Riding the Rails in Mexico’s Grand Canyon: Part 1

Part 1: Chihuahua to Creel

 

 

I like to take trains wherever I travel in Latin America. Most of the time it’s a practical urban reality (subway systems anywhere), other times it’s a nice way to see the countryside (the Volcano Express in Ecuador), and sometimes it’s a depressing reminder of the way things were (any Argentine long-distance train).

But last week, I took what might be my most memorable train trip to date: a ride on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico (Chepe) through the Sierra Madre of Mexico from Chihuahua city to El Fuerte in Sinaloa. Operating every day continuously since 1961, this is the greatest train trip that the world has forgotten, and it is only a few hours away from most major cities in North America.

Many tour operators sell packages that allow you to stop along the way and partake in various outdoors activities, including hiking, horseback riding in the canyon, zip lines and the like. I decided this time I’d take the train (almost) the whole way through, and save the stops for next time.

So arriving a day early in Chihuahua, the historic and pretty capital of Mexico’s largest state, I arrived to the train station to purchase tickets, securing a pair of seats on the left-hand side of the train. (On the way to the coast, the tracks are oriented such that the eastern-facing side, or left side, have the best views). After spending the day walking through Chihuahua, buying a pair of the state’s famous cowboy boots, and embarking on a memorable night tour through town, I turned in early to catch my 6am departure from the city’s dusty railway station.

Arriving at the station the first thing you notice is, if you’re traveling on a two-class train, that this is no simple tourist train. Although the first-class service runs every day, the train three days a week there is an addition of several “economy class” cars, which were filled to the brim with local families visiting relatives, returning from the big city, and others foregoing the curvy bus ride through the mountains.

The first-class service costs a fair amount more, but gives you a much more unforgettable interaction with (and better window access to) the real star of the ride: the landscape. Heading into the somewhat-dated, but impeccably clean, first class cars, passengers are greeted by suited conductors that assiduously check tickets for accuracy (don’t lose it!) and make sure customers stay in their correct cars.

Shortly after our punctual departure, we pulled away into the darkness, passing through the suburbs of Chihuahua until all that was left was the sun rising over a barren, desert-like horizon. As the sun rose, the first thing that crossed my mind was the enormity of Mexico. Sure, many countries in the Americas have lots of open space, but Mexico’s open spaces seem more barren, and more unexplored than others, and the presence of so much empty land runs contrary to the amount of cultural and human diversity in the country.

Now passing into the state’s more fertile valley area, the train speeds by apple trees, innumerable cows, and even Mennonite communities that have been established in this part of Chihuahua for more than a century. We even passed a barn that had its offerings in Spanish and German painted on the side.

Arriving in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, the tracks wind through the workaday city at the heart of the state’s agricultural zone. Many more passengers boarded here, another sign of the train’s day-to-day utility in local life.

After this station, I decided to have breakfast in the train’s charming and very old-fashioned dining car. Served by waiters from a basic menu of Mexican staples, the car offered a range of the country’s greatest hits of breakfasts, including chilaquiles (delightful), enchiladas (equally interesting) and huevos rancheros (everything you want out of breakfast). Paired with coffee, and a heated debate between two groups of retirees over the Mexican government’s contribution to structured pension plans, I passed an hour and a half staring out the enormous windows into the Chihuahuan plains. But on our way back to our seats I discovered what made the train ride truly magical.

Even though the train is climate controlled, and extremely comfortable throughout the journey, the vestibules between cars have doors with top half windows that open. Somewhat cheekily, once the sun had risen the conductors flung open the windows and gave the vestibule an sense of being completely open to the rails. Despite warning signs not to stand there, the conductors paid them no mind, and passengers could stand with their heads perched outside the train during the journey. This made the journey even more memorable than it otherwise would have been, and gives you a sense of traveling into the wild west with your head out the window breathing the dust of the frontier.

Several hours later, the train starts to climb into an increasingly mountainous environment. Pine trees replace the apple groves and you start to see the characteristic log cabins of the region’s indigenous Raramuri. After transiting a few small towns, the train pulls into Creel, which was the original terminus of the railroad when it was finished by it’s American developers. The town, now somewhat overrun with tourists on their way to excursions in the canyon, has a distinct mountain feel, and an increasingly good infrastructure to serve visitors (the state government is opening an airport in the mountain town this year).

Pulling out of Creel, it’s very evident how high up we are. It’s chilly, the air seems thin, and the depths of the canyon we’re about to descend into begin to make themselves known. At this point I decide to stick my head out the vestibule doors, avoiding the occasional tree branch and tunnel entry (there are more than 80 tunnels on the route), and watching the rustic cabins and traditional livelihoods pass by. If time travel exists, it’s gotta feel something like this.

In the next post, I’ll describe the second half of the trip, with the stop at the top of the canyon to overlook the incredible crevasse below and the spectacular descent into the riverbed of the canyon. The best is yet to come.

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