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Author: Subject: The Sky Train
Baja Bernie
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[*] posted on 11-8-2007 at 05:31 PM
The Sky Train


The post about the Copper Canyon by Baja Trooper caused me to pull this one out and dust it off just for fun.

From my book "Bouncing (took a big one here) Around Baja"


Well, we surely have bounced a fur piece from Baja with this one. Way back when about a dozen of us pioneros from La Salina got together and decided that we wanted to go someplace in Mexico that none of us had yet visited. We had all kicked around most of Baja and a lot of the mainland so it took a while. When Harold mentioned a train ride into the Sierra Madre and a visit to the Cańon del Cobre (Copper Canyon) we were off and running. We arranged for Peggy Jimenez of Viajes Internacionales Moramar in Rosarito Beach to put a train tour together for an even dozen of us. Peggy would act as our guide and this worked out very well because she spoke Spanish, English, and a smattering of the Tarahumara Indian language. We would have our own private car for the train trip.

We flew out of Rodriguez International in Tijuana and spent our first night at the Hotel Santa Anita in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. I couldn’t sleep so I wandered out into the streets of this large and vibrant city to look around. Beautiful and big but what a surprise! Just having retired from the San Diego Police Department I knew when I saw someone carrying a concealed weapon and believe me a whole bunch of these hombres were packing. Midnight and the streets were much busier than downtown San Diego at six o’clock. I stayed fairly close to the area of the hotel and said nothing to the other members of our group about the guns.

Up bright and early the next morning to board the Chihuahua al Pacífico train for the real beginning of our trip.

As we chugged through the sugar cane fields surrounding the bustling city of Los Mochis our conductor advised us that we were not just going to the Copper Canyon but rather to a group of canyons in the Sierra Madre Mountains. With great pride he said “these canyons are four times as large as your Grand Canyon.” Later he announced, “The Sky Train would be arriving at our first stop, Bahuichivo Station, in about four hours. Do you realize that this railroad line is considered one of the wonders of modern railroad engineering?” This as we rushed through high desert covered with scrub brush and cactus. Climbing higher the vista changed to massive rock formations, gorgeous oaks trees and white water streams. Intermingled were numerous types of ferns and bromides clinging to the sides of gigantic granite boulders that had been blasted through for the rails to pass. The Rio Fuerte was spanned by a 1,637-foot long bridge. Looking down we saw an old horse drawn ferry nestled on the white sands of the blue flowing river far below.

Soon we were diving into Tunnel #86, almost six football fields long. Suddenly we burst out into the glaring sun. Tunnel after tunnel, a total of 86, offered dramatic contrasts to the surrounding areas. Crossing the Rio Chinipas, those of us on the observation platform looked straight down between the tracks—335 feet straight down to the river curling around a bend. “La Pere” tunnel is shaped like a horseshoe and on exiting all senses become confused. That which was on the right is now on the left.
Our conductor returns to tell us, “Soon you will be able to see three levels of the train in front and above you as we snake back and forth up the mountain.” On this news I headed for the observation platform at the rear of the train. We are just barely chugging along so that I got off to take pictures of both the rear and the engine of the train with some cars thrown in between. Fantastic! Woops, the train is gathering speed and I am being left behind. Puffing loudly, I made it back aboard to the laughter of the people at the rear of the train.

Next stop: Creel, where we leave the train and clamor into an old beat up green school bus that will take us to our lodgings in the village of Cerochuil (which means enemy hill in the Tarahumara tongue). Our driver tells us that the road to the village and the Enrique Canon had only been open for the past few years. Before that the only access was walking or on a burro. Interesting! The driver calls our attention to various rock formations. One is Yogi Bear. Others are Piggy Rock, Elephant Rock and Eagle Rock.

Topping a rise we see a beautiful valley with a deep blue stream meandering through a field of bright yellow poppies. Indian women are washing clothes on the rocks along the stream. Beyond sits the village and the beautiful mission that was founded by Jesuit priests (Juan Maria de Salvaterra, who is well known in Baja) in 1681. Imagine! This church and village existed for almost 300 years without roads or vehicles.

Señor Edmundo Cota was our host and he made us most welcome. He explained that our rooms were converted from rooms in a ‘nunnery’ that was built in about 1750. No windows, no electricity and no running water. A baño, si! (bathroom, yes!) The village had a diesel generator that was only run between 6PM and 9PM. Other than that, the only light was provided by the moon and stars or kerosene lanterns.

We spent the afternoon wandering around this beautiful and unspoiled valley. The air was so clean and clear. No cars and only two or three trucks. We were all surprised that the Indian children would not look directly at us nor would they smile—that is until we did and then their expressive eyes would light up and they flashed wondrous smiles of welcome.

Dorothy Hatfield and Lu Ann were very taken with the children and really enjoyed watching a group of kids playing baseball. They had to share gloves, the bats were just tree branches and the only ball was held together by spit and whatever. Screaming, laughing and always running these kids knew what the game was about.

At dinner that evening we were surprised to meet a couple of newlyweds from Milan Italy, a couple from British Columbia and another from Monterrey, Mexico. There were also two scruffy guys from Arizona who made a living by buying up all of the Indian pottery. They went from house to house or cave, buying the pots.

Most of these were full of Indian brew that was poured out on the ground. Both of these guys said that they had been making a good living shipping Indian pottery back to Arizona for resale. They usually brought several ‘plastic’ bottles into the mountains and traded them straight across for the Indian Jugs. They only paid for the Indian pottery when they had run out of ‘plastic.’ Not a good deal but the Indians seemed to be happy with the exchanges.

The next morning found us boarding that old green bus for a trip to the Enrique Canon. As we reached the rim of the canyon, 7500 feet above sea level, we were in constantly shifting clouds. Only when we descended to 4500 feet could we see the Enrique Rio, a bright blue ribbon against the green of the canyon floor far below. It was here that we stopped to visit an Indian family who lived in a cave along the canyon rim. Shy little people who earn hard cash by making and selling reed baskets to people like us. It is very difficult to believe that silver mines still operate in the canyons as they have since the late 1600’s.

Leaving the canyon rim I looked back and saw that the outside rear wheel of bus was hanging over thin air. Gulp! Forty-five hundred feet straight down. Pebbles were flaking off the trail only to disappear into thin air.

About five miles outside the village our driver stopped and invited an Indian family to share a ride. This was a very common practice over this entire area. As they settled down some of our group offered the kids pencils, paper and nuts. The family immediately responded with peaches and apples for our entire group. Both the Indians and the Mexicans in this area are extremely proud and friendly people.

When we got back to the ‘hotel’ I told my wife that I would love to, “take a year with two burros, one for my camera equipment and one for food, and spend the year capturing the beauty of this land and its people.” It was also here that I kicked the filthy habit of smoking about three packs of cigarettes a day. Cold turkey! At this altitude I could not catch my breath!

Our second night at the “Hotel Mision” was unreal. Señor Cota outdid himself as a kind and gracious host. We laughed, sang and danced to the music of our bus driver-accordionist, bartender-guitarist and the handyman-trumpeter.

Very early the next morning we were all wakened by the loud, boisterous and continuing sound of a rooster loudly greeting the new sun. Looking out the door we saw Edgar Hatfield flapping his arms (wings) and bouncing from leg to leg as he crowed in imitation of a very large rooster. What a fun way to wake up! Totally unexpected from the principal of an unnamed high school in Orange County, California.

Next stop: Cabanas del Cobre Lodge, nestled amongst tall pines at about 8,000 feet. The quiet was overpowering. As you walked to the stream you could hear your own footsteps. Even Baja is not this quiet. So quiet that the lapping of the stream and the sound from the waterfalls seemed as loud as the surf of the Pacific Ocean.

You may have noticed that no mention has been made of food. That was because it was always hot and filling and who really cared with people and country like this to be shared. I almost forgot our rooms were honest to god log cabins, chunkyed with adobe to seal out the cold … and cold it was at this altitude.

Most of us were very disappointed when we found the road into the canyons was blocked by mudslides. We all knew what we would not experience! We missed the descent into the canyon with its monkeys, banana plants and some say jaguars on the steep trip to the bottom. We would not see the still working mines that had been mined since the mid 1600’s. So sad!

We were able to wander around and find a real Tarahumara Indian Village guarded by, of all things, wild turkeys. Not a bad idea, the women did all of the work. We paid 60 pesos to be allowed to walk through their village and view a large open air cave just bursting with paintings of stick-like hunters stalking deer or mountain goats. Just below the cave we wandered upon a mating ritual of the local mountain goats. We heard them before we saw them: two males facing off, pawing the ground, jumping into the air, smashing head-to-head. We watched this display for what seemed like hours and neither ram tired. A real Tylenol day!

Before returning to Creel we detoured into “Mushroom Meadows” and the “Valley of the Monks.” Truly strange places! The first was covered with numerous rock mushrooms that were at least ten feet tall. Some larger but all consisted of a tall round stone topped by a ‘separate’ stone to form a giant mushroom. No, they did not appear attached and in fact the grain of the stones ran in different directions.

Indian women with children, all colorfully garbed, sat quietly out of the sun under these mushrooms, waiting to sell their hand made dolls to visitors. I bought two that I still cherish, a hunter with a bow and a woman with a baby wrapped across her back. I have but to look at the wooden carved faces and I am back in that valley.

One of the women in our group had spent her last peso when she spied a doll that she just had to have. When Peggy asked if the Indian woman would accept American money we all gained a better understanding of the lives of these gentle Indians. She explained, in a very slow and thoughtful fashion, that she could not even think of taking American money. Why? Well, the Mexicans cheat us bad enough when we use their money that we understand. Imagine how they could cheat us if we tried to use money we didn’t even know!

The Valley of the Monks was eerie; no one around and a ton of natural rock formations that made you believe you were surrounded by Monks. Totally and absolutely surreal.

As we waited to board our train we were all surprised to see a flight of beautiful ravens land atop of our car. They walked about, chattering loudly, as though they were a group of tourists. When someone mentioned this to the conductor he laughed and told us that they had indeed had their tickets punched for the trip to Bahuichivo Station.

Only on the Sky Train!

During the return trip to La Mochas we all agreed that next time we would allow more time and that we would take the ‘Sky Train’ from Los Mochas to Chihuahua and then fly back to Tijuana.

A postscript is in order here. On returning to California we decided to collect enough baseball equipment to send to those kids high in the mountains of Mexico. We didn’t worry about buying all ‘new’ stuff but we did collect almost 100 pounds of balls, bats and gloves to make those kids happy. Peggy Jimenez made sure that it all got to that tiny little village and its smiling children.

Give me a couple of burros and a year.

P.S. Never got the year but sure got a hundred pictures--now I just have to figure out how to post them.




My smidgen of a claim to fame is that I have had so many really good friends. By Bernie Swaim December 2007
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[*] posted on 11-27-2007 at 01:45 AM


Sounds an AWESOME Trip - and would LOVE to see Pic's - why not making an ALBUM of all of them on either Shutterfly or Photobucket or else - and post the LINK here for all of us to visit the Album?? *~f~*
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[*] posted on 11-27-2007 at 07:25 AM


another great one Bernie.
and so sorry about your Mrs.




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