On the trail of natural highs
‘You have to take it,” insisted my friend Alex, a vigorously hedonistic, endearingly irresponsible type. “If you go to the Mexican desert, you simply have to try the peyote, otherwise it’s a wasted trip.”
But a wasted trip, if you’ll pardon the pun, was exactly what I didn’t want.
I was going to Copper Canyon, Mexico, to marinate my soul in the drama of the landscape, to explore a bit of bona fide wilderness, wander through a vast network of lush gullies and arid gorges, to smell the pines, to hike among the indigenous Tarahumara Indians, to step over tarantula spiders, pluck chubby lemons from the trees and encounter deadly rattlesnakes on the dusty trail.
What I didn’t want to do was get lost in a haze of one of the most powerful natural hallucinogens on the planet, despite the fact that we would be in prime peyote-imbibing country.
I had read all about Terence Stamps and Jim Morrison’s frightening experiences with the trippy cactus plant in their respective biographies, I said, and they sounded very, very scary indeed. Still my friend was insistent. Visiting the mystical wilderness state of Chihuahua without taking the peyote, he said, was like going to Japan without sampling the saki. Like spending a weekend in Prague without trying absinthe.
Was I tempted? Maybe a bit, but my mind was finally, properly, conclusively made up on my second day in Mexico. After boarding the Chihuahua al Pacifico train at the enchanting 16th-century town of El Fuerte, we had begun to wind our way up to the Sierra Madre mountains when I found myself sitting opposite a well-travelled, 30-year-old American investment banker.
Blessed with a craggy, Jon Bon Jovi jawline and the amiable, inconsequential mien of a pleasure-seeking college kid, he told me that this was his 22nd or 23rd visit to Mexico and, yes, 10 years or so ago, he had tried the peyote. After a chance encounter with a fellow American on this very train, he had made contact with a Tarahumara village chief, paid a small fee and taken part in the shamanistic ritual of the potent, cactus derivative, which had been mixed up as a vile-tasting broth. And he wouldn’t be doing it again in a hurry.
He talked of peyote’s formidable physical effects: sudden and intense respiratory pressure around the face and neck muscles, violent nausea and radical disorientation. He told how a state of significantly altered consciousness manifested itself with feelings that lurched from inner tranquillity, evolving oneness with life and nature to heightened awareness and a bewildering, 320kph thought-flow. He left his body and watched himself become different animals — a lizard, a snake, a bird. Colours became intense. Halos and auras appeared about objects.
What was really frightening, and for me, a deal breaker, was that the whole “trip’’ lasted 72 hours. Three days and two nights of fierce introspection and feral hallucinations.
My American friend eventually came round in a Tarahumara hut, lying under an animal skin, a full 40km from where he had originally taken the drug. He was covered in cuts, scratches and bruises and had no idea how he had got there. So, no toxic tourism for your mortgaged- up, tax-paying, law-abiding, rapidly moderating dad-of-two this time.
Still, the clear-headed experience wasn’t looking too bad. As we clattered upwards and onwards on our geological and horticultural odyssey, I watched an epic movie of increasingly magnificent landscape playing out on the train windows; black vultures hung out on the wispy clouds above great vertical walls of copper-coloured rock, plunging ravines and yawning chasms hirsute with lush pine forests.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico line (Chepe for short), running between Los Mochis on the coast and Chihuahua town, is one of the most spectacular railroad trips in the world, taking in 88 tunnels, 39 bridges, a couple of long, vertiginous viaducts and lots of those wonderfully languid arcs in the track that make the train bend around the mountain corners like a long length of yellow heating ducting.
The Chepe railroad was built to ferry gold prospectors and their machinery into the lucrative metallurgical seams of the Sierra Tarahumara. The engineering nightmare of this roller-coaster switchback line took 90 years and $90-million to complete and nearly bankrupted the country. Nowadays, it conveys mostly mom and pop tourists up into the picture-postcard Diversadero gap. They get out for a few minutes, take a photo or two of the massive and irrefutably marvellous canyons that can be glimpsed from the station’s hinterland, before getting back on board to head off for the souvenir-shop town of Creel and the end of the line at Chihuahua.
But there were no elasticated waistbands and bum bags in our party. We were going to hike our way out. Not that our wide-loaded train passengers would find too much to their liking, anyway. This part of Mexico remains pretty much untouched by American influence and is almost just-like-you-always-pictured-it Mexican.
Pick-up trucks outnumber conventional cars by 20 to one. Men, most of them mustachioed, strong, silent types, are dressed uniformly in effortlessly stylish white stetsons, Wrangler jeans, cowboy shirts and alligator-skin cowboy boots. Canyon towns tend to be nothing but poor, dusty, drive-throughs with a tequila bar, a Jesuit church and a store selling brightly coloured plastic kitchen goods alongside rows of the ubiquitous huaraches, the simple sandals of the Tarahumara that are fashioned out of leather thong and salvaged Goodyear tyre rubber.
It is this unlikely design of athletic footwear, teamed with a simple white shirt, a belt and a shorty, fishtail sarong, that the Tarahumara like to take on their epic running races through the hot, endless desert.
A truly incredible people — said to number 50 000 to 70 000 (making them Mexico’s second-largest native Indian group), many of whom still live in caves and simple stone and wooden shacks — the Tarahumara are the world’s greatest runners. Endurance rather than speed being their freakishly genetic talent, it is not unusual for a Tarahumara to run for 270km without stopping, kicking a small wooden ball (rarjiparo) in front of him as he goes, as a sort of playful incentive.
What is even more extraordinary is that the Tarahumara prefer to undertake such mammoth distances absolutely out of it on tesguino, a heady, beery beverage made of corn and grasses that is good only for a couple of days after it is brewed. One of them once ran from Guazaperes to Chihuahua, a distance of 960km, in a somewhat emotional state, in only five days.
As if to put the Tarahumaras’ amazing sporting achievements in perspective, we studied our route map. Our group of four hikers, two guides and a mule or two to haul our camping gear, would be hiking a distance of no more than 32km at a pretty enthusiastic lick, up the Torres arroyo, into high sierra, crossing over from the Urique Canyon into the Cerro Colorado Canyon before descending into the Batopilas Canyon. It was going to take us a total of three, huffing and puffing, heavily irrigated days.
So, after a night at the magical Cerocahui Wilderness Lodge in San Ignacio, fuelled by a dinner of fat fajitas, ambrosial guacamole and muddy refried beans, we took a long, perilous pick-up truck ride down the valley to the town of Urique, stopping only to let our white-hot brake discs cool down, and began our big walk.
At first the conditions were dry, hot and spirit-maulingly steep. We followed the slow clip-clopping of the mules’ hooves, climbing almost 365m in less than 5km, arriving at our campsite at Los Alsios.
Prospero’s Camp, next to a lonely house on a rare piece of flat ground on the side of Prospero’s Valley, was run by Prospero himself. Until 10 years ago, it transpired, there had been a village of about 50 people here, but a violent feud — who knows over what? — had destroyed the community.
Now Prospero, his wife, his two boys, a few donkeys and a copse of grapefruit trees were on their own.
One of those places that is rendered properly exclusive by its remoteness and intractable inaccessibility, Prospero’s Camp is not the kind of place where you have to book ahead. We arrived in mid-October. We were the first guests he’d had since March.
Certainly, you don’t come to the Copper Canyon for the social life, and the delightfully secretive splendour of this rift-formed VIP area cannot be overstated. There is simply no one here.
Apart from a young Australian couple we met on our last night, we encountered no one along the way. Our camp stops were basic, but beautiful, opportunities to pitch one’s tent portals pointing at big sky vistas of butch high sierra and under constellations of twinkling stars. And our walks were life-affirming yomps through scenery that fluctuated from desert to alpine to sub-tropical.
In the space of one squeamish hour at our overnight stop in Los Terreros on our third night, I saw a rattlesnake and a dirty yellow and black tarantula, the size of your hand, meandering its way through the grass next to my tent. Normally, I would have been a bit scared at the sight of an enormous, hairy arachnid ambling close to where I was about to lay my pillow, but by now the overwhelming beauty of this very special part of Mexico had swallowed me up in its deep gorges and echoey chasms. I was tripping on life. I had become at uno with nature.
Who needs peyote, anyway? — Â