Zipping Over Mexico's Copper Canyon

I gawked in all directions as I flew across the canyons, whooping and hollering all the way.
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I'm scared of heights, which begs the question: What the hell was I doing zipping across a 1500 foot deep canyon on nothing more than a cable, some pulleys and assorted safety equipment?

The adrenaline rush is part of it -- I'm not too old for that -- but it was the views more than anything. As I soared faster than I have ever traveled before without mechanical propulsion, I had plenty of time to look at the maze of canyons below.

The Copper Canyon in northern Mexico is one of the biggest canyons in the world, even bigger than the Grand Canyon -- 6000 vs 4500 feet deep and four times the volume. The Copper is more vast than steep, made up of seven major and over twenty minor canyons rather than vertical walls plunging down to a single river at the bottom like the Grand.

It's not only the scale and the views that make the Copper Canyon so attractive. It is also the home to the Tarahumara Indians, whose isolation in the rugged Canyon has produced many world famous long distance runners and a culture that is still relatively untouched by the modern world.

Another attraction is the scenic Chihuahua al Pacifico train (the "El Chepe"), which was built in the late 19th century. El Chepe is one of the last narrow gauge railroads in North America serving as both a regional transportation system and a tourist attraction. It's a scenic 12-18 hour ride from end to end as the train chugs through the desert, over bridges, through tunnels and up the sides of canyons. You can get off and on at any stop and turn the one day trip into a multiple day tour of the area.

On our one day on the train, I'm sure that my blood pressure dropped to levels that would have put a smile on my cardiologist's face as the train leisurely swayed past cactus and shrubbery, then spiked when it skirted sheer drop offs in the canyons . Throughout our several hours on the train I either leaned back in the comfortable seats and watched the scenery pass by, frequently dozing off, or stood on the platforms between the cars to feel the breeze in my face and look at the unobstructed views. At one stop Tarahumara women besieged the train with colorful woven baskets, setting off a frenzy of bargaining and buying until the train pulled away from the station.

After the train ride, we spent the night at the Hotel Mirador on the rim of the canyon. From the balcony outside our room my wife and I watched the sunset, then the full moon as it bathed the canyon in ghostly light. The next morning I woke up early to watch the sky go from purple to red to orange to yellow as the sun crawled over the edge of the earth.

We zipped, literally, through the rest of the morning at the Copper Canyon Adventure Park on the scariest zip lines I have ever been on -- seven lines plus two suspension bridges traversing various canyons. The lines and bridges ranged from 150 to 1500 feet high and 130 yards to three quarters of a mile in length. For the longest segments, I opted to zip tandem with a guide who could better control our speed and keep me from crashing into the platform at the end. Freed from the need to pay attention to what I was doing, I gawked in all directions as I flew across the canyons, whooping and hollering all the way.

In the afternoon we visited the Valley of Mushrooms and Monks with rock formations that looked very much like mushrooms and nothing like monks. It struck me that it would have been more aptly named the Valley of Phalluses, and indeed it was (or at least the Tarahumara equivalent) until the Jesuits convinced their flock that "monks," though less accurate and colorful, was more acceptable to the Big Guy in the Sky who actually built it. I wonder.

In our way-too-brief four day trip, we also floated down a river in a raft, viewed well preserved 1500 year old petroglyphs, and hiked through a pine forest to a new age retreat where I wouldn't have been surprised to find Mexican versions of Hansel and Gretel. We could have done much more if we had time, such as drive to the bottom of the canyon to visit the quaint 19th Century mining town of Batopilas or hike further into the canyon with a local guide to visit Tarahumara settlements.

Despite all of the news about drug gangs and violence in Mexico, we experienced no crime or even the hint of a threat in our four days in the area. What I discovered, instead, is that Mexico is more than just sun and sand. It has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere else in the Americas...and possibly the only one you can experience dangling at the end of a thin cable flying hundreds of feet in the air.

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