Once in Creel, most travellers take the bus or continue on the Copper Canyon railway to Chihuahua, but exploration of the Sierra Tarahumara around Creel is highly recommended. The rugged scenery is exceptionally wild and beautiful. If you’re not up to strenuous activity, or have only limited time, an organized tour is the best way to see the canyons (though these normally require four to six people).
San Ignacio de Arareko
Many tours from Creel take in attractions belonging to the ejido (a collectively owned community) of San Ignacio de Arareko, a Rarámuri land-owning cooperative on the edge of town. To see them independently, follow López Mateos towards the highway, take a left onto the dirt road and continue past the cemetery and uphill into the pine forest.
A few kilometres from the ejido entrance (M$20), you’ll encounter the eighteenth-century Misión de San Ignacio and a series of otherworldly rock formations, including the Valley of the Mushrooms, which contains surreal structures closely resembling giant toadstools, and the Valley of the Frogs, with its squat amphibian-like boulders. The Valley of the Monks lies 5km away (M$15 toll), and has tall upright stones revered by the Rarámuri as symbols of fertility. Serene Lago de Arareco, 7km from Creel on the main highway to Batopilas, is a beautiful spot for fishing (largemouth bass) and camping – you can stay in a cabin on the lake (see Complejo Eco-Turístico Arareko).
Recowata hot springs
The Recowata hot springs (M$20) are 22km from Creel, within biking or riding distance; follow the road to Divisadero for 7km and look for the turning on the left. Here you can bathe in three concrete pools of steamy, clean, sulphurous water. Note that the steep descent to (and return from) the pools can be very strenuous, and shouldn’t be undertaken by the faint of heart (or when it’s wet).
Cascada de Cusárare
The Cascada de Cusárare, 30m high and most impressive during the rainy season (but just a trickle in April/May), lies some 22km from Creel on the Batopilas/Guachochi road, and a forty-minute walk from the highway. You can reach the falls and village by bike, or on the daily Batopilas/Guachochi buses, though you’ll have a long hike back to Creel if you don’t stay overnight. Hitching is a possibility, though you should exercise the usual precautions.
The village of Cusárare itself is 3km further along the road from the Cascada de Cusárare, and contains the eighteenth-century Jesuit Misión de Cusárare adorned with Rarámuri wall paintings completed in the 1970s; the mission’s original art, including a set of twelve rare oil paintings by Miguel Correa (scenes from the life of Mary, painted around 1713), were painstakingly restored in the 1990s and are now housed in the Museo de Loyola next door.
If you want to get a true idea of the scale and beauty of the Sierra Tarahumara, consider a trip to isolated BATOPILAS (460m). Located 123km south of Creel, the town should be more accessible once the new road is opened in 2013, though the journey will still take several hours. The route rises and falls through four of the sierra’s six canyons before commencing a final, convoluted descent to the floor of Batopilas canyon. Founded in 1632, the town emerged as a prosperous silver-mining centre, with production peaking in the nineteenth century under the auspices of the American-owned Batopilas Mining Company. After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, the town went into a permanent decline and the population plummeted. Today Batopilas is a peaceful, subtropical place with a population of about 1200. Resplendent with bougainvillea, palm and citrus trees and strung along a single 2km road by the Río Batopilas, it’s a world away from the fresh pine forests of Creel.
Hacienda San Miguel
Just outside Batopilas you can visit the romantic ruin of Hacienda San Miguel, once the opulent home of Batopilas Mining Co founder (and ex-Washington D.C. governor) Alexander Shepherd, who washed up here in 1880. Shepherd is a fascinating and somewhat controversial figure in the US, admired for his social reforms and essentially creating modern D.C., but eventually fired for bankrupting the city. The house itself dates back to the seventeenth century and had been used by mining magnates years before Shepherd took over the place. Abandoned in the 1920s (Shepherd had died in 1902), the hacienda has been in a state of elegant decay ever since, one tower virtually engulfed by a sprawling bougainvillea. To reach the site, walk upriver for around thirty minutes, crossing the bridge when you see the ruins.
There are several worthwhile hikes here, leading from Rarámuri villages as well as to abandoned mines and waterfalls. The best of these go to the “Lost Cathedral”, the eighteenth-century Misión de San Miguel de Satevó, 8km away in a desolate landscape of cacti and dust. A longer, three-day trek leads to the town of Urique, and can be organized with an operator in Creel.
Rustic GUACHOCHI, about 170km to the south of Creel, is a ranching town of around twelve thousand that provides access to the sierra’s most remote and awe-inspiring locale, the Cañon de la Sinforosa (a further 18km south). Some of the hikes in Sinforosa are fairly hardcore – the canyon is 1830m deep and a trek along its length, for example, can take up to three weeks – while easier walks lead to stunning vantage points overlooking the valleys. There are also various hot springs and waterfalls in the region; the most spectacular is the Cascada Rosalinda with an 80m drop. Rarámuri culture is thriving in this region, with Norogachi, 60km from Guachochi, one of the last remaining Rarámuri ceremonial centres, especially renowned for the vivid celebrations that occur during Semana Santa.
Cascada de Basaseachi
The jaw-dropping 312m Cascada de Basaseachi (also “Basaséachic”), is the second-highest waterfall in Mexico (though the highest, Piedra Volada, a day’s hike from Basaseachi, only flows during the rainy season). The falls make a long, but spectacularly rewarding day’s excursion – about four hours’ drive to the north of Creel (163km via San Pedro), followed by two hours on foot. It’s best to visit in the rainy season (summer), when the falls are fullest. There are two viewpoints (both M$10); the first is above the falls beyond the otherwise dull village of Basaseachi itself, while the second lies on the other side of canyon, affording the best views (trails connect both viewpoints). The falls are located within the largely unexplored Barranca de Candameña, the widest canyon in the region, with staggering sheer rock walls.