travelog 107

Travels with Maggie II - Riding the Chepe Train

For her birthday, our good friend Maggie gave herself a trip to Mexico and invited us for the train ride on the famous CHEPE (short for Chihuahua al Pacifico) through the Copper Canyon. For the 653 kilometers (406 miles) from Chihuahua to Los Mochis on the Pacific coast, the train takes about 14 hours, goes through 86 tunnels, crosses 37 bridges, and overcomes an altitude difference of 2400 m (7800 feet) from the Sierra Tarahumara down to the Pacific ocean. The story of the train from its beginning is pretty complicated and there were different stages of construction with various constructors. It was built partly by US companies, for example, the Kansas City Railroad company, but in 1940 the Mexican government took over all the railroad lines in Mexico. The easy parts of the entire railroad line were built by that time, only the most difficult 258 kms (160 miles) between Creel, Chihuahua, and San Pedro, Sinaloa, where the western Sierra Madre had to be crossed were left. On November 24, 1961, this masterpiece of Mexican engineering was inaugurated with a big ceremony and for the 50th anniversary in 2011 there were various attractive offers available for the trip. We took advantage of a 2 for 1 offer which was valid for the entire trip and was still cheaper than buying single tickets in Creel. Now the only problem was how to get the tickets since we were not boarding the train in Chihuahua. 50 years ago the Mexican engineers had built a masterpiece but in the year 2011 it was impossible to buy a ticket online and print it as an e-ticket. Finally we found a solution and the tickets were sent to us by expensive courier. Anybody interested in taking the Chepe ride should have a look at this website (direct link here) for information about timetables and prices.

Of course we wanted to show Maggie more of Mexico on our way north and we even found some places we hadn't seen yet. For example Ojuela, a mining ghost village with a spectacular 318 m (1050 feet) long suspension bridge over a 95 m (310 feet) deep canyon which was the second longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built in 1898. The history of the mine can be traced back to 1598 when the Spanish discovered gold and silver deposits. The village was built on a hill with a post office, church, many warehouses, stores and even saloons. Today only some crumbling walls are left of the former bustling village. The Peņoles Mining Company bought the mine in the 19th century and reconstructed and reforced the bridge recently. At the turn-off near Mapimi, Durango, we had to pay a small entrance fee. Soon we reached the first hills on a badly potholed road. Ahead, imposing, almost vertical mountains rose up into the sky. A narrow, one-lane dirt road led up to the mine. Soon we passed the first gray rock walls which fit perfectly into the gray limestone landscape. After a total of seven kilometers (4.4 miles) we reached the parking where the first souvenir stands were put up. The suspension bridge was truly impressive, especially when you looked at the extremely thick steel cables and beams. Martin who suffers from vertigo was glad that the bridge looked very stable and that the wooden planks on which we gingerly walked over the abyss were new and sturdy. A maximum of 20 persons was allowed on the bridge at one time because it could begin to swing and if a person started to feel dizzy he could fall to his death through the unsecured sides of the bridge. Since we were the first visitors early in the morning, there was no danger of overloading but we really could feel the swinging of the bridge when the three of us were moving at the same time. At the other end we let a young man convince us of a tour through the tunnels of the mine. We received carbide lamps which burned with the reaction of calcium carbide and water. In earlier times such lamps were used for cars and bicycles but were also very common in mining. Our guide knew everything about the history of the mine and led us through narrow and low shafts to a lookout point from where we could see the suspension bridge and the ghost town from a better angle. On the ride down to the main highway we had to wait for other vehicles coming up the one-lane road. Finally our guide got the OK by radio and we were on our way. The only oncoming traffic was a group of students on foot whose bus was too big for the narrow road. They probably had no idea about how many kilometers they still had to hike up the hill until reaching the suspension bridge.

In the late afternoon we reached Hidalgo del Parral where we had big problems finding hotel rooms. It turned out that the Mexican Alcoholics Anonymous had their yearly meeting just now in Parral. We finally managed to get two overcharged rooms in an ugly hotel near downtown. The AA's were everywhere and easily recognizable by treir blue and white name tags that they had hanging around their necks. Of course this had nothing to do with being anonymous anymore.

From Parral we drove to Guachochi where we spent the afternoon at the Barranca de Sinforosa enjoying the magnificent views. We even had enough time for a nice hike down to the small suspension bridge. The next day we drove to Yoquivo and continued on to Mineral Polanco. The road led through endless conifer forests. We drove up and down mountains but we couldn't see anything of particularly interest except for a flowering Villadia laxa and the occasional Agave wocomahi. We had heard that one was questioned in Yoquivo by armed men about the where and why and what, but although we stopped to buy softdrinks we didn't see any black clad guys. Past Yoquivo we took pictures of Echeveria chihuahuaensis and after some 100 kms (62 miles) we finally reached the desperately longed for descent to Mineral Polanco. Behind every curve the views over endless blue mountain ranges and into deep canyons became more spectacular. The rays of the sun fell through thick clouds bathing the landscape in a beautiful light. We passed mountain sides with Agave wocomahi, A. multifilifera, Yucca madrensis, Dasylirion wheeleri, a tree-like Nolina and various cacti. Almost down in Mineral Polanco we saw the first Ferocactus pottsii. From 2400 m (7900 feet) in Guachochi we had arrived at 1500 m (4900 feet) in Mineral Polanco, a tiny village with about 500 inhabitants. At the entrance we found a small hotel. The "gas station" was in front of the hotel. It was one of those where the guy in charge sucks the gas or diesel in with a hose from a canister to then fill the tank. The hotel rooms were at ground level and the bathroom was shared but we didn't need to worry about that because right now there was no running water in the bathroom. Next to the hotel rooms was the recently built restaurant with a kitchen without sink or running water. In the last rays of the sun we sat in our camping chairs in front of our rooms and enjoyed the peace and quiet with a cold cans of beer. A group of workers was being fed at the restaurant and we were next in line. The cook, a young woman with sad eyes, excused herself for the short menu which consisted of tasty burritos and refried beans and handmade, thick flour tortillas. There was a shortage of almost everything else, only the Modelo beer cans were well stocked. What else could you expect at the end of the world?

The next morning we were served coffee at the restaurant. Our breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs with thick slices of ham and again the tasty flour tortillas. The cook obviously had nothing else to do today and she took her time to individually prepare each of our breakfasts. She had loosened up and first wanted to know if we had been stopped by the black clad men in Yoquivo. Then she asked question after question about Switzerland. In her entire life she had only been to Guachochi, a world away, and she couldn't imagine that someone came to Mineral Polanco, of all places, during their vacation and on their own free will. The beauty of the landscape, the blue river at the bottom of the canyon, the magnificent views over endless mountain ranges and the heavenly quiet at night were something ordinary for her; something she didn't even really notice anymore.

From Mineral Polanco we now drove on towards Batopilas. First we came to Jesus Maria where the dirt road became extremely bad and many parts were washed out or broken away. The stretch to San Jose Valenciano was very difficult and time consuming. The landscape was monotonous, tinted in gray-brown-yellow colors and dry. The only green came from organ pipe cacti like Stenocereus thurberi and Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum. We finally reached the Rio Batopilas at 900 m (2950 feet) altitude where we looked in vain for a shady tree along the river. The church in Satevo, built in 1640 and recently painted yellow, was unfortunately locked. We came through a narrow valley from where we had very photogenic views back to the yellow church. Form here it was only a few kilometers more until we reached Batopilas, founded in 1632 by the Spanish after they had found large silver deposits. The lucrative mine business was long a thing of the past. Many houses looked run down and only around the main square did it look as though tourists were expected to visit. Batopilas was built in a very narrow river valley and the houses lined the only street on one side of the river. On the other side the red walls of the ruins of Shepherd's Villa, a governor of Washington, D.C., who had emigrated here in 1875, were visible and some houses had been built into the steep mountain side. Looking for a hotel we wandered along the main street but finally gave up. A police patrol mentioned several hotels around the main square and gave us a rite, a ride, on the back of their pickup truck. The hotel they recommended was probably the best in town, situated in a beautiful old house with a green patio and furnished very tastefully, but unfortunately it was out of our price range. Around two corners we found the Hotel Juanita's with a nice view onto the river, a plant filled patio with huge trees and a table and chairs in the shade. On the other side we found a restaurant with a plant filled backyard where we were served beer and lemonade for a Radler, a refreshing Austrian/Swiss specialty. A Tarahumara Indian emptied his one liter beer bottle almost in one gulp. A group of men was also drinking beer and talking about the current difficult economic situation. On our walk through town we had the impression that the most lucrative business right now was to get luxury cars down here and strip them of everything valuable. Later in the evening, when we wanted to buy a beer in a grocery store we were informed that officially it was only allowed to sell beer in restaurants and bars but that we could buy clandestine beer behind a small, dark plaza with Don Valentin.

The next day we drove along the narrow valley of the Rio Batopilas. Now the landscape was more subtropical and greener than the day before. Sometimes we could see the small hamlet of a Tarahumara family on the steep and almost inaccessible mountain slopes. Also along the road we came across many Tarahumaras. The men wore white blouses and a triangular, pointed loincloth covering the thighs on the back and a cowboy hat. The women were dressed in layers of colorful skirts and blouses. An orange skirt was combined with a bright blue top and a red bag. Sometimes a yellow skirt contrasted with a blue top. The colorfully embroidered shoulder bag was another absolutely necessary accessory. We passed a tow truck that was parked in the ditch on the mountain side of the road. A lonely man was busy lowering steel cables to a delivery truck balancing above the abyss and held by some trees. As if by miracle the driver had crawled out of the wreck alive. The extravagance to bring a tow truck down here to rescue the accident vehicle was only made because it was insured and the insurance guys needed to see the vehicle to record the damage. At La Bufa we crossed the wooden bridges we had crossed many years ago with the Unimog. Now the road slowly snaked up the mountain. In a curve a truck blocked the road. The two truck drivers waited for help but with our all-wheel drive we managed to pass the obstacle on the embankment. From 936 m (3070 feet) at La Bufa the road snaked up the mountain in hairpin curves until well above 2000 m (6550 feet). When we emerged from the steep slope we were greeted by a road construction crew. The landscape was completely destroyed, cliffs and slopes were blasted away regardless and tons of rubble covered the slopes. We soon reached a new, paved road which will certainly be covered with potholes in a few years but right now we were really glad for the nice support beneath us. One of our tires had worried us for quite some time now because it was breaking down into pieces. The faster driving on the pavement was probably not the best for the tire either and with a loud boom a big piece of rubber tore off. We slowed down considerably and were more careful hoping to find a repair shop at the junction with the big highway. There was indeed a llantera, a tire repair shop, but it was closed because the guy had found better work at another place. We drove back a few kilometers to a small village with a workshop but the older man probably took us for 'Gringos' and he just didn't want to tell us how much he would charge to change our tire. After he became verbally abusive we decided that we would certainly be able to change the tire ourselfes if need be. Somewhere between the above-mentioned junction and Creel we heard another loud boom and the tire was now really gone. Of course we were well prepared and had the jack and tools ready in no time. We even had already tested how to lower the spare tire from under the back of the truck. With Maggie's active help we changed the tire in no time and soon were on the road again to Creel where we stayed at the Hotel 'Los Valles', a place we knew from an earlier visit. First we fired up the gas heating in the rooms. Then we found a restaurant where we enjoyed a well-earned, but very late, lunch.

Since our train didn't leave until 11:20AM we slept in and had a late breakfast. We even had time for a visit to some of the souvenir shops to fill Maggie's luggage to the allowed limit. We also found fresh Serrano chiles and Mexican marzipan, made from peanuts, which she brought back for her Mexican Spanish teacher. On time we stood at the train station with all our belongings. The waiting began. First we passed the time taking pictures of the station and talking to other passengers. At some point we found out from the person in charge that the train would get here with a little bit of delay. So we patiently waited some more in the stiff wind that left ones hands and feet frozen. Tarahumara women sat on the cold floor weaving small baskets they were selling to train passengers. A middle-aged couple, made up too young, with ridiculous, identical, blue Superman t-shirts was reason for amusement, but had eyes only for themselves. The woman used the long waiting period to disappear into the bathroom several times with an assortment of cans, sprays, and make-up from her beauty case. Every time we saw the guy in charge he explained that the train would have just a little more of a delay. Finally, after 2 1/2 hours of delay, the train whistled and steamed into the station and hectic rush broke out on the platform. Most of the passengers boarded the second class at the back of the train while we climbed into one of the two first class waggons in the front. A uniformed, older man with a stiff hat checked the tickets and took care of the well-being of his few first class passengers. It was Thursday and we had the car almost to ourselves. In one and a half hours we reached Divisadero Barrancas where passengers were allowed to get out of the train. We had 20 minutes to fight our way through the many food stalls and souvenir shops to get to the edge of the canyon, catch a view and pose for photos. People knowing their way around the train enjoyed a quesadilla or another delicious snack from the comal which was certainly cheaper and tastier than what we later received in the restaurant car. The train slowly rode downhill in wide curves through conifer forests. First we passed a beautiful canyon and in another hour we reached Bahuichivo where a large crowd of people waited at the train station. Cars and vans were parked wildly and at all angles, blocking each others way. At even the smallest station people got out of or into the train from the second class cars.

Past Bahuichivo the interesting part started. There were many tunnels and bridges and the landscape was really wild. The train passed so close to overgrown cliffs that it was almost possible to touch the plants. The landscape seemed untouched, there was no road to be seen for miles on end. Sometimes the train stopped at a few huts to let people in and out. Black-clad and heavily armed men patrolled the train. The second class cars were separated by metal bars from the first class. Between the cars one could stand at open windows from where one had the best views into the wild landscape. Late in the afternoon the train reached Temoris in long curves. The landscape grew flatter, the canyons opened up and daylight was fading slowly. Finally we continued through the pitch-black night and arrived in Los Mochis at 22:30PM instead of 21PM. Somehow we had the idea that in Los Mochis, the terminal of the train, we would find at least one hotel at the station. But when we walked over the tracks to the front of the station we saw only a huge parking lot and a long line of taxis taking up customers. We got a taxi too and drove to a hotel that had advertised in the Chepe brochure with a discount for train passengers. The hotel looked great but at the reception we were told that all rooms were occupied. This time it was not the Alcoholic Anonymous's congress but the yearly fair that had started that same day. On the other side of the street we asked in another hotel, huge and run-down, where they actually still had one room for rent. It was for six people but the price was OK, especially when you were looking for a hotel in an unknown Mexican city at midnight. There was no remote control for the TV, though, but we didn't care at that hour of the day. And they also had run out of towels but Maggie had the brilliant, very Mexican idea that we could use the linens of the three unused beds as towels. On the sidewalk on the other side of the street was a taco stand where hotel guests of the area got a late dinner. We had agreed with the taxi driver to pick us up at 5AM the next morning.

The night was very short. On time, the taxi driver waited in front of the hotel, dusting his car. He took us back to the train station where we bought hot coffee from the back of a truck. Here we had to say goodbye to Maggie. We boarded the 6AM train to Creel while the taxi driver took Maggie to the airport for her 9AM flight to Mexico City from where she would continue her trip to Switzerland. When Maggie got to the airport, all doors were locked but the taxi driver waited patiently with her until the bus with the airport employees showed up. Her flight was the first but left with considerable delay, but by now she was accustomed to that. Our train left the station at 6AM sharp. It was Friday and the first class cars almost full. We got hold of better seats than we were entitled to according to our tickets and nobody bothered chasing us away. Across sat a group of women from Culiacan who went to a wedding in Chihuahua. The rest of the car was filled with a group from Pachuca and a few individual tourists, most of them Mexicans. The conductor from yesterday was a lot more active today and pointed out the special features via microphone. We bought a coffee mug that we could refill for free during the entire trip in the restaurant car. The first few hours after Los Mochis were extremely boring, everything was flat, yellow and dry. The few high points were the crossing of the bridge over the blue Rio Fuerte, at 499 m (1637 feet), the longest of the section. Then the first and longest tunnel at 1823 m (5981 feet), followed shortly after by the bridge over the Rio Chinipas, which was the highest at 103.6 m (335 feet) above ground. Then we finally got closer to the mountains and it became more interesting.

If you once had gotten hold of one of the windows between the cars you couldn't leave it again or it was instantly occupied by other passengers. On its way up the train obviously had to work harder and many times we were enveloped in clouds of diesel fumes. At one station we bought a large bag with fresh grapefruits. This time we didn't visit the restaurant car. We rather starved until Creel. The service was very nice the day before, though, but we could very well do without a hamburger and fries, especially after having found out that the expensive prices on the menu didn't include taxes yet! This time our train stayed for a very long time in San Rafael, waiting for the oncoming train which - what else? - was delayed. As soon as the train stopped the doors and windows were swarmed with Tarahumara women carrying babies on their backs. They all had the same pleading looks and sad eyes and offered their woven baskets with outstretched arms. Finally we reached Creel with "only" 1 1/2 hours of delay and wished our neighbors a good continuation of their long trip. They would be reaching Chihuahua in another five more hours.

With our small travel suitcase we were quickly back at the hotel where we had parked the truck in the back with the kind permission of the owners. Right away we fired up the gas furnace to heat the room and filled our rumbling stomachs with a spicy chili dish and beans. Exhausted by the long train ride and the idleness during the day we fell into bed early. The next day we began our trip south but this is best told in another travelog.

December 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen