Heaven and earth

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By Keith Rosenblum

Jesuit priests put Cananea on the map when they discovered gold and silver ore in 1760. The town boasts the largest copper-producing mine in Mexico.

Cananea, population 50,000, an hour’s drive from the Arizona border, is most certainly not the idyllic Mexican retreat depicted in the glossy ads. Glamor? No. Beach? No. How about one public pool? Shopping? Well, yes, if you’re looking for nondescript, run-of-the-mill markets.

Yet, for a select group – the historian, adventurer, outdoorsman, astronomer or miner – there is no greater getaway within 300 miles of Maricopa or Pima Counties than this isolated, prosperous and beautiful (if grimy) former American enclave.

What could possibly enchant the visitor?

A sense of history. A glimpse into Mexico’s mineral wealth. Stunning mountain landscapes. Century-old luxurious American architecture. A world-class observatory. Temperatures in a mile-high climate that are bearable in the summer and downright cold in the winter. Need anything else?

If that’s not enough, try this U.S. Presidential minutiae. It was at a nearby ranch in July, 1989, that ex-President Ronald Reagan – having just finished his second term in the White House – was thrown from his horse. The 79-year-old Reagan, visiting his friend Diego Redo, suffered bruises and scratches and was taken by helicopter to Fort Huachuca for treatment.

The name Cananea comes from one of two sources. One theory holds that it comes from Apache words meaning “horse meat,” a culinary luxury; another holds that it comes from the nickname — La Cananense — of a beautiful woman. For centuries, it is believed this area served as ranches for Pima Indians.

The first non-native visitors to this region were Jesuit priests who arrived in 1760 and discovered and extracted gold and silver. General Ignacio Pesqueira, from nearby Arizpe, followed up on the Jesuits’ mining (after discovering their abandoned mines during battles with Apaches). The general’s efforts returned Cananea to mining by 1868.

Cananea’s mine, owned by conglomerate Grupo Mexico, is the largest copper-producing mine in Mexico. It employs several thousand workers and dominates the economy of northeastern Sonora. But today’s tranquility belies a turbulent past.

This is the location where the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company, founded in 1899 by William C. Greene, an Arizona prospector, fought a strike in 1906 that resulted in the deaths of 23 people as strikers battled a posse spearheaded by Arizona Rangers. The fatalities took place when strikers, protesting a disparity in wages and working conditions of 2,200 Americans versus 5,500 Mexicans, marched on mine facilities guarded by Americans. Although the workers’ grievances were not addressed, the incident is considered a prelude to the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

The easiest access to Cananea from Arizona is through the border crossing of Naco, Ariz., and Naco, Sonora, 10 miles south of Bisbee. From there, it’s less than an hour’s drive along a narrow but safe two-lane highway. (No visa or car permit is required.) Motorists crossing at Douglas, Ariz. (Agua Prieta, Sonora) will have an additional 15 minutes. Those approaching Cananea from the south can take Mexico 2, the international highway, where it meets Mexico 15, just 40 miles south of Nogales.

The Puente de Arco stands guard over a main street.

There is almost nothing between Naco or Agua Prieta and Cananea.

Visitors who prefer not to drive in Mexico have another option. Two bus companies offer regular service from Agua Prieta to Cananea. Tufesa (tel. 633 338-3773) has morning service at 5:30, 8:30 and 10:30; noon and then at 4:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m., and 10 p.m. Estrella Blanca (tel. 633 338-5242) has service at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Be prepared with winter garb, It is cold here and it snows frequently. The City of Cananea is at the same altitude as Denver, but two peaks – La Elenita, at 9,000 feet, and La Marquita, about 1,000 feet less – often sport snow well into the Sonora desert spring.

While in Cananea, the visitor will want to see the following:

Casa de la Cultura
This facility, located at Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta between Ave Juarez and 5a Oeste, Colonia Centro, is a clearinghouse for many organized tourism activities.

Curator Saul F.J. Martinez Anaya can help visitors arrange tours of the mine, observatory, Greene House, museums, municipal palace, Church of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and other points of interest. He can also be reached at (645) 332-3454.

Cananea Jail Museum
Also known as Museo de la Lucha Obrera (Museum of the Workers’ Struggle). Avenida Juárez y Tercera Este. Built in 1903 and located in downtown Cananea, this was the city’s first public jail and is now a museum that chronicles the struggles of working miners. It is on Mexico’s National Registry of Historic Buildings.

Rancho Cerro Colorado
Located along the Rio Sonora, this is a huge parcel used today for camping and eco-tourism.Ojo de Agua Arvayo

The origin at the Rio Sonora, is the source of water for Cananea. It is the beginning of a fascinating ecosystem in northern Sonora.

Mexicana de Cananea
This copper mine, the largest in Mexico, began operations on a modest scale in 1860. By 1911, it was annually producing six milion tons of copper.

Los Ajos Forest Reserve
Just minutes from the Cananea – Agua Prieta highway, this national park has conserved fauna and flora of the region.

Dr. Guillermo Haro Barraza Observatory
This observatory at 2,640 meters is the second most important in Latin America. And is visited annually by thousands of future astronomers.

Cañón de Evans
Located five miles toward Arizpe, this canyon boasts unique characteristics of the region.

Los Campitos
This area, surrounded by pine trees, is five miles along Highway 2 (toward Imuris) from Cananea. It is considered one of the most beautiful pine forests in Mexico.

Instituto Minerva
Previously known as The American School; Cananea English School; or Academia Ingles de Cananea (AIC), is a mine-run facility that has taught English to five generations of residents.

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