El Chepe! The Train of the People!

March 23-26 2018

El Chepe! You just can’t say it or write it without the exclamation mark. I think they should copyright the punctuation as the official part of the name. Beloved by the people of the area and no one should visit the Copper Canyon without at least going one way on this train.

What is hilarious is how challenging it is to get a ticket. I think most tourist pay twice as much to a travel agent after 30 minutes on the net trying to do it themselves. I took it as a challenge. (Rembember at this stage my inner teenager was in charge).

If you are planning on going 2nd class, then get on at Los Mochis. I had friends get on at El Fuerte and they had to stand for 5 hours in the coffee shop car because there were no seats available. They were not amused. First class tickets don’t have to worry because you have assigned seats so you might as well get on at el Fuerte at 8am as opposed to 6am.

Waiting in line to buy my ticket at 5:00am 😦

I went 2nd class and had to “line-up” to buy my ticket at 5 am. Since it was a couple of weeks before Easter it was a mob scene. Madness. These are not polite folk standing in an orderly line. These are short little take-no-prisoners stocky folk who will plough right past you and bruise you while doing it. But they met their match in me – I am as stubborn and stocky as them and I definitely left bruises.

As we crept forward I kept eying the 1st class ticket line… maybe at its worse, 8… so tempting but no! I persevered and in the end, was triumphant!

“Can I check my luggage? Do you take visa?” Was met with blank stares. Right. That would be a ‘no’.

The luggage thing was what kept me up the night before, fretting on how the hell was I going to get that 50 lbs behemoth up onto the train. I looked around and realized that a lot of these guys must be travelling with everything they owned so if they can do it so could I.

I would not have been surprised to see a kitchen sink!

Waiting to get on the train, and again, no lineup. As a card caring Canadian I have a love and respect for the almighty line-up. sigh. Just as I was about 15 from the ladder the dude in charge indicates the rest of us need to go to another car. Since I was at the back of the mob, suddenly I was at the front of it! I beetled away as fast as I could to the other car where helping hands took care of my worldly belongings. There was even space for it in the ‘luggage’ hold at the front of the car! And I got a seat window seat and it was on the ‘right’ side of the car! The attendant had scribbled a seat number on a piece of paper and handed them out as we got on. Someone was sitting in my seat but I was having none of that! It was 6am and I had had only 1 coffee and no breakfast and was looking at surviving on nachos all day. I clearly and firmly showed them my scrap of paper and jerked my head for them to vamoose. For a nano second they considered arguing and then I fixed them with my steely look and raised an eye brow in my best “Make my day” and they decided not to take me on. I sunk into my seat and took a deep breath. An old guy came to join me who was nice and quiet and small – the perfect seat mate.

Second class was so nice for awhile I thought they had put us in 1st class because they ran out of room in 2nd but after a reconnaissance mission up front I realized I was indeed in 2nd. Found out later that these were the old 1st class cars before they bought the new ones. Sweet. Lots of leg room but the windows didn’t open and that was one of the supposed bonuses of going 2nd class. So much for that. But I did get to hang out between the cars like a dog in a car window. Darn kids kept getting in the way.

Saints preserve us, suddenly a coffee cart appeared rumbling down the aisle. Just in the nick of time before I started gnawing my hand off. To be sure it was instant but at that point caffeine is caffeine and I was ready to mainline anything liquid and black. You put in enough sugar and white powdered death in and you can disguise the taste just to get the caffeine into your system. Sad, I know but don’t judge. We all have our crutches and I no longer smoke or watch ‘The Young and the Restless’.  (I’m not sure which was harder to give up!)

And I was right about surviving on nachos… hunger finally drove me to the ‘cafe’ car where I discovered the only thing with no meat were the nachos. sigh I was so hungry. The day before on the ferry no one had told me they stopped serving food by four and you could only get fries and pie after that. I got into Los Mochis so late I could only force down a few bites of a greasy quesadilla before I crashed so I was about 24 hours without meaningful nutrition. When people talk about living off their stored fat, they are talking about wilderness survival and certainly not voluntarily!

The young woman behind the counter was sympathetic but there was nothing she could do if the stupid gringo wasn’t hungry enough to eat ham (*shudder*). The older gentleman who had sat listening beside her (obviously management since he was sitting) said something and she went and got a tupperware container full of rice. She asked if this was ok? My mouth dropped in shock. He was willing to share his lunch with me! My eyes got moist I was so moved. I took a small plate of the rice and gushed my thanks to him. He shrugged in that cool machismo way of manly men.

While I was waiting for it to warm up I met one of my new friends from Canada who got on in El Fuerte. The car was full of people with no seats, laying in corners, leaned up against the counter and of course all their belongings strewn willy nilly. I felt downright spoiled. He was already really uncomfortable and it was only a couple hours at this point. He would have another 3 to go before he got a seat. What was frustrating, I would learn later, was that as we stopped and let people off, there were empty seats but for for some reason they wouldn’t let these people go sit in them. Very odd. Throughout the trip up and back it was evident there was a system in place that often made no sense to us but they adhered to it with an almost religious fervor. They probably learned years ago you had to in the face of foreign tourists.

And they change the rules… often apparently. We were all standing on the platform in Creel waiting for el Chepe back to the coast and it was hilarious. All the tourists madly discussing what would happen when the train arrived. Most of us didn’t have pre bought tickets and of course the ticket office wasn’t open. Some of us wanted on 1st class but then we were told (by other tourists) that you can’t buy a 1st class ticket on board, only 2nd class. I was all prepared to charge the ladder and see if I could bully my way in but after the 30th person assured me that I would not even be allowed on board, I surrendered and meekly boarded the 2nd class car. All was well though since I had gloamed onto my new Canadian friends and they scored a bunch of seats together and gave me one 🙂 . It was nice to be part of a pack for awhile, especially since we were running so late because we had to stop and let every other train go first. It was the same as Amtrak, the passenger trains are a low priority so I spent a lot of time sitting and waiting on both those trains.

Every stop… and there were a lot of stops… it was clear that el Chepe! might cart tourist up and down but she is first and foremost an integral part of the fabric of all the communities she chugges through. She is transportation, social network and commerce.

There is Uber in Los Mochis but not in El Fuerte so you can’t call for a ride but there was lots of cabs waiting even though we were 3 hours late… though I wouldn’t dawdle since the station is well out of town. I was impressed by the Canadian group’s taxi driver, he was the one they had when they caught the train and he promised he’d be there waiting for them and he was!

So I’m over a thousand words and haven’t said one about the actual trip, the view. Well I’ll let the pictures take care of that. I will say that I never expected great swaths of Jacaranda trees on the way up to the Copper Canyon. They were in bloom and kept taking my breath away. There was something incongruent having these gorgeous brilliant flowering trees painting that rugged and raw landscape! The pictures don’t do it justice, you’ll just have to go in March next year and see it for yourself.

The other thing I will tell you is that there’s a stop called Divisadaro just before Creel. It is a 20 minute stop (no longer, they will leave without you!) If you are on 1st class the conductor will tell you about it and urge you to get out and see the view. No such luck in 2nd class. I realized something was up when the car emptied out of people and not wanting to miss anything, I followed. The funny thing was that most of the people gravitated to the food booths, which were amazing. But I followed some people up the stairs and while they went into a store I realized that the freaking canyon was right behind it! INSANE! There were only 5 of us that saw it and it was one of the best view ever. So while the food might be tempting, don’t miss the main attraction. You can visit the food stalls on the way back.

Divisadaro

 

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