Copper Canyon Mexico – a horse riding eye-opener

Join the author on her adventure into rural northern Mexico and the harsh beauty of Copper Canyon country.


Copper Canyon – a horse riding eye-opener!


Copper Canyon
Taking in the beauty of Copper Canyon
Operation Copper Canyon

Suture materials were laid out, vials of local anaesthetic, sterile swabs and antiseptic ready and waiting. Wendy, a fellow vet and owner of Unicorn Trails, prepared herself for surgery. But this was no cat or dog asleep on an operating table that awaited her; this was a hand attached to Emmet the Irishman, resting on a bar table with an infected cut that refused to heal. Emmet had started his Copper Canyon holiday in fine style by walking into a glass door at Chihuahua Airport.

Emmet's op!
The operating theatre!

We were in the back of the back of beyond in Mexico to check out a possible new ride to add to Wendy’s portfolio of horse tourism packages. This was a place with no phone and no electricity, a day’s travelling from civilisation. Emmet winced and screwed his eyelids up as Wendy injected local anaesthetic into the raw edges of his wound. Behind us the fireplace blazed and crackled and, at the table beside us, three visiting nuns looked across with undisguised interest as they sipped their margaritas. Emmet went pale green.

Wendy, Emmet and I were in the Copper Canyon, northern Mexico, to do a ride billed as the greatest adventure ride in the Americas, but were a little sceptical about the claim, as it came from the mouth of Doug, our guide for the trip. Doug was a well rounded Yankee in his fifties. He painted vivid pictures of the dangers we were about to encounter in this lawless wild west: scorpions in our boots, rattlesnakes on the path, mules throwing their riders off cliffs, and murdering Indians!

“Which one of you girls is going to be my wife?” Doug asked us within minutes of our first meeting. As he was neither Wendy’s nor my idea of a desirable mate, we kept conspicuously quiet. “What I mean is, that in Copper Canyon, if we’re drinking in a bar, you women will have to belong to me and Emmet, otherwise the local men will cause trouble. When they get a drink or two in ‘em, they think they’re irresistible!”

“Gobshite!” Emmet whispered to us with feeling when Doug wasn’t listening.

mountain tracks
Riding mountain tracks
A spanner in the works!

I threw a spanner in the works by catching typhoid, or amoeba, or something equally nasty, while in Cuba. I had to spend a morning on intravenous fluids and was given a whole pharmacy of antibiotics by an excellent local gastroenterologist at Cuatemoc, the nearest town of any size. Thus fortified Wendy, Doug and I braved a 7-hour drive over the bumpiest road imaginable to his ranch.

I was a little disappointed the next day when I finally got to see the horses. They were small shaggy beasts and not the handsome Barb crosses I had been led to expect. Doug sighed as he told us the troubles he had getting his wranglers to look after the horses properly. They were very stubborn, he explained and clung to many old wives tales concerning the care of horses.

For example, his old Tarahumara Indian wrangler, Pedro, insisted on putting just 4 nails into each horseshoe. Unsurprisingly the shoes would come off on regular basis and he would have to hammer them on again. Only when Doug was watching would he put more nails in – and suddenly the shoes stayed on! But the message didn’t sink in. As soon as Doug went away the four nail technique reappeared. “But didn’t you notice that the other shoes stayed on?” Doug yelled in frustration.“Maybe,” Pedro shrugged his shoulders noncommittally.

I was abandoned to convalesce at the ranch while Wendy, Emmett, Doug, and Jose rode off into Copper Canyon country with Machito the pack mule; the land of rattlesnakes and blood feuds. Speaking Spanish was a godsend as I was the only guest that week and none of the staff spoke any English. They looked after me very well and I ate meals in the kitchen with them. By the end of the week I had made several new friends and got heartily sick of refried beans and corn tortillas.

There is little concept of basic hygiene in rural Mexico. Villages are extremely remote and have limited medical care. Many women died in childbirth. I was horrified by the stories that I heard. With these limitations in human healthcare I was not surprised at the primitive level of animal doctoring.

crossing rivers
River crossing
Exploring the surroundings

When I was better, Mario, one of the wranglers, and I did several day-rides around the ranch. This was not in the Copper Canyon proper, but the scenery was awe-inspiring. Twisted rock formations toward above us, hillsides covered by fir trees and many species of oak, yellow grasses peering through cracks in the plates of rock that covered the ground. The air was sparkling and clear with a nip in the air that warned of winter to come. My horse was sweet natured and very easy to ride, and more sure-footed than a mountain goat.

We clambered down steep paths full of boulders and huge steps cut from rock. Each time I thought that the trail could not get any more difficult, it did. My horse didn’t bat an eyelid. It had been born in the mountains and had hooves of cast iron. We rode to some hidden caves and Mario brushed aside dust to reveal a human skull and leg bones. We rode to the nearby village of Cerocahui, a sleepy sun-kissed collection of mud houses, prickly pear cactus fences and satellite dishes. We followed the course of a dormant river past fields of corn, apple groves, grazing cattle and little cottages.

giant cactus
A giant, giant cactus!

Before Doug left we arranged that I would meet him, Wendy and Emmett on their last night on the Copper Canyon trail in the village of Naranjo, and we would return together. Before I left I pressed Ana, Doug’s wife, to let me take a tent, a thermos and some food. “You don’t need any of that, Doug is carrying all of it,” she replied.

I insisted on taking a thermos but could not be bothered to argue over the rest of it, so on a sunny chilly morning Mario and I set out with Ana’s son, Hugo, and the three farm dogs. After a beautiful day’s ride past Tarahumara homesteads and a hair-raising descent down a path cut out of a vertical cliff face, we arrived at the tiny village of Naranjo near the bottom of the canyon. Soon Emmett, Wendy and Doug arrived, tired and dirty but wearing broad smiles and dark suntans. The horses were in surprisingly good condition considering they had just covered seventy horizontal miles and four vertical ones.

Doug was very pleased to see us until he discovered that we hadn’t brought any food.

“You brought three dogs and no food?” I explained that Ana assured me he had enough food. “How stupid can my wife be? I’ve just been on the road for seven days and she doesn’t think I want fresh food?” We ignored him as he grumbled for the rest of the evening.

Wendy told me later that the Copper Canyon ride had been amazing and exhausting, but that the biggest challenge had been getting Doug to look after the horses properly. She and Doug had had a few heated exchanged along the route and hopefully, he picked up some sound advice from her.

last day
Riding with the team at last!

We had a relaxed, cheerful ride back to the ranch. I was exuberant and excited to be finally riding on the trail with my friends. Wendy and Emmet were dreaming of hot showers, open fires and real beds. Late afternoon sunlight striped the tables in the bar as we sat down to welcoming margaritas at Doug’s ranch. Doug sat at the table next to us, talking to the three nuns who had come to visit him. We prepared a basic suture kit and set about cleaning up and restitching Emmet’s wounded hand, again with an audience of margarita sipping nuns!

Next morning we hopped into the old pickup and bounced to the train station in Bauhichivo on the bumpiest road in Mexico for the very last time. Jose the wrangler came with us.

“So what do you think of Wendy’s ideas about horse care?” I asked Jose.

Jose thought for a moment, and in Copper Canyon fashion, shrugged his shoulders and politely murmured “Quien sabe. Who knows…”


Photo credits: Unicorn Trails

For a range of horse riding holidays in Mexico visit the Unicorn Trails website.

01767 600 606

Adapted by Andrew Knapp from Tania Krupitza’s account of her journey to the Copper Canyon for Unicorn Trails.

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