People of the Copper Canyon

Tarahumara or Rarámuri, either way, they are fast…

The brightly colored dresses juxtapose the rich earth tones in one of Mexico’s, most rugged regions: the Copper Canyon or “Barrancas del Cobre” as it is known in Spanish. The locals here are proud, resilient and strong…

Known as the Rarámuri tribe of indigenous people, they have lived in various regions of the state of Chihuahua since long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores. Better known as the Tarahumara, an exonym given to them by the Spaniards, they are easily identified by their distinctive, colorful apparel.

The approximately 70,000 Rarámuri in Chihuahua have been able to preserve their native culture and resist total integration more successfully than any other indigenous group in Mexico. Today they are found living in cities, countryside communities and remote canyons.


Arrival of the Spanish

The Rarámuri lived in small communities with a transhumance and subsistence farming lifestyle when the Spanish conquistadores and Jesuit priests arrived in the early 17th century. With the approach of the Spaniards and subsequent discovery of silver in the region in the 1630s, the Rarámuri retreated into the expansive canyon for refuge.

Four times the size and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States, the extreme terrain of the massive canyon provided the protection they sought.

Nonetheless, intrepid Jesuit, and to a lesser extent, Franciscan priests established missions and accompanying pueblos in the northern highlands and southern parts of the region. Great efforts were made to Christianize the natives with varying degrees of success. Converted Rarámuri were encouraged to live within the mission/pueblo system. While a small percentage of the converts accepted the invitation, the majority rejected the offer or tried and abandoned it.

When the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico by the Spanish king in 1767, the Rarámuri were left with remnants of Catholic doctrine which they blended with their traditional beliefs.

Rarámuri native


The enduring legacy of Catholicism remains a significant factor in Rarámuri life today. Basic doctrine and rituals have been blended with traditional spiritual beliefs to form the religious experience of the majority of the population.

God, the creator of the universe, is manifest as Father Sun, and his wife is Mother Moon, represented as the Virgin Mary by some groups. Semana Santa, Easter Holy Week is one of the most important religious celebrations of the year. This multi-day festival, though, is not focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, it is a combination of Christian and traditional beliefs. The celebration is focused on the struggle between good and evil which they call “Noliruache”. This means spinning or circling in the Rarámuri language. The people are divided into two groups. One group is portrayed as Roman soldiers who represent the forces of good. The opposing group is portrayed as New Testament Pharisees, who represent the devil and evil forces in the world. Included in this group are the “chabochis”, non-Tarahumara people. As part of this representation, the Pharisee group covers themselves with white body paint, either brushed on or painted in dots. At the conclusion of the days of celebration, an effigy of Judas (representing evil) is burned. Practiced elsewhere in Mexico, this event is known as “Quema de Judas”.

Also included during the week are long hours of dancing, accompanied by violins and guitars along with the rattling sounds of ankle shakers called “tenabari”. These shakers are made from dried butterfly cocoons which are filled with sand or small pebbles. The cocoons are tied to leather straps and wrapped around the dancers ankles. The ensuing rattling sound accompanies the stringed instruments being played as the dancers perform the “dutuburi” (a dance of spiritual supplication) for hours at a time. Some Rarámuri runners have reported that the dutuburi is even more exhausting than a marathon as the dancing can last 24 hours or longer with no breaks. Tesqüino, a fermented corn drink central to Rarámuri society, is consumed in copious amounts. Drunkenness is part of the multi-day celebration.

Resistance to Western Influence

The town of Creel on the eastern end of the Copper Canyon region, was named for Enrique Creel, governor of Chihuahua in the early 1900’s. It was originally established in 1907 as a train depot on the Chihuahua-Pacific line as well as an agricultural settlement of a few Mexican families. The federal government’s goal was for the Mexican families influence the numerous Rarámuris living in the area to adapt to western culture. This venture was modestly successful at best. A circumferential community of Rarámuri currently live in Creel.

The Rarámuris have chosen to remain separate from western society. The colorful apparel of the women and girls is usually made at home. The full pleated circular skirts and yoked, pleated blouses are embellished with brightly colored fabric triangles. Often, skirts are worn with a waistband called a “pukera”. Sometimes adolescent girls will wear a American-style sweatshirt with the skirts. Men wear an off-white loin cloth called a “zapeta” and a blousy, often brightly colored shirt. A headband called a “koyera” is usually worn, along with huarache sandals. For them, this distinctive apparel is a symbol of opposition to the outside world. Nonetheless, it is not unusual to see Rarámuris using technology such as smart phones. Unfortunately, some Rarámuri have been exploited by human traffickers and drug cartels in the region.

Miccaotli, the Avenue of the Dead

The Pyramid of the Moon

The Pyramid of the Moon is at the north end of the Avenue. Standing 140 feet (43 km) tall and with a base of 426 feet by 511 feet (130 x 156 meters), it is the second largest structure on the site. Its location was chosen to align perfectly with the now defunct Cerro Gordo volcano in the background.

The Pyramid of the Sun

The Pyramid of the Sun is less than a half mile to the south. It is situated to be in direct alignment with the sunrise and sunset on specific days of the year. Constructed on top of a cave, its height reaches 216 feet with a base of 720 x 760 feet (220 x 230 meters), making it one of the largest pyramids in the world. Climbing more than 250 steps to reach the top is not for the faint of heart, but spectacular views await those up for the challenge!

At the south end of the Avenue is the Citadel, an enclosed courtyard which houses the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. This the smallest of the three main pyramids. Like the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, it was built using the talud-tablero style of architecture. Throughout the exterior of the Temple are three dimensional carvings of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and warfare. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl was both a religious and political center. It is said that the courtyard of the Citadel was large enough to accommodate 100,000 people. Xipe Totec, the god of spring, was also an important figure here. 

The Great Goddess, also called the Spider Woman, is a deity unique to Teotihuacán. The housing units at the Tepantitla and Tetitla area of the site feature brightly colored red and yellow murals of this female figure. While much is still unknown about her, she is speculated to be a goddess of fertility and vegetation. Images of spiders and butterflies surround her. She does not appear anywhere outside of Teotihuacán. 

It is believed that royal, political and religious leaders lived within the ceremonial complex along the Avenue of the Dead. In the surrounding areas were multi-family dwellings, like modern day apartments. These housed artisans and skilled craftsmen. Beyond this was additional housing for laborers and farmers. At its apogee in about the 5th century AD, between 100,000 and 200,000 people lived at Teotihuacán, making it one of the largest cities in the world. To support the population, Teotihuacanos employed advanced farming methods. This included the use of chinampas, floating gardens which were common in other regions of México. 

This reproduction of one of the murals depicting the Great Goddess of Teotihuacán from the Tepantitla apartment complex located at Teotihuacán is in the National Museum of Anthropology in México City.

Jade Goddess or Green Tlaloc — Photo: Adrián Hernández — CC BY-SA 4.0


Jade Goddess or Green Tlaloc — Photo: Adrián Hernández — CC BY-SA 4.0



Teotihuacán was not only a powerful religious and political base, it was also an established center of commerce. Located near an expansive obsidian field, craftsmen fashioned tools, jewelry and objects of art from the volcanic glass. Obsidian was the cutting tool of choice with its ability to achieve exceptional sharpness. Evidence of commerce originating in Teotihuacán has been found throughout Mesoamerica. 

Like societies of the region that preceded and followed them, the inhabitants of Teotihuacán practiced both animal and human sacrifice. Evidence of two hundred young men believed to have been enemy warriors has been found at the site along with numerous other sacrificial victims. 

One of the most remarkable facts about this mega complex is that it was constructed without the use of metal tools, beasts of burden or the wheel. Metal would not be used for functional purposes in the region until about 800 AD. While the debate remains as to the origin of the wheel in the Americas, there is no archeological evidence of it during this era of Pre-Classic and Classic Mesoamerican history. 

The decline of Teotihuacán began around the 7th century AD, possibly caused by internal conflict. Major buildings in the elite housing sections were burned and religious sculptures destroyed with no evidence of outside invasion. Drought and famine caused by volcanic activity in the 6th century AD provide an additional theory for the societal decline. By the 8th century AD, the civilization had been abandoned. 

Teotihuacán is one of the most popular tourist destinations in México, attracting millions of visitors annually. In 1987, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Getting to Teotihuacán is an easy 1 1/2 hour drive from México City. It is recommended to arrive early in the morning as the sun can be intense during the day and shade is scarce. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat and water. The entrance fee is nominal and additional fees apply for parking and bringing video cameras into the site. Allow at least four or five hours to see the entire complex. The onsite museum provides excellent information. Registered guides are available, affordable and knowledgeable.

Hours to the archeological site are 9:00 am – 5:00 pm

Museum hours are 9:00 am – 4:30 pm.
Both are open every day of the year. 

Teotihuacán is located at: 

Ecatepec Pirámides km. 22 + 600
Municipio de Teotihuacán
Estado de México C.P. 55800
Tel. 01.594.

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