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Copper Canyon thrill ride

Times Staff Writer

This peaceful colonial town on the route of the Chihuahua al Pacífico Railroad is a good place to anticipate attractions. At the hem of the western Sierra Madre, it is surrounded by mostly flat farmland. The wide El Fuerte river flows languidly to the sea, and the train tracks seem to go no place in particular.

But if you're taking the train east, you know some amazing country lies ahead: Mexico's Copper Canyon.

It was 8 a.m. at the dusty El Fuerte train station, and kids were running their racket, carrying bags for travelers whether their services were wanted or not. A bull wandered onto the tracks, then made way for a red and yellow engine.

To me, an approaching train is one of the more exciting things in the world, especially this one, the Chihuahua al Pacífico, otherwise known as the Copper Canyon Railroad. It climbs into the heart of the mountains from El Fuerte to the lumbering town of Creel, along the rim of canyons deeper than the Grand, through 25,000 square miles populated by the reclusive Tarahumara Indians.

There are no paved highways or national park ranger stations, just the railroad, which crosses a country so rough and lonely that the train was robbed four years ago by masked bandidos right out of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

I boarded the train with friends I had made the night before -- a Florida grandma, Jane Richards, her daughter Gale and her 10-year-old grandson, Sky. I took a seat on the right side of the train -- best for the view, I'd heard -- tucked away my backpack and got ready to be transported, in every sense of the word.

From top to bottom

Copper Canyon, or Barranca del Cobre, is at the top of many travelers' wish lists, but few people actually make it here. The wild, remote region in north-central Mexico gets about 25,000 tourists annually, compared with the 4.2 million who visited the Grand Canyon in 2001. Most come with tour groups to take the comfortable first-class train, which was bought from the government four years ago by Ferromex, a private company.

It would take a dozen hours to ride the train straight through from El Fuerte to Chihuahua, so groups tend to get on and off, staying in one of a chain of excellent Copper Canyon-area hotels (with private baths, folkloric dance performances, purified water) operated by the Mexican Balderrama company. There are tours to take from the hotels and, in some cases, sterling views, leaving a trip into the canyon an afterthought.

"Ninety-nine percent of our passengers do not want to go into the canyon," says Peter Robbins, founder of the Tucson-based Sierra Madre Express, which takes visitors on weeklong excursions into Copper Canyon on a special luxury train.

But I wanted to stand at the bottom of the canyon, which isn't just one canyon but half a dozen of them, riven into the sierra by the Urique, Septentrión and Batopilas rivers, among others.

On my independent seven-night trip last month, I started at the Posada del Hidalgo, a charming Balderrama hotel in El Fuerte, continued on the train, then headed about 5,900 feet down to the hamlet of Batopilas by its river. This lost little Copper Canyon mining town has created quite a buzz among backpackers in the last decade. It is said to be beautiful and a tad dicey, surrounded by back-country marijuana patches and reached from Creel by a harrowing, hairpin-curving dirt road.

The journey into Copper Canyon was schizophrenic, a little luxurious, a little rough. I would be safe mostly and comfy like a tour group traveler, but, as a woman traveling alone, I would occasionally be exposed to adventure.

Like a silver bracelet

It took 100 years to lay the tracks of the Copper Canyon Railroad, originally intended to link the U.S. heartland to the Gulf of California. Sitting at my window or stationed in one of the open passageways between cars, I could see why engineers had to blast 86 tunnels and build 175 bridges to get the train over the challenging terrain.

The coastal plains quickly gave way to foothills, then pine-covered mountains, then a canyon gashed by the Septentrión River, shining like a silver bracelet in a jewelry case thousands of feet below.

I started to think Copper Canyon couldn't compare with the Grand, with its one vast chasm and variegated rocks. Around Témoris, about 60 miles northeast of El Fuerte, the scenery grew intense, and I stopped comparing the Copper and the Grand because it was pointless. Rock teeth lined the tops of the mountains all around, wispy clouds caught between them.

Then the train started doing nutty things, chugging up impossibly steep inclines, passing through deadly dark tunnels and finally mastering a set of hair-raising switchbacks at Témoris, a railway village on the Septentrión.

The train reached the highest points on the track, at 7,000 to 8,000 feet, in the early afternoon. By then I had met almost everyone on board: honeymooners with their heads together in the seat in front of me, a Mexican social worker on vacation, various tour groups and guides whom I re-met on subsequent legs of the journey.

I got off the train with almost everyone else at the Posada Barrancas stop, an hour or so past Témoris, where there's a sleepy village, Areponapuchi, and a bus to take travelers to the nearby Posada Mirador Hotel.

This rustic orange adobe lodge is the jewel in the Balderrama crown. It's built in the canyon wall above the confluence of the Urique and Tararecua rivers and delivers sweeping vistas from almost every window, hearty family-style meals and guest rooms with fireplaces, simple folksy furnishings and balconies overlooking the canyon.

Tarahumara women, dressed in their traditional bright printed skirts, blouses and shawls, sat like flowers at the entrance to the lodge, their baskets spread out in front of them. They barely respond to a cheerful hola, underscoring the private nature of the Tarahumara, who retreated into canyon nooks and crannies with each successive wave of interloping conquistadors, Jesuits and miners. The average tourist usually encounters them only at markets like this or sees them along the road.

Shortly after arriving, I set out on a hike with the Richardses, a Mexican couple from the capital, a guide named Felipe and a barefoot Tarahumara girl about 5 years old who asked me for money in a whisper. We went to a Tarahumara cave dwelling about 100 feet below the rim, where a family still lived (and who requested donations from tourists), then scrambled among the hoodoos at the rim of the canyon.

Before dinner that night, Felipe played the guitar while margaritas flowed freely and tour groups mingled. The sun sank, and I went to sleep to the mad braying of a donkey.

The next day it was back on the train to Creel, a 3 1/2-hour ride across a pine-forested plateau, with the canyon hidden from view. Halfway there, the train performed one last trick, crossing back over its own tracks in a full loop.

The view atop a van

Creel is a ramshackle town of about 4,000 that grew up fast when a highway reached it from Chihuahua around 20 years ago. But I stayed only long enough to visit the craft shop on the plaza, which supports a local hospital for the Tarahumara.

I stayed that night at the 17-room Sierra Lodge in Cusárare, about 10 miles south of Creel, transported there from the train station by the lodge van. Sierra Lodge is made of plaster, stone and logs and has no electricity, but there are kerosene lamps. You'll also find elegantly tiled showers, the kind of big, fluffy towels and bathrobes you usually only get at a Ritz-Carlton and beds with blissfully soft flannel sheets.

That afternoon I walked about two miles from the hotel to Cusárare Falls, still dribbling despite the drought. There I bought a carving of a Tarahu-mara woman from a Tarahumara woman who had spread her wares out on a rock. Both had implacable faces, like icons, I thought.

At dinner in the lodge I met Bill and Bea Martin, a Methodist minister and his wife from Oklahoma. We decided to share the $275 cost of a Sierra Lodge van to take us round trip to Batopilas the next morning.

I stayed inside the van for the first 40 miles on paved highway, passing farmsteads with cornfields and peach orchards. But when the road turned to dirt at Samachique, Mario, the driver, persuaded me to sit in one of the two seats affixed to the top. Switchbacking into Batopilas Canyon with a 360-degree view, waving to kids on the road, I was Queen Elizabeth II.

It takes five hours to get to Batopilas. The road, which has recently been upgraded, was better than I expected, passing mines, like La Bufa, that made Batopilas a boomtown in the early 20th century. To it, in 1880, came Alexander Shepherd, a former mayor of Washington, his wife, retainers and seven children. Shepherd prospered there for a time, mining silver and building aqueducts, a clinic, an electric plant and an exquisite hacienda, now in bougainvillea-coated ruins across the river from town.

Batopilas has an air of abandonment and economic depression, caused partly by the drought, partly by a dearth of tourists since Sept. 11. Though fall was coming on, turning alders and poplars into patches of orange and yellow, the heat of summer, which tends to be intense at canyon bottom, hadn't yet broken. The cafes were shut down when we arrived, so the only thing to do was to turn on the fan in my room at the clean but basic Casa Real de las Minas near the plaza and take a siesta.

Later, the Martins and I ate dinner at Doña Mica, a block from the hotel. Doña Mica, who became a mainstay for tourists by serving meals on the front porch of her house, died recently. But her daughter-in-law has carried on and produced for us cilantro-spiced vegetable soup followed by carne asada.

The next morning I set out on a dirt road by the river leading about four miles south to the village of Satevó to visit the isolated 18th century Jesuit mission church there. Along the way, I saw scenes from rural Mexican life: a woman washing dishes in her backyard, naked kids swimming in the river, a boy in a green shirt sleeping on a stone wall among huge organ pipe cactuses.

Then the church came into view, with its classic white façade, graceful three-tiered bell tower and Romanesque domes set like a mirage against the copper-colored rock of the canyon in the middle of nowhere. Though only a few families live in Satevó, the church is well cared for, with paper flowers and primitive paintings on the walls that look as though they might have been done by children.

After seeing the inside, I sat with members of a tour group who had come by van and offered me a ride back to Batopilas. But the walk had been pleasant, so I declined.

Sorrow and joy

Halfway back to town, thinking all was right with the world, I said hola to the boy in the green shirt on the stone wall, who looked about 15. This time he ran down to the road and followed me, asking for money. When I refused, he pulled a knife, saying he was a bandido, quietly, as if he didn't quite believe it himself. I pushed him away and felt his heart thumping in his chest, then started to shriek. I guess he never expected a lone norte-americana to behave like a banshee, because he did not follow when I took off. The incident seemed to me more sad than dangerous. Still, I felt shaken and reported it to the police in Batopilas.

That night, my last in town, I joined a tour group also staying at the Casa Real de las Minas, which had no restaurant, for a specially catered dinner in the hotel's courtyard. Afterward a mariachi band played for the tourists. Halfheartedly, I clapped and sang along to "La Cucaracha."

The trip out of the canyon was by van. Then I went west by train to El Misión, another pleasant Balderrama hotel in the valley town of Cerocahui, reached by dirt road from the railway station in Bahuichivo, about halfway between Creel and El Fuerte.

There I went riding with a guide to a waterfall at the edge of the valley on a spirited horse named Dorado and visited the pretty church across from the hotel. In the nearby plaza I could hear the piping voices of little girls in the mission school down the road. I could also smell marijuana burning.

My room at the hotel opened onto a vineyard. I sat there in the sun drying my hair the morning of my departure for El Fuerte, where I stayed one last night before flying home.

I had come to Mexico to see Copper Canyon, I thought. But some trips turn out to be about much more than sightseeing. Some are complex, with as much sorrow as joy. In a way, those are the best.

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