Cutting new lines across the canyons of Mexico
THE HIGHEST, DEEPEST, and longest canyons in the world
are in Mexico, not the United States. The Copper Canyon and the Urique Canyon carve through the massive Sierra Madre range (Mexico's Rockies) in the State of Chihuahua.
Each is deeper and longer than Arizona's Grand Canyon, yet they were little known and certainly not accessible until November 1961.
On that date the President of Mexico inaugurated the new Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, linking the Pacific Coast actually the Sea of Cortes at Topolobampo Bay with the big city of Chihuahu.
There are no roads and no airports in this wild region of the Sierra Madre, inhabited by the still primitive Tarahumara Indians. The only way to reach it is by the two trains each way daily over the relatively new railway. From Chihuahua, some 4,600 feet above sea level, the railway climbs to well over 8,000 feet at the canyon rims, and descends to sea level after a journey of 418 miles. Both passenger trains take about 11 hours to make the trip, travelling from early morning to evening, giving a daylight ride.
But every week or so, one train has an attachment a rake of American rolling stock dating from the immediate post-war era. This is the "Sierra Madre Express", owned by an Arizona company which restored the cars to their original condition.
The "Sierra Madre Express" stakes its place among the small but increasing number of luxury cruise trains around the world. This one does not run under its own power for short positioning movements, but is linked to the rear of scheduled Mexican services, starting with Nogales to Safragio via Benjamin Hill, and then, after a night spent quietly in a siding, to the first train up to the canyon country.
British Airways recognised the increasing interest in the country by introducing, from last April, a direct non-stop service from London to Mexico City. But for those wanting to take the "Sierra Madre Express" out of Tucson,the route is to Los Angeles and onward by American West Airlines. Although rail-connected to the Mexican border town of Nogales, Tucson has no passenger service southwards and the 50 or so passengers on the "Sierra Madre Express" cruise leave the big desert city by motor coach.
On the way to the border a stop is made at San Xavier Mission, a still very active Catholic compound known as "The White Dove of the Desert". San Xavier was created by Fr Eusebio Kino, bom in Italy in 1645. He built most of the missions all the way from Tucson to Magdalen in Mexico only it was all New Spain in those days. He died exhausted in 1711 and was buried at Magdalena, but in 1966 his bones were rediscovered and his remains are
now under glass in the patio of Magdalena's San Francisco Xavier Mission.
"Sierra Madre Express" passengers will have joined their waiting train at Nogales, from which city it leaves attached to the "Pacific Express". At the first stop, Magdalena, the Mission can be seen from the station. The next stop is Benjamin Hill, a major junction named after a Federal General of American descent who became Minister of War after fighting Pancho Villa. He died during a presidential bid, believed poisoned, in 1926.
When the Mexicali portion of the "Pacific Express" comes in, the Nogales section plus the "Sierra Madre" cars are attached and the heavy train rolls southwards fast into the night bound for Sufragio near Los Mochis ("Place of the Turtle"). Here the cruise cars are left quietly in a siding until the next day's climb over what is reckoned to be among the five most scenic train rides of the world. The new Transcontinental passed through 87 tunnels and over 35 bridges to reach the 8,100 foot summit between Divisadero and Creel.
Divisadero Barrancas is the overlook point where all trains stop for 20 minutes. An incredible view attracts people from all over the world, gazing almost vertically down into the Copper Canyon. Tarahumara Indians, whose ancestors worked copper in the canyon walls, come to sell their native crafts at stalls, but few speak any words of Spanish. From Greel it is possible to enter part of the canyon to see the caves where they live. A few attend Fr Verplancken's htispital and mission and use the store, owned by the Catholic Church. Most however, remain primitive and keep to their own beliefs.
There are actually six canyons in the region one of them, the Batopilas Canyon, is some 35 km in length. There must have been early Spanish travellers who made their way there carrying the Cross to the Tahamura Indians, for the ruins of a fired brick church, known as the "Lost Cathedral", have been discovered in the Satevo Valley off this canyon.
While most Indian visitors encounter are non-communicative, there are children who beg. "Sierra Madre Express" passengers are told not to give them anything but the train makes a collective donation of 50 US Dollars each trip on behalf of the children to the Catholic Mission store at Creel.
Going downhill on its return journey, the train passes slowly through Temoris, a village founded in 1677 by two Jesuit missionaries who built a tiny church and named it Santa Maria Magdalena de Temoris. Shortly before the Chihuahua-Pacifico joins the main Pacific line at Suffragio, it passes through the early colonial town of El Fuerte, founded by the Conquistadores. The late 16th century cathedral is one of the oldest in the country.