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Surf First, Then Ride Through Copper Canyon

It helps to surf before you hit turf. Thus I worked the web before deciding how, when and with whom I’d ride the rails to Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

Barrancas del Cobre or Copper Canyon is but one of five deep gorges that rivers have carved through the Sierra Madre Mountains. This mountain range is the home of the Tarahumara Indians, one of the most isolated and primitive cultures in Mexico. Over the past 400 years, as Spaniards and later mestizo Mexicans confiscated their fertile valley farm land, the Tarahumara retreated to the high mountain slopes to maintain their independence and cultural purity. Today, pervasive drought threatens their survival, so they acknowledge the tourist invasion and participate in its economy by selling their baskets and other crafts to visitors who ride the rails through canyon country.

The train, the Chihuahua al Pacifico (Chepe for short), is a remarkable engineering feat that includes 300 miles of track, 87 tunnels and 36 bridges.

To pursue my exploration of this “must-see” marvel, I had specific preferences. I wanted a small-group tour company that concentrated solely on the canyon and the Tarahumara, booked quality hotels and included everything (meals, knowledgeable guide, luggage handling, tips, etc.) in the package price. Armed with advice from a fellow Travel Club member, an accomplished surfer, I searched and surfed repeatedly before I found the tour company that met my needs: S & S Tours in Sierra Vista, AZ.

S & S is owned and operated by Sue Stilwell, a former teacher and coordinator of the Elderhostel program offered through Cochise College. She has owned her own tour company for 10 years and specializes in Copper Canyon. She speaks fluent Spanish and has developed close friendships with the personnel of the railroad, the managers of the Balderrama hotels, even some of the Tarahumara Indians.

S & S does not include airfare in its package price for an 8-day, but offers airline advice. AeroCalifornia has the lowest fare, however, this carrier does not fly every day. Sue’s itineraries are flexible, so she accommodated our Wednesday arrival and departure.

Divisadero AreaMy traveling companion and I arrived in the Los Mochis airport about 4:30 p.m., and Sue met us with a car and driver for the 1 1/2 hour drive to El Fuerte, originally a 16th century Spanish fort. The other two couples with whom we would travel had elected to arrive the day before. We settled into the historic Posada Hidalgo — once the hacienda of the town’s most important citizen — for dinner, orientation, a stroll through the plaza and a night’s sleep before boarding the first-class Chepe the next morning.

The train was clean and comfortable with upholstered seats, generous leg room and wide windows. Averaging about 35 miles an hour, the Chepe traveled beside a thorn forest punctuated with cacti, across narrow trestles and expansive bridges and through numerous tunnels, including the 5,966 foot long El Descanso Tunnel.

Sue supplied us with maps and other information on points of interest. She even arranged for one of our group, an enthusiastic rail fan, to ride in the locomotive — special treatment indeed.

Hotel Posada Mirador, Divisadero AreaAfter lunch in the dining car, we arrived at Barrancas, the stop for the Posada Barrancas Mirador Hotel. The deluxe adobe structure, completed in 1993, hugs the rim of Copper Canyon. The rooms are beautifully appointed and have balconies extending over the rim to provide spectacular views of the 5,770 foot depth of the canyon and a glimpse of a Tarahumara cave dwelling.

Before the complimentary happy hour and a steak dinner, Sue led us on a trek up and down a nearby hill to explore the small mestizo village of Areponapuchic, where we visited a small store, chapel and home.

This also was our first encounter with the colorfully garbed Tarahumara women and children who sell their hand-woven baskets and other crafts adjacent to the hotel. Never pushy or aggressive, the Indians are quiet, patient vendors who exhibit the tribal respect for all people.

The next morning we watched while the men demonstrated their prayerful dances and legendary running skills — a tourist-oriented performance. Sue elaborated on the Indians’ history and traditions, including their rituals with home-brewed corn beer.

After another brief hike and lunch, we boarded the afternoon train for Creel, once a booming lumber town at an elevation of 7,700 feet. The Lodge at Creel, a Best Western franchise being upgraded and expanded by the local owners, was our comfortable “home” for two nights.

Tarahumara Indian basketsThere was time before dinner to visit the Mission Store on the plaza, which sells Tarahumara crafts to benefit the Jesuit hospital for the Indians. Not only baskets and belts, but also violins, carvings and dolls filled the shelves.

In the morning we boarded a van to explore the Tarahumara country. We stopped at a cave and were welcomed into the primitive home. Cameras clicked as the mother and children posed, but no cheesy smiles for these photos; the Indians are reserved and shy, and rarely alter there silent, solemn countenances.

Arriving at a remote lodge, those of us who wanted more wilderness left the van and hiked two miles along the river bed to Cusarare Falls. Several groups of Indian women and children displayed their wares among the apache pines; one was weaving belts on a small lap loom. Yes, Sew knew a few. After 2 1/2 hours of moderate hiking, we eagerly devoured the lunch the Lodge had packed for us.

On our way back to Creel, we walked to a Tarahumara ranch, a scattering of small log and adobe huts where eight Indian families live and raise cows, goats and chickens. Our modest gifts of fabrics, pens and soaps were appreciated.

Dinner that evening in Creel was at the Caballo Bayo restaurant, a better choice for dining than the Lodge.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we were back on the train headed west to Bahuichivo. We repeated the “loop” of track that snakes the train through the mountain. At Los Ojitos the railroad reaches its highest elevation, 8,071 feet, in a forest of pines and Mexican oak. For lunch, we headed for the dinging car for a scrumptious bacon-cheeseburger — the train caters to gringos.

Tarahumara Indian Boarding School for girlsArriving at Bahuichivo, we were met by the rickety bus from Hotel Mision in Cerocahui, a mountain village founded by the Jesuits in 1680. It took 45 minutes over a dusty, rutted road to reach the hamlet of 600 Mexicans and its rustic country hotel. A spacious lobby, with a central fireplace that separated the dining and lounge areas, led to an open courtyard encircled by connecting rooms. Painted carved furniture and a wood-fired pot-bellied stove added function and charm to each room. This quaint setting as well as the warm hospitality of Martin, the manager, and the well-prepared food made this a favorite stop. We visited the nearby mission church, the home of Martin’s mother, and the impressive Tewecado Boarding School for 54 Tarahumara girls.

The next day, we took the bumpy, 2-hour bus ride to the rim of Urique Canyon, the deepest in the area. En route we visited the ranch of Sue’s Tarahumara friend, Javier. He was constructing a new wooden roof for one of his three adobe buildings, while his father plowed a small field with a wooden plow pulled by two oxen. The largest of the small structures would be used to store the corn the field would yield.

The rim side picnic at Urique Canyon proved to be a highlight of the entire trip. The view of the canyon was stunning, and we could see small, isolated Tarahumara ranches scattered on the higher slopes. On another of her itineraries, Sue takes her clients down to Batopilas on the floor of another canyon. I wished we had opted for that experience.

During happy hour that evening, Sue gave us our “lesson” on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, which required $90 million and 90 years to complete, and involved 3 1/2 Americans: Albert Owens, Arthur Stilwell (Sue’s husband’s great uncle), Benjamin Johnston, and Enrique Creel (whose father was from the USA and mother from Mexico). The Tarahumara men provided the labor and ran up and down the mountains from their homes to the rail camps.

Another hike — this one longer and more challenging — was scheduled for the following morning. Participation was optional, and I opted to do only the easier first half. Several hours later the two intrepid couples who traveled with us limped back to the hotel, showed us their bruises and scratches and raved about the scenery they had seen.

After lunch we boarded the train for the 6-hour ride to Los Mochis and a night in the modern “big city” Santa Anita Hotel. The next morning we indulged in the sumptuous breakfast buffet before ending our Copper Canyon adventure and flying back to Tucson.

You can travel to Copper Canyon for less than half the price S & S Tours charges — or pay much more. However, considering how well organized, well executed and all-inclusive Sue Stilwell’s tour was, I felt it was fair value.

Marge Hanley., AZ
Copper Canyon Group Tour