7th – 12th April – The heat is intense with a hot, dry wind as we cross the Tropic of Cancer and pass through the Cacaxtla Plateau Wildlife Refuge. This is a protected area of dry forest, the trees looking very bare and brown, interspersed with tall cactus and a few evergreen trees that will provide some shade and cover for wildlife. It’s amazing however, that in this dry season when no rain has fallen for several months, that a few trees still put all their energy into producing flowers and fruits.
A flat-topped ridge marks the end of the park and the beginning of a wide strip of agricultural land that spreads between the ocean and mountains. We are stopped for a fruit check but when we say we have only bought from a local supermarket, we are waved on. There are more army and police checks along this road but surprisingly we are not pulled over.
We have slowly been heading northwest up the coast of Mexico planning our trip to the complex of canyons amongst the Tarahumara Mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, that make up Mexico’s Barranca del Cobre or Copper Canyon, said to surpass even Arizona’s Grand Canyon and often called the 8th wonder of the world!
To reach the canyons, we have decided to treat ourselves to what is said to be one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys……the Chihuahua Pacifico, (Chepe for short). Opened in 1961, this railroad has been a considerable feat of engineering and took approx. 90 years to complete, its route of just over 406 miles, crossing 39 bridges, going through 86 tunnels and including a180 degree turn inside solid rock. A longtime dream of making a route through the canyons of the western Sierra down to the Pacific coast, had been fulfilled…..the only railroad ever to penetrate the rugged backbone of the Sierra Madre!
The town of Los Mochis on the Pacific coast could be for us, the starting point for the train journey travelling eastbound toward Chihuahua, but our first concern is to find safe parking for Moby for a few days.
Los Mochis is a modern agricultural town, where the land is irrigated using the waters of the huge Rio Fuerte. We pull in at the Copper Canyon RV Park there but our first impressions of this huge, deserted campground with only one, very dusty looking vehicle parked there and no shade, are not encouraging for the security of our vehicle and so we decide to drive east for the next stopping point for the train….. the town of El Fuerte.
I should have known it was bad luck to say that the army and police have not pulled us over, because shortly after investigating the RV park in Los Mochis, a policeman on a motorbike, suddenly switches his siren on (a strange noise like a duck quacking) and indicates for us to pull over. He has spotted Bill without his seat belt and although we try playing a bit dumb, he knows the word ‘ticket’ and we can’t pretend that we don’t understand for long! He wants to see our licence but we know that he wants the details from this to write the ticket, so although Bill shows it to him, he is careful not to hand it over. He’s actually a nice enough guy but persistent so I try a tactic that so often worked in Africa. I tell him that the police have been very good to us all over Mexico….(very true), and that he is the first policeman to give us a problem. Will it work? I can see him hesitate and think about this, (or perhaps he is still trying to work out my broken Spanish) and so before he can answer, I apologise, thank him very much with a big smile and to divert his attention, ask directions for the road to El Fuerte. It seems to have worked, Bill now has his seat belt on, we thank him again and drive away in the direction he has given us, before he can change his mind!
And so we arrive in the heat of the afternoon, at sleepy El Fuerte situated alongside the magnificent Rio El Fuerte, full of water even in this long, dry period. Founded by the Spanish conquistador Don Francisco de Ibarra in 1564, the town was named for the fort that was built in the 17th century on the top of a hill, to ward off attacks from fierce, indigenous Indians. Today this fort is the El Fuerte Historic Museum. For centuries, the settlement of El Fuerte not only became an important commercial and agricultural centre for this vast northern region of Mexico but was also a major trading post for gold and silver miners after these precious metals were discovered in the nearby Sierras. In 2006 El Fuerte was one of 48 towns in Mexico that was named a ‘ Magic Village’ due to its history, architecture and charm and we discover many attractive and well preserved, colonial buildings tucked around its quiet, cobbled streets and a very relaxed atmosphere.
But we still have to find parking for Moby so that we can make our train journey to Copper Canyon. A very helpful police officer, after having watched us drive around the main plaza a few times, gives us advice on some hotels with secure parking.
We are nearest to the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo, situated opposite the Fort Museum and try this first……..it very quickly becomes our choice. It’s a beautiful, colonial mansion built in 1890 by Senor Rafael Almada, a wealthy and influential ‘alcalde’ (or mayor), who spent 5 years and 100,000 gold pesos on its construction, making it the largest and most beautiful building in El Fuerte with spacious gardens. Today the charm of this old building is cleverly blended with today’s expectations, to provide a very special hotel.
Yes, we also have parking that we are happy with behind large gates but before we accept, we are doing our sums at the 5* price, plus our train journey to the canyon. We tell the girl at reception that before we decide, we are going to check out some other hotels and magically, she writes a new figure down which is almost half the original….800 pesos including taxes (approx. £40 per night)! Not only that, but the hotel will arrange transport to the station, we can buy our ticket on the train as there is no ticket office in El Fuerte and the hotel will meet us on our return. A guide suggests that we get off the train at Posada Barrancas (the highest point), where we can stay at the Hotel Mirador on the rim of the canyon and which presently has a ‘before Easter’ special offer per night for 2 people in a double room, that also includes taxes and 3 meals a day. The people here at Hotel Hidalgo couldn’t be more friendly and helpful, taking their time to explain everything and promising to look after our vehicle…….our decision is easily made and what could be a more exciting venture to celebrate both our birthdays! Our room is wonderful and overlooks the garden and later we both dine on fresh water black bass in the hotel restaurant, which has a beamed ceiling covered in huge, paper flowers……Mexico is just so full of colour!
We are at the station by 8 a.m. and our driver assures us that there is no need to pay the higher cost for 1st class when the 2nd class is perfectly good, so we wait for the train to arrive, the only ‘gringos’ amongst the locals and we soon discover why. If you want a seat, then it is necessary to board the train soon after sunrise in Los Mochis, as there is now only standing room or sitting on the floor. It’s going to be a 5-6 hour journey and it would be nice to have a seat for some of that time and also to be able to get some photos of the journey, so it’s into the first class carriages where it’s clear why you pay that bit more……it’s cool and spacious with a bygone dining car and no problem in finding a seat. We seem to be in the same carriage as the security police but they don’t seem to object….casual uniforms, sunglasses and well armed in case of bandits and plain-clothes security with walkie talkies, whilst the porters and ticket collectors wear smart uniforms and pillbox caps.
After leaving El Fuerte, we travel through the more fertile farming plains, crossing the amazing Rio Fuerte and spectacular scenery where its blue waters meander through the hills.
We have slowly been climbing now amongst craggy peaks………
……….winding through tunnels and crossing narrow bridges that often straddle deep gorges.
A stop at the station of San Rafael where big freight locomotives are standing, brings the Tarahumara Indian ladies and children rushing over to sell their beautiful, handmade pine needle baskets.
And so by slow degrees after zigzagging through this rugged scenery, we reach our destination at Posada Barrancas, said to be the highest point at nearly 2500m. The train will continue on for many more hours, rolling down to Chihuahua but we are told that the scenery doesn’t get any better from here. It’s only a very short distance from the train station to the Posada Mirador Hotel, surrounded by pine trees and seemingly etched out of the natural rock and perched just below the rim of the canyon. Built from stone and logs and decorated with tiles and Indian artefacts, its unique style and design offers 65 rooms, each with a private terrace overlooking the canyon…….very important!
As we enter the hotel and out on to its huge balcony, the panoramic view is totally unexpected and awe inspiring…….standing atop the majestic heights of a complex of canyons and interlocking gorges as far and wide as the eye can see…….the silence is profound! Imagine waking up to this each morning!
The sun comes out with a vengeance each day (it’s nearing the hottest time of the year), we are told that the floor of the canyons will be like a furnace now but there are many rocky paths to take to appreciate the views along the rim, shaded by many different species of pine, oak trees and the red-barked Madrone trees. We spot a woodpecker and cactus are still in flower.
The term Copper Canyon or Barranca del Cobre, is often used to define the whole of the complex of canyons which covers an amazing 25,000 square miles. There are however, at least 6 major canyons (Urique Canyon being the deepest at 1870m), plus many other lesser ones. The waters of nearly all these canyons, eventually merge into the Rio Fuerte.
The indigenous and reclusive Tarahumara (or Raramuri) Indians have inhabited this area of the Sierra Tarahumara for centuries, their lives intertwined within these remote canyons, many settling in areas where they can remain isolated and independent, continuing their special cultures. Despite the fact that the railroad has made the Canyons accessible for tourists, the majority continue to live a subsistence life in small villages, caves and other primitive dwellings clinging to the mountain sides, often descending to the microclimate of the valley floor for warmth in the winter.
Raramuri (‘the people of the swiftly running feet’) are famous for their endurance running and are known to run non stop for hours, travelling great, vertical distances amongst the canyons. Traditionally when hunting, they would try to chase down and exhaust their prey but today, they run lengthy team races along the canyon trails and have even entered marathons in the US as well as in the Canyon area. Ladies bring their handmade crafts to sell near the hotel………beautiful baskets, handmade violins, woven cloth and pine bark carvings. They are shy and unassuming. We meet this family on one of our walks holding carved walking sticks and bought some baskets and a little mask from them.
Maybe we have been lucky to visit this remote, natural wilderness before its skyline is changed. There are plans of a big tourism development scheme in the pipeline. A cable car has already been constructed to carry tourists into the depths of the canyon and has been met with mixed reactions.
On our last morning I am up to see the sunrise from our balcony and there’s time for a last walk before our return train journey to El Fuerte and one more night at the Posada Hidalgo. It’s been a great journey to a spectacular place and we would certainly recommend both hotels. However, a cooler time of year (October to March) is better for hiking or riding down into the canyons, where there would certainly be more natural wonders to explore!
Leaving El Fuerte and entering the northern State of Sonora that borders with the US, we have another agricultural check but this time we are not so lucky and lose everything, even the potatoes. Camping at San Carlos and then on to Santa Ana, following the distant line of the Sierrra Madre as they stretch away into the distance. It’s strange to think that the Punta Vista RV Park here, will be our last place to camp in Mexico. The campground is owned by a delightful, elderly Mexican and American couple who obviously both struggle now with their disabilities but their warmth and hospitality is really touching. We spend an evening chatting with them, together with a Canadian couple that we met earlier at Mazatlan. The owners then kindly open up a bathroom inside a store room for us to use, as all the other vehicles are big rigs that obviously have their own.
The remaining minutes on our satellite phone will expire once we leave Mexico and so we ring the UK and Australia to talk to family……..lovely to hear their voices so clear and after so long!
We have decided to change our border crossing into the US at the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, following recent drug-gang violence there with 4 people killed. Instead we will be crossing at the Mexican border town of Nogales.
Mexico has a fantastic and varied environment. Colourful art, beautiful handicrafts and fine buildings can be found everywhere. It’s an affordable country to travel in but it’s good to buy from the local people if you can and use local guides if needed. Without the tourism, even more Mexicans would be heading for the big cities and the US looking for work. Yes, drug-gang violence is a fact of life and often death in Mexico and unfortunately we have heard of tourists that have been targeted. After talking to the few Americans that we have met, we get the feeling that fewer are now wintering this far south for the sun because of safety reasons and problems at the borders. We have changed our route a couple of times to avoid areas that we were advised were perhaps not safe but everywhere that we have been, friendliness has prevailed and Mexicans have only been too happy to make us feel at home in their country. We are leaving with very special memories of just some of Mexico’s natural wonders and colourful cities.
Although we feel that we have only seen a small part of this vast country, if we linger longer, then after exploring the southwest of the US, we will be hitting Canada in the winter months and travelling will become difficult.