Copper Canyon Musings

It’s been difficult to find information about visiting copper canyon, so I decided to just come down here and figure it out. 

I’ve discovered than many people who live here have never ever done a ride on El CHEPE, the famous train that cuts through the middle of the mountains and gorges before you arrive in Los Mochis near the west coast of Sinaloa. Copper canyon is twice as deep and a great deal bigger than our Grand Canyon.

We were told that we could arrive at the chihuahua train station before 6 and catch the first leg of the trip which takes 5 hours to get to Creel, where the canyon and beautiful scenery begins. Uber is super cheap here. A ride anywhere in the city isn’t more than $1-$3. We decided to get to the station at 5:30 am and have time to spare. It sounded like a good plan. What could go wrong?

I tried to get some pesos from the ATM and not only did it not fork over my cash, but it never returned my card. I pushed every button to no avail. The card was stuck in the machine and i had no time to wait until the bank opened. I called my bank to cancel the card while our Uber picked us up and dropped us at the train station. There were no signs of life there. Just a sign that indicated the building wouldn’t be open until after 9. There’s only one train a day, and 9 am was 3 hours too late. 

I usually have a backup plan ready, so we went to option 2, Uber. It turns out we could wrangle a car that would drive us 4 hours for $100. We booked it and our driver was there in moments to take us to one of the most exciting towns in Chihuahua. That was about to go wrong too.

As soon as we got started, the taxi driver realized he couldn’t get a map to our destination because he needed to buy data for his phone. The stores were closed so we waited for him to roust someone to get a code through the locked door. It still didn’t work.  It turns put that creel was so far, Uber wouldn’t pull up a map. He started talking very fast and we soon learned that his boss wanted him to cancel and charge us more money since he’d have to do a return trip. Things became very complicated and he pulled in front of the bus station to figure out a new plan. 

Waterfall near Creel Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I decided to run inside and see about a bus option in case the other deal went sour. The bus was leaving for Creel in 10 minutes and tickets were less than $15 each. They didn’t take credit cards and there were no ATMs anywhere to he found. Ryan and I both had a few hundred pesos left in our wallets from being in Mexico last week, but it wasn’t enough. Damn bad luck! 

When I came back to the taxi, the price had already passed $150 and getting our driver to take us to a working ATM seemed to be a Herculean task. The bus had just pulled up and was not going to be around for much longer. A decision had to be made.

We canceled the Uber, grabbed our bags, mixed our combined pesos with a US $10 bill and hopped on like we were VIP. The Uber driver was happy to be rid of us. The trick on the bus is to sit down and get them to write the ticket before they see the US money (which they really don’t want). Sure enough, it worked! There was a little counting, recounting, grunting and calculators being slammed around, but I told the ticket taker how wonderful and amazing she was for helping us and the deal was done. 

So we’re headed to Creel. And the ticket taker gave me change back. Life is good. 

Today’s been an adventure. I suppose I should have booked this trip through an agency, but the thrill of putting together my trips as I go outweighs the hassle usually. I had asked quite a few questions about riding El CHEPE  and was told by our hotelier there was a train this morning to take us to la divideras,  the most popular stop in Copper Canyon. We went to the station with our luggage and waited. Nothing seemed to be happening. We asked several people and they confirmed the train was coming. 

It never came. We were then told by a guy who appeared to work there that the train would arrive tomorrow. Rather than spend another day in the same town, we opted to take a bus. We were told that the bus would get us to where we were going in 1 1/2 hours. The buses are pleasant enough here and very cheap.  Everyone has their own seat and they play movies in Spanish. We passed some beautiful scenery but when I looked at the map, we still had 3 hours to go to get to our destination. Had I misunderstood the ticket agent? 

Creel, Mexico Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The bus kept stopping to drop people off and we actually saw a guy get off and then get picked up 2 stops later. Were we going in circles? The bus seemed to barely creep up the mountains. We came to this amazing view- THE view it seemed… there were little souvenir stands and behind them an epic drop off unlike anything I’ve seen. I was sure the bus would stop for a photo, but it only stopped for an old woman to board. We were tempted to jump ship, but we already had our hotel booked and God knows when other transport might come by. 

I started wondering how far our hotel would be from the bus station. We were going so slow I began to wonder if we’d arrive during daylight. I miraculously had internet so I plugged the hotel into my map. Suddenly the signal was gone and my map disappeared. We drove another hour and then the bus stopped and everyone got off. Was this our destination?  I thought it was further. The bus driver told us that he had passed where we wanted to go two hours ago. We were in a little town that looked like it had never seen a tourist. 

A man in a truck was parked by the bus and the bus driver and he started talking about Gringos. We were pretty sure it wasn’t the restaurant. This town was on the CHEPE line so maybe we could catch a train tomorrow or a bus back the opposite direction. We got the guy in the truck to give us a ride to the only hotel in the city. No one spoke English. So we’re in a town that no ones heard of, with a two hour bus ride from where we booked our hotel. The hotel was only $15/night so we booked it and tried to come up with a plan. 

When we walked back to the room, we noticed 4 guys with machine guns outside our door. They had uniforms and didn’t look like they wanted to kill us. We said hello and one started speaking perfect English. They were hired to guard people coming out of the mines and the one speaking had lived in Utah for a few years. 

With his help, we talked to the lady who owned the hotel into finding a guy to drive us to Divisadera- it was only an hour or so by car. We gave her a finder’s fee and got dropped off at our hotel 90 minutes later… happy ending. 

Tomorrow we ride the world’s longest zip line over the world’s largest canyon. EL CHEPE is supposedly going to be running through town tomorrow and I’m getting on that damn train if it kills me. 

We woke up early to a small cash problem. We had expected to find an ATM in Divisadero and there was none. In truth, there wasn’t much of anything except a few hotels, some rustic eateries and Mexico’s million dollar view of the canyon. It wouldn’t have been a huge problem but the hotel needed to be paid for, the tour was cash only and the train didn’t take anything but Mexican pesos. We couldn’t take a chance of not having enough cash for El CHEPE and having to wait two more days to leave. Our hotel guy offered to take care of everything if we’d send money to his debit card. Seems easy enough doesn’t it? I called Wells Fargo and was told that Zelle, Venmo and Cashapp were not going to work and there was no way of doing such a transaction short of PayPal. I discovered an app called XOOM that allows money to be added to overseas friends’ accounts with only their debit card number. After I’d done everything, I discovered our guide wouldn’t get his money for 4 days. He found a credit card machine somewhere and we drove around the town trying to get a good enough signal to process a card. It worked! We were rich again! 

Our “tour” was really a ride to the copper canyon adventure park which has some great views, a teleferico, a restaurant and a zip line. Not just any zip line, mind you. This one stretches all the way across the canyon. It’s billed as the longest one in the world and goes 95 km/hr. Our guide dropped us there and we were asked if we had a reservation. We replied no and we’re told that we could come back tomorrow. I pulled the Traveling Wizard card and suddenly there was a place for us. The problem was the weight limit was 200 lbs. I tried sucking it in, but they insisted that I go to the giant scale and get a real reading. 

When we came back with the results, I was told I couldn’t go, but Ryan could. I offered to take off some clothes, donate organs or spit a lot, but no one was amused. I enlisted a local’s help and had her tell them about my YouTube channel and explain how I was only in town for a few hours and they needed to let me do what I do. There was some talking to managers, a few phone calls and suddenly I was in! In Mexico, no is always a potential yes. 

We got geared up and went to the drop zone . It wasn’t any scarier than the Zambezi gorge in Africa, but still a giant leap of faith trusting the equipment and people who would be sending us hurtling across the world’s largest canyon. 

In a moment I was sitting in the cat seat waiting for blastoff. I held my iPhone tight so i could film the journey without dropping it. My case is good, but not that good. 

Once the attendants released me, I felt like I was skydiving. The gorge is so vast it’s difficult to judge your speed visually, but the wind whipping into your face let’s you know that you’re moving very fast. 

The canyons are breathtaking and once I relaxed a little, I tried filming the mountains rushing past me. I zipped through the finish line and the stop was just as dramatic as the start. 

Once I landed, we had about a 15 minute walk straight up the hill to catch the cable car back to where we had started. It dips very low into the valley before rising back up, so it provided a good opportunity to see the bottom of the canyon. 

Back at the “adventure park” we stopped in the restaurant. It’s known for its plexiglass floor but the hassle of putting on paper socks to walk on it killed the mood for me. It was a bigger crowd than I’ve seen since this COVID started and I find myself shying away from large groups

We grabbed a couple of delicious chili rellenos from the street vendors before heading to the train station and taking a picture with the famous Barrancas De Cobra sign. Then we waited. Could we get on this damn train after 3 unsuccessful attempts? Would it be going the right direction? Some days it goes one direction. Other days the opposite way; and as I can personally attest, some days it doesn’t go at all. 

After an hour, I heard the whistle blow and there she was! The kids were shouting El CHEPE like it was Zorro or something. We got on and that was that. It wasn’t the luxury express that costs $200. It was $45 and 8 hours of train travel to the west coast. 

As we near the end, I ask myself “would I do it again?” There was some beautiful scenery and I wouldn’t “undo it”, but that’s a long trek with crying babies and Tejano music. 

I was expecting to hear gunshots when the train pulled into Sinaloa last night. It’s cartels are notorious and half a dozen people had warned me about unnecessary travel there. An Uber took us to our hotel in the center of town and the city looked pretty peaceful. We were a little restless after 8 hours in a train so we dropped by the casino next door. The Mexican casinos issue cards and you add cash credit to them so there’s no money changing hands. There’s nothing but slot machines as well. We decided to put up $10 and see what our luck might be. Within moments, Ryan was up almost $100 and I’d lost $5. Ryan was buying dinner tomorrow.

Our hotel had the best internet we’d seen all week and it was a nice feeling to be back in civilization. There’s not a lot to do in Los Mochis, but I found a botanical garden, a museum, a park and a plaza that looked interesting. The town was pretty mediocre to be honest, but we still captured some great shots in the gardens and met an interesting man along the way. 

At first I thought he might be homeless, but he started speaking to us in English and seemed pretty intelligent. He was standing next to a grocery cart with a few bottles in it and a few young kids were hanging out. He told us he was from Chihuahua, and I told him how impressed I was with his town and that we’d be there tomorrow to visit the house of Pancho Villa. He launched into a history lesson about senior Villa with dates, facts and figures that would have impressed Wikipedia. We filmed him for a bit, did some magic tricks for the kids and headed back to our hotel to grab our bags and catch up on social media. 

The Los Mochis airport was tiny and once we’d provided sufficient evidence we weren’t carrying Corona virus, we were let on our plane headed to Tijuana. Our final destination was Chihuahua, but the cheapest/most convenient flight option involved a 3 hour layover at Mexico’s most notorious border town. I hadn’t been in years, but TJ had been on my restaurant bucket list ever since I’d heard it was the birthplace of the Caesar salad. Ironically enough, I’d been in San Diego exactly 3 years ago today and had wanted to cross the border, but my traveling companion had forgotten to bring her passport. Everything eventually comes back around if you live long enough and our accidental stopover was just enough time to sample the famous salad if nothing went wrong. 

As soon as we landed I summoned an Uber and we were in downtown Tijuana in less than 20 minutes. The streets were bustling with souvenir shops, bars, pharmacies and hawkers offering everything from illegal drugs to prostitutes. As tempting as that all sounded, we were on a mission. I could think of nothing except trying that plate of romaine lettuce with a harmonious blend of dressing created almost 100 years before. The Caesar Hotel was impossible to miss, and below it, an outdoor high end restaurant with great views of the street. We sat down, ordered our salads and a side of escargot and started a Facebook live. 

The salad was 5 leaves of romaine with one giant crouton and a generous dollop of dressing on the leaves. The secret to a great Caesar is it’s dressing and I half expected to be disappointed. It was delicious! Just the right balance of everything. 

By the time we finished, we still had an hour before we needed to return to the airport. We walked through the souvenir alley, bought some street tacos and sampled some rattlesnake-infused tequila.

It was a short flight to chihuahua and we’re headed to El Paso after visiting Pancho Villa’s house. Of course we’ll have to visit the famous 100 year old Kentucky Bar in Juarez- it’s famous for having one of the most plausible claims to inventing the margarita. 

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