Thursday, May 21, 2015

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

Tourism literature refers to "The Copper Canyon" as "Mexico's Grand Canyon". Like all good tourist marketing slogans, this captures the attention of would-be travelers. But it doesn't do this area justice. 

Random Background Information

The "Copper Canyon" is just one of the largest in a vast system of (depending on who is counting) 20 canyons covering more than 25,000 square miles within the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. The largest of these canyons, Urique, is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Even the casual traveler has the opportunity to see three of the largest canyons - Septentrion, Urique, and del Cobre (Copper) and countless smaller canyons. We went a bit further and added the Batopilas canyon to our trip. 
One Of Many Spectacular Views

The name Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) comes from the Spanish explorers who - as conquerors are wont to do - went looking for natural resources to exploit and thought they had found copper. They didn't find copper but the name stuck.

The canyons were formed by six rivers which eventually converge to create the Rio Fuerte (Strong River) which flows into the Golfo de California (Sea of Cortez) at the site of a port town called Topolobampo. Sounds like a 1950's dance craze, no?

The Mighty Rio Fuerte

One could spend - and some have spent - years exploring the vast canyon system. Less scientific travelers usually focus on the Parque Nacional de las Barrancas del Cobre (the Copper Canyons National Park) and the train that crosses it. The train is the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico (Chihuahua Pacific Train) which operates a 653 kilometer-long (405 mile) tourist class train between the airport city of Los Mochis, Sinaloa and the airport city of Chihuahua, Chihuahua. Along this route the train offers spectacular views of the barrancas. Some tours call this the "Train To The Sky". We prefer the less elaborate (and more common) name the locals use: El Chepe (from: Ch(ihuaua) / P(acific)). 

Riding The Rails

Many Ways To Travel

The Internet is full of prearranged tours to the Barrancas that range from educational, spectacular-view tours by train or even private airplane to trekking tours or mountain biking tours that offer the opportunity to exhaust oneself. These tours will provide English-speaking guides, many of whom are well educated on the culture, art and topography of the area; prearranged lodging, meals and transportation; prearranged sports equipment (camping gear, mountain bikes, etc.) and the comfort and enjoyment of being with a group of travelers with a similar interest (fishing, mountain biking, folk art, etc.).

More frugal (or even downright cheap) travelers can experience the canyons on a self-directed tour like we did, by simply: 
  • researching the area via books and/or the Internet (Spanish language websites can be translated using a variety of auto-translate features - which can result in some pretty funky though functional translations);
  • deciding what to see and do, often based on reading the itineraries of high-priced prearranged tours posted on the Internet;   
  • arranging travel to and from the area (we arrived in El Fuerte by car; travel to Los Mochis/El Fuerte or Chihuahua by plane can be arranged using the Internet);
  • purchasing train and/or bus tickets after arrival;
  • booking hotels using the Internet ( is a favorite of ours);
  • choosing most restaurants based on what we see and smell, and the occasional splurge restaurant based on Internet reviews (yes, TripAdvisor has reviews of restaurants in Creel and Chihuahua!);
  • hiring local guides for tours when necessary or desired (there are English-speaking guides in the canyons area) through hotels or based on Internet reviews; and
  • taking day hikes based on information provided by locals and park employees (we are too old and cautious for mountain biking). 
This self-directed approach is easier for Spanish speakers (or, in Molly's case, someone traveling with a Spanish speaker), but Spanish fluency isn't required. It's possible to enjoy a self-directed trip using friendliness, mime and a willingness to learn and use a few necessary phrases found in the back of most tour books. 

The next few posts will talk about how our self-directed trip worked for us.

So We Begin

We drove north from Mazatlan and spent the night in Los Mochis. Los Mochis isn't much of a tourist destination but it's worth a night if you go to El Farallon for dinner and you are lazy drivers like we are. 

El Fuerte

Our next stop was the town of El Fuerte (The Fort), referred to by locals as simply Fuerte (which would be translated as "strong" except it's just a shortening of "the fort"). 

El Fuerte from Museo Mirador El Fuerte
(The El Fuerte Overlook Museum)

Fuerte is one of the more common places for travelers to catch El Chepe. Most visitors spend at least a full day in El Fuerte at the beginning or end of their train trip, even though it's a fairly low-key town. We spent two nights on our way into the canyons, which gave us enough time to enjoy:

               Rio Fuerte:  Through our hotel we arranged a half-day bird-watching trip on the El Fuerte river with a local (English-speaking) guide. 

And LOVED Our Transportation!

Our guide, Felipe, provided binoculars and bug spray - essential ingredients to enjoying the trip (and we recommend the latter for anyone visiting Fuerte). During the 20 minute trip to the river he had our driver stop whenever he (Felipe) spotted a bird. His ability to spot and identify birds amazed us - we would be lamely waving our binoculars around long after he had identified two or three different species by name.  

We are not real birdwatchers but with Felipe's assistance we saw vultures, a couple of different fly-catchers, Sinaloa crows, the noisy caracara, and even a groove-billed ani - which sounds a bit like the title of a Neil Diamond song to us . . . Molly's favorite was a spectacularly red cardinal that we were not able to photograph.  

A, Uh, Pretty Bird With A Yellow Breast

At the river, Felipe and his driver launched a panga, and we began the float downstream. 

Felipe -
Momentarily Relaxing His Bird Spotting Vigilance

In addition to birds, we spotted a variety of river-side mammals, cows, horses, picnickers, and 

A White Backed Wingless Cyclist

Mid-journey Felipe banked the boat and we walked inland for about a half-mile to a place where he showed us dozens of petroglyphs. He helped us see the less obvious petroglyphs and told us what many of them are generally thought to represent. 

A Singer?


A Humanoid Figure

As with our prior petroglyph experience at Las Labradas near Mazatlan there seems to be very little known about the people who made these carvings. But to us there were many similarities between these carvings and those at Las Labradas, which suggested that the two groups were somehow connected - perhaps through trade or tribal affiliation. 

We returned to the panga and continued to float further down the river, seeing a number of birds, including water birds:

From The Cormorant Family....

Great Blue Herron 

One of the pleasures of the trip was to spend time just floating along the river. It's always good to be on the water.

               Hotel Adventures: We stayed at the Hotel Torres Del Fuerte, a well located and very clean 25-room hotel built from the 400-year old hacienda once owned by the Torres family.  

Exterior Shot

The hotel has a huge open-air lobby, lovely grounds full of birds, 

Beautiful Grounds
"individually themed" rooms with slate-lined bathrooms,

Our Room
an outdoor bar with lounging beds and a restaurant with black walls and gilt-framed mirrors. Our overall impression was that a dissipated New York interior decorator fond of the French Intervention Look had, by force of will, taken over a hacienda in the middle of the jungle.  

Notwithstanding the hotel's idiosyncratic decor, the staff was very kind and helpful and the cook made a very good breakfast. The restaurant also seemed to be available for dinner upon request. 

We were even allowed to leave our car within the hotel's secure grounds for a week while we traveled to the canyons. 

Bryce Cleaning Bird Poop From The Window. . . 

All for about $80 US a night. 

               The Museum: The Museo Mirador El Fuerte (The El Fuerte Overlook Museum), inside a replica of the fort that gave Fuerte it's name, is not, by itself, a reason to travel to Fuerte. But we figured that as long as we were in town we would visit. 

A number of the exhibits were enjoyable, even if not up to the standards of an internationally recognized museum.   

Bryce and a "Traditional Nahuatl" Mannequin 

A Tribute To The Dispenser of The "Pura Vida" Agua Fresca
From An Exhibit Honoring Local Luminaries

The overlook of the El Fuerte river provided very nice views and the grounds were lovely.

A Beautiful Cardon Cactus

Bryce was able to continue his study of (some say fascination with) Mexican wheelchair ramps:

Don't.  Let.  Go.

And, at the end of our visit we came across the most interesting exhibit of all: Pictures of the area taken at the turn of the last century by an American, Ira Kneeland. Mr. Kneeland, his sister and mother lived for 20 years in a Utopian socialist community established near El Fuerte (at Topolobampo and Los Mochis) by an American idealist, Albert K. Owen. The pictures provide a fascinating look at the Fuerte to Topolobampo area at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. The original pictures are housed at Cal State Fresno in an "unprocessed" collection. We may even take a trip to Fresno to see them this summer!

                Around Town: El Fuerte has a very pretty central plaza, marred only by a toy train ride named "El Chepito" driven by a man with an annoying whistle (we do not know any more about this). 

We found an okay coffee shop and a good torta (sandwich) shop near the plaza. Our further wanderings found:

A Fashion Show Being Readied For Friday Night

The Priest's Parking Space

Random Time Wasting Picture

And finally, taken one lazy afternoon in El Fuerte, a random shout out to our Canadian friends and family. Bryce wants to know if you know who these guys are?

Hint: They Couldn't Get Hotel Rooms
In Charlottetown, P.E.I.

More about our Barrancas del Cobre travels to come . . . 

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