After an unexpectedly long three night stay in Los Mochis for both of us to recover from what had transpired to be gastroenteritis, we were back on the road. Due to the infrequent nature of the train, we had a couple of extra days to explore somewhere before the next departure.
For said extra days, we chose a town called El Fuerte, a 2 hour bus ride from Los Mochis. Putting our backpacks back on and walking across Los Mochis to the bus station was our first proper glimpse of mainland Mexico, having been confined to a hotel room for two days. Already it felt very different to the Baja California peninsula.
At the bus station, we found the right bus remarkably quickly and after dropping off our bags, we even had time for a spot of lunch. Over the past few days we had been confined to fairly bland and safe meals, but today we would be back in at the deep end. The menu was pretty vague, but we were now able to ask a few follow up questions before ordering. I ordered flautas and received a stunning plate of food that I really should have photographed – two fried tortillas rolled with potato and meat, smothered in a bright green salsa and served with a simple salad of lettuce, pink onions and cucumber. The whole plate was sprinkled with a mild crumbly cheese. It even came with a mystery mug of soup! It was absolutely stunning. Kim ordered tacos dorados (golden tacos) with a similar filling. They were served in a bowl with a similar salad, but with the whole thing served in the soup that I received on the side. To me it was slightly bizarre that everything was served in a single bowl, but it worked.
We arrived in El Fuerte, to find a picturesque but sleepy town. Our hotel, the imaginatively named Hotel El Fuerte, was like stepping back into time into a colonial era Hacienda. The rooms, across two levels, were centred around two sunbathed courtyards. The open communal areas offered a cool shady retreat from the heat of the day and sitting there whilst we studied Spanish and planned some of our trip felt like spending the afternoon in a living museum.
Outside the hotel, the main square was leafy and lined by a picturesque church on one side with the municipal palace on another. The fort, after which the town is named, and the tranquil riverside Malecón were also nearby.
All in all, it didn’t feel like we needed to go too far to soak up the colonial charm that El Fuerte had in spades. In fact our walk up to the fort and along the river on our first night was about as far as we went.
On the language front, nobody had spoken any English to us since we arrived on the mainland. That worked perfectly for us and was giving us plenty of opportunities for listening practice. However, I was getting distinctly frustrated as I was still struggling to hear even the most basic of phrases, unless they were repeated very slowly. If only life had subtitles! After feeling so good about my Spanish in La Paz, a few days without practice whilst we were ill and some truly awful conversations where I hadn’t understood a single word had quickly made me feel like I was going backwards.
El Fuerte to Posada Barrancas
A hearty breakfast of Huevos Rancheros at the hotel set us up for a day travelling on the famous El Chepe train up into Barrancas Del Cobre. Barrancas del Cobre or Copper Canyon is actually a series of six canyons, that cover an area bigger than that of the Grand Canyon. As such, we had big expectations for the next week or so.
The train pulled into the station at El Fuerte only a few minutes behind schedule (a minor miracle based on what we had heard), kicking off a flurry of activity as passengers ran up and down the platform trying to find the correct carriage for their destination. The snappily dressed conductors were very particular about which carriage we should sit in and who were we to argue. Successfully seated on the train, we paid for our tickets as the train made steady progress across a surprisingly flat first section of track. Only in the background did we get glimpses of the kind of mountainous terrain that would dominate the latter part of the journey.
As the views started to become more interesting, I went in search of a prime piece of real estate (a spot next to an open window) before we hit the best sections of track. After a few minutes searching along the train, I hit the mother load, a spot where I could access an open window on both sides of the train. I arrived just in time for our passage across the first of many bridges and views of the river below.
After the bridge crossing, the scenery died down a bit, so I took the opportunity to rest my legs back at the seat. However, it wasn’t long until we hit another bridge crossing and our ascent into the mountains started in earnest. I returned to my open windows in between carriages, whilst Kim opted to watch from the comfort of the seats. With the wind blowing in my face, as the train rattled along its snaking mountain path, sun beaming down, it was hard to think of anywhere else I would rather have been in that moment.
The train continued to gain height, cutting its way through an increasing number of tunnels as we approached Temoris. By now, Kim had given up with our seats and had joined me between carriages.
From Temoris, the train scales a particularly steep stretch of mountain, quickly snaking back and forth through long stretches of tunnel. At the end of each pitch black tunnel, we were met by blinding sunlight that quickly gave way to stunning vistas across the valley below once our eyes became accustomed to the light.
From the summit, the track follows the path of the river for the last leg of the journey through to the small mountain communities deep in the heart of Copper Canyon.
Our stop of choice was Posada Barrancas, as it offered cheaper accommodation than the more famous Divisadero. We were met at the station by the owner of the hotel and discovered that the French couple in front of us on the train were also staying at the same hotel. We hadn’t shared any more than a cursory “hola” up until that point, but we soon set that straight. The four of us were sharing a beer and some provisions from the local shop in no time, whilst swapping tales of our respective travels.
After our refreshments, the four of us (and some local dogs that took it upon themselves to follow us everywhere) took the short walk up behind our hotel to explore the canyon that we had all come to see. Our first glimpse of the vast canyon was one of those rare occasions that a view quite literally took my breath away (or maybe that was just the altitude and walking uphill!).
We continued on our way along the canyon edge, dogs still in tow, marvelling at the view along the way. We were all excited about the days to come, exploring this incredible natural wonder and learning more about the Raramuri tribe that inhabit the area. But that evening, after a long day of excitement and with temperatures dropping fast after sunset, all everyone really wanted was an early night next to a roaring fire.