Distracted, I mean, Distance Running

On our short train ride between Bahuichivo and Posada Barrancas station, I found out exactly what does happen when one does not have a Ruth or an “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide”.  A couple already on the train when we boarded, realized after we left the station that they were supposed to have gotten off.  Yikes!  Fortunately, two north and south trains run each day.  And each of these trains stop in the small town of San Rafael, where train crews switch out.  

While the couple exited the train in San Rafael to wait for the train coming from the opposite direction, so did our crew.  They were not planning on boarding the incoming train; however.  When I write “small of town of San Rafael”, I mean small.  All that is there are barracks for the employees to rest and relax in until their next shift begins.

And because there is a wait while the crew changes, this stop provides the Rarámuri

Rarámuri women sell baskets while the train is stopped in San Rafael for crew changes.

women with another opportunity to sell their baskets.  Passengers do not normally get off the train here, so all buying and selling happens through the open windows.  The women who sell are  part of a group of Rarámuri who have left their own communities but have not learned Spanish or chosen to live in the Mexican towns scattered throughout the Copper Canyon.  They are no longer accepted by their own people and have not been accepted by the Mexican community either.  In many ways, they are even more isolated than the Rarámuri who choose to keep themselves separate from “modern” civilization.  The situation of these women seemed even more precarious to me as they have 15 minutes, four times a day, to earn money to support their families.

Once the new crew was in place, we continued down the track until we came to Posada Barrancas station.  We did the “hurry up and grab luggage and get off” routine again, and climbed into a waiting van.  Sometime between exiting the train and entering the van, the luggage we worked so hard to drag off with us disappeared!  By the time we arrived at the hotel (truly a five minute ride) and checked in, our luggage had already been placed in our room.  Our hotel sat right on the rim of the Urique Canyon, and from our terrace we could look straight down into it.

IMG_3230We spent our afternoon with Martín, a Rarámuri runner.  Martín continues to live with his Rarámuri family, but he has also learned Spanish and works outside of his traditional community.  Martín led us along the rim of the canyon as he explained the running game, Rarájipari, to us.  The game is played between two teams.  Each team uses a wooden stick to send a ball out ahead of the group.  The teams chase the ball.  They do not get a chance to ever catch up with it though because a front runner continues to move the ball forward once he reaches it.  

Sometimes the teams decide on a relay, where the ball is “thrown by foot” to groups of runners constantly moving forward along the course.  Martín demonstrated his foot throwing technique.  He used his toes to pick up and then position the ball on the flat part of his foot.  He made it look effortless- -and it was extra impressive to me, as the one who always popped out to the pitcher in neighborhood kickball games.   

The game can last several hours or several days, depending on the parameters the teams have agreed upon.  The winner of the game is the group that crosses the finish line first.  The Rarámuri run in huaraches, a shoe consisting of nothing more than a sole and simple straps.  I struggle walking in my name brand tennis shoes.

Right about question and answer time, I started hearing a lot of “dinging”.  It took me a moment to figure out what it was- -I had not heard the sound since we entered the canyon.  Yep.  Cell phone text messages and e-mails.  Up until this point on the trip, we had absolutely no connection with the outside world.  Apparently, Martín just happened to stop in the one spot in the entire canyon that had cell reception to give his presentation.  And every phone was letting its owner know.  

I wish I could say that everyone ignored them- -what was three more days anyway at this point, right?  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Even standing on the rim of the deepest canyon in the Copper Canyon system, learning about a traditional game played by the Rarámuri since before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s- -a people who are still living in caves and growing their own food, cell phones had the power to break the spell.  

While the rest of the group was busy checking their phones, I bought a beautiful pair of hand carved wooden earrings from a young Rarámuri girl and had the rock outcrop to myself for canyon gazing and picture taking.  And there was absolutely no sound other than birdcalls as I stood on the edge and said a silent prayer of thanks that the volume control on my phone is broken. 


Taking the Scenic Route

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.IMG_6828  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.

On the Right Track

IMG_6435I think the one thing my husband most appreciates about me is that I am a pretty cheap date.  Um… I mean that I have the ability to find immense joy in seemingly simple pleasures and pastimes.  You know, like a van ride to the train station in El Fuerte.  I managed to secure a window seat for the trip (of course I did)  and kept myself entertained watching the world go by.

As we left the hotel, parents were dropping their children off at the school across the street.  On mopeds.  Like all of their children.  At the same time.    It was inexplicably fascinating and quite nerve wracking for me.  I get a little spooked alone on a bicycle now and then.  And here were three elementary aged kiddos, completely relaxed, as they shared the moped seat with dad. 

The town was waking up as we made our way to the train station.  Vendors pedaled their snack carts into and around the plaza.  Tarps were rolled back on the tables where handicrafts and souvenirs were displayed and sold.  Men and women, headed to work, crisscrossed the streets in front of us.  And slowly, all of the busyness slipped away as we moved away from the center of town and into the countryside en route to the station. 

The train was scheduled to arrive at 8:00 am, but… that was not a guarantee.  We were there by 7:30, as were many other passengers- – just in case.  I used my time to review what I knew about El Chepe so far.  Yes, Ruth, ever the teacher, had provided us with a packet of information about the places we would visit on our trip, including the complete history of the railroad in the Copper Canyon.  And I am pretty sure I am the only one in the group who read it.  That is just the “cheap date” in me!

The railroad was first visualized by Albert Kimsey Owen.  It would begin with the development of a harbor in Topolobampo Bay near Los Mochis in Sinaloa.  The grand plan was that the railroad would run from the port through northern Mexico and into Kansas, making trade easier between Asia, Europe, and the United States.  Part of the plan also included the development of a utopian colony, funded by people who bought stock in a corporation Owen set up.  Eventually, Owen became more focused on his colony (and fighting to control his role as its leader).  So, Arthur Stilwell joined the cause and carried on Owen’s vision, receiving funding from the government of Porfirio Diaz and U.S. communities and oil companies.

Work began in the 1890’s and continued slowly up until 1910, the start of the Mexican Revolution.  Mexico was not able to fulfill its financial obligations as a result.  And that pesky Pancho Villa kept attacking the trains.  All work ceased.  The project languished until the nationalization of the railroads in 1940.  The Mexican government spent over a billion pesos between 1940 and 1961, when the line was completed.


The Chihuahua Pacific Railroad (El Chepe) is without a doubt, one of the engineering marvels of the world.  The line from Los Mochis to Chihuahua includes 37 bridges, 86 tunnels, and rises 8,000 feet in a 410 mile trip.  At one point the track even crosses over itself to gain elevation.  And El Chepe is almost as fun to say as Los Mochis!

El Descanso Tunnel is 6,000 feet long.  Chinipas Bridge is 335 feet high.  The Rio Fuerte Bridge is 1,600 feet long.  What was accomplished by the Mexican engineers and railroad workers was a feat beyond the capacity of many developing nations at the time.  They were dealing with the Sierra Madre Occidental after all, a mountain range that had baffled engineers during the earlier phases of the project.  

I was interrupted from my review by the sounding of the train’s whistle.IMG_6433  The next part happened quickly, and it was a little like a free for all, as there were no railroad employees organizing the crowds.  We lined up right next to the tracks where we anticipated our assigned car would be once the train stopped.  Well, there was a yellow safely line we were supposed to stay behind, kind of like the one they paint on school sidewalks to keep kids out of the way of buses… You know how that goes.

The next part was very similar to the congestion experienced at elevators- -the people waiting to get on crowded the train doors, overwhelming the people trying to get off.  The crowding was necessary though.  This engineer did not mess around.  The loading and unloading was finished in less than five minutes.  The engineer blew the whistle twice.  That was the signal to move fast and now.  Fortunately, having read the background info, I was not one of the folks who was now making a sprint for the railroad cars.

My luck continued.  Yep, snagged another window seat!  A couple of folks in our group settled in for a nap.  Another group headed for the bar.  Me?  I pulled out my “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide to El Chepe”, a kilometer by kilometer detailed explanation of what I would be seeing between El Fuerte and Bahuichivo, our destination that day.  I had five hours of simple pleasures coming my way!