Boasting 408 miles of breathtaking vistas, 86 tunnels and 37 bridges, it's no surprise that a seat on this particular rail journey is one of the world's most coveted travel experiences, and not just for those trainspotters amongst us.
Mexico’s last surviving passenger railway connects the northern states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua, carving a splendid path through the Barrancas del Cobre, which translates as The Copper Canyon – owing its name to the stunning rocky hues throughout. The route has long brought tourists from far and wide, keen to stare out the window, beer in hand and watch a beautiful part of the world go by. But unsurprisingly it also pays to stay awhile en route if you can.
A departure time of 6am is arguably enough to persuade plenty to get on at the next stop. Coastal Los Mochis is the first port of call for El Chepe, but many head a few miles down the road to El Fuerte, both for an extra couple of hours in bed and to enjoy the quaint tranquil attractions of this friendly Pueblo Magico. On my arrival the main square remained decorated with the tricolore bunting of Mexican Indepedence day on September 16th – a month earlier – although in truth it felt like the kind of place that might expect to find an excuse for a little pomp and celebration on a fairly regular basis.
Expect also cantinas spilling their live music and general raucousness out on to the town’s handful of streets. An open air market during the day followed by the evening’s streetside taco vendors may be enough to keep you fed and watered, but for something more substantial and a taste of Sinaloese seafood try Mariscos Don Pascual, who serve up fare from the state which is famous for its seafood.
Get your head down at Don Jose Posada for a good nights sleep and great hospitality. Breakfast with the family and a lift to the train station was all part of the service, ready to jump on and start my trip.
The best portion of the ride is the couple of hours or so before I reached my first resting point at Divisadero, but I have to admit, as beguiling as those views were, nothing quite prepared me for the landscape that was awaiting us on arrival. Making my way across the tracks the first thing to navigate is a row of tempting, slowly toasting blue corn tortillas, fat little gorditas filled with melted cheese and a variety of fillings. Don’t avoid them.
The station sits a matter of metres from a cliff edge which provides one of the best vantage points of the entire region, the meeting point of three canyons, Urique, Tararecua and Cobre, a mind-bogglingly beautiful view, shared also by the Hotel Divisadero Barrancas. It’s honestly difficult to imagine lodgings with more natural beauty to gawp at than you can admire from there.
Nice as it is to while away your afternoon in the bar sipping something soothing, there’s a bit more action down the road. Although I have to admit, newly built Parque de Aventura Barranca del Cobre provided a bit more adrenaline than I was bargaining for.
It wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind when I decided to ride El Chepe. It’s a magical trip, but drama on the chugging express train is laid on by scenery rather than velocities, unlike this endeavour. Eight zip lines, including the world’s second longest, abseiling, climbing and a cable car are all helping bring a different kind of tourism to the area. I spent a day testing my nerves with a family from Guadalajara who’d made the trip especially to sample some of the thrills this new feature has to offer.
Later I spoke with local lad Benjamin, who grew up in the area, about how things were changing, and he confirmed the arrival of a more diverse set of visitors.
“Before, tourism was concentrated on old people from the United States, but since the park opened in 2010 younger people have come from many parts of the world to enjoy the activities”
These are certainly exciting times for the region, Benjamin also mentioned the recent addition of a new luxury train offering “even more beautiful views of the Canyon.”
After all that action a little tranquility was well received, the only thing ruffling through the night’s silence was the gentle rustle of a waterfall trickling across rocks opposite my cosy log cabin room.
The focal point for tourism in the Copper Canyon is Creel, a small town around half way down the track. It’s in an ideal location to enjoy more of the wonderful landscapes this area has to offer, whether hiking on foot or by hiring transport.
The surrounding rock formations have earned names for their bizarre silhouettes, such as the valleys of the mushrooms and monks, to me it all looked straight out of the set of the Flintstones.
The entire area is in fact often called the Tarahumara region, named after an indigenous tribe which has called the place home for thousands of years. The Raramuri (meaning the people), as they call themselves, are famed for their incredible running ability and stamina as well as an encyclopedic, innate knowledge of the local flora and fauna. The medicinal herbs in the area are prized throughout Mexico, a country which still places great stock in traditional and plant-based medicine.
During regular games amongst tribespeople, competitors will run for more than 24 hours at a time and cover distances in excess of 100 miles, at lung-bustingly high altitudes. Many think a big factor in these feats of fitness is the nutritous ground maize known as pinole.
The powder can include corn as well as other vitamin rich ingredients like chia seeds or cocoa – think of it like like an ancient version of a protein shake. I tried a scoop or two, mixed with water, it certainly tasted healthy but I’m yet to report any increase in my stamina.
A day spent hiking the hills and sharing a meal with these amazing people is a fantastic way to gain a new perspective on such truly stunning landscapes. My guide for the day, Daniela of Eco AlterNATIVE tours, offered fantastic insight in to the proud history of the local indigenous people, including plenty of valuable lessons we could learn from their way of life. With constant news about the impact our lifestyles are having to the planet it’s inspiring to see people living alongside nature, and a reminder of how important it is to preserve the world’s shinking, as yet unspoilt lands.
The ideally located La Estacion rests, as you may have guessed, next to Creel train station making it the perfect place to stay when negotiating your journey on El Chepe, the quirky rail-themed rooms are nice touch too. In the morning you’ll find delicious hot Mexican breakfasts with locally produced, cold pressed apple juice, the best way to fill up before a day’s hiking.
The end of the line brings passengers to the state capital, and largest settlement in the area, Chihuahua – only a little more than 100 miles from the US border. The city has a revolutionary past, having been home to the Mexican hero Pancho Villa – think Che Guevara crossed with Robin Hood and a bit of John Wayne thrown in for good measure.
The influence of cowboy culture is strong throughout the area with shows throughout the year. Don’t worry if this is your first rodeo though, there are tons of shops throughout this walkable city to pick up boots, Levis, checked shirts and leathers to make sure you look the part. The pedestrianised central part of town is a great for a spot of shopping, as well as people watching from a plethora of bars and restaurants. If the weather holds a chill, warm up with a steaming bowl of caldo de res, a delicious beef broth, as served up at La Fonda del Abeulo.
Newly built boutique Hotel Doroteo holds a selection of stunning revolution-themed rooms based upon the characters who brought about greater political autonomy for the Mexican people. To dig a little deeper in to the history of this decade long struggle be sure to spend an afternoon at the Museo Historio de la Revolucion, created to honour Pancho Villa, within his old home.
If after a few days up in the hills you’ve been missing a bit of after dark action you’re in luck. Parties are powered by a local spirit called sotol, something like a cousin to tequila and mezcal, but even more potent. A good place to taste the best is La Sotoleria, a bar serving up shots but plenty more besides. Once you’ve got your dancing shoes warmed up, head to Zulu for DJs late in to the night from a cosy open air courtyard.
A week in the Copper Canyon is a fanastic way to see a portion of the diverse and magnificent scenery, food and culture that Mexico offers. As luck would have it the end of the line brings passengers close to the international airport of Chihuahua, perfect to begin your journey home or continue on it to central America.
Tim joined Eco AlterNATIVE tours in Creel for a day to hike the local area and spend time with the Raramuri Tribe. For more information about how to book your own bespoke tour head to ecoalternativetours.com.
The Hotel Divisadero Barrancas offers cosy log cabin style rooms with stunning Canyon-views and unrivalled access to the area’s many sights, click here to book.
Hotel La Estacion is ideally located in Creel, features lovely train-themed rooms and cooks up some of the best eggs in town. Click here to book.
Live out your dream as a handlebar moustache-wearing Mexican revolutionary by spending a couple of nights at the beatiful Boutique Hotel Doroteo in Chihuahua. Click here to book.