Northern Mexico has always been an intriguing and mysterious place for me. Years of reading Roberto Bolaño and Cormac McCarthy has let me to associate a certain romance with the area, and names like Sonora and Sinaloa, Álamos and Caborca conjure up images of vast plains, cowboys, horses and haciendas. And Chihuahua, well all that makes me think of is bug-eyed dogs with foul tempers. Naturally, I had to fulfill my curiosity so I hopped on a plane to take me to the land just south of the border.

My first port of call was Chihuahua City, capital of the state of the same name. Arriving in the plaza one of the first things I saw was a memorial to the victims of a massacre in Creel, where I was headed, in 2008. While the situation has calmed down in recent years, this did serve as a reminder of northern Mexico’s struggles in the war on drugs, which still seems to be hanging over the heads of many people and towns in the states bordering the USA. I didn’t stay long in Chihuahua City, only long enough to meet up with Carlos and Eva, Couchsurfers who were sharing their route with me, so I can’t really comment on its current state, but in the early hours of the morning when I arrived it certainly seemed like a tranquil place and the people were extremely friendly and helpful.

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From Chihuahua City a popular option is to take the tourist train, the Chihuahua Pacific Railroad commonly known as El Chepe) to Los Mochis in the neighboring state of Sinaloa. Along the route the train passes through the Copper Canyon and the surrounding mountains and is recognized as one of the world’s great train journeys. Unfortunately for those of us travelling on a backpacker budget, to be able to travel the whole Chepe route would require selling an organ, so we opted to begin the trip by bus. While they may run a little slower than the train, travelling by bus in the region was a great way to get to understand the local people of the region, rather than spending time with other tourists for the whole journey. Our first stop out of Chihuahua City was Cuauhtémoc, locally known as the “Municipality of Three Cultures” for the combination of Mexican, indigenous Rarámuri (Tarahumara) and, surprisingly enough, Mennonite influences. We had only planned to pass through Cuauhtémoc, however when our accommodation in Basaseachic fell through we were offered accommodation with Edith, a Cuauhtémoc local. And despite this stop not being part of the original plan, I am so glad that we did spend the night there. Cuauhtémoc isn’t an established tourist town like Creel or Divisadero, but it definitely has charm. The Mennonite settlement on the outskirts of town is definitely worth a visit, with the main attraction being the museum which explains the Mennonite beliefs, lifestyle and how they wound up in Northern Mexico in the first place. Another way to learn about Mennonite culture is through your stomach by visiting the  community’s famous cheese factories, bakeries and pizzerias. And for those of us who prefer to drink our meals, there is the craft brewery Cerveceria Ancestrus. Hidden in a suburban living room, Ancestrus serves as a watering hole for the founders and their friends, as well as exhibiting at local food and drink festivals. The lads behind the label are extremely friendly and happy to share their knowledge of local beers. I was so impressed I decided to extensively sample their product, you know, just to make sure it lived up to the hype…

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Moving on from that boozy night in Cuautémoc, Carlos, Eva and I set our sights on Creel, one of the main tourist hubs in the Copper Canyon region. Creel’s dramatic surroundings make it a popular stop on the journey, and like in many tourist towns, as soon as we got off the bus we became instant targets for touts offering accommodation and tours. There are several options available to explore the lakes, valleys and villages and the next day we set off on mountain bikes to see the sights. We suffered, but it was well and truly worth it. The first stop was the San Ignacio Mission, a small church surrounded by a Rarámuri village and several farms. After visiting the church and being chased by some farm dogs, we started the hard part of the journey: the road to Valle de los Monjes (Valley of the Monks). This stretch of road and track was bumpy and often uphill and the fact that we were cycling it in the blazing sun did nothing in our favour. Still, we made it to the valley and the views from the lookout more than made up for any discomfort on the way. The final stop on our trip was Lake Arareko, but by that point the only thing on anybody’s mind was arriving at the lake’s kiosk for a well deserved drink.

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Our third day in Creel brought the main attraction: Copper Canyon. And all the photos, documentaries and stories did not prepare me for the real thing. I found myself at the first view point, staring into the canyon, and thinking I could have stood there all day. The size and depth of what was in front of me was really to much to comprehend. From the bus stop we walked along the canyon’s edge, through handicraft markets and lookouts to the adventure park, which offers zip lining and cable car rides into the canyon. Taking the more time and budget friendly option of the cable car, we passed over caves and Rarámuri villages to another viewpoint inside the where there were the usual trinket shops, but in place of touts was a senior citizen in a cowboy hat singing the praises of Chihuahua. And I couldn’t help but agree with him.

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My last stop along the Copper Canyon route was El Fuerte, across the border in Sinaloa, where Carlos, Eva and I planned to go our separate ways. From Creel we traveled on El Chepe, as this was supposed to be the most picturesque part of the journey. It definitely lived up to it’s reputation, with stunning views of valleys and rivers up until the border of Chihuahua and Sinaloa. My companions had organized for us to stay with Tania, who was to take us to the festival of San Antonio in the nearby village of Los Capomos. Here we were told we could see the Venado (deer) and Pascola dances of the Mayo people, and as Mexican culture and dance enthusiast, I leaped at the chance. While the majority of the fiesta is your typical country fair, with street food, craft and fairground rides, in a small section behind the main festivities is a stable where groups of men (and the occasional woman) will dance the Pascola and Venado until dawn. We really were lucky that our trip coincided with the festival, as it was a great experience and wonderful to witness.
The next day brought the typical tourist activities in El Fuerte with visits to the riverside boardwalk, museum and a former estate (now a hotel) which is rumored to have been the birthplace of Zorro. The main plan for the day had been to climb Cerro de las Máscaras (Hill of the Masks) to see the petroglyphs, but due to the obscenely hot weather in El Fuerte, that plan had to wait to the evening. The change in time did mean that we caught sunset at the top of the hill, and after an exhausting climb in warm weather, sitting at the top and relaxing for a moment was perfect.

So what can I say for Northern Mexico? While there are still extremely troubled areas in the region, the parts often visited by tourists seem calm and welcoming. The shadow of the drug war is still present in the land and the people, however the chances of encountering violence in areas like the Copper Canyon and along the Chepe route are slim. The people I met were extremely kind and friendly, and they made my time in the north so much more than that of the typical tourist. I have no regrets about travelling here and I feel as though it is a place I will be recommending a lot to fellow travelers from now on.