Treasure of Sierra Madre
Copper Canyon, Mexico
“We gotta go where there’s no trails at all, where you can be positive that no surveyor or anybody who knows anything about prospecting has ever been before.”
- The film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
People have come before, but not a lot of them, and they weren’t prospectors looking for gold.
We were about to board a swaying, shaking train that would snake its way over rusted railroad tracks eight thousand feet up a jagged mountainside, but that was only a small part of this trip. There were bone-jarring bus rides over steeply winding, gravel-strewn roads. Don’t look down. If we blow a tire or something causes the driver to leave the road, it’s a straight drop.
Sights along the way included dusty Mexican villages with narrow sidewalks, where leather-faced Mexican cowboys and mangy dogs herded cows. Also, smoke-shrouded caves with air as thick as San Francisco fog where Indians today still live out their primitive and short lives without running water or electricity, and a trip to nature at its grandest, a handsome gorge rivaling the magnificent Grand Canyon.
Our hosts were often luxury hotels with no telephones, no televisions, no American newspapers, but with gorgeous, steep vista views outside the balconies of our rooms heated in the cold mountain nights by fireplaces. Singing Mexican school children provided our evening entertainment.
We were visiting the Sierra Madre mountain range in the Copper Canyon, one of the most rugged places on earth – at or near the top of the most desirable list of many travelers. Few ever make it – maybe 25,000 people a year, compared to the much more accessible Grand Canyon, which attracted 4.2 million visitors in 2001.
It was a schizophrenic trip – luxurious at times, but also rugged. View it as soft adventure, best taken as a journey for those jaded travelers who complain about this homogenized world with places having become like all the others.
The Copper Canyon has few roads and is accessible in many places only by train. This is the type of rough country you might have seen in a Sergio Leone western – The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More. For anyone doubting its adventure potential, in 1998, the train was robbed by real pistol-packing, horse-riding banditos a modern-day film scene that didn’t need to be dreamed up by the late “spaghetti” western director.
Our group met in Tucson where we took a bus tour before entering Mexico at bustling, tourist-catering Nogales. Our driver unfastened a chain lock fence. Porters took our few bags (we had been warned to pack lightly because there was not much storage space available) to board the Sierra Madre Express.
The train and the travelers
It’s a modest-looking Mexican-owned FerroMex engine pulling a string of five restored 1950s, vintage railroad cars. They are colored gray similar to the dust that shrouds them. There is a lounge car, an observation dome that is also the dining car, and sleeping cars. The last car features an outside observation deck where many of the passengers spent hours during warm weather periods – their eyes like slits, wind tossing their hair into wild, fast-shifting shapes.
I’ve never been on a train where friendships weren’t quickly formed. This trip was no exception. Riders in rail cars quickly learned about each other. There was a train consultant doing a study for the owner, a retired geologist and his wife who had been everywhere, and, of course, several train buffs who immediately compared notes on the rails they had ridden. Most of us are, perhaps predictably, middle-aged. There are no children.
All of our meals and drinks, including alcohol, were covered (I wondered whether passengers normally started Bloody Mary’s at 7:30 in the morning. Oh well, we were on vacation!) Aware of the threat of Montezuma’s Revenge, train brochures made much of their policy to carry all food, ice and water from the U.S.
The consultant told me Mexican trains routinely carry several guards. “Usually, they’ll have guns, and I don’t mean simple guns. I mean submachine pistols. I’m curious to see what they have for security on this train,” he said. To end the suspense, we had no trouble. Sierra Madre employees, who act as patient Spanish interpreters in addition to offering always impeccable service, told me the train was locked every night since the robbery of several years ago.
The train climbed. It twisted and turned. We saw pine-forested plateaus. Distant panoramic vistas of mountain slopes were thick with ponderosa pine, white pine and pinions. We passed slopes so close we could reach out and touch them.
The mountain front rose ahead of us in a massive wall that appeared unbroken from a distance. We were seeing some of the roughest terrain in North America, a place where small, neglected wildflowers grew nestled within the rugged exteriors of cactuses.
Because of revolutions, wars and rugged country, this railroad took almost a century to complete – at a cost of many lives, many of them the local Turahumaras. Our trip through semi-tropical vegetation to pine-clad uplands took us through eighty-seven tunnels and across thirty-five bridges blasted out of the wilderness. El Descanso is the longest bridge, taking nearly two minutes to travel its inky, seemingly unending six thousand foot span.
Most of us gazed at the passing scenery. We learned to clutch the walls and dance drunkenly to the rhythm of the train’s lurching movements. By nightfall, we were ready for sleep. Our comfortably simple room had two single beds, a sink, some paintings on the wall and a net to store coats or other items. As predicted, about the only room for suitcases was under the beds (large enough for an airline carry-on).
The Other Mexico
Every mud-brick village has its own character. Some have dirt streets so clean they look as if they had been hand-swept. Others are decaying. This is the opposite side of tourist beaches in Cancun – poverty, houses made of corrugated tin or cast-away railroad boxcars. Nothing ever seems finished here. Fences are half complete. Ladders have missing rungs. Little is thrown away. It’s as if the poor villagers keep it all because they never know when it will be needed. Future archeologists studying the ruins may conclude that impromptu garbage sites and collections of Tecate beer and motor oil cans are the major elements leftover from this civilization.
Views from the train show rural Mexican life: a woman washing dishes in her backyard, naked children swimming in a river, a boy sleeping on a stone wall among huge organ pipe cactuses. People take a few seconds to wave. In a slow-moving area without television and other distractions, trains pass for simple entertainment.
We got off the train to ride aging buses, rocking and rolling. Indians live in small enclaves found at the end of narrow trails. An estimated 70,000 Tarahumara Indians continue to inhabit the Canyon Country of the Sierra Madre. They are so determined to stay, they have overcome poverty, isolation and all efforts to push them back from the small towns that grew up around them.
They never hit their children. They have no swear words in their native language. They are not interested in business but in personal relationships. They routinely share their food. They drink corn beer, tesguino. Some of them still live without electricity in smoky caves that seem prime instigators of lung cancer. Their life span is around forty-five years.
The Indians we encountered smiled shyly, heads often bowed, as they presented their wooden baskets and other wares that are their major income source. The men wore jeans and cowboy shirts. The women often retained their colorful Indian dresses.
When not sleeping on the train, we stayed at hotels owned by the well-known Balderama company. They are regarded as luxury lodging, but they sometimes had no heat over the fireplaces, no telephones, no televisions and no morning newspapers (I was amazed how quickly I adjusted). The Copper Canyon was never far away.
At the Posada Barrancas Mirador Hotel near the typically small town of Divisadero, our rooms perched literally on the canyon rim. We posed for pictures on our balconies and admired the views below. At dawn, I found hummingbirds already stirring on the terrace, feasting on sugar water. A faint light brought out the highest cliffs from the darkness. The canyon, blanketed with broken rock and brush, appeared bottomless as it dropped steeply below the rim.
A dog barked below, like a musical note breaking the silence. A rooster answered back. Indian farmsteads below blended in so well they could only be identified at night by campfires. The view stretched to infinity.
I saw an Indian family going about their daily chores outside their cave. Farther away, horse riders slowly made their way single file along the canyon rim trail – mere pinpricks against the immensity of the canyon.
Our final night included a gourmet meal in the glass dome, a final sunset over the Sierra Madre mountains and a nightcap in the Club Car. Experienced train travelers now, we retraced our route to Nogales, sleeping to the clackety-clack music of train wheels, perhaps dreaming of immense canyons in the early morning mist.
Boarding our bus for the ride home, we passed customs and our driver put on a CD of “America The Beautiful.” Tinny-sounding perhaps, but our group broke into spontaneous applause. We had a grand time, but we were glad to be home.
If You Go
The Sierra Madre Express celebrates its 22nd anniversary this year as the only privately-owned railroad to offer an intimate five-day trip to a remote corner of Mexico. “It will never be a big commercial operation,” vows founder Peter Robbins.
The canyons at the western Sierra Madre Mountains, collectively called Copper Canyon, were formed more than forty million years ago by volcanic activity. Weather and running rivers over millions of years etched out canyons that are considered among the most spectacular on earth.
Figure at least $3,000 a person. Basic rates are somewhat less than that per person, depending on time of year and other factors. Prices include two nights stay in a Tucson hotel. Aboard the train, hotel overnights and all food and beverages are included.
Contact information: 800-666-0346, or 520-747-0346, or www.sierramadreexpress.com.
What to do in Tucson
Try the Arizona State Museum with a fascinating Paths of Life exhibit focusing on ten Indian groups, including the Tarahumaras. The University of Arizona Art Museum has a superb 15th century Spanish Retablo from Ciudad Rodrigo, as well as sixty clay and plaster models of the famous artist, Jacques Lipshitz. There’s also the Arizona-Somora Desert Museum, the Tucson Botanical Gardens and the San Zavier del Bac Mission.