Written by TimSearle on 27 Mar, 2006
The timing was immaculate. Just as our taxi bounced into the station car park at El Fuerte, the train from Los Mochis was arriving from the west. We headed eagerly for the platform, to join the small crowd patiently filing onboard for one of the…Read More
The timing was immaculate. Just as our taxi bounced into the station car park at El Fuerte, the train from Los Mochis was arriving from the west. We headed eagerly for the platform, to join the small crowd patiently filing onboard for one of the world’s great railway journeys. Flags waved, whistles and horns blew, and the train drew away on it’s 12 hour run to Chihuahua. Only one problem - it wasn’t our train.No, this was the first class or "Primera," the tourist train, beloved of coach parties and complete with dining car. We, on the other hand, are backpackers, travelling on a budget, waiting for the "Economica" local train, and complete with packed lunch. Not unusually, both trains were running an hour late so that the Primera had arrived at the Seconda boarding time. We watched it chug towards the horizon and settled down in the sun beside the dusty tracks. An hour later a distant horn heralded the arrival of our service, along with the local passengers wiser than us as to it’s running time.
The first few hours of the journey from the attractive colonial town of El Fuerte are uneventful through the scrubby plains and villages. We weren’t the only tourists travelling cheap, and sat with Rita and Steve from Alberta, Canada, in a bay of four seats. We discussed out plans and tried to figure out how so many tunnels and bridges the line crossed, and every book gave a different number. The conductor had also given us seats on the prized south side of the train, from which the better views are to be had. The carriages were essentially the same as for the Primera, air-conditioned with comfortable reclining seats and blinds for those who tire of the scenery. Up front we had a buffet car with limited drinks and snacks, in place of the plusher dining and bar coaches of the Primera... but for paying just half the price we were happy with it. When the big scenery started it seemed to do so with little warning. One minute we were dozing, lulled as we rolled past the seemingly endless cacti, and the next we burst out of a tunnel and over a bridge across a tumbling river, stern rockwalls rearing up on either side. For many of the local villagers this was no more than a regular trip or commute, and they paid little heed to the view. The travellers who had come thousands of miles pressed keenly at the windows, or headed to the end vestibule where the upper half of the doors was open. The rush of wind, the clacketty-clack of the wheels, the rattling connections, the hiss of breaks—this was train travel as it should be!
Deeper into the canyon we rumbled, the rivers responsible for so much of what we saw were barely a trickle at this time of the dry season. We turned blind eyes to freight wagons tipped over beside the tracks, strong hints that this perhaps wasn’t the smartest place to build a railway. We preferred to gaze up and beyond, almost reverentially, at the Canyon, pointed out features in the rocks, marvelled at the colours, and wondered at the details; how did that cow get there, where does that track go, where did those people come from? Perhaps the most dramatic section of the line starts at Temoris.
Here the line does a tight hairpin over several bridges before beginning a zig-zag up the canyon side around hairpins and through more tunnels than you could want to count. We looked down over at least two sets of tracks that we had previously covered, from narrow ledges we could barely have made out from below. The engines roared in protest at hauling our four-coach train up such grades, the racket thrown back from the canyon sides; by contrast, buzzards soared effortlessly and silently upwards into the void and we could imagine their grumpy indignation at this noisy intrusion into their world.Delay begot delay, as on railways the world over, and we were 2 hours down by the time our train squealed to a halt at the simple wooden platform of Posada Barancas, near the summit of the railway. Waiting for us, in hope rather than by any request, was Snr Diaz, who runs a few cabanas nearby. Primera passengers might be ferried to one of several opulent hotels in the area; perhaps the Mirador, with its dramatic view from the very rim of the canyon. We of the "Economica" piled into his van for the short journey down the dusty village road to our home for the next couple of days. The room was basic, with a small shower room/toilet and only a small back window, but a nice view across the farms of the plateau from the bench outside, and "outside" was definitely what we had come for. Tonight we only had time for a brief visit to the canyon rim around sunset, and for gate-crashing the Mirador bar and balcony before heading back to the cabana. As darkness fell and so did the temperature, but just as we started to wonder about warmth, a cowboy from the farm, hat and all, strode into our room, dropped a bundle of wood, and lit the fire - how cool is that? We took dinner in the main house; basic country food, chicken, the inevitable refried beans and tortillas, and reading the guest book drew ideas about what we might do in the area. Tired after our early start, we strolled back to the cabana under a clear sky and full moon. Dogs howled at dangers or intrusions known only to them (and dog’s imaginations seemingly have no limits in this regard), but we dropped quickly into sleep as our fire crackled and flickered to ashes. Way down the line, the Economica train would be drawing wearily into Chihuahua after a journey lasting nearly 14 hours, and who knows how late. The Copper Canyon railway exists in its own time zone, and understanding that is the key to life along its hard fought route.