Copper Canyon, Part 1 – Los Mochis, Posada Barrancas, Creel

Beau-ti-ful; (adjective), pleasing to the senses; very pleasing and impressive to look at, listen to, touch, smell, or taste

 

Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it. Beautiful is a nice word, but it doesn’t nearly encompass the jaw-dropping, eye-opening sense of wow that we experienced while trekking through the mountains of Chihuahua for a week. As we planned our trip we learned many impressive statistics about the size and depth of the Copper Canyon; six different rivers formed it making the overall canyon system larger than the Grand Canyon, it includes the deepest canyon in North America, there are more than 20 types of pine trees and 200 kinds of oak trees living in the various ecosystems ranging from sea level to nearly 8,000 feet, and there is a large and isolated indigenous community called the Tarahumara who were forced up into the mountains by the Spanish in the 17th century.   We found all those facts to be true, but in addition we found something completely unexpected in that each place we visited typified a separate personality of its own.  We found a different Mexico than we had become accustomed to and it was ‘very pleasing to the senses’.

When traveling in Mexico it’s important to have a sense of humor and plenty of patience. I’ve always had the first, and I’m slowly but surely acquiring more of the second (really!). The first leg of the trip included a ride on a big air-conditioned bus from Guaymas to Los Mochis. We were scheduled to leave at 10am, and finally boarded the bus about noon. We spent a semi-comfy five hours listening to movies with Spanish voiceover blaring incessantly, while watching the world go by outside our window.

We finally arrived in Los Mochis, jumped in a taxi and headed to our hotel where we discovered that our reservation didn’t exist. Using sign language and calendars and copies of emails, we soon had the key to a room. When we opened the door to our room we had to laugh. There were two queen beds squeezed into a room that might fit one, leaving about 24 inches between the end of the bed and the bathroom door, which couldn’t open all the way. Add to that, the door hinges were on the wrong side so we had to cram ourselves into the corner to open the door and enter sideways. Kind of like living on a boat!   No (hay) problema!

Thankfully we woke by our internal alarms since neither our cell nor the front desk woke us up at o-dark thirty! We had ordered a taxi though, and he was prompt so that was good. We had to get to the train station early because we hadn’t been able to book our train reservations online and needed to make sure we got a seat! Unbeknownst to us, July is actually a busy time in Mexico since all the kids are on holiday from school. Guess we should have realized that, but since we’re on the cruising calendar, we thought this was the low season. We finally got to the front of the line and Mr. Official said; “Hay una problema” (there is a problem)! Rutro!

It turns out that in their reservation system, they can’t take any reservations or sell future tickets with less than two weeks before the travel date. So for us that meant we could buy our outbound ticket, but not the return ticket meaning that we could be stranded up on the mountain. But this is the land of no problema! We decided to wing it and see how long our sense of humors and backpack full of patience would hold out. The other piece of all this is that we are no longer in gringo land. We did not see another English-speaking person for the entire 8 days, and there were very few Mexican people who spoke enough English to be able to understand the little bit of Spanglish that we know. As Cindy likes to tell us, we were on our own!

This little fact soon became very apparent when the train pulled into the station. Bear in mind it is 5:30am, the temperature is already in the 90’s, we’ve been standing for about an hour in the train station that is packed wall to wall with people, kids, and luggage. We were close to the door that led out to the platform, but when the doors opened, suddenly a group of about 40 people decided they simply needed to get through that door, never mind that there was a pile of someone else’s luggage – and us – in the way! It really was incredible to be in the midst of a mob of people all trying to get to the same place at the same time.  We had no idea where we were supposed to go, but hey, no problema! We just grabbed our ticket and headed for the first man with a conductor’s hat on. He read our ticket and pointed us in the right direction, and after a few more attempts we found the right car, climbed up and plopped into our seats. Phew!

The train ride from Los Mochis to Posada Barrancas ascends up the mountains from sea level to nearly 8,000 feet, traveling through 86 tunnels and across 39 bridges. The entire trip from Los Mochis to Chihuahua at the other end is 400 miles and takes about 15 hours. We got off in Posada Barrancas at the top of the canyon and only about a third of the way along the entire route, and made our way to the well-used vintage school bus that would take us to our hotel. The local buses in the small towns we visit could be the subjects of a blog all by themselves, however that’s another story.

After many bumps and downshifts we arrived at the door to our hotel. It’s a little unexpected to find what looked like a European Medieval Castle in Mexico, but that’s what we thought of as we arrived in front of the Hotel Mission Tarahumara. We checked in and then began the steep ascent to our room. Having lived at sea level for years, being at 8,000 feet and having to climb a couple of hundred stairs was a bit of a challenge! We had to stop a few times to catch our breath, but no problema, we finally arrived.

The building that housed our room sat on top of the rim so that it looked into two canyons, down into the town of Posada Barrancas, and also into the deeper canyon where the Urique River flows. The porch of our room was perched on the canyon wall dropping straight down for a couple thousand feet. It was stunning, and once again we found ourselves breathless.

We spent the afternoon gazing at the changing colors on the canyon walls and watching a rain squall move in. When the rain finally arrived the wind blew the drops up the canyon walls and the lightning flashed in the distance. We retreated behind the glass doors and snuggled under blankets to read while watching the light show outside. Awesome.

Our growling stomachs soon started competing with the thunder outside so we decided to venture down to the hotel for dinner. The hotels in these mountain villages all include your meals since there aren’t any restaurants to visit. Our rather peculiar meal was served buffet style, with a yummy corn soup, followed by two chicken legs in mushroom sauce, spaghetti noodles in a tomato sauce, runny refried beans, and tossed salad – all on the same plate. The mixture of the beans, mushroom sauce and spaghetti was, um, interesting. Add in some homemade tortillas though, and hey, no problema!

After our dinner we walked around the grounds then made our way back up to the rim to watch the sunset. As the wind died down, and the birds fell quiet, the silence was absolutely complete. We realized that what we’re used to as the silence onboard Happy Dance isn’t silent at all! We always hear the creak of the boat, the slap of a wave, or the million and one little sounds that occur while floating on the sea. When we heard, or didn’t hear, the silence of the mountains at night, it was wonderful, and ‘very pleasing to the senses’. The beds were comfy and it was a real treat to sleep under a blanket.

We overslept. After a rather sleepless night the night before, followed by a long day and plenty of fresh air, then a cool, silent room with a cozy bed, we both hit the pillow and slept like logs until we woke with a jolt at 9:20am. Rutro, breakfast, or more correctly, COFFEE, is only served until 9:30 and we have 19 miles and 14 gazillion steps to go down to get to it! Get dressed! Move out! Come on creaky knees, you can do it!

We arrived in the dining room promptly at 9:30am to be greeted by our waitress, affectionately known by us as Grumpy, and boy oh boy, did we get ‘the look’. Oh well, no problema! Marty soon had her almost smiling, and we ‘enjoyed’ the last two crispy pancakes (we’re talking cut them with a knife crispy) from the steamer, some dead scrambled eggs and a couple of dried out ham slices. Sure glad we came down off the mountain for our breakfast ‘feast’.

We set up a ride with Victor to take us to the tram that afternoon since we had no way of getting there from our hotel and walking was not an option. With a couple of hours to fill before Victor could take us, we hiked back up to our mountaintop perch to take showers and get the day started….again. It’s important to understand how blissful a hot shower can be for a sailor. Our boat showers consist of a quick rinse with cold water, followed by soaping and shampooing, and then another burst of cold water to rinse off with. Total elapsed time is about 3 minutes; total water used, about 2 liters. Needless to say, having the room temperature cool enough to enjoy a long hot shower is a definite treat.

The van ride to the tram station took us through the high plateau and out onto a rocky outcropping. In the middle of nowhere we suddenly rounded a corner and found ourselves in a tourist zone full of zip lines, kiddie parks and souvenir shops. Our ride with Victor soon turned into a private tour as he decided to show us around and spent a couple of hours doing so. We rode the tram down into the canyon, learned more of the history of the area, enjoyed a rousing song performed by a couple of Tarahumara men, perused the craft booths, and walked across a shaky hanging bridge. Oh, and I took a ‘few’ photos.

The storm clouds were moving in again when we got back to the hotel, so we decided to have a quick bite then head back up to our home in the heights before the rain began. Another peaceful night, until a large family of Mexicans arrived shattering the silence as they sorted out who was in which room and what a view and oh me oh my! As it turned out, this was the honeymoon trip for the young couple that was staying in the room next to ours, and they were traveling with Mom, Dad, Grandma, nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Now that’s a honeymoon!

We were late for breakfast again, and yes, Grumpy gave us the same evil eye. This time Marty got the cook to smiling and she even made us some fresh pancakes and fried eggs. Ah, life is good. We spent the rest of the morning hiking along some trails around the hotel, and then in the afternoon we boarded the bus to head to the train station. Next stop, Creel!

 

Our train ride was a bit shorter this time, and our first stop was at Divisidero (the continental divide) where we’d visited with Victor. We knew that the train would be stopping for about 15 minutes so we hopped off to head for one of the gordita stands (gorditas are small cakes made with corn flour that are stuffed with meat, cheese or other fillings) that we’d seen the day before, thinking that we could eat lunch on the train. Before we got off the train we had asked the conductor if we could bring back a gordita and he said yes. What was lost in translation was that we couldn’t actually EAT the gordita on the train – oops! No problema! We stood on the train tracks so that we could hop back on if the train started moving, and downed our meal in short order.

 

The trip to Creel was very scenic and at one point the tracks crossed over themselves via a bridge and a tunnel so that it could climb the steep grade in a short distance. This train has a long history in that it took almost 90 years and 90 million dollars to complete, finally opening in 1961.

The town of Creel was familiar to us with its tiendas, Town Square, music, and cantinas. One of the nicer parts of the inland towns is the lack of street vendors trying to get you to buy things. There are people with crafts set out to sell, but they let the buyer come to them instead of throwing their wares in your face. We enjoyed an afternoon walk around town, then went back to relax in our palatial digs. The room we had in Creel in the Quinta Mission Eco Hotel was huge, and we found out later that we’d been given the honeymoon suite. I guess we just look so young and in love….(one out of two isn’t bad).

Now that we’d gotten to Creel, the end of our outbound journey, you’ll remember that we hadn’t been able to purchase tickets on the train for the return trip. We asked our hosts where the bus station was, just in case we didn’t get on the train, but the answer was (and I quote), “no problema!” We never did find out where the bus station was, so we lined up with a bunch of other ticketless folks at the train station and hoped for the best.

The agent showed up about 15 minutes prior to the time the train was scheduled to leave and we were fourth or fifth in line, so I was wondering if there might be…a minor problema! We finally got to the window and after a few misunderstandings due to the language barrier; we had tickets in our hand. No problema!

The train was late, very late, but we made some new friends while standing on the platform listening to a gentleman playing his guitar and getting the people around to sing along. At one point the crowd all of a sudden split right down the middle and we were left standing by ourselves wondering what had just happened and which side are we supposed to be on. It was hysterical to be standing all alone with everyone watching us as we tried to figure out what had caused everyone to move and where we were supposed to be. Being the only gringos and having no one to ask except with sign language made for an entertaining time.

We eventually boarded the train headed for Bahuichivo, but that will have to wait for Part 2 of the Copper Canyon saga. My fingers are tired and I’m sure you’re ready for a break! Be sure to tune in again for another exciting episode of the escapades of Marty and Sue – same time, same bat channel!

 

6 thoughts on “Copper Canyon, Part 1 – Los Mochis, Posada Barrancas, Creel

  1. Wow! Talk about a cliff hanger, pun intended, what the heck happened? Why were you left standing in the middle? What side were you supposed to be on? Marty didn’t do his mick Jagger impersonation did he?

    My Gosh, I just have to know!!!!! It’s like reading a book to find out you are missing the last chapter!!! Come on! Inquiring minds (OK, nosey people) want to know!!!!!

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    • Hi Scooter! The “cliff hanger” was never figured out….we think it had to do with where the train would line up on the tracks for people to board….but we were definitely in no man’s land when the red sea parted!

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  2. wow wow wow, sounds like a really beautiful place to visit, made even more interesting with the language barrier, great reading about your exploits, good to see you and Marty are doing so well. Cant wait for round two, Travel safe Dan and Pam Wagner

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  3. You guys crack me up!! Anxiously awaiting Chapter 2. We’re off to Oregon for 6 days and further north to Seattle for 3 more. Been doing my homework and am really looking forward to Seattle especially. Since this was your old stomping grounds……..any recommendations?
    C

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