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Copper Canyon Mexico Travel Tour

Discounted Bus/Train Tour from Phoenix to Copper Canyon , Mexico

 Copper Canyon Travel TourWe designed this trip to be the easiest, most economical, most convenient way to visit this world-famous Canyon system as you cross the border with a guide and have no need to fly into Mexico on your own.  There is so much to offer here– spectacular views, primitive Indians, memorable train ride, 5 climate zones, zip lining and cable car rides in the Adventure Park. Going from sea level to 8000 feet elevation, the train ride into the Canyon is “the most dramatic in the western hemisphere.”(according to Reader’s Digest.)  As you pass through many of the 87 tunnels and “fly” over the 39 bridges, do a 180 degree loop inside the mountain and loop over yourselves on the train, you have to applaud the persistent visionaries who saw this railroad as the best direct shipping route to the Orient.  It was international from its inception.  It is noted to be 1000 feet deeper, and wider and greener  than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.  Our clients give us valuable feedback:  “S & S Tours staff live up to their giving personal attention in planning a wonderful adventure.  We give them a 5 star rating—the best.”  “Copper Canyon, Mexico was indeed everything and more than we anticipated.—all the result of the professionalism, the experience, the efficiency, the friendship and the reputation of S & S Tours.”  “You have not seen or experienced Mexico if you have not seen it with S & S Tours.  They are exceptional in experiencing the culture, food and fun to be had there.”  (from a client who traveled 15 times with us.)

Begins and ends in Phoenix.  April 3-12, 2016.  $200 discount for a $1195 price p/p per double room.  A minimum of 20 required.

Sue (Susy) Stilwell        Owner, S & S Tours

$1195 per person per double room.

Ph: (520) 803-1352; (866)780 2813; Fax:  520 803 1355

4250 S. Hohokam Dr.; Sierra Vista, AZ 85650

Learning Adventures with S & S Tours, LLC

In Mexico, Costa Rica, South America and Spain

Machu Picchu Travel Tour

Machu Picchu

 View from Guardhouse 2Since I was a young girl, I had wanted to visit Machu Picchu in Peru,  the cradle of the Inca civilization.   I have now been there at least 10 times.  We are going again this spring. It is truly a privilege to stand on this site that was once the refuge for Incan rulers to get away from it all. One client who had traveled to 45 destinations in the world commented “this is the ultimate.”   One just wants to sit on the grassy areas on the different levels of the ruins, watch the animal “lawn mowers”, the Llamas, and contemplate what the city was like when it was occupied.  We are so fortunate the Spaniards never discovered it or, it would not be available to us.  The best experience is to watch the sun rise on the site and see it chase away the shadows on the magnificent structures as it moves across the ruins.  It is also a wonderful experience to travel on the narrow gauge railroad to Machu Picchu through the gorgeous,  scenic Sacred Valley with the towering Andean Peaks on both side.  A personal highlight of this tour was to climb Wayna Picchu (the old mountain) twice with chains and rings to pull me up.  It is the pointed peak always seen at the back of the Machu Picchu (young mountain) photos.   As one stands at the top, the full sweep of Machu Picchu is below and it is a breathtaking moment.    Those of us who want to do so, walk 4 miles on the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, so we can boast we walked part of the Inca Trail.  The Inca Suspended Bridge is another optional destination while there.  It was one of the varied entrances into the site.   We also actually visit  the Floating Islands in Lake Titicaca in reed boats.  I had studied them in grade school.  The pigs, the school and the church each have their own floating islands!


Begin and end in the capital of the Spanish civilization– Lima, Peru.

April 19-30, 2016.  $3995 p/p per dble rm. A discount available.

Galapagos Islands Travel Tour

Cruise the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador in a double catamaran.

 Galapagos delivers nature with a capital N.  You will get closer to the wildlife than in a zoo!

Millennium Yacht -Galapagos 2012It was one of the thrills of my lifetime to snorkel with Blue Footed Boobies, miniature penguins sea lions and more. The Blue-Footed Boobies have gorgeous sky blue feet and are in abundance everywhere, looking like sentries posted on the rocks as we cruised by .  The animals on the Islands have no fear as they are protected so you can almost pet them, but, probably not advised.  We had to be careful where we stepped to avoid  many colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs and lizards on every rock by the water.  The Crabs are actually afraid of the water and stay near the edge.  Our catamaran was so comfortable with a picture window and a deck in each cabin.  I enjoyed sunning on the top deck of the boat when not being active.  I will never forget waking up one morning and a sea lion had hitchhiked a ride with us and was on the deck snoozing.  Visiting the Darwin Research Center was so informative and I spent  a lot of time observing the Giant Galapagos Turtles there, the superstars of the reptile world.  I was especially taken by Lonesome George, who was over a hundred years old.  My granddaughters had studied about him in school. He was the last of one of the species of Galapagos.  They have not located any mate for him.  They attempted to mate him with some similar species, but, it did not take. He died just after my last trip there. A sad loss.  It was a treat to travel with some tourists from other countries too—Israel, Asia, Australia.

You begin and end in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and then fly out to your catamaran in the Islands.  April 30-May 7, 2016      Tour price is $3795.  On sale now.

A Trio of Exotic Spots

S&S Tours, based in Arizona, specializes in small group tours to Latin American Destinations, providing in-depth interpretations of each area’s culture and natural history. Owner Sue Stilwell spotlights three of them: Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. 

Costa Rica

One third of Costa Rica is in reserves or national parks, and Stilwell says any visit should include an expert naturalist guide. “This Central American country is the most ecologically diverse Eden in the hemisphere – full of volcanoes, tropical forests, coffee farms, butterfly gardens, waterfall gardens, hanging bridges and beach parks- all with wonderful wildlife everywhere you go.” One of Stilwell’s favorite places is the Arenal Volcano area. “The volcano eruptions, seen from your hotel at night, are dramatic, ” she says. “And the next day you can enjoy zip lining through a forest, a boat ride on the Rio Frio River or touring a small organic coffee farm.”

Galapagos Islands

“The animal kingdom does not get any closer or better than in the Galapagos Islands,” Stilwell says. When visitors arrive on a double catamaran, they’ll see colonies of marine iguanas and sea lions that will mostly go about their business. “There is no fear of humans in this protected archipelago of volcanic islands,” she says. “You’ll point your camera to blue-footed boobies, sea turtles, giant tortoises and penguins. No zoom is required, though – the animals are only inches away.” The Galapagos archipelago lies in the equatorial waters some 600 miles off the coast of South America nad is reached via a short flight from Quito, Ecuador. S&S Tours rotates in a Galapagos program every two or three years. The next one is April 30 – May 6, 2018.


S & S’s Peru tour begins and ends in Lima, once the coastal capital city of the Spanish empire in South America. Intriguing museums and a visit to the catacombs are on the itinerary. Rail fans and ancient history lovers will be thrilled with this country, according to Stilwell. “three days in Cuzco, the oldest inhabited city of the Western Hempisphere, will reveal the secrets of the enduring Incan architecture through a guided tour to the primary sites in and around the city, ” she says. “To culimate your exploration of the ancient Inca civilization, you’ll ascend by narrow gauge railroad to Machu Picchu, the sacred mountaintop fortress of the Incas.”

For more information, contact us, or read our tour details.

See the original article on the Courier Site

Travelling to Mexico–How Safe Is It…

Travelling To Mexico – How Safe Is It To Be A Foreign Tourist In Mexico?  3-19-15

bus carrilThere are many, many reasons to visit Mexico. From an incredible culture, to stunning historical sites, to a cuisine that’s admired worldwide, Mexico quite simply ticks all the travel boxes. However, Mexico does also have something of a reputation for lawlessness which may put off some travellers. In actual fact, this reputation is highly exaggerated, and no traveller should have anything to fear. However, in order to put minds at rest, here is a rundown of the dangers one may face in Mexico, and what can be done to avoid them.

Human Danger

Mexico has gained herself a reputation as a mafia stronghold, rife with cartels and racked by violent drug wars. This foreign perception of Mexican affairs is largely influenced by movie and televisual portrayals of Mexican gangsters. The truth is that, while (just like any other nation) Mexico is not without its problems, the overwhelming majority of tourists could spend months in Mexico and see no evidence of this whatsoever. Even the US Department of Passports and International Travel freely admits that “there is no evidence that organized criminal groups have targeted U.S. visitors or residents based on their nationality” and that tourists in Mexico “generally do not see” the kind of drug-related crime and violence of which Hollywood is so enamored. It is true that Mexico is home to some drug trafficking routes, but cartel activity along these rarely if ever bothers itself with tourists. As in any big city, one would be advised to keep an eye on one’s belongings in case of pickpockets while in crowded urban areas – but tourists can expect absolutely nothing that they would not expect in any European nation when it comes to crime and violence.


While nations with nationalized medical facilities will often provide you with a high standard of healthcare without asking for payment, this does not apply in Mexico. However, this does not mean that the country’s healthcare system is a shambles. There are some very good hospitals around, particularly in Mexico City, and many American citizens have expressed a preference for Mexican doctors over their own. Mexican healthcare is generally cheaper than that available in the US, yet provides a very good standard of care for the money spent. One thing is for certain – in the unlikely event that you do fall sick or get injured in Mexico, you won’t be in any danger of not receiving adequate treatment. Mexican doctors and nurses are extremely professional, and Mexico is home to some of the best hospitals in the world.

Natural Dangers

Mexico is home to certain diseases which the wary traveller would be wise to take precautions against. However, if you prepare correctly, they are all very easy to avoid. People coming to Mexico should get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B, and rabies – particularly if they’re going to be coming into contact with wild animals. You should also get vaccinated against typhoid. Mosquitos which carry malaria are a problem in certain parts of Mexico, particularly the more rural areas. Mosquito bites can be avoided by covering any exposed skin as much as possible, and taking anti-malarial pills like Chloroquine. You can also reduce your chances of being bitten by mosquitos by sleeping with screens, doors, and windows closed and through the use of repellents. In fact, the greatest natural dangers prevalent in Mexico are probably the sun and the water. Travellers should stick to drinking purified, bottled water, and try to avoid sunstroke. While it may seem an innocuous delight at first, the sun beating down on one’s head all day long can quickly cause heat-stroke and sun-sickness. While not usually particularly dangerous, these conditions are unpleasant to experience, so try to avoid staying out in the sun too long, and wear a shady hat if you’re planning on an extended stay outdoors. Also do try and avoid sunburn, as it can be severe and may lead to skin cancer in later life. So, in summary – forget the cartels, the sun is your main enemy in Mexico! Stock up on sun cream, pack some malaria tablets, and have a great, safe time!

Submitted by Sally Bowie

Flight of the Monarchs

Flight of the Monarchs: High in the Sierra Madres, the butterflies are literally everywhere
Butterfly sanctuary trek in Mexican mountains an eye-opening time

Monarch Butterfly ToursThe butterflies are everywhere – swirling about our faces, alighting on bushes, quivering in the sunshine on nectar-laden lupines.

Thousands upon thousands of delicate orange-and-black Monarchs fill our view. When clouds scuttle overhead, we even hear the susurration of their wings, like soft rain falling, as they flutter to the trees to huddle in clumps. It’s quite magical – almost otherworldly. Read More

Discovering Mexico’s Copper Canyon

Discovering Mexico’s Copper Canyon
Adventure, comfort and defying fear in Mexico’s Sierra Madre
by Betsy Sanz

My 10-year-old daughter was about to step off the edge of a sheer cliff, with nothing but 100 feet of air between her and the bottom of a canyon, deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madres. What, I asked myself, was I thinking? If her hook didn’t hold, or if the zip line collapsed, she would be toast. For several gut-wrenching moments I seriously questioned my quality as a mother.

Read More…

Experience Mexico’s Copper Canyon

Experience Mexico’s Copper Canyon
Topics: Travel Experiences

Written by: Mexperience

Published: Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Many expats living in Mexico will have a list of must-see places to visit while they living here.  No such list would be complete without inclusion of one of the most breath-taking travel experiences Mexico has on offer: Barrancas de Cobre – Copper Canyon – an area of outstanding natural beauty situated in north-western Mexico.

The ‘Copper Canyon’ is actually a series of twenty canyons, formed over the years by six rivers. The area is about seven times the size of the Grand Canyon, and has distinct topography, flora and fauna to Arizona’s premier natural wonder.

The most popular – and best – way to travel into the canyon is by making use of the remarkable railway which traverses this rugged wilderness. Opened in 1961 following decades of construction, the line is an extraordinary feat of engineering in its own right. The railway line was originally devised to connect the commercial Pacific sea port at Los Mochis to the central colonial city of Chihuahua. An astounding feature of the line is that it begins at near-sea level on the Pacific coast, rises to an altitude of over 8,000 feet and then declines again to an altitude of around 2,500 feet. The incline of a railway track cannot exceed fifteen degrees, so to accomplish the ‘climb and descent’ the engineers needed to construct bridges, burrow many tunnels through the mountains and use ‘switch-back’ stages in order to complete the route. By the time the line was finished, engineers had laid over 390 miles of railway track crossing thirty-nine bridges and traversing eighty-six tunnels: the longest bridge runs for a quarter-mile, and the longest tunnel for nearly a mile.

Two first-class trains begin the journey across the canyon daily: one starting in Chihuahua City and the other in Los Mochis. They meet, roughly half-way, near Divisadero station, which is also where most of the canyon hotels, lodges and tours are based from. The most scenic and dramatic areas of the canyon are on the west side so, to take advantage of the daylight, it’s generally accepted that the train traveling west to east, from Los Mochis towards Chihuahua, is a better sight-seeing option than the one traveling east to west.

Although the train journey begins in Los Mochis, most tour visitors board the train at its first main stop situated in the beautiful colonial town of El Fuerte. Los Mochis is an industrial port city without much to offer travelers, so it’s best to fly there and take the hour-or-so road trip to El Fuerte, stay at least one night, and board the Copper Canyon train from there. When you arrange your visit to the canyon using a tour company, there will be a driver and vehicle waiting to meet you at the airport.

You can take the train straight through to Chihuahua City and simply see the canyon ‘in passing’ on the train. However, to properly experience the canyons, and get the most out of a visit to the region, explore the various tours on offer and arrange to stay at one of the hotels or eco-lodges in the canyon itself (the more adventurous can camp in the canyon) and, from there, participate in some of the wonderful outdoor activities on offer.

For detailed information about the Copper Canyon, including local knowledge about the area, best times to travel, the train journey, the attractions and activities on offer, connect to our comprehensive Guide to Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

For details about professionally organized tours, we highly recommend you contact Sue Stilwell of S&S Tours.  Sue has been taking small groups to the Copper Canyon for decades, and knows this area intimately.  Her love of Mexico and the Canyon resonates in the tours she crafts and in the testimonials of the travelers she has introduced to this breath-taking natural habitat.

See original article here

Dear Friends and Family

We just returned from a week in Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre), Mexico’s version of the Grand Canyon. However, Copper Canyon (part of the Sierra Madres) is actually a series of canyons, five of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon!  The best way of seeing these canyons — maybe the only way — is via the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (“Chepe” for short) which runs from Chihuahua in the north to Los Mochis on the west (a 12 hour train trip, but tourists are encouraged to stop at various train stations along the way).

photo by Stokes FishburneThe railroad, which goes from sea level to 8,000 feet, took 90 years to complete.  This engineering feat includes 39 bridges, 87 tunnels and a U-turn of 180 degrees inside a mountain.  The trains depart, from each end of the 396 mile railroad, at 6:00am.  The actual time when the train arrives at its final destination is another matter!  The trains seldom run on time.  Indeed, being an hour to an hour and a half late is common because of the terrain and problems with the tracks.  Much longer delays — 8-10 hours or so — may occur during the monsoon season when landslides cover the tracks.  Below is a picture of the tracks near the U-turn, where the track loops back on itself.


photo by Stokes FishburneThe image, taken from the train, shows a river meandering through the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains.  The dark “stripes” are actually the shadows of the trestles that support the train track.  The horizontal shadow is the train itself.





Photo by Stokes FishburneThe scenery as you ride along on the train is nothing short of spectacular.  But, in addition to seeing mountains, lakes and canyons, you also see the people, their homes and the way they live.  Mexico is a poor country, with many people living at the  poverty level.  Like the man below, many people have to work very hard to scratch a living from the soil.






Photo by Stokes FishburneA couple of times we passed trains coming the other way that were loaded with recreational vehicles (RVs).  Pat had considered this mode of transportation to view the Copper Canyon, but Stokes was vehemently against it.  After talking to a couple on the RV train, Pat discovered that Stokes had been absolutely right!  The man told us that his motorhome had been scratched along one whole side because it had been incorrectly loaded onto the flat car.  The woman said that the dust was so bad that the inside of the motorhome was filthy (she said it would take her a month to clean it) and the “slide-outs” were so caked with dirt that they would hardly move.


Photo by Stokes FishburneWe, together with two other couples, began our trip in Los Mochis (the best way to ensure that you see the canyons during  the daylight hours).  After an eight hour train ride, we arrived in Divisadero.  We stayed at the Hotel Posada Mirador, on the rim of the canyon.  The views from the hotel were spectacular!





Photo by Stokes FishburneThe colossal stone monuments that surround the hotel were raised by a violent volcanic upheaval. The day after we arrived, we rather ambitiously, decided to take three hikes — a sunrise hike, a hike to some homes of the Tarahumara Indians and a hike three canyons over.  In all, we hiked about 8 miles that day!  Below is a picture of the view from one of the canyon overlooks.





Photo by Stokes FishburneThere are about 50,000 Tarahumara living throughout the mountains.  These people live in this rugged environment much as their ancestors did, making plows from the oak trees, using plants for food, medicine and fiber and beating drums to communicate from village to village. Unfortunately, some of their best lands have been appropriated and, as a result, they have suffered from hunger and deprivation.  Nevertheless, most of them cling to their traditional culture.  The women are skillful basket makers and sell their wares to tourists.  Below is a collection of baskets, blankets, beads, belts and dolls that one Tarahumara woman had for sale.



Photo by Stokes FishburneThe Tarahumara women wear very bright, traditional clothes.  Most, however, have replaced their traditional footwear with shoes that while they still have fiber thongs now have soles made of rubber tires. The Tarahumara woman shown below had one of the choice sales spots on the front steps of the Mirador Hotel.





Photo by Patricia FishburneWe were advised to bring items such as thread, needles and cloth for the Tarahumara women and pens, pencils and balls for the children.  The little girl is fascinated by a green pen we gave her.








Our next “friends and family” email takes you along with us to the small town of Cerocahui and the Urique Canyon, the deepest of the canyons.

Stokes, Fishburne and DriscollAs we told you in our previous “friends and family” letter, we journeyed to Copper Canyon in Mexico.  We were accompanied by Bob and Susan Cote (Stokes worked with Bob at TRW in California), Don and Marlene Driscoll (we met them on a Monaco rally in 2002) and Carlos Granados, our wonderful guide. Below is a picture of the seven of us.  By the way, our trip was arranged by S&S Tours, whom we heartily recommend.





Photo by Stokes FishburneAfter leaving the Mirador hotel in Divisadero, we re-boarded the train for a two hour ride to Bahuichivo.  From there we took a very bumpy van ride and arrived, more than a little disheveled, at the Mission Resort Hotel in the village of Cerocahui. This is the entry to this small, 42 room, hotel.






Photo by Stokes FishburneAcross from the hotel is the St. Francis Xavier Mission Church, a 300 year old Jesuit mission for the Tarahumara Indians.  Nearby, is a boarding school for 80 Tarahumara girls.  Every morning, when the church bells pealed, the girls  came running to mass.  One day we toured the school and were impressed to discover that, in addition to learning their lessons, the children were actively engaged in cleaning the school, the kitchen and so forth.  Our guide told us that many Tarahumara parents send their children to boarding schools such as this so that they will get three meals a day.




Photo by Patricia FishburneOne night, we got a spectacular image of a sunset.  Well, okay, it wasn’t spectacular until Pat “photoshopped” out three sets of power lines!







Urique Canyon, the deepest of the canyons at 6,136 feet (compared to 4,674 for the Grand Canyon), was a very bumpy, one hour ride by van from Cerocahui. But, the views were worth it.  Below is the view from the Urique Canyon overlook.






Photo by Patricia FishburneOn the way up to the overlook, we passed this very picturesque farm nestled at the foot of the mountains.




Photo by Stokes FishburneBefore going to Mexico, we had heard about the “banditos” — but we were not prepared for this!
He sure looks a lot like Stokes, doesn’t he?  And how about that mustache (a  horseshoe that Stokes balanced precariously on his upper lip)?

As you can see, we definitely enjoyed our trip.  But, we hasten to add that there is a bit of a learning curve.  The first time you see the sign, “deposit lightly soiled toilet tissue in the waste basket rather than the toilet,” you know  you are no longer in Kansas!  Moreover, much as we love Mexican food, we were glad to get back to our simpler, less caloric meals.


The streets of Chihuahua appeared black, movement-devoid slabs as the van unimpededly slipped over then at 0530 to the train station, not a single automobile encountered during the brief journey from the Hotel San Francisco.  Founded in 1709 by the Spaniards and taking the Indian word for “dry and sandy place” as its name, Chihuahua City, located on a 4,667-foot desert plain, is the capital of Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, with a 150,000-square-mile area.  A cowboy city, it is characterized by the Franciscan Cathedral in its main square, Pancho Villa house, cowboy hat-clad citizens, and stores displaying endless rows of cowboy boots.  The state itself, topographically distinguishable by brown, vegetationless formations, is the leading producer of apples, walnuts, cotton, and jalapeno peppers, and is prevalent in lumber production and cattle ranching.  An agrarian Mennonite community produces its own indigenous type of cheese.

Ahead, and beyond the fence, appeared the two locomotives and the four lighted passenger cars comprising the daily westbound Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, operating as Train 74, cradled by one of three tracks as it was prepared for its still-nocturnal departure to the Copper Canyon and, ultimately, to its Pacific coast terminus, Los Mochis.  I would only travel halfway today, to Posada Barrancas.

The tiny, twin wooden-bench terminal, sporting little more than two ticket windows—‘tequillas” in Spanish—was almost equally devoid of life, save for the attendant behind the barred window and three other luggage-toting, still-sleeping travelers.

Fifteen minutes before its 0600 departure, the door to the platform was opened and the handful of passengers exited through it, reimpacted by the cold, dark morning and met by the conductor, who indicated the passengers’ seat numbers.  The first of the two passenger cars, configured with 68 thick, reclining seats in a four-abreast, two-two, arrangement and alternatively upholstered in red-gray or dull green, featured car-length overhead luggage racks, window pane-encased adjustable blinds, and aft, men’s and women’s lavatories.  The dully-lit car, soothing to the early-morning, incompletely-opened eyes, greeted me with welcome, heater-generated warmth, as evidenced by the steady hum audible before boarding.

Protracted reaction, as the couplings snagged the trailing car, produced an initial jolt as the chain initiated movement.  Creeping past the still-dark and empty streets, the train lurched over the silver rails, which passed through the suburbs of Chihuahua, seemingly slipping away from day before day itself had even arrived.

Operating over the long-envisioned rail link between the fertile Chihuahua plains and the Mexican west coast in order to transport goods to the port of Topolobambo for transfer to the shipping routes, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad traces its origins to Albert Kinsey Owens, an American railway engineer, who moved to Mexico in 1861 and conceived a Chihuahua-Topolobambo connection.  Forming a Mexican-American company two years later to design it, he was awarded a contract by the Mexican government to build a rail line between Piedras Negras and Topolobambo which would eventually offer spur lines to Mazatlan, Alamos, and Ojinaga.  However, ultimately unable to secure sufficient funding to complete the project, Owens ceded it to Foster Higgins, whose Rio Grande, Sierra Madre, and Pacific Railway Company operated over the 1898-completed, 259-kilometer section between Ciudad Juarez and Casas Grandes.  Insurmountable obstacles equally precluded its further extension.

The project was next adopted by Enrique Creel, who operated the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad and who was able to further connect Casas Grandes with La Junta after four years of additional construction, from 1910 to 1914.  But revolutionary attacks thwarted further completion of the next sector, that from Ojinaga to Creel.

By 1900, Topolobambo was connected to El Fuerte by several Mexican and US rail companies, but the fully envisioned route, from Chihuahua to Ojinaga, remained elusive until 1927, when the Mexican government itself completed the sector which Creel had started.  Remaining was the 260-kilometer stretch within the canyon whose topographical obstacles and 7,000-foot elevation change would require extreme engineering feats to overcome.  Nationalizing the independent rail companies which operated over either end of the still-unconnected line in 1940, the Mexican government announced 13 years later, in 1953, that the program would be completed.

The originally estimated five-year construction project, commencing with Owens’ work in 1863, ultimately took some 90 years and $90 million to complete, the final track not laid until 1961.  The project, having experienced multiply-failed attempts by several companies, cost overruns of hitherto unimaginable proportions, engineering failures, the Mexican revolution, and World War I, ultimately triumphed with a rail connection between the sea-level city of Los Mochis and the high-elevation capital of Chihuahua via the rugged, inhospitable topography of a series of Sierra Madre Occidental-located canyons traversed by tracks which threaded their way through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, thrice crossed the Continental Divide, and were subjected to an 8,000-foot elevation change in the process.

Dawn encroached itself on night’s blackness as a colorless metamorphosis, progressively revealing the opaque hue of the cloud cover.

The Chihuahua suburbs yielded to rich, chocolate-brown foothills and the gold, straw-like hay growing right up to the rails.

Decreasing speed, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad ceased its momentum at Cuauhtemoc, now 132 kilometers from its origin.  Originally known as San Antonio de Arenales, the village, later adopting the current name after the Aztec emperor, traces its origins to the railroad’s arrival in 1900, but experienced significant growth some 21 years later when the Mennonite community settled there.

Reinitiating motion, the train moved amid wheat-gold fields, which stretched on either side to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains.  The first hint of the topography to come had been glimpsed.  The sky, now an illustrious blue, retained a few scattered white cotton formations.

I walked into the Dining Car for breakfast, my first meal on the rails.  Located directly behind the locomotive, it featured a forward galley; four, four-place booths; a glass divider; two two-place booths on the left and a c-shaped, inward-facing divan with tables on the right; a second glass divider; and another four, four-place booths.  Brass lamps attached to the car sides hung above each table.  Seats alternated between dark red or green upholstery.

A standard, two-page menu featured purchasable breakfast, lunch, and dinner items.  My own breakfast included an omelet of ham and cheese, fried potatoes with peppers and onions, refried beans with grated cheese, and tortillas and salsa.

Leaving the valley and its ubiquitous apple orchards, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad passed over the Continental Divide for the first of what would become three occasions and briefly stopped at La Junta, site of the railroad roundhouse, now at a 6,775-foot elevation.  Upon departure, it commenced its gradual climb, leaving behind the plains of Chihuahua.

By 1030, having covered some 200 kilometers, Train 74 wound its way through the Sierra-Madrean oak-pine woodland as it ascended through 7,000 feet.  San Juanito, at 265 kilometers from Chihuahua and at an 8,000-foot elevation, was Mexico’s coldest community, although the sun currently shined unobstructedly.  Established in 1906, it, like many villages along the route, took root as a result of the railroad’s expansion.

At kilometer-marker 551, the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental loomed ahead.

Plunging through Tunnel 4, at 4,134.8 feet the line’s longest and the location of the third crossing of the Continental Divide, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad emerged onto dual-branching track, ceasing motion while an eastbound freight train passed to the left before partially backing into the tunnel and reemerging on the spur line for its approach into 7,735-foot Creel.  Founded in 1907, during the first stage of railroad construction, it is the gateway to the Tarahumara Indian culture and, as the principle community within the canyon proper, is inhabited by some 5,000 people.

Its current economic activity includes trade, the railroad itself, the lumber industry, and tourism.  A brief stop permitted a large, name tag-bearing tour group to board the otherwise empty passenger cars before the train almost instantly regained momentum and moved past the town’s main square and line of wooden shops and guest houses.  Redirecting itself off of the spur line, it rejoined the main track for its canyon-penetrating journey.

As the four-car chain thread its way though rock wall and pine, the Ferromex diesel engines appeared ahead and either to the left or the right of the windows as they negotiated the turns.  Climbing toward the line’s highest point at kilometer marker 583, 8,071-foot Los Ojitos, Train 74 followed the winding, ever-ascending, single track, wafts of crisp pine air and smoldering wood fires entering both ends of the cars at the conductor’s stations.

At 1235, the train threaded its way through tall, dense pine and the carpeted expanses of the canyon became visible through the left windows; moving through kilometer marker 592, it commenced a steep descent over “el lazo” as the track’s geometry looped into a complete circle and recrossed over itself.

Approaching Divisadero at 1320, now 354 kilometers from its origin, the two-locomotive and four-car Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad transitioned from mountain to canyon topography and decreased speed, moving past a chain of flatbed freight cars supporting vehicles, and ceased movement at the two-track station.  Unleashed for a 15-minute scenic stop, its patrons were instantly engulfed in a Mecca of activity as they negotiated the stalls which served as the temporary displays of the Tarahumara Indian’s basketry and wood carvings enroute to the Divisadero Overlook, where they were met with the thin, crisp air and the panoramic view of the Copper, Urique, and Tararecua Canyons whose size, depth, and grandeur were awe-inspiring and silence-promoting.

A thin line, representing a tributary to the Urique River, snaked 4,135 feet below.  The geological formations themselves were the result of plate tectonic shifting some 90 million years ago, a planetary phenomenon which later produced the mountains of North and South America.  Earthquakes of hitherto unimaginable magnitude ultimately produced the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and the Mexican mainland.  Today’s canyons were deeper, greener, and four times larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

A blow of the locomotive’s whistle indicated that it was time to return to the train for the journey’s continuation.  The quick, four-kilometer trek to the Posada Barrancas Station, which served three canyon lodges, took me to my overnight destination, the small pick-up truck awaiting only feet from the rail car’s steps.  After only a 30-second stop, the train reinitiated power and its trailing passenger car disappeared as it moved between the track-sandwiching rock faces and rounded the bend, the location’s daily lifeline now severed for another 24 hours.  The truck, making its way up the dirt hill with the luggage on its flatbed, stopped in front of the Hotel Posada Barrancas M irador.

 A three-story orange adobe lodge built on the rim of the 5,770-foot-deep Copper Canyon, it featured wood-framed balconies in rustic Tarahumara Indian style and included three daily meals.  The lobby, adorned with a brown tiled floor and yellow adobe walls with an Indian-patterned border, featured a cathedral ceiling of wood slats and thick, tree trunk beams with three wagon wheel-like chandeliers, a huge adobe fireplace with a pottery-adorned mantel and a crackling fire during evenings, and leather sofas and arm chairs.  A small, separate bar featured small, round wooden tables, colorful Indian-motif chairs, an orange adobe fireplace, and a painted, wall-length mural of the Copper Canyon and the railroad tracks which ran through it.  A large, outdoor, canyon-overlooking balcony framed by a natural branch- and trunk-border was accessed by a door from the lobby.

A tiled, outdoor walkway led past crevices of pottery, rocks, and cactus on the right and the room doors on the left.  The rooms, in quintessential Mexican-Indian style, retained the hotel’s tile floors and featured rough, white adobe walls; wood-beamed ceilings; small, white adobe fireplaces with orange bases; separate, outside sinks and closets whose wooden doors were made of diagonally-patterned tree branches; inside tiled showers; and rustic tree trunk and branch balconies overlooking the canyon.

Lunch was served in the dining room, which contained long, wooden tables, and featured a downward-slanting ceiling made of thin wood branches, four wooden chandeliers, a green slate fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling windows which looked out over the canyon, and included cream of mushroom soup; filet of grilled beef, baked potato, refried beans and cheese, nachos with melted cheese and tomato sauce, and tortillas and salsa; peach cream pie with a graham cracker crust and chocolate sauce drizzle; and coffee.

The few wisps of cloud brush-stroked on the western horizon above the rock-sculpted walls of the canyon temporarily transformed themselves into pink and purple hues.  The air, thin, pure, and brisk, exuded tranquillity.  Far removed from a settlement or town of any appreciable size, the orange adobe hotel overlooking the rim became an isolated world unto itself.

Dinner, the second meal in the canyon, included lentil soup; barbecued chicken breast, lime rice with green olives, and mixed vegetables; and pineapple cake.

The canyon, now devoid of light, was reduced to a black, referenceless hole.  The grid of stars, unobstructed by a single cloud vapor, pollution-caused haze, or ground light, penetrated the night sky like high-intensity beams melting into black wax.  The cold, rarefied air was heavy with the aromas of the burning logs in the lodge’s adobe fireplaces.  Surrendering to sleep, I lapsed into the void of oblivion…

2. Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pierced only by the sounds of the periodically-howling coyotes, night had remained invisibly black.  At 0630, between the Copper Canyon and a band of black cloud, dawn poured itself into day as molten orange lava through a sliver on the eastern horizon, progressively encroaching itself until the once-black cloud band became infused with tinges of orange, like a sponge gradually absorbing day’s liquid.  The crevices and corrugations of the canyon’s cliffs, although still indistinguishable, became visible in silhouette form beneath the dark-blue sky whose nocturnal light, the profusion of interstellar stars, had faded until only a planet-representative pinpoint of light remained diagonal to the lodge’s balcony.  Absorbing the full fury of day, the cloud band hovering over the horizon became engulfed in fiery red flame.

The daily westbound train, which would take me the remaining half of the distance to its terminus, Los Mochis, had just pulled out of Chihuahua.

The clouds, now totally consumed by fire, were completely engulfed by red.  As the flame burned itself out, the red once again progressed to a cooler orange and the sky transformed itself into a morning baby blue.  The gray granite of the canyon’s sculpted rocks and the green of its lower-elevation vegetation became distinguishable.

Breakfast, served in the hotel’s dining room, had included orange juice; a fresh fruit plate of watermelon, papaya, cantaloupe, banana, cherries, and limes; pancakes, maple syrup, and bacon; and coffee.

By late-morning, the lodge seemed suspended by its silence as its guests, temporarily away, became involved with hiking and horseback riding excursions, almost in anticipation of the daily train from Chihuahua, lifeline to the isolated canyon community.  A very small, colorfully-clad Tarahumara woman, carrying a baby cradled in a fabric sling behind her back, peeked into the lodge’s window, in curiosity of the “other” life experienced here.

The suspension of silence, time, and society was abruptly shattered at 1330 as the dark green and red Ferromex diesel locomotive, sprouting gray smoke and pulling its chain of five cars, appeared between the bushes on the single track, following the right curve and stopping at the “Old West’-resembling wooden platform on which some 20 people, having emerged from Posada Barrancas’ three lodges, congregated.  Unlike yesterday’s train, today’s was comprised of a single locomotive, the standard dining and bar cars, and three passenger cars.  Clamoring on board with the rest of the luggage-carrying passengers, I reached my left-hand seat just as the engine had released its brakes and the westbound train had slipped between the two rock faces on the other side of the dirt road.

Only moments after leaving the station, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad followed the multiplying tracks into San Rafael and stopped parallel to the eastbound train.  A gradual descent, from 7,500 feet to sea level, would characterize most of the remaining journey.

Lunch, served in the dining car, included a California baguette of ham, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, and Dijon mustard on French bread with crispy French fried potatoes.

Rounding a left bend, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad plunged through a tunnel and over the 695.4-foot Laja Bridge, the tracks now nestled in a pine tree-rich canyon.  At 1515, it pulled into the 5,300-foot station of Bahuichivo, which serves the town of Cerocahui, located 16 kilometers amidst apple and peach orchards, and the village of Urique, which is located at the bottom of the canyon.  Between kilometers 688 and 708, the train bored through a series of 16 tunnels carved into the canyon’s edge.  The track, paralleling the slender, rocky, almost-dry Septentrion River below, was itself “miniaturized” by the green-carpeted peaks of Chihuahua pine, Douglas fir, and Quaking aspen towering above it.  The sky, abundant with majestic, floating silver cloud islands, was otherwise an illustrious blue.

Reduced to but a model railroad, the six-chained linkage moved amid the towering, granite and green alpine-topographical peaks of oak and pine, periodically swallowed by a series of tunnels, which instantaneously reduced day-blue to night-black.  Mimicking the locomotive’s turns, curves, and jolts at slightly delayed rates, its trailing cars followed suit with uncanny precision.  As soon as the train exited a tunnel, the seemingly tiny round hole representing the entrance into the next always appeared ahead.

Entering tunnel 49, the train, now descending into the Santa Barbara Canyon, executed a 180-degree turn before emerging and again was subjected to a second 180-degree bend on the bridge spanning the Septentrion River.  The village of Temoris, founded in 1677 by Jesuits and located on a 3,365-foot plateau above the station, had been reached by 1610 in the afternoon.

Passing through the Rio Septentrion Canyon, Train 74 traveled through notably tropical topography, characterized by banana, palm, and mango trees

At 1708 and kilometer-marker 748, the train crossed the 1,018.5-foot Chinipas Bridge which, at 335 feet above the green surface-appearing Chinipas River, was the highest of the line, and, six kilometers later, bored through the last and longest of its tunnels, number 86, which was 5,966 feet in length.  Like the last sounds of a symphony, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad exited canyon country.

As evening approached, the passengers, many of whom belonged to one of two travel groups, made way to the bar car for wine and cocktails.  The car itself, located between the dining and the passenger cars, had been configured with an inward-facing bar with several round bar stools, mirrored shelves for wine and liquor bottles, and upside-down hanging glasses.  Primarily upholstered in red, its lounge chairs were sandwiched by small, round drink tables, while a stand-up bar and a concessions counter for salable snacks and souvenirs was installed at the front of the car.

At kilometer marker 781, the train passed over the Agua Caliente Bridge, which spanned the Fuerte River and, at 1,637 feet, was the line’s longest.  Traversing low, scrubby cactus and thornforest terrain at 1730, it moved at considerable speed beneath paling blue skies and dark, periodic nimbus cloud collections characteristic of dusk.  Horizontal lines of cloud, brush-stroked on the western horizon, were eaten by burning orange coals.  Hovering only feet above the curved silhouettes of the mountains, the sun, in pure cylindrical geometry, burned with orange fury before slipping behind them.  Settling into nocturnal rest, it projected a volcanic eruption of purple and orange liquid lava skyward in its aftermath.  The snaking river below the bridge cradling the track seemed lit with a violet match.  The cloud formations, temporarily torched by orange, metamorphosed into purple as night snuffed out the few remnants of day’s embers burning just above the horizon.  A quilt of ruby and gray stratonimbus draped itself over day, covering it with suffocating darkness, and leaving the warm, lighted interior of the passenger cars as the only remaining light.

Train 74, now traveling parallel to flat, almost-desert scrub in the state of Sinaloa, had left the Copper Canyon and the foothills of the Sierra Madre behind, and would close the remaining gap to its final destination in blackness, leaving only the “clock” of its wheels against the track as audible evidence of its advancement.

Walking to the dining car for the last meal on the rails, I ordered a bottle of French white wine and an entrée of chicken cordon bleu with a mushroom cream sauce, Mexican rice, and mixed vegetables.

The town of El Fuerte, reached at 1910, was of Spanish colonial architecture and had been founded in 1564 by the Spanish conqueror Francisco de Ibarra for the purpose of erecting a fort to protect its citizens against Indian attack.  Serving as a trading post on the Camino Real for three centuries, whose Spanish mule trail had connected Guadalahara, the Alamos mines, and the Sierra Madre Occidental, it had become the capital of Sinaloa in 1824.

Lurching on the single track beneath dark velvet, star-diamond skies and moving over the flat expanse of land, Train 74 covered the remaining 82 kilometers between El Fuerte and Los Mochis, the rectangles seeming to skim along the sides reflections of its lighted passenger car windows on the track-side vegetation.

The rectangular reflections of the car windows were like the reflections of the journey: unlike other rail lines, which offered alternative transportation means to certain destinations, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad offered the only land line to and through the Sierra Madre Occidental and its related canyons.  The life line to the communities along its track, from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, it offered singular-method, vital transportation; traveled over 653 kilometers of track whose route could only be equated with an extreme feat of railway engineering; offered unparalleled mountain and canyon scenery; and connected the Mexican and Tarahumara Indian cultures.

The single track burgeoned into many and the train passed a considerably-sized railway yard.  The lights of Los Mochis, the modern city located only 19 kilometers from the port town of Topolobambo, loomed ahead.  Creeping through the suburbs, the houses of which were only yards from the actual track, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad moved past the modern Estacion de Los Mochis at a snail’s pace and snagged its brakes for the last time at 2205, completing its 16 hour, 20-minute journey from the plains to the Pacific.

Taking my suitcase from the overhead rack and climbing down the few stairs to the platform, I watched the uniformed crew turn off the train’s lights and file into the terminal, having completed another westbound run, and could only marvel at the vital role they played in the railroad’s purpose to link the Copper Canyon with the rest of Mexico.