Riding a visionary's dream

The recently improved Copper Canyon railway in Mexico traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in North America

Albert Kinsey Owen's name may not ring a bell, but during the late 19th-century, this utopian dreamer embarked on one of North America's most ambitious railway building projects.

Owen wanted to bring the riches of the Orient closer to America's prairie heartland by establishing a 1,600-mile rail link between Topolobampo Bay in northern Mexico and Kansas City, Mo., a massive undertaking even by today's standards.

In 1880, Owen secured a contract from the president of Mexico to build the first section of track from Topolobampo Bay, but the agreement was cancelled before any work had been done. However, Owen reportedly did oversee the first steps of construction, which began in 1885.

Engineering difficulties, financial problems, and poor management plagued the venture for decades. The final phase of the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad project was directed by the Mexican government, and the last spike was not driven until 1961, long after Owen's death.

The last 400-mile stretch of track links Mexico's mountainous interior to the Pacific coast. It skirts the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and four times as vast, and plummets more than 8,000 feet before reaching sea level.

More than 20 years were needed to build the 39 bridges and 86 tunnels along this dizzying route.

The Copper Canyon railway did not become the lucrative trade route that Owen had envisioned, but it traverses some of the most rugged and awe-inspiring country in North America. The eight-hour journey between the modern agricultural city of Los Mochis near the coast and rustic Creel in the Sierra Madres ranks among the world's most spectacular train rides.

Work on the line continues to this day. A private rail franchise called Ferromex recently took over the Copper Canyon railway from the Mexican government. This company has renovated stations and upgraded the track to meet industry standards. It has also added remodeled passenger cars with air conditioning and reclining seats, plus well-equipped dining and lounge cars.

The Chihuahua al Pacifico - nicknamed "Chepe" - rolls out of the Los Mochis station every day at 6 a.m. The train slowly gains momentum as it trundles across an expansive coastal plain with the imposing silhouette of the Sierra Madres looming in the distance. Before long, farms and cactuses give way to scrubby trees, and mountain breezes dispel muggy lowland air as the diesel engines strain up precipitous, twisting track into canyon country.

Soon the conductor announces the approaching Rio Fuerte Bridge, first of many engineering marvels en route, and passengers crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the churning river far below. The bridge is so narrow that the carriages seem airborne as they glide along its1,640-foot-long span.

Darkness falls like a boulder as the cars plunge into Tunnel 86, cutting more than a mile through the base of a mountain.

Then, at Temoris, the train snakes back and forth across a steep mountainside, negotiates a 180-degree turn inside another tunnel, emerging to reveal three levels of track below.

During the next 12 miles, it burrows through 16 more obstructions while clinging precariously to a deep river gorge rimmed by cascading waterfalls and forested peaks. Farther along, at La Lazo, the line actually spirals back on itself and makes a 360-degree loop.

After about six hours of steady ascent, the highest point on its journey is reached at Divisadero.

Here the train stops long enough to allow passengers to clamber off with cameras in hand.

Impromptu taco stands, souvenir stalls, and Tarahumara Indian women weaving pine-needle baskets line the path to a lookout.

The panorama from this famous vantage point is totally breathtaking. Almost a mile below, the Urique River meanders through its misty canyon, and blue-green ridges stretch out as far as the eye can see.

Two more hours down the track lies Creel, the end of the line for most travelers. Log buildings, a wide main street, and the constant smell of burning pine wood give the sprawling town a frontier atmosphere.

This is the heart of Tarahumara country. Indian women wearing long calico skirts, shawls, and head scarves brighten Creel's streets. Tarahumara men can sometimes be seen wearing white pajama-like garments that reveal their powerful legs.

Between 50,000 and 70,000 Tarahumaras inhabit the network of isolated canyons that make up the Copper Canyon area. They are a shy, independent people who have managed to hold onto their traditions despite intrusions by outsiders.

The Tarahumara call themselves Raramuri, meaning "those who run fast." Tarahumara men have won international running competitions, and they still hold cross-country races in which teams kick a wooden ball for great distances along steep mountain paths.

A mission store on Creel's main plaza sells sweet-smelling baskets, pottery, woven sashes, beadwork, violins, and other Tarahumara handicrafts. There are also books on the area, an excellent map of the railway, plus photographs of the Indians, along with audiocassettes of their chants and dances. Profits go to a hospital for the Tarahumaras.

In Creel, numerous tour operators organize hikes into the canyons and excursions to waterfalls, lakes, and hot springs. However it is possible to strike out on one's own.

The town's main street leads south past railway workers' shacks and the local cemetery to a serene valley where Tarahumaras live in simple log cabins and cave dwellings etched into sheer canyon walls.

On these small farms, they grow corn, beans, and potatoes and tend herds of goats. The road continues on through the Valley of the Mushrooms, an eerie landscape full of balancing boulders and stunted trees, terminating at a 400-year-old adobe church in the small Tarahumara village of San Ignacio.

The train trip back to the coast offers several opportunities for overnight stopovers.

One of the most popular is the hamlet of Cerocahui. An old school bus meets the train at the Bahuichivo station and bounces along an alpine road past meadows and rushing streams to the pretty Hotel Mision.

The pastoral hamlet of Cerocahui was founded by Jesuit missionaries, and their handsome yellow-domed church, dating back to 1741, is still the community's focal point.

Hotel Mision makes a convenient base for exploring nearby waterfalls and canyon viewpoints, either by bus or on horseback. The hotel's 38 cozy rooms look out across a peaceful garden. Mexican crafts adorn the Hotel Mision's softly lit dining room, and a huge natural stone fireplace keeps guests warm on chilly nights.

IF YOU GO:

Aeromexico and Aero California fly to Los Mochis, Mexico.

The fare to Creel from Los Mochis on the new air-conditioned Chihuahua al Pacifico (ChP) first-class train is about $50. The fare on the slower, but still comfortable, second-class train is about $20. Tickets can be purchased in Los Mochis at the Viajes Flamingo travel agency (telephone 68-12-16-13) located in the Hotel Santa Anita. The Hotel Santa Anita has a good restaurant and provides bus service to the train station.

Viajes Flamingo also books hotels in Creel, Divisadero, and Cerocahui. Contact the Hotel Mision in Cerocahui by e-mail at hotelsbal@tsi.com.mx.

The Copper Canyon region can be visited at any time of the year, but it snows in the high country during the winter.

Call Mexico Tourism at 1-800-44-MEXICO for more information.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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