Copper Canyon Spectacular

Over the Sierras to Topolobampo and back by the headiest of Mexican railroads.

May 1973By Comments

PRESIDIO, TEXAS, WILL NEVER BE mistaken for the Land of Goshen. Driving down out of the Chinati foothills and seeing this hard-scrabble town amidst blowing dust and tumbleweeds, you would not be surprised if a whip scorpion was the high school mascot, the town ladies wore barbed wire for hairnets, and Jack Elam was voted town valentine.

If anything flowed, it was tequila, not milk and honey.

But from this adobe, sun-baked village and its companion city across the Rio Grande, Ojinaga, begins the most spectacular train trip in North America: The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad.

Through seven different climate zones, 89 tunnels (one, a mile long, three over one-half mile), 48 bridges and viaducts, traveling in altitudes from 2,700 feet to over 8,500, the railroad winds 569 miles from Ojinaga west to Los Mochis, 12 miles from Topolobampo on the Gulf of California.

During this 22-hour trip, you will see a panorama of natural environments: desert, mesquite-grasslands, mountain peaks and gorges, semi-arid thorn forests, rich coastal plains and broad-leafed tropical forests. Only the Arctic is not represented. Nowhere in North America can you see so many life zones except by walking from the top to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or by traveling 3,000 miles from the Florida Keys to Hudson Bay.

But the trip begins in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where it is desert dry and hot, with summer temperatures that frequently exceed 120 degrees.

The passage through Ojinaga is mercifully quick: a rundown, barely awake adobe town which would be more at home hugging the banks of the River Styx than the Rio Grande.

The locals occupy most of their time taking shelter from the sun and from what seems like 12 inches of suffocating topsoil that fills the air when the wind’s up; even the ever-present pariah dog can’t handle it. He scurries across the road searching for a stray scrap and a cool spot away from the dust.

There is no enthusiastic local chamber of commerce pitch by the cabbie until he passes the infamous Ojinaga red light district. Even this is half-hearted. “La Zona Roja está nunca cerrado,” is the highest praise forthcoming and unless you are gripped with a burning, inhuman lust, my advice is to think about something more academic, like Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads or Joe DiMaggio’s lifetime batting average or President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding night.

Better yet, turn full attention to Gluttony, another one of the Big Seven. The restaurant inside the Ojinaga train station has fresh seafood brought in daily from the Pacific. For your late lunch, try the Butterfly Shrimp Dinner with a Margarita to dispel lingering thoughts of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif plodding along in that desert movie.

At precisely 4 P.M. each Tuesday and Friday a first class passenger train with three red diesel locomotives, five coaches, three pullmans and a diner pulls out of the Ojinaga station, ending up in Los Mochis the next day about two in the afternoon. The train is heated, air-conditioned and very clean, with the major exception of the windows.

It is another one of those ironies familiar to Mexico travelers: build a magnificent hotel at the end of a road passable only by an aged burro; make certain never to clean the windows on the train traveling through the country’s finest landscape.

I had finally found my correct Pullman seat, gotten myself settled, and looked out the window only to realize that either the luncheon Margaritas had given me instant, fully-ripened cataracts or I had mistakenly boarded a train stalled in the Ojinaga fun house. Along with film and guidebooks, you might add “small bottle of window cleaner” to the list of things-to-bring.

Promptly at 4 P.M. the Ferrocarriles Chihuahua al Pacifico pulls out and right away the countryside looks like the national proving ground for Scorched Earth Policy. This is the Chihuahuan Desert, where the successful dwellers are either very tough or very unappetizing or both. A typical shrub is the Catclaw Cactus, 10 or 15 feet high and armed with sharp, curved thorns that look like they could puncture an elephant’s hide.

The creosote bush grows here, always alone, and seeming to thrive off the aridity. Peyote harvests bring the Tarahumara Indians (and others) to the desert, but not much else merits a return trip.

The area impressed me as an awesome, bone-dry wilderness—a moonscape dotted with a few adobe huts, broken corrals and the inevitable church. Impoverished land barely supporting impoverished people. It was the bottom of the Devil’s Punchbowl.

After sundown, the train climbs higher into the Sierra Madre foothills and colors change from the monotonous tan of the desert to the varied shades of greens and browns of the mesquite grassland region. The cactus family alone had relatives everywhere; over 100 species of cacti populate Central and Southwest Mexico, ranging from a plant the size of a bottlecap to the giant 60-foot cardon.

Dinner service on the train begins about 6:30 P.M. and is excellent and plentiful. Your choice is made from sandwiches, fried chicken, Chihuahua Steak or fresh seafood. Again, the seafood is fine, but for a change, try the Chihuahua Steak, medium rare. Cocktails, beer and the usual assortment of soft drinks are available from the diner. There is no club car, but you can make as many trips from your seat to the diner and back as you are able.

Meanwhile, back in the Pullman your bed has been readied and the heavy, dark curtain folded down. If you are a light sleeper, either cheat on the coin toss or grab both straws and take the upper bunk. The rail noise isn’t quite so loud and the gentle rocking side-to-side motion helps to save the Valium for another day.

About 9:30 P.M. the train stops in Chihuahua for 45 minutes. It is a completely modern, progressive and urban city, bearing as little resemblance to its desert namesake as New York City does to New York. Located 140 miles southwest of Ojinaga, Chihuahua is the prosperous administrative capital of Northwestern Mexico and headquarters for the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad.

The town of 150,000 boasts the University of Chihuahua, a still-used 183-year-old Colonial aqueduct, and the mansion Pancho Villa was occupying when he was assassinated in 1923. Señora Villa conducts a tour of the 50-room estate including the bullet-riddled Dodge carrying Pancho when he bought the farm.

During the night the train continues traveling southwest, climbing up and finally over the Sierra Madres. In the pre-dawn darkness it passes what many say is one of the great natural wonders in the world, the breathtaking Copper Canyon. (You see it returning from Los Mochis when the train arrives about mid-afternoon for a 20-minute stop.)

As you walk to the Divisadero (Look-Out Point), you see the best known of seven canyons that comprise an area four times larger than the Grand Canyon. The Canyon has a special ambience of lonely grandeur and mystery. Except for the wind rustling through the Piñons, it is very quiet. The stillness becomes a quality itself along with the jagged cliffs, precipices, rocky ridges and deep arroyos. It fills your field of vision clear to the horizon and you are speechless, unable to take in what lies before you. Finally the train’s whistle summons you aboard and soon the Canyon disappears, leaving no clue or hint that it ever existed. And, except for the train and explorers on foot, it doesn’t. There are no roads.

By breakfast time, continuing toward Los Mochis, you have passed the Canyon before dawn and are high in the Sierras, gliding by lumber camps, log cabins and split-rail fences reminiscent of Kentucky in the early 1800’s. Up here the air is fresh and cool and the sides of the mountain are strewn with boulders and pines. The mountain walls rise straight up and the vegetation is dense.

The track follows the El Fuerte River, glistening in the sunlight, past alpine meadows and through the 89 tunnels built to cross the formidable mountain range.

Rail construction must have been a nightmare. Using tunnels, bridges, and countless curves, the track drops 7,000 feet in 122 miles. The crowning engineering achievement was accomplished at the small mountain town of Temoris. Here, at about 10:30 in the morning, the train begins the descent by going through the mountain on successive lower loops of track, crossing the Septentrion River and finally completely reversing the direction of descent. Successful completion of this leg of the journey was an incredible engineering feat, and was so recognized when on Nov. 23, 1961, President Adolfo Lopez-Mateos traveled to Temoris on the presidential train to dedicate the entire Chiahuahua al Pacifico railroad system.

After the bands had finished and the speeches were over, Lopez-Mateos unveiled on the side of the mountain a huge memorial made of a frame of rails from the old road and stainless steel white letters two feet high.

The fabled Tarahumara Indians, by legend the greatest footrunners in the world, live in this barranca region between Copper Canyon and Temoris. There are not many of them left and only a few traces remain of their primitive ways: rudimentary agricultural methods and huts built of cardboard, Coca-Cola boxes and aluminum.

Many of the Indians live in abandoned box cars alongside the main trunk line and earn their living selling oranges and tacos to passengers during the brief stops. You are not likely to encounter any beggars after leaving the border. The Tarahumaras work hard and do not rely on the out-stretched palm.

Leaving Temoris and coming out of the mountains, the train descends through rough, thorn-bush country. There is an air of openness but the 20 to 30-feet high vegetation is dense and untouched.

By early afternoon, the country has changed again to a wide coastal plain, Mexico’s most ambitious irrigation project. Waters from the Yaqui, Mayo, the Fuerte Rivers form a productive agricultural area similar to the Texas Rio Grande Valley. Nearing Los Mochis you see field workers bicycling to work in the vast fields of cotton, sugar cane, wheat, tomatoes and vineyards.

According to the timetable, arrival in Las Mochis is 2 P.M., but 3 or 3:30 is more likely. If a tour service has planned your trip, a taxi driver will meet and take you to your hotel, usually the Santa Anita. It is a four-storied, air-conditioned hotel in the middle of town with a good restaurant and bar. Avoid the steak and try the fresh seafood. The Santa Anita, Yacht Club in Topolobampo, and the hotel in Creel are all owned by the same man, so reservations can easily be changed around.

Los Mochis was founded in 1903 by Benjamin Johnston, a U.S. citizen who, almost alone, created the town’s sugar refining industry. He became Northwest Mexico’s major financial power, and the town has continued to prosper to its present 90,000 population.

Twelve miles farther to the coast is Topolobampo, a small village built on a hill overlooking a perfect natural bay. Albert Owen’s dream of developing this city into a major seaport has not come to pass, and it remains a quiet shrimping village of about 10,000 people. There are no beaches in town but boats will take you to near lands for shell fishing and swimming. Cabin cruisers are available to take you towards Farrallon Rock, 25 miles out in the Gulf, for deep sea fishing and seal watching.

The only place to stay in Topolobampo is the Yacht Hotel, located at the end of a dusty, bumpy road on the far side of town. It is a very posh inn, built in the shape of a boat with the top deck, an open dance area and the middle deck, a glassed-in restaurant. The rooms are located in a separate building and each has a balcony facing the sea. Seafood is the item to order everywhere on this trip, but nowhere more so than the Yacht Hotel Restaurant.

For openers, the fresh fish seviche cocktail, baby octopus cocktail, or tropical fruit cup with port wine are all excellent.

The main course must be fresh baby octopus creole with rice. Succulent and not at all too “fishy” tasting, it is a delightful surprise.

Flan Caramelado Sobre Panque (Carameled custard on pastry) is the finish to this superb dinner.

Neither Los Mochis nor Topolobampo is noted for heavy night life. There are few clubs, certainly nothing like Acapulco’s Le Club or Tiberios, but Mazatlan is just a shot away, south of Los Mochis on the main west coast highway (Mexico 15). There you are free to contribute to Mazatlan’s growing reputation as Mexico’s new Acapulco.

The day before departure it is advisable to spend the night in Los Mochis. If you want to take advantage of the free bus ride to the train station, you must be in the Santa Anita hotel lobby with luggage at 6 A.M. If you are in Topolobampo the night before departure, you must arise about 4:30 A.M. This is not a good deal.

Moses Ochoa is the wonderfully efficient and good humored man in charge of getting large, grumpy groups of travelers from the hotel to the rail station on time and he does it with great elan. Such hustling you have never seen, so tip accordingly.

The magazine ads you see nowadays ring true: “Mexico—Why Go Farther?” It is a beautiful country, richly varied in climate, terrain and things to do. It is not hard to argue that its most valuable export is something intangible you sense after a few days: a way of living that is less frantic and filled with more grace and spirit than we’re accustomed to.

Mexico isn’t the border town most Texans are familiar with anymore than New York City is typical of this country. Plan a trip into the interior and you will fall in love with a beautiful neighbor.

Making the Mexico Connection

EL PASO-JUAREZ TO CHIHUAHUA:

By car: Take Central Highway 45 from Juarez. Excellent road throughout. A five hour drive to Chihuahua.

By air: Aeronaves de Mexico leaves Juarez each day at 10:50 A.M., arriving Chihuahua at 12:30 P.M. (Pacific Standard Time)

By train: The National Railway leaves Juarez each afternoon at 5 P.M., arriving Chihuahua at 9 P.M.

CHIHUAHUA TO LOS MOCHIS:

The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad arrives in Chihuahua at 9:30 P.M., departing for Los Mochis at 10:15 P.M.

A self-propelled Fiat Autovias of the Chihuahua Pacifico offering reclining seats or chair coaches with buffet service at your seat, leaves from Chihuahua each Wednesday and Saturday at 7 A.M. for the east-west Pacific coast run. Coming back to Chihuahua the Autovias leaves Los Mochis each Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8 A.M., arriving back in Chihuahua at 8:40 P.M. This train does not go to Ojinaga.

If this is your first trip, I urge you to use a “package tour” arranged by Big Bend Travel Service (Box Y, Marfa, Texas 79843; telephone: AC 915-729-4364). Mollie Lowther and her staff will plan any tour combination along the rail route you wish.

In her package is included: round trip rail tickets, pullman accommodations, first-class hotel reservations, transportation to and from the hotel and meals at the hotel. Not included are tips, personal expenses, meals on the train, or baggage and trip insurance. Big Bend will take care of your border crossing from Presidio to Ojinaga, where you get your tourist card, go through customs and board the train.

A five day trip to Los Mochis-Topolobampo arranged by Ms. Lowther costs $105.25. A 10 per cent deposit is required.

If Big Bend has arranged your trip, plan to arrive in Presidio by 1 P.M. of the departure day and to their office on Presidio’s main street. Mrs. Joe Hendrix will have your personal packet ready with everything included: rail tickets, baggage tags, hotel reservations, even a money conversion table. You must bring proof of citizenship to get the tourist card. Birth certificate, voter registration card or passport all qualify.

Store your car in Presidio at Fowler’s Texaco for $1.00 a day. Mr. Fowler takes personal care of it, but to keep the inside from looking like the interior of a vacuum bag, roll up the windows.

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