerachi. The young woman at the hotel's reception is horrified when Martin tells her about our plans to go towards Guerachi. That's exactly where people are always assaulted, she tells him. Now we have to say that we know this story from many other places. Where you are it is never dangerous, but where you want to go it is always very dangerous. There's lots of road work going on along the road to Yoquivo. The first few kilometers are newly paved but then we have to follow an incredibly dusty detour and naturally miss the turn-off to Guerachi. Then we're on a paved road again for a very short time. At a small settlement the road definitely becomes dusty dirt again. We drive through sparse conifer forests and one can imagine very well that a couple of robbers lurk behind every other tree. But we're probably on the road too early in the morning. The road goes steadily downhill. There's an empty car at the side of the track. What is it doing here? Where is the driver? Questions that we never asked in the past, i.e. before all the really bad news from Mexico's crisis areas. Suddenly we leave the forest and reach a magnificent view deep down into the Sinforosa canyon and to Guerachi at its bottom. 3 young men and a woman sit at the precipice and drink beer out of cans. They live further up in the forest, they tell us, and just came down here to enjoy the breathtaking views. It makes us feel better instantly that there are normal young people in Guerachi who are equally overwhelmed by the beauty of nature as we are.

Now the dirt road snakes down into the canyon in narrow and steep hairpin curves. The steep slopes are covered with Agaves, Dasylirion and Yuccas. Agave filifera ssp multifilifera thrives in the cliffs. A larger-than-life Virgen de Guadalupe is painted on a cliff. Further down we pass a monument that was put up when this spectacular road was inaugurated. It looks like an old Egyptian obelisk. But we're really here to find a Sedum that Jean-Marc Chalet has brought back from here one year ago. When the brakes of the truck slowly start to give up we discover the first plants in a cliff. They are pretty rosettes that resemble Sedum suaveolens from Topia at first glance. After climbing around and taking pictures, we start the drive up the mountain. At the magnificent view point we meet the owners of the abandoned car that we saw earlier in the morning parked along the road. They are land surveyors, planning and building daredevil roads in Mexico. If everything goes according to plan there will someday be a paved road down to Guerachi and up the mountain on the other side to finally reach the coast somewhere in Sinaloa. This will certainly not happen during our life time! Back in the conifer forest we stop for a broad-leaved Yucca. And of course for Echinocereus chaletii, named after Jean-Marc Chalet, which is not very attractive without flowers.

Another excursion brings us back to the lookout terrace at the Cumbres de Sinforosa. We leave the car at the view point and follow the dirt road down towards the suspension bridge. After the first curve the road gets incredibly steep and it's no wonder that it was damaged pretty badly from the water running down. The driver from the other day must have been a crazy person to drive on after passing this first curve. Down at the suspension bridge there are two covered pavillions with a barbecue place. The suspension bridge itself spans daringly over a pretty deep gorge. You best hold on to the steel cables just in case that one of the rotten wooden boards gives way under your weight. Some of the boards are already missing and you have to take big steps from time to time. The whole thing is swaying a lot and certainly not advisable for people with fear of heights, although Martin masters the bridge with style. Now we follow a hiking path that slowly goes down into a side canyon. First it's a pretty steep slope but then suddenly it becomes a rock wall and one wonders where the path will go through next. Far below we can see the continuation but inbetween is a sheer cliff. Incredibly enough the path snakes down the cliff, becoming narrower with every step and barely leaving room for a slender person. At the wider places you can take a breather and concentrate on the narrow passages. Dizziness overcomes you sometimes while climbing along the cliff edge hand over hand, always with a view deep down into the canyon. After an eternity we reach the Rosalinda waterfall. Unfortunately there's not that much water in December, but a thin jet still shoots down over the reddish rock. The path goes down to a dark green pool in the shade of large trees. Down here the vegetation feels almost subtropical. Everything is incredibly green and overgrown. With our binoculars we spot clusters of light colored rosettes that turn out to be the same Sedum we saw the day before near Guerachi. We'll give it the provisional name of Sedum sinforosanum. After a breather we start the ascent which is considerably more strenuous than the descent. The temperatures have risen and the sun burns down relentlessly on our backs in the rock wall. Suddenly you long for the cool pine forest. Pretty much out of breath we finally reach the suspension bridge and examine the cliffs a little closer. Mammillaria senilis, unfortunately not in flower, is omnipresent. In the dry moss we discover the almost completely dried up rosettes of Graptopetalum filiferum, a species we only know from near Choix, almost at sea level. The next surprise is the Sedum from Guerachi, the one we had found just hours earlier at the Rosalinda waterfall. And inbetween grows a plant that looks like a hybrid between the two. The climb up to the view point and back to the truck is exhausting because we have already overexerted ourselves earlier in the day. Back at the restaurant in Guachochi we spoil ourselves to a cold beer. Soon we're refreshed and ready for more adventures.

Our next target is Creel from where we plan to drive down into the Barranca de Urique, the deepest of the Copper Canyons.

January 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen