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Nichols: Taking a firsthand view of Mexico today
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In early November, I joined three friends undertaking a week’s tour by bus and train to visit the Copper Canyon in Mexico.

The United States no longer permits a Mexican bus to enter El Paso, Texas, to pick up the tourists. Instead, we were loaded on an American-made bus and taken across the border. Once inside Mexico in Juarez, we had to unload and get aboard the Mexican-made bus that we were to ride for about half the tour.

We never were told why the Mexican bus could not enter the U.S.

Juarez is a large town of nearly 2 million residents. It is heavily industrialized. We passed a huge facility that belonged to Ford. That plant assembles car motors that are shipped to the U.S. and other countries.

We passed miles and miles of newly constructed plants, warehouses and related industrial facilities. In 1994, Mexico became a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and Canada. That has spurred the Mexican economy and it has negotiated similar free trade agreements with more than 40 other countries.

For our first day in Mexico, we crossed the flat and very dry Mexican desert. I was surprised to see so much empty land, but we have similar dry areas in many parts of the American Southwest.

Chihuahua City is the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The small dogs with that name did not originate there. They came from China but were given a home in Chihuahua and the name stuck. I guess the Chinese name was lost.

Chihuahua City was the home of Pancho Villa, who led part of the rebellion that forced the dictator Diaz to resign and flee to France. In a museum we saw the Dodge touring car filled with bullet holes made when Villa was killed in 1923 by an assassin who was working for the corrupt government.

We spent several days riding the only passenger train still operating in Mexico. Trains run throughout Mexico, but they carry only cargo, not people.

The Copper Canyon train took 90 years to be completed, in 1961, and was refurbished in 1999. We had several meals in the dining car and had to walk through most of the train from our car. We left the train to spend nights in hotels along the way.

The train ride is a wonder. It rises from 300 feet above sea level to 8,000 feet at the highest pass. The train goes through 86 tunnels and 36 bridges and cost over $90 million to construct.

The train ride is exciting, with many beautiful views from the windows. At villages where we stopped briefly, local women came to our windows and tried to sell handmade baskets, scarfs or other souvenirs.

Perhaps the most interesting hotel with rooms reserved for our tour was at Barrancas. The hotel there stretches along the rim of the Copper Canyon. It is pink adobe with wooden beams everywhere. Every room has a balcony overlooking Copper Canyon, and one can watch the sun rise over the distant mountains on the other side of the canyon.

Actually, there are three canyons that feed into each other. The total area of Copper Canyon is five times wider and one-and-a-half times deeper than the Grand Canyon in the United States. However the Copper Canyon has subdued rock colors, not the wide display of different colors found in the sides of the Grand Canyon.

I tried to sample American opinion about the wall being built along the U.S. border with Mexico. We could see it clearly as we passed back into the U.S. at El Paso. The wall seems to be chain metal fencing about 12 feet tall. It is painted blue for one section, gray for the next, then blue again. You can see through it easily.

All the Americans on the train and bus ride with whom I spoke thought the fence was a good idea, in that it might slow down illegal immigrants. One woman from California said she thought all we need would be to enforce the laws already on the books. California needs immigrants in both agricultural and industrial facilities.

The Mexicans did not want to discuss the subject with me. I was a tourist in their homeland. They apparently did not want to discuss the wall with me, so I did not press.

Walls are physical barriers. Some work, others do not. The new administration has many critical issues to consider after President Obama is sworn in.

I hope he has sound advice from experts with differing opinions so that in the cross play of ideas some new considerations might arise.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on