Treasure of Sierra Madre

Mexico's Copper Canyon - Exploring the region
By Karen Schwartzman & Bob Melia; Copper Canyon Lodges assisted with this story.
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Early the next morning, Luis led us out of town. For two hours we followed the Rio Batopilas as it twisted and turned through a rocky, arid landscape. Then, rounding a bend, we saw the Mission gleaming like a pearl in a lush, green garden. The Mission is the great mystery of Batopilas. No one knows when it was built or who, exactly, built it. But as long ago as 1700, the imposing brick structure was topped with a domed roof and a bell tower. Abandoned now for decades, the local Tarahumara keep the Mission minimally maintained, and the desert climate has helped preserve some of the original murals and icons, including a life-size black Madonna, thought to have come from Spain two centuries ago.

That afternoon, we explored the ruins of the Shephard compound, which lies almost directly across the river from the town. "Boss" Shephard was a former Governor of Washington, DC, who left the country under a cloud of corruption charges and organized a major silver mining operation here. The silver profits financed a remarkably lavish life style in the first decade of this century, (mansion, guest quarters, swimming pool -- even a grand piano) Truly amazing, considering everything had to be brought down by mule train, which took five or six days from the canyon rim.

On our last full day in Batopilas, we hiked up into the mountains. Our goal was a mesa near the tiny hamlet of Yerba Anise. The path upward is surrounded by wildflowers and 35 foot high cactus plants. The higher we climbed, the more magnificent the views became. We also caught the distinct smell of marijuana, which Luis explained grows wild here, and then added that it is also cultivated near Yerba Anise. Luis told us that the marijuana fields are patrolled by armed guards and that the deputy sheriff was shot dead three weeks ago while trying to make an arrest. After three hours of vigorous hiking, we arrived at the mesa to see Cerro Colorado (colorful mountain) shimmering in the distance. It's pockmarked with gold mines, and we could almost feel the lure of limitless wealth that drove Humphry Bogart insane in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre".

On the way back, we made a mental note to stop and pick up a couple of empty Coke bottles we had left on the way up. When we reached the shady overhang we had used for a rest spot on the climb up, the bottles were gone. In their place was a single footprint, made by a traditional Tarahumara sandal. Though we hadn't seen a soul since we'd left town five hours earlier, it seemed probable that we'd been under constant observation. I looked at Luis. "Quien sabe?", he said. "The Tarahumara are invisible, but they're everywhere."

Remote, rugged and hard to get to, Copper Canyon is not for everyone. But if you can forego the homogenized pleasures of the beaten path, you may find yourself on the adventure of a lifetime.

Published: 16 May 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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