From Tom B.
About 7 years ago we were turned on to Mexico’s Copper Canyon (a group of six connected canyons) and train ride by Chris Willemin, a dear amigo of our daughter, Mariel. Chris made his trip to the canyon and, sadly, died in a car accident shortly afterwards. We recently finished our own beautiful, inspiring and eye-opening trip of the canyon by train, the Chepe. What follows is for Chris, whose enthusiasm sent us on this trip and whom we thought of many times during the week’s extraordinary journey.
We flew from La Paz to Los Mochis, Sinaloa, on a twin-engine propellor plane in a quick 45 minutes. Before we left the Los Mochis airport my phone pinged with a message that our account lacked enough pesos to pay the electric bill due in a few days! Just the way one plans to start a vacation! My “Worry Meter” raced into overdrive because the electric company quickly disconnects your electricity if your payment is a day late. After an anxious 1.5 hour cab ride from the airport to our hotel in tiny El Fuerte, I was relieved to discover a branch of our bank just a block from the hotel. Rather quickly for Mexico, we solved our dilemma by depositing a substantial sum of our travel cash back into our account so the house/dog sitter wouldn’t have to endure our house electricity-free and launch rotting food from the refrigerator. Then I used my US$ debit card to recoup those pesos so we wouldn’t need to scrimp.
Our hotel, the Posada del Hidalgo (http://www.hotelposadadelhidalgo.com/home.html), is a piece of fine architecture in every way: old world charm throughout, well maintained, lovely landscaping, a nice restaurant with bar and pool, with very friendly staff. We all recall the TV Zorro of our youth. Well, it’s said that young Zorro, born Diego de la Vega, was born and spent the first ten years of his life in the old part of the posada before his father moved with him to what is now Los Angeles, CA. True? Who knows, but it adds to the pleasant stay at the Posada del Hidalgo.
We took a late afternoon excursion on the El Fuerte River, a float downstream in an inflatable boat spying birds, flora and the occasional cow drinking from the river. At one point we landed to look at ancient petroglyphs carved in rocks centuries ago.
Dinner. Randy enjoyed the river lobster, joyfully pronouncing it succulent. I had the wonderful black bass from the same river. Scrumpy, yes! Then off to bed, for we had an 8 am train to catch.
Our train pulled out of El Fuerte’s wee station sort of on time at 8-something AM. It slowly chugged eastward until we entered the mouth of the canyon and began a gentle ride along the river, rising and falling with the terrain all morning. Tunnels and the occasional bridge also varied the ride while the scenery, lush green forest and giant, craggy rocks, held our attention. A couple of times the train stopped at a tiny village or in some part of nowhere to let a passenger off or climb aboard.
About noon we pulled into our stop at Bahuichivo where we were met by the hotel’s van and taken to Hotel Mision in nearby Ceracahui (http://www.hotelmision.com/). After a late lunch we took a tour to the Jesuit church across the street, built in the 1700s by indigenous Tarahumara Indians, a visit to the next-door Tarahumara girls school where young girls spend the week going to school and weekends at their homes in the mountains. The school has 90 boarding students with 5 nuns teaching and caring for the girls. Our final stop was at the Mision’s tasting room! The hotel has two hectares where they grow red and white grapes, producing one white wine and three different blends of red wines. Being the bon vivants we are, we tasted all four wines before taking a wee siesta prior to dinner. This hotel, one of the three hotels owned by the Balderrama group where we stayed, served dinner family style, not our preference, but actually just fine, as we met some very interesting people from all over Mexico, plus the odd gringo or Canadian. The food was decent, but not up to the level of the Hidalgo’s. As expected, the service was top quality.
We booked a tour to the canyon’s 7,000’ overlook followed by a drive down into the canyon by car to Urique, a small town at river’s edge for the following day. Super Mario arrived on time and drove us up the mountain to his family’s charming lodge (www.coppercanyonamigos.com) in the forest, where we saw their quaintly appointed cabins, the small gift shop full of indigenous arts, and the sweat lodge their father had built many decades ago. Mario’s brother Tito continued our drive to the Urique Canyon overlook with it’s breathtaking views. He drove us down the 1 1/2 lane dirt, switchback road with no guard rails to Urique where we wandered about a bit, then enjoyed a riverside box lunch the hotel had packed for us. We returned to the Mision in time for a siesta before dinner. (Siestas are mandatory in Mexico, you know.)
When one thinks of Mexico we usually conjure fine beaches, warm weather and refreshing margaritas. Mario and Tito both told us that it ain’t that way in the mountains. Their farm is high enough to enjoy approx. a foot of snow in the winter; thus wood-burning stoves in their guest cabins. At the Hotel Mision we also had a wood-burning stove in our room, but snow accumulations are just an inch or so there.
The next day it was back to the Bahuichivo train station for our 12:24 train that was a tad late again. We quickly learned to expect this type of schedule throughout our trip. Mussolini had no influence on Mexican trains. We settled in on the train and enjoyed more of the scenery and tiny villages and tinier farms as the train choo-chooed towards Chihuahua. Our train stop was at Barrancas, then a short shuttle drive to the Hotel Mirador (http://www.hotelmirador.mx/home), strategically located on the canyon’s rim; our room’s balcony hung over that rim with a magnificent view to the canyon’s bottom and eastern wall, where the sun rose in a glory of orange and yellow the next morning.
But before we could see any of this I, as in Tom, admit that I’d left our return train ticket in the seat-back pouch in front of us…on the train that was about to chug away. I bolted from the shuttle, boarded the train, scampered through their car and felt the train begin to move before I could get to our tickets. So I jumped to the platform with great flair and, now sweating profusely, reboarded the shuttle where every passenger knew of my stupid plight. I was immediately partially saved by a private tour guide, Cecilia, who told me, “he’ll take you to the next stop,” pointing to someone I’d never seen. Trusting strangers in a strange circumstance, I joined my new friend, Israel, in his truck and off we hurtled for the nearby “real” station where the train was still pondering its next move. I ran down stairs, bolted along tracks and rushed to our former car, told the conductor something unintelligible, leapt on to the train again, hurried to our seats and was met by Ricardo and aptly-named Santa, who we’d enjoyed a couple of meals with at the last hotel. Santa reached into the pocket, produced and handed the tickets to my grateful paw, while I bid them a huge gracias and a hasty adios, jumped off the train, ran back up the tracks and the flight of stairs to waiting, smiling Israel. The day…the trip…was saved. Off to our hotel.
We’d booked a tour for the Basaseachi waterfall and the frontier town of Creel with a hotel employee, our Israel, for the next day. Told we would be the only two on the van with Israel, we were joined by 14 disparate Mexicans, all of whom joined in chorus for a medley of Mexican songs shortly after we got underway. Laughs and smiles, great joy, prevailed. As these tours often go, we had 4 “brief,” unexpected stops before we got to either of our chosen destinations. The first was to the locally famous “Roca de Amor,” a mighty natural rock in the shape of…an erect penis. Israel told me it would bring me more children. Fat chance, Israel. Next stop was a small cave where 8 people lived. I counted 4 beds, one totally unrecognizable for the mountain of “stuff” piled to the ceiling on it. The ceiling was very low, furniture sparse, dirt floor clean (you have to believe that oxymoron) but the roof was covered in soot created by a tiny homemade stove with a humongous pot on its surface. Next stop was the Misión de San Ignacio, built of stone for the Jesuits by the Tarahumara Indians in the 17th century. The Tarahumara still use the church today. It’s built in an area referred to as the Valley of Mushroom and Frog stones where a flexible imagination is required. Were we getting closer to our two destinations as the day moved on? No, another stop to see the pretty horseshoe lake of Arareka came first. Then to Creel to drop off the 8 passengers who did not care to see the falls. At the falls, drove a rutted, rocky road about a mile to its end and walked 300 meters through a pine forest to the falls. Alas, it was the dry season so the very high Basaseachi falls did not fall. But the lower, nearby Cusarare waterfalls made the trek worthwhile. These falls were flowing with water despite the non-rainy season; a rainbow ran across the cascading water while we gaped in awe.
We returned to Creel for 25 minutes, then journeyed back to our hotel with it’s mighty fine view. Creel looked interesting but we can say no more about it for we saw no more of it.
The next morning we ventured to a nearby adventure park that offered very long zip lines (one promises speeds from 75 to 125 km/hour!) We passed. We were interested in the long tram ride to a distant pinnacle with more exquisite views. Then it was off to catch our very late train for the return to El Fuerte. Mussolini, where is your influence?
We were in different light for this ride so it offered more shadows in the canyon and a different perspective of the journey. Another night at the lovely Posada del Hidalgo. Alas, Randy was stung by a bee during dinner. Seems we were to end the trip the same way it began, loaded with anxiety. Shortly after we retired to our room she sent me to ask the front desk to call a pharmacy for an Epipen or it’s equivalent in pill form. She’d already taken a benadril with little success. I knew this was serious business. Four pharmacies later we learned that nothing of that ilk was to be found in El Fuerte. So, I dreadfully enquired about pharmacies in distant Los Mochis. Before we finished our inquiries, Randy called me and declared that the worst had passed. She was fine now; we both slept well and the next morning we flew home to a welcoming La Paz.
We consider the Copper Canyon to be a hidden gem of Mexico, if not the world, a delightful, uncrowded trip replete with impressive views, food and friendly Mexicans. Viva el Barrancas del Cobre!.
And a mighty big Thank You to Chis Willemin, our inspirer and all-time great guy who will always be missed.
We were not on a tour, however, we arranged our trip through Arizona-based S&S Tours (www.ss-tours.com). We have nothing but praise for Sue and Erica, who promptly sent us information on the trip, prepared the 7-day train ride we requested and sent us everything we needed, from train tickets to hotel vouchers that included the side excursions we desired. Not to mention tons of information about what we would see, expect and cultural differences to be aware of.
Once we left the Posada Hidalgo in El Fuerte we had no connection with anywhere other than where we were. For 6 days we endured no news, no emails. It was surprisingly easy to accept.
S&S Tours, LLC
Ph: 520-803-1352: Fax: 520-803-1355