An Overdose of Adrenaline in the Copper Canyons of Mexico
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Can a man-made adventure park really scare the bejesus out of "been there, done that" experienced world travelers? When they buckle in and hug a cliff face high above the canyon floor, they find their adrenaline meter turned up to 10.

Copper Canyon, Mexico

As I step onto the bridge made up of nothing but woven metal cables and take a tentative step, I realize there is no way to follow the prime acrophobia rule of “don’t look down.” Each foot placement must be a careful one. My hands have nothing to hold onto but another cable strung between two outcrops on a cliff face, so I have to look at my feet. Below them there’s nothing but a set of twisted cables and then thin air. Sure, I am clipped in to the hand cable, but my fast-beating heart isn’t taking much solace in that. The logical side of my brain is saying, “We’re double-strapped in and secure,” but my eyes are sending a different signal to my emotional brain. “Hey look, there’s nothing between our shoe soles and that ground a half mile below us  except this shaking bridge! Red alert, red alert!”

Copper Canyon Adventure Park in Chihuahua, Via Ferata rappel start

When my small group committed to this via ferata course though, we fully committed. Anyone who signs up rappels down to the start of it from a platform where you can’t see the course and then there’s no way to go but forward after that. If one of us gets freaked out by trying to find handholds and footholds on the side of a cliff, too bad. If the idea of tightrope walking our way across a gorge makes someone want to cry at the halfway point, then they can go ahead and cry---but they still have to cross it. Facing fear head-on is the only option because there’s no off ramp. The course only goes one direction, along cliffs above a canyon floor.

Adventure Levels of Extreme and “More So”

Most visitors to the Copper Canyons of Chihuahua ride Mexico’s only city-to-city passenger train service through for a couple days and snap photos of the scenery. If they get off at all, it’s to stand on the edge of a lookout point and take in the views before lunch. My group is an adventurous bunch though, not okay with the standard route. When we see the activities menu on the wall at the Copper Canyon Adventure Park, we look at each other and tell our tour guide, “All of it.”

That’s how we find ourselves with tiny toeholds on a rock face gasping out a litany of swear phrases in three languages. It starts off badly enough with the rappelling since we have no idea what is below the platform. Quite a lot, it turns out, with hidden holes in the rock, surprise outcroppings, and some 80 meters to descend before landing on a flat surface. My leather glove keeps heating up as I grip the rope too hard. I can feel the eyes of those who have gone before me looking up at my tentative form as I gingerly walk my way down the vertical face. Turns out that’s the easy part.

Via Ferata at Barrancas del Cobre Parque Aventura Chihuahua Mexico

We climb up a tied-in ladder to reach a small shelf on the cliff, then inch our way across in single file to a cave with two suspended ladders. Then once over the scary cable bridge, there is a sense that we must be past the worst of it. But then after going up another ladder, we emerge on another ledge with room for us all to squeeze in together. The back guide is with us, but the lead guide is not.  

“How did he get over there?” one person asks as we see the front guide perched on another ledge across from us, with a huge drop between us. Then we see: there’s a rope swing.

“No…f&#king..way,” one woman says and really means it. She’s got a look of total defeat on her face. The back guide says, “You don’t have to do this swing part if you don’t want to. There’s another route to the next part.”

By the time he shows her the path, the bravest woman in our group is already on the other side taking a selfie with her phone. She just grabbed the rope and went. I gulp and decide I won’t be able to live it down if I don’t follow her. I’ll either be hashtagging #thisisadventure later or I’ll be a bloody heap impaled on an evergreen branch down below. But I can’t wimp out now.

Rope swing on the Via Ferata at Copper Canyon Adventure Park in Mexico

It feels—and looks—like the craziest thing I’ve ever done before it starts, but it’s over in seconds. Then I’m clipped onto another bridge crossing, this one with wooden slats at least. After swinging between two sheer rock faces, it looks positively comforting.

The scenery is spectacular up here, a dramatic 180-degree view with miles of visibility, but it’s hard to relax and enjoy it with my heart pounding so hard. There’s still a dissonance between what my head is telling me and what my eyes are seeing. I’m thinking, “It’s perfectly safe, you’ve got two carabiners clipped in just in case one fails.” But when my foot slips at one point and it’s just my arm strength keeping me in place for a couple seconds, the caveman part of my brain screams, “We’re all going to die!”

Just as I get that part calmed down again, we come to the last bridge. Can you really call it a bridge if it’s what a tightrope walker would cross?

tightrope cable bridge at Copper Canyon Adventure Park in Mexico
Photo by Sari Heiskanen

One person at a time goes across. We put one foot in front of the other on a single cable crossing an open space. It’s not really tightrope walking since there are two higher cables strung across for our two hands and the carabiner straps. Everyone makes it, with no close calls, and there are audible sighs of relief. The last part of climbing up rebar rungs and footholds to get back up the cliff seems easy at this point.

At the top, never has a high-five felt so well-deserved.

Flying Through the Copper Canyon Air

The morning is still young, so we move on to ziplining. I normally look at ziplining as a tame activity that feels routine after the second or third time, but there’s nothing ordinary about the set-up here. It just might be the longest ziplining complex anywhere, with five kilometers of total length between seven zipline traverses and two long suspension bridges. One ride is more than a kilometer long, 480 meters above the ground. This is the only place I’ve seen a posted description where the estimated speed “depends on the direction of the wind.” If there isn’t much wind and you’re light, you could be flying along at 70 miles per hour (110 kph).

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Read this article online at: An Overdose of Adrenaline in the Copper Canyons of Mexico

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