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Wheee! Captains and crews take the train through Mexico’s colorful Copper Canyon

By on April 22, 2019 in Travel with 0 Comments
Chuck Podlich hangs out between train cars during a ride past a waterfall.

Editor’s note: In the March 2018 issue, Sharon Podlich wrote about how she and her husband, Chuck, retired from growing apples in Orondo, and bought a 44-foot sailboat they named Top Cider, and went on a sailing adventure off of Baja, Mexico. They have continued sailing, but in midyear, took a train trip through Mexico’s rugged and scenic Copper Canyon. Here is her report. 

By Sharon Podlich

After our fantastic trip out to the Socorro Islands in November of 2017, captains Chuck Podlich and our friend, Laurin Dodd — owner of the Second Wind, spent several months scratching their heads over marguerites, wondering where would Sailing Adventure 2018 take us? 

They settled on a loose plan — inland, by train, no less. Dock the boats at the Topolobampo marina and head to Los Mochis to ride the railroad up the Copper Canyon. 

As of May 2018, there are two passenger trains that travel the Copper Canyon. The first, now called El Chepe Regional, has been operating in the canyon for over 80 years. The new one, El Chepe Express is a luxury alternative.

We decided to purchase a ticket on the Express to the town of El Fuerte, where we had made overnight arrangements. This allowed us to catch El Chepe Regional at a later hour the next morning for our daylight trek up the canyon. 

El Fuerte is an old fort town with a long history and is allegedly the birthplace of Zorro. Our bed-and-breakfast owner arranged a small tour bus for us the next day. The driver shared a wealth of information on the way to the train station at 7:30 a.m. This is a busy little station, six tour buses arrived at the station full of people ready to board the train. Almost magically folks were dispersed over the several cars and there was plenty of room with no crowding. 

Much of the Copper Canyon is in the state of Sinaloa, which is classified as a dangerous area by our State Department, ranking it similar to Afghanistan. 

Yet, traveling on these trains has been safe for many years and there are plain clothes officers as well as uniformed officers on board. 

If you travel in this region, it is highly recommended that you stick to the beaten path. Guides are available if you wish to do any adventure travel, hiking, and the like. 

This leg of our adventure we traveled tourist class on the Regional train, which gave us assigned seating and comfortable accommodations. 

The trip through the Copper Canyon is an absolute engineering wonder. There are 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. It took several tries and decades to complete the construction. 

There are places you exit a tunnel straight onto a bridge; there is a tunnel that makes a 180-degree turn inside the mountain exiting somewhat higher than the entrance. 

The scenery, the rock canyon walls, the vegetation are not to be missed. We highly recommend the daytime trip up through the canyon. The views on the ascent are dramatic. 

A Raramuri woman weaves pine needle baskets. A cold snap called for warmer clothes in the high elevations.

We arrived in Creel just after dark. Motel vehicles, taxis and guides met the train getting everyone where they needed to go. Once at our hotel, we noticed the locals were shivering and we learned they were having a cold snap. At 7,500 feet elevation, Creel typically might get into the 30s at night, warming to 60s during the day. It dropped to 16 degrees Fahrenheit our first night there. It was running about 85°F at sea-level. 

We had clothes to layer, but none of them very warm. Fortunately, we found shops in Creel had wool items for sale at very reasonable prices.

One of the more interesting things about this area is the unusual mix of cultures. The indigenous people, the Raramuri, known for their running abilities, have inhabited these mountains for centuries. They have been joined by Mennonites who had philosophical differences with Canada in the 1920s and immigrated after making special arrangements with the Mexican government to share their farming knowledge with local farmers plus Hispanics of various origins.

Wanting to see all we could and also get a feel for the town of Creel, we opted for two days of touring and a couple days of strolling the streets, sitting in the plaza and visiting the mission store. 

Our tours took us to several of the beautiful and interesting sites within an hour’s drive. Our first day out we met Alex at his tourist booth and headed to El Divisadero for the day. 

The Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) is a group of six canyons formed by rivers in the Sierra Madre Occidental. El Divisadero is the astounding viewing point to see them coming together and going on forever. 

There are several activities you can do while here, from ziplines to purchasing fine woven baskets and other goods from the Raramuri women. 

We chose to ride the tram across a canyon and were joined by a young Raramuri boy of 10 or so years who was coming back from school and heading to his home down in the canyon. 

El Chepe also makes a short stop at the station here. We found exploring it more gave us a much broader perspective on the region. Whether you just stop with the train or visit longer, the street food here is terrific.

Our next tour was with Sam, who we met through our hotel owner. Sam took us to see some amazing sites on our day with him. 

The highlight was Recohuata hot springs and the road down to the hot springs at the bottom of the canyon. It was made of flat-topped rocks, all neatly laid out and mortared by hand. At least four miles of fine work leads down a very steep incline with very sharp switchbacks, some requiring three-point turns to navigate. 

Over the years several pools have been created at the hot springs from cement and you can move from one to another, to find just the right temperature. But, as the air temperature was lower than normal, we generally liked to be closer to where the water entered the pool. 

You can see many places where the hot mineral water is seeping out of the mountainside while you soak. Reputedly the spring water is loaded with lithium salts, which, I’m sure helped me feel calmer about the ride back up. 

Sam was born and raised in Creel, his grandparents were some of the first Hispanic settlers in the town. 

Our first tour driver, Alex had actually lived in the U.S. for a number of years and even served in the military during Desert Storm. When he’s not giving tours, he helps his elderly mother with her bed-and-breakfast. 

We found the restaurants in Creel to have good food and most offered apple pie for dessert. Apples are one of the products of the state of Chihuahua. 

Generally, they did not have full bars, but offered several beers. We found the local Best Western to be atypical to most in the chain and their cozy bar/restaurant offered an excellent margarita and unique pizzas.

Though the Raramuri people are generally quite shy and hesitantly interact with tourists, they produce many items with local resources to sell to tourists. 

Most places we visited had various styles of rudimentary stands loaded with baskets, necklaces, shawls, dishes and more. To us it looked like often the children are becoming the entrepreneurs. 

It is very difficult to turn them down. I admit to buying a few more baskets than I needed, because the salesman looked to be my grandson’s age, or because Laurin wanted a photo of an endearing face.

Walking along the trail to Cascada Cusarare, we encountered a little Raramuri girl of three or four who greeted us with strong, clear “Holas.” 

Her parents looked on but said nothing themselves. Our dinner conversation reflected on what must it be like for a family of quiet, hesitant introverts to raise such an extrovert? How does she fit into this culture?

We chose the El Chepe Express for our trip back to Los Mochis and spent the time roaming between our seats, lounging in the plush chairs and sofas of the bar, the dining car with its second story seating and bubble top, having cribbage play offs, watching the scenery and planning the next leg of our trip, which took us to Mazatlán for Thanksgiving and meeting up with more old crew and on to Banderas Bay.

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