The Copper Canyon is really a labyrinth of massive canyons, four of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They were formed by six different rivers that eventually empty into the Sea of Cortez, draining four times the volume of the Grand Canyon. It is an immense area covering 25,096 square miles in the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Sonora in northwest Mexico, yet it has remained isolated and remote, partially due to its vast size, non-existence of adequate roads, and difficulty in penetrating the rugged country.
In 1900, an American, Arthur Stillwell, began construction of a railway through the canyon, but because of financial difficulties due to the cost of construction through such rough country, it was not finished until 1961. Now, it is known as the most scenic railway in North America, passing over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels, going from sea level at Los Mochis in the west and reaching an elevation of 8,000 ft. during its 418 mile route to Chihuahua. Its tracks actually pass over themselves to gain elevation to the highest point in Divisadero – the Continental Divide.
Because of its inaccessibility, isolation and remoteness, the Copper Canyon has developed a kind of mystery, compounded by the fact its inhabitants, the indigenous Tarahumara, about 60,000 of whom live in the canyons, are a reticent and very private people. Originally inhabitants of what is now the state of Chihuahua, they retreated to the high sierra and deep canyons over 500 years ago on the arrival of the Spanish explorers in the 16th century. They are considered to be part of the Mogollon culture which flourished from 200 CE until the Spanish arrived.
The Tarahumara’s name for themselves is Raramuri, which means “runners on foot”, or “those who run fast” in their native language which is still widely spoken. Their ability to routinely run 200 miles in one session (both men and women, and children), and up to 435 miles which is the tribe record (16 times the distance of a marathon) has given them a reputation throughout the world as “super athletes”. Living far from each other and in the steep mountains, often in caves, or small adobe homes without electricity, long-distance foot travel has developed as a means of communication, transportation, hunting, and actual survival. This ability for seemingly effortless high endurance running, has irritated ultra marathoners in the outside world by beating them while wearing deerskin sandals or running barefoot, and stopping now and then for a smoke.
Endurance running is also part of ceremonies, and games – one of which is with two different teams chasing a wooden ball with long sticks. The game can last from several hours up to two days, non-stop, up and down the steep canyon walls.
Nutritionists have been trying to determine why the Tarahumara have this “super-human” ability and some are even attributing it to the homemade fermented corn beer they consume in large quantities, which is low in alcohol content and high in carbohydrates.
But, sports scientists think the Tarahumara have developed this incredible endurance because they still retain what was our evolutionary history as persistence hunters, something most of the world has forgotten. And, they run without shoes, eliminating the high impact on their feet and bodies that our running culture, in reality, has developed due to our high tech shoes.
Whatever the reason, this undisputed ability contributes to the mystery the canyons evoke. The tribe has been able to keep their ancient and unique culture basically intact hidden in the Copper Canyon – a miraculous feat in today’s world.