Brendan/Brennan Tours

This is a combination trip - Tucson's "Gem and Mineral Show" then the "Copper Canyon" trip. I signed up with "Brendan" but the tour is run by "Brennan."

Day 1, Thursday, February 3 Houston to Tucson:
Fly in rather than drive. Up at 2:15, and off at 3 to drive to the airport and park. It's another 'hurry up and wait" deal since we're always told to get to the airport 2 hours ahead of departure … and I do, but there are no agents at the counters, and even after they show up, the Security station isn't open until about 20 minutes later. Airfare is via Wells Fargo credit card points so that saves some $$.

1America W HP0270Houston - Phoenix6:00 AM - 7:45 AM2:450:31
2America W HP 6431Phoenix - Tucson8:16 AM - 8:58 AM0:423:58

Just snacks on the first flight. Not enough time (only 21 minutes in the air) on the second flight to do anything but just sit there and 'count down.' We get in roughly on time, so get the luggage and pick up my rental car, then off to the "show." Weather is nice but very windy.

First stop is the River Park Inn to see Erich and Silvia Haiderer from Vienna, then over to the Inn Suites (the main meteorite site) for most of the day. One of the best parts is getting to meet so many people that I've known via the internet. Later a quick stop at the Ramada Limited. In the evening, dinner with Anne Black and Leigh Anne Delray. Finally back to the motel to check in for the first four nights (Motel 6, airport, exit 262)

Tucson seems a very nice, easy to get around town. Also it's fortunate that most of the meteorite dealers have settled into the Inn Suites (free parking). There are only a few at the Ramada (just a few blocks away). The River Park Inn charges $5 for parking so I only go over there once. The Smugglers Inn and the Westward Look are several miles (6 - 7) away from the main area, but not hard to get to. Michael Blood's auction site is also a few miles out and the street was hard to find, but once found, easy to find again …. Look for the Office Depot store. My Motel 6 is about 4 miles from the Inn Suites, but it's a quick easy drive. Next trip to Tucson, I'll use it again - not far and much easier than to do than the other Motel 6 units closer to downtown.

Day 2, Friday, February 4 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show
Another day at the show and time to meet more people and do more shopping. Since the dealers don't really open until about 10, I'll check out where Michael Blood is going to have his auction (5.5 m east on Speedway - look for a Home Depot to turn), and then go over to Kim Poor's "NovaSpace" gallery for a while. Then to the show. Unfortunately it's cool, damp, blustery and gloomy. Not all that great weather today.

At the Inn Suites, they have set up a "food court" with various burgers and dogs, plus a 'lunch of the day.' Yesterday it was lasagna, vegetables, roll, drink, etc. Today it's Chicken Tetrazini (sp?).

In the evening, it's a "dinner" at 7 hosted by AAPS (not worth the $15, or even $10), then social hour and awards and a chance to meet more people.

Day 3, Saturday, February 5 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show
Show, and maybe some local sightseeing. Sightseeing today is out to the Sonora Desert Museum - opens at 8:30 and it's a really nice drive out along a scenic hilly, twisting road. I'm there from 9 to 1. The museum is great - some of the new exhibits are open, but it's a cool winter day so many of the animals aren't up and active. Too bad. Otherwise it's a great place to visit. I check out "Old Tucson" on the way back but it looks like (as I pull into the parking lot) a kiddie amusement area so I just turn around and head back out.

It's too late to get over to Kitt Peak before their (early winter?) closing so back to the Inn Suites for (roast beef) lunch then out to Smuggler's Inn to see if I can find Serge A. He's the only dealer (meteorites) there so it doesn't take long. Then way north to the Westward Look Resort to check out Lang's auction items and see Bob Haag (he's selling a lot of his collection and I get a nice end piece of Ozona). Back to town (for a burger) then time for Michael Blood's auction. What I want here is a slice of the new Wellman F meteorite from Texas and I'm in luck. Hooray! Nice end to the day. Even if it is about 1AM before I get to bed.

Anne Black volunteered to take to Denver and then mail to me in about 10 days - rather than to try to haul them throughout the Mexico trip … and she will add in a couple more items that I've purchased from her, but don't have here. She has (will have) everything except for a couple that I get tomorrow and Monday as I wander around 'one last time.'

Day 4, Sunday, February 6 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show
Show, and maybe some local sightseeing. Local sightseeing was originally planned to drive out to Tombstone, but looking at the (upcoming) tour info, it shows that we will make a stop there so I wait - turns out to be a bad decision. Up a bit late due to the late (early?) night and back to the show. Make another pass through many of the dealers for some later purchases and another Inn Suites lunch (baked potato with chili, cheese, etc.) Out to the Westward Look at 1:30 to check the results of my bids at Al Lang's auction (win only 1 of 4) but do meet two of the people I've been specifically looking for during the previous 3 days. Back early to the motel to re- pack and watch the "stupor bowl" on tv.

Day 5 (1), Monday, February 7 Tour: "Arrive Tucson"
Not much to do today - another check out of NovaSpace Gallery, one last pass through the Inn Suites (and BBQ lunch) then over to the tour hotel, check in, turn in the rental car, and back to the hotel.

Time to start the tour: Not exactly arrive in Tucson - just transfer to the tour hotel (Embassy Suites Hotel). Tonight the Tour Director (Christopher Erin) hosts a Welcome Reception where you can meet our fellow travelers. There are only 26 people on this tour! (R) Hotel: Embassy Suites (F - also known as 'dim, dark, den' that hibernating bears would love since there is *nowhere* in the room or the lobby with enough light to read. It's a nice hotel with 'suites' and the breakfast tomorrow is good. It's just *dark*! I rate it one of the poorer stops on the trip. My Motel 6 was better.)

Day 6 (2), Tuesday, February 8 Tucson - Nueva Casas Grandes
This morning we meet our Mexican National Guide (Rodrigo Santamaria) and begin our adventure. We get a brand new bus just delivered into Mexico (driver Odelon). Our first stop is the western town of Tombstone, "the town too tough to die." It's dead this morning though since we get there at 9 AM (and leave at 9:45 before anything but a coffee shop/souvenir shop are open - I should have driven down yesterday on my own). Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral made Tombstone famous. "Enjoy strolling the (dead) streets and see the sights" (where?) before we head out for Mexico.

Head southeast through the wild west landscapes of Arizona. After passing through the mining and artist village of Bisbee (and it's huge open pit mine called the "Victoria Pit"), you cross into Mexico at the border towns of Douglas for lunch (snacks for me) at the old Gadsden Hotel, and Agua Prieta. Cross the border. It takes over an hour for all the different inspections and paperwork. We have to pay $25 for a tourist permit - and I note later that the receipt shows only $20. Wonder where the other $5 went . After entering the Mexican state of Chihuahua we continue to Nueva Casas Grandes for an overnight stay. How we make it is still questionable since the "road" is more like a random collection of vaguely connected potholes within potholes. Average speed is about 20 k/h. Finally we get to the hotel for dinner (Mexican dinner) (B,D) Hotel Hacienda (ST - nice and decent food) Every included dinner also includes (one) free Margarita, but I don't drink.

Day 7 (3), Wednesday, February 9 Nueva Casas Grandes - Paquime - Chihuahua
Following breakfast, we visit one of the master pottery makers in the area. Although he uses what looks like scrap materials in the preparation, he's so good that the museums use him for restoration of original pottery and for the making of 'authentic' replicas. It's an interesting display/discussion of how it's all done, both in the preparation of the clays, and the making of the pots themselves. He does the artwork 'freehand' on the pots!!.

Next is a we make a (cold and windy). visit to the ancient ruins of Paquime in Casas Grandes, which is considered the most important archaeological zone in northern Mexico. They are doing major reconstruction on an absolutely *huge* site - only part of which is currently being worked. The rest is still 'covered.' Very interesting stop. Wish we had more time, and a true guide for the area. Rodrigo does really well here, but still … The new museum is only 3 years old, but they have been working on the site for many years. Archaeologists believe this was one of the Aztecs' stopping places on their pilgrimage southward. Many of the buildings show Aztec influences in style.

Back to town for a box lunch in the square. We were told that our choices were: 1) 3 pieces of fried chicken; 2) ham and cheese sandwich, and 3) hamburger. Something got lost in translation, however. It *should* have been: 1) grilled chicken sandwich, 2) hamburger with cheese, or 3) plain hamburger. The café owner is Belgium, translated into Spanish for out guide (Chris), and then to English for us. As I said, 'lost in translation.' At least the wind has died down and the sun is out so it's a nice 'picnic' lunch. (As the trip progresses, I wonder why Chris is even along - except as a Brennan rep, since Rodrigo does all the decision making and knows more about the area.) Actually if we had to rely on Chris, we'd probably still be wandering around trying to find out where we are, what we are supposed to do, and whatever.

Continue across the vast expanse (miles and miles and miles of sand, rocks, and scrub - much like I-10 in west Texas) of the Chihuahuan Desert, as the looming Sierra Madre range provides a dramatic backdrop. The Desert probably got the name 'Chihuahua' since in Tarahumara, it means 'a dry and sandy place.' If there is water near the surface, it turns into an oasis type location, however. The city of Chihuahua is nice - fairly large, modern, with lots of manufacturing industry. Nice hotel. Fajitas dinner. (B,L,D) Hotel: Hotel Castel Sicomoro (F)

Day 8 (4), Thursday, February 10 Chihuahua - Creel
Rain overnight. This morning, tour the sights of historic Chihuahua, including the cathedral, the state capital building with its multi-storied mural, and the former home of Pancho Villa, which is now a fascinating (?) museum (no photos allowed).

Later, en route to Creel, we will pass through the dry "Ejido," followed by a stop for lunch in Cuauhtemoc, home to an unlikely Mennonite farming community. We have an interesting lunch here - a bit different. Shortly after lunch, as we drive along, the road (just a road, not a highway) really starts rising into the mountains. Lots of snow patches around from a recent snowfall. Much has already melted since it's now above freezing, but there are sheltered patches, and as we get higher, there's also more snow. We cross the Continental Divide at an elevation close to 8000 feet. Continue to the pretty (who wrote this?) lumber village of Creel for overnight. This tiny community has become a center for settlement by the Tarahumara people. It is also an excellent access point for travel into the Copper Canyons area.

We again see a train with flat-bed 'cars' hauling RVs. It seems that you can book passage for yourself and your RV (mobile homes on tracks) from El Paso to the Mexican coast. The cost is reported to be about $2000. Your RV is loaded onto the flatcar, tied down, etc. For the most part, you live in the RV though there are occasional sightseeing stops and chances to have dinners in the towns. We keep "running into" this train and some of the people throughout the trip.

Tonight we have to pack an "overnight" carry-on bag since the tour bus and most of our luggage will take "the long way around" and we won't see it again until Saturday night in El Fuerte. (And as it's often said, 'the best laid plans of mice and men and tour planners...) Our driver will have to get up early for a 6AM start on the 900km, 2 day drive taking the long pothole drive which will take almost all of the two days. (B,L,D) Hotel: Best Western Inn at Creel. (F) This turns out to be my favorite hotel stop on the tour - rustic "log" cabins (rustic but nice) with a (gas) fireplace fire in each cabin, very nice staff, and some of the best food on the trip. VERY nice. (Our Mexican guide used to work here.)

Day 9 (5), Friday, February 11 Creel - Copper Canyon by Rail - "Divisadero"
More rain overnight. This morning we take a 4WD "bus" along a very bumpy track out to visit a cave dwelling of the Tarahumara Indians. We also stop at a scenic overlook, then visit the local mission, the Mission of the Lady of Guadalupe, built by the Jesuits in 1744. Next stop is the (state supplied) boarding school for the Tarahumara kids. (We've been collecting those hotel toiletries along the way and leave them here to be distributed.) These shy (they don't talk much but are 'everywhere' selling their handicrafts) people who cherish their traditional lifestyle are most famous for their beautiful craftwork and their incredible ability to run long distances along the canyon trails.

Return to Creel to begin our journey by rail onboard the Chihuahua Al Pacifico Railroad into the impressive "Barrancas del Cobre." The Chihuahua al Pacifico route travels through rugged passes and along deep river gorges (our Mexican guide tells us differently - this is the long slope side into the mountains - the real scenery will be on the other side as we start down - and he's right; there's not all that much to see this day) to an elevation of over 8,000 feet to Divisadero on the rim of Copper Canyons. Divisadero is not our actual (final for the day) stop; we just have about 10 minutes to make a 'mad dash' through flea-market-alley down to an overlook, take a couple of pictures, and dash back. Unfortunately, this also turns out to be our best view of the canyon. This "amazing" canyon, which offers one of the most breathtaking vistas in North America, covers a geographic region nearly four times the size of Arizona's Grand Canyon (but in my opinion, isn't nearly as impressive!).

We get back on the train just in time to make the 20 minute ride down to our actual hotel stop at Areponapuchi (5 minutes whistle-stop to get ourselves and our luggage off the train). Here we have to climb into an old school-bus type bus for the (4WD mandatory) bounce up to the hotel for a very late (2:45) warmed over (probably several times) lunch. The afternoon is free for exploration except that it's raining (medium heavy), very cloudy and foggy. Not much to see. The tour director tries to set up the tv to show a video about the Tarahumara, but the power goes out (for about 1:30) so that's cancelled. It's raining harder and the power keeps going out and on and out and on .... (candles are handed out for us to use in our rooms if necessary - which it is). We finally get dinner (one drumstick from an emaciated chicken - limited vegetables). Fortunately they provided a tub of popcorn for "happy hour" and I had managed to snag a bowl of that (the best food of the stay here, maybe).

This could have been an excellent stop (if the weather had cooperated). The view would have been great. The hotel rooms appear(ed) nice though with minimal heat and the rain caused problems. Rooms have (outside access) hallways (that rain again) and with a heavy wind/rain storm overnight, the ceilings leak and water also comes in around the doorway out to the balcony. Guests in three rooms were actually rained out of their beds due to major leaks which caused us to rename our hotel as the "Rain Inn". With the power going off quite often, the limited heat (no in-room controls) barely kept up, and also the candle was required if we needed a midnight 'pit stop.' It could have been nice, but not with our cold, wet, stormy (dark) weather. (B,L,D) Hotel: La Posada Barrancas Mirador (F)

Day 10 (6), Saturday, February 12 Divisadero - Copper Canyon by Rail - El Fuerte
(Delayed - 7 to 7:45) (Very limited) "buffet" (so the brochure says) breakfast. This hotel has the poorest food selection on the entire trip and I don't think it's just the limited transportation access.

"If weather permits", local Tarahumara Indians will demonstrate a traditional kickball foot race, which can last for many miles over the rugged trails of the canyon country. Unfortunately, the weather doesn't permit, so instead we get a music/dance demonstration (probably a better deal). The rattles on the dancer's legs are dried butterfly cocoons with dried seeds inside to make the rattle sound. Otherwise, it's just wait around for lunch and time to go. After an appropriately poor lunch, at 2PM we take that 4WD bus to bounce and slide our way down the hill to board the 2:30 train (which doesn't get here until after 3) and prepare to see the most gorgeous section of the Canyon. So says the brochure, anyway. The train windows are dirty, it's now raining fairly heavily. We might as well forget about seeing much, and photos are out of the question. (Don't) admire plummeting seasonal waterfalls and colorful wildflowers (since we can't see them) as this fantastic (hah!) journey takes you through more than 70 tunnels and over countless trestles. Unfortunately that doesn't all happen. About 5:30 we make a short stop which becomes a longer stop which becomes a very long stop which becomes: a) bandits, b) drunk engineer, c) no brakes, d) broken down engine, e) train crew stalling in order to get more overtime, f) track problems. We finally get a claim that it's (f) with rocks on the tracks due to all that rain, but I'm still holding out for e).

This was supposed to be the highlight day of the entire trip, but for us, it doesn't happen. The tour brochure claims "Soon, the scene changes from evergreens and sage to lush tropical vegetation" but we never get to see it. With many starts and (long) stops, what was supposed to be a 6 hour trip (2:30 - 8:30) turns into a long all-nighter. Forget the "Disembark in the colonial city of El Fuerte for the evening"; evening, late night, wee morning hours, etc. on the train. The US has Amtrack. Mexico has "damntrack." (B,L,D) no Hotel Posada del Hidalgo for us tonight. (F)

Day 11 (7), Sunday, February 13. El Fuerte - San Carlos
We finally get to El Fuerte about 7:30 AM (our poor driver has been sitting in the bus since 8PM last night waiting for us to get here) and transfer (VERY temporarily) to the hotel we were supposed to get into last night. There's a short time to find our rooms (some nice, but some of the lower floor rooms may have once been stables and aren't good at all) then finally breakfast (fairly good, actually) The hotel is a converted Hacienda.

This morning we have a scheduled time for a quick guided walking tour (almost cancelled since most people are still so tired, groggy, and stiff after that long over-nighter of starts / stops / jerks / lurches etc.) around part of the cobblestone streets of El Fuerte, a colonial town founded in 1564. There are some very pretty parts of town. We also check out "downtown" and see some masked dancers - practicing for Easter festivities (and doing some fund-raising at the same time). Then it's time to get back on the bus after only 2 hours here (total time in town). Then driving north, pass through an (dull boring) agricultural belt in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora. Basically it's just a "driving day" with another "box lunch burger." Actually that turns out to be not a bad deal since we're still so worn out from that miserable train trip.

Overnight at a beachfront resort overlooking the lovely Sea of Cortés and be sure to watch the beautiful sunset over the Bay of San Carlos. (B,L,D) Hotel: San Carlos Plaza (F) 2 nights. It's a beautiful resort hotel - originally built as a "Howard Johnsons" but sold almost immediately upon completion. Now the hub of the resort with 'waterfront' lots for sale in the adjacent / associated resort development. Nice included dinner at the hotel.

Day 12 (8), Monday, February 14 San Carlos
The entire day is free to enjoy the coastal resort of San Carlos. Enjoy a refreshing swim in the pool, bathe in the sun, golf or take a stroll through the marina. An optional tour visits the nearby port of Guaymas, where we take in the sights, see a pearl processing facility, a stop at the town square, check out the cathedral, stop at a (sea) shells shop and purchase those last minute souvenirs. There's a nice lunch stop (not included in the tour $$). Then another stop for silver/turquoise jewelry, ironwood carvings, etc. The last stop is at the (Saguaro) Cactus Garden. Then back to the hotel. I had originally thought that this would be just a "wasted" day but it's turned out to be very nice, all thanks to Rodrigo..

{Talking to some of the other guests at the hotel about the rail trip, we find out that our train was the last one through the mountains for a while - no train at all the next day either direction. One tour group couldn't get through at all (eastbound) and had to turn back to the coast. Some of them are at our hotel. Other people are there and hear our stories … now NOT looking forward to their upcoming experiences … and I don't blame them! The people on the RV train finally made it after being stuck in a freezing rain/snow storm. They were miserably cold having come down here expecting (and packing for) warm weather and finding all this miserable weather.}

This evening join our Tour Directors to celebrate this last evening with our traveling companions at a excellent Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant. (It's the last of the "free" margaritas. Ho, Hum.) (B,D)

Day 13 (9), Tuesday, February 15 San Carlos - Tucson
This morning, drive north through the (flat, dry, dull) Sonora Desert Santa Ana (another call-ahead fast-food burger stop which many of our included lunch stops have been). The road gets more interesting after lunch as we start up into the mountains to the border crossing at Nogales. We get through the Mexican side checkpoints with no problem, but then we have to join the extremely long lines for the US side, and I guess some of us looked questionable so the US Customs people had us take ALL the luggage off the bus to run through an x-ray scanner.

Cross the border and head to Tucson International Airport about 5PM (B,L) We get in early enough that when I check in, I'm offered the chance for an earlier flight to Phoenix (6:40 instead of 8:20) which will take out any possible problems making the connection there. Good deal!! Our actual departure was delayed a bit - Tucson airport is also the home of a large air national guard unit and there are many fighter aircraft takeoffs (night flying training??) to be fit into their schedule.

3America West HP6305Tucson - Phoenix6:40 PM - 7:35 PM0:552:15
4America West HP0279Phoenix - Houston9:50 PM - 1:12 AM2:225:32

Next time fly direct Houston - Tucson via Continental. MUCH better deal.

Day 14,. Wednesday, February 16. Home
Finally get home after a long night-owl flight. At least we get here on time. Quick luggage pickup and ride to the parking lot. Since I get there (relatively before) my original parking time I'm only charged for 13 days parking, not 14. At least that worked well. Home about 2:15. Too tired to sleep so up early for a start on the post trip chores.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

(The brochure says) Things You Should Know: Accommodation & Dining: This vacation is a Cultural and Natural adventure, which visits some of the most remote, yet spectacular regions of Mexico. Some of the accommodations and services available are rustic and rather basic by American standards. Please be aware that hotels have been chosen for scenic beauty and convenience, but that facilities are limited in isolated regions within the canyon. The choice of menu in Mexico tends to be more limited than on most Brendan vacations. Sometimes there may only be two entrees available. This vacation will appeal most readily to experienced travelers in good health and with an open mind, who accept new experiences and conditions as they present themselves. If you appreciate wonderful scenery and unique culture, Mexico's Copper Canyon will be a (wonderful???) trip not soon forgotten (last words are certainly true!).

Comments: This would have been an excellent trip except for the weather (and a worthless Brennan Tour Director). That ruined the chances at scenery in the Canyon area and also caused that awful train trip. However, based on what I/we could see, I definitely prefer the scenery of the "Grand Canyon." Also, this trip was booked as a "Brendan" tour (they have an excellent reputation) but was actually run by "Brennan." Our Mexican tour guide was very, very good (despite not quite the best English). However, in my opinion, we could have left our Brennan guide behind. He was a very nice person, but not that knowledgeable, often gave wrong information and wrong times for things to do, and had to get all his organization set-up from the Mexican guide who was probably the (legally within Mexico anyway) official guide.

Would I do this tour again, even with a different company, no, at least not for a while. Will I come back for the Tucson show - definitely and there's more to see around here: Tombstone, Kitt Peak, Pima Air Museum, etc. Hopefully my other "Brendan" tours which I have booked (3 more of them) are actually Brendan, not Brennan (at least based on this one). Sorry, Hopeless cause. None of them turn out Brendan.

1America West HP0270Houston - Phoenix6:00 AM - 7:45 AM2:450:31
2America West HP 6431Phoenix - Tucson8:16 AM - 8:58 AM0:423:58
3America West HP6305Tucson - Phoenix6:40 PM - 7:35 PM0:552:15
4America West HP0279Phoenix - Houston9:50 PM - 1:12 AM2:225:32

Hotels: Ranking
TUCSON - Motel 6 (first four nights) #5
TUCSON - Embassy Suites Hotel (F) #6
NUEVA CASAS GRANDES - Hotel Hacienda (ST) #3
CHIHUAHUA - Hotel Castel Sicomoro (F) #4
CREEL - Best Western Hotel (F) #1*****
DIVISADERO - La Posada Barrancas Mirador (F) #7, no, make that #107
EL FUERTE - Hotel Posada del Hidalgo (F) not rated - only there 2 hours (#6.5?)
SAN CARLOS - San Carlos Plaza (F) #3