Following the guide for the first leg of our trip on El Chepe into the Copper Canyon was a bit more challenging than I anticipated. While every single bridge, tunnel, and lake were noted on my “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide”, so were many interesting sites like “cool cemetery on the left”, “thin waterfall on left that runs almost year round…with a banana tree”, and “cross with railroad lantern for fallen worker on the right”. I was making myself a little trainsick turning my head back and forth continuously in an effort to not miss a single thing. Steve was having to answer a lot of questions- -most of them with a standard response of “I do not know.” As in “I do not know what kilometer sign we just passed.”, “I do not know if that was an organ pipe cactus.”, and “I do not know if that was San Felipe with the pretty yards or Loreto where peanuts and sesame seeds are grown.”
And some points I could not help but miss, even though I was really working hard not to. Like when I read the word bridge, I assumed that it would be obvious because the bridge would be up pretty high, right? Many of the “bridges” we traversed were under 100 feet long, and they connected land separated by culverts, not rivers. Often we were kilometers down the track before I realized that I was three bridges behind! Tunnels were a little easier.
Two hours or so into the trip the landscape began changing. Cacti gave way fig trees, mangoes, papayas, and avocados. We could see where the rivers, Septentrion and Chinipas, joined to form Río Fuerte. We moved from the plains and prairies of Sinaloa into the Sierra Madre Occidental in Chihuahua, where corn grew in terraced fields. Vegetation became thicker and greener as we gained elevation. (We would actually gain close to 8,000 feet in elevation from El Fuerte to Creel, our final destination.) Derailed cars were left abandoned where they fell, the beauty of the landscape hiding the power of this system and truly, its inaccessibility.
Finally certain that I knew exactly where I was, I put down my guide and moved to the back of the car and exited. Where the cars connected was an open-ish viewing area. There was still a roof over my head, but the windows had been removed from the sides, allowing me the opportunity to stick my head out the side of the train as we entered La Pera, a 3,074 feet tunnel. The tunnel makes a 180 degree turn inside the mountain. In addition to making a U-turn, we gained 100 feet more of elevation.
It was amazing to find the scenery I had viewed on my right going into the tunnel on my left upon exiting! It made perfect sense that this was the spot on the line chosen to celebrate the railroad’s completion on November 24, 1961. A dedication marker made with 22 feet rails and letters over two feet high looked small next to the mountains surrounding it.
If I had not been using the guide, I am not sure I would have realized where I was supposed to get off the train. I did not hear an announcement being made. Well, obviously, my friend Ruth was not going to leave me behind, but what about the people who did not have a Ruth? Or a kilometer by kilometer cheat sheet? We arrived at the Bahuichivo stop and had to make a mad dash to the doors. Then we became the overwhelmed group as people who were boarding pressed closer and closer the train. The smaller suitcases proved ideal as we were easily able to maneuver them in and out of the crowds to the far end of the station where our ride for the next leg was waiting.
Bahuichivo seemed like a bustling little town, but we were headed to Cerocahui, where spectacular views of the Urique Canyon and our introduction to the Rarámuri Indians awaited us. Steve was just glad that there was no guide for me to follow between the two. He enjoyed an almost 11 mile trip in peace and quiet.