Several canyons deeper and bigger than the Grand Canyon and home to the indigenous Tarahumara Indians, Mexico’s Copper Canyon is an amazing natural attraction, full of quaint villages, authentic culture and a playground for high-octane adventure activities, and offering the chance to ride the amazing El Chepe railway, one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world.
Located in northwest Mexico straddling the states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua, the Barrancas de Cobre, or Copper Canyon is made up of six different canyons carved into the Sierra Madre Mountains and is larger and deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Offering some of Mexico’s most stunning natural scenery, the most popular way to visit the area is to take the famous Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacifico, the Copper Canyon Railway, commonly known as El Chepe. The railway is a magnificent feat of engineering which starts in coastal Los Mochis before rising to an altitude of 2,500-metres above sea level, eventually declining to 800-metres as it reaches the old colonial city of Chihuahua. During the journey the train passes through 86 tunnels and over 39 bridges, as well as navigating 360 degree turns, making this journey one of Mexico’s great adventures.
The area is inhabited by the indigenous Tarahumara Indians, descendants of the Aztecs, who once lived on Chihuahua’s central plains, but after the Spanish Conquest in 1521, retreated into the canyons to escape enforced labour in the Spanish-owned mines and haciendas. Today, the Tarahumara still embrace a simple life and live in wood and stone cabins and even caves, throughout the canyon area. Traditionally and colourfully-dressed Tarahumara women sell their unique handicrafts, such as pine baskets, rugs, pottery and wood-carvings throughout the region and along with various food stalls are a feature on the station platforms along the El Chepe route.
El Chepe runs from Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast to the central city of Chihuahua and the most popular way to travel is from west to east, as it provides the best views and makes the most of daylight hours. For the optimum experience, we’d recommend sitting on the right hand-side to enjoy the best of the dramatic scenery and suggest picking up the train at El Fuerte, around an hour’s drive from Los Mochis, as firstly, there is no amazing scenery between these two stops, but more importantly it avoids having to board the train at 6am in Los Mochis. Instead, we would advise flying into Los Mochis and then driving to El Fuerte the day before your train trip. This allows you to enjoy a more leisurely breakfast before boarding the train around 8.15am. What’s more, while it is possible to complete the whole journey in around 13-hours, to get the most from your experience, we’d recommend taking at least two overnight stops along the way, so you can explore more of what the canyon has to offer.
There is another advantage to starting your trip in El Fuerte, which is the chance to explore this charming colonial town with its lovely central plaza, hilltop fort and riverside setting. If you take this option, the first stop on your journey is Bahuichivo station for Cerocauhui, a tiny hamlet of under 1,000 inhabitants perched on the edge of Urique Canyon. Alighting here will appeal to those looking for a gentle hike or horse ride into the canyon for spectacular views and a chance to visit nearby waterfalls. While most people will not spend the night here, the next major stop Posada Barrancas is a popular place to break the journey, particularly for adventure enthusiasts as the village offers easy access to the Copper Canyon Adventure Park. So, whether you want to zipline through the canyon along the world’s longest and fastest wire, abseil, climb, bike, hike or ride, there is ample opportunity. For those looking to experience the magnificent landscape in a more relaxed manner, we suggest a trip on the Teleférico cable car.
The next popular station for a stopover is Creel, which is surrounded by pine forest, lakes and incredible rock formations. It is also possible to visit the two highest waterfalls in Mexico from here in the Basaseachic Falls National Park. The final stop on the route is Chihuahua, which although not a traditional tourist destination has much to interest those curious about Mexican revolutionary history, as it was the birthplace of both Miguel Hidalgo and Pancho Villa. Along with some fine old colonial buildings and stimulating museums, we think there is enough in the city to make a stay here worthwhile.
The El Chepe railway is a fantastic way to see the wild and impressive canyon scenery, enrich your knowledge of Tarahumara culture and indulge in some exciting adventure pursuits. For those who enjoy the relaxed pace of a train journey this is a wonderful experience and can be easily combined with a beach and whale-watching holiday to Baja California.