Barranca del Cobre

Trip Start Oct 26, 2009
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Flag of Mexico  , Northern Mexico,
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One of the world's most scenic rail journeys, the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico is an engineer’s dream. Along the 653km of railway line, which connects the mountainous and arid interior of northern Mexico with a town just shy of the Pacific coast, there are 37 bridges and 86 tunnels.   The train trip initially passes through flat, grey farmland.  Shortly after, it begins to climb through the hills speckled with cacti.  The train cuts through small canyons and snakes its way through an area where it makes three ascending loops known as "la pera" or the pear.  Looking out the window here, you can see a track about 150 meters above.  Certainly that can’t be the same train track as the one we’re on….or can it?   It most definitely is; inside one of the long tunnels, the train unknowingly to passengers, does a complete 180 degree turn and comes out of the tunnel in the opposite direction at a higher elevation than the start.  From here, the train hugs the sides of the dramatic cliffs as it climbs higher and higher through the mountains of the Sierra Tarahumara, until the highlight when the train stops in Divisadero (elevation 2245m), about 300km from where the trip began.  This is where you got your first and only glimpse of the actual Barrnaca del Cobre, Copper Canyon (from the train.)   The Copper Canyon is a series of more than twenty spectacular canyons that altogether comprise a region that is four times larger and in many areas much deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  To get a sense of the true size, Lonely Planet uses the following analogy.  If a jagged key the size of the Florida panhandle was scraped across a car the size of North Carolina, the resulting damage would be akin to the Copper Canyon’s stunning chasms. 

The name Copper Canyon, which was misleadingly named by the Spanish (they mistook the greenish glow of lichen for copper), refers specifically to the stunning Barranca de Urique.   This area, while only at an altitude of 500m (but 1879m deep), is the canyon’s deepest point.

The Barranca de Urique has a subtropical climate, yet the peaks are 2300m above sea level and filled with conifers and evergreens.  The entire region is also home to one of Mexico’s largest groups of indigenous people, the Ramamuri, translated, “those who run fast.”   Traditionally, they hunted by chasing down and exhausting deer, then driving the animals over cliffs to be impaled on wooded sticks strategically placed at the bottom of the canyon.  Today they run grueling footraces of at least 160km through rough canyons, all the while kicking a small wooden ball ahead of them.  These races have been known to last 40+ hours.  With all of the running in their background, it is not a surprise that many of the top ultra-marathon runners in the world are Ramamuri. 

Though many are determined to remain isolated within this formidable topography, and do manage to retain many traditions, such as residing in cave dwellings,  it is clear that the Ramamuri way of life is under serious threat.  Between the rapid loss of their language and severe degradation of their environment (by logging, mining, drug cultivation, and tourist-based development), the line between the Ramamuri and other Mexicans becomes thinner every day. 

The Ramamuri women are very distinguishable as they are dressed in colorful skirts and blouses.   Many carry infants on their backs as they peddle hand-woven baskets made from pine needles. The Ramamuri are very spiritual and believe that they are the first group of people to arrive on Earth.  In the Tarahumara Mountains everything tells the essential, that is:  the principles and rules according on which nature was made and everything (mankind, storms, winds, silence, the sun) lives by these principles.

Enough with the history, you can do your own research if you are so inclined.  Let’s talk about our trip.

We were in La Paz (over on the Baja) for Thanksgiving and crossed the Sea of Cortez to Topolambopo with our friends from Santa Rosa, Guy and Carol on Stray Cat.   As a last hurrah, Craig and I stopped one more time at Los Isoletes so we could snorkel with the sea lions one more time before leaving the beautiful Sea of Cortez.  It was approaching sunset when we arrived at the island, so our water time was limited due to the lack of light.  None-the-less, our piniped buddies were as playful as ever and seemed glad to have late afternoon visitors.  From there, our crossing to the mainland was uneventful.  We arrived at the first channel marker near Topolambopo by early morning.  The bay was quite shallow so it was important to stay within the marked channel to avoid running aground.  There was also a small sandbar to cross and it was a bit disconcerting to see breaking waves on either side of GatoGo as we entered the bay.  As the tides were benign at this hour, crossing the bar turned out to be a non-event.  We docked at a marina and had one free day to explore the little shrimping town before our train trip to the Copper Canyon.  This also gave us a chance to give instructions to the security guard who would be watching Savanna during our absence.  Little did we know, that by the time we returned to the boat after being away for five days, she would have made friends with all of the people on the dock.  As she pranced down the dock, everyone would call her name and want some attention from the old boxer.  Apparently she didn’t much miss us while we were gone. 

The train  was scheduled to leave from Los Mochis (about a 30-minute drive from Topolambopo) at 7:00 am.  This made for an early morning as our cab was scheduled to pick us up at 0:dark 30.  Not being able to purchase tickets ahead of time, we needed to arrive extra early to assure that we could get on the train.  After sitting around in the train station, we were asked to board a bus???  Apparently there was some construction with some of the track, so we were bussed to a nearby train station, where the train was waiting for us.  We had to guess which direction we would go, as we were told that the right side of the car is the place to sit for the best scenery.  In the middle of the last car, we claimed 4 seats (2 forward facing and 2 backward) in the center of the car.  BINGO…we had made the right choice of sides once the train started the journey.  We were told how dull the first hour or so would be on the train, however, we found the flatland area to be very scenic as we went through many small Mexican villages.  This was nothing, however, compared to what we were about to see.  After the El Fuerte train station, the scenery changed drastically.  We were now in the canyon area and making a slow ascent.  Not wanting to miss any of the breathtaking scenery, we spent most of the time hanging out at the open air vestibules in between railroad cars or at the back of the train.  The air was clean (well, except when going through any of the numerous tunnels) and the pine scent grew stronger as we gained altitude. 

Most of the stops along the journey were long enough to allow one or two passengers on or off the train; typically, the train didn’t even come to a complete stop before chugging up the mountainside again.  Divisadero, however, had a 15-minute stop planned.  This allowed everyone time to hop off the train to get an absolutely amazing glimpse of the Copper Canyon.  BREATHTAKING!  Looking down into the canyon, we got our first glimpse of some of the dwellings of the indigenous indians.  It is unbelievable to think of how remote an area some of the Ramamuri actually live.  At the outdoor train station, there are about a dozen little booths set-up with makeshift 55-gallon drum, wood burning ovens.   Blue corn gorditas, filled with beans and a cream corn and cactus glop are the specialty of the area as well as chile relleno served in a tortilla with beans.  You could tell that they are used to the short train schedule and have everything cooked and ready for final preparations when the train arrives.  It is an art to watch them do their culinary magic in such cramped quarters.  Each chef had numerous meat, vegetable, and tortilla/gordita selections that would make Baskin-Robbins look bad; all made on the equivalent of an overturned hub cab!    Yum, yum…this was some of the best “fast food” that we have had in a long time. 

Divisadero has a upscale hotel built right on the canyon edge.  There is also a brand new gondola  that traverses over part of the canyon and a zip line tour (to open sometime in December) that starts here, but that is about it.  In order to get through the section of mines and maintain the required 2.5% ascent, the train circled back over itself in a complete loop inside the canyon again at El Lazo before steaming into Creel.  We stayed two nights in Creel, a logging town surrounded by pine forests and interesting rock formations.  The train tracks run through the center of the town and throughout the day you will see many people walking up and down the tracks to get from point A to B.  

While in Creel, we stayed at La Posada, which was more or less a hostel.  As the Stray Cat’s and  we were among the only guests, we arranged to have use of the kitchen for an included breakfast.  The kitchen was sparsely stocked, so coming up with an exotic menu was out of the question.  We were able to scrounge up cereal with fruit, eggs, toast, juice, and coffee…things weren’t too bad.   It is wintertime and we were at an elevation of 2340m, so it was chilly at night and in the morning.  The hotel tried to save money by not running the heat; the front desk staff walked around with a hat and gloves.  They actually wanted us to turn our propane heaters in the room off at night, but we were used to the tropics and not such cold climates.  Therefore, we cracked the window for ample ventilation and kept the heater glowing all night long. 

Pepe had hustled us on the street to take a tour from him; or at least to look at the beautiful silver in his shop.  He had the slime factor of a used car salesman (sorry in advance to all of our legitimate used car salesmen friends), so we were glad to get rid of him…or so we had thought.  We walked back to our hotel to check to see what sort of tour they had arranged for us.  As it turns out, Pepe was the only English speaking guide in Creel that day.  Therefore, we awkwardly stepped in his van and tried to explain as best we could why we had earlier vanished from his shop.  Anyway, Pepe turned out to be a nice guy and took us on a tour of Creel’s surrounding areas and learned quite a bit about the local Ramamuri people and culture.  We stopped in a valley inhabited by quite a few Ramamuri people and got to go inside one of their cave dwellings to see exactly how they lived.  In addition, “tour 1” also included stops at the Valley of the Frogs  (rock formations), Piedra de elefante (elephant rock), Valley of the Monks (more rock formations), a beautiful lake , and a few missions churches dating back to the 1700’s.   After an exhausting afternoon with Pepe, we returned to Creel in time for supper.  When we arrived back at the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised that the gas heater in the lobby area was turned on for us.  The room was too large to heat, but sitting right in front of the heater made us feel like we were at a campfire.

As the train is expensive, relatively speaking, and erratic with the time schedule, we decided to take a bus to our next stop on the adventure, Posada Barrancas, about 5km from Divisedaro.  When we bought the tickets, Divisadero was written as our destination.  Craig tried to ask if this was correct and was told, no problem.  When we boarded the bus, we gave him our tickets and told him that we were going to Posada Barrancas.  Again, no problem.  When the bus arrived at the train station in Divisadero, the driver stopped and pointed for us to get off.  When we told him that we were going to Posada Barrancas, he gave us a blank stare?  Apparently this was the end of the bus route.  As the train wasn’t scheduled to arrive for a few more hours, there was not a peep at the train station.  We looked blankly back at the driver and finally said something that clicked.  He started driving again and in about 5 or 10 minutes he stopped alongside the road.  There was a gentleman waiting outside a van; turns out this was the owner of the “hotel” that we were going to. 

Armando took our bags and drove us to his cabanas to show us around.  Both Stray Cat and we decided to stay in the larger, brand new cabana/lofts rather than the smaller standard size hotel rooms.   We each had a kitchen, bath, living room with wood burning fireplace and two beds upstairs and two beds downstairs.  As there are no restaurants in town, we arranged to have Armando’s wife cook for us.  She was an excellent cook and had a grand kitchen.  We noticed how the old fashioned wood burning stove got much more use than the newer gas model.   The food was wonderful and portions huge.  She was very accommodating and tried to supply us with everything we asked for.  It didn’t dawn on us until after we left the hotel that we should have tried to find marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate for s’mores in the fireplace.  It was kind of a moot point as the only tienda that we saw in town would certainly not have carried such exotic items in this small town.    

After breakfast on the 2nd day, Armando’s son led us on a horseback ride through the canyon.   It was so magical to get inside the canyon and have views that most people never see.  We were amazed again to see the huge presence of the indigenous people; enough so that an elaborate school was built inside the canyon.  We passed vista after vista as the horses led us down deeper into the canyon and we finally arrived at the ending point of the new gondola.   From here there was a clear view of the bottom of the canyon and Urique river that flows through it.  Our friend, Carol, who is afraid of heights, was a trooper on the entire horseback ride (her first time on a horse).  She never once squealed or complained as the horses took the switchbacks on the narrow rocky goat trails along the canyon walls. 

Positioned right at the rim of the canyon, Posada Barrancas was picturesque.  We did a few hikes along the rim and were constantly awe stricken by a variation to the scenery that looked vastly different with each glimpse we took of the surroundings.  Wishing for more time to explore, we had to get back to Divisadero to get the train back toward the coast.  We loaded up on gorditas for the trip back home.   Seeing that the train got into El Fuerte, a quaint colonial town, so late, we opted to head all the way back to the boat rather than making the extra stop in El Fuerte. 

Sort of like how you are ready for this blog to end, we were ready to end our visit to  Barranca del Cobre on a positive note.  On that note, we will leave you until our next adventure…
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