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The Copper Canyon Rail Fan Trip with S & S Tours

Why do we take vacations? To get away, to find new and interesting places, to restore our spirits. Pete and Eleanor, who took the Copper Canyon rail trip in Northern Mexico with S & S Tours last year, recommended it enthusiastically; so friend Nancy and I decide to sign up.

From the first I am impressed by Sue Stilwell, the owner of the tour group. She has lived and taught in Mexico, and she has the respect of the hotel owners as well as the Mexican and Indian people. She also limits the size of her tours to some twenty or so people, which gives everyone an opportunity to enjoy each other as well as the history and geography of an area.

The week-long trip we choose features a magnificent rail tour via the first-class Chihuahua al Pacífico Railroad (Chepe) through Copper Canyon in Northern Mexico, 396 miles of spectacular canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, through 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. The places we are to stay are well chosen, including the Hotel Posada Mirador on the rim of the canyon. A special facet of the trip will be visits with the Tarahumara Indians, one of the few remaining still somewhat isolated groups of indigenous people who are famed for their running, their basket-weaving, and their carved violins.

Saturday — Having made all the arrangements with my cat-sitter Chris, I say goodbye to my brood, take a cab to O’Hare, and fly to Tucson. I check into the Clarion Hotel near the airport.

Day one of the tour: Sunday — This morning Nancy arrives by shuttle from Phoenix, and we meet members of our tour group for lunch. Chuck Stilwell, Sue’s husband, will lead us into Mexico where we join Sue and some other members of our tour group. The roster identifies twenty-two people from around the country – California, Illinois, Connecticut, Arkansas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Chuck gives us our nametags and packets containing wooden train whistles! We head for the airport and our departure on AeroCalifornia. At Hermosillo, the port of entry for Mexico, we submit our forms and go through customs. Then we re-board the plane and fly to Los Mochis, our final destination for the day.

The farms we see below are impressive. We learn that the yellow plots in the fields are marigolds raised to be sold to Purina for chicken feed, which makes egg yolks a deeper yellow. Sue Stilwell meets us at Los Mochis Airport. We board vans and drive a long way as darkness falls. I am glad to have Sue’s commentary on the farms and villages; and I enjoy her conversation with Peter, a tour guide from San Francisco. As we drive through the villages at night, we see that everybody is outside. Cooking fires light the front yards, and people are eating at cafeterias that seem to be on every corner. Children and dogs are everywhere.

We finally arrive at our hotel in El Fuerte, capital of the western state of Sinaloa, trudge with our carry-ons up a cobblestone incline into the hotel, and check into our rooms at Hotel Posada del Hidalgo, one of several hotels throughout the Copper Canyon region owned and operated by Mr. Balderrama. The hotel features lush tropical gardens, a pool, a museum of sorts, and a charming dining room where we join the rest of our group who had visited the sugar cane fields and the mercados of Los Mochis earlier in the day. We are served the complimentary “welcome margaritas” that are to become standard throughout the trip. The soup that begins the meal (another tradition that continues for lunch and dinner throughout the week) is superb, and the sea bass is outstanding, as we had been told it would be.

There is time after dinner for a brief walking tour around the historic plaza with its towering palms and their whitewashed trunks. El Fuerte, we learn, was founded in 1564 by the Spanish conquistador Don Francisco de Ibarra. The church is backlit and beautiful. The gazebo in the center of the plaza is festooned with Christmas lights. Teenage boys and girls sit across from each other on separate benches. “Cruising” around the square seems to be the recreation of the evening, with boys and sometimes couples crowded in the back of low-slung trucks, horns honking.
Hamburguesas are sold in a stand on the plaza.

Ancient roots erupt like varicose veins from the tile floor leading to my hotel room, which opens on a lovely inner court. The room features a traditional timbered ceiling, handmade bedspread, original artwork, and handcrafted lamps. There is a flowered washbasin in my bathroom along with abundant bottled water. I sleep soundly.

Day two: Monday In the early morning I enjoy a hot shower. I learn later from disgruntled traveling companions that the hottest water goes to the earliest risers. At our breakfast of fruit and Mexican dishes, several whose windows opened to the street complain of the noise of the roosters that crowed all night and the dogs that barked continuously, which I heard not at all. Some are so enchanted by the novelty of roosters that crow throughout the night that they inquire whether a CD might be available for sale in the lobby. Mr. Balderrama has not thought of this one.

Copper Canyon Chepe TrainWe pack our bags and crowd into several taxis for the ride to the train station. The open car Sue has reserved for us is waiting, but the famous Chihuahua al Pacífico Train arrives on its own schedule. (We are told that an arrival within an hour and a half is ON TIME.) While we wait we explore the area. Neat houses built from old boxcars sit near the tracks. One man sweeps his bare front yard. Flowers bloom on makeshift fences. As we wait for the train a small Indian girl comes up to me and asks, (Pen?) I look down and see that I have one stuck in the slot of my carry-on backpack, so I give it to her. Joan, a member of our party from New Orleans, gives her the Mardi Gras necklaces she has brought along. Later I see this tiny girl, apparently the leader of a group of boys, supervising the orderly distribution of the necklaces.

The train arrives! Our open car must be connected to the end of the train. “Chepe,” the Chihuahua and Pacific Railroad, has as its symbol the sandaled foot of a Tarahumara runner. Described as “one of the most spectacular train rides in the world, that corkscrews through wild and rugged and sometimes forbidding mountains, climbs 400 miles of rugged peaks and canyons passing through 88 tunnels and traversing 39 bridges,” Chepe lives up to the hype as the day goes on.

Our special car has a front section for seats, a middle section that is a kind of bar car with canned fruit juices served by a friendly steward and his wife, and an open back end where we can sit in lawn chairs and view the canyons, the towering peaks, the varieties of trees and bushes, and the villages along the railway. Through long tunnels and over daunting bridges, we travel across astounding canyons and spectacular deep-walled gorges into the volcanic rock of the Sierra Madre Occidental Range.

Copper Canyon Valley of CerocahuiWe leave the train at Bahuichivo and board an ancient school bus that leaks oil to drive to the Hotel Paraiso del Oso in Cerocahui. This place, named for the “Pooh Bear” that can be clearly seen on one of the peaks, is a remote and stunning ranch-type location with kerosene lamps and wood-burning stoves. We are fed immediately. I am happy to see a cat who welcomes us. She is calico, like one of my kittens. She has been hurt from some encounter that has made her lame, but she is friendly. I give her my ham and roll from lunch. Peter takes a picture of us.

After our meal we board the bus again for a trip to the rim of the canyon. In the misty, rainy weather our bus struggles in the mud and ruts, loses its traction, and finally stalls. We see that we cannot make it to the top, and we know that if we could it would be dark when we finally get there and we would have a terrifying trip back down the narrow mountain road. We decide the view from the top of the canyon is not worth this peril.

It is time for Sue, our leader, to initiate the first of her many effective Plan B’s during the trip. In a harrowing series of maneuvers, our driver turns the bus around and we descend to the town of Cerocahui, which began as a mission outpost in 1681. No one is expecting us at the Hotel Misión, so it is dark inside. There is no electricity and the lamps are not lighted. But the restrooms work and the fresh-squeezed lemonade is refreshing.

Boarding School for Tarahumara Indian girls in CerocahuiWe travel a few steps down the unpaved street to the elementary boarding school for Tarahumara Indian girls. Four nuns maintain the school on gifts and donations, used mainly for food, clothing, and books. The children are friendly and welcoming. They gather around the large court inside their compound and sing for us, one song in their Tarahumara language and another in Spanish, a haunting melody. Then they ask us to sing for them. We manage “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which they applaud. The girls run and play with each other as the ever-present dogs frolic and rub noses. 

Everything in the school’s rooms surrounding the courtyard is small, scaled for children, and immaculate. Beans and rice for the evening meal simmer on a huge iron, wood-burning stove. A large cat dozes beneath the stove where it is warm. The dining room contains tiny tables, each covered with bright oilcloth with places set for the next meal. There is a room with pails and water and sinks where the girls wash their clothes and hang them to dry. A large L-shaped room is full of identical small metal beds covered by beautiful handmade flowered bedspreads – every one the same.

 The nuns tell us they have had to make room for seventy girls this year because there is so much hunger among the Tarahumaras. The few classrooms are sparsely equipped. There is a special room where the baskets and sashes are sold to benefit the school. We all want to help these children and the nuns who serve them. They have little, but they seem content and are affectionate with each other. The plump little nun in a tan habit, her tan supp-hosed legs crammed like sausages into small tan sandals, runs a tight but caring ship. After we leave the school we walk a cobblestone block to the ancient church – one of the first built after the Spanish conquest. Nancy wonders how the Spanish got there so fast with such an impact, and I wonder how such a structure could have been built when the Indians had such obvious basic needs.

The bus makes it back to the ranch in time for the traditional welcome margaritas, served with heaping bowls of popcorn before a roaring fire. Dinner is simple but delicious.

Tarahumara Indian mother with babyDay three: Tuesday After breakfast we have time to look at the books and artifacts that the ranch owners have assembled. Then we pile into our ancient bus for the short trip to the train and an hour’s ride to Hotel Posada Mirador on the Rim of Copper Canyon. I am in Room 60, about 13 steps higher than Nancy’s room, and I can feel the altitude, more than 7000 feet. The view from the balcony – and, indeed, from every room and the dining room – is spectacular.

Rain falls in torrents for much of the day. It stops for an hour and the pale sun comes out. There is time for one brief walk before the rains come again. Most of us are glad to relax before the huge fireplace that warms the room. With Plan B in full force, Sue shows us a video of the Tarahumara Indians; and we are delightfully entertained by a singer and the waiters after dinner that evening. The food is marvelous.

Steam EnginesDay four: Wednesday — Because of the rain, we cannot have the Indian races. Some Tarahumaras do come – a guitarist, a violinist who plays on the instrument he carved, and a dancer who shows us traditional steps and a good sense of humor, too, as he demonstrates the Bear, the Goat, and the Bull. This is hard work. He is sweating heavily. Later Sue also shows the PBS Great Railways video of Copper Canyon.

We have time to talk with the Tarahumara mothers and their children, to buy their beautiful baskets, and to share with them the small gifts we have brought. Because the rains are so heavy, they are permitted to come inside. This is a treat for them and for us as we all sit by the fire.

Later as the skies clear again, we hike muddy roads to the town, the church, and the school. We leave pencils and paper in the school that has only a blackboard and a desk or two. Half a dozen children greet us. Rains come again as we stop in the other Balderrama Hotel in the village, and we welcome the bus ride we are offered back to the Mirador. Nancy and I play two games of Scrabble in front of the fireplace and are surprised that no one wants to join us.

(The remainder of these notes comes from the infamous “diary” composed by the group on the train from Creel.)

Day five: Thursday — This morning when I step out on my balcony, I see a miracle – the sun has risen in the east! My neighbor Joyce, who is on the balcony to the right, says sweetly, “Did you see the sunrise? It was beautiful!”

“No,” I say guiltily, and slink back into my room. I pack my bag, put it outside the door of my room, Room 60, which is located at the highest point of the Hotel Mirador, and walk down to breakfast. Pedro, Francisco, and Armando serve us beautifully, as usual.

Because the sun is out, our leader suggests a nice, short walk. Easy, she says and only twenty minutes, a scenic walk to the rim and back. An hour later she suggests another walk, which we dub “The Hundred Steps,” an endurance test for the fittest and fattest. Down, down, down we go to the home of the Tarahumaras. Several Tarahumaras greet us, along with chickens, cats, and dogs. Then we go up, up, up, puff, puff, puff, and finally reach the canyon rim and the porch and the baskets and the violins. What a welcome sight!

We eat lunch and then say goodbye to our friends Pedro, Francisco, and Armando. Because Nancy and others raved about the mango mousse, the chief graciously shares her recipe – canned half and half, condensed milk, and mango tossed into the blender. Yum!

Laden with baskets along with our regular baggage, we board our bus. We soon arrive at Divisadero, where we get off the bus and check out the merchandise in the stalls. Having heard from Peter that at the end of the day the dogs lick the tops of the tin stoves used to prepare the food for sale there, we decline the delicacies. We check out the hotel on the rim, look at more baskets, children, and dogs. This area seems somehow more commercial and less friendly than our hotel. We sit down on the steps near the tracks with our luggage to wait for the train. Wait, wait, wait. In the fullness of time, Chepe arrives and we get on.

A highlight of this portion of the train trip is the opportunity to visit with the conductor in the engine room. Those who are the most courageous leap from the door, grasp the bar, creep down the engine sides clinging and praying, and then jump into the cab, where we are enthralled by the engineer and the co-engineer who work with the radio, dials, bells and whistles. We are mesmerized by the tracks that unfold in front of us, cement ties alternating with creosoted wooden ties. The terrain is beautiful and wooded. The houses are log cabins. Tanks are raised above the roof. A woman is doing her wash on a rock. Pigs root around her.

Cathedral in Chihuahua Eventually we arrive at Creel. Elevation is 7800 feet. Boy, is it high! Boy, is it cold! We are met by Tio de Roberto, who drives us in his nephew’s immaculate bus to the Best Western, where we claim our charming individual log cabins. The gas logs in the stove are already lit, and my room is cozy. At seven we gather for the welcome margaritas, now known familiarly and affectionately as WM’s. They seem weak. Some are pleased to have wine. The meal is chicken kabob nestled in spaghetti, sort of a Creel chicken cacciatore mediocre. During dinner we have a plethora of entertainment. A Mexican imitating Frank Sinatra and other American over-the-hill types sings, “I did it my way” his way. He passes a basket for tips but stops after the first table. 
During dinner a rug merchant silently holds up rug after rug, and even tablecloths, for our viewing. A favorite is the serapes, or as Bob says, the rug with the hole in the middle. Some make purchases.  I return to my cabin through the cold night air and go to bed early after trying out the TV (the first CNN in a week, where we learn our fortunes have been lost, lost, lost) and testing the gas jet (just for warmth, not from depression over the market).

Day six: Friday — Day dawns crisp and clear. Frost covers the ground and the roofs of our cabins. Peter reports this vignette from his morning hike with Chuck and Richard to a statue high above the town:

“On the way to see Jesus in the early morning light, in the still-deserted streets of Creel, three horses roam untethered in the 21 degree mountain air. Scattered along the frozen, dusty roadway, the contents of dog-overturned refuse cans casually attract the horses’ interest as they search in vain for tasty tidbits. The back of the big brown horse is frosty white. It has been outside all night. From 9000 feet above, cold, white Jesus stands looking out over the smoke and shadow-filled valley.”

Once again my neighbor greets me as I peer out with the ever-chipper query, “Didn’t you see the sunrise again today?”

“No,” I say softly and sadly, and slink back into my room, tears freezing on my face as they fall.

With our suitcases packed and stacked outside our doors, we gather for breakfast – a papaya delight, with pancakes and eggs and buns that we stuff in our pockets for feeding the dogs later. We are invited to board Roberto’s marvelous smog-free bus with padded seats and participate in a cultural exchange. On the way out of Creel we are greeted by a burro as we approach the cave home of Mrs. Sinaloa. Peter provides another vignette:

“Slippery slope of melting mud up to the smoky dark and warm Tarahumara cave where the family welcomes us inside. Someone falls en route. The incident is observed by a small Indian boy who then offers to the fallen one a pot of hot water from the stove. The offer is declined, the muddied one preferring to remain muddied. Perhaps the Sierra Madre mud is to be worn as a souvenir.”

The comments of Brian, the muddied one, cannot be repeated here.

On, on, on we drive, past lakes, the Place of the Red-Tail Hawk, and many Tarahumaras, finally arriving at the Tarahumara Cultural Center. The first stop is the Baños, outfitted with flush toilets, towels, and a basket for contributions. After this stop, which we later dub our Number One Tourist Attraction, we are greatly relieved and go to the store where Peter buys another rug. Others purchase hand-carved picture frames and more baskets. I buy Vicks in a tiny round tin just because I’ve never seen anything like it. Joyce distributes her last balloons. Boy, are they green! Boy, are they strong! (One is later seen floating over downtown Creel.)

We walk to the back of the church, where we all sit in a long row and are joined by friendly natives who seem to want to hear Sue’s lecture. Swathed in black earmuffs to ward off the cold, but still able to hear herself, Sue gives us the background of the religious ceremonies of the Tarahumaras. She is joined by two goats from Central Casting who accompany us up the hill to the church and saunter inside. “O goats of God, who taketh away the sins of the world!”

There are as always many friendly dogs wanting a tidbit. As we continue our hike we identify an unusual archeological artifact: multiple assorted and isolated sneakers strewn along every path we take this day. They are not worn out. They are not beyond use. But there is just one of every kind, never a pair. This is something we will want to study when we get home to see if it occurs in other cultures.

Boarding the bus once again, we are driven to the lodge where we are joined by many friendly dogs and one who shows tangible displeasure to Chuck when he gives him only peanut hulls. Chuck’s jeans eventually dry.

Up, up, up we trudge. Rocks, rocks, rocks. A photo opportunity is pointed out, and several individuals take turns reclining provocatively in the crook of the limb of a pine tree. Then up, up, up and down, down, down through the mud and water and manure in abundance – assorted sneakers dotting the path. On past the lodge and the homes of the Tarahumaras and finally to the cave paintings. Then back, back, back, slide, slide, slide. Brian does not fall again. Chuck keeps his trouser legs dry.

Two women in our party are in such distress that they break the rules and ask the owner of the lodge if there is a baño anywhere. He generously allows them to use the bathroom in one of his guest rooms. The grateful twosome tips the surprised Tarahumara woman sitting on the porch.

Copper Canyon's Urique CanyonWe all head back to the bus, where we are rewarded with bananas and fruit juice for our good behavior. Some share bananas with the children and peels with the dogs. The children share their gum the way children everywhere do. “Here, try mine!”

We drive safely back to Creel, where we have a delicious lunch of beef kabobs, served sequentially to each person. Some consider this the best meal and best dessert ever, well worth waiting for. And waiting. And waiting. Ask brave and patient Dave. 

Back, back, back to the Best Western. Some rest. Some shop. Some wander. Some try to find the post office only to reach it just as the cerrado sign goes up in the window. Then all board the bus for the train station. Most flop and wait in the bus for the 3:30 train. We get out and head for the station when the train arrives. A wonderful dog, well fed and with a docked tail, obviously someone’s pet, keeps us entertained at the station. We give him all our snacks. We want to take him with us. He wants to go.

We finally board the train as darkness threatens and relax in luxurious carpeted green and red seats as we prepare for a long, long, long trip. The second trip to the engine is a big highlight, but an even bigger highlight is the hand dryer in the ladies’ room, aptly named “The Tornado.” It gives a huge and unsettling roar to anyone who enters the bathroom and moves even the slightest bit. Those of us closest to the restroom laugh uncontrollably as we sit there and hear surprised cries from the unsuspecting ones who go in, close the door, and are overwhelmed by the Tornado’s roar. (If you’re exhausted enough, everything seems funny. You had to be there.)

Dinner in the diner offers a choice of hamburgers or something Mexican, with soup, of course. The wine and beer run out, so Brian and Joanne order martinis. They say it is hard to tell what they are.

As we pass the hours waiting for our arrival at our final destination, Brian helpfully tells us a way to remember how to spell Chihuahua – “just call it Chi-hooa-hooa!” This Childress Maneuver (“U before A is the Correct Way!”) becomes our rallying cry for the rest of the trip.

We arrive in Chihuahua after midnight. We lug our bags to the bus and struggle to our seats. When we arrive at Hotel San Francisco, which Sue assures us is wonderful, she is shocked to discover that the lobby seems to have been bombed. We are relieved to find out that the hotel is just being renovated. Our rooms are on the fourth floor. As I settle into my bed I am soothed by the strains of the band that plays several floors below until I fall asleep.

Soon after Nancy opens the door to her room a young Japanese couple that have been assigned to the same room join her. Nancy gets to keep the room but is locked out because the combination has been changed; she also gets to make two trips downstairs for a new card. What I hear as soothing music keeps her awake until it finally stops.

Chuck & Sue on Chepe engineDay seven: Saturday — Church bells ring early in Chihuahua. The sunrise is beautiful, and this time I see it. As I dress for breakfast I respond to a knock on the door and find two women asking for my lavanderia. I finally figure out they want my laundry, but it is too late for that. The buffet breakfast is bountiful and delicious. Then it’s time for tours. Some go to the roundhouse. Some go to the market. Some go to the cathedral. Later all tour the home of Pancho Villa and the state house and buy bottles of vanilla for which the region is famous. After lunch featuring hibiscus juice at a beautiful restaurant converted from a home and featuring strolling musicians we find that cabs are hard to hail, but we manage. During a lovely departure dinner at the hotel, Sue seeks our comments. No surprise here – all are positive!

Day eight: Sunday — We rise early for breakfast, check out, and a 7:30 departure to the airport. I use my last pesos at the Chihuahua Airport for the best shoeshine my Rockports ever had. Gone is the mud, gone the manure, but not the happy memories of challenging hikes.

We say our goodbyes to Sue, who is staying on with friends in Chihuahua, and board AeroMexico with Chuck. We stop over at Hermosillo. Nels translates Spanish poetry in the local newspapers for me during the long wait for the plane to Tucson. Joan passes out Altoids, and others share fruit and nuts. All of us on this tour are now good friends, and we enjoy these final leisurely hours together. In the Tucson airport, we go through customs and say our goodbyes.

This is a true and unbiased account of a remarkable trip with wonderful comrades. All exaggerations are strictly intentional!

I loved the glorious train ride; the magnificent scenery; the assured, comforting, and creative leadership; the congenial trip companions; the great accommodations, and the wonderful food. 

Thank you, Sue, for a memorable vacation!