Travel & Outdoors: Rivers deep, mountains high

Richard Holledge journeys along Mexico's Copper Canyon by bus, Chevy and rail
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The Independent Travel
Happy hour in the Posada Mirador. An impromptu trio of waiters strum hectically at their guitars. Reuben, Heidi, Scott and Ezra clap along, sing along and as the margaritas - three for the price of one - take their hold, they dance along. We know their names because these are on ID badges stuck to their sensible travellers' simulated cotton windbreakers. In the bar, Harvey and Earl are watching CNN and trying to whip up some interest in the result of the US election.

"Clinton winning?"

"Yeah, looks like it. Dos Carta Blancas, please."

It could be almost anywhere, almost any hotel colonised by the great American tourist trail anywhere in the world. Here we eat steak with baked potatoes instead of pollo a mole - chicken in a bittersweet chocolate sauce. Tortillas? Please. The morning's scrambled eggs come American-style, without the challenging piquancy of huevos a Mexicano.

But by dawn we know that this is no ordinary stopover. The first lightening of the day outlines the rim of the mighty canyon that stretches thousands of metres down and across. As the sun pops over the rim it reveals the vastness of the scene. From the hotel, an eyrie built on the rim of a canyon 2,500 metres above sea level, we can see, way below us, a deep, dry river-bed edged by forest and small fields of maize, and canyon upon canyon stretching away into the dawn pinkness. The hummingbirds start their darting progress from one tree to another; the eagles recommence their steady soaring arcs; in the distance a donkey brays.

It's a sight that led us to get up early - those of us who had the strength, after the assault on the margaritas the night before - and stand on our balconies in silent awe.

The hotel is at the half-way point of one of the great combinations of nature and engineering in the world. The Copper Canyon railway trip takes 13 hours (at least) and stretches from the sweaty Pacific coast town of Los Mochis to the industrial city of Chihuahua, set high on the plain in flat, hot farmland. In between, 73 tunnels, 28 bridges and a gaggle of neglected little villages whose poverty seems exaggerated by the relative glamour of the mighty blue train which clanks and grinds into their perfunctory stations carrying a cargo of Reubens, Heidis, Scotts and Ezras. Many make the trip in one go, but it is best to get on and off the train at various points. One ticket will cover the journey.

The train to the coast starts at 7.30 each morning in Chihuahua. I decided to skip the overnight and headed straight from the airport to the massive hangar of a bus station on the outskirts of the city. The first half of the great El Pacifico railway trip began by bus.

The air-conditioned bus hammers over the plain, often parallel with the line, with romantic laments blasting from the radio; it winds into the sierra and arrives five hours later in Creel.

No problem with accommodation here. A lad attaches himself to me as I get off the bus and guides me over the railway line, clambering nimbly over the wagons laden improbably with Recreation Vehicles (more American colonisation) to the small, backpackers' lodge of San Margaritas. It is as if time had stood still from my hitching days many years ago. A disparate crew of nationalities, communicating in varying degrees of broken English, radiating an air of competitive camaraderie over who has been furthest for the least. The only difference between now and those long-lost hippy days is that the peripatetic youth of San Margaritas look clean and sin- free, and stride out winsomely under state-of-the-art rucksacks.

Creel is virtually a one-street town, straggling dustily along the railway line. It has a small square with an optimistic bandstand, a church whose morning bells act as an alarm clock by clanging out at the same time as dawn's punctual 7.20 arrival, and a little shop selling knick-knacks for the local Catholic mission. The place is an improbable meeting of Indians and tourists. The Indians, the Taramhumara, are increasingly aware of their own commercial worth. They wander into town from the surrounding hills, or come on the three-days-a-week bus from valley-floor, subtropical villages such as Batopilas. The men still wear curious, skirt-like garments round their nether regions and the women give the impression that their ancient traditions have held firm since the tribe fled to the sierra from the Spanish. Now the valleys and their network of small hotels are increasingly filled with American package holidaymakers, who are well-behaved and credulous in that way of American tourists, but none the less there.

Not that this is high-profile tourist country. The mainstay of local wealth is logging, and judging by the neat wooden houses in the countryside and the steady procession of Chevy FWD and Dodge Rams that four-wheel- drive their way up and down the street every evening in a latter-day version of "Mexican Graffiti", tourism is likely to remain an adjunct.

It is easy to get a glimpse of the Indian lifestyle. Walk to the end of the village, past the cemetery with its poignant display of plastic flowers and scattering of marigold leaves left from the previous week's Da de la Muerte, when all Mexico flocks to cemeteries to honour the dead. You find yourself in a valley with smallholdings, aggressive dogs, a few browsing horses, the constant fleeting shadow of the floating eagles, rustling maize, and an ancient tractor scything through the wheat.

In fact, the influence of tourism lies only with a few undemanding attempts by local drivers to inveigle you on trips and a few half-hearted attempts by children to sell some wood carvings. The main drag has a few simple cafes - try Veronica's for the best breakfasts and Hernandez for a thin, red pork chop with salsa - and is so unspoilt that there is only one bar where you can buy a tequila. It must be the influence of the Alcoholics Anonymous group, which advertises itself discreetly on the outskirts of town.

One of the taxi-drivers finally prevailed on me to take a trip; it was the sign on the side of his Chevy - "English Speaks" - that won me over. He persuaded me not to wait for the train - bound to be late, anyway - so I crowded into the Chevy with a trio of Mexicans from Chicago and he whizzed us to the next station on the line, Divisadero. We detoured for a mighty view over the Rio Oteros via a cleared stretch of forest. "It used to be a landing-strip," he said. "Marijuana. Police come."

Am I ever going to get on the train? It is meant to reach the half-way point at Divisadero by 1.45pm. The view is so powerful here that the train stops for 15 minutes to allow travellers to pick their way through a gaggle of Indians selling grass-made baskets and more grass-made baskets and marvel at the view, cameras clicking. A few minutes and another stop, the Posado Barranco. The three girls stoically weaving grass baskets hardly look up at the tourists waiting for the train. Older women protect their selection of copper bits and pieces with similar scant regard for Elmer, with his baseball cap proudly displaying "Retire" on the front, or Anthea, eager to return to the comfort of her RV in Baja California, clutching a vast bin-liner of woven baskets, or Abigail, a child of the Sixties, absently watching her offspring wander off down the line.

The train arrives, clunking, groaning and whistling, alongside the short, wooden platform, officious guards order people into seats where there are broken blinds, or have the carriage side blocking the view. We had to sit where we were told, despite the fact that the train was less than half full.

And since all well-prepared travellers know that the best view on this particular journey is on the left as you head west, the conflict for a decent seat was intense. It took at least 10 minutes, with rows with officials of escalating degrees of seniority, gold braid and pomposity, to strike a deal.

It is an extraordinary trip. In a succession of loops, tunnels and cliff edges, the train sinks deeper into the canyon, passing a few smallholdings, occasional maize fields and a handful of villages. Increasing time is spent on the platform between the carriages, watching the train snaking away in front and behind. As it drops slowly and circuitously toward the sea, the climate warms up, leaving the great, stark boulders, bare cliff edges and pine forests behind. Now the trackside is covered with cacti shaped like pan pipes, or like giant, alien squid clinging on to the cliff sides.

As dusk falls the train sidles out of the great gorges with their tops now touched by the setting sun, and reaches the River Chnipas. It stretches wide and shining black in the gathering gloom. The train groans over the river on a narrow bridge, only to stop at a disturbing height. Has it broken down or is it simply stopping for us to admire the view? Casting aside the terror of vertigo, we peer straight down to the river below and off into the distance as it glides toward the Pacific.

The train gives a blast and gathers speed. Hundreds of feet below, half submerged by the river: the twisted reamins of two freight wagons. Maybe the bridge was as perilous as it seemed, after all.

You can in the Canyon

The trip:

The Chihuahua al Pacifico train departs every morning from each end of the line - Los Mochis in the west, Chihuahua in the east, with a one-way fare of about pounds 25. You should buy the ticket the day before travel, though it can be bought on the train.

Getting there:

To Mexico City: flights with Aero Mexico from Charles de Gaulle, Paris, from pounds 343 - Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday. British Airways, pounds 459 - Monday, Thursday, Saturday, direct.

To Chihuahua: pounds 81 one-way with Aero Mexico. Flights also to Los Mochis for the west-east trip.

Tours, agents: Journey Latin America offers bespoke tours of the area. It can arrange flights with Lufthansa (from Frankfurt) for pounds 396.

South American Experience (0171-976 5511) offers pounds 410 on Iberia via Madrid.

Information: Mexican Ministry of Tourism, 60 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS (0171-734 1058).

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