by Lee Foster
Mexico entices with one of the great rail adventures on the planet. Starting from the Sea of Cortez coastal city of Los Mochis , the train—the Chihuahua-Pacifico Railway or Chepe—climbs through the mountains, known as the Sierra Madre Occidental, passing through the awesome Copper Canyon complex, ending up at Chihuahua . Some opt to board the train at El Fuerte, a charming colonial city which is 60 miles east of Los Mochis .
This adventure trip has three main pleasures, each of which would be sufficient reason for recommending it.
THE RAILROAD: AN ENGINEERING FEAT
First, consider the railroad itself.
Skeptics jeered in the 1880s when utopian dreamers, led by Albert Kinsey Owen, proposed this railroad, which traverses 8,000-foot passes and links, potentially, the grain-rich U.S. Midwest with the tropical fruit-growing region around Los Mochis , the most northerly site for tropical fruit agriculture. Owen’s vision was one of trade, grain for fruit, plus access to a deepwater port in nearby Topolobampo and the markets of the Orient beyond.
Los Mochis is actually 400 miles closer than San Francisco to Chicago . Owen established a large utopian colony of Americans in Los Mochis , but the railroad bankrupted several companies attempting to penetrate the mountains.
Rugged terrain strained the expertise, ingenuity, and capital resources of each company. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Depression of the 1930s were further obstacles.
Finally, in 1961, the Mexican government completed the railroad, which winds through 86 tunnels and across 39 bridges with never more than a 2-1/2 percent grade. A switchback at Temoris loops the train over itself. Even if you are not a rail buff, you will appreciate the engineering feats required.
SCENERY OF THE COPPER CANYON
Second, this rail trip is worth making for the scenery alone. The train passes through a rugged region known as the Copper Canyon , which consists of the Urique Canyon and other canyons, parts of which form a Mexican national park (Barrancas del Cobre). It is home to Mexico ’s second-highest waterfall, 807-foot Basaseachic.
The Copper Canyon area is greater than Arizona ‘s Grand Canyon . At the rim you are high in a pine forest, but looking down, as much as 5,000 feet, you see a tropical world of mangoes and papayas. You enjoy all this scenery from the comforts of your rail car, perhaps with cervesa in hand.
As the elevation changes, the vegetation alters. You witness granite prominences that bear some resemblance to the Sierra of California. Dress warmly for the mountains because the tropical lowlands of Los Mochis or El Fuerte don’t prepare you for the high-altitude chill.
The train stops for 20 minutes at the Divisadero overlook, allowing for a glance into Urique Canyon . However, if you have the time, arrange in advance lodging and meals at one of the several hotels and posadas (inns) that are found in Divisadero, Barrancas, or Creel, the other mountain stops. You can stay for a day or two in the mountains and then catch the train onward to Chihuahua or back to El Fuerte or Los Mochis .
THE TARAHUMARA INDIANS
The third major experience here is the people, the Tarahumara Indians, living in the mountain fastness.
At various overlooks and at every train stop, you will meet some of the Indian women and children, who sell crafts made of wood, wool, reeds, and pine needles. At Creel you can hire a guide or rent a vehicle to see Tarahumara caves and villages, as well as the beautiful lakes and waterfalls of the region.
The Tarahumaras are legendary distance runners, known to hunt deer by running them to exhaustion. During Holy Week festivities they engage in three-day ceremonial runs, sometimes kicking a small ball around the mountains. Mexico entered a Tarahumara in the marathon run of the 1928 Olympics, but he only came in second because he paced himself to the end, thinking the race was just beginning.
The 50,000 of so Tarahumaras are a gentle and mannered people, who appear shy around visitors. They prefer a self-reliant life in the mountains, living in small huts and ranchos, and sometimes in caves, harvesting patches of corn, beans, and squash, minding herds of goats, cattle, and sheep, and farming tropical fruits on the canyon floors.
One researcher has catalogued their expertise as botanists. The Tarahumaras gather the fruits, nuts, and seeds of some 70 wild plants, the edible leaves of another 60, and the roots of 20. They garnish this food with 12 kinds of fungi and use 53 wild herbs for seasoning.
Whether you wish to experience the train, the Copper Canyon , or the Tarahumaras, this Mexican Copper Canyon Railroad adventure promises a memorable trip.
MEXICO’S COPPER CANYON RAIL TRIP: IF YOU GO
For further information on Mexico , contact the Mexican Tourism Board at 800/44-Mexico. They can send a packet of information on the country. The Mexican tourism websites at http://www.visitmexico.com and http://mexico-travel.com are also useful, providing links to many regional tourism websites.
Although Mexico only requires a picture ID and a birth certificate to enter, the United States now requires that you have a valid U.S. passport to travel between the U.S. and Mexico in either direction. You cannot leave or return to the United States without a passport.
For further information on the train or to make reservations, contact: Chief, Traffic Department, Chihuahua-Pacifico Railroad, Apdo Postal 46, Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico; phone 011-52 (614) 439-7211 or 7212. You can send them an email at [email protected] The website is http://www.chepe.com.mx/.
In Los Mochis , dependable lodgings include the Hotel Santa Anita and El Dorado . In El Fuerte, accommodations are found at Posada del Hidalgo Hotel, Hotel Rio Vista, and Hotel Torres.
In the mountains, lodgings at the town of Creel include Best Western The Lodge at Creel Hotel and Hotel Villa Mexicana Lodging Resort & RV Park . Places to stay at the Divisadero stop include Hotel Mansión Tarahumara and Posada Mirador, both perched on the rim of the canyon.
A reliable tour operator, which emphasizes Copper Canyon cultural attractions, is Canyon-Paradise Tours, which is located in El Fuerte; phone 866-989-8687.
Another major tour operator, also based in El Fuerte, is 3 Amigos. Visit their website at http://www.amigos3.com.