Bumping along 45 minutes of dirt road from the train station, through the wooded landscape, the forest opens to reveal the alpine-like valley of Cerocahui (sero-kah-wee), a mile-high paradise. Below, I catch a glimpse of the hidden valley with its silver river winding through its vineyards and apple orchards — I could have been somewhere in Southern Europe, but I am actually near the edge of the Barrancas de Cobre (Copper Canyon), Mexico’s Grand Canyon. Little did I expect to find ancient vineyards here on top of the world.
It is mid-March, spring is just beginning, and the blossoms on fruit trees and the new grape leaves are just bursting out. To the right, perched on the valley’s edge, I see the imposing rockwork mission church built by the Jesuits in the mid-1700s. Turning onto the rough paved street I pass the Tarahumara Indian Girl’s School before arriving at the old hacienda that had been converted into the Misión Hotel and winery—directly across from the mission church.
The hotel is built around a Spanish style courtyard, exquisitely landscaped with a wide variety of exotic trees and plants. Next to a giant, ancient cactus, through a stone arch, on which hangs a bullet-riddled brass bell from the time of the Mexican Revolution, I find my room, adjacent to the winery and surrounded by vineyards. The spring grape leaves are just appearing.
The beautifully decorated, ranch-style rooms are fronted by a veranda running the length of the building with carved, grape-motifs; wooden furniture for sitting, relaxing and enjoying the view of the vineyard and the mission church beyond. All of the rooms are well appointed with handmade furniture and bedspreads, tiled floors and modern bathrooms. Each has a cast-iron wood stove to take the chill off the evening alpine air.
The lobby, gift shop, bar and restaurant are housed in a large room with a massive stone fireplace in which a fire crackles invitingly. Large picture windows look out to the church and the valley panorama.
The weather seems a little cool to take advantage of the hotel’s pool, but there is a large, separate, mission-style recreation room with a pool table for diversion.
The hotel offers wine tasting and a variety of adventures and trips to waterfalls, gold mines, Tarahumara homes and caves, and down into Urique Canyon, Copper Canyon’s deepest. The tours are by bus, some on horseback, or on foot.
Shortly after arriving, I opt for the winery tour and tasting and the visit to the nearby church instead of the walk down to the waterfall. The massive stone church is very formidable, and we are just in time to see the young Tarahumara girls arriving for mass looking like an indigenous rainbow in their colorful, wide skirts, loose blouses and shawls.
The wine tasting proves the hotel’s wines to be very enjoyable —young wines, one white and one red — and it seems that they have a story. In 1680, the Jesuit priest, Father Juan Maria de Salvatierra, arrived in Cerocahui to build a mission and school to convert the indigenous Tarahumara Indians (or Rarámuri as they call themselves) and to teach them to raise livestock, make wood products, and to cultivate European crops such as apples and wine grapes. The Jesuits had carried cuttings of their heirloom French and Spanish wine grapes with them from Spain.
A century later, the King of Spain, in a political move, expelled the Jesuits from Mexico replacing them with Franciscan missionaries. Mexico was ordered to cease wine production in order to protect Spanish wine producers. As a result, Mexico never fully developed its wine industry potential despite having excellent soil and climate for grape production.
When the Jesuits left, the Cerocahui vineyards were destroyed—except for a few cuttings kept and secretly planted behind Jose Maria Sanchez’s house. Jose Maria’s family preserved the vines, caring for, protecting and enjoying them for many generations up until about 25 years ago when the last Sanchez passed on without heirs.
The Old World heirloom grapes were in danger of being lost forever but were saved when the Sanchez’s gardener, working with the Misión Hotel, decided to restore the vines by planting cuttings on unused land adjacent to the stone church and “El Tehuecado,” the Tarahumara Indian Girls Boarding School.
Over the decades since, the original vineyard located in the middle of the village has expanded across the river and now has over 4,000 vines under cultivation and a winery has been established at the hotel to process and bottle the fruits of these vines. Since the Cerocahui valley enjoys a year-round spring-like climate, perfect grape harvests are ensured.
After the strenuous wine tasting and church tour, I decided to go to my room and rest in front of the glow of the cast-iron wood stove. Later I joined the other guests in the dining room for a scrumptious dinner of cream of vegetable soup, pollo a la plancha with a traditional Chihuahuan sauce, a side dish of spaghetti (this was the third time in Chihuahua I was served spaghetti with a meal – it may be a tradition, of sorts). Dinner was enhanced with the hotel’s own Misión Red wine. For dessert, we were treated to the mouth-watering, famous (at least locally) Tarahumara apple pie. They grow excellent apples, as well.
With a little help from the local roosters, I awaken before sunrise to take photos of the church and environs advantage in the soft morning light. After breakfast, we take a bus tour to the Cerro del Gallego lookout point. We pass Tarahumara houses and farms and stop along the way at a grotto spring that is sacred to the Tarahumara. Across from the spring are some sure-footed burros climbing down the mountain and on the edge of the road a descanso, a small altar marking the spot where a truck had plunged down into the canyon below.
At the lookout point on the rim of the Urique Canyon — the deepest in the system — I view giant crevasses with misty, indigo mountains seeming to fold one upon the other in the haze. Below, I can see the gold-and-silver mining town of Urique dating from 1724 with its thin silver ribbon of river snaking through it. I am standing at an elevation of 7,500 feet and the town below is at a 1590-foot elevation. Tropical fruit and flowers, corn, peanuts and coffee grow in Urique’s subtropical climate.
At the lookout point and on the trail, as at most tourist spots in the area, there are the colorfully attired Tarahumara women selling their finely woven pine needle baskets and other crafts. “Kwira ba,” I greeted one young woman. She turned away and shyly answered, “kwira.” For 30 pesos(about $2.10 US), I buy a small basket with five baby agave plants growing in it — the type used for brewing sotol, the Chihuahuan version of tequila (stronger and smoother according to the locals). Coming back down the trail, I say goodbye, “Arioshi ba.” I get a smile.
Leaving the hotel, we once again took the 45-minute bumpy ride through the landscape of mountains, streams and stone formations, back to the Bahuichivo train station — Km. 669 on the copper Canyon Line — to continue on exploring other parts of the Copper Canyon. Arioshi ba Cerocahui!
The Annual Grape Harvest Festival (La Vendimia)
Held each September in Cerocahui
“September is the best time to visit Cerocahui–after the rains,” advises Sonia Estrada Morales of Chihuahua Tourism Promotion.
Aeromexico flies from several U.S. cities directly to Chihuahua City, the beginning of the Chihuahua Pacifico (Copper Canyon) Railway.
Mexico Tourism: www.visitmexico.com
Chihuahua Tourism: www.ah-chihuahua.com
Misión Hotel: www.mexicohotels.com.mx/misioncerocahuiing.html
Copper Canyon: www.mexicoscoppercanyon.com
Copper Canyon (Chihuahua Pacifico) Railroad: www.chepe.com.mx