We Made it to the Copper Canyon (… Sort of…)! – Vanlife Mexico

Our Copper Canyon adventure wasn’t at all what we imagined when we planned the road trip from our cozy home office in Canada. My vision of admiring views across the copper-coloured canyon while hiking along a quiet trail in the crisp mountain air was not to be. Not this year. The cracks in our plans appeared even before the adventure had begun and seemed to spread with every mile on our trip. This is a story about our journey to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, the resulting adventures and misadventures, and a reminder that despite our best laid (and admittedly sometimes not so well laid) plans, the universe had another adventure in store.

Why the Copper Canyon?

We were drawn to the Copper Canyon because we had read that it was a rugged destination, off the beaten path, with some of the country’s most remarkable landscapes. Also, there was a scarcity of pushpins in this northwestern area of our Mexico map and it was calling our names.

The Copper Canyon is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Mexico, but that doesn’t do it justice because it’s is several times larger.  It encompasses Mexico’s second tallest waterfall – Basaseachic. The region is home to the Tarahumara Indigenous people, legendary for being the fastest long distances runners in the world. If you’ve read the book ‘Born to Run’, you’re familiar with this tribe. Amongst travellers, the area is most famous for the El Chepe Train, which runs through stunning scenery from the coastal city of Los Mochis to the mountain town of Creel. 

We would have liked to experience the vastness of the canyon from the El Chepe train, but unfortunately, it’s not dog friendly. No worries, we concluded, we have a van! Problem solved. And with that, we planned to traverse the Copper Canyon in Sally as part of this year’s ‘Patzcuaro Loop’ adventure.

The Route (and Re-Route)

While we were camping in Patzcuaro, our friend Brian asked: “Where next?”. We confidently replied, “the Copper Canyon!”. He proceeded to tell us his story of traversing the Copper Canyon 10 years ago. His tale included getting lost (more than once), almost running out of gas, and barely making it out of the canyon with his 2WD van, which during the journey lost its exhaust (it ended up tied to the roof), had the bolts snap off its exhaust manifold and suffered various other bumps and bruises. Extensive repairs to the van were required when Brian finally emerged.

Undeterred, I explained to him that they must have improved the roads in the intervening 10 years, because both iOverlander and Google Maps suggested that the route was viable. Out of an abundance of caution, I did some additional research… and good thing! It turns out that the roads have not improved much since Brian’s adventure and that to cross the canyon without destroying your vehicle, high clearance and 4WD is necessary. Since Sally doesn’t even perform well on 2WD dirt roads, I made up my mind then and there to scrap the idea of crossing the Copper Canyon. Damn! Not wanting to completely give up on my latest dream destination, I developed a new route that would take us to the northeast portion of the canyon, and would include many of the Copper Canyon highlights such as the town of Creel, the Adventure Park deep in the canyon, and the Basaseachic waterfall. The new plan wasn’t perfect, but it would do.

The Journey: Patzcuaro to the Copper Canyon

Along our route from Patzcuaro to the Copper Canyon, we passed through vast areas of emptiness in the states of Durango and Chihuahua, which were dotted with tiny towns that barely qualify as settlements. I imagined that this must be how much of northern Mexico looked 20-30 years ago. The landscape was simultaneously beautiful and boring, until we hit hours of the most potholed road we’ve ever encountered along Highway 45. The very direct and mostly straight road looked so innocent on Google; who would have guessed that it would be so bumpy?!

One of the less pothole-y sections of Highway 45

We were relieved to finally arrive in Cuauhtémoc, a modern city with only an average number of potholes. It had been a long and hard couple of travel days. We chose to spend the night at a baseball stadium on the outskirts of town. It was recommended on iOverlander and described as a safe place to park for the night with 24-hr police surveillance. Perfect!

The stadium was exactly as described. The police were stationed in one of the stadium’s enclosures. The nice, young policeman confirmed that it was no problem for us to park there for the night and that it was a safe place. We found a perfect spot under a tree and within view of the police. We had just finished walking Walter around the stadium when the policeman re-appeared. Over the next 30 minutes, we had 5 different conversations with 3 different policemen. The conversations degraded from “Yes, you can park here, it’s safe”, to “a helicopter carrying a government official will be landing here soon, it’s not safe, you have to leave now!”.

It was by far the most bizarre series of events we’ve ever experienced at a “campsite” and we were totally shaken by the time we left. We can only speculate that something was going down at the stadium and the police were increasingly nervous about it. It all happened so fast that we had to leave with an open beer and snacks, which I ended up consuming as we drove to a nearby truck stop, ‘Pension Los Nogales’, that welcomes RVs. We tucked ourselves in the back of the lot, amongst the semis, not wanting to be seen by any of our new police acquaintances. It was not a good start to our Copper Canyon adventure.

The Gateway to the Copper Canyon

Lake Arareko & Surrounds

We left Cuauhtémoc early the next morning (good riddance) and after 3 more hours of driving, this time on winding, scenic mountain roads, we finally arrived at the gateway to the Copper Canyon. Hallelujah! We pulled into the campground at Lake Arareko and parked under the tall pines, our new home base for a few nights before entering the canyon itself.

Yes – Walter was totally into this family photo op

Unaware that a clock was ticking on our time in the region, we spent a few days leisurely exploring the gateway area. We really enjoyed the day we spent visiting the nearby Valle de los Hongos, Mision de San Ignacio, and Valle de los Monjes. Each attraction was a bit of a tourist trap, with very persistent local women and children selling handicrafts and trinkets, but worth experiencing, nonetheless. I think my favourite part of the day was driving through the picturesque valley, watching the local Tarahumara people going about their daily routines. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the women of all ages working on road repairs with pickaxes in their beautiful traditional dresses – that’s something I could never pull off.

Photo taken by a very enterprising local girl, who got us in position and snapped the shot – Valle de los Hongos (Valley of the Mushrooms)
Mision de San Ignacio Church
Valle de los Monjes (Valley of the Monks)
Purchasing stuff… it was very difficult to say ‘no’ to these persistent, hard-working women…

Town of Creel

Except for the Museo Tarahumara de Arte Popular (which was excellent), the town of Creel was a bit disappointing. Our expectations were too high based on its ‘Pueblo Magico’ (magic town) designation. The town’s strength and purpose are in serving as a hub for the area. It had a few charming buildings, but the vibe was not super friendly, the quality of the restaurants was ‘meh’, the only campground was overpriced, and the number of large, roaming street dogs was slightly unnerving for tourists travelling with their own dog. It didn’t help that the main drag was completely under construction.

Overall, I would describe our experience in the area as mixed, however we were unconcerned about some of the early disappointments because the gateway was just the opening act to the main show: the canyon itself!  

A Glimpse of the Copper Canyon

It was late in the day when we left the town of Creel and we realized that we were not going to make it to the Adventure Park (our first destination in the canyon) before dark. We saw what we thought was a sign for a campground and slowly drove the narrowest and steepest possible road up to the top of a hill. There was no campground in sight, but there was a lookout where a local Tarahumara family was selling handicrafts, playing music, and barbequing. Marc asked about the campground, and they said there wasn’t one there, but that we were welcome to camp at the lookout, surrounded by their village. We had no idea how incredible the view would be until we parked. We backed-in to what was one of the best views we’ve ever had camping. We chatted a little bit with a woman, who was the Grandma of the family. She was making and selling beautiful handwoven baskets. We purchased one as a thank-you for allowing us to spend the night. As we ate our dinner, the sky and canyon turned every shade of pink and purple. Now this was what we came for! I casually snapped a few beautiful shots with my phone, not realizing that they would be the first and last photos I would take of the canyon.

An Abrupt End to the Adventure

We awoke to the sun shimmering over the canyon walls. I lazily crawled out of bed, hooked Walter to his leash, and headed out for our short morning walk. I noticed that Walter was unusually slow and seemed a little wobbly on his feet. I immediately started to worry. Instead of spending his walk marking every possible plant and rock, he did one big pee and wanted to return to the van. Arriving back early from our walk, I prepared his breakfast and gave him the go ahead to eat. Our usually ravenous buddy hesitated, and eventually ate slowly and reluctantly. He was also drinking a huge amount of water. We knew immediately that something was very wrong.

We had a decision to make: drive further into the canyon, away from services, continuing our adventure and hoping he’d get better on his own, or turn around and head to a big city to seek vet care. It was no decision at all. And with that, our adventure in the canyon itself was over before it even started. We turned our wheels north and headed toward El Paso, Texas as quickly as we could, our minds filled with worry about the worst-case scenario.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the next post, where we’ll answer all your questions about what happened to Walter the Adventure Mutt and how we managed caring for a sick dog while living in the van.

7 thoughts on “We Made it to the Copper Canyon (… Sort of…)! – Vanlife Mexico

  1. Hey guys so sorry to hear about Walter, I sure hope things work out for the best. Spring has arrived in Wakefield in fact we have had some summer days. You have had a great winter, sean some wonderful places and so far no van problems.


    1. Yes! Great winter of traveling for sure. As usual, more adventure than we bargained for. Thankfully Walter is just about back to normal now, he gave us a real scare! Look forward to catching up once we get back!


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