CopperDAM Blog: An Uncommon Journey’s Train Through The Copper Canyon With Return Via Holland America’s MV OOSTERDAM

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CopperDAM Blog, Part One: El Paso to Mazatlan


Cabin 24, Hotel Villa Mexicana, Creel, Mexico. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

October 31, 2007: I begin this blog from the village of Creel, nestled in the rocky alpine terrain of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, approximately one mile above sea level. I am very comfortably reposed in a spacious and quaint log cabin-style bungalow at the Villa Mexicana Hotel, having just finished lunch with the Uncommon Journeys tour group. Shortly, we will board a remodeled school bus to visit a Tarahumara Indian settlement. This is day three of a twelve night package tour that began in El Paso, Texas, meandering south via coach and train through the Copper Canyon to Mazatlan, capped off with a leisurely Pacific coastal passage to San Diego, California on board Holland America Line’s MV OOSTERDAM.

Day ONE

Hotel Camino Real, El Paso, TX. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

I arrived in El Paso two nights ago, on October 29, 2007. It was clear from the vast sprawl of lights that this Tex/Mex border town was no sleepy hollow. A large Lone Star was emblazoned on the face of a nearby mountainside, looming above clusters of industrial chimneys and their respective plumes of eerily lit smoke. An ironic pairing of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” and the Kinks’ “Lola” was my random introductory soundtrack as the shuttle sped along the highway to the Camino Real Hotel.

Too late for the Uncommon Journey’s buffet dinner, I did manage to say a quick hello to Barbara Abegglen and Jean Dunphy, the two seasoned and savvy tour guides who would be escorting a combined group of eighty plus on this coach-train-ship adventure.

It is always nice when your historic 1912-built hotel has a towering Tiffany glass skylight and even better when there is a choice between coconut lime or warm vanilla sugar soap in the rooms. After an authentic Mexican dinner in a local restaurant and a quick workout in the hotel’s gym, the warm vanilla sugar won me over. “Lala-lalala-LO-la!” and soon, I was off to sleep, pampered in plush percale and a mini mountain of pillows.

Day TWO

Tiffany skylight over the Dome Bar, Camino Real Hotel, El Paso, TX. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

October 30, 2007: I was up at 7:00 for the buffet breakfast (included in the Uncommon Journeys package), a quick photo study of the hotel’s stunning Dome Bar and a short, brisk walk down one of the adjacent streets. At 9:00, it was time to join the cue at the coach, which would take us on the first leg of our trip. Our guide, Jean Dunphy, was joined by local guide, Rodrigo Santa Maria, who would enlighten us with a great deal of information about the Chihuahua and Copper Canyon regions.

And the journey begins. Jean Dunphy (far left) guides us onto our coach. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Northbound train in Chihuahua Desert. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Soon, we were crossing the Rio Grande (which, despite its name, is a concrete-encased creek) and into Mexico. At the border station, we had to disembark and press a button on a gadget that resembles a pedestrian crossing sign (a rare, random red signal entails a bag search in the name of Mexican homeland security). After an hour or so, we were all back on the bus, heading south on a brilliantly sunny morning through Ciudad Juarez and into the vast Chihuahua Desert, the largest in North America.

There was a lunch stop (included) about a third of the way to the city of Chihuahua and a short rest stop some two thirds of the way. After about four and a half hours, we arrived in Chihuahua, which is known best, perhaps for three things: Pancho Villa (the legendary resident who died there), Anthony Quinn (the “Zorba The Greek” star who was born there), and its eponymous, bony little dogs.

I was particularly impressed with just how seemingly prosperous and well laid out the city is. In certain respects, it reminded me of an arid San Jose, Costa Rica.

A mural depicting Pancho Villa at the Pancho Villa House. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

The bullet-riddled car in which Pancho Villa was assassinated. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Gobierno’s Eagle, Chihuahua State Capitol. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Aye, Chihuahua (!) With Metropolitan Cathedral. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

We enjoyed a tour of the Pancho Villa House (really home to one of his wives, and now a museum dedicated to his exploits) and the State Capitol building (Palacio de Gobierno) with its impressive three stories of courtyard murals depicting the history of Mexico. From the Capitol, many of us walked along a promenade to the Metropolitan Cathedral, passing a number of high-end stores and some very camera shy Tarahumaras in their folkloric garb. We arrived at the comfortable Sicomoro Hotel (where I was pleasantly shocked to find WiFi access in my room) in time for some rest before happy hour and dinner (included).

Day THREE

El Chepe Embarkation. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

October 31, 2007: The 4:00 AM wake up call was painful but necessary. This would be a very rich but tightly scheduled day. I joined the group in the lobby shortly before our 5:00 AM departure for the train station, where we boarded the 6:00 “dawn” train to Creel. At first, it seemed to poke along, rumbling past the station and around the perimeter of Chihuahua.

Trainshadow, Trainshadow… Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Vestibule view enroute to Creel. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

The train headed in a southerly direction and up a long, gentle grade through pastures, Mennonite farmland, and quaint villages. As it’s long shadow gradually shrank away, soaring hawks, grazing cattle and fields of maize went by. When we went to the dining car for breakfast (included) at 8:40, the train had picked up speed and was now hurtling over trestles and around bends, diesel smoke and whistle bellowing like a calamitous Cruella DeVille. Not yet seasoned in this mode of travel, I earned my “train legs” by standing in the ‘tween car platform, getting wind whipped, tossed and rattled.

Around 11:00 AM (it was another remarkably moderate but bright, sunny day), the grasslands gave way to chaparral, apple orchards and, eventually, pine forests.

Train of Light. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

At one point, the railway reached its peak point of 8,071 feet, passing the little town of San Juanito, the highest village in Mexico. We were nearing the former logging town of Creel, named after the Philadelphia-born governor of Chihuahua who enabled construction of the railway, the shortest trade route from Kansas City to the Pacific (and ultimately the Orient). The railway, itself, took 89 years to build and was not completed until 1961. The 415 mile route from Chihuahua to Topolobampo includes 36 major bridges and 87 tunnels.

Downtown Creel. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Upon arrival at rustic Creel, our coach and its driver, Juan, were waiting at the station to whisk us off to the Hotel Villa Mexicana.

Lake Arareco. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Reservation clothesline. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Tarahumara woman and cross. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Creel cattle. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

I was a bit lagged and considered not going on the afternoon tour of Creel (pondering a nap or an aimless swing on a neighboring porch). Our mode of transport was a converted school bus, the largest vehicle capable of traversing the mountainous, dirt roads. We drove past magnificent rock formations (an elephant, frogs, Easter Island type faces, etc.) to the mirror-like Lake Arareco, and into a Tarahumara reservation.

Tara-cotta. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

These gentle people have remained basically unchanged for nearly ten thousand years, maintaining a population of 40,000 that is scattered about the Chihuahua Sierra. Most live in cave
s or huts made of rocks and mud and the women wear colorful, folkloric garb that includes billowing, pleated skirts and scarves. They have maintained their traditional pottery and weaving skills, creating objects of art that are highly sought after by tourists, providing the Tarahumara with a source of much-needed income.

San Ignacio Cathedral. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Our Creel tour included a stop at a local reservation where we were able to see the 1745 built San Ignacio Cathedral. We were welcomed at the adjacent school yard where the gentle, shy Tarahumara children must have found us a curious lot. While there, a volunteer worker, Leopoldine Ganser, explained to us the difficulties the children face with poor sanitation, disease, and poverty. Leopoldine and her organization, Inciativa Oesterreich-Mexico, are seeking ways to raise money, ideas, and resources to help support the children and are not affiliated with any type of church or sect. For more information, go to: www.talentoycorazon.org.

Cabin 24, Hotel Villa Mexicana. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Upon our return to the hotel, many of us watched a video on the Tarahumara before spending some social time at happy hour and dinner (included). As much as I would have loved to linger over a margarita with newfound friends under the orange and black Halloween banners, I was spent, so ambled off to my spacious cabin for a dream-filled sleep.

Day FOUR

November 1, 2007: I awoke just in time to shower and stumble out to the lodge to get coffee and buffet breakfast (included) before it was cleared away at 9:00 AM.

Our groups converged at the train station at 11:00 for the two hour ride to Copper Canyon. Although due at 11:15, the train arrived at 11:45, rewarding our patience with a dramatic whistle salute.

The weather conditions were simply perfect, once more, with the temperature hovering around 75 degrees with a slight breeze, no humidity, and ever-fresh air.

Exiting El Chepe at Divisadero. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Divisadero view. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

The train journey was as bumpy as it was thrilling. Once again, I staked out the “‘tween car” vestibule area, flinging myself from left to right as the engine towed its line of passenger cars around the edge of the mountains overlooking Creel, in a complete loop over itself and through the thick pine and manzanita forests, into tunnels and through channels of rock. Fleeting glances of the distant canyon prompted some “oohs” and “aahs” but the first real chance to soak it all in came at Divisadero, where we had a fifteen minute stop (and the other part of our group disembarked). Here, Tarahumara vendors lined the stepped path down to the observation point and the cantilevered, 1934-built Hotel Cabañas Divisadero Barrancas.

I had just enough time to test my vertiginal limits and take some photos from the rim of Urique Canyon, one of five majestic gorges that form Copper Canyon. I cannot emphasize enough how photos just do not do the vastness and majesty of this canyon justice. The shadows, jagged rocks, and multi-hued igneous strata form a super-canvas of nature’s work that is humbling and, for me (especially when looking over the ledge), a mixture of thrilling and terrifying.

We continued our short train ride to the Posada Barrancas Mirador stop where another school bus awaited to transport us up a rugged road to the Posada Mirador Hotel, a terra cotta structure built into an east-facing slope of the Urique. Rows of balconied rooms with spectacular views (including a dramatic sunrise for early-starters) give this and the rival Divisadero claim to two of the most spectacular hotel settings in the world.

Dining room view at the Mirador. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Hotel Posada Barrancas Mirador. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Following lunch, I wandered off along the rocky trails near the rim of the canyon, keeping away from the ledge to avoid wobbly legs.

Manzanita sunset. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

I meandered long enough to catch the sun setting over a grove of manzanitas. Aside from the occasional vulture, a painted lady butterfly and a few gnats, there was very little wild life to be seen.

Back at the Posada Barrancas Mirador, I indulged in some delicious popcorn and a Modelo beer or two with friends during Hora Feliz. From there, it was off to dinner, where I consumed a mound of delicious guacamole and some chili and cheese covered corn tortillas, all served family style.

Day FIVE

Tarahumara dancing demo. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Tarahumara “Game Boys”. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Tarahumara “Game Girls”. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

November 2, 2007: After a good night’s sleep at the nearby Ranchero Hotel (by the train station), I grabbed my luggage and gear and hiked up to the “PBM” for breakfast. Outside, on yet another perfectly balmy morning, the local Tarahumaras gave a demonstration of their tribal dances and showed us how they play their unique ball game, involving a stick and a wooden ball that can only be thrown with the feet.

Endless chasm through wobbly ankles and grate. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

A vision in vertigo: your correspondent. Photo by Jean Dunphy, copyright Peter Knego 2007.

The group gathered outside the hotel at 11:00 for a school bus ride through the canyon back country. We first visited a lookout station with a grated steel and glass platform. Frustrated, I finally wobbled out to the edge draped around fearless Jean, a bit embarrassed but positively thrilled to peer down a couple hundred feet to the tree tops between my tennis shoes.

Barbara Drottow. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

There are some wonderful people on this journey and here is one that has won my heart: Barbara Drottow, a spry lady of 72, who came to Los Angeles the year I was born. We bonded on that and our common affliction with vertigo right away. She has shared some amazing things with us, including her history as a Holocaust survivor. She never misses a beat, has a delightful sense of humor and enough energy to light a kibbutz.

Rodri-“goat”! Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Rodrigo led some of us down a trail to a place called Balancing Rock. As we stood at the edge of the canyon, he walked over to a promontory and hopped up the pinkish rocks, not minding the 800 foot chasm inches away on either side. My gut turned and my hands shook as I tried to photograph the feat.

Life on the edge. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

We hiked a bit further to another promontory where a Tarahumara lady sat with her little baby, weaving baskets. Apparently she scales the cliff face via a stepped trail and a long wooden ladder and sits in the same spot every day, offering her handiwork for sale.


The Uncommon “Reds” at the rim, much to the disinterest of a Tarahumara woman. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Our next stop was the Divisadero Hotel where we enjoyed lunch and time to shop at the vendors. I stood at the rim, watching as an occasional vulture or cardinal glided by. At times it was dead quiet, aside from a slight rumble of wind in the ear.

Cemetery colors. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Unadorned but not forgotten. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

On our return to the Posada hotel, Rodri-“goat” arranged with our school bus driver, Pancho, for a quick visit to a local cemetery where the graves were decorated with bright flowers and mementoes. Today was Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and it was time to celebrate the deceased. It was not your average tourist experience, being welcomed on hallowed ground during such a spiritual occasion. I noticed the revelers around one grave were not mourning so much as remembering and praying for their late loved one.

View from Posada Barrancas Mirador. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Tonight, I would be staying in room 81 at the Posadas. Once I settled in, I decided to just stay put and watch the shadows spread across the canyon as I worked on this blog. Eventually, the entire canyon was in darkness, blending into a purplish black with the sky. The stars flickered on, revealing the great constellations and the brightest Mars I have ever seen. Off in the canyon, a single Tarahumara fire burned. Moths and a large owl flashed by the balcony, caught in the glow of the porch lights.

I lingered so l
ong in solitary serenity that I missed most of Hora Feliz with my “Uncommon” compadres. After dinner, there was more time to stare into the abyss. Did I hear drums and tribal chanting mixed in with the echoing of crickets in the canyon? At 1:00 AM, many of the Tarahumara would ascend from the canyon crevices and head to the cemeteries to celebrate.

Day SIX

Dawn with Venus. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Sunrise. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

November 3, 2007: Insomnia worked in my favor as I was up at 5:30 to document sunrise over the canyon. First, a violet band appeared in the darkness, then as the stars faded, the violet imploded into cadmium and ochre until finally, a tiara of brilliant gold announced the arrival of the sun behind the most distant ridge. As the roosters crowed back and forth, I thought I might lay back down and catch an hour or two of sleep, but being situated directly under the dining room pretty much put an end to that.

Yellow Tarahumara dress. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Tarahumara children. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Social strata. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Lichen butterfly. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Following breakfast, I walked down the path adjacent to the hotel and into the canyon to visit a small Tarahumara settlement. I felt a bit intrusive with the cameras but have been assured that these people are used to being photographed in exchange for all the benefits the local tourism brings them. Nonetheless, my cameras felt awkward as I clicked at the gentle, shy children, a colorful clothesline, a curious cow, and the stone dwellings in the recess of the rock cliff.

Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

After lunch, we boarded the Copper Canyon train for the most spectacular part of our journey. Our train had two engines and extra cars, leading us over the serpentine railway around precipices, into tunnels, over trestles past small settlements, abandoned adobes and rocky alcoves. Bouncing back and forth in the vestibules trying to capture an elusive photo or two confirmed that the railway needs to be experienced for all its beauty. The contrast of brilliant sunlight and shadows in the crevices, the jarring movement of the train and the sudden appearance of trees and chaparral provide challenges for the serious shutterbug.

Lower Copper Canyon scenery. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Exiting tunnel from rear of train, southbound. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Below the buttes. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

En route, the ecosystem evolved from the craggy dryness of the upper canyon to the more tropical lushness of the lower southern canyon. Rodrigo arranged with the authorities for me to stand on the rear platform for a short portion of the trip, giving me yet another perspective from which to document the journey.

Northbound from Southbound in the Copper Canyon. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Coffee with Barbara Abegglen in the bar car, southbound. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

We pulled aside three times to allow oncoming trains to rocket by as the locomotives exchanged whistle salutes.
Juan and our motor coach were at the El Fuerte station waiting for us when our train pulled in a little late at 7:15. The town was in a “fiest-ive” mood on this
post Halloween Saturday night making access to the historic Hotel Posada del Hidalgo a logistical challenge that Juan was able to conquer.

Hotel Posada Dining Area. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

El Fuerte, located in the state of Sinaloa, was founded in 1564 as San Juan de Carpoa by Captain Don Francisco de Ibarra. It was abandoned and repopulated three times and ultimately renamed El Fuerte (The Fort). The Hotel Posada was built between 1903 and 1908 as a private residence for a man named Don Rafael Almada, who died in 1909, leaving it to wife and ultimately his heirs, who kept it a private residence until 1967. In a state of disrepair, the house was purchased by hotelier Roberto Balderrama Gomez, who restored and converted it into an hotel, preserving as much of the original Sinaloan colonial architecture as possible. The property has since expanded from 18 to 56 rooms, with the addition of neighboring properties, a swimming pool, bar, air conditioning and expanded gardens.

Our welcome dinner (incuded) featured a wonderful tortilla soup and a very fresh fish with vegetables and rice. The dessert was caramel flan-tastic!

Day SEVEN

Bald eagle at Rio Fuerte. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Black swallowtail of El Fuerte. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

November 4, 2007: Following buffet breakfast, the majority of our group joined Rodrigo on a walking tour of town that included a stop at the El Fuerte River where swallowtail and sulphur butterflies drank bougainvillea nectar while a bald eagle watched from a barren tree on the opposite bank. {Bring DEET spray for the nasty “noseeums” and voracious mosquitos in El Fuerte — especially when in the plaza and near the river bank.}

Snake “bites” in El Fuerte. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Principal Church through Palacio Municipal arch. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

We continued onward to the local marketplace (where everything from sunflower seeds and rattlesnake meat were on sale) through the city square to the Palacio Municipal (built by Don Rafael Almeda between 1903 and 1907) and the Principal Church (built in the late 18th Century) before returning to the hotel to file onto the coach for the six hour drive south to Mazatlan.

I hitched up with WiFi access in the lobby of the beachfront Costa de Oro hotel in Mazatlan, following the Uncommon Journeys cocktail party. I got the majority of this blog posted and added some photos before it was time for bed.

Day EIGHT

A beach to run and swim on as seen from Mazatlan’s Costa de Oro Hotel. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

When the waves get too big, there’s always the pool at the Costa de Oro. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.

Aah, leisure! No early morning wake-up call and no schedule to follow, other than visiting with friends and managing to eat something. A late afternoon run in the crashing waves, an attempt at bodysurfing and floating around in the pool were my physical exertions.

Surely there will be mounds of authentic guacamole and pico de gallo to consume on this last night on land in Mexico.

To be continued aboard Holland America Line’s MV OOSTERDAM…

Also From Peter Knego/P.K. Productions:
On The Road To Alang DVD
The World’s Passenger Fleet, VOLUME NINE DVD

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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