The hotel where we stayed in Copper Canyon was really nice, but it didn’t have WiFi, so I couldn’t share any blog posts while I was there. I did write during the four days I spent there, but couldn’t upload anything. So here is the whole deal in one loooong post. I’m happy to be posting this finally, a week after returning home to Ajijic.
Wakeup and Grope
Our day on Wednesday started with a wakeup call just before 4:00 am. We had to meet at 5:00 in the lobby to go to the train station. The train’s departure time: 6:00.
While I was in the shower, the lights went out. Plunged into pitch darkness, I quickly rinsed off and groped my way out of the bathroom to where I’d left my phone. And armed with just the flashlight on my phone, I managed to get dressed and finish packing. Rosie came and knocked to let me know that the hotel generator was operating the elevator and the lights in the lobby. So our group all managed to find there way downstairs, and we were on our way on schedule.
I love trains. Most trains are just to get from one place to another, but it doesn’t matter. When you love trains, there’s already a sense of anticipation while waiting at the station and adventure while watching the world go by through the windows.
The train from Chihuahua to Copper Canyon is a train that gets you where you’re going. But it’s also the kind of train where the journey is the destination. So for a train lover like me, this train ride of almost eight hours was one of the highlights of the trip I was eagerly anticipating.
Some train stations help to ramp up the anticipation the journey ahead. This train station, though, was just a bare, non-descript room.
Soon enough we were on our way. The train is called El Chepe, which stands for Chihuahua and Pacific. The formal name is Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico. Construction began in 1900, but the railroad wasn’t completed until 1961. It runs between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, in the state of Sinaloa. The western part of the trip is considered far more scenic, but mudslides have forced the closure of that part of the railroad. That’s why we went from Chihuahua.
It was still dark for the first half hour or so, and then gradually daylight came, as it almost always does. At 7:00 we went to the dining car for breakfast. We had the choice of chilaquiles rojos, chilaquiles verde, or huevos mexicanos (scrambled eggs with green pepper and tomato). This was not the kind of luxury dining I imagined based on Hollywood depictions of the Orient Express and other fancy trains. The only beverages were orange juice and American coffee. No tea. No decaf. Utensils slid off the tables as we rounded corners. It was basic, and it was rushed, because we needed to finish so they could accommodate the next group of diners.
The scenery changed gradually as we headed southwest from Chihuahua. I expected we would, at some point, enter Copper Canyon, or at least travel along the edge of the canyon, where we’d enjoy spectacular views. That was not the case. Still, the scenery did not disappoint. The back car of the train had open windows. In the morning it was very cold, but later on it warmed up and I used up most of my phone’s battery life photographing the terrain. I can only imagine how it would have been on the route from Los Mochis.
We departed on time and arrived right on schedule — an impressive show in Mexico. Arrival was quite chaotic as we claimed our luggage on the jam-packed platform and then left it for the hotel staff to load into a truck. We were supposed to have a bus for our group of 19, but the hotel apparently messed up and only provided its vans. We packed ourselves in very tightly and rode about ten minutes to our hotel.
On the edge of Copper Canyon
Upon arrival at the Hotel Mirador around 2pm, we immediately went to the dining room for lunch of vegetable soup, a delicious chicken dish, and a peach dessert with some sort of pastry. Then Rosie passed out our room keys. The dining room and all the hotel rooms look out on this breathtaking view of Copper Canyon. Every room also has a balcony (where I am sitting as I write this). And they also have a rustic charm that reminds me of the hotels and lodges at some the the US National Parks.
We gathered at 5:00, and Rosie gave us a bit of an introduction to this area. Though we call it Las Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon in English, the correct name, she said, is Sierra Tarahumara. The Sierra Tarahumara is a mountain range that is part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. There are actually seven distinct canyons, and only one of them is Copper Canyon. Officially we are in Parque Nacional Barrancas del Cobre. The park covers about 60,000 square kilometers, one quarter of the size of the state of Chihuahua, which is the largest state by land area in Mexico. The Tarahumara people who live in this area down in the canyon are also known as the Rarámuri, which means fleet-footed. Supposedly they train as long-distance runners and can run for many hours without stopping.
The entirety of Copper Canyon is four time larger than the Grand Canyon and as much as two times deeper. To me they look similar, though the Grand Canyon cuts into a plateau, whereas this canyon is part of a mountain range. This canyon resembles the Grand Canyon in Arizona, though it is four times as large. Geologically, however, they are completely different. The Grand Canyon was formed by the Colorado River, which over many millions of years carved its way into the earth. It is believed that Copper Canyon was formed from seismic and volcanic activity, although there are rivers that run through it.
The food at our hotel is excellent. Dinner on Wednesday consisted of green salad, beef lasagna, and something fabulously chocolatey.
After a very nice buffet breakfast, we loaded into a school bus to head to the Parque de Aventura. (Rosie raised quite a stink with the hotel last night about not providing a bus for us to get here from the train station. So today we had one, along with a driver and guide named Ramón.)
The Adventure Park has a teleférico that crosses the canyon. It also has the world’s second longest zip line. Until about two years ago it was the longest in the world, but now there’s a longer one in the UAE.
After we arrived, Ramón talked to us about the options. The zip line also crosses the canyon, but then you have to walk up about 800 meters to the terminus of the teleferico, and you ride the teleferico back across the canyon. So who wants to do the zip line. I raise my hand and look around the group to see who else.
Ramón took me to the waiver booth where I signed away all rights to anything and everything and swore I was in perfect health and hadn’t been drinking. From there I went to pay ($1000 pesos — about $50 USD), and then to get all my equipment and then to the launch pad.
While I was waiting for the person ahead of me to go, I started to get very nervous. Everyone else in the group was watching me as I got strapped in. At that point I actually felt very calm. I took a photo of the view in front of me.
Then he had me count to three, and then nothing happened. And then he adjusted something above my head and I went.
I was holding onto the straps for dear life as I picked up speed. I’m not sure how fast I was going, but flying into the air felt like facing hurricane-force winds. And then I realized I was dangling over some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, and I relaxed. The adrenaline rush morphed into a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty of it all.
After maybe two minutes I arrived at the landing platform and slowed to a stop. A girl helped me out of my harness abd handed me a bottle of water, and I started the uphill hike to the teleférico platform. The scenery continued to gobsmack me all the way up.
Once at the top, I had plenty of time to catch my breath before the rest of the group arrived on the teleferico. Ramón told us about the people of the area, the Tarahumara, and about the geography of the entire Sierra Tarahumara, before we rode back across. I was impressed by how knowledgeable he was.
After we got back to the other side of the canyon, we had lunch at the park and then did a walk along the edge of the canyon. The views along that walk were every bit as spectacular as every other spectacular view in the last day and a half. There is nothing so far that hasn’t been awe-inspiring.
After we got back and I recharged my nearly dead phone (yes, I took a lot of pictures) and started writing this blog post, chatted with a few of the others, then was a wine tasting.
I thought the wine tasting was going to be a big group affair, but only five of us participated. And our wine steward was none other than Ramón, who, it turns out, is as knowledgeable about wine as he is about the history and geography and geology and culture of the area and about driving a school bus.
The Balderrama family, which owns this hotel and a number of others also owns a winery, and they bottle four wines. I like a good glass of wine, though I don’t consider myself a connoisseur. But I thought these were all excellent, and the last one we tasted, the Legado (legacy) was really extraordinary.
We left at 9:00 am for what was described in our itineraries as follows:
Departure to the Magic Town of Creel
We will visit some places with rock formations the frogs and the mushrooms valley
we will see the San Ignacio Mission, the Arareco lake and spend time in Creel.[sic]
It was a long day. We arrived in Creel at 4:00 pm and stayed until 5:30. And we got back to our hotel at 7:00. So when I say it was a long day, I am not exaggerating.
Some of the places with rock formations involved long drives on our trusty school bus on rutted dirt roads. Imagine if you will a school bus filled with senior citizens being jostled about on and off for seven hours. I’ll just say that some people struggled to maintain their inherent good natures.
The sights, though, were worth the jostles. The waterfall we visited did not flow in a torrent, but it was still pleasant. The rock formations were interesting. The lake was pretty. We drove past the San Ignacio Mission, but it was closed. And Creel, my seventeenth Pueblo Mágico, had its charms. The hour and half we had there was not quite enough to explore the town fully, but the plaza was pleasant and the main street had some nice shops. There was one shop that had a good assortment of Mata Ortiz pottery, which I absolutely love. I already own one piece, and I bought another one earlier in Chihuahua. I was not aware that the village of Mata Ortiz is located in the state of Chihuahua, about two hours from the US border.
We got back just in time for dinner, and it was easy to fall asleep after that long day on the school bus.
Unfortunately, I awoke at 3:00 am with a nasty allergy attack, and that continued to bother me for much of the day Saturday. Watery eyes and drippy nose and what feels like a tiny critter running around in my sinuses.
Hike and Ball and Dance
This morning a young Tarahumara man named Martin led us on a walk partway down into Copper Canyon. He wore traditional costume. Martin has appeared in a few movies and is an ultra-marathoner. After the walk he showed us the game called Rarajipari. The Tarahumara men play it to help build community. They play with a wooden ball and a stick, and they kick the ball in a long circular route. Games can last many hours, even overnight. And I got to try it, though it was very difficult to kick the ball with regular shoes. The men wear laced sandals and are able to loft the ball into the air by hooking their toes under it.
After the Rarajipari demonstration, Martin answered our questions about the game and about life in the Tarahumara community. And he ended with a little traditional dance. He wore tenabares around his legs. These are hardened butterfly cocoons with small stones inside, tied together in a long string. The dance was basically a walk-and-shuffle step set to violin and guitar music which was pre-recorded. Traditionally, of course, the music would be played live, and everyone would follow a leader in a line.
We had some free time in the afternoon, and then Rosie asked one of the Tarahumara women out in front of the hotel to demonstrate basket weaving. Pretty much everywhere we went we encountered people selling baskets and other handcrafts. And in front of the hotel, three or four of these women would sit on the ground with their goods spread out in front of them, and they would constantly weave baskets. Larger baskets are made from sotol leaves. Sotol is a variety of agave with narrow leaves. They strip off the thorns with knives and sometimes they die the leaves by soaking them in water with colored crepe paper.
The smaller baskets are made of Apache pine needles, and as we watched, she crafted a tiny pine needle basket, which I bought.
Last night in the hotel they had live music, two singers with electric pianos playing a mix of Mexican and gringo popular songs. I requested some ABBA, but they didn’t comply. Still, it was fun, and a few of us hung around in the bar for a few hours drinking and listening and conversing.
Back to Chihuahua
It’s now Sunday evening. The sun has set and we’re riding the train back to Chihuahua. We just finished dinner in the dining car.
This morning after breakfast we had some free time, and I went for a walk. I approached the railroad tracks and while I wandered around that area, I saw a woman with a little girl coming down the tracks. As she came closer, I realized that she also had a baby she was carrying in a sling. I snapped this photo, which might be my favorite photo from the entire trip.
And I’m finishing this up on the flight back to Guadalajara, at 5:30 pm Monday afternoon.
We had to ride on our trusty schoolbus back to Creel this morning to catch the train back to Chihuahua. I’m not sure why, but we couldn’t board at the station close to our hotel.
Before dinner on the train, I went back to the observation car to enjoy the scenery. Two young fellows sitting next to me were conversing in German. So I asked them if they were from Germany. Turns out they were from Switzerland and were on a two-week holiday in Mexico. They’d previously been to Mexico City and Baja, and after spending just one night in Creel were heading next to the Yucatan. It’s always fun when traveling to get to meet people from other places; I never expected to meet Swiss tourists on a train in Chihuahua, Mexico. I would have liked to chat with them more, but then an El Chepe staff member came into the observation car and began narrating a very long bit of information in Spanish about something or other, and soon it was time to go for dinner.
We arrived in Chihuahua at 9:30, and by 10pm we were back at our hotel.
This morning at breakfast Rosie told us that, for those who were interested, she would take us to the museum to see the room where Hidalgo was imprisoned in 1811 before he was assassinated. Only four of us took advantage. It was a small museum, but I always appreciate the opportunity to see and learn more about the places I’m visiting.
I never understood why Hidalgo ended up in Chihuahua until today. After the Grito de Dolores in 1810, he went on a freedom march, but was eventually captured, in the state of Coahuilla, and from there he was taken to Chihuahua. After he was executed and beheaded, his head went back along the same route he had followed, ending in Guanajuato, where it hung from a corner of the granary where the revolutionaries massacred all the Spanish folks who had taken refuge there. (I visited that granary, now a museum, when I was in Guanajuato this past July.)
Before we had to leave for the airport, I was hungry, and I decided finally to try some street corn. I got it in a cup rather than on the cob, and I had her add everything (butter, salt, crema, cheese, and the picoso spice. It turns out all the spice pretty much overpowered the flavor of the corn. When I try it again, I’ll leave off the spice.
The visit to Las Barrancas del Cobre…
…was fantastic. It was a great mix of jaw-dropping beauty, interesting people, great opportunities to learn about a culture I’d never heard of before, and fun times.
The Mirador Hotel, where we stayed, was fabulous, with a staff of very nice and very attractive young people. And Carlos and Rosie of Charter Club Tours do a great job of trying to keep a diverse group of travelers happy.
I’ve organized my photos into several albums:
Everything (219 items)
El Chepe (62 items)
Scenery in Copper Canyon (82 items)
Flora (25 items)
Plus there’s an album of stuff from Chihuahua (95 items)