Perhaps you’ve heard this somewhat stereotypical expression. Maybe in an old movie or just something you or a friend picked up and occasionally find yourself exclaiming. It’s o.k. It’s a real expression that some residents of the great state of Chihuahua, Mexico, sometimes find themselves using. I know this because I just came back from Chihuahua and a Mestizo friend that I met there explained it to me. He is part Tarahumara and part Mexican and 100% Chihuahuan. So what does Ay Chihuahua mean? Who knows? What does Goodness Gracious mean? Or Holy Cow? We’ve all got our little colloquialisms and they often mean different things to different people. So when in Chihuahua be ready for an occasional Ay Chihuahua!
What you may not be prepared for, however, is the rugged beauty of this amazing state. The city of Chihuahua itself is lovely with fine old colonial buildings, museums and homes relating the deeds of the famous Pancho Villa, delightful plazas where men come to get their shoes shined and children come to play in the park and mothers come to watch over them. And there is one thing that you might expect to find in a city named Chihuahua that you will find in abundance. I’m speaking of Chihuahuas. Not just little tiny ones waiting for their chance to star in a Taco Bell commercial, but also large ones, maybe 4 feet high in different forms lining the streets and gaily painted by different artists. You can’t miss them and they’re great fun to include in your . And the little children love them. I saw some little 3 and 4 year olds who insisted on stopping at every single one along the street and playing with them (and on them.)
Chihuahua has many charms and is a perfect location to begin a journey into the back country of this large and interesting state. Nearby there is a giant crystal cave with crystals that are larger than people – really. I didn’t get there on this trip but I did see photographs, They are amazing and I’m going back to visit the cave as soon as I get a chance. Just think of the energy! I also want to visit the Mennonite farms in Chihuahua. That’s right, Mennonite farms. They apparently speak German and Spanish as well as English and are highly acclaimed in the region for their farming prowess. Many of them came down from Canada and that is an interesting story in itself. One which I want to learn more about firsthand.
But I came down to see one of the best kept secrets of Chihuahua. Whenever I speak with people about it in the United States the reaction is almost always the same. Where? What? I’m speaking of the Copper Canyon. A place so fantastic that you may think you have discovered the legendary Shangri La. Wrong continent maybe, but Shangri-La just the same. The easiest way to explore the fabulous Copper Canyon is by train. Everyone there knows the secret that apparently almost no one in the U.S. knows. That secret is El Chepe. Are you curious? El Chepe is the name of the train that runs from one end of the Copper Canyon to the other, making a number of stops along the way. Actually there are two trains. A first class train and a second class train. I took the first class or express train. I would have loved to have taken the other one as well but I was no better informed at the beginning of my journey than anyone else. I was advised to fly from Chihuahua to Los Mochis and then take the train north. It would have been cheaper and probably lots more fun to take the second class train South and then come back to the North on the Express train. It certainly would have saved me a few dollars. It think my one way plane ticket was a bit over $200 and the train would have been closer to $65. Another benefit, of course, would have been seeing much of the canyon twice, especially since I like to take lots of . Also getting a chance to mingle with many of the Tarahumara who ride that train. Although I don’t speak the native tongue it is still a treat to see the families and watch them interact with their beautiful little children.
My trip north really began in the village of El Fuerte, where I stayed at the Rio Vista Lodge. It is a modest inn with the best view in town of the Rio Fuerte and an excellent place to begin to explore the surrounding countryside. I was fortunate to spend a morning bird watching (and I’m not really even a “birder”) with Felipe, my guide who, in addition to showing me many local birds spotted a wonderfully large Great Horned Owl 20 feet up in the dark branches of a tree. I would never have seen it on my own. There is also an ancient petroglyph site with some very well defined art to be seen along the way.
Boarding El Chepe, so named because it is short for Chihuahua al Pacifico, the anticipation begins. My flight down from Chihuahua was over some of the wildest, ruggedest country I have ever seen from the air. I can hardly wait to enter the great Copper Canyon that I am now hearing so much about. It has suddenly become famous where three days ago I hardly even knew what to expect, even with the bit of research I had done before the trip.
There are tunnels, bridges and remar
kable switchbacks along the route. Even waterfalls beside the tracks as we climb into the mountains. You can purchase a beautiful glossy book on the train that explains some of the landmarks along the way and is keyed to kilometer markers along the route.
My first stop is at the Bahuichivo depot. This is the beginning of a remarkable adventure for me. Mario, owner of the Cabanas de San Isidro (also known as the Porochi Inn), meets me at the station and drives me through the lovely little town of Cerocahui an up to the rim of Urique Canyon. Mario keeps a small herd of beautiful, well groomed horses for those who may want to ride. But the big surprise comes around the campfire that evening. An older gentleman appears and performs a Tarahumara rain dance for our small group of five intrepid visitors. This man turns out be the legendary Victoriano – winner of the Leadville 100 mile ultra marathon some years back. By some reports he was 55 at the time, but this seems hard to verify. The books list this as his age, but some locals report it differently. Whatever the age he is fit and trim.
The other guests have only the next morning before departing so they opt to take a horseback ride. Amazingly, Victoriano agrees to spend the next day hiking with me. He turns out to be a great hiking companion. He speaks no English so there is no idle chitchat. He maintains a good pace and knows shortcuts down into Urique Canyon. Urique is deeper than the Grand Canyon and Victoriano’s shortcuts are rugged. I learn quickly that when he takes a shortcut it is usually either almost straight up or straight down! There is a road to the bottom of Urique Canyon and Mario has driven down to the small town below to pick up some supplies and to give us a ride back up to the rim. There is not enough time for us to climb back up to the top in one day. Mario is surprised when we arrive because he does not expect us for almost two more hours. Victoriano does set a very good pace. After a brief stop with a chat with an expat from Oregon living in the canyon and another 6 mile hike along the river to visit a small Tarahumara village we meet again with Mario for the ascent out of the canyon.
The next morning Mario and I visit the Cerocahui Indian boarding school for Tarahumara girls and the 17th century gold-domed Jesuit Mission Church before I get back on board El Chepe for the next leg of my journey.
After about a one hour train ride through more spectacular canyon vistas the train arrives at the San Rafael station and my new guide, Noel, is waiting to drive me to the most spectacular lodge on my trip. Uno Lodge is owned by a group of about 45 Tarahumara families. The only electricity here is from solar powered batteries and there is no TV, no telephone, and no traffic noise. The lodge is on the very edge of Urique Canyon at the end of a 6 mile road that takes a full hour to traverse.
This is the off season and I am the only guest at the lodge for my two night visit. I quickly become Mister Robert and Noel is eager to see that my visit is everything I could hope for. He offers several hiking and birding opportunities and I opt for a very long hike the next day. We end up crossing ravines, discovering waterfalls, visiting ancient Mogollon caves, finding Tarahumara goat farms and corn fields high in the mountains and making occasional stops along the canyon rims to sit and talk and enjoy the remarkable vistas that were, only days before, completely unknown to me. In the far off distance, across the canyon in beautiful green valleys we can see small Tarahumara villages. There are no roads, no motorized vehicles, but many walking paths. Maybe I should say running paths. The Tarahumara are known as exceptional long distance runners. When we talk about running into town to get our groceries, we may be talking about jumping into our SUV and driving a couple of miles. For these remarkable people a run into town may mean 8 to 12 hours of actual running! And then back again carrying whatever they went to town for! When Victoriano won his race the story is that he was given running shoes. After a few miles he discarded them, put on sandals made of a piece of tire tread and laced on with rawhide to finish the 100 mile run. Running is running, not driving.
Later, back at the lodge on the rim there is a thunderstorm coming in across the canyon. After dinner it is a fabulous light show that I can view from my expansive windows or from the chair out front. After the show I retire early. Why not? A long and somewhat wearying day and no TV. But, I’m not used to sleeping so many hours so about 2 am I awake and the storm is gone. The air is clear and the stars are bright. Sitting outside for about an hour in the early a.m. gives me a chance to see something I haven’t seen in a long time. The Milky Way. And constellations long absent from my memory. And shooting stars. And satellites traversing the sky. And, an occasional airplane – but luckily far enough away that I don’t even hear it.
When it’s time to leave this lodge on the rim I know I may not be back for a long time – if ever. I have it placed high on my list of places that I want to return to, but know that list will likely never be completely fulfilled. For now it is a memory . . . Some day, who knows?
I have one more stop before leaving for Chihuahua on El Chepe and that is the Divisadero area. This is where many travelers get their best view of the canyon and where many Tarahumara people set up their crafts for sale. There are food vendors here as well. Look for a lady cooking and preparing chile relleno burritos. Absolutely delicious and I’m from New Mexico so you can rely on my opinion on this topic. But walk to the rim and enjoy the view. It is not nearly as spectacular as that from my lodge of the night before, but it is a sight to behold. Don’t miss it.
Story and by Robert Painter (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When You Go:
Take insect repellent, hiking shoes or boots, a small flashlight and plenty of extra film or memory cards for your camera. But pack lightly – there is no baggage check-in on the train. You’ll need to keep your things in the spacious overhead racks. If you plan a visit to the Uno Lodge charge your batteries before you arrive. There are no electrical outlets in the solar powered battery system.
Canyon Travel: http://canyontravel.com/unoydoslodge.htm. You can reserve rooms for the three lodges in the story through Canyon Travel. They can also arrange for other adventures. Toll free phone is: (800) 843-1060.
Chihuahua Tourist Office: Send an email to Rita Meraz at: email@example.com.
El Chepe: http://www.chepe.com.mx/ing_html/index.html.