Sunday, July 3, 2011

Trip to the Copper canyon and back to reality

Our train awaits in Los Mochis

Scenery near Temoris as we switchbacked up the mountains

Bird's eye view of the bootom of the canyon

Tahuamara native women selling their baskets at a train stop

21 June, Esquimalt

This will be the last entry for this season and will chronicle our trip to the Copper Canyon. At present we are back home and tending to the more mundane things of land-lubber life. Our trip north was mostly uneventful. We had a nice visit with Bill and Linda in Sierra Vista, AZ where we picked up Rosie and where Fran recuperated from a nasty bout of the flu, for 5 days. We passed through Palm Springs and had another few days with our friends Nina and Reno. We had to bypass South Lake Tahoe this year as Pam and Steve were late getting their boat back on the hard and were not back home in time for our passing. Our return trip took us along the Oregon coast, a beautiful drive. We spent our 40th wedding anniversary on the road and celebrated with an expensive motel and a nice meal in Astoria. We arrived back home on the 1st and have been working on a bathroom reno and chair repairs since then.

11 May 2011.

Gosling was hauled out yesterday morning and it took us the remainder of the day to attend to a few related chores and to get us ready for our 4 day trip. We had dinner onboard and a few hours rest before heading to the bus station for the 22:30 red-eye, a six-hour bus ride to Los Mochis where we caught this train. Our timing was more luck than good planning. We arrived with 15 mins. to spare. All our sources failed to tell us 2 vital pieces of information: that there was a time-change between Guaymas and Los Mochis and that the `cheap train` that we had intended on boarding at 0700, runs every 2 days, i.e., tomorrow. So, all in all, we were fortunate to arrive as early as we did. Planning will be the key for the trip back

The El Chepe premier train runs between Los Mochis and Chihuahua on the way to Posada Barrancas, one of the stops close to the Copper Canyon. About half way we began to see the scenic part of the ride with tunnels, bridges and wonderful escarpments. The guidebook indicates that there will be 37 bridges and 86 tunnels along this route. This train is a far cry from the smooth ride on the European trains. We are swaying and shaking and it is noisy but the scenery makes it all worthwhile.

Luckily here are not very many passengers onboard today so we can move around the cars at will and see the scenery on both sides. Earlier some security guards walked through the car carrying M-16s. One of the other passengers who runs a hotel in the canyon said that 10 years ago the train was occasionally robbed on this run....

At the moment we are 3 hours from our destination and we are passing through some spectacular scenery. The train is hugging the side of a deep canyon. On the right it is a sheer drop some hundreds of feet to a shallow green watercourse. Occasionally we see the daunting sight of the remains of train wagons that didn't make it. There are no snow capped peaks here but we are climbing steadily and it is getting cooler.

Report from after the trip:

We arrived at Posada Barrancas by 1600 and were met by Armando Diaz, the patriarch of the Diaz family and owner of the Cabanas Diaz. It was a short ride to his spartan but comfortable cottages. We checked in, the only guests, and spent the remainder of the afternoon dozing and reading. Simple but wholesome meals were taken in the main house. Lentil soup and chillies rellenos was the evening offering. We met the local governor the following morning. He is one of Armando’s relatives.

Fran had not been feeling well for the last part of the train ride; luckily it turned out to be only a 24-hr event. She was still feeling off the following morning when we took a short tour that took us to several lookout points on the canyon rim and ended at the Devisadero lookout and where we boarded the train for the trip to the Bahuachiva station. At the first lookout there was a gondola ride that takes you over a deep valley to another lookout at the edge of the canyon. For the more adventurous there is a zip-line outfit. We didn’t partake in either. We were dropped off at the Devisadero station where the train stops for 15 minutes to allow the passengers to see the superb panorama of the canyon. Because of this the Tarahuamara have established a market where you can buy their baskets and other wares. Others locals have jumped on the band-wagon and have setup stands for food and all sorts of Copper Canyon souvenirs. It is good to see that the natives have these outlets for their wares but we only see the women and young children. The women wear their traditional multi-coloured skirts and blouses and pass the time between trains weaving their intricate baskets out of palm leaves and pine needles. There is obviously much poverty among these people. The children do not look healthy and the only food we saw that day came from the other vendors and consisted mainly of chips or cheezies and soft drinks. During our entire trip we did not see and of the native men.

By the time we departed Devisadero for Bahuachiva it was early afternoon. We were met in Bahuachiva by Alberto Lopez Cenicero, the owner of the Jade hotel in Cerocahui. The hotel was highly recommended to us by Chris and Rauni of SV Ladybug. This turned out to be a wonderful little, family run establishment. Alberto had been manager of the larger Mission Hotel before striking out on his own. He and his wife Francia made our stay most enjoyable.

It should be mentioned here that there are no banks or ATM machines between El Fuerte and Creel. Because of the unexpected increased train fare we were getting short on funds with no way of obtaining any. As a result we were looking at cutting our trip short by a day and cancelling some of the tours we had planned. Alberto came through to save the day with a local shop owner friend who could accept credit card payments. We were thus able to take a tour to Urique at the bottom of the canyon and a horseback ride on some local trails around the village.

Cerocahui is a beautiful little village 15 km from Bahuachiva. Many of the houses are constructed of adobe bricks made from mud and pine needles or from bricks made locally of fired clay. At this time of year it is very dry and dusty and the locals are praying daily for rain with processions through the streets each morning. Alberto is confident that the rains will arrive in 2 weeks.

The following day we took the trip to Urique, 2000 meters down the canyon with Alberto who, incidentally, still conducts the tours for the guests the Mission hotel. The trip, in his 4X4 GM SUV, was a hair-raising experience to say the least. For over an hour we drove down a dusty dirt road, for the most part hugging the side of the cliff with a precipice of dizzying height on the opposite side. We were glad to have done the trip during the dry season. Alberto described the road in the rainy season as a quagmire in places and falling rocks and debris are a common hazard.

Along the way we passed Tarahumara dwellings where the brightly clad women and young children could be seen. How these people survive in this landscape is difficult to imagine. There are many springs but access to food can only be done by the road or grown on their meagre garden plots. On our way down we picked up an elderly lady who was bringing a sack of nopale cactus leaves to sell in the village and 3 young boys who were carrying sacks of corn to their home. One of them, Jesus a 12-yr old native boy, stayed with us for the day. The normal means of transport for the natives is by foot or hitch-hiking passing vehicles. Some dwellings are so remote that it takes hours for the inhabitants to reach the road. Then they have to wait in the blistering heat. There are no school buses for the children so they too have to rely on passing vehicles to travel to the top of the canyon to their small school.

We breathed a long sigh of relief when we got to the bottom. Alberto took us on a tour of the village, to an area along the river where the locals swim and then to a restaurant for lunch. We treated Jesus to lunch and, to this day, we have no idea where he put all the food that was presented to him.

The drive back up the mountain was as exciting as the way down. Several times we stopped and threw water at the radiator to cool it down, an unorthodox but effective technique. At some of the hairier spots Jesus could be seen in the back crossing himself. That wasn’t very good for our confidence. Good thing Alberto kept both of his hands on the wheel! On the way up we dropped off Jesus on the road above his home with some gifts we had purchased for him and his family.

We got back to the hotel without incident and spent a few hours wandering around the village. At 8 AM the following morning, Juan, and elderly man, was waiting for us with 2 horses, saddled up and ready for our trail ride. Juan walked and we rode for a few hours along the outskirts of the village. Juan chatted continuously in Spanish giving us the names of flora and fauna and stopping at every photo op along the trail. He was a very pleasant and careful guide and we highly recommend his services. Alberto can arrange this.

When we got back it was time to leave for the train station. We arrived with lots of time to spare and waited as the northbound passenger train and a freight train passed by. We had a first-hand look at the competition that exists among the hotel/motel owners. Scooping guests from another hotel is not uncommon and the unsuspecting guests often end up at an establishment other than the one they had bargained for.

The trip back was a long 6 hour ride. As it was a Sunday the train had many more passengers. We arrived at Los Mochis by 9PM and taxied to the bus station. From there it was another 6 hours to Guaymas. We arrived about 3 AM.

Suggestions or anyone planning to do this trip:

- Determine what you want to see in the time you have. We could have gone up to El Chepe and gone down into the northern end of the Canyon but with only 4 days we had just enough time for what we did.
- Consider how much cash to bring. If you do what we did there are no places to replenish between El Fuerte and Chepe. We were very lucky to find the solution we did but there was a 6% price to the service, which we were only too glad to pay to enhance our Copper Canyon experience.
- We were very lucky on the timing for the trip up. Keep the bus and train schedules in mind and remember that the “cheap” train does not run every day while the premier train does.
- Travel light. You’ll want to bring back souvenirs like the baskets. They are very cheap and make great presents but are bulky to carry. Best to buy them as you head back.
- It is best, but not necessary, to make reservations for lodgings. We didn’t but Fran’s research indicated that the hotel operators would be waiting at the train for clients. That’s how it turned out for us but during a busier time it would be a lot more difficult and the host’s vehicles would probably fill up with people with reservations first. Remember that Cerocahui is 15 miles away from the train station.
- We aren’t sure but we believe that if you buy a ticket all the way to Chepe you’ll be able to get off anywhere along the way and re-board the following trip as long as you are still going to the ticket destination. Short trips between stations are not cheap. We met a couple who just wanted to go a few miles down the track to the next station. They were told that the fare would be 400 pesos each. That seems to be their minimum fare. We bought our return trip ticket to El Fuerte but got off at Bahuachiva and re-boarded 2 days later and continued on the same ticket.
- There are 2 ways of going down to the canyon. With our short time frame we opted for the southern trip through Cerocahui. With more time we feel that the trip to the canyon from the north through Creel would be a better tour.

Hope this is of use. Enjoy your trip.