The Most Dramatic Train Ride

The most dramatic train ride…

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Past towering peaks and over dizzying gorges, you roll across the backbone of the continent — surrounded by the treasures of Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

Standing on the brink of the precipice, we stared down into a rift in the earth’s crust — part of a system of gorges so huge that it could swallow four Grand Canyons. Some 3000 feet below, the Urique River, which had carved out the gigantic canyon, seemed a tiny silver thread.

We were 7500 feet up at Divisadero, Mexico, on the Continental Divide. Our train had stopped to give passengers time to see and photograph the cosmic landcape —an infinity of buttes, mesas and many-stepped canyons writhing toward the blue haze of the horizon.

“Great snakes! Now I know why it took a hundred years to build this railroad,” said a tall Arizonan at our side. He was one of the 250,000 tourists a year like us, mostly from the United States, who take this journey — the most dramatic train ride in the Western Hemisphere.

It is the spectacular 17-hour, 400 mile trip from Chihuahua — southwest across the fearsome ranges of the Sierra Madre — to Los Mochis, 13 miles from the Sea of Cortez. The line is the Chihuahua-Pacific, opened in 1961.

Along the route, we saw vast upland ranches, temperate-zone orchards and tropical valleys, lakes full of trophy fish, boomtowns new and old, and almost unexplored mountain chains inhabited by Indians of such speed and endurance that they traditionally hunted deer by running them down on foot. And we did all of this in one week, at uninflated prices!

• Fleet of Foot

We are at Creel — a jumping-off place for explorers, hunters, mining prospectors, anthropologists and geologists — where we planned to stop for a few days. For years this was the end of the line. Creel is a fascinating mixture of the cosmopolitan and the primitive.

From our cosy hotel we made half-day hikes into the mountains. We walked noiselessly through cathedral aisles of enormous pines, cliffs towering above us on every side, some chiseled by wind and weather into free-standing columns 100 feet high. Here and there in a cliff we saw natural caves, many with a low stone wall across the entrance, the overhanging roof black with the smoke of generations of cooking fires.

Rarámuri indian women

raramuri_womenThese are the abodes of the Tarahumara Indians. Semi-nomadic, they prefer the solitary existence – one family per cave — to living together in neighborhoods. There are about 50,000 Tarahumaras. The government has decreed that they are the collective owners of some 26,000 square miles of the Tarahumara Range.

• Over the Top

We left Creel in the glass-domed sightseeing coach of the passenger train. Ahead lay the wildest, most rugged part of the Tarahumara Range. Mile after mile of ridges and vertiginous abysses rolled past our window. We vaulted through the very sky, it seemed, from one razor-backed pinnacle to the next, on soaring spans of bridges (37 of them) anchored in the rock hundreds of feet below. We plunged into tunnels so frequently that often the locomotive was entering a new one before the rear car had come through the last.

The train labored up to the line’s highest point — just over 8000 feet — at Ojitos, where the grim backdrop of the Sierra rose another 5000 feet above us. An hour later, we paused for the splendor of Divisadero.

Standing at that chilly height, surrounded by oaks and pines, we could see — through field glasses— oranges and mangoes growing in the tropics more than half a mile beneath us.

End of The Line

The line spills down the Pacific palisade, 7000 feet, in 94 miles of fantastic loops and serpentines. Much of the descent is along the valley of the Fuerte River, first glimpsed as a raging, rock studded mountain stream.

As we dropped, the valleys grew wider and the river more benign and meandering. Then — as the great mountain loomed purple behind us in the sunset— the track made a beeline across the hot, fertile floodplain.

The plain was covered with broad fields of cotton, wheat, soybeans, safflower, sugar cane —and mile upon mile of marigolds, whose dried blossoms are exported to the United States as a component of chicken feed.

We broke our journey —again — at the little town of El Fuerte and we visited some of the thick-walled, one-story houses, with broad, open inner passages surrounding a spacious central patio.

Many are occupied by descendants of the families that built them centuries ago. Others, have been bought by perceptive “yanquis” and refurbished into handsome winter homes.

The railway’s passenger service ends at Los Mochis, a clean, bustling city of 50,000, an hour and a half beyond El Fuerte. From there, we took a bus to the end of the line at Topolobampo on the Sea of Cortez.

Topolobampo is a lovely little fishing port dreaming beside a blue, deep-water bay ringed by mountains.

The closing of the Tarahumara gap has opened to the traveler a primitive world of stark beauty and awesome grandeur almost unchanged since the beginning of time.

If you decide to experience the adventure:

U.S. Toll Free: 1-800-896-8196

Balderrama Tours Travel Advisors will tell you everything you need to know about accommodations and will offer to make all of your travel arrangements, including all associated plane, train and car reservations.

If you choose to make your own plane reservations, you’ll need to get yourself first to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana or Las Vegas.

Bring along clothing appropriate for both Fall and Summer. This means you’ll want everything from a jacket for cool evenings to shorts for hot days — including a bathing suit for the hot springs.

As for gear, make sure you bring hiking boots, a day pack, water bottles, a sun hat, plenty of suntan lotion, and more camera film/memory than you think you could ever use in eight days!