Saturday, April 18, 2015

Copper Canyon

Since we first visited Barranca Del Cobre (Copper Canyon) back in 2011 we've wanted to return and explore more of that fascinating place, so we started planning the trip as soon as we arrived in Mazatlan. We were joined by friends Jamie and Elaine of S/V Tardis and boarded a bus for Los Mochis on April 9th for the first leg of our journey to the high country.

Express buses in Mexico can be luxurious. Ours was equipped with individual monitors built into the big reclining seats and offered a variety of entertainment options as well as a USB charging port. As we boarded we were each handed a bottle of water and lunch bag with a sandwich and cookie.  It reminded me of an elementary school field trip. The landscape between Mazatlan and Mochis is mostly farmland and looks similar to California’s Central Valley. This year corn is very popular and we rolled past mile after mile of sweltering cornfields in air conditioned comfort.

Our first stop was Culiacan, about 140 miles up the highway.  It is the capital of the state of Sinaloa and boasts a population of over 675,000, making it the largest city in the state. It’s an old city, founded in 1531 by the Spanish mariner Nuno Beltran de Guzman. It was not much of a place until the 1950’s when the Mexican government started building dams in the region to stabilize the water supply. Now it’s the center of a vast agricultural area. It is also the worldwide headquarters of the Sinaloa drug cartel as well as the birthplace of famed dog whisperer, Caesar Milan.

We stayed in Culiacan only long enough for the driver to take a smoke break, and then got back on the road to Los Mochis, another 142 miles up the highway.  You may be surprised to know that the original colony of Los Mochis was founded in 1893 by a group of American socialists who hoped to establish a utopian society next to the seaport of Topolobampo. Needless to say, that project hasn’t worked out exactly as planned.

We spent a night in Los Mochis, then caught an early bus to the town of El Fuerte, which lies about 53 miles to the northeast on the banks of the river of the same name. Founded in 1563 by a gang of Spanish conquistadores led by one Francisco de Ibarra, the town struggled to survive because it was frequently beset by angry natives who didn’t appreciate the newcomers. In 1610 the Spaniards built a fort (“fuerte” in Spanish) and the place has been known henceforth as El Fuerte (The Fort).  For the next three hundred years the town was an important commercial center, but more recently it has evolved into more of a tourist town.  It is the gateway to the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains and the Copper Canyon area, and a destination for hunters, birders and adventure seekers.

Civic buildings in Mexico are often decorated with impressive murals. The one at the El Fuerte city hall depicts town's history. In this view the native Amerindians are fighting against the invading Spaniards.

This view continues the story of defeat and subjugation of the natives. The Catholic priest brings religion and the natives switch from their traditional clothing to more "Christian" garb and are forced to work for the Spaniards. It's a sad but all to common story in Mexico.
Every room in the Hotel La Choza is equipped with a crucifix.

We arrived around noon and hiked uptown to the Hotel La Choza, where we planned to spend the night. It’s about two blocks from the central plaza, where the city hall and other official buildings are located. A couple of blocks further on is the Fort, which today houses the town’s water tank and a historical museum. After dropping off our gear at the hotel we checked out the plaza and fort, and then wandered over to the Hotel Posada Hidalgo where we knew we could find a good meal and a nice view of the sunset over the Rio Fuerte. 

The museum in the fort houses a collection of artifacts from El Fuerte's history. This exhibit shows the fashions that the natives wore around the time that the Spaniards showed up. The deer head on the woman's head certainly adds a bit of flair to her costume. El Fuerte must have been an interesting town back in its heyday.

Rio Fuerte runs placidly through the town. Before the dam was built north of town, the river often overflowed its banks.

Route of El Chepe from Los Mochis to Chihuahua.

hummingbirds are a common sight in El Fuerte.

Saturday morning we boarded the Chihuahua-Pacifico train. Affectionately known as El Chepe by the Mexicans, it’s a beautiful old train with about six passenger cars and a dining car that winds up the western slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains to the city of Chihuahua. I love that you can stand on the landings between the cars and hang your head out the side of the train and feel the air rushing by and watch the landscape change from rolling hills to magnificent gorges as you approach the summit at Divisidero, about 132 miles up the line.

The train

The weather forecast called for rain on Sunday so as soon as we arrived at Divisidero, we dropped our bags at the Hotel Divisidero Barrancas and hiked a mile or so up to the Parque Aventura, where the zip lines are located. The last time we were in Copper Canyon we missed the zip lines so we were determined to take a ride on them on this trip. Jamie and Elaine would be in Divisidero for only two nights so, with a storm approaching, Saturday had to be the day.

When we arrived at the zip line place, the weather was deteriorating, with storm clouds bearing down on us. There was a Mexican gal at the ticket counter who looked doubtful when we told her we wanted to ride the zip line right then, but she took our money and pointed the way down to the shack where you suit up for the adventure. We were surprised to find that the same girl, who was a good 30 pounds overweight, was going to be our guide. She looked like she’d be more comfortable working the candy counter at the concession stand, and she was clearly not happy about doing the zip line on a cold Saturday afternoon.  Anyway, we suited up and, somewhat puckered, we walked down to the first take-off point of the line. Figuring ‘What the hell…” I volunteered to go first.  I clipped in to the cable and the girl was just about to shove me off the platform when a guy came running down from the office waving and shouting that we can’t go. The weather was here and the thunder and lightning was rumbling nearby. I was relieved to climb down off the platform. We told the girl we’d be back after the storm passed and for the first time she cracked a smile.

It was raining by the time we got back to the hotel, and by nine the next morning the rain had turned to snow, a rarity in Copper Canyon.  We stayed indoors and watched the snow do its magic, transforming the desert-like landscape to a white wonderland. In the afternoon the weather cleared and almost as fast as it appeared, the snow began to melt.  By the next morning there were only patches of it on the ground. It was amusing to see the locals out playing in what was clearly a rare treat for them.
View from the hotel dining room. The rain was just beginning to turn to snow.
An hour later.

The conductor wasn't outfitted for the weather.
The crew climbed up on the locomotive and took lots of selfies to show friends and family the snow day at Divisidero. Notice the lack of winter clothing. 
The Hotel Divisidero Barranca is pretty basic as far as the accommodations go, but little details like hand carved fence posts add a touch of charm. This post shows the sandals that the Tarahumara Indians wear. These people are known for their running ability. You can learn more about them in Chris McDougall's book, "Born to Run".

Hummingbirds entertained us even at over 7,000 feet elevation.

A Tarahumara runner.

The beautifully carved and painted front door at the Hotel Divisidero.

Elaine and Jamie were scheduled to depart the next day so we got up early and hiked over to the zip line again, hoping we’d be able to do it before they had to board the train. This time the guides were professional and experienced and we quickly donned our gear and headed for the first take-off point.  The Copper Canyon zip-line is one of the fastest and highest in the world. At one point on the seven-leg line you’re flying at 68mph, 1,476 feet above the ground. I’m no zip-line expert but this thing was a pretty exciting ride.
Lisa and Jamie geared up and ready to go. Elaine chose the more civilized route and took the tram.

There is another zip-line at Divisidero called the ZipRider which opened just last year. Located within walking distance from the original, we decided to experience that one as well. It is reputed to be the longest single line in the world at 8,350 feet, with a vertical drop of 1,450 feet and a maximum speed of 65mph. Instead of a simple harness, you are strapped into a seat similar to a bosun’s chair. When you get launched out of the starting gate you are instantly a thousand feet or so above the canyon floor. Pretty exciting stuff.
Lisa on final approach at the bottom of the ZipRider.

Both zip-lines finish near the bottom of the aerial tram and we rode it back to the canyon rim after the last zip-line. From there we hurried back to the hotel and gathered Jamie and Elaine’s bags, but it turned out we needn’t have. The train stopped running that day because a locomotive had derailed a few miles down the track. Fortunately the road was open and later that afternoon our friends caught a bus to their next destination, which was the city of Creel, some fifty miles further up the line. After we saw them off, we wandered back to our hotel and spent the rest of the day watching the canyon change colors as the shadows shifted with the setting sun.

The Tarahumara Indians are known for their beautifully crafted baskets. This fellow found a good use for them.

By the next afternoon the derailed train had been cleared off the tracks, so we were able to board the southbound Chepe only about an hour late. We relaxed in the dining car while the train barreled down the mountains toward Los Mochis. We arrived there at 9:45pm and by eleven thirty we were safely tucked into our room at the Plaza Hotel.

We were up early the next day and caught a cab to the bus station where we boarded a Tufesa bus to Mazatlan. We pulled into town around five in the afternoon and were back at the marina well before sunset. Finisterra was in good shape when we got back, just as we left her. Being tired after a long day of travel, we decided to catch a pulmonia into town and had an excellent dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant. We’re back aboard the boat now, getting ready for the next leg of our voyage, which will take us northwest across the southern Sea of Cortez to La Paz, the gateway to the Sea’s beautiful cruising grounds. 

Last night we joined our friends Ed and Connie for dinner at Topolo's in old town Mazatlan. On the way, we had a drink at the rooftop bar at the old Freeman Hotel in the Zona Dorado. No green flash but it was magnificent.

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