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Mexico's Grand Canyon ... by rail.

Mexico's Grand Canyon . . . by rail

The complex of converging gorges that make up the Grand Canyon of Mexico may be familiar to readers of Sunday newspaper travel sections. Popularly called Copper Canyon or Barranca del Cobre (after one of the gorges), this grand canyon gets compared over and over to Arizona's--but Mexico's is four times bigger and 280 feet deeper.

No article is complete without mention of the 76 years it took to build the 400-mile rail route joining the canyon country to Los Mochis and Chihuahua, or without reference to the Tarahumara Indians who still inhabit this rugged part of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

What you may not read about are the surprises that occasionally await visitors: discovering, for example, that the diner on the Mexican National Railway (MNR) train has run out of meals, that unexplained delays can stretch the normal 14-hour ride to 24 hours, or that the small inn where you planned to stay overnight never received your reservation.

At our press deadline, there are plans to upgrade MNR's Copper Canyon service in the near future. Meanwhile, we have found that going with a tour group usually offers more certainty and comfort. (In fact, experienced canyon travelers we interviewed emphatically discouraged going it alone.) This year there are more tours than ever, including the new luxury-service Sierra Madre Express.

Who should go?

Train buffs. Folks who like great scenery and clear air. Hikers and horseback riders. People interested in Indian culture.

Copper Canyon tour operators try to keep current on where to find the best accommodations and food--services that can easily change from one year to the next. Accommodations range from rustic but comfortable (some with beehive fireplaces), to bare-bones modern (clean, with usually reliable plumbing). Expect hotel meals to include well-prepared basics like huevos rancheros and carne asada, freshly made tortillas and bolillos (bread rolls), and cold beer.

On some tours, you ride restored private rail cars. Other tours book blocks of seats on MNR trains; in these instances, you can't be certain about the condition of the rolling stock--including air conditioning --and dining-car fare ranges from good to bad to unavailable (bring survival rations). One tour brings along all food and water from Arizona--as well as its own chef (see picture above).

Since even private rail cars are pulled by MNR locomotives, they do not escape scheduling disruptions. Completed only in 1961, the rail bed is still the best ground link between Los Mochis and Chihuahua; it is in good shape and gets constant maintenance. (You'll have a much smoother ride than on the New York-Washington Metroliner.)

On a tour, you won't have to worry about when to get on the train--operators schedule travel to catch the best scenery during daylight--or where to get off. Depending on the type of tour you choose, you can expect to see the entire canyon route out your train window, with a 20-minute stop for taking pictures and buying baskets. Or stay overnight in a canyon-rim lodge or small-town motel, with days free for hiking, guided horseback rides, or--for the more adventurous --a jeep trip into the canyon's subtropical depths.

What will you see from the window?

Out of Los Mochis, you pass through coastal farm fields and hills of multi-armed cardon. As terrain steepens, the train hugs cliff faces high over farms with papaya trees, pockets of tilled earth worked with yoked oxen, whitewashed adobe houses, women washing clothes at streamside. Climbing, the train crosses and recrosses rivers where water tumbles from pool to pool over boulders.

Higher still, you start to see small apple orchards, stone houses with tin roofs, horses, cattle, curvy-horned bulls. Great rock formations crown sides of the gorge--one is half-dome shaped; others are pointed, resembling scenes in Chinese brush paintings. Long-needled pines poke up around log cabins with shake roofs. It's timber country, and you pass some big lumber mills.

The train climbs steep grades, threads 86 tunnels, and crosses some 40 bridges. The one over Rio Chinipas lets you look down on a rickety suspension bridge still plied by locals and their burros.

When you reach canyon-rim country--at about 7,000 feet--the route levels out to high plateau. Continuing on to Chihuahua, you descend through range and farmland, dotted with the commercial centers of the Tarahumara and local ranchers.

What will you see by foot, horse, jeep?

Bring binoculars to search out the Tarahumaras' cave homes and farm compounds on the semitropical canyon bottom (in warm weather, they live on the plateau, in huts made of planks and boulders). The Indians' switchbacking trails weave a fragile network over the canyon sides. Interesting day-hikes from lodging used by the tour operators follow these trails. As you hike, you'll pass Indians carrying firewood, babies, and bundles of pine needles and beargrass for weaving baskets.

Lichen streaks canyon walls and pinnacles in yellow-green, iron red, and black. The fragrance of red-barked manzanita and madrone and the resinous scent of sun-warmed pines and cones float on the air.

Some tour operators offer optional daylong jeep trips to see such canyon sites as an old mining settlement, a mission, an Indian village, or a sheer drop of waterfall; check their brochures.

Tour groups to join

For detailed brochures and scheduled departure dates, write or call the operators listed at right. Unless noted, prices given are all-inclusive per-person; travel is during the daytime only, with nights spent at lodges or hotels; and the trips have bilingual escorts.

Rail tours through the canyon

Baja Adventures, 16000 Ventura Blvd., Encino, Calif. 91436; (800) 345-2252 in California, 543-2252 elsewhere. Five- to 10-day packages for individuals or groups leave Los Mochis or Chihuahua. Travel on former U.S. rail cars, with dome car on some runs. Land cost: $300 to $900.

Bananafish Tours, 707 30th St., Suite 6, San Pedro, Calif. 90731; (213) 548-6841. Four-day trips "for adventurous people who like trains' leave Mexicali September through May; $295. Travel in private Pullman or occasionally MNR car (sometimes at night); on the most scenic stretch, you may ride in an open-air gondola (modified freight car).

Pan American Tours, Box 9401, El Paso, Texas 79984; (800) 351-1612. Five-day packages for individuals or groups leave Tijuana, cost $375. Travel on MNR.

Sanborn Tours, Box 761, Bastrop, Texas 78602; (800) 531-5440. Five- to eight-day tours leave every Saturday from Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, El Paso; $620 to $1,000. Daytime travel on MNR.

Sierra Madre Express, Box 26381, Tucson, Ariz. 85726; (602) 747-0346. New this year, four- or five-day tours monthly from Tucson cost $985 to $1,385. Travel on restored 1940s sleeper, diner, lounge cars from Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads; open observation deck at rear for canyon viewing.

Other tours to the canyon and beyond . . . for RV travelers, for old car lovers

Caravanas Voyagers, 1155 Larry Mahan Dr., Suite H, El Paso, Texas 79925; (800) 351-1685. Three-week tours for RV travelers include the canyon run aboard flatcars. Departures October through April from Tucson or El Paso; $1,400 to $1,600, depending on size of rig (includes most meals).

Finlay Fun-time Tours, 11306 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, Calif. 91601; (213) 877-7759. Leaving in November, February, and March, 23-day tours from Los Angeles to Yucatan cost $2,900. The five-day portion from Los Angeles to Guadalajara includes the canyon ($700, not including return air fare). All travel is on private restored 1950s U.S. cars.

Photo: Only by train can you reach this rim-to-rim view across Mexico's Copper Canyon. Since 1985, dome car (right) on some runs has revealed mountain scenery between Los Mochis and Chihuahua

Photo: Shaded section shows Copper Canyon route, which links with lines from cities near U.S.-Mexico border

Photo: Tarahumara woman sells beargrass baskets on hotel patio; other women sell at rail stops

Photo: Restored last year, 1946 rail car of Sierra Madre Express is a refurbished veteran of Northern Pacific's Chicago-to-Seattle runs. Car's interior includes period furniture. In tiny galley (right), chef Pasquale chops parsley for a gourmet dish

Photo: Tours for RV travelers make the canyon trip with their campers fastened to flatcars
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Date:Nov 1, 1987
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