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Copper Canyon 1 First Contact "The Three Amigos"

by Chris Guenzler

It all started with seeing a two by one inch ad for Bananafish Tours in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Travel Section on the lower bottom left hand corner of the back page. My parents and I decided to go after the first delightful Puerto Penasco trip and my mother made all of the arrangements. As the days drew closer, I got even more excited about taking the most spectacular train trip in North America. It would also allow me to see what was beyond Puerto Penasco by rail. We drove down to Calexico via San Diego and parked at AA Parking where we were met by the Bananafish Tour people. We were taken into Mexico by van to the Holiday Inn. My parents shared one bed while I had the other, the wife of the owner of Bananafish Tours Sandy was under the impression that I was a little kid. She would sure be surprised when she met me the next day. The most interesting thing about the hotel was the railing on the balcony on the fifth floor was very unstable, I mean to the point if you put your full weight on it, you might join it in the fall.

12/31/1987 The next morning we were taken down to the Mexicali train station and lined up to go through customs which was just to get your tourist permit stamped. We then boarded our private railroad sleeping cars on the back of the all coach Sonora Baja California train that ran Mexicali to Benjamin Hill, the entire length of the SBC with through cars added to the Pacifico's train from Nogales to Guadalajara. After finding my roomette number five, I walked to the front end of the train for some pictures. We had our six cars on the rear portion of the seven car SBC train with two National Railroad of Mexico {NdeM} U-36CGs as power.

Our train departed on time and I rode the vestibule out of town. We passed through the SBC Yard then went by some nice homes before those of the squatter dwellings along the tracks. The train was kicking up dust and trash which there was a lot of the later as we left Mexicali. At Pascualitos I saw where the old Inter-California Railroad left the SBC mainline. I heard a "Hello" and turned to meet Michael and his traveling companion Sands. Michael is a teacher at Canyon High School and Sands worked as a travel agent. We got talking and the three of us became instant friends, the thermal electric project at Cerro Prieta was progressing along well, followed by a dust kicking up run to Delta and Victoria where Michael suggested that we get some beer. While he was gone, Sands asked me about my Amtrak travels and which western route would I recommend. Michael returned with the beers and we drank a toast to us, the "Three Amigos". Upon completion of this toast, I shared that today was my 30th Birthday so we drank a toast to it and we finished our beer right as the train crossed the Colorado River into Sonora.

Sands went to get another round leaving Michael and me to get better acquainted as we talked to Coahuila at which point Sands returned. We toasted anything that came to mind. Sandy finally found us and took one good hard look at me saying, "Chris, you are not what I expected," and I replied, "I love surprising people" with the four of us just laughing about it. The train headed out into the Altar Desert and when the sand as well as the dust became very heavy everyone except me fled inside for the freedom that the cars provided. I had learned on those Puerto Penasco trips to wear a pair of cheap sunglasses and a handkerchief over my nose and mouth. The longer the train the more dust it will kick up making the Altar Desert number one for the dustiest place I had ever been. Right before The Crosses, Michael joined me with a thirst quencher and I shot a couple of pictures as we polished off our beers. Deciding that I had enough of the Altar Desert beauty and dust for the late morning, I invited Michael to my room and introduced him to Kesseler and Seven Up. Sands found us and the "Three Amigos" started drinking more toasts. We decided to walk through the whole length of the train and once in the SBC section of the train we had changed worlds. The adults were all asleep with their children running wild. We came across the Vendor and Michael bought three beers which we drank on our seven car stroll. We returned to the Bananafish section in time to get off the train at Puerto Penasco so I could take a few pictures and really stretch my legs.

Leaving Puerto Penasco, I was back riding the vestibule since it was new mileage for me and this was the best way to see it, Penasco faded into the distance as did the Gulf of California. This part of the Altar is far less sandy and more enjoyable to ride across. I switched sides of the train at a constant rate so I was getting equal time viewing either side of the train. We sped past the Golden Spike Monument which I did not even know existed until I saw it before we passed the sidings and section housing at Los Enchilayas, El Coyote and Las Sapas before we pulled into Caborca where we waited for our sister train SBC 1 which gave us all a chance to stretch our legs once more. The word was spreading of my birthday so perfect strangers were coming up to me wishing me a Happy Birthday. Well if I had to have a birthday I could not have planned a better way to spend this one than with Bananafish Tours and tomorrow I will start the New Year in Copper Canyon in Mexico.

Back to reality, I went back to my room and found Michael and Sands waiting for me. We fixed a drink and were talking when Sandy arrived sitting next to me and we now had four human beings in my roomette. I got an idea. Let us see how many people can fit in a roomette? Sands went hunting for anybody who would like to try this experiment and sure enough she found people who were willing to try. So one at a time they entered my room and when we were all done we managed to fit thirteen people in my room, a new personal record. We thanked everybody for their participation and the Three Amigos then had a long hard laugh at what we had accomplished.

We returned to the vestibule for the rest of the late afternoon run to Benjamin Hill. After the mostly straight running of the day the tracks curved to cross a river then curved again to gain elevation. We passed Trincheras and made a quick thirty minute run to Benjamin Hill beating the train in from Nogales by thirty minutes. The "Three Amigos" walked over to the liquor store to make some purchases then returned to the depot where this Amigo went to photograph trains. There is a steam locomotive here on display, an ex NdeM 2-8-0 2702 which I was surprised to find here. Its sister engine 2701 is displayed in Mexicali.

The train from Nogales arrived, our engines from Mexicali cut off and the six cars of the Nogales train coupled onto our train and we soon left Benjamin Hill as Pacifico's train number two with seventeen cars speeding off down the Pacifico's track into the night.

I was sitting in my room just thinking about today's ride, when Michael and Sands came to find me to remind me of the New Year's Eve Party in the lounge car and I told them I would follow them back in a few minutes. After about five minutes I started back through my car when out of Bedroom number one I heard "Chris!" and went in to have a drink with a couple from Germany who sang me Happy Birthday in German. After a quick one I move into the next car and a young woman from Brazil gave me a kiss, a drink and the song in Portuguese. I left her with another kiss as a way to say goodbye with me thinking, two cars, two drinks, two songs and three cars to go. Car three yield another song and drink in French. Car four the same thing but when I told them the languages that I had been sung to in, they sang it in Japanese. Do we have an international group or what? I finally made it to the party taking forty two minutes to do a normal two minute walk but what fun I had along the way. I helped pour champagne and enjoyed about an hour of the festivities which included a chorus of Happy Birthday in English. I must admit I liked the Portuguese version and custom of kissing the best of all. I said my goodnight to everyone as tomorrow is the day that I had been waiting for and wanted to be well rested for it. I headed back to my car and the vestibule standing there as the train sped through the darkness thinking how everyone always forgets my birthday and it has been a day that I have never looked forward to. Here a bunch of strangers gave me the best birthday ever and I have to thank Bananafish Tours for bringing us all together. It was quite a day. I went back to my room, kicked off my shoes and fell fast asleep while the train sped down the Pacifico's mainline south in the night.

The Big Day First Encounter with Copper Canyon 1/1/1998

The next morning I woke up in Sufragio which is a division point on the FCP {Pacifico} so I decided to go outside and photograph the trains and engines in the yard but could not find my shoes. Not to be stopped, I used the no problem attitude and walked barefoot through the yard. After shooting the rest of a roll of film I returned to my car to look for my shoes. I found my porter who took one look at my feet and started laughing. He went to his room and came out with my shoes. He had played a Birthday joke on me. It seemed that when I had kicked off my shoes last night they went out into the hallway and he found them just as I had closed my door to go to bed. Shoes returned to my feet I did some serious walking and photography waiting for the First Class Train from Los Mochis.

It was a beautiful bright sunny morning as CHP {Chihuahua Pacifico} train number three pulled into Sufragio, cutting off its caboose then switched onto a gondola car {the open car} and spotted it in front of the caboose. The train then pulled forward and backed onto our cars on the interchange track, pulls us out and connected us to the open car and caboose. They connected all the airlines and did the air test. With my car formerly heading the Bananafish consist, its new location is on the rear with the open car right outside the rear door.

I headed out into the open car just as the train was leaving Sufragio and headed north right alongside of the FCP tracks to San Blas where we turned off northeast towards the mountains. We were heading up a rather flat valley and to the north the Rio El Fuerte is coming down the valley. The train was making good speed as we passed the station of El Fuerte. Off to the north I could see the lake of the large reservoir that was constructed on the El Fuerte River. The train began to twist and turn up the grade before we passed the large cement plant outside of Loreto before we made a stop at the railroad's division point where the children were begging for anything they could get. The train continued it twisting and turning climbing before plunging through a deep cut and started its descent. "The Three Amigos" were reunited this morning as Michael and Sands finally arrived in the open car. At the end of our descent, the train went out onto the El Fuerte Bridge, which is the longest on the railroad and the most impressive bridge that I had ever crossed.

I thought those bridges on the BC Rail were incredible, this one was a lot longer. As we crossed the bridge I noticed a walker trying to stay out of the way of the train on the bridge. You would have thought he would have heard the train coming. Down at the water level there was a rope ferry to shuttle cars from one side to another. The river is about a quarter of the way across the channel reminding me that this is the dry season here as they get their rainfall with the high sun of summer.

Passing through Aquacaliente, the railroad heads into the hills now turning and reversing through curves to gain elevation. The hills were covered with Saguaro Cactus and other flowering plants. We passed through El Pozos continued our snaking climb to the first of eighty six tunnels on the railroad and the one which is also the longest, the El Descanso Tunnel which we entered. I got an idea to shot a picture from inside the tunnel looking out with the caboose silhouetted with the light coming in the entrance of the tunnel. Coming out of the longest bore, we went into the short tunnel 85 then got our first good view of the Sierra Madre Mountains that we would be crossing. There are two canyons visible, the Rio Serpentine which the railroad climbs and the Rio Urique both which plunged into the high front range of the Sierra Madre Mountains. We were on a high ledge above the Chinipas River and after following it for a ways, we swing across it on the highest bridge on the railroad, the Chinipas Bridge with a great view looking up its canyon.

The train passed through Jesus Cruz before crossing a smaller bridge at KP 774 then passed through a series of short tunnels. Down along the river was a grain car that had been derailed then just left where it had rolled. The canyon walls were getting higher and higher as we continued our climb with interesting side canyons taking off. We passed Santa Nino followed further by more tunnels to Julio Ornelas. It was through we left the state of Sinaloa for the state of Chihuahua. More tunnels followed and I noticed that the railroad put a siding and section houses any possible place where they could fit and nature did not provide to many. The train entered an area on my rail guide which Bananafish Tours provided called "The Narrows" and the canyon lived up to that name. The tracks made a left hand turn followed by more tunnels some which are fake tunnels designed to keep the rocks from falling onto the tracks. Along the canyon side of the train are some really nicely built masonry retaining walls to hold back the rocks from encroaching onto the tracks. The train crossed the Mina Plata Bridge then plunged into another tunnel. It was beginning to make some sense to me why it took so long to build this railroad.

After Arthur Stillwell lost control of the Kansas City Southern which he had conceived, he decided to build the shortest rail line between Kansas City and the Pacific Ocean choosing the bay at Topolobampo as the railroads destination. The line would be about five hundred shorter miles than any other rail line to the Pacific coast. Construction would be in pieces with the western portion running from only Topolobampo to El Fuerte and the eastern portion would only be built to start with from Chihuahua to Creel. In the United States the Santa Fe gained control of the railroad and built the line to the Mexican border and then into Chihuahua. It was in the Barrancas that construction proved impossible and construction was halted for years. In 1958 the Mexican government decided that the line must be finished and poured money into that goal. In 1963 at Temoris the line was finally completed only after the most modern construction techniques were used.

After passing through a series of tunnels, we got our first view of the most spectacular and most famous spot on this whole railroad, Temoris, the location of the railroad's completion. Temoris is three levels of railroading. We approached on the lower level crossing the curving Santa Barbara Bridge to start our reverse of direction. We crossed another curved bridge with a waterfall cascading down from above it, pass underneath the two monuments built for the completion of this railroad and its twenty fifth anniversary before coming to the station on the middle level where we stopped for orders. Bill Wallace, the owner of Bananafish Tours gave a history of the Railroad and Temoris. The train then departed Temoris passing the line of railroad worker's homes in former freight cars and continued to climb the middle level giving a fantastic perspective of Temoris and the valley below.

We plunged into the Le Pera Tunnel which allows the train to make a 180 degree turn while inside to reach the third and highest level as we exited the tunnel well above Temoris. The train gained a more fantastic view of Temoris below before passing through a short tunnel between the two commemorative monuments. The one above is the original one built back in 1963 and the one below it was for the twenty fifth anniversary of the line's completion. It was made out of old hopper cars that has a face of metal attached to it shaped in the State of Chihuahua with an old Fairbanks and Morris shell of a H-12-44 locomotive extending out from it on a set of rails. It was here you get your last look at Temoris before the train plunged into another tunnel.

We entered the tunnel after tunnel after tunnel segment of this railroad high above the Rio Serpentine. We crossed the Rio Serpentine again before we climbed into another canyon, passed through a tunnel and around a horseshoe curve to gain more elevation. After another set of tunnels the scenery changed to a more oak grass setting reminding me of the Eureka Southern in northern California. The river climbed almost to track level with the canyon opening up a little. We went through another tunnel then crossed the river on a rather ordinary bridge to the siding at Irigoyen followed by another crossing of the river and we made a stop at Bahuichivo which is at the edge of timber country. We passed a log reload facility where the tractors were busy loading bulk head flat cars with logs. This was the first industry I have seen on the line since the cement plant away back at Loreto. Lunch was bought out to me by Sandy. It was some chicken cooked El Polo Loco Style by a woman who lives in San Blas and was the best style of the chicken that I had ever eaten. Sandy asked me how I was enjoying the trip and one word was all that we needed for my answer, "Fantastic!" We stood there looking out at the scenery when Bill came up and finally started talking with me. He apologies but said, "With this many people it took me two whole days to finally get to you." We talked trains and realize we both have a love for trains. He gave me more technical details of running a trip like this and I was fascinated by it all. By the time we reached Cuiteco, Bill went back about his duties and I was joined by my other two Amigos. With two Tecate beers in hand for me, Michael said, "I figured you could use these since you have been out here since Sufragio and I reminded Sandy to bring you lunch." I said, "Thanks, I just did not want to miss a single moment of this trip. When we get to San Rafael the drinks are on me back in my room," and the "Three Amigos" drank a toast to that.

The train continued its climb as we passed small farms and the trees changed from deciduous to pine with the gain in elevation. The tracks left this valley by making another set of reversing curves before a series of tunnels leading us into the next little canyon the train will follow. After some series of straight tracks and a few more tunnels we crossed the Cuiteco Bridge which was slightly curved. We curved up and around another canyon before crossing the La Mora Bridge in the middle of a curve.

We next passed Chihuahuicame then rounded another horseshoe curve as we continued to climb. We plunged through a rather long tunnel before crossing the La Laja Bridge which is the second highest on the railroad. We enter the last tunnel before we twisted and turned our way to the next division point on the railroad, San Rafael. We made a twenty minute stop there which allowed me to detrain for some pictures before the "Three Amigos" had a drink in my room. We returned to the open car and to the vendors. Here there are two types, the usual ones selling food and the Tarahumara Indians selling their crafts. I found the Indians to be far more interesting than any of the food which I would never eat for health reasons.

The train left San Rafael and continued its climb with a series of swinging loops which led to another short tunnel and within minutes we arrived at Divisidero where all passenger trains stop for at least fifteen minutes. Divisidero has two major attractions, the view of Urique Canyon and the Taramuharas selling their wares. The Indians take the perfect spot between the train and the canyon and one must pass by them in order to get to the view and what a view it is. You look out and down into Urique Canyon and it is the same view you always see in tour brochures of Copper Canyon Tours and in travel magazines. I was most impressed and shot a pantographic series of photographs, following five minutes of studying the view. It was so incredible that everyone should see it once. I returned past the vendors taking not a thing as I know I will be back tomorrow as I returned to the train.

Leaving Divisidero we ran along the ridge that separates Urique Canyon from Oteres Canyon to the northwest which comes into view occasionally. The train travels along this ridge twisting and curving still climbing as we passed Nacaibo gaining a few more glimpses of Oteres Canyon as the train speed increased on this relative curved free section of the railroad. We plunged into a tunnel and there was the Rock of Fertility, a phallic shaped rock that it is said that the railroad workers had a hand in its shaping. We had views of canyons on both sides of the train before we were lined into the siding at Pitorreal by the crew of CHP train number three who we met on the mainline. They lined both ends of the siding so we continued on without stopping. The train continued its climb along a side canyon before looping around at its head before we reached El Lazo, a 360 degree loop, one of only three in North America but very different from the other two.

The most famous is the Tehachapi Loop which has a hill in the middle of it, the less notable one is the Williams Loop in the Feather River Canyon which has a marsh in it's middle with El Lazo is just one continuous rock surface the train cuts through to make the loop. You start at the bottom going through a tunnel with an arch bridge above before curving hard to the left up the grade to the point where you cross over the track below with Urique Canyon in the background.

Just east of here we crossed the highest point on the CHP and in less than eighty miles have climbed over eight thousand feet in elevation. It is truly the most incredible railroad that I have ever ridden over. At Frederico Lopez we met CHP train number seven, the Second Class train sitting in the siding and running late waiting for us to pass and our three locomotives were running in full dynamic braking for the first time today as we were now descending towards Creel, our trip's destination. The train made a series of sweeping curves before coming to Sanchez. The train then made another series of curves then made one horseshoe curve before we entered the valley where Creel is located in. We made one final horseshoe curve then ducked underneath a highway overpass then down a long straight track into Creel and the train stopped at the depot ending today's ride. I was assigned a room at the Parador Montana as did my other two Amigos so we all took the six block walk to the hotel and got checked in as our cars were cut off of the train and put into the siding at Creel.

Creel 1/1/1988

After I got settled into my room and took a shower which felt so good, I waited for my two Amigos to join me. About thirty minutes later we went to the hotel's bar and had a couple of drinks talking about our day with each of us giving our three favorite things. I excused myself to meet my parents in the lobby to watch the Rose Bowl. I had such a great day that I had forgotten that it was New Year's Day and January 1st. I took a nice long walk after the game in the clear cold mountain air before I returned to my room for a couple of nightcaps and a good night's rest.

1/2/1988 The next morning I got up, showered and had a breakfast of hot cakes before returning to my room to pack up. My bag will be taken back to the train while I take the Tarahumara Indian Cave Tour. I met the group outside the hotel and we piled into a Tourism bus. We headed out of town on the paved highway crossing over the tracks before we turned onto a bouncing dirt road which we traveled for five miles until we turned off and arrived at the Tarahumara Indian Cave.

We explored the cave and its surrounding area. It amazes me how the Indians have a place for everything with everything in its place plus there is no trash laying around anywhere. Inside the cave there is a cooking area, a sleeping area for the kids and one for the parents along with a general living area. After seeing the inside, the view out of the front of the cave is something that anyone would pay for but they got it for just living in this cave. It made me think that do I need all of the modern convinces to be happy in my life. Outside there was an area underneath the cliff they had made pens for their goats and sheep plus another pen for their chickens. Out off to the right of the cave is a field for their crops mainly for their corn. It is a very thought out plan for their living environment. There is a great view out the front of the cave. How would you like that view every morning!

We got back into our Tourism bus and first were taken to the Mushroom Rocks which are in the shape of Mushrooms and Toad Stools because of the erosional effects of wind and water. They proved to be very interesting.

Our next stop is the Indian Mission which was a short drive from the rocks. We got to look around the outside before taking a quiet walk throughout the building. We returned to Creel down the same very bumpy dirt road then were given three free hours to look around. Today we were going back on the First Class train so I waited at the east end of the platform so I could get a quick picture of it arriving before I dashed back to our cars to board. It was interesting to watch all of the people arrive at the train station because of all of the vending that took place. It was almost like a three ring circus and if you look carefully you never know what you will see!

The Return 1/2/1988

CHP Train 4 arrived four minutes early, got his train orders and within minutes had our cars coupled up to the rear. I was out in the open car where Michael joined me with our now customary Tecates and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery. We rounded El Lazo again and Michael ran inside to get Sands so she would not miss the Rock of Fertility again. We arrived at Divisidero and the "Three Amigos" rushed over to look at the view. Sands and I then went shopping with me purchasing a wooden cooking set for Vicki Rossman. I saw a hand wooden violin but I did not have enough money to buy it leaving Sands with the vendor. I returned to put the cooking set away for Vicki when Sands popped in and said she had a big surprise for me. She had bought me the violin, I gave her a big hug and said, "Thank you!" I poured each of us a drink to toast to the violin, the cooking set, the Taramuharas and the train. When Michael joined us the "Three Amigos" returned to the open car just as the train arrived at San Rafael where in the yard we found CHP train number three waiting for us. I had another quick drink after taking a few pictures around the yard before returning to the open car for the trip down the mountain. We crossed the La Laja Bridge before we met a very late running CHP number seven at Chihuahuicame just as the shadows began to take hold in the canyon. I went and put the camera away before the "Three Amigos" were reunited once again with another round of beers as the train continued its descent. We arrived at Temoris just as twilight began to take hold and I enjoyed the trip down through Temoris almost as much as I did yesterday. Everyone went inside for dinner leaving the open car to me and the night which was beginning to turn very cold. After the Chinipas River was crossed I returned to my room to enjoy a few nightcaps. My timing was perfect as I returned outside twice for the El Descanso Tunnel and El Fuerte River Bridge under a star filled night before I called it a night on a very exciting day.

1/3/1988 The next morning found me waking up to the high speed clickity clack of the Pacifico's mainline. I got dressed and then went to the vestibule to figure where we are. After a few kilometers we passed Carbo which would make us an hour or so out of Benjamin Hill. I made up my room and then sat there with my door closed until we reached Benjamin Hill where I hopped off to take a few pictures while the SBC put together our train which left Benjamin Hill two hours late.

We got delayed further west where the SBC was putting in ribbon rail and concrete ties. They must have started this project after January 1st and were very into it. I was amazed the train stayed on the tracks. We met eastbound SBC train number two at EL Coyote with us waiting in the siding for twenty minutes. Throughout the day I continued to finish up my liquor supply in the privacy of my room. When I was done I walked up to the lounge car to have a Tecate before my other two Amigos arrived. We talked to Puerto Penasco which we arrived at almost at sunset.


Following our last servicing stop at Puerto Penasco we headed out into the Altar Desert as I settled my bar tab with Sandy before having another talk with Bill about trains. I thanked both of them for such a wonderful trip and they both invited me to come along on another trip in the future which I would work around my work schedule at MacArthur. I then took a Tecate to go returning to my room where my other two Amigos joined me and we each had two more Tecates. We made a quick trip back to Mexicali with Bill arranging to have the train taken up to the border saving everyone parked at AA Parking a cab fare, I got off the train at the border, stumbled and swayed my way through Customs. I made it to the back seat of my parent's car sleeping the entire way back to Santa Ana ending my first Copper Canyon Trip in Mexico with Bananafish Tours.