Whenever you buy an economy class ticket, you’re gambling that what you give up in luxury will be compensated for by the people you meet on your journey. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, a segundo class ticket is a hands-down winner.
The segundo train offers the same breathtaking views of the Copper Canyon as the South Orient Express because it runs on the same tracks. But the best part is that a ticket costs about $10.
The train itself reminds me of something out of an old western: a creaky, painted wood-and-sheet metal carriage, wooden seats, open doors at either end and a tiny concession to luxury in the form of some tattered curtains.
Although a Texan named Tim and I were the only foreigners aboard at the onset at Los Mochis, by the time we got to Divisadero there were four Australians, two Canadians, two Germans and a bewildered-looking group of Americans who had clearly taken the wrong train.
But gradually, as we stopped in tiny towns along the way, the car filled with the stuff that a Mexican train ride is all about: a shabbily dressed, silken-voiced guitar player pleasantly serenaded the passengers with the sounds of Indian folk music. Poker games were running at both ends of the carriage, but when one of the dealers smiled (revealing a gold front tooth with a club design carved into it), I decided to sit this one out.
The station platforms swarm with crowds of locals, to whom the train is an economic lifeline, hawking home-made burritos, tacos and other less identifiable offerings, while livestock being loaded and unloaded contribute to the general confusion.
Many of the passengers are Mexicans, just getting from point A to point B. But when the train rolls around that first mountain curve just north of El Fuerte and the scenery starts revealing itself, everyone on board rushes over to the right side of the train and watches in fascination.
Train buffs, always looking for an opportunity to see other sections of the train while it twists around hairpin turns, are a tad miffed at being so close, yet so far, from their view. As the train rockets around the bends, it enters and leaves tunnels so frequently it seems as if a rambunctious child is standing at the carriage’s light switch and turning it on and off. Sticking your head out of the window is a daunting task.
At Divisadero, where the primera train makes a 15-minute stop, the segundo takes advantage of its more proletarian scheduling to sit at the highest point of the canyon along the route for up to an hour. At 8,669 feet above sea level, Divisadero is the main overlook into the canyon, and the Copper Canyon Natural Park. The view is, in a word, spectacular.
Skip the Souvenirs
I had been warned by every guidebook not to buy the chatchkas that are being peddled by the Tarahumara Indians who mill about the station, and judging by the sales I saw, everyone else had read the same books.
It’s hard to take an interest in crafts while looking out over the ruggedly beautiful canyon. To the left, it seems as if some cataclysmic cruise ship had plowed its way through solid mountain walls, beyond which lies rocky terrain that dips and rolls as far as the eye can see.
On the move again, as the early evening set in, this rattle-filled train seemed to take us back in time; the evening light and the sounds of the tracks entering the car through the open windows made me think of riding the Orient Express. A beautiful family of Mennonites boarded, and sat as inconspicuously as one can dressed in traditional 19th-century attire.
The poker games had consolidated; there was some drinking but the group was maintaining its friendliness to the point that I sat down with them to watch a couple of hands. As if to demonstrate how badly I can judge a poker game, I noticed that the man with the gold tooth was hemorrhaging money.
Throughout the carriage, people were interacting with the familiarity of a group that has just gone through something together. The passengers on the segundo were talking among themselves, sharing a bottle of Presidente brandy or some chips, or starting a game of dominoes on the seats. And to tourist and local alike, it was obvious that what we had just seen was close to magical.