Chihuahua, Mexico, is pleasant in February. In fact, October through March is the perfect time to visit and ride what in railroad lingo is called the "high iron." This particular adventure involves a train ride that begins in La Junta (in the Sierra Madre Mountains), goes through Mexico's Copper Canyon, and ends up on the Sea of Cortez. However, this doesn't simply involve boarding a railroad passenger car and watching the world go by. Here, you drive your own sleeper car, SUV, camper, or towable RV onto a flatbed railroad car. Then, for the next five days and nights the flatbed railcar becomes not only your home but a viewing platform from which to watch an exotic world. Traveling about four hours a day, diesel locomotives tow these flatbed cars along at 20 mph.

For 30 years, this unique mode of travel (called caravaning) has offered vacation opportunities for those enthusiasts who enjoy campers, travel trailers, and fifth wheels. Today, more truck and SUV enthusiasts than ever before are discovering what motorhome aficionados have long known but have kept a closely guarded secret. When driving through Mexico, even to Central America and now to places as far away as South America, traveling with others in a caravan offers the best of all worlds.

There are several caravan companies from which to choose (see sidebar), and they will make all the campground reservations in advance. Excursions and professionally guided tours at destinations visited are included, as are many gourmet meals eateries. Professional guides (referred to as wagon masters, often a husband-and-wife team) lead the caravan every step of the way. They're familiar with the route, as they've done this many times before. The same is true for the caravan's mechanic (often called a tail gunner). He's the last to leave camp in the morning and last to arrive at night at the next destination. His mission is to "bring up the rear"and assist anyone who might need additional help. It's his charge to ensure everyone arrives safely at the next destination. A subtler but equally important benefit of traveling by caravan is the camaraderie of doing it with others like yourself. In a caravan, Mexico's culture and diversity can be experienced and enjoyed from the security and safety offered only when traveling in numbers.

A typical scenario is to rendezvous with 15 to 20 other parties in El Paso and begin the trip south. An orientation and get-acquainted party is hosted by the wagon master. Everyone is required to have a CB radio; the wagon master continuously uses it to explain what you're seeing as you travel through what for most in the group is uncharted territory. Using his CB radio, the wagon master broadcasts upcoming turns, stops, toll roads, and fuel and rest stops. When everyone's completed a milestone, such as making a necessary turn in a city, the tail gunner notifies the wagon master. Traveling by caravan is a time-tested, foolproof method that works very well.

Places Visited: Chihuahua
To the Indians, the word Chihuahua means dry, sandy soil. However, the name today is synonymous with Pancho Villa. Mexican history recognizes Villa as a hero, an important broker in Mexican politics, although at one time he was vilified. He began his career as a desperado, taking the name of a bandit killed on the job. Eventually, Villa was brought into the fold of the revolutionaries, and, during a decade of revolution, he became a general. He was assassinated in 1920 while driving his Dodge touring car. He was decapitated, and his head never has been found. Today, his rancho (in downtown Chihuahua) is a national museum, with his personal possessions and other items from this era on display inside, including the Dodge he was driving on that fateful day.

Places Often Visited: Mennonite Colony
In 1923, the Mennonites emigrated from Canada to Mexico over issues of religious freedom. At the invitation of Mexico's president, the Mennonites relocated 60 miles west of Chihuahua. Today, the fields are verdant and fertile. The manicured farmland looks just like Iowa and employs the latest in farming techniques, agri-science, and machinery. The homes resemble any upscale residential setting in urban America.

Under the relocation agreement, the Mennonites were allowed to maintain dual citizenship (Canadian and Mexican). Their passports reflect this. The only stipulation is that before the age of 18 each child must spend one year in Canada. German is the language spoken here. Spanish is a second language. If you visit one of their one-room schoolhouses, it's almost like a scene from "Little House on the Prairie."All grade levels are taught in one room, with the girls on one side and the boys on the other. The Mennonites have a state-of-the-art cheese-processing plant that offers superb products, while their country markets offer homemade peanut brittle and other cottage goodies.

Copper Canyon
It takes a full morning to load the vehicles onto the flatbed railroad cars, but then the party begins. That first night after margaritas and a home-cooked Mexican dinner at a cantina in La Junta, your own bed awaits you back onboard the flatbed car. In the morning, while it's still dark, the locomotives arrive to couple the cars. In most cases, the gentle nuzzle of them being coupled together isn't enough to disturb anyone's slumber. However, if you're an early riser, make a pot of coffee, grab a lawn chair, and sit outside with your cup of brew while the train moves off into the landscape. This is one of the most unique modes of travel found anywhere.

Copper Canyon is actually several canyons that total an area five times larger than the Grand Canyon. It's also deeper.

After taking a half century to build, the railroad was completed in 1961. It crosses 90 bridges and passes through 40 tunnels. The train actually makes a complete U-turn while it's inside the mountain in one tunnel.

The Tarahumara Indians have lived here for hundreds of years and are identified by the bold, colorful fabrics with which their clothes are tailored. The Tarahumaras are renowned for their running prowess, holding competitions that include running and kicking a ball-like object over a distance of more than 100 miles (without stopping). They live in the hillside caves that border the tracks.

Each day around noon, the train stops and shopping, touring, sightseeing, food and beverage indulgence begins at another of the colonial villages-whistle stops with names like Creel, El Divisadero, Cuiteco, Bahuichivo, Temoris, and El Purete.

Sea of Cortez
Many visitors make the harbors and inlets along the Sea of Cortez destinations unto themselves. With a Copper Canyon caravan, this is included. The most popular stop when heading north to Nogalas, Arizona, and reentry back into the United States, is the port city of Guymas. One of the best places to stay near Guymas is in San Carlos. The campground often used is the El Mirador (a five-star resort), equivalent in every respect to the finest, luxury campground resorts anywhere in North America. Deep-sea fishing, whale watching, bicycle tours, parasailing, a cantina, and gourmet restaurant-it can all be enjoyed while staying at El Mirador. A concierge is on duty to help arrange these experiences for guests, plus everything else that's offered locally, including a visit to a local pearl factory.

Lance Truck Camper
Incorporating slide-out-room technology in the 921, Lance Campers has greatly improved liveability. With a bench-style dinette housed in the electric-powered slide-out, the interior living space appears to double when the slide-out is extended. For travel, mechanical latches lock the slide-out in place for travel. Two exterior-cargo compartments take advantage of the space beneath the bench-style dinette seats. Automotive bulb-type seals prevent outside weather from affecting the inside. The Model 921 features a high-gloss, fiberglass exterior skin.

A three-way refrigerator/freezer, three-burner cook-top/oven, double galley sink, microwave oven, a pull-out pantry with adjustable shelves, compose the galley. The Lance 921 features a full-size wet-bath with shower, Marine-style toilet, lavy, and medicine cabinet. An angled, double-door overhead cabinet houses a television/VCR that can be viewed from either the dinette or the queen-size cab-over bed.

Lance offers a winterizing package that features additional insulation in the cab-over area, dual pane glass in the window above the head of the bed, and an insulated fabric cover for the bathroom skylight. Heated, enclosed holding tanks are included. The forced-air furnace is ducted into the living/galley area, into the cab-over bed area and into the bath. Options include a roof air-conditioner (with heat strips), an LP genset, and a solar-powered electric battery charger. Holding-tank capacities for fresh, gray, and waste are 33, 13, and 14 gallons, respectively. Twin LP tanks with an automatic crossover valve allow either tank to be isolated for individual servicing. www.lancecamper.com; 661/949-3322.

Travelex Insurance Services
Trip cancellation, trip interruption, trip delay, itinerary change, medical expenses, medical evacuation/repatriation, accidental death and dismemberment, flight accident plan, and vehicle damage protection.
800/228-9792; www.travelex-insurance.com

Point South Mexico Vehicle Insurance
888/421-1394
www.homestead.com

Sanborn's Auto and Other Insurances for Mexico
800/222-0158
www.sanbornsinsurance.com

ADA VIS Global Enterprises, Inc. (auto insurance)
800/909-4457
www.mexicoinsurance.com

Caravan Companies
Fantasy RV Tours
800/952-8496
www.fantasyrvtours.com

Adventure Tours, RV Tours, and Expeditions
800/455-TOUR
www.adventuretrek.com

Tracks to Adventure
800/351-6053
www.trackstoadventure.com

Adventure Caravans
800/872-7897
www.adventurecaravans.com

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