Each fall, hundreds of Tarahumara Indians abandon their fields and wooden huts on the high plateaus of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and descend into the many secluded canyons formed by the rivers Urique, Batopilas, Verde, and Conchos -- a continuous canyonland as vast and deep as the Grand Canyon of Arizona.
On the upper plateaus, at around 7,000 feet, they tend apple and peach orchards among scraggly forests of ponderosa pines; down in the canyon, oranges and papayas among the yucca and cactus. Their annual migrations take them as much as one mile down, into the depths of the Barranca del Cobre -- 'Copper Canyon' -- where the weather better accommodates their austere way of life.
Each spring they return again, up the steep walls of the canyon, to escape the summer heat. Now famous for their tireless running prowess, the Tarahumara routinely trot up and down the sides of the canyons, hunting, herding goats, carrying goods, or just for fun.
The vast ruggedness of the countryside has kept the Tarahumara, and the wild canyons themselves insulated from the influences of modern society. Before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, Tarahumara communities ranged across the entire area of the northern state of Chihuahua. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, they rebelled against Spanish dominion even as their territory shrank back deeper and deeper into the most isolated canyons.
As many as 50,000 ethnic Tarahumaras live in northern Mexico. Today many of them stay in permanent communities on the plateaus, or have been assimilated into Mexican towns. But several thousand retain their traditional migratory lifestyle, spending over half the year in the depths of the Barranca del Cobre. Most of the Tarahumaras I spoke with in the canyon had never been to Creel, the nearest Mexican town, an outpost on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad that climbs through the rugged Sierra de Tarahumara from the Pacific coast to Chihuahua city. They would be surprised to see the stenciled figure of a Tarahumara runner, clad in a loincloth and headband, striding across the boxcars of the Ch. & P. trains.
'Tarahumara' may be an early bastardization of the name these people use for themselves: Rarámuri, meaning 'foot runners'. In their daily lives they regularly cover large distances, much of it vertical, by jogging. It is not their running speed, but their stamina which is exceptional; Tarahumaras are known to hunt deer by chasing them until the deer drops from exhaustion.
A popular contest is the rarahipa kickball race, in which teams from two or more communities each kick a small wooden ball along a set trail winding in and out of the canyons. The ball is kicked ahead to waiting teammates, while others race ahead for the next volly. A short game lasts several hours; more typical are games that go on for a day and a half -- right through the dark of night -- without a stop! And all team members must run the entire race. Various anecdotes attribute the Tarahumara with having shown little interest in competing in international marathon races, because they are "too short".
Not as well known, but equally as important in the social lifes of the Tarahumara is the brewing and copious sharing of tesguino, their unique corn beer. While the Tarahumara usually live in small groups of only a few families, the regular tesguinada festivals bring together far-flung communities for days of tesguino drinking, merry-making, contests, and much-needed social interaction.
At the bottom of the Barranca del Cobre, deep in Tarahumara country on the banks of the Rio Batopilas, the old copper boom town of La Bufa today counts only 64 souls. Most of La Bufa has been abandoned since the copper days at the turn of the century. The mine shafts are boarded up and the school house all but deserted. Another day's journey down the canyon floor by burro, the newer gold and silver mining outpost of Batopilas still operates despite its isolation.
The old jailhouse in La Bufa is now home to a retired American airline pilot who has in turn abandoned the U.S. to mine for gold here. His homemade wooden mining rigs -- based on old Spanish designs -- produce very small quantities of gold, but for five years he has lived the life he enjoys among these wildly beautiful cliffs.
There is no electricity in La Bufa, and all communications and supplies come down by the thrice-weekly 'mail truck' from Creel, an all-day journey over a treacherous road cut into the canyon sides. I endured a couple of trips in the back of that open cattle truck, and in five days of camping on the sandy bank of the Batopilas River below La Bufa, I came to know a little of the elusive Tarahumara's way of life in the Copper Canyon, and of their rugged environment.
Here in the grandeur and desolation of the rugged canyons, spanning over 25,000 square kilometers, is a world apart. It is a world of up and down, of rocks and cliff sides, iguanas, scorpions, deer, hawks, and snakes; of cactus, yucca, kapok, and agave. The canyon is so narrow here that the river sees only an hour or two of direct sunlight each midday. So the Tarahumara make their homes up higher on the steep sides of the canyon that seem to rise straight up for thousands of feet.
It is a dramatic and forbiddingly attractive landscape, brought to life by the Tarahumaras -- bringing corn from between the very rocks, orchards of oranges from hidden mesas, beans, squash, and chilies from little gardens, and herding their goats along the rocky slopes.
In the evenings, wisps of smoke can be seen rising from the cliff sides, where Tarahumara have made their winter homes in caves and among rock outcroppings. They have stacked stones around huge rock overhangs to form their homes, and on crude looms set across pits dug into the earth, they weave cloth from black wool. It is a world they have left unchanged for centuries, leaving only their footpaths and the soot of their fires on cavern walls -- and their ready laughter echoing down the canyon walls.