I have always liked riding trains, especially ones that will take me somewhere adventurous and exciting. My most memorable rail journeys were from Istanbul across Turkey to Iran; Beijing into what was once known as Manchuria; and Mombasa on the Kenyan coast to Uganda and the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon. They were all geographically, culturally and socially fascinating.
These rail journeys were long ago, but I am still seeking the unusual, and one that had been on my list for a long time was venturing deep into Mexico's Copper Canyon, located in the northern state of Chihuahua. Perhaps the trip's biggest appeal is that a train is the only way to penetrate the most remote section of this region -- unless you hike in.
For cruise aficionados, the appeal may also be the ease of combining a Copper Canyon rail journey with a Mexican Riviera or Sea of Cortez sailing as a pre- or post-cruise option. Passengers essentially have two options: book a cruisetour package or take a very long shore excursion from the port of Topolobampo. The latter option means a 16- to 18-hour tour with a 4 a.m. meet-up, a two-hour drive from the ship to the train depot, and a six-hour train ride each way to Posada Barrancas for lunch, scenic views and a dance presentation by the Tarahumara Indians. Holland America is the only cruise line that calls regularly at Topolobampo, but other lines (like Norwegian Cruise Line) have in the past offered an occasional exotic Mexican Riviera cruise with a stop there.
For a more in-depth and less rushed experience of the canyon, go for a pre- or post-cruise land tour. Lindblad Expeditions offers an eight-night Copper Canyon and Sea of Cortez trip featuring four nights on a cruise ship and a four-night land portion featuring two days of train travel. The line offers a handful of departures in January.
Or you can book your own rail-cruise adventure via tour companies that also offer a blend of both land and sea trips. Uncommon Journeys offers trips in April and October that begin with a three-night Holland America cruise from San Diego to Mazatlan; there, passengers debark for a five-night Copper Canyon tour, including three days of train travel. It's the only company to offer a shortened cruise experience, though you can find other companies that package a rail journey with a cruise (often embarking a day late in Mazatlan). One example is Vacations by Rail's 12-night tour, which is split evenly between land (including two days of train travel) and sea (Mexican Riviera cruise on HAL's Ryndam). So what should one expect from a Copper Canyon tour? The rugged region is made up of six interlocking canyons and boasts portions several hundred feet deeper than Arizona's Grand Canyon. Amazingly, it has yet to be invaded by mass tourism. A comprehensive itinerary combines multiple-night stays overlooking the spectacular natural wonder with visits to the remote villages of the Tarahumara Indians. The sole access to the most spectacular section is via the scenic Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway that, as the name suggests, runs from Chihuahua to the Pacific coast at Los Mochis.
I chose the trip operated by Uncommon Journeys, based in California, because it was the most creative, with a four-day canyon stay and three separate moderate-length train trips that cover all of the line's most scenic portions. I didn't want a trip that raced through the region in a day or used much less comfortable (and not nearly as romantic) buses combined with a portion of the rail line and perhaps one or two overnights. The wonders of the Copper Canyon clearly deserved more.
Crossing into Mexico
Our group of 58 Americans, plus one Canadian couple, arrived in El Paso via Amtrak train from California or by air from all over North America. After a night at the Camino Real Hotel, we divided into two sub-groups for the bus ride across the international border to Ciudad Juarez and on to the city of Chihuahua. Both buses had a Mexican guide and American tour manager.
The crossing involved some bureaucratic paperwork, but the procedures took less than half an hour. Each person had to pay $24, an entry fee normally buried in airline and cruise tickets. Then we were off! The dry country drive south over a decent four-lane highway paralleled a single track railway line occupied by medium-long freights heading to the U.S.
At a spiffy roadside lunch stop, we encountered Mennonites, large families who settled in these parts years ago. They produce a white cow cheese and another from goats. Over the next few days, we would continue to see Mennonites -- and enjoy their delicious cheeses.
A Night in Chihuahua
While in Chihuahua, I expected to see an overly high number of tiny reddish brown dogs, the world's smallest breed. Apparently, the Chihuahua dogs have run for the border, becoming more popular with gringos in the U.S. after having been the favorite of Mexico's Toltec civilization centuries ago.
The city of Chihuahua, the capital of the state of the same name, is a sprawling place where lots of American companies have established factories to take advantage of cheap labor. Our Mexican guide delighted in telling us that Coca Cola consumption in Mexico is many times that of the U.S.A. I'm not sure that habit is something to boast about!
The city's only real attractions are the 18th-century cathedral square populated by lounging locals and the late-19th-century government palace with its dramatic murals depicting historic themes. After our afternoon in town, we retired to our hotel for a nice sleep before a very early rise the next morning to catch the Chihuahua al Pacifico train.
The next morning required some effort, as I woke up at 4 a.m. to head off, bleary-eyed, at 5:15. It was still dark when we arrived at the crowded depot. Our train, named the Primera Express, consisted of one freight engine, two green and yellow 68-seat first-class coaches (not unlike those found on our comfy western trains of 50 years ago), a diner, bar car and two more coaches. The Primera Express is a first-class train and makes only a handful of stops during the 400-mile journey to Los Mochis. A second-class train, the Economica, also shares the tracks, departing about 90 minutes after the Primera Express to service more budget-minded tourists and Mexicans at numerous local stops.
We occupied seats in the last car with an open vestibule at the rear. After chasing us off the back platform, the train manager promptly went to sleep in an empty seat for the rest of the morning. So I and a few other kindred spirits returned to take up our post to see and smell (lots of field manure) the scenery.
The train left promptly at 6 a.m. with two armed soldiers standing in the next vestibule until they too found a sleeping spot. Bandit attacks on trains were a problem until the mid-1990s. Now holdups, at least on the train, do not occur -- but we would see other armed military on succeeding days.
Having only had time this morning for a snack in the hotel lobby, we had breakfast in two shifts in the dining car with a choice of pancakes or huevos rancheros (eggs served ranch style with tomato-chili sauce), something I last enjoyed years back aboard the now long-gone Aztec Eagle from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City. The pleasant staff refilled coffee cups and brought me extra tea bags. It was a lot of fun to schmooze with other travelers and not miss a bit of the world outside the window.
The scenery was at first bone dry, then we came to some poor farming country with scrawny cattle, then better farmland and soon considerable hills to climb. The train does occasionally hit unfenced cattle, I'm sad to say, as evidenced by the scattered bodies and carcasses along the line. The track is mostly welded rail and the train made very good time. No crossing gates or lights existed anywhere, and we passed many semis plowing along the paved two-lane roads that paralleled the tracks.
An Overnight at Creel
Creel is the true jumping-off point for Copper Canyon and we de-trained to spend the night at an adobe-style Best Western surrounded by a high concrete wall topped with glass. The big rooms, arranged in small blocks, had broad porches and rocking chairs in front, and the attractive dining room had a cathedral ceiling of the type found in national park lodges. Our tasty evening meal consisted of carrot soup and grilled fresh water bass.
Evening entertainment was minimal, to everyone's approval. After dinner, we watched a flickering, faltering DVD about the Tarahumara Indians we would soon encounter. Since the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, this large tribe has maintained its numbers at about 50,000 by retreating deep into the canyons. That is some victory given what happened to many other tribes elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. After the movie, my fellow travelers socialized or gazed up at the incredibly clear night sky before heading off to bed.
Just out of town, we visited a Tarahumara boarding school and saw its classrooms and dorms where the elementary students spend Monday to Friday before walking home on weekends. I was invited by some kids to shoot baskets, unfortunately missing the hoop every time and causing them to giggle in delight.
Real Railroading -- Onward to Divisadero
After boarding the train, we plunged into serious mountain territory and traveled through tunnel after tunnel to climb to the mountain's summit and cross the continental divide at 8,071 feet. The rail line, a 19th-century railroad boom-era dream, took nearly 60 years to complete, with this last link not opening until 1961. It passes over 49 bridges and through 86 tunnels blasted through the rock.
This day's train manager did not go to sleep, so we left the back platform to the occasional armed guard and quite happily moved forward to the Dutch door vestibules between coaches. By opening the top half of the door, we could safely look outside. No one bothered us here, and I was able to get some of my best photos of the train snaking around one sharp bend after another. We were now in the roadless part of the Mexican mountains.
The town of Divisadero, perched at the edge of the canyon precipice has two train stations, the first one virtually at the canyon edge. Normally, this stop is scheduled to allow a quick 15-minute dash to the rim, but today we were ordered not to get off. Two large tour groups, one American and one Mexican, and their impedimenta had to board while another group had to de-train. A comical scene ensued with lots of shouting, baggage tipping off high-wheel carts being pushed over rough pavement, and leaderless tourists pacing about, not knowing where or when to board. The locals looked on in stony silence and the train engineer up ahead whistled his impatience.
After a half hour all was quiet and the train chugged onward for another 10 minutes to the second halt. We de-trained onto a slim platform and piled into two school buses for a bumpy ride up a rutted road to the Posada Mirador. Well named, the inn is perched at the very edge of the canyon rim. From the terrace and hotel room verandahs, I could peer deep down into one valley below and then across a narrow ridge into another canyon that led my eye left to an intersection with a third. In total, six canyons converge to make up the so-called Copper Canyon, creating a system four times larger than Arizona's Grand Canyon and in one spot, a few hundred feet deeper. The Copper Canyon does not have the brilliant colors of the Grand Canyon, but does feel far more remote.
My room was located in the highest block, which meant calling the hotel van to drive me down the circuitous dirt road to the main building or climbing about 300 uneven steps at 8,000 feet. Following the initial arrival with bags, I walked, taking my time. After dark, with a nearly full moon, the scene was utterly silent until two owls and one coyote got going. Hopefully, noisy sightseeing helicopters, as at the Grand Canyon, won't ever infringe on the sound of silence, gently interrupted by nature calling. A rooster woke me up in time to see the wondrous cloud effects created by the sunrise.
One Arizona couple told me they had found a hairy brown spider amongst their clothes, so when I returned to my room I shook out everything I had brought, tapped my overturned shoes on the floor and tore the bed clothes apart. I do not much like spiders, having seen more than my share in East Africa years ago, and sadly I have never gotten used to them. I made light of it all at the breakfast table the next morning, even though I was deadly serious about the evening's spider hunt.
Encountering the Tarahumara
The Tarahumara live in isolated clusters of houses (not villages) of mud brick and thatch, with some built under overhanging cliffs. A few still occupy caves. I could pick out a fair number of dwellings and connecting paths in the valleys below the hotel's front porch.
In pleasant 70-degree sunshine, we took a guided hike along the canyon rim and down to a cliff-dwelling family who survive on their goats and cows and the tourist trade. Back at the inn, one of the basket weavers was interviewed by our Mexican guide, and she was a delight -- describing how she made her wares of reeds and apache pine needles brought up from the canyon depths. The colors came from vegetable dyes, while the black was created by soaking the strips in pine bark.
She walked here two hours each way every day to sell them. One curious tour member asked her (through the guide) if she carried her inventory both ways. Her response: "Do you think I'm crazy?"
For a third encounter, we visited a delightful medicine man who was quite a character. As he demonstrated his craft, one in our group, a Mexican-born American living in Los Angeles, complained of stomach problems. The medicine man gave him a remedy made of rattlesnake powder. After ingesting the brew, the man's dyspepsia disappeared and had not returned three days later.
The Most Spectacular Ride of All
The third and last leg of the trip was the longest train journey (five hours) and the best. We bumped down to the depot, such as it was, and the Primera Express arrived 10 minutes early. Today the train grandly sported three engines, a beautiful wood-trimmed diner (originally from the Union Pacific Railroad) and three coaches.
After we boarded, the train immediately made several tight 180-degree turns, then did a highly unusual complete loop over itself, showing three levels of track at one time. The tracks clung to the cliff edge with no shoulder. Should you decide to step off the train, you would drop hundreds of feet. A frightening thought came to mind: What if a boulder were placed on the tracks? When the train rounded a blind curve, it would hit the rock and topple into the abyss. This horrible scenario was not entirely fantastic -- below several sharp drop-offs, I could see wrecked freight cars strewn about the riverbed. I soon cast my fears aside because it was just shear bliss to be on a train, with the clanking metal plates between the bouncing coaches creating an oddly soothing din.
Along this stretch, we passed the upscale Sierra Madre Express, a chartered tour train, then a couple of freights and the two daily eastbound passenger trains. At Bahuichivo, a lumber town, our train arrived at the same time as the Economica did from the opposite direction. We pulled forward to allow its passengers to get on and off at the platform, then we backed up to do the same, all while old men wearing sombreros and cowboy hats watched and small boys ran around hoping for a handout.
Finally the rail line straightened out over a flat plateau, and we passed tall cactus in bloom and stark white branches of kapok trees. The train ran fast and free at first, then slowed to a pokey, rocking pace over the increasingly uneven tracks.
End of the Line
At El Fuerte, an old town about an hour short of the coastal terminus at Los Mochis, we booked into the Posada Hidalgo, an enlarged 19th-century hacienda located one block off the 17th-century town square. Across from the front entrance loomed an imposing fort that once protected the town from an attack by river.
After a dinner of cactus soup and chicken breast with salsa, I walked over to the square. It was filled with young people gathering to meet up, while others cruised in cars and pickups, honking their horns. It was a Mexican "American Graffiti" scene.
In the morning we walked to the local town market filled with heaping stalls of local fruit, vegetables and fish, and tiny counter cafes where old men gathered for breakfast. Piling into the buses that had four days earlier dropped us off at Chihuahua station, we drove among orchards of pecans, mangos, limes and lemons and fields of chili peppers, radishes, sesame and sugar cane.
Arriving in Mazatlan, a burgeoning Pacific Ocean coastal resort, we booked into the towering Costa de Oro fronting on a narrow beach. Gathering for drinks and dinner by the ocean under a now full moon, the evening served as a wonderful end for me. In two day's time, the rest of group would board Holland America's Oosterdam for a four-night cruise (essentially half of a seven-night, roundtrip cruise) with a stop at Puerto Vallarta, en route to San Diego.
The rail trip's best memories were standing in the train's vestibule smelling the scenery; sitting on my hotel balcony at Divisadero, enjoying the utter silence that settled over the Copper Canyon; and falling asleep to the woeful sounds of owls and coyote and waking up to a rooster's call at dawn to catch the sunrise. As a train trip, it was pure adventure to travel into such a remote destination with spectacular mountain and canyon scenery and visit the local people. The rail addition provides a contrast to and an ideal match with a cruise to Mexico's coastal resorts -- perhaps next time I'll be able to finish my adventure with a journey out to sea.
--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic Contributor