Explore The northwest and Copper Canyon
The 653-kilometre, fourteen-hour train trip that starts on the sweaty Pacific coast at Los Mochis, fights its way up to cross the Continental Divide amidst the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental, then drifts down across the high plains of Chihuahua, is one of the world’s most extraordinary rail journeys. Mesmerizing views come thick and fast as the line hangs over the vast canyons of the Río Urique and its tributaries, with jagged peaks smothered in dense forest, and narrow, precipitous gorges falling away on both sides. Somewhat confusingly, this region of over eleven major canyons is collectively dubbed the Barrancas del Cobre (or Copper Canyon System) – the actual Barranca del Cobre usually refers to the northern valley of the Río Urique. The main gorges boast depths of more than 2000m, and if you include the whole area the Grand Canyon is a midget by comparison.
The train route
The train route
If you’re travelling clase económica, the train timetable more or less dictates that you tackle the journey eastbound from the coast to the mountains; otherwise, you may well find yourself travelling along the most dramatic stretch of the line in the dark. Travelling first class it doesn’t make a lot of difference. From Los Mochis or El Fuerte, the start of the journey is an inauspicious grind across the humid coastal plain, with passengers in the first-class, air-conditioned train settling back in their reclining seats while the economy train passengers just sweat. The first-class cosseting becomes less of a benefit as the line breaks into the mountains and you start climbing into ever-cooler air (at least in winter – summer days are still burning hot up here). It was this section of the route that defeated the original builders, and, from the passenger’s point of view, the bit you’ve been waiting for. For six hours, the train zigzags dizzily upwards, clinging to the canyon wall, rocketing across bridges, plunging into tunnels, only to find itself constantly just a few metres above the track it covered twenty minutes earlier. Eventually, you arrive at Divisadero, where there’s a halt of about fifteen minutes to marvel at the view of the Copper Canyon itself. At first it seems a perverse choice for a stop, with nothing around but the mountaintops and crowds of Rarámuri hawking their crafts and delicious gorditas. But walk a little way down the path and you’re suddenly standing on the edge of space, on the lip of a vast chasm. Below you are the depths of the Barranca del Cobre and, adjoining it, the Barranca de Urique and the Barranca de Tararecua. There are a couple of absurdly expensive places to stay here and a few bare-bones cheaper ones as well, but for most people it’s all too rapidly back on the train, which clanks on for an hour to Creel, just past the halfway stage and, at 2330m, close to the highest point of the line (note, though, after Divisadero the scenery is far less scintillating). This is the place to stop if you want seriously to explore the Sierra Tarahumara and the canyons.
From Creel, the train takes a further six hours to reach Chihuahua – though beautiful, it’s not a truly spectacular run. In fact, if the train timetable doesn’t suit, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take the bus from Creel to Chihuahua: it’s cheaper than even the second-class train fare, is quicker and covers much the same ground.
Founded in the sixteenth century, El Fuerte is a tranquil, verdant town full of handsome colonial architecture and lush mango trees. In the 1800s it became rich from mining, and was made a city in 1906; the Revolution devastated the place and it’s been a backwater ever since. In 2009 the town became the latest addition to Mexico’s burgeoning Pueblos Mágicos programme, and a frenzy of publicly funded restoration and regeneration has engulfed the centre. Located 75km east of Los Mochis on the rail line (2hr 50min by train), El Fuerte makes a pleasant alternative start (or end) to the Copper Canyon train ride, and is a far more appealing place to stay than Los Mochis.
Aside from being “the gateway to the canyons”, the town is an attractive destination in itself, rich in historical and natural diversions. El Fuerte grew up around a Spanish fort (from which it takes its name) completed in 1615 to suppress the local rebellious tribes. Though the original has been lost, a reasonably authentic replica was completed in 2001 on its possible location, supplying commanding views of the streets and surrounding countryside. It houses the El Fuerte Mirador Museum, where you’ll find an array of historical artefacts and old photos of the town, with mostly English labelling.
Over 150 species of birds are supported by El Fuerte’s green surroundings, best seen by boat at dawn when their activity is most intense. The region is also home to several indigenous Yoreme (Mayo) villages, where it is possible to witness traditional dances or purchase pottery and other crafts. Ancient Indian petroglyphs depicting geometric and anthropomorphic shapes are scattered throughout the area, most notably at the Cerro de la Máscara. Most hotels offer tours to any or all of these attractions; ask at the popular Posada del Hidalgo or Hotel Río Vista, or enquire at 3 Amigos Too.
- Creel and the Sierra Tarahumara
Towards the eastern end of the Copper Canyon rail line, the city of Cuauhtémoc contains Mexico’s largest Mennonite community (around 50,000). You’ll come across Mennonites throughout Chihuahua and Durango – the men in bib-and-tucker overalls and straw stetsons, as often as not trying to sell the tasty cheese that is their main produce, and the women, mostly silent, wrapped in long, nineteenth-century dresses with a headscarf. The Christian sect, founded in the sixteenth century by a Dutchman, Menno Simons, believe only in the Bible and their personal conscience: their refusal to do military service or take national oaths of loyalty has led to a long history of persecution. The Mennonites arrived in Mexico in the 1920s from Manitoba, Canada, but among themselves they still speak a form of German, although so divergent as to be virtually unintelligible to a modern German-speaker.