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Travel Agent magazine article by : Frauke de Looper, 


Sierra Madre Express
Riding the Rim 

A train ride on the Sierra Madre Express offers the thrill of a lifetime

Mexico's spectacular Copper Canyon cuts across the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico. The area is one of the most remote and unexplored destinations close to U.S. borders. Only a trickle of tourists find their way here, and those who do often travel on the Sierra Madre Express.

Created eons ago by volcanic activity, Copper Canyon covers 25,000 square miles and plunges 6,136 feet from its rim to the canyon floor. That makes it four times larger and quite a bit deeper than the Grand Canyon, which measures only 4,674 feet. Mexicans call this rugged and inaccessible region--which is home to the Tarahumara Indians--the "Barranca del Cobre" after an old copper mine deep in the bowels of the canyon near the village of Tejaban.

Although Copper Canyon has given the area its name, it is actually only one part in an extensive canyon system. The total system consists of five major canyons: the Urique, Sinforosa, Copper, Batopilas and Guaynopa.

Shielded From Society

The difficult topography has shielded the Tarahumara Indians from the influences of modern society. It also has kept tourists at bay. There are only a few hotels, most of them rather simple, and no highways. Transportation is mainly by dirt road, since the first blacktop road has only recently been finished between Chihuahua and San Rafael.

But what the region lacks in tourism infrastructure, it makes up in natural beauty. The few hotels gladly cater to adventurous souls who are ready to rough it. But the easiest and most comfortable way to explore Copper Canyon is on the Tucson, Ariz.-based Sierra Madre Express, which has created a unique product. The Sierra Madre Express has provided the only private rail service with sleeping accommodations since the train first began service in 1986 with just one car and 20 passengers, says Peter Robbins, the founder and company president.

Today the company owns five vintage cars from the 1940s and 1950s, and transports approximately 1,350 travelers on 30 trips per year. Expansion, however, is not in the cards, says Robbins, who prefers to book smaller groups and offer a personal touch that breeds good customer loyalty.

Temperatures vary according to season. While it can snow on the canyon rim in winter, spring and fall temperatures range from the low 50s to the high 80s and drop at night. The bottom of the canyon has tropical temperatures. Most passengers are nostalgia buffs and soft-adventure lovers who want to ride in comfort, and many are between the ages of 65 and 70. Although all cars have been totally overhauled to meet the standards and needs of modern travel, only two nights are spent on the train. With the exception of the single sleeper compartments, each state room now contains a sink, toilet and lower twin beds or upper and lower berths. A domed dining car is a wonderful relic from the 1950s. The two Pullman cars were built in the 1940s.

 Two more nights are spent at the Posada Mirador near Divisadero. Built seven years ago on the canyon rim, the hotel beguiles its visitors with unexpected comfort, outstanding service and a breathtaking view. The hotel has a restaurant, bar and 48 rooms, all with a large terrace. The rooms contain hand-painted furniture, two queen-size beds and a tiled bath. Another night is spent in the Hotel Mision in the village of Cerocahui, one hour down the tracks from Divisadero in a valley of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains. Built next to a 500-year-old mission church, the hotel has 39 rooms with private bath, a restaurant, large courtyard with a fountain and a small vineyard.

Places to See

While traveling by bus from Tucson to Magdalena, Mexico, passengers can visit the beautiful San Xavier Mission--founded by Padre Eusebio Kino in the 18th century--and Tubac, an arts-and-crafts community with a small arts center and lots of gift shops. There's also a quick tour of the town's central plaza in Magdalena. In Divisadero, the highest spot in the canyon, clients can enjoy an insight into the Tarahumara culture, as the women in their colorful costumes weave and sell their baskets made out of palm leaves and pine needles.

Next is a train ride from Divisadero through the Continental Divide to the lumber town of Creel for a quick shopping trip. From there clients travel by bus to the old Tarahumara village of Cusarare. A photo stop at a cave-house provides a close encounter with an extended family of cave dwellers who seem quite content with their traditional habitat. A bird's-eye view of the Urique Canyon--the deepest in the system--is gleaned on an excursion from Cerocahui. The bus ride leads through spectacular mountain scenery and pine forests until suddenly the canyon opens its jaws to reveal the small mining town of Urique and the Urique River at the bottom of the pit.

The mix of nature, culture and railroad history is entertaining, and the mix of hotel and train accommodations means that there is truly something for everyone. Tours are offered from September through May.

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