EL FUERTE—Gateway to Mexico’s Grand Canyon
By Carol L. Bowman
Under the burdensome weight of sizzling temperatures and drenching humidity, I dragged myself to the white wrought iron bench fronting El Fuerte’s central gazebo. Every living thing seemed to be in slow-motion. Even a tiny lizard, perched on the arm rail didn’t scamper when I invaded his space. I flopped into the metal seat and closed my eyes to keep out the salty drops that trickled down my forehead. The empty square baked in the intense afternoon sun as rat-race toxins and stressors melted away one bead of perspiration at a time.
I left the 21st Century and invited the ambiance of ‘Old Mexico’ to come and sit with me. I could see Humphrey Bogart’s character, “Fred C. Dobbs,” scouring a backwater Mexican settlement like this one for some luck. Visions drifted by of him buying-up bottles of hooch from the three-shelf liquor store and vittles and mining supplies from the poorly lit tiendas, as he geared up to uncover ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’
We arrived in El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Mexico on a late May afternoon for our one-night stay at the city’s most beautiful hacienda. The 18th Century Hotel Posada del Hidalgo provided a historical spot to prepare our minds for the stupendous vistas waiting for us on the train journey through the Copper Canyon. We settled into our charming room graced with late 1800’s antiques, but the air-conditioner controls on the adobe wall brought the real squeals of delight. Ah, the joys of a colonial setting blended with modern amenities.
In 1968, well-known Mexican hotelier Roberto Balderrama Gomez, bought this mansion that follows the slope up seven levels to Fort Montesclaros. He turned the “Casa Vieja,” the oldest section, into the magnificent hostelry for train travelers, the Posada del Hidalgo. This portion was originally owned by Don Alejandro de la Vega, father of Don Diego de la Vega, known to many as Mexico’s Robin Hood, Zorro.
Founded in 1564 by Spaniard Francisco de Ibarra, El Fuerte has acted as a gateway to adventure for 500 years. Originally called San Juan Bautista de Carapoa, this town provided access to Spanish-ruled Arizona and California before the fierce Zuaque and Tehueco tribes destroyed it.
In 1610 Jesuit missionaries took over the colonization, subdued the indigenous warriors using an evangelical approach and renamed it after the Spanish Fort, El Fuerte Montesclaros. In the mid 1800´s, the pueblo functioned as the chief trading post and stagecoach stop for silver and gold miners panning for riches in Urique and Batopilas, both located near the canyon floor.
American engineer Albert Owens envisioned the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad in 1897. Since 1961, when the 406-mile route officially opened, El Fuerte has been recognized as a western access to the Copper Canyon. The railroad remains the life line of this city of 30,000 people. It would shrivel in the heat without commercial hotels, restaurants, and tour agencies to service travelers venturing into the canyon.
My husband, Ernie, and I usually ‘hit the ground running’ at any new destination, but our El Fuerte exploration deteriorated into a slow-paced saunter. We soaked up history while the sun robbed our energy. Following the inviting, clean Rio El Fuerte that zig-zagged through town, I wondered if any heat-stroked tourists had ever jumped into the river for relief. The swift rapids and 30 ft. plunge proved to be natural deterrents for me. I had read that the river draws rafting enthusiasts from around the world. Fresh water black bass and langostino fishing prevails and wild float rides after the rainy season provide an exciting zip down the channel.
Refurbished Spanish mansions dating back to the 1750’s with arched porticos exposing manicured gardens helped us forget the oppressive heat. The central Plaza de Armas offered shade under colossal palms, beckoning benches and a blistering breeze. A few cowboys, donning 10-gallon hats and damp leather chaps, clip-clopped their horses through the dusty streets, kicking up billowing swirls as they passed.
Once we reached el Centro, a handsome Mexican, curling his drooping handle-bar moustache, sweltered outside a colonial restaurant on the square. He lured us inside, calling to Ernie, “Señor. Ven al dentro.” The cowboy seemed to know that we’d accept any respite from the scorching sun. We slurped on huge plates of bright red, fresh-water langostinos, called cauques, smothered in garlic butter and downed ice cold Pacifico beers. We had crossed from Hell over into Heaven. Tables covered with old newspapers absorbed the pungent oil that slithered down our hands while we peeled those succulent beauties. I remember the sensual pleasure I felt when the young, dark-eyed waiter gently wiped away the greasy evidence dripping down my chin. A meal, a subtle gesture—a moment that I can still feel, see, and taste.
Back at the hotel, while we sipped margaritas by the pool, a surprise visit by Zorro added a hokey, but historical flare. Wearing a half-mask, bolero hat and an alluring smile, the bandit rode a jet-black horse with silver studded saddle and pranced through the gardens. Zorro and Tornado took me back to 1957, when at 11 years old, I sat glued in front of the rabbit-eared TV set, fascinated by my first introduction to Mexican culture.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty Mexican breakfast, we asked the hotel driver to take us to the train station. Three miles outside of town, a deserted wooden structure emerged from the dust. We kissed our pre-paid vouchers when we saw the ticket window deserted as well. The rickety building offered no services, two dilapidated benches and two semi-functional bathroom units.
When the train finally steamed into the station, the conductor announced the stop would only be for five-minutes. We grabbed our luggage, boarded quickly, and found a right-hand seat for best views. Eager for what is billed as ‘the most thrilling train ride in the Western Hemisphere,’ we left behind indelible images of ‘Old Mexico,’ El Fuerte.
Explorers heading from west to east into Mexico’s Copper Canyon on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (CHEPE) have several departure options. Leaving from Los Mochis, on the Sea of Cortez coast, the train pulls out at 6AM, not reaching the center of the canyon for nine hours. A more palatable and less exhausting route begins in the steamy, colonial city of El Fuerte at 9AM, 75 kilometers north of Los Mochis. Spending a few days in the charming environs of this Pueblo Magico gets the trip off to a historical start.
The entire tour package through the Copper Canyon, including the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo in El Fuerte can be arranged through Balderrama Hotel Collection. Go to www.mexicoscoppercanyon.com or call toll free US 1-800-896-8196, or in Los Mochis, Mexico, 52-668-712-1613.