Some of the most spectacular scenery in North America is waiting for you on the Sierra Madre Express, a train chronicled in National Geographic’s book titled ” World’s Great Train Journeys.”
This trip actually begins in Tucson and that’s a good thing for a couple of reasons. The first is not having to clear customs and immigration in an airport. The more important one, however, is that you can begin and end the journey in the beautiful city of Tucson which has a lot to offer. I began my trip by staying for two nights at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Resort on the west side of the city. The resort is kind of out in the country and surrounded by hills covered with magnificent saguaro cactus to the north and west and a stunning golf course view over which you can see the city lights at night to the east and south. My favorite treat was being able to walk out of the lobby, a hundred yards down the driveway and directly onto the Bowen Trail in the Tucson Mountain Park. There are a number of trails through the park and you can walk for minutes or for hours. There is even a Geochacheing hunt available. Play a little golf, visit the Hashani Spa and end the day with a splendid meal at Primo that will include vegetables from their own organic garden.
After leaving the Starr Pass Resort I met up with the Sierra Madre Express group at the Doubletree where we overnighted before visiting several local sites in Tucson, including the beautiful mission at San Xavier del Bac – sometimes called the White Dove of the Desert – before crossing the border by motorcoach into Nogales. Here we boarded the Sierra Madre Express as it began its trip down the eastern edge of Mexico, bound for the Barrancas del Cobre or better known in the U.S. as Copper Canyon.
When the train reaches the little village of Sufragio at an elevation of 105 feet, it switches over onto the tracks that will carry us up through 87 tunnels and over 37 bridges until it reaches Divisadero on the very rim of the Copper Canyon. Then over the Continental Divide at more than 8,000 feet.
The Sierra Madre Express offers you the chance to once again become a guest and not just a mass transit ticket holder. Most of the cars were built in the 1940’s. My car was built in 1949 by the American Car and Foundry Company. With two lower bunks and a toilet and sink as well as two miniature closets, I was all set for the adventure. I really only used my little suite for sleeping. Most of the day was spent either in the dome at the top of the Tucson car, in the very comfortable lounge in the Arizona car or, most frequently, on the open-air patio deck of the Divisadero car. For more information about the individual cars you can check out the website here.
Some nights were spent in wonderful inns along the way. The Posada Mirador at Divisadero is perched on the rim of the canyon like an eagle ready to fly. It is spectacular, especially in the early morning light. >From the lodge there are numerous hiking trails that lead out around the rim of this spectacular canyon. The views from every room are breathtaking and the terrace off the main lobby is a perfect place for spotting soaring hawks in the canyon and tiny hummingbirds coming to feast at the feeders hanging from the eaves. The stay here offers time to take a horseback ride or to take a long hike into the Divisadero station to shop in the Tarahumara marketplace set along the rim of the canyon. Before you get back on the train, you may want to get a Chile Relleno for a dollar. Absolutely delicious and you can’t beat the price. The only problem is that there is so much great food on the train. My suggestion is to walk to the station from the hotel, eat the relleno and then walk back – by then, you will have earned it. And, since you’re probably shopping a bit by now let me offer another suggestion. The handcrafts are extremely reasonable and the Tarahumara really don’t seem to care that much for “haggling.” So why not just pay what they ask and enjoy your new treasure. Twelve dollars for a really beautiful, large basket with a lid is not going to break your budget, but that twelve dollars will be very meaningful to the weaver who diligently crafted this fine item with her very own two hands. Have your photo taken with her and your purchase and you will have a grand memory to cherish forever. Now that’s a bargain for only 12 bucks!
And, speaking of photos, not only will the scenery burn up a lot of space on your memory card, but the delightful native children will garner your attention as well. Be prepared to offer them a little something in exchange for taking their photo. They are a very proud people and should be treated with dignity and respect.
One of the best features of this journey was the opportunity to actually get to meet and share the experience with fellow travelers. And, for the most part, these were travelers, not just tourists. Some carried their notebooks with listed features, like tunnels, bridges, landmarks that provided railroad mile markers in order to find and keep up with highlights along the way. Sitting on the open deck watching the passing spectacle, taking and sharing and talking about our lives brought many of these travelers very close. Some will be lifelong friends. Some will connect and take other journeys together. Part of the beauty of travel is the opportunity to get beyond some of our social and cultural barriers and become more accepting of others. While a train does provide some separation from the local people of the area, that same train also attracts some of the local people in a way that provides an opportunity to make a connection that might otherwise not be possible.
The Copper Canyon area is actually made up of a number of canyons, several of which are larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the U.S. On a previous trip I hiked to the bottom of Urique Canyon with the famous Tarahumara runner, Victoriano. He likes to take short cuts and hike cross country rather than use the road so I had a pretty exciting day of off trail hiking, often on goat trails and very steep downhill descents. At a reputed age of 55 he won the Leadville 100 running in his tire tread and rawhide thong sandals.
The Tarahumara, numbering perhaps about 70,000, inhabit this gloriously rugged country. Many of their compounds are far from the nearest village and, typically, they run to the village when they need supplies. Or, they run from one of their isolated corn fields to one of their equally isolated goat herds. Occasionally you wander down a goat trail and find a pen filled with fine looking goats in a cave that was once used in earlier times by the Mogollon culture, long since gone from this region. Many of the Raramuri, as they call themselves, are outstanding craftspeople, making fine baskets, dolls and other items to sell to visitors. They are a kind, gentle people, often shy, but always delightful.
The Sierra Madre Express, as it makes its way up the steep railways and into the heart of the Barrancas del Cobre provides many stunning views of this rugged countryside. Like the spectacular spot along the way where the train actually circles around over itself. In one of the long tunnels, the train loops about and exits the tunnel in the same direction from which it entered. At one spot you can see three different levels of track as the train winds about very sharply up a rapid ascent. And this with a picturesque waterfall alongside.
Sitting on the open deck with feet propped up on the rail and enjoying the passing spectacle is what many would say a vacation should be. I agree with that, but I also find the opportunity to get off the train and into the villages and the countryside to be important to me.
This was my second visit to Copper Canyon, but it won’t be my last. I’ll be back on a train adventure one of these days, but all those dirt roads we passed along the way were very enticing. I kept thinking of how exciting it would be to wander slowly and aimlessly from village to village on about a 250cc trail bike . . . I’m still thinking about that.
The ride back up to Nogales provides an exceptional opportunity to relive many of the past week’s adventures with your fellow travelers as well as a chance to get to know them even better. By now you already know many of their little eccentricities and the group has become something of a family. The train staff, the passengers and the people you met along the way have all helped to make this a trip of a lifetime.
The last evening back at the hotel in Tucson is a final chance to say goodbye to new friends, exchange emails and addresses, pack and figure out how to get all the wonderful hand crafted items you purchased back home. In the morning they’ll all be gone. All but me and a few others staying over to do different things.
I’m planning a full day with lots of things to see and do in Tucson. I’ve already driven past the Davis-Monthan Air Base where thousands of retired military aircraft are sitting in the sun, preserved by the dry desert air and waiting for . . . . what? Maybe nothing – maybe some will be refurbished. Who knows? It’s a sight worth seeing but are these billions of dollars worth of now useless aircraft the price of peace or the price of war? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
My plan for my final day is to visit the Desert Museum and then proceed to the Hacienda Del Sol for my final evening and morning in Tucson. The New York Times describes the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as “Probably the most distinctive zoo in the United States.” and I concur. It is a nature trail leading through botanic gardens, animal exhibits, aviaries and into a museum. I didn’t see any Mexican wolves in the Copper Canyon, but I spotted a couple of them here.
I ended this fabulous adventure at the Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort on the north side of Tucson. I wish I had more time for this award winning inn that has been recognized by National Geographic, Travel & Leisure Magazine and others. I don’t think I stayed in the suite that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn frequented, but I was able to enjoy my spacious and exceedingly comfortable accommodations with a patio overlooking the surrounding valley and mountains before dining at The Grill. A Wine Spectator award winner, the Grill was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.
I know I’ll be back – maybe I’ll see you there . . . Keep on Traveling!