To-po-lo-bam-po. Sounds like a Richie Valens’ hit from 1958? Well, it’s not. Nor is it Rick Bayless’ famous Chicago eatery. It is, in fact, the small but lively Mexican port town tucked up into the convoluted shoreline of the state of Sinaloa lapped by the tepid waters of the Gulf of California. Her six thousand, give or take, inhabitants savor warm summer sun, fish fresh from the sea, and an easy lifestyle that drops their blood pressure several points.
So Why Are We Here?
Well, most everyone comes to Topolobampo to journey inland to Copper Canyon. In Spanish, it’s called, “Barranca del Cobre” and isn’t really just one canyon but a series of 20 carved by the powerful forces of time and six mighty rivers. Some travelers note the similarity to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and they are right. But proud locals point out that the entire region measures seven times greater than that of the Grand Canyon, so it is whopping big. Even UNESCO identified it as one of their coveted World Heritage Sites, which brings us to the subject of “ChePe” -- not to be confused with that Hollywood personality who keeps wiggling, saying “Koochi Koochi.”
The Train That Could
“ChePe” is short for the “Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad.” It, however, is not short. It runs 400 miles from Chihuahua to Los Mochis smack through Copper Canyon. Even jaded travelers exclaim that this tops the list of America’s most spectacular railroad stretches as well as one of the world’s top ten in the same category.
The entire route traverses more than three-dozen bridges, some 86 tunnels, endless canyons and grab-the-camera-honey vistas. All this was the hair-brain idea of some curious folks from New Harmony, Indiana known as the Utopia Socialist Colony. Their leader Albert Kinsey Owen was bent, so to speak, on creating a utopian socialist community and convinced General Manuel Gonzales, Mexico’s President in 1880, that he needed the railroad to achieve this goal. Well, that all went by the wayside because the task was far too daunting. So, it was not until 1961 that the final stake was driven into the track signaling the train was now ready to leave the station.
If you know America’s indigenous peoples, then you’re well aware of the Tarahumara. Also called Raramuri (the two names are somewhat interchangeable), they’re found scattered about Mexico’s northern region. Long before the Spaniards arrived to search for gold and silver, the Tarahumara were widespread. As conditions worsened for them under Spanish rule in the 16th century, they took refuge in Copper Canyon for the rugged landscape offered them shelter. Even today, many still live in caves, beneath rock outcroppings on cliffs, or in modest yet more modern cabins.
These settlements were and are separated by inhospitable terrain. So, long before cell phones and texting, the only way villagers could communicate with the outside world was by messenger. These darn fast, healthy specimen could literally run for days and it was not uncommon for one such “foot runner” to cover as much as 435 miles in one go. That’s about 16.5 marathons AT ONCE !! Barefoot !! Before Gatorade !! Well, they did carbo-load with lots of corn beer and sometimes kick a ball along for enjoyment so it wasn’t all that bad. The scary part, however, was dodging Mexican wolves and cougars that prowled about in the dark even though Raramuri hunted their prey by chasing them till exhaustion.
Some experts believe the word “Raramuri” actually means “those who run fast.” Think Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving. Other experts explain these runners honed their skills not by clomping along in sneakers like us but rather by using something called a “toe strike” (not gout, silly) that’s easier on the muscles and joints and lets the runner keep on going long after we week-end jocks would be calling a taxi.
Even today many of the 60,000 Raramuri still practice traditional customs by donning colorful clothing, herding livestock from pasture to pasture, cooking familiar dishes like beans and corn, practicing their traditional animism religion mixed with Christianity, and speaking the Tarahumara dialect of their forefathers along with Spanish.
The Original Z
An option for those unable to travel the ChePe Railroad (we call the ChePe Choo Choo) is Zorro. Yes, remember “the mark of the Z”? Supposedly, that was the signature of Don Diego de la Vega reputed to be the true Zorro. A visit to his 1880s mansion Hotel Posado del Hidalgo in the town of El Fuente will fill in the blanks of this gentleman’s history. Learn the identity of the man behind the black mask and really tight pants who sought to right all wrongs, make women swoon, and slice away at gnarly villains.