Woman in bright traditional dress sitting on a cliff edge
Culture & tradition,  Lens-Artists,  Mexico

The Rarámuri people of the Copper Canyon

This name is well-deserved. They have a tradition of long-distance running, a skill probably developed over centuries of living amid the canyons. These skills are cultivated through competitive sports. According to Wikipedia:

Men kick wooden balls as they run in ‘foot throwing’, rarajipari, competitions, and women use a stick and hoop. The foot-throwing races are relays where the balls are kicked by the runners and relayed to the next runner while teammates run ahead to the next relay point. These races can last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days without a break.

Traditional lifestyles

Originally inhabitants of much of Chihuahua, the indigenous Rarámuri retreated to areas like the Copper Canyon on the arrival of Spanish invaders in the 16th century. Estimates put the current population at around 50,000 with the majority still practicing a traditional lifestyle. This includes inhabiting natural shelters (caves or cliff overhangs), using little to no technology (although we saw mobile phones in use) and being almost totally self-sufficient. They live largely off the crops they grow, such as corn and beans, and many also raise cattle, sheep and goats. Their household goods are homemade too: baskets, pottery, blankets and clothes.

Despite this, outside influences have changed these traditional societies. The Spanish brought the Christian religion, which has been modified by and absorbed into the Rarámuri animist beliefs. Mexican independence in the nineteenth century brought the expansion of land-ownership and mining to the region. And most recently, tourism has impacted both the environment and their way of life. While some have retreated further into the canyons in order to maintain a more traditional lifestyle, others have adapted to benefit from that tourism. Increasingly too, they supplement their diet with modern-day convenience food such as crisps, sodas and even pot noodles!

Most still live as they always did, not in towns or villages but in extended family groups. These consist of several dwellings neighbouring each other but apart from others, usually on the canyons’ rims. However some have adapted further, moving to nearby towns like Creel to take more advantage of the opportunities of tourism.

Meeting the Rarámuri

As two of those tourists, we were privileged to be able to meet a Rarámuri family, one that has chosen to blend a traditional way of life with the benefits that tourism can offer. Emanuel, a guide from the Mirador Barrancas hotel, took us to meet Dona Catalina, an elderly woman regarded as a healer and shaman.

Woman in bright orange dress folding a blanket
Dona Catalina

She lives with her extended family on the edge of Oteros Canyon. This has a very different ecology to that of neighbouring Copper Canyon, being much greener because of the river that runs through it.

View of a tree-filled gorge in a mountain landscape
Oteros Canyon from near Dona Catalina’s home

Dona Catalina made us very welcome, with hugs for both of us as well as Emanuel. He clearly had a lot of respect and affection for her.

We walked with her down to her cave. This was once her home although she now lives in a very modest brick-built house nearby. Here she performs healing rituals for those who ask for them and welcomes tourists to see the traditional lifestyle. A Rarámuri shaman is traditionally both healer and protector of the old ways and rituals. The role is handed down through families, to either a son or daughter. Although we didn’t ask it, Dona Catalina did do a little healing blessing for each of us.

We spent some time around this area on the canyon’s rim, enjoying the views and talking with Emanuel about the peaceful life of these people. They aren’t untouched by the modern world; he was quick to point out how they had benefitted in recent years from access to education and health care. But they still choose to live in these quiet places and follow traditional ways.

Rocky outcrop and a tree-filled gorge in a mountain landscape
Oteros Canyon

For instance, we were introduced to a young couple, one of Dona Catalina’s granddaughters and her husband. He is sixteen, she either sixteen or even only fifteen, and they have just had their first child. They posed proudly with the baby at the canyon’s edge.

As well as tipping Dona Catalina I bought a bracelet from one of the many craft stalls dotted around the family area. I was pleased when Emanuel also bought one for his wife. The transactions reinforced my impression that our visit was of mutual benefit.

The Rarámuri and tourism

As Emanuel explained it to us, the Rarámuri still have options when it comes to engaging with the influx of tourists. There remain some areas of the canyonlands remote enough for those who seek isolation to retreat to. Many however, he said, have found a way to blend their traditional lifestyle with the opportunities that tourism brings, including employment and trading of handicrafts. I should mention however that some online sources suggest that the marriage of tourism and tradition has not been such a happy one as Emanuel suggested.

I can only share our experiences and interactions, which I do as a response to Tina’s Lens Artists challenge, People Here, There & Everywhere. Like her I am ‘fascinated by the people I’ve encountered throughout my many travels’ and the Rarámuri were no exception.

So here are some more photos from around the Copper Canyon area. You will see that the women still often wear their traditional colourful tiered dresses although the men mainly wear more modern clothing. We were told that the latter have largely abandoned their loin-cloth styles due to mocking from other men. Again, I have no way of verifying this, but certainly the only traditionally-dressed men we saw were doing so for tourists, performing dance or playing music.

Unlike the shots at Dona Catalina’s home, most of those below were candid ones. However we did tip the young girl with the baby and basket of handicrafts in return for some photos.

I visited the Copper Canyon in February 2024


  • Annie Berger

    What an insightful look at the indigenous people of the Cooper Canyon you provided, Sarah. I’d never heard of that area and people so thank you for enlightening me. I loved two photos in particular – the young girl with her baby beside the basket and the musician stop the rocky outcrop.

    I can’t wait to read where your Mexican vacation took you and Chris next!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Annie 😊 You’ve picked out two of my favourite photos (the other is the one I used in the header). This region seems to be visited mainly by Americans living within easy reach of the border, we had dinner one evening with a group of four who were on a driving trip in the region and had left their car for a few days to get the train through the canyon and stay at the Mirador Hotel. As to where nex, I’m not posting in order so the next few posts are backtracking to Coyoacan near Mexico City!

  • Leya

    Wonderful photography as usual – and this time of a beautifully colourful people I have never heard of before. Interesting story, and I hope they will find a decent way to balance their lives between old and new. Such a beautiful people and the last gallery is just a shining, glorious story. Thank you for posting about the Rarámuri people.

  • Rose

    The photo at the beginning of your post of the woman sitting at the top of the canyon, is just beautiful. How sweet that Dona Catalina gave you a healing blessing. 🩷 I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to maintain traditional lifestyles when an area becomes a tourist destination.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rose 😊 I was happy how that photo came out as it was snatched through our hotel window just as we sat down to dinner. It went down well at my photo group too, I’m pleased to say!

  • Jane Lurie

    Fascinating account of your experience, Sarah, along with your excellent photos. The push-pull of tourism income vs. traditional ways is evident throughout the world in these types of communities. Thank you for opening my eyes to the Rarámuri people.

  • Marie

    This is so interesting Sarah – it must be such a challenge nowadays to hang on to any traditional ways…
    I’m feeling very drab here in my grey sweats!!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Marie 🙂 Take a closer look at the top left photo in the first set of photos, from Creel – the woman is wearing a traditional dress but topped with a grey sweatshirt for warmth! It did get really cold there, we had a frost overnight, so I guess that mix of tradition and modern is the best way to keep warm.

  • photobyjohnbo

    What a timely visit for fitting with this challenge, Sarah. Interesting back story. So many different cultures in the world, and most people learn very little about other than their own.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re so right John, too few people bother to learn much about cultures other than their own (even when those cultures are in their own backyard, so to speak). The world would be a more peaceful place if we did, imho.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ritva 😊 I loved their clothing too, I just had to photograph them, and when I learned more about them I felt I had to tell their story too.

  • Easymalc

    This was a fabulous post Sarah. A wonderful insight into how the Raramuri people live without stepping on their toes so to speak, and all perfectly illustrated with a magnificent selection of images.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, absolutely so Phil, and we loved seeing the warmth of the relationship between Emanuel and Dona Catalina which gave us confidence that the welcome was genuine and the visit sensitively handled, which isn’t always the case.

  • kzmcb

    That was very informative, Sarah. I’m fascinated by the blending of traditional and modern ways, which hasn’t worked well for many peoples, as we know.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, this topic fascinates me too 🙂 I think the jury is still out as to whether the blending of traditional and modern will work for these people or not. I suspect they will see some dilution of their culture but hopefully not the core elements and beliefs.

  • Tina Schell

    A really interesting post Sarah, I’d never heard of this group. Your images are lovely as always, the colors are marvelous! I especially loved the closing image of the man with the instrument. I was shocked at the girl with the baby at 15 or 16 – yikes! Do they have a reasonable lifespan do you know? I’m sure there are pros and cons to their experience with tourism. It reminded me of the people in Vietnam who live in the huts on Ha Long Bay. Somehow despite the tourism they seem to maintain their remote way of life. Wonderful response for the week!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Tina 😊 And for the timely choice of challenge topic too! I was slightly shocked at that girl’s age, and the proud father’s too, but I guess it’s normal for them and they would equally shocked that many women from elsewhere wait until they are thirty or more before starting a family. I think they would regard that as lost time! As to lifespan, all I know is that Dona Catalina is over 70, but clearly it’s a much tougher life than we’re used to and I think it shows in her appearance – my husband and I, standing next to her, are 68 and 67 respectively and I flatter myself we look considerably younger than she does, not just a few years!

  • margaret21

    As usual, such vibrant ‘people pictures’. It’ll be interesting to see whether they can cling on to their chosen lifestyle, and whether the young will even want to.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret 🙂 That’s an interesting point. The young people we met at Dona Catalina’s home seemed very happy but with the widening of educational opportunities, might they start to feel restless?

  • Anne Sandler

    I loved this post about a culture hanging on while trying to incorporate some beneficial modern advances. The women’s clothes are bright and beautiful. And to marry and have a child so young! Thanks for bringing us and showing us the Rarámuri.

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