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Mexico Route Map
Report #4
La Paz to El Fuerte to
Copper Canyon Railroad and Creel

March 29, 2007

Today we leave the Baja for the mainland. The ferry doesn’t leave till 3 pm but we have to be there by noon to load. We were concerned about fudging a little on the length ...our rig is 9.5 metres in length but bought a ticket for 9 metres because the next level of ticketing was for vehicles up to 17 metres and was an extra $300+ US. As it was, the ticket for truck, trailer, driver, and one passenger was $517 US. It was one of the few places that has taken a credit card in Mexico.

So Steve took the spare tire off the back and we crossed our fingers. But no one was the least interested in measuring. That seems to be the way it works here. No one checks for the most part. But IF THEY DO, watch out. They are inflexible when it comes to sticking to the rules ...if they bother at all.

The truck and trailer are tucked in down below and we have found a quiet table in thpulling out of La Paze restaurant to hide out at. The “salon” one floor down features a live band and the music from that reverberates throughout the whole boat. The “bar” has a series of big screen televisions at full volume, each with a different show or video. The “lounge” upstairs has rows of chairs into which large noisy families of children have decamped and this room too has screens on the wall blaring movies.

Whether it is used car lots blaring Latin American hip hop, or the HUGE speakers bolted to the roof of a car blasting advertising message or the ever-present television sets ON ...Mexican life is conducted to the beat of a booming soundtrack.

It is a beautiful day out here on the Sea of Cortez. Blue sky, blue sea. Now, if we could only get moving.

About 2pm the meal service starts – included in the ticket. There is just one cafeteria ferry mealservice line with hundreds of people waiting patiently. Basic, working class food seems to be it: boiled potatoes, rice, refried beans, tortillas and a choice of fish stew or vegetable stew. Coffee is 10p extra and a huge slice of cake is 25p.

Enjoyed it all and was passing a peaceful afternoon chatting with other travelers until a few hours into the passage when the boat starts pitching about . Holy cow did it roll. Very hard to walk to the restroom, never mind anything else. Lots of sea sick people around here.

I am fine except I am getting a headache because our peaceful corner of the restaurant has been invaded by a group of truck drivers who keep plugging pesos into the jukebox and of course the music pumps out at 800 decibels. Some kind of alternative grunge rock with a Mexican twist. The trip is rapidly becoming pure agony.

But all things end and as we come into port at Topolobampo the sea settles, the boat stops rocking, the truckers run out of change for the jukebox and we all file down to reclaim our vehicles.

There we sit and sit and sit. This is a working boat, not a tourist attraction and the 2-300 big tractor+trailer units have to be disembarked first. Then the trailers that have no tractor have to be hooked up to small tractor rigs and moved.

This is something to watch alright. These guys are extremely skilled. They bomb around in these tractor rigs like they are bumper cars. They back into a trailer at full speed until the connectors clunk. Then they hop out and plug in an electrical connector. Then back into the cab where they hit a switch and the trailer goes up on the hitch, then tear out of there like a bat out of hell, park the trailer in the parking lot and fly into the bowels of the ferry to do it again.

So when it was finally our turn to move – the truck would not start. Dead battery. We’ve been having trouble with electrics – obviously the wires got switched and the fridge was drawing off the truck battery all day, not the double marine batteries.

But no problemo. The tractor rig just pulled up, out came the jumper cables and Bob’s your uncle we were out there.

On the ferry we had run into the Germans with the flash 4Wds again and agreed to meet in the parking lot and boondock there for the night. But now it was nearly midnight and the parking lot did not seem to be a very good place. Trucks moving in and out all night, large groups of locals squatting. Too much noise, lights, no real space to park. Just not a great place.

I had identified an RV park in my guidebook that was only about 15 km away so off we set. Never found it. It later turned out that the RV park I was looking for is now closed (a repeating story on this trip). So we stopped at a Pemex gas station and negotiated our stay with Jose who was very nice and opened the toilets for us. We literally circled our wagons and went to sleep.

In the morning we shared coffee then took off in different directions. They are 4-wheeling it through the bottom of Copper Canyon. We are going to Los Mochis where we plan to catch the train through Copper Canyon to Creel.

March 30, 2007

The RV Park in Los Mochis is a real dump. A dirt field beside a busy, noisy, smelly highway. The windows in the office are all broken, the toilets are disgusting and a bunch of kids are hanging out looking for trouble. It is getting very hot and there is NO shade. Doesn’t look like fun

So we deEl Fuertecide to uplift to El Fuerte, a further 100 kms up the road. We can also catch the train through the Copper Canyon from El Fuerte. Since the two-hour ride between Los Mochis and El Fuerte is reported to be pretty boring anyway, we’ll drive it ourselves.

In El Fuerte we find the only RV park in town. Seems quite nice at first – lots of shade trees in a country setting, bathrooms rustic but okay. But when we get out of the truck we are enveloped by small black gnats. They are impervious to the spray so Steve and I will both scratch for weeks.

I manage to get reservations on the morning train and “William,” our TexMex host at the RV Park organizes a cab for the morning. If this all sounds like it was easy to arrange, that is just because I am sparing you the blow-by-blow of trying to organize these things in Spanish in a country where nothing is straight forward. Suffice to say it took the best part of a day. Traveling in places like this takes a different kind of mentality, a willingness to trust in fate and serendipity. What will be, will be ...and if El Fuertenot, then it won’t.

El Fuerte is a pretty town. A real effort has been made to create and better yet, maintain a town square. Where things are falling apart, at least they are falling apart in a clean and picturesque way. Walking through town we came on a mariachi band setting out for work. Steve asked them to play “El Grande Ranchero” and they did. Locals stopped to enjoy the music too. It was a happy moment. We gave them 20 p which on reflection is pretty chintzy ($2) for the three of them, but they grinned broadly, wished us well, and continued on their way.

Renewed our supply of drinking water and returned to RV park to find our German friends had arrived. MariachiOne of their vehicles was hit by a truck. Not seriously, but instead of spending the day 4wding through the canyon, they'd spent it getting their vehicle fixed. Apparently a big truck, trying to squeeze past them went up on the curb with two wheels, his load shifted and part of it fell on the front corner of their camper.

Oh well. In the process of getting the camper fixed they met a local who warned them they must not take the 4WD route through the canyon. Apparently the federales have been harassing the drug runners who live down there so the bad guys have become very twitchy and don’t welcome “tourists.”

So they ended up back here at the RV Park. They were told that tomorrow’s train tickets are sold out, but they were also told that if they just turned up they might get on so they are going to ride out to the station with us in the morning.

As we’re enjoying a late coffee, Luis, the cab driver comes by to confirm that we will be ready to go at 7:30 in the morning.

March 31, 2007

Morning comes but no Luis. But another guy , who cannot speak one word of English shows up at 7 in an ancient car and just hangs around polishing it. We don’t know what to make of this since we are waiting for Luis ...also because there are six of us and this is just a regular car. But when no Luis arrives we all pile in and head for the station with the car literally bottoming out on the topes.

Train to CreelThe train is ¾ empty. Tickets from the conductor are 610 pesos each for the trip to Creel which will take about seven hours.

The first one-two hours the view is of pasture land with horses, goats, cows. Soon though, craggy mountains start appearing on the horizon and the pasture becomes rolling hills. The hills are covered in cacti which are now blooming with big, blobby flowers at the tips. There are also lots of gourds hanging off vines that have wound themselves around trees.

BouganievilleThe trees are blooming – lots of brilliant egg yolk yellow flowers, small fushia/purple magnolias, pinks, purples, whites.

Buy a Mars bar from the bar – 20p. Buy a small map – 20p. Buy a coffee 20p. Seems to be the magic number onboard.

As we get higher into the mountains we start seeing pines – eventually great towering pines. There are goats and at the lower levels horses, sheep and cows.

Lots of burbling brooks, trees near the water that look like gigantic willows. Huge granite monoliths, craggy, towering, imposing, all at a grand scale. This is the Copper Canyon and it shows in the burnt orange colourings striping the rock faces.

We have lunch on the train – a very so-so quesadilla with the ever present salsa and refried beans. 215 pesos for two with coffee.

As the train rolls through the mountains, over huge bridges and through tunnels up to 6000 feet long, it really rocks and rolls. Standing aCopper Canyon Railwayt the window between the cars I look down into massive gullies beneath us and can’t help noting all the train cars smashed and scattered over the steep cliffs beneath us. They are all pretty rusty so I am hoping that means the drivers and tracks have improved.

Everything on the train seems very well run. Except there is no water in the restroom taps to wash your hands. Otherwise, they keep the train very tidy, with the conductor running around with a little vacuum, sweeping up after people. There are signs on the walls indicating no eating or drinCopper Canyon from El Divisidero Lookoutking in the cars but this is patently ignored as travelers tuck into picnic coolers.

Train stops at towns to pick up/ leave off passengers. One of the most interesting is El Divisidero. This stop gives passengers an opporutunity to visit the overlook into Copper Canyon. The train stops for 15 minutes only and you have to decide between seeing the canyon vista, visiting the vendor stalls for souvenirs or eating from the vendors cooking tacos over oil barrel stoves.

Souvenirs are all similar: colourSouvenirsful shawls that are available in such uniformity and perfection of quality that they must be made by machine and imported – for 100 pesos. Copper and silver jewelry and platters, lots of clay pots, baskets – beautifully woven onsite by the Indian women, dolls that are handmade, woven belts and bags.

Later, while visiting Indian villages near Creel I did buy a few things: hand made picture frames (60 p each), a doll (25p), a hand made fridge magnet, and a Christmas ornament.

Arrived in Creel about 3:30 as per schedule. Wondered where to stay but Tamara, an Australian woman we met onboard had her LP along and Margarit’s Hostel sounded pretty good so we started there. 350 pesos bought us a private room, very nice, overlooking the central plaza. Have to say we were really pleased with the location of the room, until late evening when the local young bucks took to cruising round and round and round the plaza in their boombox equipped cars.

For 350 p I didn’t expect a private ensuite, but there it was, spotlessly clean with a great hot shower, toilets etc. Very modern and new. This also included breakfast and dinner. First day breakfast was yogurt with Margrits in Creelpapaya, scrambled eggs, and quesadillas. Second day breakfast was oatmeal and bananas, fried eggs and hashbrowns and the ever present torillas. First day dinner was soup, quesadillas, vegetables and beans. Second day dinner was soup, beef stew, mashed potatoes, and macaroni in a cheese, tomato sauce. All meals were excellent and much better than we expected in our “all inclusive.” Coffee and tea all day too.

The cooking was all done by Indian women cooking in a big kitchen that opened to the dining room. The physical structure of the hostel was quite interesting.Indian Woman in Creel Area At the front it almost had a German chalet-type look to it. But behind that facade it seemed to be a series of structures that were tied together by staircases and walkways, lots of open air and everything at different levels to each other.

Went for a walk around town – Steve found some great drums for around $15. Thinking about that.

In our walkabout Steve made the acquaintance of a farmer called Ricardo. He was commiserating with Ricardo over the big dent in his van. Ricardo said it was the result of an argument in the dark with two cows. Steve asked about the availability of horns. The fellow said he had tons. He would drop his family off at their farm just 10 minutes away then be back for Steve. Alas, he never returned. Steve is still looking for his skull with horns. Something about tying them to the front of the truck. He already has several pelican skulls tucked away somewhere. As long as they don’t smell I’m okay.

In Australia we turned the van inside out looking for the bad smell. Even threw away the floor mats, thinking I’d spilled milk on them. Turned out it was some smelly shells with the snails still in them that he’d secreted under the bed but not told me about.

Indian girl in CreelSat in the plaza and people watched. Ran into the Germans again. They were very disappointed with their trip. The LP guide had raised expectations regarding the canyon – saying or at least implying it was more spectacular than the Grand Canyon. No, it did not live up to that. So the Germans felt ripped off. So upset they’d taken themselves off to the Best Western for a spot of comfort. They were paying $130 per night to stay there. Now that was a rip off.

I agree, the canyon does not live up to the hype in the guide book, but it has an incomparable beauty of its own. The town of Creel is wonderful – quaint and clean and interesting. From the train we saw great scenery and met interesting people. It was just one of those great traveling days when everything goes smoothly.

Creel is an Indian town more than it is a Mexican town. Many of the people live up in the hills, in quiet little villages where everyone sleeps together in one-room huts and the women wash clothes in the river. While still on the train we passed villages where the women’s colourful skirts were spread out drying on the bushes – they are full, gathered skirts with tiers of flounces – a lot like square dancing skirts. The men wear jeans, checked shirt, and the every-present cowboy hat, but the women and children dress very colourfully. Most of the children are chubby-cheeked and well-cared for looking. Cowboy Boots

Some of the men, especially the young buckes, wear ostrich leather cowboy boots that have the longest pointed toes I have ever seen. I cannot help wondering how they climb stairs in them.


April 1, 2007

Today we are going on a tour of the mountain villages. It is supposed to leave at 9 but does not get going till 10:30. Full bus of 19. A father and grandfather with two young girls, a retired couple from Idaho, us, Tamara our new Australian friend, and a whole bunch Mountain Village near Creelof kids on spring break from university.

They were obviously from well-off families. I couldn’t help noticing that their teeth were sparkling white and straight. The were always laughing and singing old American pop classics like These Boots Were Made for Walking. They were a lively bunch – wish my Spanish was better so I could have picked up more of their conversation. It would have been good practice.

Tour cost 220p per person. Nice clean bus with a good driver but little English so we had to figure things out for ourselves. First stop was to the home of a family that were living in a cave under a rock. Pretty grim conditions. Tiny child sitting up in a bad of heavy wool blankets. Strong smell of smoke in the room from the fires used to heat and cook. It’s cold up here in the mountains.

Cave Woman near CreelOld woman was minding the child. Pig in an enclosed pen, chickens, dog. Felt most weird walking around this woman’s home. It felt like such an invasion of privacy. She was being paid to let us see how she lived. Like the Maasi in Kenya. Didn’t feel good about that either. But the “visits” help feed the kids and not going isn’t going to help her. Just don’t know.


Second stop was St Ignacio, a church mission built in 1700s. Very cool and empty. Don’t think anyone worships there anymore. Everywhere you go here, there is always a woman or two with children offering items for sale. Usual stuff: woven belts, dolls, baskets, pottery. If you look off in the distance, women and children sitting in groups of 2 or 3, are high up in the rocks watching. They are easy to spot because their clothing is so brightly coloured. They are very village boysshy, these Indian people. They keep their faces completely impassive. Smiling or engaging them in simple conversation doesn’t usually bring any hint of a response. I did catch a hint of a smile when I told one woman here children were beautiful. But just a hint.

The exception would be a group of village boys, who, egged on by the ring leader in the centre begged Steve to take their photo ...after which they hoped for some payment. They didn't demand it, but the hope on their faces was so patently obvious you could not help reaching into your pocket and giving each of them a peso (about 10 cents). We soon learned to keep change in our pockets for the children and the old who are often so desperate in the country.

Carried on to a waterfall. It is a 500 metre walk to falls over very uneven rocks and ground. Pretty waterfall. I am sure in rainy season it is pretty spectacular. Right now it is very dry so there is minimal water falling over, but lovely pools below. Some of our “kids” went swimming.

See a lake on the way back. Very nice, more vendors. They don’t pester you though. We just say, “No compro” (no buy) and they move on.

In the evening we sit in the town square beside the big church. The bells have been ringing since 6:30 and people are walking in for service. I poked my head in and the service is underway, a priest exhorting the faithful in Spanish. People just seem to come and go at will.

Also a big election campaign going on in the town square. Women running around pasting stickesr on people’s cars. Another woman haranguing public over a very loud public address system. Lot s of music. So many cars here now they are double and triple parked. Hordes of people where there were none yesterday. This is also the beginning of spring Easter break here in Mexico and it is obvious. The train today dropped off at least a hundred holidayers.

The hostel is now full and we are encouraged to eat quickly and give up our seat at the table. Too bad as the conversations are all so interesting. There are tons of American and Canadian young people here teaching English in villages. They live in one-room huts with their families, sharing everything about their lives like washing their clothes in the river.

April 2, 2007

Another hard night on the bed of boards and cement pillows. Sure am looking forward to our own bed tonight. But the ticket man says there are no tickets to El Fuerte. The train is full. He suggests we get on anyway and see if the conductor will let us sit in the bar.

Creel train stationSince this was the story the Germans got the other day we believe we will get on okay. But there are a LOT of people on the platform.

Sure enough the conductor sells us a ticket. The train is probably 80% full but I was prepared to spend the whole trip sitting on the toilet if necessary. I really wanted to get back to the trailer tonight. Originally we’d only planned on staying the one night and had booked “Luis” to pick us up at the train station on Sunday. But Mexico is the land of the entrepreneurs and the locals know when the train arrives so I am betting there will cabs waiting at the train station and there are, although we never again see Luis.

Before we got on train this morning we checked out the local museum in Creel. Pretty amazing little place, it explores the culture of the indigenous Indians in the area. There is also an excellent artisans craft museum and shop near the station.

An hour into the trip we stop at El Divisidero again and this time we are prepared – we Lunch in El Divisiderostand at the stalls and have the most amazing fresh tacos – first cheese and potato and lettuce and tomato. Then shredded beef and cheese and onions. Happy tummys. Four good sized tacos and coke for the two of us 70 pesos.

Left many passengers at Posado, the next stop. Apparently there are lots of accomodation choices here because it is a good place for hiking into the canyon. If we pass this way again in future years it will be from the eastern end of the line. From that side you can drive quite deeply into the canyon. We’ll do that and then maybe take the train to Posado for some hiking.

Tomorrow, we leave for Mazatlan.

Carolyn Usher

Unless otherwise noted all prices are quoted in US$ or Mexican Pesos. At time of writing, 10 pesos = $1 US or CDN.