Monday, August 04, 2008

Copper Canyon

That's me at the front; tha's the Lost Cathedral of Satevo, behind me.

Last year I went to the Copper Canyon district of northern Mexico, to write a travel piece for the Sunday Times.

Yertiz, as they say in Herefordshire.

Copper Canyon

Sean Thomas

You don't expect to get vertigo on trains, do you? On a turbulent plane - of course. Walking along a windy cliff, it's a certainty.
But this is a first: I'm staring across the yawning depths of a mighty gorge, from the relative comfort of a first class berth, on the Chihuahua-Pacifico railroad, and I'm getting headspin. Everyone told me this train journey through Mexico’s Copper Canyon was deeply impressive. No one warned me it would be properly scary. I'm actually looking down on some wheeling vultures.
And yet, and yet. What a journey. This may be the most stupendous train journey of my life. And I've enjoyed a few. I've done the Cairo to Luxor night train: when you wake up staring at the temple of Karnak. I've thrilled to the Shinkansen in Japan, that speeds past snowbound Mount Fuji. I've even spent seven days on the trans-Siberian, chugging epically through the birchforest.
But this? - this beats them all into a cocked sombrero.
And now the railway is climbing the side of one giant abyss, in a heart-pumping series of switchbacks. We've only been on the train a couple of hours, since joining it in the winsome Spanish-colonial silvertown of El Fuerte (you can embark way back on the Pacific coast, if you want to do the whole thing), and yet I'm very ready for a drink. Something to steady the nerves.
Accompanied by my beautiful friend Jenny and our loquacious Mexican guide Huberto, we pick up our pesos and shift into the dining carriage, and order some delicious Mexican food - and some rather piquant Bloody Marys. And with a thousand foot drop just beyond the end of my burrito, we try to work out why anyone would build such a ridiculous railway.
Happily, Huberto is something of an expert - on just about everything. As the barman in the buffet car slots a tape of rather loud mariachi, Huberto shouts the history of the train at me, while spreading an explanatory map across the table.
The railroad was begun in 1898. It was designed to facilitate trade across northern Mexico, into Texas. Given that the wilderness through which it snakes - the daunting canyonlands of Chihuahua State - is one of the most intractable wastelands in the western hemisphere, it took quite a long time to complete. In fact, it took sixty three years. The finished railroad boasts 37 bridges, 87 tunnels, and it rises an astonishing 8000 feet - from the humid Pacific littoral to the harsh desert uplands.
Was it worth it? Economically, you have to wonder. The various mines, which the train used to service, have mostly run dry. These days, businessmen simply fly over the twenty-odd canyons hereabouts. But it you're a tourist, and you want to visit some of the most spectacular and inaccessible spots in Mexico, and some of the country's most recherché cultures, then it's pretty much unbeatable - cause there ain't many roads around here. And the Bloody Marys are great.
Back in the first class carriage - which is not exactly plutocratic, but a touch plusher than standard - Jenny and me size up our fellow travellers. There's a few locals, with bags of tacos. There's also a smattering of Americans, gawping at the golden eagles, soaring between the pinons. But there maybe aren't as many tourists as you'd expect, given the grandiose vistas. Perhaps they are put off by the rumours of bandits.
At one time, this part of Mexico was chocka with banditos. Just ten years ago, the Copper Canyon train was held up: by brigands on horseback - one of them actually aimed a pot-shot at a tourist.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: the tourist's life was saved when the bullet hit the thick, Lonely Planet guidebook he was clutching to his chest. As Huberto relates this story, I see Jenny is anxiously checking the width of her Rough Guide. Huberto assures her she needn't worry, the train is perfectly safe. And anyway, I've got an entire Dostoevsky with me.
'OK, now we get off!'
Says Huberto. Apparently we have to disembark. As I'm just settling into the agreeable rhythm of the Copper Canyon railway - a quick Bloody Mary, a nice tortilla, then a spasm of horror as you look out of the window at a half mile drop, followed by another quick Bloody Mary - this comes as something of a downer. But Huberto assures me this is the best way to "do" the railway. Your tickets allow you to nip on and off as you like - which breaks up the ten hour journey into less heartstopping chunks; this also means you get to sample the local scenery, upclose.
The only problem is, when I step off the train, I stagger around like a sailor on shoreleave. This may be something to do with the Bloody Marys, but apparently it’s the altitude: we've risen so quickly I've got a mild case of the bends. It’s a good excuse anyway.
So where are we? San Rafael is the name of the stop: and it's in the middle of the Sierra Taruhamara. This highland is named for the Raramuri Indians, who have lived in this remoteness for centuries. Their name means 'those who are fleet of foot', and they are known for their long-distance-running abilities. This is obviously something to do with their high-altitude lifestyle, but it might also be a result of their footwear. When I see my first Raramuri, I notice he is wearing sandals cut from car tyres.
I'd like to chat with this speeding local, but Huberto tells me it’s pointless. These Raramuri, with their loincloths and their early Beatles haircuts, are wary, shy, and evasive. This is not because they are rude: but because they are baffled by Westerners - the way we talk, the way we gesture, they way we get annoyed when our mobiles don' twork. So the natives keep their distance. To be honest, I’m simply stunned to realise that - just a two hour flight from LA - there are people living in loincloths.
Even if we can’t chat with the locals, we can still enjoy their culture. A brisk jeepride brings Jenny and me to one of the famous Raramuri churches, which are sprinkled throughout the sierras. When we step indoors we find a nobly whitewashed kirk, with wooden ceilings, vernacular wall paintings, lurid statues of Jesus - and a human skull on an altar.
A human skull? This is a shock, but then these Indians are known for their syncretic beliefs - a marriage of ancient paganism and accommodating Catholicism. It’s the same system that’s created one of the most vivacious Holy Week celebrations in the world; the seven day Raramuri Easter knees-up with dancing, theatrics, and vats of illicit local liquor.
Determined to try some more local liquor ourselves, we spend the night at the splendid Posada Mirador, perched on the uttermost lip of a side canyon. After a long dusty morning on the train, to sit on the Mirador terrace with a cold Bohemia beer, watching the hummingbirds suck nectar from the flowers, as the misty green chasms stretch gapingly away, is like being inside the mind of a romantic poet after he's had too many absinthes. Quite blissful.
In the morning we rise early, and set off for another yomp. Almost immediately we hear the toot of the train as it threads along the canyon wall, a mile distant. Jenny tells me she found a tarantula in her bathroom this morning. I try to make a joke about "creature comforts" but she seems uncomforted.
The hike is sumptuous. As we head down the canyonside, we pass through shady forests of oak and alder. Lower down we see pretty, sturdy, red-trunked madrone trees; then ceibas, figs, and even palm trees put in an appearance.
The delightful variety is a result of the unique Copper Canyon topography. The towns and sierras at the top of the canyons are almost alpine in their freshness - you are 6000 feet above sea level. In the winter, they get snow. Four thousand feet lower and you're in the tropics: agreeably warm in our European winter, humid and lush during the rainy season (our summer). The variation can be confusing – I find myself constantly taking clothes off, then pulling them on again, like a busy pub stripper.
The following day, Huberto drives us back, to rejoin the train. By now, we know the rigmarole. Vodkas, views, and very loud mariachi. Fantastico! A couple of hours later, we alight once more: at a one-donkey pit-stop called Batopilas Junction.
Why are we here? 'I am taking you to the lost world!' Says Huberto. He is waving his arms a lot.
But he isn't joking. Seven hours of spine-rattling, unpaved roads later, we reach the floor of the deepest canyon: and the town of Batopilas itself. It's a marvel, a Mexican Narnia: a faded old mining town that’s now a forgotten and beautiful realm of shadowy churches, folk-dancing schoolkids - and chickens that nest inexplicably in trees.
Rumour has it that there are people down here who have never left the valley; given that car journey, I'm not sure I blame them. And this is a pretty Edenic prison, anyway: the crystalline rivers of the canyon floor are a bather's paradise, the woods are full of warblers, vireos and orioles. There's even a Lost Cathedral down the valley, a huge mission built by eighteenth century Jesuits, when there were presumably more people around.
It's a startling and unworldly sight: this enormous cathedral at the bottom of a canyon, surrounded by cacti and butterflies. Like finding a royal palace on a glacier.
The motif of surreality is maintained in our hotel in Batopilas: Riverside Lodge. With its shady nooks, glittering cupolas, effeminate library and piano-that's-almost-in tune, it's like the imagined marital home of Salvador Dali and Elton John. And the views of the canyons are stonking.
Quite frankly, this place is great. A few days in the peculiar idyll of Batopilas, sans phones, sans internet, sans TV, sans everything, is as close as you can get to spending time on the moon. If the moon has fabulous guacamole. The only thing clouding this end of the holiday is the idea of getting out of the canyon. We don't fancy another bone-numbing seven-hour car ride. Fortunately, there is an alternative.
On our very last morning, me, Jenny and Huberto head to a simple dirt airstrip. Then we climb aboard a four-seater plane. For thirty minutes we lift and glide, escaping the awesome depths of the canyon, soaring into the milky blue.
All I can see, as far as the horizon, is the glorious wilderness, lush with green forests, and crazed by endless canyons. With a tortuous and extraordinary railway, snaking right through the middle.

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