Sand S Tours - Learning Adventures
Layout Image

Travelogues

Atotonilco – Mexico

Place of Hot Waters- Atotonilco, Guanajuato, Mexico                         by Erica Soto

Atotonilco sanctuary w logo-e.s.Approximately six miles from San Miguel de Allende we stop in the village of Atotonilco, which means “place of hot waters.”  Atotonilco has one of the most revered sacred churches in Mexico.  The sanctuary of Atotonilco is a mysterious church used for pertinence.   It also has an important part in history as the route for independence and where the banner of the Virgin Mary was ripped from the sanctuary wall by Father Hidalgo and used as a representation of freedom from the Spaniards.

When we step out off the car we immediately notice the silence of this village.   We stop in front of the Sanctuary of   Atotonilco.  From the outside it is a very simple church with high, plain, white walls. But as you get closer and take a good look, encrypted are various faint murals.  You will have to look very closely to be able to depict them. The façade murals were noticed after the sanctuary having been neglected for centuries was named and UNESCO World Heritage Site and funds were available for restoration.  When the outside walls of the sanctuary were being prepped for painting one of the workers realized that these murals were hidden behind the dust of the sanctuary walls. The sanctuary entrance is the original 1740 carved wooden doors and lock.  The wearing down of the entrance step is also noticeable.

Once inside the sanctuary it was entirely an opposite sight from the outside.  There are huge carved wooden images of mythical creatures, bleeding penitents, suffering saints and frescos. One of the most notable and important figure is of a bleeding Jesus of Nazareth.  This same figure is used for pilgrimage during holy week procession from the village of Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende.

After the intense visit of the sanctuary, we stopped to have a relaxing lunch at the banks of Rio Laja surrounded by mesquite trees and cacti.  From here, we are only 10 minutes away from San Miguel de Allende!

S & S Tours
4250 S. Hohokam Drive; Sierra Vista, AZ 85650
Ph:  866 780 2813 or 520 803 1352; Fax:  520 803 1355
Email:  ss@ss-tours.com; Website:  http://www. ss-tours.com

10 days in the Copper Canyon

Copper CanyonI just returned from 10 days in Copper Canyon with travel agents. I marvel again at the Adventure Park at the Divisadero Area in Copper Canyon. Rock climbing, repelling, cable cars and zip lines are among its offerings. The Park offers a 7-jump zip line which is the longest in Mexico and the Zip Rider which is the longest single zip line in the world.

I have ridden the 7-jump zip line about 6 times and I am always ready to go again. It is such a trill to be flying through the air over canyon views that one cannot see any other way. At one point you are 2275 feet above the canyon floor. Three miles of course with two hanging bridges added in gives you plenty of time to revel in the scenery. Looking around you see dramatic scenes with steep rocky cliffs, stream beds and Tarahumara Indian ranches. One of the lines is 1.2 km long and on one of the lines you double up so you will make it across the chasm to the other side

The Zip Rider seems too tame for me, but, for those who want soft adventure riding in comfortable chairs at 65 miles per hour, it can be an adrenaline rush. The vertical drop is 450 feet and is over 8000 ft. long with a 17% grade. It takes about 2.5 minutes whereas the 7 zip line can take up to 3 hours, depending on how many people are riding it that day. You can boast you have ridden the fastest, highest and longest single zip line in the world.

Even if you do not ride a zip line, you should at least ride the cable car across the canyon. It is 3.6 miles long and offers a good view of Tarahumara Indian ranches and the canyon floor and flora. On the 7-jump zip line, you return on the cable car so you get both adventures in the same adventure.

MEXICO’S COPPER CANYON BY RAIL

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.

Reflections on Mexico’s Copper Canyon

The Copper Canyon of Mexico represents nature dressed in her “Sunday best.” There are the deep, rust canyons, formed by the relentless winds; the green pine forests with their shiny reflection enhanced by the bright blue sky; and the barren desert adorned with brilliant earth colors representing all forms of timeless life.

The decision to take the journey into this region decorated by time, is by no means a vacation. A vacation consists of pool-side drinks, lazy mornings, paperback novels and a big tab for your trouble. Going to the Copper Canyon is a travel experience. It is a very personal and unique journey. When asked if you had a great vacation in the Copper Canyon, the response is “no,” but we had a great travel experience.

Our itinerary was self-designed via recommendations from various travel resources. Our travel arrangements were made by Sue Stilwell of S & S Tours based in Arizona. Sue gave our itinerary the “seal of approval,” arranged hotel reservations, scheduled a driver/guide for the trip to Batopilas, and reserved tickets for the Copper Canyon train. Our goal was to visit the areas most recommended along the train stops and include a trip deep in the canyon to Batopilas.

Batopilas CanyonAfter arranging our own flights to and from Los Angeles, with our itinerary in hand, we set out for our 7-day journey. Our departure point for the trip was in Los Mochis. Arriving late, we found our way to the Hotel Santa Anita, settled in for the night and reflected on the events to come. Frequently, at this point in their journey, travelers say, “what was I thinking?” I could be home right now nestled in my own little bed, with a relative degree of certainty about the next day’s events. Instead, you are a long way from home, with the unknown ahead. Sleep is usually a welcome distraction.

Our train tickets had been waiting for us at the Hotel Santa Anita. A driver met us for our early 6:00 a.m. departure. Right on schedule, the Chihuahua/Pacific Railway Train glided into the station en route to Chihuahua via the Copper Canyon. After polite greetings from the train conductor, baggage handling and seat assignment, we were on our way. Turning over control of your life for a few hours on the train is a welcome relief. You glide along knowing that your destinations are ahead. There is time for thought and contemplation, as you peer out the window at the changing scenery. The dining car on the train is a respite with good food and service.

Hotel Posada Mirador on the RimIn the early afternoon, we arrived at our first stop, which is in the Divisadero region of the canyon. Our hotel stay was the Hotel Posada Mirador on the Rim. The hotel earns its name by sitting on a precipice overlooking the deep canyons of the region. The drama of the day was enhanced by a thunder storm and welcome rain. Though busy with a large group, the hotel was restful, with well appointed rooms and fireplaces. Each room overlooks the canyon, complimented by a private balcony that becomes an inviting retreat, even in the rain. After a satisfying dinner, we fell asleep to the sounds of blissful silence.

On our second day of the journey, we had an opportunity to tour the Divisadero canyon area before we met the train for the continuation of the journey started in Los Mochis. The area is well served by a large plateau, which has enabled ranchers to supply the area with much needed food. We saw the Tarahumara Indian women weaving their baskets for the first time, and were reminded of the culture that has occupied this countryside for much longer than anyone else.

The Tarahumara Indians are a hearty people who live off the land that has supported them for thousands of years. Most likely, migrating long ago from Asia, the Tarahumara have a symbiotic relationship with the land, taking what is needed and giving back what is owed. We can all learn something from this type of relationship.

Joining the train again, we traveled a short distance to Creel. The topography changed again becoming forests of emerald pine, with the silver tips gleaming in the sun. Creel is an old west town with an old west feel. Tough people settled here and still live in the area. The town is an end destination from many parts of the canyon, providing basic supplies for the hearty residents.

Our hotel, the Lodge in Creel, is an old west style log cabin hotel. Rooms are equipped with a pot belly stove, that would be most welcome in the cold of winter. For dinner, we enjoyed one of the best steaks we have had in a long time in the hotel dining room for a very reasonable price.

The next morning we anxiously awaited our driver/guide for our trip down the 85 mile road to Batopilas in the belly of Copper Canyon. To experience just the rim of the canyon, without the trip to the bottom is like reading the beginning and end of a book and skipping the middle. You miss a very important part of the story.

Batopilas Canyon, Oscar LoyaOur very competent driver, Oscar, met us on schedule, and with four other fellow passengers, we began the journey to Batopilas, that would take 7 hours. The road, partially paved, is a winding descent along the narrow rim of this spectacular vista. We pass through tiny settlements and Tarahumara villages. We were told of the stories of the region and see the cave dwellings still used by the Tarahumara people. Eagles and hawks circle overhead, reminding us of the freedom that is so precious to us all. There is time to stop and take it all in and then move on.

In the late afternoon, we arrive in Batopilas. Originally a silver mining town occupied by thousands of fortune seekers, it has settled into a permanent residence of approximately 2,000 people, who inhabit a long narrow town built by the river. There isn’t a telephone, pager, or television in sight. There is just a place where people have designed lives with precious possessions and the joy that is found in the simple pleasures.
 

We stayed for two nights at the Hotel Casa Real de Los Minas. The hotel has a brightly decorated courtyard, surrounded by well furnished rooms, and a friendly staff determined to make your stay in Batopilas comfortable. Meals in Batopilas are arranged by your hotel or guide. In our case, we dined at Doña Micas, a private residence, whose proprietress serves guests on the front porch. Hearty country fare is served with sounds of children playing in the background.

Since Sue Stilwell was visiting Batopilas, escorting a group, we were most pleased to be able to join them for a special dinner at the Hotel Casa Real de Los Mineros. For two nights, we enjoyed Batopilas hospitality surrounded by satisfied travelers.

Exploring Batopilas is a must-do. Approximately 4 miles from the town, in a village called Satevó, is the Jesuit mission church unnamed and known as the “Lost Cathedral.” The daily life of the village goes on in the shade of the vast mission church built so long ago. The key is available at a local home, so we were able to enter and reflect on the spirit of this remarkable place.

For the daring souls who don’t mind the dark, the long-closed silver mine is a possible stop. For most people, a peek in the front of the mine is all that is required to satisfy the visit requirement.

Early the next morning, we left Batopilas the same way we arrived. Our trustworthy guide, Oscar, was ready at 5:00 a.m. Breakfast was on the table at Doña Micas, and we were on our way. Our goal was to be back at the train station in Creel to meet the train on its way back to Los Mochis. The mission was accomplished after another uneventful, but spectacular ride out of the canyon.

Once again, we were gliding along a familiar path. Our visit to Batopilas was now a memory, but deserved time for discussion. The train provided the opportunity to do just that.

Our next stop a few hours later was Bahuichivo, where we would be met and driven to the Hotel Misión in Cerocahui. The simple village of Cerocahui has another mission church at its center, with all of the village life centering on the mission and the town square. Preparations were underway for a fiesta to be held in two days. Our regret was we would be on our way before the big event.

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!

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

Riding the Rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon

by Deonne Parker
photos by Lynn Castner

The Copper Canyon train had carried us 5,000 feet above sea level in Mexico’s Sierra Madre (Sierra means mountain range in Spanish) to our destination, the Hotel Mirador near Divisadero. This train journey is considered one of the most spectacular in the world.  

At times the train seemed suspended between the sky and the canyon floor far below. A magic carpet could not provide a better view of the dramatic canyon walls that plunge from the rim that is bathed in full sunlight down to the shadowy depths of the canyon floor.

Views from the Hotel Mirador were just as magnificent as the views from the train. From the balcony of our hotel room we looked out over a vista of rugged mountain tops. The nearest mountains were engulfed in green even though it was November. Next to the hotel a stone mountain gleamed in the afternoon sun. The mountain peaks turned smoky blue as they receded in the distance, becoming paler until the furthest peaks were mere shadows on the horizon. This vast wilderness, where canyons converge, seems too remote to be inhabited. Much of it is unexplored.

The Hotel Mirador was built on the top ledge of the canyon wall. Looking down from the balcony we could see the canyon floor far below. Two tiny dwellings were perched on the side of a nearby canyon wall. The resourceful Tarahumara,  indigenous people, who have lived in the canyons for thousands of years, build their small homes in niches, crevices and on ledges that appear to cling precariously to the sides of cliffs, seemingly unreachable to outsiders. Their remote environment has allowed them to retain their aboriginal culture.

Our Copper Canyon train journey on the Al Pacifico Railroad began in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico on the coast of the Sea of Cortes, which separates mainland Mexico from the Baja Peninsula on the Pacific coast. The train pulled out early in the morning and we had a great breakfast in the dining car. We traveled slowly though the outskirts of the city and miles of farm land that gives the Mexican State of Sinaloa its renown as the bread basket of Mexico. We barely noticed the side to side rocking of the train. The rocking gave no sense of risk to our safety as we traveled through the flat fields that stretched out on both sides of the train. We were eager to reach Copper Canyon, which is located in Chihuahua, the largest state in Mexico.

The railroad was built over a period of decades, beginning in the late 19th century. In 1912 the Mexican Revolution interrupted construction. The rail route opened in November 1961. Copper, gold, and other metals are again mined in these canyons after years of shut down.

The train began its ascent slowly, following the twisting course of the river at the canyon floor, at times crisscrossing the river. The water flowed around mammoth boulders placed there by a force of nature. Much of the river systems in the canyons are impassable.

As the train climbed we saw mountains that pierced the sky. The rails were laid so close to the edge of the canyon walls that the rail bed was not visible to passengers. We appeared to be floating above the canyon floor far below us. We were truly riding the rim of the canyon.

As the train rolled along these precipices, we became more aware of the swaying motion. Sometimes a passenger standing in the aisle would be thrown against the seats by the abrupt motion. This did not deter passengers from crowding into the open spaces between the cars to take pictures and enjoy the view from outside the coaches.

As we crossed each bridge (there are 37) high above the river, we could not see the bridge supports from the train. We had an unimpeded view to the river thousands of feet below and a sensation of riding through space. We marveled at the engineering miracles that created this train and the decades that it has safely carried passengers in a wilderness that looks so perilous.

The train continuously winds around and through the mountains that form the natural phenomenon known as Copper Canyon. The turns are so sharp that the engine can be seen from the coach cars at switchbacks, as we ascended the steep canyon walls. The 87 tunnels along the Copper Canyon train route were blasted out of mountain rock. They are so narrow, only inches separate the swaying train from the raw stone walls of the tunnels.

The dramatic gorges kept us in awe. Scores of hawks flew between the canyon walls just outside our train window, catching updrafts that kept them aloft, soaring effortlessly. We saw small patches of corn on plateaus carved from the sides of mountains. There were occasional huts in isolated places that looked inaccessible. A few goats and cows appeared behind make-shift fences keeping the livestock off the train tracks in areas where there was no evidence of human habitation. Mostly untamed wilderness surrounded  us as mountain peaks rose higher and the ravines became deeper and steeped in shadow.
 

We disembarked at Bahuichiva, a small pueblo, after a 5 and ½ hour ride from Los Mochis. We had a 45 minute van ride over a dusty, rocky, rutted road cut out of the mountain, to Hotel Misión, our first stop. We were welcomed by the hotel staff, who greeted us with Margaritas. The hotel was named after a 16th century mission founded by Jesuits in this small town of Cerocahui. The hotel rooms were built around a courtyard of apple trees laden with fruit. Although the hotel is more recent, one could envision monks living in these spartan rooms, which have wood stoves for heat in the chilly evenings.

In late afternoon the mission church bells call the faithful to mass. Before dinner a local guitarist serenaded the guests in the hotel lobby with familiar Mexican songs. A planned menu was served on long country style tables. It was a setting which successfully created a convivial social milieu out of tour groups and individual travelers. It was an international experience, with travelers from all over the world, including Mexico and other Latin countries.

Day trips were available the next day. A guided three mile hike to a waterfall is rated as hard and two very fit motorcyclists attested to that. We took a three hour van trip over very rough roads to a location where four canyons converge. That Jesuit missionaries found this place in the 16th century was astounding. We silently drank in the view. A Tarahumara basket weaver displayed her baskets while her two young children played nearby. She wore the traditional dress of headscarf and long skirt. She continued to weave using long pine needles from local trees.

At Hotel Misión the staff and a musician entertained hotel guests with a show of song, dance and comic revelry. It was a spontaneous gathering of joyful fun where we had no TV.

In the morning we returned to the train for an hour ride north to our final stop, the Hotel Mirador. We went directly to our room for the spectacular views. From our balcony we had a 180 degree view of mountains, canyons and views down a precipice thousands of feet to the canyon floor.

The next day our tour guide took us to an overlook of the deepest canyon in the Copper Canyon system. Platforms of steel and plexiglass had been built so they extended out from the side of the mountain. We could look through the metal grid and the clear platform to the gorges thousands of feet below and across the canyons to the mountains beyond. It is a panoramic view we won’t forget.

The return train ride to Los Mochis was striking  because we traveled in the afternoon. The sun glanced off the rocks at an angle that caused them to burst with color. The steep walls on the far side of the canyons fell dramatically from the brilliantly lit precipices to the canyon floor, where shafts of sunlight disappeared. The stunning sunset was a perfect ending to our unique train journey.