Copper Canyon – a train journey to remember

Tuesday 14 to Sunday 19 April

From the moment I read about it I just had to do it – a 15 hour train journey through the highest mountains in Mexico. The train links the west coast of the Bay of Cortez to the inland city of Chihuahua. It is recognised as one of the great train journeys of the world.

Organising the journey was another matter. It is possible to make stop offs en route and explore some of the towns and attractions. In the end it got too hard and I sought the help of local tour operators. One replied that I should book six months in advance to do their tour. Another didn’t acknowledge my request. But canyontravel.com came to the party. In a little over 60 hours I had handed over half a month’s income to have it all organised for me.

We flew from La Paz in Baja California Sur to Los Mochis in a twin prop 30 seater plane and and were met at the tiny airport by a Spanish speaking friendly taxi driver who took us the 90 minute ride to Le Fuerte. We arrived just in time to join the ecotour – a ‘float’ down the Rio Fuerte with a side trek to find birds and the Nahautl petroglyphs. Our companions were a couple from California who had spent the last 8 months sailing the Mexican/Pacific coast. We had so many stories to swap – our adventures and theirs.

The first part of the journey from Los Mochis to El Fuerte is not engaging, traveling over the flat plain. Most people overnight in El Fuerte and board early next day.

Our hotel for the first night was certainly not the most luxurious but it was set on the edge of town, on a cliff looking over the river. The view at sunset was magical.

Unfortunately, it was here that Bruce discovered how much tropical insects love him. We were both bitten, but Bruce’s bites swelled up into nasty red, itchy blotches that took days to subside.

Altitude of Copper Canyon train journey (www.chepe.com.mx)

Altitude of Copper Canyon train journey (chepe.com.mx)

The highlight of the Copper Canyon train is the climb. We travelled from 200m above sea level to 1600m mostly over a slow crawl up the mountain alongside a deep canyon and past a lake. There is a three way switch back which raised us 150m over a couple of kilometres.

Our first overnight stop was at Bahuchivo Station. We were met at the station and taken to the San Isidro Lodge near Cerocauhui, for the night, a further 24km into the canyon. The cabin style cabanas are part of a farm that includes apples and corn. As we were high in the Sierra Tarahumara, it was very much cooler and for the first time in weeks we dragged long pants and jumpers out of our pack.

We took a drive a further 16km to the Urique lookout. The village of Urique is 6,000ft (more than 1,800m) below and that is deeper than any of the Grand Canyon. A lookout counter-levered over the cliff edge had glass windows in the floor to add to the amazing experience. The road clung to the side of the canyon and it was not comforting to see memorial crosses to poor souls who had gone the edge.

We had an opportunity to wander around the farm where there were lodges and picnic areas. They lit a fire for us and warmed our insides with a jug of Margherita.

We were well fed at the San Isidro Lodge with a hearty lunch before our drive, dinner afterwards and a big breakfast.

In the morning we stopped by the little town of Cerocauhui where we visited the San Francisco Xavier mission and the local catholic school. Our guide explained that the 1800 inhabitants are very catholic. The Jesuits came into the canyon in the 17th century and built 27 missions (churches) in the area. This one, built in 1679, is particularly well preserved.

There are two elementary coeducational schools in the town. We visited the catholic one where up to 180 girls from outlying areas board. The other school looks after the boys who board from outlying areas.

Wherever we went we were entertained by the birds. The Hawks and Eagles that soar overhead and a huge variety of smaller birds that flitted between the trees providing a constant  song of tweets and sqwarks.

Our next train journey was short, just 1 1/2 hours to Pasade Barrancas. We made a long stop at the station of San Rafael where colourfully dressed Indian women were selling baskets and other souvenirs.

After being met at the train we were taken to our hotel and fed lunch. More food. Then we were herded into a minibus along with two girls we had met, Denise & Suzanne, with all our luggage and driven up the hill. We drove past a number of bungalows, taking sharp bends and even steeper roads. The last one we backed up. From there two hotel staff carried out bags up a number of stairs. We really were in the back blocks of the hotel. We went through a passageway and onto a verandah to be presented with the most amazing view from the rim of the canyon – right in front of our room. This has to be the best view ever!

Next was a walking tour with other hotel guests, along the rim to a group of houses where a number of Tarahumara Indians lived. They were selling souvenirs. This is their summer home where they have orchards of apples, pears and peaches and grow corn. In winter they move down to the valley.

Our accommodation included three meals a day, so it was back to the restaurant for more food.

The following morning a ‘rim tour’ was organised. Most of the details provided were in Spanish. We were taken to the Barrancas Del Cobre, a lookout over the rim. From there we took the teleférico (cable car) to a high rock in the middle of the canyon. We could see our rooms perched up on the edge of the canyon.

Denise & Suzanne had opted for a zip line adventure and we started to feel rather sedentary when other people opted for the ‘zip ride’. They were clearly younger than us, but we didn’t really like being packed in to the cable car with the older tourists.

The tour continued on around the rim, stopping off at various vantage points for more photo opportunities. The day was cloudy and cool, so photos were not sparkling. We reached the next train stop of Disivadero, where we would stop tomorrow on the train. At this point I had had enough of the bus tour and asked our driver how far it was to walk back to our hotel. He told us 5km.

Somehow we lost the path but found the Barrancas Del Cobre. Bruce looked at me and I looked at Bruce, put our brave faces on and signed up for the zip ride, a 2,530m ride across the canyon that reached speeds over 100kph. So we tried it!  A rather pricey 2.5 minutes but so much fun, flying down a cable hundreds of metres above the canyon floor. It was just too short.

The hardest part was the 700m climb up to the teleférico station to return to Barrancas Del Cobre.

Pleased with ourselves, we meandered back to our room to download photos and prepare for another big meal. I was excited to find that I had recorded Bruce passing me on the zip ride.

Our last day was long. After breakfast we meandered around the rim, watching big birds hovering overhead and little birds darting in and out of bushes. We watched the zip liners cross smaller canyons, and felt quite satisfied that we had braved the zip ride, faster but less challenging.

Around lunchtime we joined the train again. A short stop at Desiadero where we bought quaesadillos for lunch and then the long slow journey to Chihuahua. The scenery was not nearly as dramatic but pleasant, often with rolling hills and grassy plains. There was a lot of farming, wheat, corn, and massive orchards of apple, pear and peach. The trees were covered and braziers were ready to protect the fruit against hail and frost. For most of the journey we stayed above 2,000m, even reaching the highest point of 2,460m. We dropped to 1,400m shortly before reaching Chihuahua at 9pm.

Map of Copper Canyon route (www.chepe.com.mx)

Map of Copper Canyon route (www.chepe.com.mx)

We had a one night stop in Chihuahua in one of the more luxurious hotels of our stay, complete with kitchen and sitting room, and a lovely floral arrangement from the tour company. Sadly we were out and on a plane by 9:30am.

Over the five days we took a heap of photos.  Mine are grouped by the journeys.

El Fuerte

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El Fuerte to Cerocahui

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Cerocahui to Pasedo

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Pasado to Chihuihui

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