Part II - Batopilas, the old silver town in the Copper Canyon
By Heidi Trautmann
When I take my friends along the narrow road on the crest of the Kyrenia mountains we usually all close our eyes when the side of the road disappears from our sight. It reminds me of those days in Mexico.
We had come from Baja California with our old Dodge Camper by ferryboat across the Sea of Cortez where we had toured for four months. Whoever we had talked to on our journey from Louisiana through Arizona and Baja, repeated the same formula: ‘Whenever you come to the North of Mexico don’t forget to go up to the Copper Canyon, up with the railway to Creel on over 2300 m and from there by bus down to the bottom to Batopilas.’ This formula had settled in our mind. Having finally arrived in Los Mochis we left our camper near the train station in the backyard of an old lady amongst chicken and pigs. An unexpectedly modern train waited for us at 6.00 in the morning in the very comfortable second class. The train took us through a fantastic word of steeply rising mountains, passing cool looking lakes and small mountain villages, often on fragile rail tracks giving us an eerie feeling. Half way up, it was already afternoon, the train staff told us that we would not be able to continue because a wagon from a goods train had derailed and must first be taken apart by a chainsaw and thrown down the ravine to get the track free for us. Goodness me, just the thought that it could have been us. So, instead of eight hours journey to Creel we arrived there at three in the morning. It was bitter cold. We were taken to the Youth hostel and found the beds just as cold.
After a good breakfast in the kitchen on a long table together with ten young people from all over the world, we walked to catch the bus down to Batopilas. I was very grateful to have thought of our warm anoraks as the front panels of the like a sardine tin looking bus had cracks and the cold wind came through. The driver didn’t seem to mind, the skin of his face looked like leather. We huddled close together as best as we could on the hard wooden bench. We soon turned off to follow a dirt road towards a narrow canyon and I couldn’t help gasping when I saw the steep mountain along which our road was winding along. But before we plunged into the canyon we stopped at a wooden hut where some Indians were waiting for the bus, sitting on sacks of goods, half naked, bare feet, clad in nothing but a loin cloth, it was yellow leather, I remember, leaning against the wall in the rising sun. We were all invited in to have breakfast which big Mama was cooking on an old fireplace. We sat down on a long raw wooden table, got a mug of steaming coffee to drink and some muddy looking beans mash with a fried egg and some freshly made maize tortillas. Our Indians had their bread outside the hut and fed a black huge pig. I felt so good and warm in front of the crackling fire place and when we went outside again I saw a small almond tree with its first blossoms.
Some more passengers had mounted the bus and a small boy whom I had offered a cookie fell asleep at my hip. Around lunchtime, we had some very difficult parts of road behind us, steep, full of holes and the steep nothingness right beside us - I always looked up the mountains never down - that the driver stopped the bus because the oil pressure of the old fashioned brakes was giving in. How delicate, I thought, we had stopped right in front of a Madonna placed in a niche of rocks, why had they placed her here, I asked myself; all the passengers hurried to cross themselves in front of her. I hoped somebody would do enough of pleading to cover us as well. The driver and some male passengers had examined the situation and declared that the brake hose was broken, they fixed it within an hour and on we went. Now we were on our way down, all the way we had come up, we had to go down on the other side of the mountain, sometimes just on the width of our wheels over stones and rocks. I avoided to look out of the window and turned my thoughts inside for a dialogue with myself. Finally we arrived at the bottom, it was late afternoon, when we heard the outcry that the Diesel pipe was leaking and we stopped right in the middle of a narrow bridge and here, where no detour was possible we met with the only other car of the whole day. Our Indians got out - the tribe was known for marathon runs – and ran off to the next village to get the proper part and within another hour the job was done and we continued our way to Batopilas where we arrived in the early evening with still enough light to see the place and make a short reconnoitre walk. The typical Plaza with plane trees all around, some benches and fruit carts. We looked for our hotel Mary, an old-fashioned colonial building, dark courtyard with old furniture and I saw women in white long muslin dresses on the walls and other old photographs of times when the silver mines were still being worked. It was an American who had developed the area with a farm nearby and the city with its colonial buildings. What a forlorn place this must have been with hardly any connection to the outside world. The workers were hired from Indian tribes who worked with all their men and families in the deep going mines. From here the silver was transported over the mountains on donkey’s back over the mountain paths.
We came to the main shop of the place, dark with ceiling high shelves containing everything which the farmers might need, part of it was a pharmacy, post and information office. Here I enquired for a guide to take us to the silver mines. Miguel came, he was the teacher of the place and promised to take us the following day. Most of the houses were open as we passed, and we were invited in, often enough. I spoke to many of them, especially children; hardly anyone spoke English. I asked them about their life, they seemed to be content, and I thought, what you don’t know does not make you want it.
The next morning Miguel took us outside the town, rather a village but for the pompous buildings they would not call it a village, and we walked up the hills and the sun burnt our faces, up and up and Miguel explained to me the many plants for medicinal use, I learnt a lot from him, a knowledge I still use today. He told us about the exploitation of the Indians and I could feel his bitterness. We finally reached the mines with its kilometers of tunnels, vertical and horizontal. In one a goat had got trapped and Miguel freed her.
Not far away we came to a cave where members of the local tribe lived, they refuse to live to modern standard and want to conserve their tribe’s tradition, producing everything themselves, living from what they planted, pure nature people, also speaking nothing but their old language. I felt very humble.
Some days later we went back to Creel the same way and as I looked back out of the window on this isolated place I thought that the less people have the less they complain and I looked down on my hand with two silver rings of a lovely design, made in Batopilas.