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I found myself suspended, losing control as I slid fast down the edges of the steep stone trail. Both sets of my knuckles turned ghostly white as I braced for dear life and tried to bury my hiking poles deeper into the pebbly, loose earth, staring fearfully down into the abyss on my left. Once I regained my balance, I gazed with an apprehending eye at the robust thorny cactuses, skeletal trees and dagger-edged boulders which I calculated would, for better or for worse, probably break my fall much before my body would tumble onto the valley floor about a thousand metres below. For the hundredth time that morning I promised myself I wouldn’t fall. In awe, I thought of the indigenous tribes who have been using these same tricky mountain paths for centuries and, unlike my awkward tripping snail’s pace, navigate them at speeds of marathon runners, deft light footing in leather huarache sandals effortlessly floating along the wobbly terrain.
The Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s northern “Copper Canyons” named for their green coppery tones, are a network of six canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental range in the state of Chihuahua. Together, they put their northern neighbour the Grand Canyon to shame, being larger, deeper and a whole lot more wild and desolate. The principal guardians of these vast ranges are the Tarahumara (or Rarámuri) indigenous tribes who fled to the canyons to escape Spanish rule back in the 1500s. An official consensus lists them as being around 50,000 in number, but this is a tricky estimation – the Tarahumara lead nomadic lives, scattered amongst remote rickety wooden huts and isolated caves peppered throughout the mountainside.
If you’ve heard of the Tarahumara before, it’s probably because of their endurance. They can run, run, run, for hours, nonstop, outpacing the innumerous international marathon runners that have come to the canyons just for a race. The Rarámuri have been known to nonchalantly munch on a packet of crisps, smoke tobacco and not even stretch or warm up before they vanish in a puff of smoke into the distance at incredible speeds, leaving the ‘professionals’ miles behind.
Compared to the Tarahumara, and even to a mountain goat, I was clearly an embarrassment. However, our four-day trek through the canyons was one of the most singular trips of my life. We set out from Creel, a non-descript town near Chihuahua and began our trek in the midst of a powerfully fragrant pine tree forest, backpacks heaving with water, sun cream, nuts, flutes and sleeping bags. As we slinked through the forest, chatty conversation gave way to each person’s meditative thoughts and observations of the changing foliage around us. The trees began to clear out and we got our first real glimpse of the impressive jagged cliffs and lava formations which were to be our home for the next few days. Conversation centred for a while on a particular stone tower, which the guide amicably called the “mushroom rock” (but I know that everyone was really thinking that it was most definitely a phallus, not a mushroom). We spotted an amorous pair of guacamayas (macaws) floating high above us, brilliant verdant green and red feathers catching the midday sun in an enviable show of courtship and joyful surfing along the rising hot air.
The searing heat of the sun and high altitude of the canyons called for frequent breaks in the shade, and each meal we stopped for took on epic proportions. Never have I enjoyed a simple tomato and potato soup as much as I did on that first night in our camp, perched high atop the canyons on a lunar landscape of rounded boulders with a hummingbird-laden tree just below us, and the summer solstice strawberry moon slowly rising above the cliffs in the distance. I slept in the open air, very aware of the fact that any excessive rolling about or sleepwalking would send me over the edge, but the urge to sleep under the milky stars was too strong.
The next day we descended into the depths of the valley and, as anyone who has walked down a mountain knows, the way down can often be a much more treacherous and exhausting challenge than the way up. As I sweated my way down, cutting my legs on sharp pebbles and branches, I was perfectly in the moment. Nothing else could distract me from the matter at hand – whenever my mind drifted, I would stumble and fall. Navigating my feet onto every stone was a form of meditation unlike I had ever experienced before. I picked some leaves from the side of the path, fresh and aromatic eucalyptol, and smelling them crushed up in my palm filled me with newborn energy.
The valley floor suddenly turned tropical and in the blink of an eye we were amongst papaya and mango groves, palm trees and soft grass, a Garden of Eden in the middle of the desert. We paced alongside a natural riverbed with teal-blue and lilac rocks and small natural pools of freezing cold water that we tore our clothes off to jump into. Once we had laid out our tents for the night it was an exhilarating game of hopscotch up the rocks to a thundering waterfall about half an hour away. It cut its way through the rock face and spilled into a silent haunted clearing with ancient oak trees and weeping willows whose boughs drifted in the currents.
I had never considered myself a trekker, but I think this trip converted me. You start to learn a whole lot about yourself, the incessant chatter of your mind, your neuroses, and realise that tiredness is mostly in the mind. You begin to find astonishing sources of strength just by focusing on the rhythm of your feet crunching on the ground and the slow feeling of entering the heartbeat of the canyons. And after listening to the mountains for days on end, the only sounds being baby goats bleating in the distance and the wind stroking through pine needles, the return to civilisation, planes and city cars of Mexico City was a strange (and not entirely welcome) feeling.
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