An elderly bearded gentleman walks slowly up the aisle of the railway carriage and looks at the people sitting in the second-class seats. An almost-antique folding camera hangs against his chest from a strap around his neck.
When he sees a new face, a new passenger, he lifts the camera and points it. A chemical flash erupts brightly and then he moves away without saying a word, searching for a fresh subject.
After a while he comes back with a dozen or so plastic heart-shaped key chains dangling from his fingers. He passes them out one at a time to the people he’s photographed, again without speaking, and continues up the aisle, leaving you — if he took your picture and it’s more than likely that he did —time to examine the offering.
On one side is a drawing of a sandaled foot poised in the act of running, the symbol of El Chepe, the Chihuahua Pacifico Railway. On the other side is the photograph of your face, frozen (in my case) in an expression of wary confusion. The old man returns and on his third visit finally speaks.
“Souvenir of your train trip,” he says in Spanish. “Five pesos, por favor.”
Anyone catching a ride on Mexico’s last surviving passenger train will likely encounter its freelance photographer — not just foreign tourists, but also the local families who depend on the train for transportation.
There are many families who do.
That means that although El Chepe leaves the Chihuahua station very early every morning, no one taking one of the second-class coaches — as opposed to a place on the first-class train that leaves an hour earlier and is nowhere near as crowded — will have to worry about falling asleep.
There’s sure to be a child on board to keep everyone wide awake.
No doubt humans evolved to emit high-pitched screams as toddlers for practical reasons.
In our distant past, if a young child who had newly learned to walk happened to wander away from the family encampment and encountered a sabertoothed tiger, one ear-piercing squeal of fright just might have been painful enough to scare the animal away.
Then again, if that didn’t work — or if the noise only prompted the cat to try to finish off the child even quicker — no human adult within earshot could have failed to hear the alarm and come running to help.
Unfortunately, as useful as that trait might have been in prehistoric times, it is far less practical or desirable when the child is confined in a crowded economy carriage of the Chihuahua Pacifico Railway bound for the deep canyons that cut through the Sierra Tarahumaras.
However, once the train leaves the high central plateau and begins its descent to the Urique River and the Copper Canyon opens up its awe-inspiring vistas for the passengers, all other distractions — including loud children — are quickly forgotten.
The Chihuahua Pacifico is the last Mexican passenger train for a reason. After the Mexican government privatized the country’s rail services in the late 1990s, the new companies that took over mostly decided to concentrate on carrying freight and to leave people-moving to a growing number of private bus companies.
Almost overnight Mexico changed from a country that could be crossed from one end to the other by rail, to one that could only be travelled by road — all except in one amazing place where no roads lead: the Barranca del Cobre, a system of six canyons that cut through the Western Sierra Madre mountains, extending further and deeper than the more famous Grand Canyon found north of the U.S. border in Arizona.
In recent years, the Mexican government has built roads that extend into the region, but most of it can still only be seen from the windows of El Chepe train, as it has become known because of its acronym CHP.
When heading west out of Chihuahua, the train gradually climbs towards the Continental Divide through countryside familiar to viewers of classic American western movies: flat and dry, the northern Mexican plateau is the home of dirt-poor farmers, cactus and vultures that sit on fence posts patiently waiting for their next meal to die.
However, when the train reaches the tributaries of the Rio Papigochic and begins its slow climb into the Tarahumaras, the land and vegetation changes, as well as the people and their villages.
The cactus disappear as the deepening valleys become more and more heavily forested with long-needled pine trees.
The flat-roofed brick shanties of the desert are replaced by high-peaked log houses — ones oddly reminiscent not of Canadian backwoods cabins, but of Russian dachas, simple but exotic at the same time.
The people look just as poor as their eastern neighbours, but by the time you reach Creel, the last of the towns on the Copper Canyon run that is also accessible by road, it’s clear the local economies are dependent largely on the passage of the Chihuahua Pacifico.
Finally the train stops for a brief rest at the town of Arep, which can only be reached by rail, and passengers have the opportunity to see down into some of the deepest and widest chasms of the canyon where the Rio Urique sweeps in a sharp bend to flow due south to meet the Rio San Miguel.
The people of Arep are almost entirely dependent on the train and on the travellers it brings to support their livelihoods.
Several hotels —some of which are so expensive they won’t list their rates for the casually curious — have been established in the area along the rim of the canyon to cater to affluent tourists who wish to take a break on the 22-hour trip.
Also, residents of the town come out en masse to meet the train and sell their local wares and produce to the passengers — not just to the foreign tourists, but also to the regular Mexican families who disembark to stretch their legs.
After Arep the train begins a steep descent down between the high cliffs of the canyon walls, passing through terrain that probably can't even be reached on foot, let alone by automobile.
The dangers of this stretch of the route become clear as wrecked railway freight cars appear amongst the rocks along the riverbank, where they’ve landed after being swept off the tracks and crushed in landslides.
Finally, after passing El Fuerto, with most of the route’s 673 kilometres and all of its 37 bridges and 86 tunnels left behind, passengers have a few hours of nighttime travel across flat coastal lowlands before arriving at the Los Mochis terminal to get reacquainted with the high-pitched squeals of small children.
But with the memories of the Copper Canyon’s astounding sights still fresh, the boisterous noise won’t sound so bad by then.
Michael Johansen is a writer who lives in Labrador.