Divided from Baja California by the Sea of Cortés, Mexico’s northwest mainland is something of a bizarre – and initially uninviting – introduction to the country, despite containing one of the region’s most alluring natural attractions. The Sierra Tarahumara is wonderfully wild, pristine and remote, concealing six dizzying chasms known collectively as the Barranca del Cobre (or Copper Canyon). Mexico’s last surviving passenger train, nicknamed “El Chepe”, steers a phenomenal course around its rim – one of the world’s ultimate train rides. Other highlights include Álamos, once a silver-mining city and now a charming retreat for expats and artists, and El Fuerte, another colonial town rich in history.
Travelling in this part of Mexico can be incredibly rewarding, but beyond the coastal resorts you’ll see very few tourists. At once fertile, wealthy and heavily Americanized, in parts it is also strikingly impoverished, drab and barren – drug violence in Sinaloa and Sonora has further weakened its appeal, though the risk to visitors is slight. The climate’s not exactly welcoming, either – summer temperatures can hit 50°C (122°F), while winter nights in the desert drop to freezing levels.
Yet it’s this extraordinary desert scenery that grabs your attention, which, along with the huge cacti, makes for some archetypal Mexican landscapes, while the fierce sunshine makes the beach towns in this part of Mexico doubly enticing. North of Puerto Vallarta lies San Blas, a small, friendly town surrounded by steamy jungle and peaceful strips of sand, and the resort of Mazatlán with its wealth of beaches, bars and fine seafood restaurants. Towards the US border are the quieter beaches of Bahía de Kino and San Carlos, and the shrimping port and burgeoning resort of Puerto Peñasco.