The Sierra Madre Express

The Sierra Madre Express

From Travellady Magazine

The Sierra Madre Express

A Great Rail Journey

By Robert Painter

of the most spectacular scenery in North America is waiting for you on the
Sierra Madre Express, a train chronicled in National Geographic’s book titled ”
World’s Great Train Journeys.”                                                                        

This trip actually begins in Tucson and that’s a good thing
for a couple of reasons.  The first is not having to clear customs and
immigration in an airport.  The more important one, however, is that you can
begin and end the journey in the beautiful city of Tucson which has a lot to
offer.  I began my trip by staying for two nights at the J.W. Marriott Starr
Pass Resort on the west side of the city. 
The resort is kind of out in the
country and surrounded by hills covered with magnificent saguaro cactus to the
north and west and a stunning golf course view over which you can see the city
lights at night to the east and south. My favorite treat was being able to walk
out of the lobby, a hundred yards down the driveway and directly onto the Bowen
Trail in the Tucson Mountain Park.  There are a number of trails through the
park and you can walk for minutes or for hours. There is even a Geochacheing
hunt available.  Play a little golf, visit the Hashani Spa and end the day
with a splendid meal at Primo that will include vegetables from their own
organic garden.

After leaving the Starr Pass Resort I met up with the
Sierra Madre Express group at the Doubletree where we overnighted before
visiting several local sites in Tucson, including the beautiful mission at San
Xavier del Bac – sometimes called the White Dove of the Desert – before crossing
the border by motorcoach into Nogales. Here we boarded the Sierra Madre Express
as it began its trip down the eastern edge of Mexico, bound for the Barrancas
del Cobre or better known in the U.S. as Copper Canyon.

When the train reaches the little village of Sufragio at an
elevation of 105 feet, it switches over onto the tracks that will carry us up
through 87 tunnels and over 37 bridges until it reaches Divisadero on the very
rim of the Copper Canyon. Then over the Continental Divide at more than 8,000

The Sierra Madre Express offers you the chance to once
again become a guest and not just a mass transit ticket holder. Most of the cars
were built in the 1940’s.  My car was built in 1949 by the American Car and
Foundry Company.  With two lower bunks and a toilet and sink as well as two
miniature closets, I was all set for the adventure.  I really only used my
little suite for sleeping.  Most of the day was spent either in the dome at the
top of the Tucson car, in the very comfortable lounge in the Arizona car or,
most frequently, on the open-air patio deck of the Divisadero car.  For
more information about the individual cars you can check out the website at the
end of this story.

Some nights were spent in wonderful inns along the way. 
The Posada Mirador at Divisadero is perched on the rim of the canyon like an
eagle ready to fly.  It is spectacular, especially in the early morning light.
>From the lodge there are numerous hiking trails that lead out around the rim of
this spectacular canyon.  The views from every room are breathtaking and the
terrace off the main lobby is a perfect place for spotting soaring hawks in the
canyon and tiny hummingbirds coming to feast at the feeders hanging from the
eaves. The stay here offers time to take a horseback ride or to take a long hike
into the Divisadero station to shop in the Tarahumara marketplace set along the
rim of the canyon.  Before you get back on the train, you may want to get a
Chile Relleno for a dollar.  Absolutely delicious and you can’t beat the price. 
The only problem is that there is so much great food on the train.  My
suggestion is to walk to the station from the hotel, eat the relleno and then
walk back – by then, you will have earned it.  And, since you’re probably
shopping a bit by now let me offer another suggestion.  The handcrafts are
extremely reasonable and the Tarahumara really don’t seem to care that much for
“haggling.”  So why not just pay what they ask and enjoy your new treasure. 
Twelve dollars for a really beautiful, large basket with a lid is not going to
break your budget, but that twelve dollars will be very meaningful to the weaver
who diligently crafted this fine item with her very own two hands. Have your
photo taken with her and your purchase and you will have a grand memory to
cherish forever.  Now that’s a bargain for only 12 bucks!

And, speaking of photos, not only will the scenery burn up
a lot of space on your memory card, but the delightful native children will
garner your attention as well.  Be prepared to offer them a little something in
exchange for taking their photo.  They are a very proud people and should be
treated with dignity and

One of the best features of this journey was the
opportunity to actually get to meet and share the experience with fellow
travelers.  And, for the most part, these were travelers, not just tourists.
Some carried their notebooks with listed features, like tunnels, bridges,
landmarks that provided railroad mile markers in order to find and keep up with
highlights along the way.  Sitting on the open deck watching the passing
spectacle, taking and sharing photos and talking about our lives brought many of
these travelers very close.  Some will be lifelong friends.  Some will
connect and take other journeys together.  Part of the beauty of travel is
the opportunity to get beyond some of our social and cultural barriers and
become more accepting of others.  While a train does provide some
separation from the local people of the area, that same train also attracts some
of the local people in a way that provides an opportunity to make a connection
that might otherwise not be possible.

The Copper Canyon area is actually made up of a number of
canyons, several of which are larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in the
U.S.   On a previous trip I hiked to the bottom of Urique Canyon with the famous
Tarahumara runner, Victoriano.  He likes to take short cuts and hike cross
country rather than use the road so I had a pretty exciting day of off trail
hiking, often on goat trails and very steep downhill descents.  At a
reputed age of 55 he won the Leadville 100 running in his tire tread and rawhide
thong sandals.

The Tarahumara, numbering perhaps about 70,000, inhabit
this gloriously rugged country.  Many of their compounds are far from the
nearest village and, typically, they run to the village when they need
supplies.  Or, they run from one of their isolated corn fields to one of their
equally isolated goat herds.  Occasionally you wander down a goat trail and find
a pen filled with fine looking goats in a cave that was once used in earlier
times by the Mogollon culture, long since gone from this region.  Many of the
Raramuri, as they call themselves, are outstanding craftspeople, making fine
baskets, dolls and other items to sell to visitors. They are a kind, gentle
people, often shy, but always delightful.

The Sierra Madre Express, as it makes its way up the steep
railways and into the heart of the Barrancas del Cobre provides many stunning
views of this rugged countryside.  Like the spectacular spot along the way where
the train actually circles around over itself.  In one of the long tunnels, the
train loops about and exits the tunnel in the same direction from which it
entered.  At one spot you can see three different levels of track as the train
winds about very sharply up a rapid ascent. And this with a picturesque
waterfall alongside.

Sitting on the open deck with feet propped up on the rail
and enjoying the passing spectacle is what many would say a vacation should be. 
I agree with that, but I also find the opportunity to get off the train and into
the villages and the countryside to be important to me.

was my second visit to Copper Canyon, but it won’t be my last.  I’ll be
back on a train adventure one of these days, but all those dirt roads we passed
along the way were very enticing.  I kept thinking of how exciting it would
be to wander slowly and aimlessly from village to village on about a 250cc trail
bike . . . I’m still thinking about that.

The ride back up to Nogales provides an exceptional
opportunity to relive many of the past week’s adventures with your fellow
travelers as well as a chance to get to know them even better.  By now you
already know many of their little eccentricities and the group has become
something of a family.  The train staff, the passengers and the people you met
along the way have all helped to make this a trip of a lifetime.

The last evening back at the hotel in Tucson is a final
chance to say goodbye to new friends, exchange emails and addresses, pack and
figure out how to get all the wonderful hand crafted items you purchased back
home.  In the morning they’ll all be gone.  All but me and a few others staying
over to do different things.

I’m planning a full day with lots of things to see and do
in Tucson.  I’ve already driven past the Davis-Monthan Air Base where thousands
of retired military aircraft are sitting in the sun, preserved by the dry desert
air and waiting for . . . . what?  Maybe nothing – maybe some will be
refurbished.  Who knows?  It’s a sight worth seeing but are these billions of
dollars worth of now useless aircraft the price of peace or the price of war? 
You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

My plan for my final day is to visit the Desert Museum and
then proceed to the Hacienda Del Sol for my final evening and morning in
Tucson.  The New York Times describes the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as
“Probably the most distinctive zoo in the United States.” and I concur. It is a
nature trail leading through botanic gardens, animal exhibits, aviaries and into
a museum. I didn’t see any Mexican wolves in the Copper Canyon, but I spotted a
couple of them here.

ended this fabulous adventure at the Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort on the
north side of Tucson. I wish I had more time for this award winning inn that has
been recognized by National Geographic, Travel & Leisure Magazine and others. 
I don’t think I stayed in the suite that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn
frequented, but I was able to enjoy my spacious and exceedingly comfortable
accommodations with a patio overlooking the surrounding valley and mountains
before dining at The Grill. A Wine Spectator award winner, the Grill was the
perfect ending to a perfect trip.

I know I’ll be back – maybe I’ll see you there.

When You Go:

For more detailed information on the Sierra Madre Express
check their website at:

To find a copy of the “World’s Greatest Train Journeys”:

San Xavier del Bac:

Starr Pass Resort:

Hacienda Del Sol:

Tucson Information:

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

Story and Photos by Robert Painter: