Fiesta Inn showcases Copper Canyon

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CHIHUAHUA CITY -- Mexico is becoming better known for its soft adventure travel offerings, and the Copper Canyon is gaining more ground as its most appealing destination both with veteran travelers and novices wanting to explore its plummeting chasms and Indian culture.

A Tarahumara Indian woman weaves a basket to sell to Copper Canyon tourists. The Copper Canyon always sounded daunting to me -- a canyon four times larger than the Grand Canyon, the brochures claimed. Anything bigger than a national treasure in the U.S. was worth investigating, I decided.

Fiesta Inn offers a four-day tour that offers an introduction to this natural wonder. The starting point of the trip was Chihuahua City, which is known as a large industrial complex of northern Mexico, but it also is the bastion of Pancho Villa lore.

It is here that the colorful, roughriding general of the Mexican Revolution lived and was buried. His home, which was included in a city tour, serves as a modern-day shrine to his larger-than-life persona.

Lodging was at the Fiesta Inn, a four-star property with a client mix of 80% business and 20% leisure. The 152-room hotel is in the final phase of a renovation, which is expected to be finished early next year. The property offers a four-day Copper Canyon excursion, perfect for a long weekend.

Participants travel into the Copper Canyon by train, the chief means of access to the region. The train pulled out of Chihuahua before dawn, and breakfast was served in the dining car, a welcome new addition to the newly privatized and newly refurbished Chihuahua al Pacifico.

Sold by the government in 1998 to Grupo Mexico and Union Pacific, Chepe, as the train is now called, also sports four clean, air-conditioned cars with new carpeting and seats and a bar/smoking lounge. The train was the first to open up the sierra in 1961 after engineers managed to build through some of the most impenetrable terrain in North America.

About eight hours into the ride, we arrived at Posada Barrancas, situated at an elevation of 8,000 feet. We overnighted at the Mansion Tarahumara hotel, set on a hillock with eccentric-looking medieval towers. The property features rustic bungalows with all the amenities of modern lodging except for telephones and televisions.

Each of the 50 guest units have fireplaces, handmade wooden furniture and overhead fans, and some units have sleeping lofts. Eight new suites equipped with kitchenettes, and a covered swimming pool and Jacuzzi will be ready by Dec. 15.

Once settled in, we toured along the rim of the canyons with our guide, Joel Quezada, who accompanied us from the Fiesta Inn in Chihuahua City. After hiking for about an hour, we sat down in a quiet spot overlooking monstrous granite cliffs.

The hotel's dining room is the popular refueling station after a hard day's hike. Meals are embellished with good country cooking served family style on long wooden tables from a set three-course menu, which changes daily. A guitarist usually entertains with Mexican songs at night.

The next day, we piled into a hotel van after breakfast and rode a few miles to Divisadero, which has a natural lookout point with sweeping views of three canyons -- Urique, Copper and Tararecue.

Although the entire canyon system is 25,000 square miles and contains seven canyons, the Copper Canyon is the name commonly used to the describe the region.

The area is home to the elusive Tarahumara Indians, who have inhabited the high sierra for centuries. Although they guard their traditions, many make a living selling handicrafts set out in neat rows at most tour stops, including Divisadero.

The Tarahumara women love bright colors and wear swingy skirts with white petticoats, which make a startling contrast against the canvas of earth-toned mountains.

After Barrancas, we headed back toward Chihuahua City. The next overnight stop, about two hours by train, was Creel, set at an altitude of 7,400 feet. Creel is a rugged logging town with beat-up old Ford pickups and farmers wearing white, broad-brimmed ranchero hats.

The main street is clogged with small inns, hotels and a jumble of crafts shops selling Tarahumara baskets, pine bark carvings and handmade fiddles.

In addition, visitors will see more Indian women and girls here than elsewhere in the canyon as they promenade up and down the streets selling bunches of slender woven yarn belts, later disappearing into the sierra when night falls.

We checked into the Parador de la Montana, which has rooms set back from the street along long open corridors.

Rubbing shoulders with legions of Tarahumara vendors is one thing, but traveling into the sierra to see how they live is another. The following morning, we headed through valleys formed by dark, craggy volcanic rock to the Mision de San Ignacio caves, shared by two Tarahumara brothers and their families. The primitive enclosure also contained cultivated fields of their basic diet -- corn, squash and beans.

On the way to the mission church of the same name, we detoured through the Valle de los Hongos (Valley of the Mushrooms), made up of huge boulders perched on tiny rock stems, which makes them look like petrified toadstools. The simple, white stucco St. Ignacio church was founded by the Jesuits 300 years ago.

Later that afternoon, we boarded the train for the final leg of the journey to Chihuahua City, where we overnighted before leaving for home the next day.

The cost of the four-day Fiesta Break Copper Canyon tour, which includes accommodations, meals, train tickets, excursions and a guide is $460 per person, double, and $612 per person, single. The cost for children under age 12 sharing a room with their parents is $152 per person.

Fiesta Inn
Phone: (800) FIESTA-1

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