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Only in Mexico


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IT HAPPENED IN A COWBOY RESTAURANT in the Mexican town of Durango in the 1960s, when a smiling waitress served me a dinner that looked more like a horror-movie prop than an entrée. Much to my surprise, and to the giggling delight of my three young children, centered on the plate in front of me was a fully cooked, grinning skull of a small goat.

The macabre delicacy came complete with bulging eyes, a lolling tongue and a neatly cut opening in the skull’s top to allow the customer to scoop out the savory gourmet goodies. In my confusion with the Spanish-language menu, I had ordered a local specialty: cabecita, or little head.

On a recent trip below the border, I was again reminded that you can always count on the unexpected in Mexico—and therein lies its charm.

Earlier this year, I journeyed to Mexico’s fabled Barrancas del Cobre, Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon. The region is part of the 25,000-square-mile remote preserve of the Tarahumaras, primitive Indians who still live in caves, weave baskets and hunt deer by running them down on foot. In spring or fall this little-known vacation destination offers warm days and crisp nights, is easy to fly to and features a high-thrill railroad ride to a legitimate scenic wonder—a spectacular maze of gorges several times larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, which, happily, boasts a posh new hotel on its rim.

This legendary rail trip attracts train buffs from all over the world. In six hours, it twists its way up through the photogenic Sierra Madre, over dozens of narrow bridges, through numerous tunnels, from sea level to the canyon edge, more than 8,000 feet high.

During our trip we were accompanied by a local guide, Juan, who seemed to know everybody on the railroad by name. As my wife and I boarded the train for our return down the mountain, I asked if he could help me get some camera shots that would give a greater sense of the dramatic rail trip.

He winked at me and asked, “How about a ride on the cowcatcher?” I thought he was kidding until a few minutes later, when he came to my seat and motioned to follow him forward. Juan led me through three cars, then across the coupling gap to the shifting rear of the diesel engine.

He shouted at me, over the roar of the train, to keep one hand on the handrail as we picked our way along the narrow catwalk around the engine, arriving on a small steel platform on the front of the train and looking straight ahead at the whizzing rails and blurred scenery. Since this was a two-ended engine, there really was no cowcatcher, only a single puny railing at each side and open space at my feet.

Juan headed back inside and left me in front of the engine for nearly three hours. I took dozens of wide-angle photos while crossing bridges over rivers hundreds of feet below, changing film and lenses with one hand—happy as only a photographer plastered on the front of a speeding train can be.

Braced against the railing, with the wind in my face, I kept thinking: This could happen only in Mexico. I can’t imagine anywhere else in the world where they would allow even an astronaut to ride, unfettered, on the business end of a speeding train careening through a series of mountain gorges.

Finally out of film, and tired from standing on unsteady legs, I climbed back around the engine and walked up the aisle to my waiting wife.

“Where have you been, and why are you grinning?” she asked.

“On the cowcatcher,” I answered, and added: “Only in Mexico!”

IF YOU GO: Have your travel agent make arrangements through Balderrama Hoteles y Tours in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico (they own the hotels where you will be staying). Telephone: 011-52-681-871-89, 800-876-3942 or 800-351-1612; fax: 011-52-681-200-46. Columbus Travel (800-843-1060) can also arrange Copper Canyon trips.

Plan on a five-day trip. Aero California Airlines flies directly to Los Mochis from Los Angeles or Tijuana.

Arrange to be picked up at the Los Mochis airport and then driven to nearby El Fuerte (about a one-hour drive). Spend the night at the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo, a charmingly restored, circa-1890 former mayor’s mansion. For dinner, order the tortilla soup and the lobina mojo de ajo—fresh black bass cooked with garlic cloves.

The next morning, have the hotel drive you to the nearby train station to catch the 7:30 a.m. train to Copper Canyon. Try to reserve seats on the right side of the train going up to Copper Canyon. Take lots of film, shoot photos from the open windows between cars, and buy some Tarahumara Indian baskets as inexpensive gifts.

Arrange to be picked up at the train and driven to the beautiful Posada Barrancas Mirador hotel. Spend three nights at the Mirador with tour-guide side trips to Indian villages, caves and colonial Spanish missions.

Take the noon train back to the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo in El Fuerte. Enjoy walking around the town; stroll the plaza. Spend the last night there and arrange to be driven to the Los Mochis airport for your midday return flight.
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