Waterfalls and Lakes and Monks, Oh My!

Shortly after our healings, we jumped back into the van and continued our visit to sites in and around Creel.  We were first headed to Cascada Cusárare, where the Cusárare River plummets 100 feet over a rock ledge as it begins its journey to join the Urique River.  Cusarare means “place of the eagles” in Rarámuri; however, the once plentiful golden eagles who lived in this area are now found only in a few isolated spots.  This area is very important to the Rarámuri as it is home to thermal springs which they believe hold curative powers.  Had I known about this prior to my healing by shaman, I just might have opted for the thermal springs instead.

The waterfall is located in a the Cusárare Canyon, and due to a drought that has affected the Sierra Madre region for many years now, our van was able to drop us off right at the beginning of the trailhead.  A young, Rarámuri boy guided us to the top of the falls.  Our path was not too difficult, and there was no fear of getting lost even if we somehow managed to lose our guide. The trail was lined with stalls manned by Rarámuri women selling their baskets, jewelry, and carvings.  We were able to watch several women weave as we hiked through.  And if we happened to wear ourselves out on the trek, checking out the goods provided us with a great excuse to rest for a minute.


On our way to Creel for lunch, we stopped by Lago de Arareko, a u-shaped lake, surrounded by fragrant pine forests and interesting rock formations.  We saw eagles soaring over a wide open meadow to one side of the lake.  Coming from Indiana, lakes were certainly nothing new to me.  But kind of like the waterfall, it was an unexpected surprise.  I am also the kind of person who can get pretty excited by just about anything.  And a never seen before high altitude lake in the Sierra Madre definitely qualifies.

We did not have a lot of time to explore Creel after lunch.  It reminded me of a frontier style town and was definitely more touristy than anything I had seen since our trip to Cabo San Lucas in December.  Steve and I did have the opportunity to visit the basket store where the Rarámuri women could trade their handicrafts for supplies.  Everything in the store was absolutely gorgeous, and the potential was definitely there for a frenzy.  But Steve had actually done a little shopping of his own that day, and garbage bags aside, I did not want us to be too overwhelmed with packages for our return trip.  I selected one item and was pleased to know the proceeds from my purchase would help support the Clinica Santa Teresa.

On our way to the Valley of the Monks, our final stop, we passed rock formations that resembled elephants, mushrooms, and frogs.  The Valley of the Monks had, of course, been renamed by the Spanish.  The Rarámuri had a name more in line with the fertility rituals practiced here.  And once we saw the rock formations, their name made perfect sense.  I suppose if I closed one eye and squinted, I could kind of, sort of see where the Spanish might have seen monks instead.  The rocks were formed from wind and rain and rise some 15 to 20 meters high.  It was amazing to walk among the giant figures.  

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It was very serene, in spite of the Rarámuri children who appeared out of nowhere hoping to sell bracelets and wooden figurines.  We knew before coming the many hardships faced by the Rarámuri and how much they depended on the tourists to supplement their subsistence lifestyle.   And I happily swapped 10 peso coins for small carvings of Rarámuri Indian women in colorful skirts and kerchiefs.  


The Rarámuri are very supportive of one another.  Earnings and other goods are often shared among families.  In fact, on our way to the Valley of the Monks, we passed the only Rarámuri home in the area with a television.  We were not at all surprised to learn that the owner regularly hosted viewing parties and invited all of his neighbors.

From start to finish, this was one of those days that will remain forever in my heart as one of the best.  Body, soul, and spirit were all “healed” by the human and natural wonders in what can only be described as a magical place.

The Art of Healing

Today just might have been the busiest day on our Copper Canyon trip.  Unfortunately, we would feel it for sure because I had dragged Steve out of bed well before the sunrise so that we could be in place in plenty of time to see the sunrise.  Fortunately, our first stop would take us to the home of a Rarámuri shaman.  For 50 pesos, we were told, Catalina would perform a healing.  Perhaps she would have a fix for sleepiness.



Catalina greeted us on the rim of yet another canyon.  I wish I could be more specific.  Truthfully, I just do not remember which one. She then invited us to her home where she would perform the healings.  Catalina lived in a traditional Rarámuri home; a cave.  Actually, two sides and the roof were made of rock, and she closed the remaining sides with wood, similar to a log cabin.  It was obvious that Catalina was very proud of her home.  Standing on her roof, we could see for miles across the canyon, bursting with green.  Steps carved into the mountain rock led down to her front door.

Her home was one room.  Obviously, she had no electricity or running water.  There was a fire burning, and the smoke was vented though one of the walls.  Catalina had four pieces of furniture:  a stump which she used as a chair, a wooden, platform bed (no mattress), a small, handmade wooden end table, and a long, narrow table used for food preparation and storage.  She had added shelves to the walls to hold some of her supplies.  The rest were kept in plastic, five gallon buckets under the table.  Natural shelves in the rock walls held smaller items. She cut a small viewing window in the wall directly on the rim of the canyon.  Looking through it, I became dizzy for the first time since arriving in the canyon system. 

Catalina, a Rarámuri shaman, and her granddaughter, Lola, in front of their home

The home was crowded with eight adult visitors.  Since the only place for guests to sit was on the bed, that is exactly what five of us did.  I seated myself on the wooden stump and was immediately joined by Catalina’s small granddaughter, Lola.  Lola was fascinated with my curly hair, and it kept her distracted while her grandmother performed the healings.  Ruth and our driver, a close friend of Catalina’s, moved in and out of the home.  Catalina knew some Spanish, but she spoke primarily, Rarámuri, an indigenous language spoken by more than 70,000 people in the state of Chihuahua.  Our driver helped translate.

Now, I was completely unsure whether Steve would agree to participate in the healing.  He does not like to visit a regular doctor, and there is no way anyone would ever describe him as a “New Age, searching for enlightenment” kind of guy.  So imagine my shock when he not only decided to go for it, but actually volunteered to go first!

I have read about sweat lodges and smudging.  I know about the power of medicine men among indigenous peoples.  I have had friends describe their experiences with healing crystals.  I know many who practice meditation and swear by holistic treatments for various illnesses.  None of this prepared me for what I was about to witness.  I am not sure if it was a good thing to let someone else go first or not.  Once Catalina got started healing Steve a part of me thought, “Meh, I have lived with this shoulder pain since December.”

First, using a cigarette, she blew smoke into his ears and mouth.  Catalina then moved the smoking cigarette in circles around his shoulders, knees, and lower back.  She spit water on the top of his head- -and stuck her finger in his mouth.  Finally, she had Steve rub an uncooked egg (yes, it was in the shell) over the parts of his body where he experienced the most pain.  I have never in my life seen my husband more serious about anything!  He still giggles when someone says Uranus (well, don’t we all), yet he appeared stoic throughout his healing, no matter where he was being poked, prodded, or spit upon.


And when Catalina broke the egg in a cup of water so we could all see the pain that had been removed from his body, Steve was fascinated by the knife shape leaving the yolk from the underside.  “Yes, that is exactly what the pain in my shoulder has felt like since December!”  (We had the same pain, due to our increased kayaking.)  And I could tell by the look in his eyes that he truly believed the pain had been absorbed by the egg and removed.  He had follow up instructions; he needed to complete some steps once we returned home.  He solemnly agreed to carry them out.  

After seeing what Steve endured, one in our group decided she was just fine and opted out.  That moved me up a spot.  And when it was my turn, in addition to having water spit on my head, smoke blown in my ears, and a finger inserted into my mouth, my buddy, Lola, also walked back and forth across my back.  I am not going to lie.  When I left Catalina’s home I felt somehow changed, different, in a good way.

And get this!  The next morning Steve and I had zero pain in our shoulders!  Joe; however, had a stiff neck and a headache.

Distracted, I mean, Distance Running

On our short train ride between Bahuichivo and Posada Barrancas station, I found out exactly what does happen when one does not have a Ruth or an “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide”.  A couple already on the train when we boarded, realized after we left the station that they were supposed to have gotten off.  Yikes!  Fortunately, two north and south trains run each day.  And each of these trains stop in the small town of San Rafael, where train crews switch out.  

While the couple exited the train in San Rafael to wait for the train coming from the opposite direction, so did our crew.  They were not planning on boarding the incoming train; however.  When I write “small of town of San Rafael”, I mean small.  All that is there are barracks for the employees to rest and relax in until their next shift begins.

And because there is a wait while the crew changes, this stop provides the Rarámuri

Rarámuri women sell baskets while the train is stopped in San Rafael for crew changes.

women with another opportunity to sell their baskets.  Passengers do not normally get off the train here, so all buying and selling happens through the open windows.  The women who sell are  part of a group of Rarámuri who have left their own communities but have not learned Spanish or chosen to live in the Mexican towns scattered throughout the Copper Canyon.  They are no longer accepted by their own people and have not been accepted by the Mexican community either.  In many ways, they are even more isolated than the Rarámuri who choose to keep themselves separate from “modern” civilization.  The situation of these women seemed even more precarious to me as they have 15 minutes, four times a day, to earn money to support their families.

Once the new crew was in place, we continued down the track until we came to Posada Barrancas station.  We did the “hurry up and grab luggage and get off” routine again, and climbed into a waiting van.  Sometime between exiting the train and entering the van, the luggage we worked so hard to drag off with us disappeared!  By the time we arrived at the hotel (truly a five minute ride) and checked in, our luggage had already been placed in our room.  Our hotel sat right on the rim of the Urique Canyon, and from our terrace we could look straight down into it.

IMG_3230We spent our afternoon with Martín, a Rarámuri runner.  Martín continues to live with his Rarámuri family, but he has also learned Spanish and works outside of his traditional community.  Martín led us along the rim of the canyon as he explained the running game, Rarájipari, to us.  The game is played between two teams.  Each team uses a wooden stick to send a ball out ahead of the group.  The teams chase the ball.  They do not get a chance to ever catch up with it though because a front runner continues to move the ball forward once he reaches it.  

Sometimes the teams decide on a relay, where the ball is “thrown by foot” to groups of runners constantly moving forward along the course.  Martín demonstrated his foot throwing technique.  He used his toes to pick up and then position the ball on the flat part of his foot.  He made it look effortless- -and it was extra impressive to me, as the one who always popped out to the pitcher in neighborhood kickball games.   

The game can last several hours or several days, depending on the parameters the teams have agreed upon.  The winner of the game is the group that crosses the finish line first.  The Rarámuri run in huaraches, a shoe consisting of nothing more than a sole and simple straps.  I struggle walking in my name brand tennis shoes.

Right about question and answer time, I started hearing a lot of “dinging”.  It took me a moment to figure out what it was- -I had not heard the sound since we entered the canyon.  Yep.  Cell phone text messages and e-mails.  Up until this point on the trip, we had absolutely no connection with the outside world.  Apparently, Martín just happened to stop in the one spot in the entire canyon that had cell reception to give his presentation.  And every phone was letting its owner know.  

I wish I could say that everyone ignored them- -what was three more days anyway at this point, right?  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Even standing on the rim of the deepest canyon in the Copper Canyon system, learning about a traditional game played by the Rarámuri since before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s- -a people who are still living in caves and growing their own food, cell phones had the power to break the spell.  

While the rest of the group was busy checking their phones, I bought a beautiful pair of hand carved wooden earrings from a young Rarámuri girl and had the rock outcrop to myself for canyon gazing and picture taking.  And there was absolutely no sound other than birdcalls as I stood on the edge and said a silent prayer of thanks that the volume control on my phone is broken. 


The Small Pieces Make the Big Picture

IMG_1561We had the morning to explore the area around Cerocahui before catching the train to our next destination in the Copper Canyon.  Being that we were pressed for time, a hike to the nearby waterfall was out of the question.  Appeased by the promise of a waterfall viewing in Creel, we headed out by van to sites offering the most amazing views of the Urique Canyon, the deepest in North America.  We did not see any guardrails separating the road from the canyon rim along the way.  The potential dangers of the route were made all the more real by memorial crosses, marking accident sites where loved ones had been lost.

Our final destination, Mirador del Cerro del Gallego on the rim of the canyon, was approximately one hour’s drive from our hotel.  The outlook, complete with a glass-bottomed viewing deck and a suspension bridge between look-outs, provided stunning vistas of the Urique Canyon.  I surprised myself by trying both.  Steve, who fears for my safety when I am walking a straight line on flat ground, was panic stricken as I dipped and bounced my way across on the bridge.  But, a little nervous of heights himself, the result of a long ago fall from a rooftop, he had no choice but to watch from the sidelines.  Back safely on solid ground, we looked down on the Urique River and the small town of Urique, 1,800 meters below.  Wow!  Just wow!


Urique was totally isolated, disconnected from the outside world until 1975 when a road complete with switchbacks and hairpin turns was built.  Telephone service and electricity did not arrive until the 1990’s.  The town now serves as on outpost or hub for distribution of supplies to even tinier surrounding areas.  Mind you, with a population of just over 1,000 people, many of whom are Rarámuri, Urique is pretty small itself.  Temperatures are so extreme due to the tropical climate of the canyon bottom that many families move higher up in the surrounding Sierra Madre during the summer months.  


The van was pretty quiet on the way back to the hotel as we were all completely mesmerized by what we had just seen.  Steve was in such a state of awe that he initially missed all signs pointing to our first shopping opportunity.  Yes, yes, I know.  Steve anticipated no shopping opportunities.  It had been one of the selling points I used to convince him to go with me in the first place.  The smaller the suitcases, the less likelihood of shopping, right?  However, I did conveniently forget to mention that Ruth suggested we pack a couple of empty garbage bags in our suitcases- -for the beautiful Rarámuri baskets we would find.  (Because, of course, baskets fit better in bags than suitcases.)  And lo and behold, I had packed two of them in my suitcase one day while he was still at work.

But let me tell you.  This was a different kind of shopping altogether, and even Steve was intrigued- -no, no blown away by the works of art offered to us by the Rarâmuri women.  And there is absolutely no other way to describe the baskets displayed in front of us than masterpieces.

The baskets are woven using the needles from the local pine trees found in the canyon, IMG_2147specifically the Colorado pine, and the leaves from the sotol plant (desert spoon, spoon flower).  They range in size from minuscule (perfect for holding earrings and other tiny treasures) to quite large (ideal for books, blankets, and dried flowers).  Depending on size, the baskets can take anywhere from one hour to three days to make.  Many are left in their natural state, while others are dyed using materials like roots and flowers for colors.  Rarámuri women can take their baskets to a special store in Creel, where they receive supplies in exchange for them.  A popular trade is for tissue paper, which is used to create colors not available in nature.  All proceeds from the sale of the baskets taken to this shop support the Clinica Medica Santa Teresita, a medical clinic for the Rarámuri people in and around Creel.

Our friend, Jerry, went a little nuts!  (Thank goodness!  She kept Steve’s attention focused off of me because I might have been going a little bit nuts too!)  It was difficult not to though.  The woman selling the baskets was older, and she seemed tired.  I think we all wanted to buy from her so that she could go home and rest.  I was embarrassed to pay so little for her beautiful handicrafts and had a hard time understanding why the prices were so low.  Yes, she had no cost in materials, but the time she spent on her weaving and the talent required seemed far greater than the 30 pesos she asked for a small basket with a lid.  It was so important to me that she knew how much I valued what she had created.  And when I told her to please keep the 20 pesos change from my purchases 1) because change is often very difficult to come by and 2) because I honestly did not think I paid her enough, the woman insisted on giving me a “regalo”, a gift.  

We thanked her and turned to leave when Ruth noticed an item in a plastic bag that had not been taken out for display.  She asked about it.  The woman shook her head and clucked her tongue.  “No, es may caro.”  She seemed embarrassed by the price she was asking.  We all begged to see it, and the woman pulled out the most incredible hand woven sun hat from her bag, all the while shaking her head and mumbling “muy caro”, very expensive.  This beautiful hat somehow ended up on my head, and you know what is coming.  That is where it stayed.  

The “very expensive”, hand woven, hand dyed hat was $5.00.  I experienced big views all morning, but it took until the afternoon for me to see the big picture. 

Big Things Come in Small Packages

We had a couple of hours on our own to explore Cerocahui before our “official” introduction, but honestly, we only needed about 15 minutes.  The town, nestled in a fertile valley on the edge of the Urique Canyon, is very tiny.  It is home to maybe 900 people.  A few small, independent grocery stores surround a central plaza.  A cluster of homes are located just off the main area.  In spite of its size, there are three local schools.  Formerly a mining town, forestry, farming (orchards and vineyards), and tourism are the primary sources of employment and income today. 


The Jesuits arrived in 1679.  Slowly, they introduced Christianity to the Rarámuri Indians, the indigenous peoples of the Copper Canyon.  (Tarahumara is the name given to the indigenous people of the Sierra Madre by non-Indian peoples.  The correct name is Rarámuri, meaning “light feet”.)  The Jesuits stayed until 1767, when they were expelled by the Spanish king, who much preferred using the Indians for free labor in the mines.  

Cerocahui does not appear in any history books again until 1937, when a Jesuit priest, Padre Andres Lara, returned to the area.  Padre Lara built the first roads making travel into and out of Cerocahui easier, though horses and mules were used up until the 1970’s.  The Pacific Chihuahua Railroad, completed in 1961, was truly the first public transportation in the area.  Long distance telephone service and electricity were slow to arrive, owing still to the isolation of Cerocahui due to the geography of the area (late 1990’s-early 2000’s).  

The roads only made it easier for the Rarámuri people once they arrived in town.  Even today, access to their homes high in the Sierra Madre or deep in the canyon is granted  via nearly invisible pathways.  Many of the Rarámuri prefer to remain separated from the modern community.  They do not speak Spanish or possess official documents like birth certificates.  They do not own cars or telephones.  They do not have electricity.  Distances are covered and messages communicated by moving up and down the canyons on foot.  As a result, the Rarámuri are strong and gifted runners.  Some men, identified from an early age with the gift, compete in and win long distance races around the world.  Any money earned is shared among the members of their communities.

Unfortunately, they have not remained as separate as they would have liked.  The isolation of the Copper Canyon appeals to others for more nefarious reasons.  The Rarámuri have been forced by drug cartels to grow illegal crops instead of the food that sustains them- -or their land has been stripped from them.  They are forced to move to areas where the earth is not as suitable for farming.  Their children are threatened, harmed, or even taken from them.  As if that is not enough, the Rarámuri are suffering from a decade long drought.  Many of their children have died from starvation.

Rarámuri families may have 14-15 children.  The boys work with their fathers learning skills in the fields and around the homes.  Some are chosen and trained as runners.  Typically, it is the women who have more interaction with the outside world.  They sell their beautiful woven baskets, carved walking sticks, and copper jewelry to the tourists who come through the Copper Canyon on El Chepe.  An education grants the women an opportunity to learn the Spanish and math skills they will need.  However, the truth remains that many families choose to enroll their daughters, aged 4-13, in the Virgin of Guadalupe/Tewecado Boarding School in Cerocahui to keep them nourished and safe more than anything.  

IMG_5337Our “official” tour began at the Tewecado (“Place of Girls”) Boarding School.  The school was established in the 1941 by four sisters from the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor.  It is a private school and receives absolutely no government support.  Incidentally, the school receives no financial support from the church either.  Day to day operations and maintenance costs are covered by private donations only.  Nuns care for the nearly 100 boarders, providing them with three daily meals, safety, and an education.  Yes, this is the order of importance, as the Rarámuri live very much in “today”.  Parents bring their daughters on foot from as far as 4-5 days away; therefore, visits with family are often infrequent.  The site is also a day school for as many as 250 students within walking distance.

The students in residence were playing in the center courtyard when we arrived, enjoying a bit of IMG_6467downtime before afternoon Mass.  The girls drew, played soccer, and ran races across the courtyard.  Their skirts and blouses were a riot of bright colors, designed to reflect the Rarámuris’ joy of living.  Most of the girls kept their hair covered at all times, and all covered their hair upon entering the church for services.

Learning responsibility is also a focus at the school curriculum.  The girls wash their own clothes and own dishes.  Immediately after eating, they reset their places at the table for the next meal.  In their homes, the girls sleep on the ground.  The Devil lives underground, and the Rarámuri believe that by sleeping closer to him, their troubles will go down, leaving them.  At the boarding school, everyone has her own bed in a dormitory.  And every single bed was made!

Donations recently paid for a new, modern kitchen area- -a necessity for sure, with so many mouths to feed.  We left candy with the nuns to distribute to the girls as a treat, and many of us made monetary donations as well.  So much good was being done with so very little. 

IMG_0007The girls began lining up for Mass, so we hurried to the church before their arrival.  Padre Lara completed reconstruction of the mission as well.  The entrance into the grounds is as large as it is to provide room for dancing, as the Rarámuri always danced when they came to Mass.  The alter area and supports for the center dome are all that remain of the original mission building.  And today, the Cerocahui mission serves as the center of Easter season celebrations for the Rarámuri people; many walking great distances to participate. 

Cerocahui is a small town in the center of an enormous landscape.  How easy it might have been to pass it by, not ever knowing it was there.  But what gifts its discovery held- -a rich history, a resilient people, celebration, and hope- -shining brightly in the eyes and smiles of the Copper Canyon’s future.

If you would like to make a donation to the school, you may do so here.