Memories of Mushrooming in Mexico's Copper Canyon
By Someone Who was There
For some people, the name Chihuahua connotes an image of the tiny, yelping dog with bulging eyes who loves certain tacos. His name actually comes from the northern, largest state of the 31 in the republic of Mexico. The size superlative of this region carries through into other notable tops, firsts and biggests. The state is the top cattle-raising area in the country and it was also where Pancho Villa first started the insurrections that became the Mexican revolution of 1910. Somewhat related to these might be the achievement of Chihuahua City, the state capital, also having clearly become the cowboy/riding boot capital of probably the world. Several downtown streets are jammed with store after store selling bedazzling displays of boots of every color and type of leather. Ostrich and alligator textures seem particularly popular.
But for the 23 participants and staff who converged on Chihuahua City on August 15, 2004 to embark on the first Copper Canyon Mushroom Expedition organized by Mexican Mushroom Tours, two other superlatives were paramount. The first is that the region of our foray comprised the network of spectacular gorges which forms the biggest, deepest canyon in North America, grander than the Grand. For this group, though, the even bigger top attraction was the knowledge that we were arriving in an abundant fungi area at the prime time for the appearance of a wide variety of Boletus, Amanita and other species, many of which are deliciously edible.
Our get-together dinner and orientation evening at a comfortable downtown hotel (after some had already succumbed to the colorful boot temptations) was an enjoyable evening of introductions and, in many cases, renewed friendships for those who had been on previous Mexican mushroom tours in other locations.
Monday morning, the expedition started when our driver Fredy wheeled his big, new, bright red school-type bus to the hotel door. We headed west toward the canyon hill-country known as the Sierra Tarahumara, named after the colorful and still rather isolated and tradition-bound indigenous people whose domain is the Copper Canyon. But first, a breakfast stop with another interesting ethnic group. We had our morning meal in what could have looked like a modern, American highway eatery, except that it was run and staffed by Mennonites who spoke better German than Spanish, the waitresses had a scrubbed, fair European look and manner, and the food was delicious.
We drove past acres of netted apple orchards tended by the local Mennonite community (Chihuahua is also the apple capital of Mexico). Finally, the flat agricultural plains gave way to increasingly dramatic hills, rock formations and pine forests, and we arrived in the industrial lumber town of San Juanito. This town is (another top) reputedly the COLDEST town in all of Mexico. At more than 8,000 ft. and in the north of the country, this reputation has likely been earned, but not in the middle of August, we hoped.
Our first area lodgings, the Cabanas Noritari, were nestled in a forest a few minutes outside the town. Everybody settled happily in to their cozy, well-designed and beautifully decorated log cabins. We did note that each cabin had heavy blankets on the beds, a large fireplace, with an ample stack of wood, plus a substantial gas heater AND another gas heater in the bathroom! Maybe temperature lows would be set after all.
After a pleasant lunch in the delightfully outfitted dining room, most people hurried outside with their Tarahumara-crafted collecting baskets to gather interesting mushroom specimens sprouting on the grounds around the cabins. A few also enjoyed a horse-back ride around the 80 acre property, no doubt keeping an eye out for fungi as they trotted along.
By the end of the day, our forayers had managed to amass a rather impressive collection, and our mycologists soon had the specimens displayed and in the large hall adjoining the dining room. That hall also had a display of mushroom-themed paintings by Spanish artist Frank Soto - part of a Feria del Hongo, a local mushroom fair, the previous week. Our experts, Adriana Montoya, Alejandro Kong, Arturo Estrada (all of the University of Tlaxcala) and Joaquin Cifuentes (head botanist at the University of Mexico City) were quite excited by some of the finds and discussed specimens and their features with the group.
At our enjoyable dinner, featuring an A. Caesarea side dish, lodge owner Lauro Marquez, who is also an enthusiastic organizer and promoter of the local mushroom fair, and his artistic wife Sol (who is the interior decorator and also the gourmet artist in the kitchen), mingled happily with the group and warmly welcomed us visitors from so many corners of North America.
After a restful mountain-cabin sleep and a Sol-created breakfast, we hopped back on Fredy's red bus, with Lauro to guide us, to find a nearby valley outside the village of San Miguel Bocoyna. We finally reached a wide valley and eagerly began the hunt. As sometimes happens, there was little of interest at first and there were a few grumblings about "Half an hour on the bus for this? There was more in front of my cabin door."
But, as most mushroom forayers have learned, persistence brings success. After fanning out in all directions on varying terrain, several platoons began striking exciting patches, especially Boletes, and the morning's outing was overall very productive and a very scenic location to boot.
On the way back, we persuaded Fredy to stop the bus at various merchants in San Juanito for needs ranging from camera film to wine. With everybody well restocked and happy, the afternoon was spent with more exploring the property and relaxing until our mycologists made further presentations on the new finds of the day.
Then another reward for everybody's efforts - a mushroom-tasting session, where each variety of edibles was separately hot-fried with just a bit of butter and salt, to accentuate the unique flavors of each, enhanced by appropriate San Juanito wines, of course.
Our last evening's dinner at Noritari lodge was accompanied by live classical flute and cello by a duo from the Chihuahua symphony. A melodious and enchanting evening.
Wednesday morning it was time to move 30 miles on to the now somewhat bustling small town of Creel, which over the last few years has become the travelers' gateway to the Copper Canyon region.
But, before checking into our accommodations, we had a different, full day of mushroom foraying and sightgaping planned. Our local guide, Reyes, took us to an area of hills beside fabled Lake Arareko, which is a heart of the Tarahumara lands. (Although the people and region are widely known as Tarahumara, the people call themselves Raramuri (Ra-RA-Mu-REE)- "the people who run fast.") Indeed, although the area is very tranquil, indigenous children and women dressed in a rainbow of colors discreetly hovered with their even more colorful arrays of handcrafted shawls, belts, bracelets and more. Many of us bought, in a heady mood after yet more happy fungi finds in the surrounding hills. And a number of our burrito lunches were donated to some of the quiet, proud kids selling their wares.
Our bus then took us to a startling nearby area of stone formations called "The Valley of the Monks" by some. Majestic, towering protuberances they are and pictures were taken while others couldn't help but to look for more fungi at the bases of the tall giants.
Then we drove to another corner of the plain where the huge, glacier-carved rocks looked like … yes, they were, unmistakably… mushrooms! In most cases it was a base (stem) rock that had, perched on it, a round boulder like a cap. With one of the largest ones, Fredy showed us exactly where to apply pressure on the multi-ton cap so as to get it rocking like a cradle. Tour organizer Erik especially seemed to relish this newfound power he'd discovered.
As the late afternoon skies became overcast, promising rain to bring more fungi, we finally headed into the centro of Creel to check into our new lodgings. Our base would be the Margarita's Plaza, a U-shaped, two-story, modified ex-motel around a small courtyard. First on the agenda: the evening's technical presentations. Adriana gave a revealing study of the local indigenous population and their traditional use and knowledge of mushrooms. Then Joaquin painted a full picture of biological relationships and diversity, with a focus on fungi and their role and importance.
Thursday morning arrived with a sparkling, clear sky - a perfect day to trek to the famous 150ft. Cusarare (Ku-sar-aRAY) waterfall in the woods a few miles away. Fredy's bus took us to within a mile of the falls and the walk was a picturesque, pleasant hike along a riverside path, occasionally dotted with unobtrusive, colorful Raramuri women and children displaying their wares. Although we looked for mushrooms along the way, it was very dry and only a few amanitas and boletes were found. Eventually we reached the falls and, although the water flow was not all that abundant, it was still a breathtaking view.
For lunch, we went to a somewhat luxurious mountain lodge near our starting point on the river. The Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge was ready for us with bathrooms and a fine lunch of soup and empanadas in their log and stone dining room. We then drove to the nearby village of Cusarare, a Tarahumara settlement nestled in yet another scenic valley. The village is notable because it was here, 40 years ago, that Jesuit Father Verplancken established a clinic to help the local children. This grew to be an important hospital in Creel serving the area. He also restored the crumbling village church, rescued some major classic religious artworks from it and more recently petitioned for funds, including government support, to build an attractive museum to restore and display those and other works of art from churches in the region.
We visited Father Verplancken's remarkable museum - a somewhat incongruous splash of high culture in a new building, but somehow it all blended beautifully with the traditional local culture surrounding it. Although we didn't have a chance to meet him, Father Verplancken still actively carries on his various good works for the people in the region.
In the meantime, our special celebrity guests for the evening had arrived at Margarita's. Dr. Gaston Guzman and his wife Isabel, from Veracruz had come in by train earlier, as planned, and were to join the group for dinner that evening. Dr. Guzman is considered the founder of modern mycology in Mexico, wrote the first books on Mexican fungi and is also a world renowned expert on the study of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He has been associated with Mexican Mushroom Tours since 2002 as a guest lecturer and fieldwork leader for the Veracruz excursion. He is also terrifically charming and enjoys bantering - and sharing a good time with a congenial group. Neither he nor the group were disappointed when we had an enjoyable time over dinner at the Montebello restaurant near town and then sat in a happy circle in Margarita's courtyard for evening socializing that lasted into the wee hours.
Friday morning had been eagerly anticipated by many. It was the day we would be taking the famed Chihuahua al Pacifico train to further stretches of the Copper Canyon area and an overnight at another mountain lodge. Everybody packed carry-on essentials into a small "Copper Canyon Mushroom Expedition" tote bag and left remaining heavy luggage at Margarita's. Lightness, agility and speed are essential in dealing with the brief train stops at various stations. These qualities do no seem to apply to the train itself, as it consistently runs at least an hour behind schedule as it moves down the line. But, when the train finally does show up, you'd better hop on quickly. It has to rush off so it won't be two hours late five stops further along.
We excitedly found our reserved block of seats and settled down to enjoy the views. Seats are comfortable, with panoramic windows, but perhaps the best vantage point is at the doorways at the ends of each car. With the top half door open, the clattering of the wheels on steel, the breeze flying by, you experience other sensations that add to the scenery, trestles and tunnels. After an hour, we arrived at Divisidero station, where we could disembark for 15 minutes to get a spectacular view of a most dramatic, wide and deep section of the canyon. We had to work our way through a gauntlet of vendors, including hawkers of fast foods, to reach the cliff-edge lookout. Barely time to be awed when the train gave its warning blast and we had to hustle back.
About three hours after leaving Creel, the train reached the stop at Bahuichivo, we all grabbed our little bags and, in about 48 seconds flat, were all on the platform. Waiting for us there were two white vehicles with logos for Hotel El Paraiso del Oso. One was school-bus type, maybe 1978 vintage, while the other was a new Econoline passenger van. Mushroom enthusiasts being notoriously cordial and polite, not even shoving broke out as people bravely first boarded the school bus, including Gundi our other tour organizer, while the laggards, including Erik, had to settle for the air-conditioned van comfort.
We soon arrived and were welcomed at the lodge by the many hummingbirds zipping about and a cheerful staff, including Jessica from Madison, Wisconsin, who was on a work training program there. The lodge was lovely, just the right size for our group and offered a wonderful atmosphere. It is nestled at the base of a complex, high rock formation that has a distinctive element - a dead-on silhouette of Winnie-the-Pooh, hence Oso (bear.) Again, some people went horseback riding, Jessica guided others to a nearby cave area, and a stalwart few still hunted for mushrooms.
Dusk brought a happy cocktail hour, followed by an outdoor discasa dinner, which is a regional specialty stir-fry, cooked on a big wok-like disc over a bonfire, with everybody sitting around on logs. The night sky was ablaze with stars melding with the rising sparks from the fire. Wine and conversation flowed, the food was enjoyed and then the music started in the small bar area inside. Everybody partied on in various ways, including some hot salsa dancing observed near the bar. It was a great, magical last night in the Copper Canyon.
Saturday would be wind-up day: we take the two Oso shuttle busses back to the train station, wait, wait, wait for the train (half an hour later than the most pessimistic estimate), ride to the second station along, where Fredy was waiting with the bus to run us back to Creel. There, we stopped long enough to recover the rest of our luggage at Margarita's and then it was off for the four-hour drive back to Chihuahua. The next day, it was back to points home for most people, carrying along a wealth of fond travel memories and fungi hunting adventures in a breath-taking environment. As one of the participants said, "I thought I lived in paradise, but I may have to revise my opinion now."