Planning any sort of family holiday can be challenging, and those involving 13-year-old boys are certainly no exception.
How to cater for bags of energy but a frequently low boredom threshold, not to mention a predilection for computer gaming... and of course, there’s got to be something in it for the parents too! But I’d always wanted to visit a particular corner of northern Mexico and hence had a plan in mind…
Mexico’s Copper Canyon, accessed in our case from El Fuerte, a charming, sleepy colonial town in the heart of Pancho Villa and ‘Zorro’ territory, was our planned destination for the first part of our holiday. In fact, what we know as the Copper Canyon is not one, but a series of some twenty canyons and gorges, and is often referred to as Mexico’s Grand Canyon - although actually it is some seven times bigger in terms of total area and, in many places, far deeper.
But they’re very different propositions: where the Grand Canyon appears like a vast scar on the surface of the earth, the Copper Canyon area is a more textured interplay between mountains and ravines. It’s not possible to get the same bird’s eye view or to catch sight of it all at once, indeed most visitors opt to explore in two or three days using the local ‘Chepe’ train. The railway is an amazing feat of engineering in its own right, involving 680km of track, rising from sea level to over 2,500m, traversing over 40 bridges and 86 tunnels.
But we had some energy to burn off - and I was keen to get closer still. So, after a spectacular four hour journey, we left the railway behind and set off across country for the start of our Copper Canyon trek. Our ‘mission’ was to spend four days walking from the village of Urique to the old silver mining town of Batopilas. Although they’re barely a finger width apart on the map, in the process we’d be climbing all the way up and out of Mexico’s deepest canyon, before crossing into the next.
The topography and the heat make this a challenging trek, and one that is probably only suitable for young teenagers and upwards. But the rewards are immense - staggeringly beautiful landscapes changing from the subtropical scrub of the canyon base to the glimmering white boulders and pine and oak forests of the brow; vertigo-inducing vistas into immense ravines, and pathways we shared with nobody, bar the odd passing child, herding a mule to goodness knows where. Long days walking make arriving at the nightly camp spots most welcome, and these moments remain some of the most enduring memories of the trip. Our overnight stays varied from the charming oasis of Los Alisos, where the children welcomed us with deliciously refreshing grapefruit plucked from their own tree, to the haunting and eerie beauty of La Yesca, the highest and coldest point of the trek, where we huddled around a camp fire, eating hot soup spiced with chillis, and counted stars in an endless sky.
Our final night’s camping saw us arrive at the community of Los Terreros, perched on the brow of the Batopilas canyon, just in time to catch the end of a family party. Whilst we were serenaded by somewhat inebriated guitar playing, my son charged off to kick a football with a gaggle of local children - proof positive that the beautiful game transcends all language barriers.
After the exertions of our canyon trek, we were more than ready for a bit of sea and sand, and a short hop across the Sea of Cortés opens up the whole Baja peninsula. I’d opted for more activity - and more nights under canvas - so our destination was the Island of Espíritu Santo, where we were to try our hand at sea-kayaking. Thanks to its unique ecosystem, the island and its flora and fauna are officially protected from development and indeed any sort of habitation. This made for four wonderful days, camping on deserted beaches, kayaking under towering sea cliffs, trekking among cacti hundreds of years old through the arroyos and canyons of the interior, and snorkelling in the pristine turquoise waters.
My son happily proclaimed his afternoon swimming with sea lions as absolutely the best thing he’d done - ever - but the sight of manta rays leaping out of the surf and the afternoons spent pottering at the shore’s edge, looking for shells and coral and trailing puffer fish and lazy pelicans, all ran a close second.
Whilst the children on our special family expedition relished the freedom of living in swimsuits from morning to night, running barefoot, exploring at will, parents also visibly relaxed into the slower pace of life, and never more so than at the end of the day, sipping a cocktail and watching the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon to reveal yet another star-studded sky.