Long ago, about a hundred million years, a huge plateau arose in an area that is now part of northern Mexico. Seventy million years passed before volcanoes erupted and flooded the plateau with molten rock. Rivers then sliced this lava-covered plateau into deep twisting canyons—the largest area of canyons in North America.
At the interface between the volcanic layers and the old plateau are
rich mineral deposits. The depth of the canyons exposes this interface,
making the gold, silver, and copper accessible for mining. It is from
the abundant copper ore, previously mined here, that the area derives
its name—Copper Canyon.
The first people to mine the ore were the Spaniards, in 1632. Over the
centuries, hundreds of mines were worked, peaking at the end of the 19th
century when 20 million ounces of silver were extracted from the mines
at Batopilas, making Copper Canyon one of the richest silver mining areas
in the world.
The longest term residents of the canyon are the Tarahumara Indians.
No one knows how long they have lived here, but archaeologists have found
artifacts of people living in the area around 3000 years ago.
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition, which passed through
the Sierra Madres in 1540, in search of the legendary Seven Golden Cities
of Cibola, may have been the first contact between the Tarahumara and
Then, in 1607, the Jesuits established the first of their 29 missions
to be built in the canyons and introduced the Tarahumara to Catholicism,
domestic animals and the plow. When the Spaniards discovered the rich
mineral wealth in the canyons, they forced the Indians to work as slaves
in the mines. This led to many bloody revolts throughout the 17th century.
The influence of the Jesuits came to a halt in 1767 when the King of
Spain expelled their order from the New World. The Franciscans took over
from the Jesuits, but the Indians were pretty much left alone until the
Jesuits returned in 1900.
Today the Tarahumara number around 50,000. They live in caves and small
cabins and practice subsistence farming. The majority practice a form
of Catholicism liberally intermixed with their traditional beliefs and
ceremonies. Among the peoples of North America, they are considered to
be the least touched by modern civilization and the most unmixed of any
of the Indian tribes of Mexico.
I first became aware of Copper Canyon about twenty years ago when a travel
writer friend of mine returned from a journey to Northern Mexico.
“Lee, you have to go to Copper Canyon,” he insisted. “It’s
magnificent!!” After seeing his slides I became excited and put
together our first Copper Canyon trip. Since then, we have introduced
thousands of people to this beautiful area of mountains, rivers and canyons,
and the unique people who make it their home.
Click Here for information on our Copper Canyon Tours.