travelog 100

Barranca de Urique

Sedum craigii was discovered in 1939 in the Copper Canyon, more precisely in a cliff of the Urique Canyon, and described in 1943. Since then the species has never been found again at its natural locality until the late Juergen Lautner rediscovered it in 2009 on a trip through Chihuahua. Myron Kimnach told us about Lautner's find and he published a short article about it. Lautner did not reveal a GPS position or precise data about the place he had found this species because of fears that the population would be wiped out. Kimnach's article was accompanied only by a locality photo of the plant and a picture of a view down to Urique. Once again, our curiosity was aroused and we drove north from Guachochi to Creel to go down into the Barranca de Urique.

The road between Guachochi and Creel leads through dense pine forests. Echeveria chihuahuaensis, E. craigiana, Sedum madrense and S. raramuri are always worth a stop to take pictures. Agave wocomahi and A. filifera ssp. multifilifera thrive on the mountain slopes. We pass small villages, come through beautiful river valleys, and early in the morning the road is still iced over in shady places. We reach Creel in the late afternoon. Since our first visit in 2001 the small town has grown considerably. It has also been named a "pueblo magico", a magic town. Certainly not because the town is especially beautiful but more likely because some of the most spectacular landscapes of Mexico can be found surrounding the town. One souvenir shop next to the other crowd downtown Creel. There are many hotels, restaurants and bars, and too much traffic. We find 'Los Valles', a quiet hotel on a dark backstreet in the center of town. It has spacious rooms with gas heaters, something you absolutely need in the winter. There's cable TV, and Internet is available in the associated restaurant at the nearby street corner.

Early the next morning we head off towards Divisadero where we first enjoy the magnificent views down into the canyon. Where we camped for free right at the edge of the cliff in 2001, everything is now converted into either parking spaces or hiking paths. Further down the road there's a new cable car station, built by a Swiss-Austrian company and inaugurated in late 2010. The red cabins have room for up to 60 people and run 2.7 kms (1.7 miles) from the Divisadero station to another station 350 m (1150 ft.) below. At one point the maximum distance to the ground is 450 m (1475 ft.). This is the first stage of a huge project and somewhere in the future the cable car will reach the bottom of the canyon. We save ourselves the expensive fun since our plan is to drive all the way down to Urique with the car.

In San Rafael, the next village after Divisadero, we cross the railroad tracks for the umpteenth time. For a short while we're still cruising along a just recently paved wide road though it soon changes into a wide but dusty dirt road only to become narrower and even dustier after another few miles. Oncoming traffic is impressive. It's almost without exception large trucks transporting rocks from different mines in this huge area to Creel. Most of them race recklessly, extremely fast and in the middle of the road. With every encounter you're completely dusted and for a long while you'll see nothing else than a white cloud of dust. The vegetation along the road looks like powdered with confectioner's sugar. Many times we catch a glimpse into small canyons or over endless pine forests. After a while on that bumpy and dusty road we desperately need a break. On a rocky slope with some agaves we also find a small annual sedum. At this time of the year only the dry inflorescences are visible. Finally we reach Bahuichivo, a small town with hotels and restaurants. At the railroad crossing we have to wait patiently. "El Chepe", the Ferrocarril Chihuahua-Pacifico with its initials CHP as in "Chepe", has just arrived. Passengers board the train while others get out and hop on a small combi to reach their sometimes far away ranches.

After Bahuichivo we drive through a beautiful river valley where we find a shady place for a picnic. If only there would be no dust... In the rocks and later along the road we find the first Agave polianthiflora. The next larger settlement is Cerocahui. Now the road steeply snakes up the mountain towards Mesa de Arturo. Vehicles going up push the pedal to the metal to manage all the curves. Cars coming down rattle downhill with smoking brakes. Then we're finally driving down again and towards Urique. At a yellow meadow we catch the first glimpse into the 1879 m (6165 ft.) deep canyon, the deepest in the entire Copper Canyon system. Then we come to a vertical cliff where we meet a Mexican who guided a group of Americans to this point to enjoy the spectacular views in the late afternoon light. He is impressed with our UNAM stickers and we start talking about the flora and fauna of the area. Together with his brother he manages cabañas not far away from where they organize day hikes, horse rides, and excursions to watch birds. Parrots nest in the vertical cliffs, he tells us. He also warns us of the descent to Urique. The steepness of the road is tough on driver and car and brings the brakes to their limits. In the late afternoon sun the canyon walls glow in a beautiful light. We have to postpone all the plant searching for the next day, after all we still have to drive, or better crawl, down approximately 1500 m (4920 ft.). Put into low gears we almost don't need the brakes which is ideal for this incredible descent. In some curves where the terrain is a little flatter people have built houses and corn is cultivated on the steep slopes. Far below us the Rio Urique shimmers in the last rays of the sun and we also see the little town of the same name as the river. The road does not leave much room for maneuvering but at this time of the day there's not much oncoming traffic. Most of the time on one side the mountain goes up in a steep slope and on the other side it drops down almost vertically into the abyss. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of a not-so-lucky-car, the wreck balancing in trees way below the road.

At last we reach the elaborate entrance arch to Urique where the narrow streets are paved. At the restaurant 'La Plaza' in the center of town we ask about hotel rooms. We're the only guests at their hotel 'Estrella del Rio' with simple but clean rooms, located in another building. After a refreshing shower we walk back down to the restaurant. There are tables and chairs in the green back patio. The specialty in Urique is Camaron Aguachile. It's actually a little bit crazy to eat shrimp that had to been flown in by propeller-driven plane at the end of the world, but we're too curious to miss out on the town's specialty. With a cold beer the waiting passes in no time. The Aguachile is served in a molcajete, a stone mortar. Small cocktail shrimp swim in a cold, spicy broth. You ladle the whole thing with tons of sauce and nibble on tostadas, toasted tortillas. Late on a Sunday evening only the drunks are populating the streets of Urique and we soon walk back to the hotel.

In the morning we go down to have breakfast at the restaurant from last night. The girls in the kitchen already prepare the first Aguachile of the day which gives me the opportunity to write down the recipe. Chiltepin, a small, spicy chile, is crushed and ground to a paste in the molcajete with salt, garlic and arí. Arí, or gomilla, is a gum produced by ants that the Tarahumara gather from trees. Next, the molcajete is filled up with ketchup and Kermato (tomato-clam cocktail). Minced onions and tomatoes are added, followed by the cocktail shrimp. The dish is seasoned with dried oregano leaves. The Aguachile is immediately served in the molcajete and tastes delicious - just not for breakfast! If you feel like trying this Urique specialty, try our recipe (direct link here), it tastes great for sure even if you don't have the special ingredient arí in your kitchen cupboard.

Well-fed we leave Urique and start the climb up the mountain. The public bus is in front of us, driving uphill with incredible speed. Traffic is a little denser in the morning, but of course we're talking about just a few cars. Again and again we stop to enjoy the magnificent views or to take a closer look at some plants. Urique lies at an altitude of about 500 m (1640 ft.) in a subtropical climate. Going up the mountain the vegetation slowly changes into conifer forests up in the Sierra Tarahumara. You can go through this entire change of vegetation in just a couple of hours in your car. The steep slopes at about 2000 m (6560 ft.) altitude are densely covered with agaves, dasylirion, nolina and yucca. We find a huge cluster of Echeveria craigiana. At the 'Mirador Cerro Gallegos' we linger a bit longer. You stand above vertically dropping cliffs and have a spectacular view down to Urique and far into the canyons. We almost forget that we're actually here to find Sedum craigii.

Sedum craigii, named after R.T. Craig, was collected by Lindsay and Craig on their 1939 expedition into the Sierra Madre Occidental. Craig (1902-1986) was an American dentist and botanist, and especially known as a Mammillaria specialist. On said expedition two cactus species were named for the leaders, namely Mammillaria craigii and M. lindsayi. Since Lautner never gave out precise locality data, we first feel a little helpless and overwhelmed in consideration of the many cliffs that are visible in the area. But it's our lucky day and we find the plants. With some foolhardy climbing we can even get very close to the plants to get good pictures. Sedum craigii forms large clusters in the cliffs and shares the habitat with other succulent plants. We don't have the time to search around for as long as we would like to but we're convinced that in the many inaccessible cliffs with the same microclimate one can find more large populations of this attractive species. We drive on up the mountain until we reach the much-travelled, bumpy and dusty road behind Mesa de Arturo again. December days are plain and simple too short and it's afternoon when we finally get to Bahuichivo. We sit down in a restaurant frequented by local people. The specialty here is Aguachile too which our table neighbor is having. He is a young man with his cowboy hat deep in his face. He has his head bent so low over the "molcajete" that its brim almost touches the broth. He slurps the Aguachile with a spoon directly from the molcajete into his mouth. His young wife has already finished eating and is waiting for him outside the door. Time flies by too fast and we reach the railroad crossing at San Rafael only at dusk. It's still 50 kms (31 miles) on a winding road with many railroad crossings to Creel. Now we do what everybody, and for good reason, advises against: driving at night through the dark forests of northern Mexico. Soon a huge, orange full moon rises over the mountain ridges, accompanying us all the way to Creel. We return to the Hotel 'Los Valles' for the night. It's December 21st and this same night we can observe a full lunar eclipse from the parking lot of the hotel. This eclipse is the first since 1638 occurring on the day of the Winter Solstice.

Now we're leaving the Copper Canyon area for good, driving west into Sonora. Our next destination is the little ranch 'El Puerto' in the Sierra Matape from where we reported in April of 2001. We would like to revisit Agave shrevei ssp. matapensis, A. ocahui var. longifolia, Yucca grandiflora and Nolina matapensis. And of course we're also curious about what happened to Don Roberto and his wife Graciela and their little farm. But we'll tell you about this adventure in our next travelog.

Febuary 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen