Copper Canyon, one of the world’s great train rides. (April 2015)


We flew from La Paz Airport, which was small, to Los Mochis, which was even smaller. This was with AeroCalafia, on a twin engined prop aircraft.

Having tried to self cater a Copper Canyon Railway tour and failing, we opted for a package trip. This was the first time we had done this since Iran.

It felt strange, not having to plan ahead.

We were picked up at the airport in Los Mochis and driven north to El Fuerte.

The railway line appeared occasionally on our left and right, as did the Rio Fuerte.

This area is much lusher than Baja, with trees, fields of corn and other agriculture. There were fewer cacti,  of a different variety. The Organ Pipe Cactus, as the name suggests, are more slender and straighter.

Eco Tourism is a growth industry worldwide. I am not sure what constitutes the eco side but if you paint your truck with zebra stripes or pictures of flora and fauna, then it seems to become an eco tour.

We took an eco tour and drove upstream, along the Rio Fuerte and then launched a dingy into the river and floated down.

After a while we went ashore and did a bird watching bush walk.

Our guide kept on pointing out birds that I could never see. We then went to see the Nahauti petroglyphs, where there were some reasonable examples of rock carvings, reportedly 2,500 years old. These are from an early period of the Nahauti Indians and depict serpents, sun gods and shamans.

At some point during the walk I got eaten alive by an undentifiable, small carnivoros insect. This was despite having applied liberal amounts of ‘Tropical Strength’ insect repellant.

It was into the boat again and we floated back to El Fuerte.

There was no outboard to power us, just the fast flowing river and the arms of our guide.

That was the real eco part.

El Fuerte was founded in 1563 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Ibarra. I wonder if he had a problem with black biting bugs?

The following day was the real start of the Copper Canyon trip on El Chepe or Ferrocarril Barrancas de Cobre. We boarded the train just after 8am. The sun was still low in the sky but the temperature was warming up.

Our first day’s journey was from El Fuerte to Bahuchivo Station.

The carriages were old and a little worn, while the pace was slow. Even slower when there was a gradient.

This was certainly not a Bullet Train.

It was a spectacular ride, with lakes, rivers, tunnels, bridges and switchbacks.

What made it more enjoyable was that we weren’t confined to viewing the scenery from our seats. We could go to where the carriages were coupled and take snaps from there.

The top half of the carriage door was open so there was nothing stopping us leaning out to get a better shot and a face full of diesel fumes if we weren’t careful.

There were only three carriages – the restaurant car, first class and then second class.

The staff were all in traditional railroad uniforms and there was a heavily armed guard in the last carriage.

However come dinner time, around 6pm, they all congregate in the dining car for a feed.

An ideal time for the Bandidos to swoop on the Chepe.

Mario picked us up from Bahuchivo Station and drove us to our accommodation at San Isidro Lodge, which was a few kilometres out of Cerocauhui.

On the way he stopped to show us Yogi Bear Rock. It really does look like a more than average bear.

That afternoon we drove up to the Urique Rim. This is high up overlooking the Copper Canyon. The views were breathtaking, with rocky escarpments on either side and the river snaking its way from left to right.

There is even a purpose built cantilevered lookout hanging over the valley floor.

We then returned to San Isidro Lodge and walked to where there was another stunning valley view.

We just sat and enjoyed the moment.

The lodge is part of a working farm run by Mario and his three brothers and two sisters.

There were dogs, horses and an array of barnyard birds and one poor parrot. This Polly had unfortunately had its wings clipped.

I didn’t find that very eco.

The next morning, before rejoining the train, we visited the tiny village of Cerocauhui, with just 1,800 inhabitants.

Mario said that he knew all of the locals and they know him.

He therefore had to behave.

The area was fist visited by the Spaniards in 1679 and they immediately built a mission and church.

The Saint Francis Xavier Church has undergone many restorations, the last being in 1940, but has maintained much of the original interior.

Before the Spanish arrived to convert them, the Tarahumara Indians inhabited this area. We visited a local Catholic school that takes Indian girls in as boarders.

Mario, who was himself part Indian, said there were many Tarahumaras living in the area and surrounding hills. They are very religious and seem to have been able to combine Catholicism with their traditional Indian culture.

Much the same as the Mayans have done.

This next stage of the Copper Canyon trip was from Bahuchivo Station to Posada Barrancas Station.

The train was on time, which apparently is rare, and we were soon underway.

The surrounding area was alpine forests and farmland, interspersed with small villages.

The scenery wasn’t as dramatic as the previous day but it was still breathtaking.

It was only a short trip with a rather long hold up waiting for a goods train to pass.

The local Indian woman were very quick to seize the opportunity to sell their local handicrafts to the tourists.

No sooner had we arrived at Posada Barrancas Station than we were into a van and off to our hotel.

The Hotel Mansion Tarahumar ‘El Castillo’ is a rather large and sprawling, Disneyesque establishment that is managed, with an iron fist, by Maria Barriga. It was built by her brother, Jesus on 36 acres of steep hillside and was opened in 1993.

It’s made up of seventy cabanas or cabins, some have red conical turret towers.

The main dining area has a lofty timber ceiling with a huge open fire place.

Jesus told the contractors that he wanted to build a first class hotel – a palace.

They took him literally.

As soon as we arrived we were urged to have lunch and then check into our rooms later.

After lunch we were bundled into another van and taken on what seemed to be a very long ride up the hill. The main part of the hotel disappeared into the mist as we climbed ever higher.

Then the road ended and we had to climb even higher still.

By this time we were fearing the worst.

When we finally got to our rooms we realised that we had been given the best, if not the most remote, rooms in the hotel.

They were perched on the edge of the rim, overlooking the Copper Canyon.

The view was breathtaking.

Later in the afternoon we went on a walk around the rim to a small mountain settlement that is home to a group of the local Tarahumar Indians.

Apparently the hotel has a policy of promoting their culture and crafts.

We didn’t buy but we did leave a donation.

In the evening we sat on the balcony overlooking the town. The two bird feeders hanging there were constantly in use. Humming Birds and Woodpeckers were two species I recognised.

We were spending two nights at the Hotel Mansion Tarahumar, so the next day didn’t involve any rail travel.

The hotel had a tour that was included in our package, so we took that.

There was a choice of Zip Riding or the more conventional funicular to cross the gorge.

Now Zip Riding is like a flying fox on steroids. It’s a little less scary than Zip Lining but still involves great heights and high speed.

You are harnessed into a seat, which is attached to a very taught cable, which is launched across a ravine.

We chose the funicular.

Afterwards we visited various viewing platforms, that look out across the canyon, ending up at Divisadero. This is a small village that sits next to the rail line. There are any number of opportunities to both buy and eat, as the train makes a fifteen minute shop here.

Rather than take the bus back to the hotel we decided to walk.

It was only meant to be 5km and the weather was cool but pleasant.

We took a wrong turn and ended up at the funicular station.

In a moment of rashness we decided that the Zip Riding looked like fun, and we should try it.

We had to fill out an indemnity form, which didn’t help our apprehension.

As it turns out this is the longest Zip Ride in the world, travelling over a distance of 2,530 metres and reaching speeds of 125 kph.

The initial launch from the platform takes your breath away, as you plunge downwards at an ever increasing speed. It then it levels out and becomes quiet relaxing.

The hardest part is the 700 metre climb back up to the funicular, which then takes you back to the start.

After the exhilaration of the Zip Ride we continued our walk back to the hotel. We again took the wrong direction, making the walk even longer than the original 5km.

The next day we took the final leg of our rail trip to Chihuahua.

This was the longest stretch by far.

I had a feeling that the best photo opportunities were behind us.

That was until we discovered the back of the train.

Most trains have a guards van that brings up the rear, not the Chepe. We found we could go right to the back, where it was again open and overlook the tracks receding into the distance.

Our new vantage point in the vestibule was short lived as one of the staff booted us out. As it turned out we weren’t meant to be there after all.

This section of the journey took us to our highest point at 2,460 metres.

It was then downhill to Chihuahua.

Leaving the canyons and the mountains behind, we passed through pockets of farmland with gentler slopes in either side.

The more we descended the flatter the terrain became until we were finally travelling through acres of fallow wheat and corn fields.

We waited for a goods train that lumbered past. It was going so slowly that a group of ‘Rail Riders’ were able to jump on board.

It was dark by the time we reached Chihuahua – the end of line for our Copper Canyon adventure.

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