Mexico: by train to bandit country

Lucy Gillmore bought a ticket back in time, to the lawless land of hard stares, coyotes, bullet holes and revolution

There are only two things to do in Chihuahua; buy cowboy boots and wait for the train. If you're looking for the world's most pampered pooch, you're in for a disappointment. They are no chihuahuas left in Chihuahua. This is cowboy country after all, a harsh, bleached land of crusted mountains baked beneath a hard sapphire sky. It's also the end of the line for the Copper Canyon Railway, one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world, and the reason why most tourists venture so far into Mexico's barren north.

There are only two things to do in Chihuahua; buy cowboy boots and wait for the train. If you're looking for the world's most pampered pooch, you're in for a disappointment. They are no chihuahuas left in Chihuahua. This is cowboy country after all, a harsh, bleached land of crusted mountains baked beneath a hard sapphire sky. It's also the end of the line for the Copper Canyon Railway, one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world, and the reason why most tourists venture so far into Mexico's barren north.

The railway was the dream of the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway Company which, at the beginning of the 20th century, planned to forge a new route from the American Midwest to the Pacific. It failed. Laying the tracks jauntily across the plains, the company hit the mountains and gave up.

In 1953 the Mexicans tried again, and over eight years blasted 73 tunnels through the mountains and built 28 bridges across perilous ravines - a feat of engineering and, one suspects, pure bloodymindedness. The line from Los Mochis on the steamy coast to the high desert plains of Chihuahua careers precariously across the Sierra Madre mountains over flimsy bridges, grimly clinging to the rock face.

I was heading east to west, starting in Chihuahua, a blowzy town of low-slung buildings and wide, dusty streets. Prowling them were Chevrolets and juggernauts and stocky, redneck four-wheel-drives with blacked-out windows and names like Ram Charger or Ram Basher.

The area has always been rough and untamed; a kind of American Wild West meets Mexican machismo. It was here and in Mexico's far south that revolution was hatched in 1910. Pancho Villa, a one-time bandit, cattle rustler and would-be Hollywood hero, rose up against the dictator, Diaz. The story goes that he invited a film crew along when he rode into battle.

The town still has a raw edge and doesn't suffer tourists gladly. Soldiers with machine guns stand guard as visitors wander disconsolately round the Museum of the Revolution and past Pancho Villa's bullet-ridden car (he was assassinated in 1923). They look as though they'd rather be doing something far more bloodthirsty. Snapshots of Villa's widow and the Hollywood actor Anthony Quinn hang oddly beside movie stills of Mexico's moustachioed revolutionaries galloping in sepia across the desert.

As I sat on a bench in the Plaza de Armas, beside an old man chewing tobacco and spitting green slime, I counted the minutes ticking by, mulling over whether the emerald green mock-lizard skin or mauve leather boots with silver toe caps would go down better in Battersea.

The 6am departure the next day left exactly on time - so much for lackadaisical Latins. The journey takes 13-and-a-half hours on a good day, and with only one train a day at the moment in each direction, you make sure you're on it. Jumping off along the way you can explore the canyon on foot, horseback or by Jeep and, as the Barranca del Cobre dwarfs the Grand Canyon, that's probably why you're there. The Americans, it seems, don't have the monopoly on big.

On board, things were on a more manageable scale. The carriages had thick carpets and Venetian blinds, not to mention his-and-hers spotless loos. The train was reassuringly more Amtrak than Old Patagonian Express. CHP's (pronounced Shepay's) reclining seats were sumptuously upholstered. My fellow passengers were mostly elderly Americans and backpackers on their way to Baja's beaches.

"You see Wiley, you see Wiley?" Bob, an American tour guide, had spotted a coyote and almost jumped through the roof. There were kestrels on electricity pylons, cowboys on rearing horses and dead cattle beside the tracks - it was if they had all been painted on a flat beige canvas. This was Bob's own private viewing; a real-life Western through the polished glass. We rolled through a parched landscape dotted with cacti and thorn trees, cocooned in our luxurious pod.

The first jumping off point was Creel, a one-horse town five hours down the line. Grabbing my backpack, I wandered along the road towards my hotel. Dust blew in clouds down the main street, which was lined with old pick-up trucks and shops selling little Indian dolls and baskets. The Tarahumara Indians in bright, flouncy skirts huddled in groups, and men in stetsons galloped along the railway tracks.

Creel was originally a logging town and still feels a bit like a forgotten trading post, but it's more attuned to the tourist industry than Chihuahua. I took a Jeep tour of the nearby Indian reservation, bumping along a dirt track. The landscape looked as though it had been left out in the sun for too long. Pale rocks and washed-out grass blended into an insipid sky. Further on, things became more animated as we passed the large rock formations that made up the Valley of the Mushrooms and Valley of the Frogs.

The Jesuits arrived here at the beginning of the 17th century to convert the native Tarahumara, but despite the continued presence of the mission and their tenacity after sporadic rebellions, Catholicism has retained only a tenuous hold. The original mission church stands out lonely against the plain, a symbol of ultimate impotence.

Moving on the next day, the train was not just on time, it was 15 minutes early. Alex, a backpacking barmaid from Alaska, hung her socks over the back of the seat to dry complaining, "I've been here for days. I keep missing the train."

From Creel it's just an hour to Divisadero and "the view". Everyone piled off to stagger down the steps to the viewpoint. We passed the Tarahumara as they wove baskets for the tourists. There were stalls of steaming hot food. Then our chattering stopped. We hovered on the brink of the chasm stretching across a seemingly unending expanse. The magnitude of it silenced us.

A further five minutes down the line was Posada Barrancas Mirador where I was staying. All low terracotta walls and chunky wood, the rooms have balconies that hang over the edge of the canyon. Dumping my bag on the bed beside the traditional kiva fireplace, I stepped outside. The air was like a shot of frozen vodka. Hummingbirds hovered nearby, while across the canyon the sun bounced off sheer rock, and pack-laden donkeys zigzagged along narrow paths. Finding a large, flat rock in the sun, I spent the afternoon staring into space. This was Cormac McCarthy land, and tomorrow I was going horse riding ...

My gnarled guide Roberto had a face like cracked leather and wore the ubiquitous stetson and spurs. My horse was a cross between a mule and a mountain goat. As we clattered off down the track, the sun beat down and I swotted flies from my sweaty face. We slithered around the rim of the canyon. The bridles were frayed rope, and the saddle rubbed my thighs raw. As we dismounted and scrabbled to the edge of a ravine, scratched by branches, I was a pioneering rancher scouting for trouble rather than a lily-livered tourist who had become used to lounging in a plush hotel and riding a train with air-con.

Stiff and bow-legged and smelling vaguely of mule, I collapsed on to the rickety, wooden platform to find the afternoon train finally starting to live up to its tardy reputation. "So how're y'all liking the States, honey?" I was cornered by eight bored, big-bellied Texans in mirrored sunglasses. A couple of Germans with pudding-bowl haircuts consulted their timetable and started to look agitated. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of an ancient silent movie star, still sprightly in a straw hat with a tiny doll's face, smudged tangerine lipstick and feet like a geisha's in minuscule black pumps. This exquisite woman, the reincarnation of Lilian Gish, sat calm and unflustered on the shambles of the Mexican platform surrounded by large, old-fashioned trunks.

The sun was searing a hole in the sky. The minutes turned to suffocating hours. The Texans and Germans were puce with apoplexy. The next leg of the route was supposed to be the most breathtaking. If we lost the light we'd miss the view. But this wasn't play-acting. We were stranded on a dusty platform, and the real Mexico had finally reared its head and hijacked our train.

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