By Alison Gardner, Editor of Travel with a Challenge
A vacation into the heart of Copper Canyon country is much more than a spectacular train journey. It is an opportunity to experience nature and geology up close, to learn about the region’s rich Spanish colonial and indigenous heritage, and stretch your vocabulary of superlatives to describe these encounters to the folks back home. Stop and stay along the way.
Map courtesy of Los Mochis Tourism
River rafting on the El Fuerte River. Alison Gardner
Subtropical Los Mochis on the lower coast of the Sea of Cortez is officially the western rail terminus, accessible by air, by ferry from La Paz on the Baja Peninsula or by car. The main tourist attraction is the vast Topolobambo Bay which teams with bird life, small picturesque eco-islands, dozens of dolphin and other sea mammals. Excellent half-day and whole-day cruises allow visitors to sample the best of the area, and there are plenty of hotel choices in this bustling modern city of 300,000.
Having arrived in Los Mochis, it is then possible to drive 48 miles inland over a good paved road to start the train journey at El Fuerte, a beautifully restored Spanish colonial town dating from 1564. It is the de facto gateway to the Canyon, and for my money a great place to spend a couple of days exploring the cobbled streets, historic public buildings and landscaped squares before boarding the train at 8 a.m. (instead of 6 a.m. if you board at Los Mochis). Visitors should also book a leisurely river rafting tour on the El Fuerte River, where bird spotting among the lush vegetation makes a nice contrast to the harsher landscape soon to come.
At the Spanish colonial town of El Fuerte, a dancer waits her turn to perform. Alison Gardner
Dating from 1690, this sandstone mission church is a Cerocahui landmark. Alison Gardner
After a 5,000-foot elevation change all neatly accomplished before lunch, it’s time to get off at the Bahuichivo station for an 11 mile drive that takes 45 minutes over axle-breaking roads into the Cerocahui region for a stay at a ranch, eco-lodge or mission hotel. The drive is all part of the adventure! The Urique Canyon lookout, another 4WD or a horseback ride beyond, offers a postcard-perfect vista of the deepest canyon. Throw a rock over the edge and it won’t hit the ground for a mile.
Visitors are welcome at the Cerocahui school where Tarahumara children attend class. Alison Gardner
Back in Cerocahui, established as a Jesuit mission in 1681, there’s an unusual opportunity to experience a non-tourist Tarahumara pueblo complete with the original mission church, a cupboard-sized, rarely occupied jail, and a brightly-painted school for 200 lively children grades one to six. Bring lots of pencils to present to the teachers, maybe some balls and skipping ropes. They will appreciate it!
However, for raw canyon rim drama, nothing beats a stop at Divisadero. Guided walking and horseback trips deep into the valleys are spectacular, but so is just sitting on your motel-style bedroom balcony at the Hotel Divisadero Barrancas, perched at the junction of two of the world’s grandest canyons. From mid-summer on, brooding storm clouds most afternoons engulf the area in a fast-paced thunder and lightning show guaranteed to have every camera working itself into a nervous breakdown. Front row seats like that turn the most unlikely people into budding meteorologists!
Hotel Divisadero Barrancas is literally “on the edge”. Hotel Divisadero
Creel is a major center (population 4,000) for Tarahumara culture and crafts, close to some of the historic missions which have become popular and picturesque tourist sites. The town is a strategic staging area for guided multi-day hiking tours into the Canyon bottoms, and a popular stopover for budget travelers with lots of choice in hotels and restaurants. The Casa de Las Artesanias, a government run store for promoting Tarahumara crafts and culture, is a must-stop in the town center.
Many of the finest modern and restored historic properties strung out along the western half of the Copper Canyon route belong to Balderrama Hotels & Tours, www.mexicoscoppercanyon.com. This is a refreshingly home-grown company with an appreciation of the region’s Spanish colonial history, ecology and local culture.
Hotel Posada del Hidalgo fronts a historic El Fuerte street. Alison Gardner
Two personal favorites among these properties: the centrally located Hotel Posada del Hidalgo in El Fuerte, built as a private mansion in 1890, exudes history from every pore; and, with a more rural backdrop, Cerocahui’s Hotel Misión is a comfortable rustic accommodation with Mexican furnishings and wood stoves in every room and three hearty meals a day included in the price. It blends in well with the Jesuit mission church across the cobbled street and the colorful Tarahumara elementary school next door.
The Hotel Divisadero Barrancas, www.hoteldivisadero.com, three minutes walk from the Divisadero train station (see photo above), and the Posada Mirador Hotel, a Baldarrama property a short bus drive beyond, both offer billion dollar views of the canyons from bedroom balconies and public areas.
Three miles short of Cerocahui, the Paraíso del Oso, www.mexicohorse.com, offers a wilderness lodge experience that includes three meals a day. Owned by former Texan “Diego” Rhodes and his locally-born wife, Ana, the Oso’s 21 rooms (each with bath) are charmingly furnished Mexican style and mostly lit at night by kerosene lamps in keeping with the rustic theme. Guided horseback day tours, 4WD tours to the rim of Urique Canyon or packing trips from 8 to 12 days long are all options. Diego and Ana initiate and support many local projects to address the educational and health needs of the Tarahumara and work hard to foster an appreciation of the indigenous culture with their guests.