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SPECIAL MEXICO ISSUE

Copper Canyon thrill ride

Once you've arrived, the vistas are sensational, but the Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad makes getting there half the fun.

October 27, 2002|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

El Fuerte, Mexico

This peaceful colonial town on the route of the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad is a good place to anticipate attractions. At the hem of the western Sierra Madre, it is surrounded by mostly flat farmland. The wide El Fuerte river flows languidly to the sea, and the train tracks seem to go no place in particular.

But if you're taking the train east, you know some amazing country lies ahead: Mexico's Copper Canyon.

It was 8 a.m. at the dusty El Fuerte train station, and kids were running their racket, carrying bags for travelers whether their services were wanted or not. A bull wandered onto the tracks, then made way for a red and yellow engine.

To me, an approaching train is one of the more exciting things in the world, especially this one, the Chihuahua al Pacifico, otherwise known as the Copper Canyon Railroad. It climbs into the heart of the mountains from El Fuerte to the lumbering town of Creel, along the rim of canyons deeper than the Grand, through 25,000 square miles populated by the reclusive Tarahumara Indians.

There are no paved highways or national park ranger stations, just the railroad, which crosses a country so rough and lonely that train was robbed four years ago by masked bandidos right out of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

I boarded the train with friends I had made the night before, a Florida grandma, Jane Richards, her daughter Gale and her 10-year-old grandson, Sky. I took a seat on the right side of the train -- best for the view, I'd heard -- tucked away my backpack and got ready to be transported, in every sense of the word.

From top to bottom

Copper Canyon, or Barranca del Cobre, is at the top of many travelers' wish lists, but few people actually make it here. The wild, remote region in north-central Mexico gets about 25,000 tourists annually, compared with the 4.2 million who visited the Grand Canyon in 2001. Most come with tour groups to take the comfortable first-class train, which was bought from the government four years ago by Ferromex, a private company.

It would take a dozen hours to ride the train straight through from El Fuerte to Chihuahua, so groups tend to get on and off, staying in one of a chain of excellent Copper Canyon-area hotels (with private baths, folkloric dance performances, purified water) operated by the Mexican Balderrama company. There are tours to take from the hotels and, in some cases, sterling views, leaving a trip into the canyon an afterthought.

"Ninety-nine percent of our passengers do not want to go into the canyon," says Peter Robbins, founder of the Tucson-based Sierra Madre Express, which takes visitors on weeklong excursions into Copper Canyon on a special luxury train.

But I wanted to stand at the bottom of the canyon, which isn't just one canyon but half a dozen of them, riven into the sierra by the Urique, Septentrion and Batopilas rivers, among others.

On my independent seven-night trip last month, I started at the Posada del Hidalgo, a charming Balderrama hotel in El Fuerte, continued on the train, then headed about 5,900 feet down to the hamlet of Batopilas by its river. This lost little Copper Canyon mining town has created quite a buzz among backpackers in the last decade. It is said to be beautiful and a tad dicey, surrounded by back-country marijuana patches and reached from Creel by a harrowing, hairpin-curving dirt road.

The journey into Copper Canyon was schizophrenic, a little luxurious, a little rough. I would be safe mostly and comfy like a tour group traveler, but, as a woman traveling alone, I would occasionally be exposed to adventure.

Like a silver bracelet

It took 100 years to lay the tracks of the Copper Canyon Railroad, originally intended to link the U.S. heartland to the Gulf of California. Sitting at my window or stationed in one of the open passageways between cars, I could see why engineers had to blast 86 tunnels and build 175 bridges to get the train over the challenging terrain.

The coastal plains quickly gave way to foothills, then pine-covered mountains, then a canyon gashed by the Septentrion River, shining like a silver bracelet in a jewelry case thousands of feet below.

I started to think Copper Canyon couldn't compare with the Grand, with its one vast chasm and variegated rocks. Around Temoris, about 60 miles northeast of El Fuerte, the scenery grew intense, and I stopped comparing the Copper and the Grand because it was pointless. Rock teeth lined the tops of the mountains all around, wispy clouds caught between them.

Then the train started doing nutty things, chugging up impossibly steep inclines, passing through deadly dark tunnels and finally mastering a set of hair-raising switchbacks at Temoris, a railway village on the Septentrion.

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