I am sitting on a low wooden bench in the railway station of Ciudad Juarez. There is very little to keep me company except for the flies. The ticket office is shut. I have been traveling almost non-stop for 32 hours. I have not eaten for the last twelve. I am so tired I ache.
What, I ask myself, am I doing here? The answer is that I have come to go for a train ride; but such a train ride. Through an area as dramatic as the Grand Canyon (but bigger) with a linked system of six canyons. If you are, like me, fascinated by trains then a ride through some of the most awesome scenery in the world cannot be resisted.
The trip is not for everyone. If you insist on Pullman service and superb in-train dining then you will be far better off on the Blue Train in South Africa or the Orient Express. This Copper Canyon train is of a different breed. Not inferior. Not a whit less enjoyable. Just different.
I have been to Mexico on four previous occasions and found Acapulco exhilarating, Jalisco exciting, Mexico City a great worry and Cancun not to my taste.
I knew little of the Copper Canyon and the ride from Chihuahua to Los Mochis. I first came across it while reading Fodor’s Guide to Mexico. The book described the train ride as ‘the world’s most scenic rail ride’. Which is why I have now arrived at the deserted station of Ciudad Juarez.
I had flown to Los Angeles. From there I had to get myself to the Copper Canyon and its railroad.
I came into Mexico by an unorthodox route.
I flew by an overnight ‘red eye’ to El Paso in Texas by way of Las Vegas and Albuquerque. From El Paso I took a taxi to Ciudad Juarez, the sister city of El Paso. Juarez is just across the Rio Grande and you need a $US17 tourist card. I have since found it is better to walk across and get a taxi on the other side.
From there I took the train to Chihuahua.
A piece of advice. Do not take the bus. The bus station is clean and comfortable and the bus ticket is only $15. But the bus travels 380 km to get there and this is a seriously tiring journey. I had been warned about this and so took the train.
Juarez railway station is not jolly although it is being improved. Today, as I sit here and write this it is a concrete structure open to the air on one side, like a bomb shelter. Low, dirty, dilapidated benches on which to sit; a lavatory I dare not investigate for the smell would choke a horse; and nothing else. Nothing at all. No soft drink machine. No news-stand. Nothing.
Except for flies. (They tell me that it has now been cleaned-up and redecorated. When I see it I will believe it.)
This is the lowest point of the trip. As I get on the train that will take me to Chihuahua everything improves dramatically. The six o’clock train for which I buy a first class reserved ticket is of a very high standard. The ticket costs around $15. This for a journey of around 400 kilometers.
The train is nothing like the station. The carriage is blessedly air-conditioned. It is squeaky clean and the seats recline aircraft-style. I laugh aloud with relief. The train goes first through the suburbs, the poor suburbs, of Juarez. Now we are traveling across a flat plain with dry vegetation. Very similar to Australia.
The conductor — immaculately dressed as are all the staff on the train — comes through the train and announces dinner. There are few takers. Foolhardy to the end, I walk through to the dining car and face a pre-set dinner. A small plastic cup of Coca-Cola. A plastic plate with four potato crisps, two Saltine biscuits, a spoonful of cold macaroni, a small portion of shredded dry fish.
As a meal this neither inspires nor encourages me.
The train pulls into Chihuahua station. A fleet of taxis, rapacious hawks to a man, lie in ambush. They want 10,000 pesos to take me to a hotel. Brisk haggling gets this down to 6,000 pesos. This hotel, the Exelaris, was once a Hyatt. No longer.
That night I wander into a bar called El Pantera Rosso which appears to have little to do with any Pink Panther. On a previous visit to Chihuahua I had gone to the museum which was once the house of Pancho Villa. There I had met a lady who was said to have been the wife of that great revolutionary. But he appears to have had many, many wives. Not always with benefit of wedding ceremony.
On this visit I skip sightseeing and I arrange for a wake-up call at 5.30 am so that I can catch the train to Los Mochis. Out to the station and claim my seat on the Chihuahua-Pacific railway which covers the 640 kilometers to Los Mochis.
Important to know I booked ahead. You will find advice elsewhere on the Internet to say you can just take a chance. This is not good advice. Book. I am in first classwhich costs $US125 return. Second, which I would have booked if I had known how to do it, is only $53. First class is super with airliner-type reclining seats.
This is not a cheap trip to take through a package tour. Some of the tours starting from El Paso cost between $US1,600 and $2,000 per person. This is truly daft when you consider the price is normally around $US126 return and that is in first class. Move down to second class — the coaches were first class a few years ago — and it can be just over half of that.
You will be told that the second class train goes more slowly and you will miss the scenery. If you are doing the return trip this is not the case.
Times of departure — in Spanish and priced in Mexican dollars — are here:
Prices and a booking telephone number and other good things:
We leave Chihuahua and the scenery is flat, almost Australian, not riveting. This was the country most fiercely fought for in the Revolution, and the breeding ground for Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Then the train starts climbing in a series of snaking turns to Creel which is a timber town.
After Creel we keep climbing and the air turns distinctly brisk. Desert slowly changes and becomes pine forest. It is two in the afternoon.
Just before the Copper Canyon itself is Divisadero where the train stops for a quarter of an hour. At Divisadero the canyon floor is nearly two km beneath your feet with views that on a clear day reach forever. Tarahumara Indians on the platform sell souvenirs to the tourists. Their people originally occupied the high plateau but during the Spanish invasion were had to move into the canyons in order to avoid forced labor in the mines and on farms. Colonists have a lot to answer for.
Copper Canyon covers over 65,000 sq. km of extremely rugged mountains and canyons. Formed by five major river systems, these barrancas — canyons — are four times larger than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.
Before the completion of the Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad in 1961, the only access into the area was by foot or horse. Now the train magically makes it all accessible.
The scenery is, the only word for it, astounding. In another country I once took a sightseeing flight with the Hallelujah Chorus played as each canyon came into sight. The Chorus is precisely what this trip deserves. Fortissimo.
After Divisadero the train passes through several tunnels and over high narrow iron truss bridges as it loops over the various side branches of the canyon. The train approaches Temoris where you need to find a good position by a window. Here the tracks pass over themselves three times.
As I look out of the train window I can see over there, on the opposite side, another railway going in the opposite direction. What is this railway? Where is it going?
It is, of course, the rail that I ride, doubling back on itself to get around the canyon walls. Indeed, at one stage the track does a complete 180 degree turn — within a tunnel.
The track turns, loops, twists, gyrates. The train snaking as it seeks the way to go. The train passes 100 meters above the Chinipas River.
From the window I cannot see the bridge. I am suspended in space. I am slightly afflicted by vertigo and sweat and stare in wild surmise. My hands grip knuckle-white.
Eventually I relax, get blase — this is, after all, a ten-hour trip.
I start to inspect my fellow passengers, pause to drink a beer, talk to the person sitting next to me. Yet always the scenery drags me back.
It was dark when we got into Los Mochis so that I missed some of the spectacular scenery on the run to the Sea of Cortez. No matter. The next day I arose early again and took the train back to Chihuahua. This time I took the slow train. Mexico is not a place where one wishes to rush things.