Monday, May 25, 2015

The Copper Canyon - Part 2 - April 18 - 28, 2015

All Aboard Chepe - Eastbound (First Class):

Early (for us - 08:30ish) on Monday morning at the train station outside of Fuerte we boarded the first class Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico (Chihuahua Pacific train) bound for Creel, Chihuahua. [The nickname "Chepe" comes from the Spanish pronunciation of the train's initials: Ch = Che / P = Pe.]

Bryce At The El Fuerte Station

Some seven hours later we arrived in Creel after having: 

  • traveled 275 kilometer (170-ish mile) through the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental;   
  • gained 2,200 meters (7,000-ish feet) in elevation; 
  • crossed the Continental Divide;
  • traversed several tunnels, the longest of which was 1500 meters (almost a mile);
  • experienced a three-level switchback assent and a 360-degree circular switchback inside a tunnel;
  • crossed several dramatic bridges; 
  • negotiated for photography space on the train's platforms with smokers from a European tour group; and
  • had a passable lunch in the dining car.
The literature that describes Chepe as an engineering masterpiece does not exaggerate! 

For a couple of hours after the train left Fuerte we traveled through flat scrub and farmland. We had occasional glimpses of the mighty Rio Fuerte. We read and had coffee in the dining car. 

More of the Mighty Rio Fuerte

Then, about 100 kilometers out of Fuerte the train began to climb. And climb. And climb. The terrain began to change. We were in the mountains.

We Passed Waterfalls

We Passed Towns Too Small For A Station

At Temoris passengers can see the three levels of track the train uses to gain elevation. For your viewing pleasure, we captured only one:

At Temoris We Could See The Future

The only stop of any duration (about 15 minutes) along the route is at Divisadero, the location of the Continental DivideWe watched our fellow travelers purchase handicrafts from the rail-side vendors.  

Baskets, Anyone?

We took a short walk to a view-spotting platform, a bit nervous that we would not hear the train's whistle in time to re-board. 

Bryce Listening For The Departure Whistle
The View From Divisadero -- Probably Urique Canyon

Chepe at Divisadero

Because we had already had lunch in the dining car, we didn't buy a station gordita. But they looked and smelled good.

Mexico's Version Of The Whistle Stop Cafe

After Divisadero the train continued to climb.  

Up and Up and . . . 

At one point the train entered a tunnel and traveled (we were told, and the route map reflects) a full 360 degrees, back over its track, to gain elevation. It was eerie to know it was happening as we swayed through the dark.

For travelers interested in trains, engineering or geography this is a wonderful trip.

Westbound (Economic Class): 

Eight days later, around 3:00 in the afternoon (a time only tangentially related to any printed schedule we had seen) we boarded an economic class car on a combined first and economic class train at Posada Barrancas and rode 213 kilometers (132-ish miles) westward for about five hours to Fuerte. 

The Posada Barrancas "Station"

This was the first time we had even heard that Chepe ran a dual class train (one with both first and economic class cars). The website reflects two different classes of train; the economic class train running only three times a week in each direction. [Travel tip: Check with your hotel - ours seemed to know train mysteries that were not reflected on the Chepe website (click the English button) or at the stations!] 

We had equipped ourselves with snacks and water at our hotel, and didn't really miss not having access to a dining car (only on first class trains) except as a diversion on a long ride. Our economic class tickets cost only $68 for both of us. And there was an additional bonus to riding in the economic class car: our fellow passengers. We traveled with a musical group on its way to a gig in Fuerte, and were entertained by their acoustic versions of Mexican standards until they took a snack break. It made our train ride a true Mexican Moment.

Traveling Musicians

And For Bonus Points: 

For those interested enough to wade through some additional travel and Chepe-related ramblings without the benefit of photographs, we have the following:

               Trip-Related Decisions:

     1.  Train Class. Historically, Chepe has run two classes of train using the same cars. This means the differences between first and economic class trains have been price; the dining car on first class trains; and the schedule. First class trains runs daily and economic class trains run only three times a week in each direction. The economic class train has much more frequent stops (it can even be flagged down at certain places), and is less frequently on schedule.  

But see our dual class train experience above. Clearly (randomly? occasionally? only once?) Chepe has run a dual class train that is not reflected on its website. If the schedule is the same it makes even more sense to pack a lunch and travel in the economic class cars for half the price!  

We chose to travel first class on our eastbound trip because we were traveling on a Monday and Chepe does not run an eastbound economic class train on Monday (or at least that's what the schedule reflects . . . ). Another decision-maker was that we had heard it can be difficult to get a ticket for the economic class train because it is so crowded. Our westbound experience suggests that economic class cars are somewhat more crowded - but we probably could have traveled economic class on our eastbound trip had we traveled on Sunday or Tuesday. 

Our westbound economic class trip was perfectly comfortable, and a lot less expensive. If we travel this way in the future, we'll probably schedule around taking the economic class train. 

     2. Advanced Ticket Purchase. We did not buy tickets in advance, and were able to purchase tickets on the train in both directions. Here's how that worked: the conductor asked for our tickets; we said we didn't have them yet; he assigned us seats and took our ticket payment (about $150 for both of us) after the train left the station. Travel Tip: Paying on board requires cash; the conductors aren't equipped with credit card machines. We received a fully descriptive ticket (number of passengers, destination, price, etc.) for our cash. 

     3. Overall Comfort. The cars were comfortable, if a bit shabby and over-air-conditioned. Travel Tip: Bring a sweater or jacket, and not just for the over-air-conditioned car. See above re: altitude change. It will be a lot cooler in Creel or Divisadero than in Fuerte

The dining car was just fine. We had morning coffee and lunch on board. Food and beverages are for sale from time to time in the economic class cars. Travel Tip: In case the food vendors in the economic class cars aren't on your schedule, bring some water and snacks aboard. Alcohol is officially banned from all but the dining car. We did not see anyone ignoring this rule.  

     4. Route. On our eastbound trip we chose not to take the train from Los Mochis because (a) we knew we wanted to stop in El Fuerte and (b) had read that the portion of the route from Los Mochis to Fuerte didn't pass through any more interesting terrain than we could see from the cuota (toll road). Maps reflect that between Fuerte and Divisadero the train is the only way to go unless you have a rugged 4-wheel drive and a fearless driver. 

On our westbound trip, we took a bus from Creel west to the Posada Barrancas stop because we knew we wanted to spend a couple of days near there. The bus trip - or, rather, waiting for the bus - is a separate story; self-directed travel is not always seamlessly efficient.

               A Highly Condensed History of ChepeThere are dozens of Internet sites with information about this train trip, and a number of them explain a bit about the train's history. But for those who prefer one-stop shopping, here is (to us anyway) some interesting information:   

Chepe took almost 80 years to complete. 

Alfred Kinsey Owens, the man behind the Utopian socialist community in Topolobampo (see our prior post for some information about this guy) was given a concession to build a railway at Topolobampo in the 1880's. His plan was to build a railroad that ran from Kansas City into Mexico, through the Sierra Madre Occidental, to the port of Topolobampo. It's all about goods movement.

At some point the concession and some partially completed railroad was owned and operated by the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway. The KCM&O completed the U.S. portions of the dream. However the Mexican route was not completed because of delays caused by the Mexican Revolution (1910 - 1920ish) and cost overruns due to the rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre Occidental

When the Mexican government nationalized the country's railroads in 1940 the Chepe route was only partially built. The government completed it in 1961. And they say government construction projects can't be efficient.. . 

Chepe is now operated by a private entity, Ferromex. [Privatization being the current efficiency craze.] 

For information about the first and economic class passenger routes Ferromex runs as Chepe it's best to check out the Chepe website. It may not be completely accurate at any given time (see our experience above) - but it is the official word.

Now, as we said -- on to Creel.

1 comment:

  1. Great timing. In the process of reading blogs and perusing the net to research our upcoming visit to Copper Canyon. Can't wait to see what other adventures you had there. Had a great time in French Polynesia (PPJ) and Hawaii but had to go back to the U$ to fatten up the wallet. Glad the hip replacement was a success. Dejala is heading back to the water in the fall and heading to Central America. Who knows we may see you again. Mike and Marie-France