ROAD TO THE COPPER CANYON

Departure: September 16, 2011 with Trafalgar Tours – booked through Geoff Monk at www.globalcoachtours.com

If I hadn’t been a “leap before you look” person, I might have thought that travelling 1,581 miles in 7 days was definitely several hundred miles too far. In the event, with only 26 passengers in a 52 seater coach, it was a very happy trip.

I missed the welcome visit as my plane didn’t land until 5.30, but Sergio, the tour manager was still available at 7 p.m, welcomed me and gave me a folder with useful information, including a timetable, information timetable, Spanish phrases including “ I’m lost” and a document giving clear information about completing the Mexican Immigration form.

Our coach was extremely comfortable; adjustable foot rests,- important for those of us a bit vertically challenged,- free sweets, and free bottles of water in an ice chest. No seatbelts though. Javier was smiley, helpful, and an excellent driver. He only made the coach jerk once, and that was on the first day when a large table fell from the back of a pick up truck in front of us and came sailing towards our windscreen.

Day 1 and a 7a.m departure from the very comfortable Courtyard Marriott near Phoenix Airport. Our first stop was an attractive mission church, at about 9.30 (photo)

which had toilets and what looked like an interesting little gift shop which I didn’t find until it was time to leave.

We reached the Mexican border at Nogales about 11 a.m. Crossing was an interesting experience involving stops for Immigration, Customs and the Department of Agriculture. I think it was Customs, where we all had to line up in front of a kind of traffic light and push a button. A green light meant you could go back to the coach, a red light and the stern officer sent you back to identify your luggage and stand by it. No one, even Sergio, seemed to have any idea what was being measured or tested. After a series of green lights, there was suddenly a red one! Nervous giggles from those still waiting to press the button.. After the first red light, a lot of people got one and formed an anxious little queue by the luggage compartment. However, when the officials saw how much “red” luggage there was, they decided against checking any of it, and we moved on.

The only two meals not included on the tour were dinner on arrival night, and dinner on arrival back at the Marriott, though breakfast on departure day was. I think this was definitely good value, and most of the meal menus were printed in the folder, so we could choose while we were on the coach, and Sergio phoned ahead, with our orders. So at our first lunch stop at Santa Ana, I had Chicken Enchiladas, which were very good.

After lunch, we moved on to Hermosillo. There had been a torrential downpour just before we arrived, and we had an unexpected tour of the local Governor’s Palace, courtesy of the local tourist office staff. (photo).  This was an interesting insight into local history as the walls were decorated with many murals of the history of Sonora, the state we were in. While we were outside the Palace, we also saw two girls having photographs of their 15th birthday celebrations, a very important birthday in Mexico.

We arrived at San Carlos, and the Hotel Marinara, about 5.30. San Carlos is a mini seaside resort on the Gulf of Mexico or, as the Mexican’s say, The Sea of Cortes.
This was a very lively, and rather noisy hotel, full of Mexican families on holiday. I had a very large room with full kitchen facilities and a huge patio with a great view. (photo) Another passenger told me he had two patios , one with a Hot Tub, but he said he didn‘t use it. .There was also a very nice pool. We had vouchers ( I somehow had two) for a cocktail in the air conditioned bar, and I definitely felt I was into Mexico after two Tequila Sunrises!

From Phoenix to San Carlos is 451 miles, but it was no hardship. Another pleasant dinner. I had soup, chicken with a baked potato and vegetable , with flan for pudding.

Day 2, bags outside rooms at 7 a.m and we left for a boat trip at 8.30 a.m. The boat office had some wooden carvings for sale, and as I felt the urge to buy something, I bought a pelican and another bird. The weather was just right for a boat trip, and one of the crew, looked for ,and found, the local dolphins and took us to visit them. They gave us a great welcome, swimming under the boat and jumping out of the water alongside us, and in the bubbles of the wake. Back to the hotel for a lunch of fish fillet. A soft drink was always included in the lunches.

We left San Carlos about 12.30 and visited a pearl farm on the way to Alamos. Personally, I could have done without this visit, but we were given a clear and informative explanation about modern pearl farming methods, and I was able to sit in the shade and watch other passengers being tempted into buying some items of jewellery, though it’s worth saying that there was no hard sell.

Alamos is a very well preserved colonial town with Andalusian style architecture. We didn’t arrive until about 6p.m. but we did have a short rest stop on the way. I stayed in “The House of Treasures” originally built as a convent in 1789, and the rooms still had some original features, including the fireplaces (photo). It was a delightful place to stay, built round a shady courtyard, complete with fountain (photo) . Others stayed in the “House of Enchantment” a few yards down the road. We had a “Margarita Moose”(welcome cocktail) before dinner, which was soup and chicken kabob with mango sauce.
After breakfast the next morning, a local guide arrived. He spoke excellent English, but my heart sank when he said the town tour would last 2and a half to 3 hours, because it was already very hot and only 8.30 a.m. We left the shady courtyard, rather reluctantly on my part, to “experience the history of Alamos”, which has a lot of history, and of which our guide had a truly formidable knowledge. Once outside in the street it was scorching, even in the shade, as the guide began a house by house historical explanation. I began to wilt after about an hour, and when we passed a Post office (the only one I saw on the whole trip) two of us slid in, rather surprising the person in charge. It was a tricky transaction, she did have stamps, but no change, so she left us in charge of her purse and the post office while she went to find some. When we emerged, the group had vanished, so after a brief search, we went back to the hotel, to find a number of our group sitting guiltily in the shade having cold drinks. I should say that our thoughtful driver had come to meet us very early in the tour with bottles of cold water.

The tour was far too ambitious in it’s scope, and far too lengthy, given the circumstances, and I did mention this on the Trafalgar feedback form.

I lunched on soup and Chicken Tostadas, very tasty, then we left Sonora and entered Sinaloa, when we put our watches forward an hour.

A pleasant drive to El Fuerte. There was little traffic, and we arrived about 5.30 and had more fantastic accommodation in the Torres del Fuerte hotel which is a 19th century family mansion, with many original features, and set in large gardens. It’s (photo)  difficult to describe my room, and do it justice, but it was very large and dark, with interesting ornaments (photo) and I particularly liked the doors, which didn’t have locks, but once inside, had iron bars to close them. 

Another nice dinner, soup, fish or chicken and flan. I had the chicken with rice and steamed vegetables. After dinner there was a performance by local dancers, very colourful, and spirited. It was an admirable effort as it was extremely hot and humid.

6.15 wake up call, bags outside room, breakfast, and transfer to rail station at 7.45 a.m. We were able to take all our luggage with us, presumably because we were only a small group, and the very pictuesque train arrived on time (photo) .

The train trip was excellent and I could have stayed on it longer. The scenery was magnificent, it was extremely comfortable, not full, with pleasant staff, including armed guards! Sergio had regaled us with the story of an armed robbery in the 1990s. I think only one person died, he was filming events as they happened and refused to give the robbers his camera! The police later ambushed the train, which must have been difficult, given the terrain, and caught all the robbers, but ever since armed guards have been de rigeur (photo) .

We had a very nice lunch on the train and for keen photographers it was possible to stand in the “vestibules”, between coaches and open the windows,

At about 2,30 we arrived at Posada Barrancas station, and having left our driver to bring the coach the long way round, were transferred to the Hotel Mansion Tarahumara (photo) on the edge of Urique Canyon, one of the 5 canyons making up the Copper canyon, . Accommodation was in stone cabins around the main buildings and for some reason I had been assigned the Honeymoon Cabin, although I was travelling alone! I wouldn’t have known if Sergio hadn’t told me, though there was a heart shaped cushion on the bed, and a TV, This was placed so high that it would have been difficult to see, even if there had been a remote control, but just having a TV set made me the object of some envy for a short time.

The programme said that there would be a walking tour of the rim and visit to a Tarahumara dwelling, but this was deferred to the next day, so but people went for short walks to look at the view from the rim and play with the two very friendly dogs that lived at the hotel. The Traumata cultural presentation didn’t take place either. The Tarahumara are very reserved and try hard to be self sufficient, living in small houses, or caves at the bottom of the canyon , and growing a few rows of maize, beans and squash where they can. The women weave baskets from sisal and there were one or two who came up to the hotel every day to sell their work . Sergio spoke very sympathetically about the life of the Tarahumara and their hardships, which include a 50% mortality rate among babies. I was secretly glad that these reserved people didn’t have to give any performances on this occasion.

We didn’t have breakfast until 8.30 a.m, a treat after early starts, and instead of a folkloric show, we visited a local school for a pinyata party, arranged by Sergio. I wasn’t entirely happy about this, I don’t really like invading the looking at inhabitants, However, the children were delightful. There were some Tarahumara children at school who had to walk for an hour and a half every day to get there. The headmaster told us via Sergio, that the Government gave him money to buy supplies with which to give the children a meal at 11 every day. He gave them whatever he could buy locally, so their diet was rather varied, but at least they had something to eat. The piñata’s contents were much enjoyed by the children and we’d stopped at Walmart earlier in the journey and had bought exercise books, pencils etc NB Walmart doesn’t accept $s, so if you don’t have any pesos, you need to use a credit card.. Very touchingly, the children had drawn pictures and written little notes and gave them to each of us.

We moved on for a closer look at the canyon rim, where there were shopping opportunities and no other tourists, in fact there were very few tourists anywhere. Then to a lake for a barbeque lunch and a free afternoon, for hiking with a guide or riding. Before dinner two Tarahumara men appeared to demonstrate one of their dances and the game that they enjoy, chsing a wooden ball with a special stick for days through the canyons.

We were sad to leave the hotel. The meals were buffet style with a nice choice and delicious home cooking. the surroundings and staff, but we had 283 miles to go to Casas Grandes, via Creel, and lunch at Guerro. This was where one of my companions inadvertently told me the bowl in my place at the table was soup, and I took a large mouthful only to discover that it was the salsa sauce! I think it was inadvertent. There was a choice of meals here, and the local speciality, apple pie was excellent. In fact Northern Mexico was full of apple trees loaded with fruit.

Unfortunately I can’t remember much about the Hotel Hacienda, it was a severe looking place, next to a police barracks and the air conditioners sounded like a jet engine in the room. I got my room as cool as possible then turned it off, but I could still hear other peoples. The region is famous for apple and peach growing and rearing excellent turkeys, and we passed a lot of turkey farms,

This day was also our farewell dinner at a local restaurant run buy a Belgian chef. Sergio had told us his history, including the fact that his wife had had triplets, and praised his culinary skills. I have to say the meal was very ordinary, steak and creamed potatoes with some vegetables, forme, not nearly as enjoyable as other meals along the way.

Day 7 and we were on our way back to Phoenix, decending all the time. This road was busy with extremely large trucks going up and down what seemed to me (I had rotated to the front seat by this time) a rather narrow road, On the way we called at paquime, a huge adobe city built by Amerindians, destroyed in the 13th century by other tribes (photo)

Lunch at Agua Prieta and I had Chicken Fajitas.

Crossing the border in to the US was very straightforward, though we saw someone from a car being led away in handcuffs! Segio put a Richard Gere DVD on for us, which I didn’t really want to watch, but couldn’t avoid it as I was in the front seat. We rolled into the Marriott at about 7.30 p.m and said our farewells, and I had a fortifying Margarita and some dinner.

In the morning I was able to use the free internet connection to check in on line and print my boarding pass.

Moragh