El Chepe - By train through the Copper Canyon

Mexico is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Families and beach lovers flock to the crowded resorts on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts whilst lovers of history and archaeology are spoiled by the spectacular pyramids and other ruins at Teotihuacan, Monte Alban and numerous ancient Mayan cities. However in the little visited north of the country lies the breathtaking Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) in the Sierra Madre Mountains, four times longer, in places deeper and arguably more impressive than the more famous Grand Canyon to the north.

And a railway runs through it.

The article below describes two journeys by rail through the Copper Canyon Ė the first an independent trip traversing the whole rail journey in one day (just about!) and the second as part of an Explore tour which made a number of stops along the canyon for more in-depth exploration.

El Chepe in a day by Roddy Walsh

The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, or El Chepe for short, bills itself (with some justification) as the most spectacular train ride in the world. Known in English as the Copper Canyon Railway, it runs for 655km between Chihuahua and Los Mochis on the Pacific coast, cutting through the Sierra Madre Mountains and skirting the breathtaking Copper Canyon. The journey can be taken in either direction but most people tend to start in the city of Chihuahua. Chihuahua is best known for cowboy boot shopping and for being the former residence of revolutionary Pancho Villa. A quiet but pleasant town blissfully free of tourists, itís a nice spot for a night or two preparing for the pre-dawn 6am departure on El Chepe, the excellent Casa Chihuahua hostel just opposite the train station very well located for the purpose.

Two trains run daily each way on El Chepe, the primera express and the clase economica - the latter leaves an hour later and makes more stops. Although the primera express is twice as expensive, itís worth the extra cost when heading westward as youíre more likely to see the best scenery before dark. We set off in the pre-sunrise darkness and slowly made or way westwards, gradually increasing altitude and passing through several villages, including Mennonite settlements developed when members of this religious group migrated here in the 1920s. Just after passing Creel, the centre of the indigenous Tarahumara group and a popular base for exploring the canyons, the train reached its high point at 2460m and soon reached the small town of Divisadero.

The station (well, the tracks where the train stops) at Divisadero is only about 100 metres from a viewpoint overlooking Urique Canyon. The train stops here for 15 minutes to allow passengers to disembark and absorb the close-up of the Copper Canyon. The view is quite simply breathtaking - the canyons can be seen all the way to the horizon and 1200 metres down the tree covered slopes to the river beds of Rio Urique below. So spectacular is the view that itís quite easy to get carried away and lose all track of time and when I made my way back up to the tracks something was missing - the train.

Right: Basket weavers and traders at Divisadero station

With the train now heading down the mountains with all my belongings (except my camera) and me stuck in a tiny mountain village, panic started to set in. The local traders gathered around, clearly amused at my predicament, and my elementary knowledge of Spanish deserted me. Luckily one of the traders spoke some English and told me a local could drive me to the next station for a small fee of 150 pesos which I immediately accepted. Fortunately El Chepe chugs along at a leisurely pace so we made it to the station, San Rafael, with minutes to spare and I re-boarded to the puzzlement of the conductor.

Left: Waiting to reboard the train at San Rafael station

Relieved that my train chase had ended successfully, the next 100km or so were the most exciting part of the journey as El Chepe gradually descended in altitude on its way to the coast. Although the train compartments offer good views, the place to best experience the trip is at the end of the carriages where you can open the upper part of the doors, lean out and soak up the vistas. In this section the train passes over and through the majority of the 39 bridges and 87 tunnels constructed for the track, travels along cliff edges and provides spectacular wind-swept mountain views. Perhaps the most impressive part is where the track makes a 180 degree turn within a mountain tunnel whilst dropping 100 feet before it descends around a stunning valley allowing you to see the track on three levels.

Eventually, the train descended to sea level and it was after dark before we arrived in El Fuerte, where I had planned to disembark. The station is some way from the town but I was offered a lift by some fellow passengers, so I squeezed into an old banger with my backpack, along with two doctors and a Mexican singer complete with cowboy hat, who dropped me off at a hotel in town. El Fuerte is a small, sleepy but very attractive old colonial town which makes for a more sensible stopping point than continuing all the way to the coastal city of Los Mochis in the dark.

Chilling along the Copper Canyon train route by Terry Marshall

First stop - Posada Barrancas station (626km)

After our longest stretch on El Chepe, we disembarked at the very unassuming 'station' of Posada Barrancas, little more than a platform, heading straight for the Mansion Tarahumara, our surreal digs (right). The architect of the place was told to build the owner a castle and the main structure of the complex looks the part. That the building looks so out of place from its surroundings is what made it so striking. And what else would you expect in a castle but the playing of classical music during lunch. Any large meals were readily walked off just hiking up the steep inclines to the rooms. The old adage of a room with a view was an apt description of what awaited. One could tell by the number of available duvets the night would be very cold. Our rooms looked east however so it was possible to catch a great sunrise from the warmth of the room.

For our afternoon walk, our guide led us down a path into the upper level of the Urique Canyon, accompanied by local dogs. The views were fine even if the weather was a bit overcast. Relics of when mining was king in the area added atmosphere. We did see some Tarahumaras, the local Indian population. The tribe is famous for its long distance runners. A quiet people, they subsist on small, self-sufficient farms. Such interactions always make me feel like an intruder.

Urique Canyon

Room with a view

Mining Relic

The following morning we headed off to the Parque de Aventura Barrancas del Cobre. The cable car ride was excellent. The winds were biting atop but the 3 kilometre trip, dropping 300 metres in the process, warmed everything up. The turnaround area is large enough you can find your own space and try to soak it blissful vistas. One chap described the cable car experience as the highlight of the trip; another, as a better area than the Grand Canyon. We returned to Divisadero where we had stopped on the train the day before, the feeling even better as our little group of seven was not jostled for pictures of the excellent pre-Hispanic style basketwork nor shots down into the canyon, 4,265 feet below.

Second stop - Bahuichiva station / Cerocahui (668km)

Our second leg was slightly less than two hours, the station at Bahuichiva equally clean and functional. We took a small bus to the small town of Cerocahui [sero-kah-wee], covering the 11 miles of rough road in about thirty five minutes. Cerocahui was founded in 1680 by a Jesuit missionary. St Francis of Xavier of Cerocahui Church dates from that period. Our accommodation, Hotel Mision, was across the road. The hotel suggested rustic charm of a bygone era. Cerocahui is situated amongst apple orchards, vineyards and pastures in a valley of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The expression a one horse town comes to mind. A river runs through it but not seemingly prosperity. Except for our hotel, the town is Ďdryí, spirits and the locals unfortunately not being a good combination.

An ice cold frozen margarita was an excellent welcome drink, contrasting with the wood piled by the old fashioned wood stove in our rooms, the latter suggesting another cold night in northern Mexico. The hardier group members [two of seven] crossed the local river for a walk into the neighbouring woods to see a waterfall. It was a bit of exercise, welcome on what can become a rather stationary journey. Happy hour and popcorn were welcome on returning, a nice segue into a repast of black bass. The next morning was a fifty minute drive to Mirador Cerro Gallego but the views down into the Urique Canyon were just sublime. At 6,165 feet, this is the deepest part of the entire canyon system. The windiness was only matched by the areaís peacefulness. A motorcycle from Argentina added that little bit of je ne sais quo to our time at this viewpoint, truly a more spectacular venue than Divisadero.

Third stop - El Fuerte (838km)

Our last leg of our train journey consumed most of the afternoon so we went straight to our swanky oasis. The town of El Fuerte was more like a city after the venues of the last two nights. The Hotel Torres del Fuerte was eclectic, odd but stylish in design. Its bar was colourful, a splendid spot to reflect upon our concluded El Chepe adventure. The shrimps in three dipping sauces did not disappoint. Mexican eggs [with peppers and onions] nicely started off the morning, ample sustenance before our leisurely walkabout in El Fuerte. The municipal offices had a fine mural.

A surprising feature was touring other hotels, five star properties not in short supply here. Of special note was the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo, a former prison. In one of its present rooms the infamous El Zorro was purportedly born. Flies were a bit bothersome as we passed by the Fortress, ending up by the fast moving El Fuerte River, perhaps fitting as it was the same river crossed on the longest bridge traversed when on El Chepe.

There is no right or wrong way to tackle the Copper Canyon train ride. If one does decide to break it up, however, there are certainly options to make the endeavour very enjoyable.

Terry Marshall is a lawyer based in Niagara Falls, Canada and a compulsive traveller, having been to over 50 countries and over 150 World Heritage Sites. This trip was part of Explore's Copper Canyon and Tequila Express tour.

For more information on travel to Mexico, see our country guide (includes highlights, tours, guidebooks and advice).

Check out other classic rail trips in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Related articles:

A Land Lost in Time

Exploring the mysterious and ancient Lost World on a trek to the summit of Venezuela's iconic table mountain - Mount Roraima.

Rwanda - Extreme Africa

The little country at the heart of Africa that goes to extremes - overcoming the worst tragedy and showcasing some of the continent's best natural and wildlife experiences.

Submit a comment on this article

Name*:       Website: