With carnival now successfully behind us, we arose early Monday morning to catch the 08:00 bus from Mazatlan to Los Moches on the first leg of our journey to the Copper Canyon.
Located in the state of Chihuahua, in the middle of the famed Sierra Madre Mountains, Copper Canyon sprawls across 25,000 square miles and includes Barrancas Del Cobre Natural Park. Six different canyons comprise the entire Copper Canyon system:
In comparison, the Grand Canyon's deepest point is 4674 feet, and the total area is only about ¼ the size of the total Copper Canyon area.
I was proud that my minimalist Spanish enabled me to purchase bus tickets reasonably effortlessly, until, with tickets in hand, I realized that I had forgotten to specify first (primera) class. And, oops, no refunds allowed once tickets are issued. So we hopped on our 2nd class bus for the trip to Los Moches—which featured three videotaped movies, air conditioning, and even a head. Overall, not bad for second class. (None of us ventured into the head.)
At the bus station in Los Moches we met a Mexican man who lived in the United States. After he commented on how friendly people had been to him in the US, and about how many times people there had helped him, he arranged for his brother-in-law to drive us to a second bus station where we needed to catch a different bus to El Fuerte.
At bus station #2 we attempted to phone the hotel in El Fuerte to make reservations for the evening. I wanted to demonstrate my self-sufficiency and make my own phone call. How hard could that be? But I couldn't seem to connect with the hotel's telephone number. My simple phone called quickly became a street-corner project. Soon two women working in a nearby tienda relived us from our misery, and commanded control over the both the handset and the touch pad. Several bystanders gawked in support. The bus driver stood by in reserve. Local telephone books surfaced from the tienda. Our support group tried different combinations of the number—with city code, without city code, with operator assistance, etc. Nothing seemed to work however, which made me feel a little less incompetent. Finally, we thanked our communications assistants, and boarded the bus for the trip to El Fuerte, without hotel reservations.
El Fuerte provides a convenient jumping-off point for the train through Copper Canyon. Founded in 1564 by Spanish conquistador Don Francisco de Ibarra, El Fuerte offers the charm of a proudly maintained colonial village. Here, we slept at the first of a series of beautiful Balderrama hotels, operated throughout the Copper Canyon region. [E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org US toll free: 1-800/896-8196.] Hotel Posada Del Hidalgo surprised us as a quaint, beautiful accommodation in a 200-year old colonial period mansion.
Tuesday March 7th, 2000—The Train from El Fuerte to Creel
Our taxi arrived at 07:20 the next morning to transport us to the station for the train ride to Creel. Albert Kinsey Owen, from the United States, first conceived of a train passage through Copper Canyon in 1872 to offer a faster and shorter route between Topolobampo Bay, in Sinaloa, and Kansas City. The Mexican government financed and managed the last phase of construction over 100 years later, and the route finally opened November 23, 1961.
Engineering challenges abounded: the track drops 7,000 feet in 122 miles from Ojitos, the high point at over 8,000 feet elevation, south to Los Moches at 300 feet. The entire trip from Los Moches to Chihuahua crosses 36 bridges and passes through 87 tunnels. Try to secure reserved seats on the eastern side of the train (right-hand side on the trip north; left-hand side on the trip south). This may be difficult to accomplish if you're traveling on the day that one of the many packaged tour groups pass through. We found the tour groups comprised of very nice people, but be forewarned that you don't want to come between them and 'their train,' 'their bus,' their restaurant.' Should you find yourself in this position, prepare yourself for abusive language, brace for some shoving, and remember: it's not nice to hit senior citizens. A Kevlar vest might be useful. Debi's comment was perhaps more direct when she said, "I thought they were going to throw me off the train."
The train itself is comfortable, but definitely not in the same class as the French TGV or German ICE trains. This one is more like a retrofitted Pullman, with new carpeting, upholstery, and air conditioning. We only experienced a few minor glitches: a propane tank ran dry and delayed lunch on the trip north, and they waited until the next stop to switch tanks. On the return trip south, the restaurant car closed from 18:00-19:00, when it became 'their restaurant car.' (See above.)
Nestled into the mountains at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet, the lumber town of Creel, population 5,000, reminds me of an Alaskan Bush town. Main street, which parallels the train track, is sprinkled with tourist shops offering wares from the local Tarahumara Indians.
Anthropologists believe that the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, remain one of the most compact and unmixed of any of the Indian tribes in Mexico. They came from Asia by way of the Bering Strait between fifteen and twenty thousand years ago. Today, the women still wear traditional dress—layered full skirts made of brightly colored and patterned cotton, along with a gimira, a shawl that covers the head or is used for carrying a child. The Tarahumara men shunned traditional dress and opted instead for neo-western jeans, boots, large belt buckles, and white cowboy hat.
The Tarahumara are known for their ability to run fast over long distances through the mountains, and races play an important role in their culture. Several villages will gather for a race, and village economies prosper or decline based on large wagers. Teams kick and chase wooden balls around a race course until all members of the losing team either concede the victory or drop from exhaustion. Races reportedly continue for several days and nights.
Tarahumara women earn pesos by weaving intricate multicolored baskets from grasses and pine needles. The women display their wares at every train stop, hotel, and path where tourists roam. We saw one group of Tarahumara women leave the station before our train departed, and walk to the next station before we arrived. On other occasions we would come upon women as we hiked mountain trails. They stopped whatever they were doing before we approached, opened their plastic bags, and displayed their intricate baskets. Although the baskets were beautifully done, I did not purchase any, not being a basket kind of guy. Debi on the other hand, eventually had to join basket buyers anonymous. She kept swearing off of them, but couldn't resist the urge for just one more.
The ideal way to take this trip would be from Los Moches to Chihuahua. Should you get as far north as Chihuahua (we didn't), it's imperative to seek out Mata Ortiz Ceramics. Local artisans, notably Juan Quezada, began duplicating pottery made by the people who lived at Paquimé between 1060 and 1340 A.D. Using shards and complete vessels dug from ruins, Juan has developed an exquisite style.
Hotel Montanna in Creel, part of the Balderrama hotel series, was the least impressive. Although it was clean and well kept, it reminded me of a place I stayed in Nome Alaska once. That said, it's probably among the nicest accommodations in Creel. Avoid anything with mole sauce in the restaurant. It looked like mole sauce, but the chemical balance between chili and chocolate got out of alignment somewhere back in the kitchen.
Wednesday March 8th, 2000—Creel to Posada Barranca
From Creel we retraced our train ride south to Posada Barranca. The short bus trip up the gravel road from the train station in Posada Barranca revealed Hotel Mirador, near one of the canyon's high points at almost 7,500 feet. Decorated in a style reflecting the Tarahumara Indian culture, each of its 48 rooms has a private terrace overlooking the canyon. We walked into the lobby and adjoining restaurant to discover a breathtaking view: The hotel is perched directly on a cliff summit, with a five-mile view across the canyon divide. We timed our arrival perfectly, and savored lunch in the restaurant, alone, with the canyon as an incredible panoramic backdrop. For a brief moment, it was 'our view.'
Wednesday afternoon we hiked south of the hotel along the canyon rim. All along the trail we had opportunities to crawl onto rock formations that enabled us to look down into the canyon, and at the hawks that soared majestically below us.
That evening we met Reynaldo Valdez López—a charming, enterprising young guitarist and vocalist who single-handedly orchestrated Happy Hour at Hotel Mirador. His ever-smiling face, fast-fingered fretwork, and expressive vocals turned twilight into delight—as if watching the sunset sweeping across the canyon wasn't enough. Reynaldo performed some of his own compositions in addition to traditional Mexican favorites like La Paloma (my personal favorite), Mexican contemporary (La Bamba), and some surprises (Hotel California).
Don't expect to catch Reynaldo consistently at Hotel Mirador though. His busy event schedule takes him to Tijuana, Guadalahara, Cabo San Lucas, and other cities across the country throughout the year. Should you miss him, he's soon releasing his own CD.
Thursday March 9th, 2000—Hiking the Canyon Rim
I referred to Reynaldo as enterprising. In addition to Happy Hour musician, Reynaldo also serves as tour guide. Thursday afternoon we met him at 14:00 in the lobby for a guided hike through the surrounding area. We walked northeast of the hotel on a path that fronts the canyon rim to Ojo Del Aguila, which offered exceptional viewpoints on the canyon's precipice.
Reynaldo continued to lead as along the rock rim path to Piedra Hongo, or balancing rock. (Piedra Hongo is literally (mushroom rock.') He gave us strict instructions to wait at an observation point while he walked around the rim and then out onto the balancing rock, which, if it had slipped off of its foundation, would have fallen 1000 feet or more straight down. Reynaldo stood on the large boulder and rocked it back and forth with his feet, demonstrating that it was, indeed, a balancing rock. This activity elicited gasps of disbelief, and comments such as "he's crazy," from the viewing area. Points for being a good musician and entertainer. Points for nerve and courage. Minor deductions for mental stability. Our admiration and esteem for Reynaldo increased with every step.
We hiked to another precipice where the Tarahumara drop a ladder off the cliff wall down into the canyon. Reportedly 60,000 Tarahumara live along the entire length of the canyon, so the elevator ladder gets constant use.
Afterwards we visited a museum created in the home of one of the first settler families in the area. An 18-year old Tarahumara woman, with two young children and no father, unwrapped her baskets for our small group. Once again, Debi couldn't resist, and found a few small baskets that would hold her other baskets.
We returned to the hotel, exhausted but fulfilled, in time for large dinner with several other tour groups. Content to anchor our own separate corner of the restaurant, we dined listening to tour-group renditions of traveling ballads sung to college fight-song melodies. Later in the evening, Reynaldo played some of his own ballads for us in a private corner of the bar.
Friday March 10, 2000—Return to Los Moches
Friday morning Reynaldo once again provided his guide services, and led us on a trail that descended from the hotel down the canyon slope to caves where, until recently, several Tarahumara families lived within the cold, dark, damp recesses. Difficult to believe that in this age of space shuttles, GPS, wireless communication, and computers, that people still live in such primitive accommodations—until you see it for yourself. And even then it doesn't quite sink in.
Our train departed Posada Barranca at 14:00, and Reynaldo accompanied us to station. He waved goodbye to us as easily as he greeted the next group to arrive, when he began the process anew.
We walked to the dining car just after 18:00, only to be greeted by a handwritten note on the door of the car indicating that the diner had been closed for an hour to accommodate another tour group. No matter. Traveling teaches humility and flexibility.
When we arrived in Los Moches at 22:00 a waiting shuttle bus lumbered us off to the hotel. Tired, unpacked, teeth brushed, and horizontal between the sheets—only then did we realize that neither of our rooms had any air conditioning. Not to mention air vents or thermostats. Several calls down to the front desk elicited promises of quick repair, which throughout the next 30-minutes were not forthcoming. But then a knock on the door produced a bellman with cart in-hand, ready to move us to two new rooms. With toothbrushes, shoes, shampoo, etc. delicately balanced on the cart, he transported us to cool air-conditioned rooms.
Saturday March 11, 2000—Mazatlan Was Seized by Spring Break 2000
A Saturday bus trip to Mazatlan concluded our Copper Canyon circuit. Mazatlan had recovered from carnival only to be overtaken by the college crowd on spring break. Adult and senior vacationers had given way to the twenty something crowd which apparently was focused on drinking and members of the opposite sex, although not 't necessarily in that order.
We dined at Sr. Peppers—a superb steak restaurant that flew in beef from the US. Steaks. Chilean wine. And even a live band offering your light-favorites from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was a perfect evening to conclude the CC tour.
Access & Resources
When I posted this log, the following site was a good source of information about Mexico's Copper Canyon and the Tarahumara.