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San Diego - Los Mochis (Mexico) - Barranca del Cobre
30 March - 2 April

We started preparing for Mexico in Dayton, Nevada.  We knew since 11 years that the Mexican authorities required a special Mexican liability insurance for flying in Mexico, in addition to our Swiss liability insurance. This rule had not changed. Don Luschar gave us the fax number of a company in Los Angeles that represents the Mexican insurance company and the insurance contract was sent by fax within an hour of applying for it. The price was US$ 89.10 for two weeks.

San Diego Montgomery had the usual coastal stratus cloud (1100 feet overcast) the morning of our departure, so we filed an IFR flight plan to get on top in the sunshine and also to simplify the transit through the busy class B San Diego TCA. Somehow the IFR coordination with the Mexicans failed and after 10 minutes of waiting we got an IFR clearance to 9000 feet with Tijuana as clearance limit, which was fine with us. Montgomery airport was busy, busy, busy. Planes were arriving and departing without interruption from the two parallel runways, and both the tower and ground controller were very busy as many wanted IFR clearances to VFR on top. After getting our IFR clearance we were number 7 for take-off, but finally it was our turn. What a contrast to Atiu in Cook islands where we were the second private plane to arrive during the 20 years of existence of the runway!!

At 2000 feet we were in the sun and shortly before being handed over to Tijuana approach, we cancelled IFR while climbing to 9500 feet. The Tijuana approach controller, whose name was Javier, was very friendly and chatty and unlike his San Diego colleagues he obviously did not have too much to do. He immediately recognized HB-DVN as being Swiss and  asked how we had crossed the Atlantic and from where in Switzerland we had started. He was obviously more knowledgeable than another Tijuana approach controller we talked to 11 years ago, who first did not know where HB-XXX came from and secondly after telling him did not know where Switzerland was so we had to explain that as well!! Anyhow, we told Javier that we had started from Geneva, Switzerland and that we had not crossed the Atlantic, but the Pacific and were on our way around the world eastbound. Then came the usual exchange of range, autonomy and duration of the Hawaii to California flight. He told us to bring greetings to a friend of his, an air traffic controller in Geneva called Christophe Gilgen. We will certainly do that.

Then he asked us if we knew Jorge Cornish, who was the first Mexican to fly around the world in his Rocket Mooney 5 years ago. We explained that we knew him well and that we were going to see him in Mexico City. While this chat went on, an Air Mexicana Boeing 737 was departing from Tijuana, and some talking in Spanish about these fantastic Mooneys followed. I am sure that the 737 was not really going our way as we were about 20 NM out and following a VOR radial direct to San Felipe, but the 737 crew were curious and wanted to see this little Mooney thing coming all the way to Mexico from Switzerland the long way around. Then all of a sudden the controller announced  that we had a 737  6 o'clock, range 2 miles and 500 feet below and that he was going to overtake us. We saw the 737 passing under us shortly after 6 o'clock became 12 o'clock!! I presume Air Mexicana pilots want a bit of fun too sometimes.

Our original plan was to break the journey between San Diego and Los Mochis in Baja California, spending the night at a fly-in resort we had visited 10 years ago, called Punta Chivato.  Don therefore recommended that we did customs and immigration at San Felipe airport, north of Punta Chivato.  Then we realized that three nights wasn't enough to visit the Copper Canyon, so decided to fly straight to Los Mochis.  We still landed first at San Felipe and only realized when we arrived in Los Mochis that we could have done customs there.  However, everything went smoothly and efficiently at the pleasant little airport of San Felipe where they process entry of dozens of US planes daily.  The processing fee for 'Internación de aeronaves' (aircraft entrance) was US$ 52 and the landing fee was just US$ 8.

There was slight turbulence due to thermals as we crossed over the mountains between Tijuana on the Pacific side and San Felipe.on the Sea of Cortes side of Baja California.  Otherwise it was just a 'tempęte de ciel  bleu' as we say in French.  The blue skies were crystal clear, particularly after the smog and haze of Los Angeles and San Diego.  We landed in Los Mochis about half an hour before sunset after a total flying time of 3 and a quarter hours.

Our clever taxi driver managed to persuade us to stay at the hotel of his choice rather than ours by saying that it was at a more safe location in town.   We realized when he hung around the reception that he had only recommended it because he would be rewarded with a commission.  We laughed at ourselves for being so dumb. We should be sufficiently seasoned travellers by now not to be fooled like this!    But it wasn't very important.  We checked out our original choice - Hotel Fenix - after an excellent dinner at El Farallón restaurant (not the one recommended by the taxi driver!) and found it to be slightly better.  We would definitely stay there on our return from the Copper Canyon trip.

It was a very early start the next morning.  The Copper Canyon train departed at 6 a.m. so we needed to be at the station by about 5.30 a.m. to purchase the tickets.  It was recommended to take the first class Primera Express rather than the economy class train so we needed to be sure of getting seats.  We had also been told that the first hour and a half is not very interesting until one reaches the pretty colonial town of El Fuerte.  There is a landing strip at El Fuerte and we thought of landing there instead of Los Mochis until Don Luschar remembered that a friend's plane had been stolen there.  (There is no security at the airfield.)  The other option would have been to take the train all the way to Chihuahua and take an airline back to Los Mochis, instead of returning by train, but single airfare was expensive - at least US$ 250.   The best base for visiting the canyon area was Creel so we decided to end our train journey there.

So we dozed for the first hour or so until the restaurant car opened for  breakfast.  The views soon started to become more interesting, changing from sugar cane fields, to dry desert-like scenery with large cactuses, some of them in flower.  As we started the climb up through the canyons, the vegetation gradually changed to pine trees. The Chihauhau - Pacifico railway is a marvellous piece of engineering through inhospitable bu beautiful mountainous terrain. The train passes through 86 tunnels and numerous bridges between El Fuerte and Creel. While the first bit of the railway from Chihauhau to Creel was completed already in 1907, the railway was only completed in 1963. It was originally designed to carry large amount of goods from the Mexican Gulf to the Pacific, but the completion of the Panama canal reduced the interest of the railway cargo shipments over land.

There was  a 15-minute stop at Divisadero station, to allow time to get out of the train and walk over to the viewpoint of the huge canyon, rivalling with the Grand Canyon of the US.

Tip for prospective travellers: although most of the good views are from the right of the carriage when heading inland, the best place of all to sit is in the restaurant car or bar where the views are not obstructed by the backs of the other seats.  

The train took an hour and a half longer than scheduled and we arrived in Creel after about an 8-hour journey.  (Apparently it always takes that amount of time, so one wonders why they don't change the schedule!)

In Creel, we stayed in a cosy log-cabin style bedroom at the Hotel Korachi which had a gas fire - at 2340 m. above sea level, it gets chilly at night.   Most backpackers stay at Casa Margarita which was a good place to meet fellow travellers and find out what they thought of the various possibilities for excursions.   In the end, we decided to rent bikes (also from Casa Margarita) and cycled to the Valle de los Monjes where the vertical rock formations gave rise to its traditional Tarahumara name of Bisabírachi, or Valley of the Erect Penises.  From there, we climbed to the Mirador Rio Conches with a superb view over a vast distance that reminded me of westerns.

The Cusarare falls were much further away than we had gathered from our guide book and there were a lot of hills on the way.  It was mainly downhill, so I knew it would be hopeless to try and cycle up the hill again later.  We hitched a ride back with a French guy and his Mexican wife whom we'd met in the train.  Their driver was happy to take us and our bicycles on board for an extra tip.  Even so, we had cycled over 40 kilometres in one day and I had a raw hide!

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47-San_Felipe_approach.jpg (14213 bytes)
Beautiful desert colours on the approach to San Felipe. Gulf of California behind.

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Shortly after El Fuerte, the train starts its long and winding climb through Barranca del Cobre
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Primero express has a nice bar and restaurant in the train
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Real Mexican cowboy at Divisadero station
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At the brief stop at Divisadero
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View of Monjes valley (original Indian name: valley of erect penises)
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In the Monjes valley we met this Tarahumara girl called Rosa
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Close to the Monjes valley,
the Mirador Rio Conches
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After many kilometers of biking and some walking we arrived at the Cusarare falls
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Tarahumara women weaving baskets
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Tarahumara children at Divisadero
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CHEPE (Chihauhau Pacifico) primero express train arrives at  Creel station
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One of the many beautiful canyons seen from the train
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