The advertisement said simply that a San Pedro travel firm, Bananafish Tours, was offering a four-day train trip over the holidays for $275 a person to the remote Copper Canyon area of Mexico's Chihuahua state.
Appearing late last summer, the ad was my introduction to a trip that was to highlight some of the questions that arise over what a traveler can or should expect from a low-cost tour.
When some of the 110 persons in the group grew irate later, I found myself sympathizing, on balance, more with the harried tour director than with those who were complaining. While he had made some mistakes, should he have been held responsible when the pipes froze at our destination and the toilets would not work?
Very Low Price
From the first, the price certainly seemed right, far less than the cost of most Copper Canyon tours. Travel would be by privately chartered railroad car attached to regular Mexican trains. Departure and return would be at Mexicali, just across the border from the Imperial Valley.
The $275 included accommodations at a motel in Mexicali the night before the trip began, a bedroom, double occupancy, on the train, and one night in a hotel near Creel, a center of the primitive Tarahumara Indians high in the Sierra Madre.
During the scenically spectacular Copper Canyon section of the 1,700-mile round trip, those on the tour would also have exclusive use of an open gondola car attached to the sleepers.
With its 86 tunnels, 57 bridges and 8,000 feet of elevation gain, the 150-mile Copper Canyon segment is properly billed as North America's most spectacular standard-gauge train ride.
Tour master Bill Wallace's brochure, mailed on request, made clear what was not included in his offer, meaning meals. And while Wallace said the tour would provide a free shuttle from a parking lot in Calexico to the Mexicali motel, he specifically noted that it would be up to travelers to pay for their own taxi from the Mexicali railroad station back across the border when the trip was over.
I talked to Wallace before signing up. He was quite explicit that this was not a luxury tour. He mentioned, for example, that the traveler should take food because there would not be diners during some of the segments of the train ride. He was careful, also, to note that it was quite cold in the winter in Creel. He said he would take tour members to one chicken dinner, "the best you ever ate," at Sufragio in Sinaloa state, but that the dinner would be at the traveler's expense.
A Genuine Interest
In any event, my 12-year-old son and I enjoyed our tour. We like trains and this was not our first trip. As a tour master, Wallace may not have always had command of the best English, or the best spelling in his daily travel memos, but he proved to have a genuine care for and interest in the Indians we were visiting and a sincere regard for the scenery and country through which we were passing.
Wallace seemed hurt when, on the way back, he tried to give a lecture on the Tarahumaras and the Chihuahua and Pacific Railway through a loudspeaker system he had specially rigged up through his five cars, and hardly anyone stopped talking to listen.
Throughout the trip he took an interest in many passengers, taking my son and many others into the train caboose for special views, often stopping to chat. On one occasion, as night fell in the spectacular deep canyon through which the train was descending, he invited a group to the gondola car and produced a free bottle of champagne to drink in the open air.
Although there was nothing about it in the brochure, on New Year's Eve Wallace invited everyone to a party for which he provided the refreshments.
So Many Complaints
Why, then, were there so many complaints? As the trip wore on, a number of the passengers felt the tour director was cheap for charging for extras. They resented a 300-peso (33-cent) charge for hot coffee on a siding one morning. They chafed at a 900-peso ($1) charge for tuna fish sandwiches at a stop in the mountains. They were bothered when, after the chicken dinner, they had to pay 500 pesos (55 cents) for the three-mile bus ride back to the train.
Considering that our party of nine at one table were charged 28,000 pesos (about $3 each) for delicious dinners of almost a whole chicken each, tortillas and numerous beers and soft drinks, I didn't feel we were being treated unfairly.
Still, one person suggested that Wallace would have been far smarter to have tacked $20 onto his tour price, charged $295, and provided the coffee, the sandwiches, the chicken dinner and the bus back to the train free. "I don't like to be nickeled-and-dimed to death," the man said.
Had Wallace done this, he would have made a bigger profit. Asked about it, he responded, "I try to keep the basic cost down."
Braving the Cold
What really caused the trip to go sour for some of the travelers was what occurred when we got to Creel on the second day, several hours late in cold early evening darkness.