Even Tarahumara Slip — Waterfall Adventures in the Copper Canyon, Installment 1

“Mexico” Mike Nelson
Draft · 7 min read

These are the last photos from my Nikon D600 before it lost a fight with a boulder. I didn’t do so well either. Enjoy!

I’ve been around Mexico enough to know better than to put faith in signs. But I am cursed with an optimistic gene. So when the Big Green Sign on the only road to Cusare waterfall said to turn right, I turned right. Once again I wished Santa would bring me a four-wheel-drive truck as the Grey Ghost (my old Ford Escape) bounced around and down what passed for a secondary road in these parts.

We knew we’d probably get to the bottom of the trail. It was getting back up that would be dicey. But I never let good sense deter me from adventure — at least not then. I grew wiser in the next few hours. Hey, I am only 65, you can’t expect me to learn all the “adult” rules so soon.

Cascada de Cusare, which means “Place of the Eagles” in Raramuri (the language spoken by the Tarahumara natives who live in the area) is beautiful, though it has a drop of only 30 meters or 98 feet. It has several threads that fall independently, making it a visually interesting fall, different than a typical horsetail drop.

The trail down to it from the trailhead where you can get a good view of the water pouring over the cliff, is well-marked but strenuous. There are over two-hundred steps on the winding trail. The bottom of the falls looks like a giant’s rock garden with huge boulders strewn about willy-nilly. There are several rivulets that eventually combine to form a small stream of ice-cold water (at least in November). Because of these meandering snakes of water, the medium-sized rocks are slippery — quite slippery. Extreme caution or good sense is suggested. My pal, Bernie had good sense and stayed at the trailhead. I forged forward where angels feared to tread. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a “Mexico” Mike story (or pictures) here.

After dodging uniformly grey boulders whose dark shadows hid potholes, we came to a big welcome arch with a ticket kiosk to the side. No one was home, but that is not unusual. It wasn’t the tourist season and I was sure a ticket-taker would miraculously appear before we left.

A few boches further down the “road” was what could have been a parking area. The road ended at any rate. There was a marked trail leading up into the forest. Sure enough, a young Tarahumara man stepped out of a small drafty-looking wooden dwelling. Behind him stood a young woman. Both appeared to be in their teens. She was wearing bright clothes that stood in sharp contrast to the greyness of the sky and rock-strewn ground all around.

The young man told us we needed to pay an admittance fee. We were happy to. He motioned for the woman (his wife we later found out) to come over and write the official receipt. She carefully unwrapped a very official-looking receipt book as if it was the Holy Grail. With careful block printing, she filled in every blank on the receipt. She ceremoniously handed the receipts to the man. He requested the few pesos printed on the receipt, took the money (exact change since he had no money of his own). Only after he handed it to the woman and she carefully counted it did he hand us the receipts. Then he officiously lectured us in a combination of Spanish (which I understood) and Raramuri (of which I had limited knowledge). The gist of it was that we should be very careful not to lose the receipts. I swear, he could have added, “Your life depends on it,” and the lecture would not have been more serious. We asked where the falls were. He said this was not the entrance.

I fell back into my gringo-thinking and said, But the anuncio (sign) said ….

Si, but this is not the best entrance.

¿Porqué? (A word I use rarely).

You will have to walk five kilometers to the top of the cascada. Then you will have to take a trail down. It will take you many hours. There is another entrance a few kilometers down the paved road with a trail.

One thing traveling in Mexico will teach you (or you will not learn and be frustrated half the time) is that incongruities are normal. If things work out as you expect, something is wrong.

I mentally chanted, Go with the flow, and asked him what we should do.

I could guide you, he said shyly.

I asked what his services would cost and he refused to name a price. Maybe he could sense that I am a generous man, or maybe to the Tarahumara, money is secondary. I can’t purport to understand the Tarahumara culture after only a few encounters with the people, but it seems like a good guess.

He said a few words to his wife and jumped into the back seat. He was dressed in the modern style — blue jeans, a baseball cap and a t-shirt. He had no jacket nor sandals. I wore a sweater, ski jacket and Merrell hiking boots. We introduced ourselves. He was named Rahui, a common name which means day. It was more or less pronounced Ra hay ooh e, like a combination of sliding and staccato musical notes.

I didn’t think it possible, but Rahui found an even rougher, almost all uphill, hidden rock-covered pothole, semi-trail back to the paved road.

Please Santa, I’ve been relatively good this year, bring me that 4WD.

A few kilometers down the real road was yet another Big Green Sign, again informing us to turn right onto a trail for the path to the waterfall. Rahui got all excited and told us to turn there, with as much enthusiasm as if there was no sign and he’d found our way by following ancient markings only he knew.

We got to another toll booth and surely enough, it was manned, Rahui showed our tickets to the officials. The toll-takers asked who wrote these receipts. Rahui said, My wife.

Then there was a series of what I assumed to be jokes in Raramuri with a little Spanish thrown in for effect and laughter, ending with much shaking of hands all around.

We were admitted. I will always wonder what transpired. Were they jokes that all married men (except me, of course) make about their wives? Were they jokes about the dumb gringos who were the only ones to ever believe that first sign? Again, Mexico has taught me that there will always be “imponderables,” and it’s best to just accept them and move on. Leave the wondering for when you’re back home, reliving the trip.

Don’t waste a moment of the present. As this little adventure was to show me, we never know how much more present we have.

Surely enough, this was a better entrance. There was a real parking area, with another customer. It was a “duck boat” 4WD expedition vehicle from a tour company in town. It was populated by young Europeans and Chinese tourists, some of whom I was to meet and be aided by later.

To emphasize that this was the official entrance, there were stands of ladies selling Tarahumara chachkas and wooden signs like you’d find in a US national park indicating that the falls were ahead. Rahui was friends with all the lady vendors. More jokes, more laughter. God it warmed my soul to be around people who genuinely laughed. It was like, for them, the whole world stopped, their rough, poverty-governed lives were forgotten, the biting cold lifted and humor shone on their world. I could observe this, but not enter into their world. I carried too much Western upbringing, it was written into my DNA that there was a time for laughter, but not the all-encompassing kind they experienced.

Oh how I sometimes wish I could be more than I am!

I asked the ladies if I could take photos. At first they were not too happy about it. They spoke enough Spanish to understand me and I spoke enough body language to interpret their feelings. I tried my lamest jokes in Spanish with them. One of them smiled. That encouraged me to keep at it.

I told them that they would do me a great favor if they could help me buy something for my wife when I got back. I told them I had no clue, that I was a typical husband. That got them roaring. I was free to take all the pictures I wanted. Some were dressed more traditionally with blue or purple headbands and long brightly-colored scarves, but others wore sweaters or sweatshirts. All wore long colorful print skirts.

Avast and ahoy! We set sail on our adventure, Rahui leading the way, as a guide should. He offered to carry my twenty-seven pound photo gear loaded backpack. I thanked him and declined his offer. Before I’d left, I told my wife that an advantage of a guide was that he could be my Sherpa and carry my gear.

Think about it. How are you going to feel if he falls and your camera gear gets broken? That would be tough. I’d fell pretty badly. But I could not blame him. How would you feel if he fell, possibly due to your backpack? Terrible. I see your point. I’ll carry it myself.

Little did I know, that bright, cold, November day, how prophetic Nicki’s scenario would turn out to be.

To be continued …

Originally published at https://www.mexicomike.com on January 4, 2016.