The Chepe, Chihuahua al Pacífico train.
After Baja in Sinaloa and Chihuahua a story develops.
In Los Mochis we leave our van with Lydia, chubby old lady. Outside her house opposite the train station a fresh dead dog stretches his 4 legs in the air, dogs are targeted by drivers; there're too many stray dogs in Mexico, no body wants them, they're considered a problem, some people just run them over when they can. Happened one hour ago says Lydia when we bring her the van at 6.30 a.m., she wears a facial mask this morning and not the only face mask she would show us.
She is not really old but you want to add this attribute as she gives the impression of being old. She sees the Madonna's facial outlines in the plaster in the door to her one-bedroom flat which itself is full of the Arisen's and Madonna's pictures accompanied by the obligatory plastic flowers and candles. But there are no pictures of Madonna and Child, the Christ is always separate as this is not the Madonna as I have known her, this is Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, The Queen of Mexico, The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's most popular religious and cultural image (wiki, very interesting), this lady was a goddess before the arrival of Spaniards.
To reassure us of her capabilities to fight off potential thieves she puts on a halloween mask, one between Frankenstein and an ape, she makes a gesture of a roaring gorilla and this is how she intends to scare the bad people away. The other (medical) mask she wears because her brother tried to kill her with rat poisoning, she's wearing the mask for the spume not to dribble out uncontrollably.
She says she has a couple of recommendations in guidebooks, I say that I will mention her; this is how we leave our van down in Los Mochis before we board the train, the Chepe, the Chihuahua al Pacífico, incredible Mexican engineering achievement, a train project only finished in 1961 that traverses the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains and the system of canyons called the Barrrancas del Cobre/Copper Canyon, 39 bridges, 87 tunnels between Los Mochis and Chihuahua, the city.
We go only 356km from Los Mochis, Sinaloa to Creel, Chihuahua right in the heart of the Copper Canyon, 10 hours on a winding slow train journey, guarded by some 5 machine gun bearing police men; I still have to get used to omnipresent police in public places. The train works its way higher and higher, I stand between the carriages, look down on the rail tracks, listen to the iron horse as the wheels rumble over the gaps, feel the iron, taste the diesel, feel that the eyes itch of smoke after every tunnel, the wind too dries my throat, my nose catches a sunburn after many hours watching; it is traveling like anno 1900, though I suppose then was beer on board. We follow higher mainly along the Septentrion Canyon, climb all the way to Divisadero between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean watersheds, the magnificent view it is said to offer down the Urique Canyon is very hazy, my senses after 9 hours on the train are blurred, the altitude change makes me gasp for air, the heat and diesel wore me out. In Creel, a hotel and since Eugene 3 weeks ago the first shower, also a meal and beers, then drop dead.
14th, a massive breakfast at Veronica's, barbaqoa tacos, suckling cooked lamb, a plate of frijoles (beans) and guacamole, better eat more than you need before going walking. So we walk some 16km out of Creel to San Ignacio, mission church and school, then along the Valle de las Ranas, then along an old airfield before we turn right, slightly up then down through green pine forests that so sharply contrast from the blue skies. Eventually we reach Lake Arareko, local Rarámuri Indians dig for worms in the mud use them for fishing, the women sell weaved bags and jewelery.
Almost leithal Recowata.
15th, we go on another hike after another huge breakfast in the same place. We walk along the road, two nuns give us a lift all the way to the hot springs junction, with their blessing we start walking a dirt road very straight south, the pines again contrast so nicely with the blue skies, all so clear, blown free off any clouds, so different from the hazy first day experience. A Ford Explorer stops, a nice guy and family takes us all the way down to the Recowata Hot Springs and pools and the nice man's Explorer, this greatest piece of sh!t of US auto manufacturing, will not live through to the end of the day and will not see the rim of the canyon ever again. It will eventually make for an exiting almost fatal day.
But for now we have arrived after 22km at the lavish pools, set picturesque at the bottom of the canyon with spectacular cliffs rising some 400m all around. This is a Sunday and still hardly more than 20 people, children included spend leisure time here. Such nice 2 hours, at 2.30 though I push C. for departure, we have 22km back, ideally I would find another trek back via Lake Arareko which is somewhere NE 8km away but who knows what canyons and gorges lie in between? The Rarámuri guardian of the site is happy to give directions, the Indians here are called Tarahumara or Rarámuri, barefoot runners, they walk all the trails up and down the canyons from childhood on, just what is so clear and logical to him, where he sees a camino I only see trees and scrub. We simply cannot find the path, soon abandon our undertaking, cross back to the main road we came down, also because we already have almost no water left.
Still some 20km left till Creel - but there stops our friend in the Explorer and family and takes us up-mountain over the rough steep road and its narrow curves where our guy has to reverse; the end is nigh for the Explorer. The engine makes a strange noise, I smell the smell of boiling cooler liquid, eye for the gauges, still all seems right. And then nothing goes anymore, the engine sputters, a lot of white smoke comes out from under the hood, cylinder head's gasket I think, remain relaxed in the back, everyone out, the back is child-locked, when after a little while longer I get out the white fume has turned black and the flames already come out from under the bonnet. While women and children run for cover the guy and I try in a non-sense op. to extinguish, throw the little water and coke we have on the flames and try to save what cannot be saved. After minutes it becomes clear all is lost, eventually the whole burns, tires explode, the battery explodes, the fuel tank explodes, sets the super dry pines and scrub around on fire. The piece of sh!t US engineering stops burning after one hour, the charcoaled carcass and all the molten plastic give a spooky appearance.
By now we have all headed for the woods and to put out the forest fires we clear out some stretches off the dry needles on the ground. Here it has not rained for more than 6 months, thanks the road makes a U-turn right here and thanks the wind blows it the direction of the bend, the fires will be soon under control. These people have just lost their car, but show hardly any grief, "Only material, thanks God we are alive." It was only a chueco, bent or irregular, means no plates...
After a long way home and another lift, I go to bed with a splitting headache that night, a sign of dehydration.
Creel to Batoplias
16th, another fine breakfast, we pack and leave Creel for Batopiles 145km away. The first ride gets us almost there. I have come to see the Sierra Madre mounts from the inside, now I sit on the back of a pick-up truck and look around in disbelieve, the cliffs, canyons, the pines, the long and winding road. We take a Rarámuri boy aboard, he jumps off again after a few miles. While I get ever happier about my experience C. fights her nausea, the really winding road and the blanco white guy in his NGO pick-up drives too fast, not his own car. 70Km or so into the journey we turn right and start the descent into the Batopilas Canyon one of the most spectacular of the Copper Canyon system. We take again Rarámuri passengers, a pregnant woman and an old man, a bit later the asphalt stops, the couple get off.
What follows is a rough dusty dirt track, the serpentines wind lower and lower, the dust encompasses all, the pines have long disappeared, the canyon walls tower ever higher, the pipe cacti of the desert are back, Samachique, La Bufa. When the rattling and shaking in the back becomes almost unbearable we stop. The road is blocked, police and machine guns, a hand full of other people. A guy drove his 4x4 over the cliff, drunk, too fast, or both, all so common. I help haul up his dead body, up the steep slope. This is as close I have ever come to a dead man, a sad incidence, still some jokes get the people laughing, maybe the only way to deal with death here which is just another or normal business for some, I think as we jump back on. Another Tarahumara joins us on the back. Our driver drops us just 5km before Batopiles and it takes us only 5 minutes to catch another ride, the mayor of Batopiles, he too had been out at the accident. "If you ever need anything let me know" he waves good-bye.
We have dropped 1800m to the bottom of the canyon, the heat is sticky, humid, all I want is beer to wash down the dust; we invite Modesto the Rarámuri man from the truck to come along. A dancer, a runner, all Tarahumara are amazing runners, a special 100km marathon up and down the canyons on foolhardy treks takes place once the rainy season starts, no foreign athlete has ever won it. Our friend also works his fields, he has 5 children, but really he doesn't say anything specific, 500 years of being cheated on show impact, it seems they just don't trust anyone.
Mision del Santo Angel de Satevó, what we come for.
17th, what makes us get up at 4.30 and go for a walk in the dark? This is too early, but the idea is to avoid the steamy heat of the day. Before even the roosters start in complete darkness with the dogs barking around us from various farms, we walk some 7km to the "Lost Cathedral," iglesia of mision del Santo Angel de Satevó, 1760, Jesuit. We get there by 6.30 just the sun would not touch the roof before 7.30. We hitch a ride back and go to sleep.
Boomtown Batoplias, Hacienda San Miguel and tree art.
Batopilas is such a nice village, colorful, a pleasant square, benches under huge trees where the old mestizo men and Tarahumara women rest during the heat of the day. Later that day we go up stream the Batoplias creek, look for the ruins of Hacienda San Miguel and find some tree art. The trees grow out of the walls of what was once the villa of most important American Alexander Robey Shepherd, who made his money from silver mining in the canyon, Batopilas population in 1900 was already some 10,000.
Some elegant buildings and church still make for the pleasant appearance of Batoplias today, lay witness of a rich past and enormous wealth. Now the boom days seem to be back, with gold and silver markets at record highs Chilean and Canadian contractors are carrying out exploratory work, probe and kernel taking, prospects are good and soon many new mainly gold mines may open.
In Pueblo Batopilas business is good, hotels are booked out, the miners are great drinkers, 24 beers, a full pallet is not a problem for some tells us the bar tender of Cervezeria Nevada, in fact there is no beer left in his place on Monday, all was drunk up on Sunday.
And it all really only started 3 months ago.
I ponder what impact this all will have on the environment. The copper canyon is huge, but today's mines are vast operations stretching over several square miles, not a pleasant sight at all. Needless to say that local Rarámuri have no say what so ever in land and mining issues.
The future will show, with some luck the new miners will end like the Hacienda San Miguel, in a ruin; after boom usually comes bust.
The tree art.
Over to Urique Canyon.
18th, just coffee then we get out on the road, a half an hour later the first truck that comes takes us, in the back hay for cattle, it has not rained for 7 months, animals around die unless they're fed, usually there is some rain in Jan/Feb, not this year, we climb in the front. We had planned to go to San Ignacio, another San Ignacio, wherever this is, we only have a vague idea about the way back to Los Mochis, just south or west and out of the canyon system, somehow. Our guy though goes somewhere else. Even better he drives us all the way up to the ridge between the Barrancas Batopilas and Urique, this is where his farm is. All we would have to do walk down, "2 hours, maso menos". I would not even have dreamt reaching the bottom of Urique Canyon as well, it simply seemed way too far away. Now luck stroke on us. Our friend leaves us right on the top, the elevation 1500m.
We walk the most beautiful and far away lonely road, all the way down to 350m, just the two hours turn into 4 and once at the bottom we've run out of water, take water from the Urique river where cattle and horses bath and drink and poo, water purification tablets do the trick, tastes like drinking from a public bath.
We also attempt a soothing bath to cool the senses and wash off the sweat. We glide in the water and relax the limps when we suddenly stare at a huge spiders, the size of a hand sitting under the rock. Soon we discover many more of these monsters and they stare back in our faces while just sitting motionless on the rocks. Not that I think they would attack, I think just avoiding coincidental encounters to be reasonable. I think if one of them started moving that would be a damn quick move and what if they could run on the water's surface, and what if.... I think even I would shriek.
That very Urique Creek we cross once, then back, then again, in total six or seven times, boots on, then off, again and again, very tiring. We reach Mina El Sauzal after another 2 hours, get permission to cross, but the worst it seems is still to come, climb the mountain to the exit of the mine on the other side up from 350m to 700m of altitude, after 6 hours and some 22km of walking the climb becomes pure torture. Eventually when we both rather want to sit down and die rather than put another step in front of the other the security car from the mine picks us up. We are saved. A half an hour later we are on the back of some police pick-up truck on the way to Tubarez and there is even beer, Tecate and Coke (sugar against sore muscles). While we almost doze off and stretch a muscle or two, the old sit around, it is already dark. "So you come from the inside of the canyon? There is a guerilla war going on!"
Riding out of Barrancas del Cobre, Choix, then El Fuerte.
The roosters wake early, after a tamale (pureed corn with some chili cooked in corn leave) we are out on the road and wait, just no more walking please. An hour later in the early sun a pick-up truck, the first and only car, stops, a guy, mestizo, 3 children, 2 women. We crawl in the back, stretch out those sore legs. The guy drives the dirt roads carefully, slowly (his own car), the serene landscape passes by slowly, we drive out of the lower Barrancas, the Urique, one more time for the last time we admire the cliffs around, climb high up to an elevation of 1300m only to drop back, this is a very long and hot and arduous journey.
Afternoon we arrive in Choix, our guy takes back streets, still the police and machine guns stops him, another chueco, no plates, the car maybe stolen. Soon more police and machine guns arrive, they confiscate his car. Maybe he just gets a ticket, our guy seemed a nice guy just here in Choix all is a bit tense, a bit nervous. 5 shot dead yesterday, 4 the day before, all youngsters, 14, 15, all drug dealers, Marihuana from the Sierra Madre.
We catch a last ride today to El Fuerte, so nice, a hotel and a shower, some scorpion like animal without the sting falls out of my backpack. Some time for reflection, such a nice trip this was.
Next day one ride to Los Mochis, eventually a 3km taxi to Lydia and we have our van back, such a nice trip, such a bloody nice trip, just how tired can you be?