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Travel Articles by David Bear
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Mex appeal


Train ride through Copper Canyon provides 'Chepe' thrills

Sunday, November 17, 2002



COPPER CANYON, Mexico - Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, is the best known of a series of six dramatically deep, water-carved gorges that punctuate the western slopes of the mountainous Sierra spine of northern Mexico. Together, the canyons comprise a vast, rugged labyrinth of towering cliffs and jagged ridges so high they confine the clouds. Waterfalls plunge over sheer, thousand-foot drops. Huge chasms encompass yawning voids navigated by buzzards and eagles.

Covering four times as much area as the Grand Canyon, and in places plunging more than a quarter mile deeper, these canyon lands are semitropical at the bottom and alpine at the top. Oak, pine, pinon and juniper prosper on the stony, upper slopes. Cactus and scrub brush cling to midwalls. Far below, by the river banks, banana and mango flourish.

Few paved roads penetrate this wilderness; none traverse it. The only through access is a single rail line, a stunning engineering feat that took nearly a century to complete. As my wife, Sari, and I discovered on our journey there, the 400-mile trip from the Gulf of California to the city of Chihuahua in the east is one of the world's great railroad adventures.


    If you go ... Copper Canyon

For Copper Canyon information, contact the Mexico Tourism Office at 1-800-446-3942 or visit

For Pousada Hidalgo and Pousada Mirador, contact Balderama Hotels at 1-800-896-8196 or visit www.mexicoscopper

- David Bear




The Chihuahua Pacifico Railroad is a marvel of engineering. Cutting the single track roadbed through the mountains took a century, and it wasn't completed until 1967. Rising in the west from the city of Los Mochis, the line twists a precipitous path through a series of increasingly steep mountain canyons, cresting at 8,000 feet before tracking down across the high plains to the city of Chihuahua.

Long independently owned and operated, the "Chepe" was incorporated into Mexico's National Railroad system in 1996, which has been both good and bad. While there have been some improvements, the line has suffered with the general deterioration of the entire system. Alas, passenger rail is no more successful in Mexico than it is in the United States.

Still, the train ride through the mountains is a real rollercoaster, piercing cliffs, clinging to the walls of chasms a thousand feet deep, vaulting great voids on high trestles. This 100-mile section up and over the western slopes required 39 bridges and 86 tunnels, one of which actually doubles back over itself in a 180-degree, corkscrew turn.

At 6 a.m. daily, a passenger train leaves each terminus to make the breathtaking, 13-hour trip, although the timetable is only an estimate and lateness is a way of life. The ride on the Chepe is something of a Wild West experience, complete with a train robbery now and then. It's spectacular in either direction of course, but west to east is better, since the most scenic parts are in the morning, while the other way, they're in darkness except during midsummer's longest days.

A journey on the Chepe is also a bargain, with a one-way, first-class ticket on the minimally maintained Mexican coaches costing about $120. That buys you a seat and the right to get off and on the train at various stops along the way.

One curiosity of the Chepe is that many Mexicans and cost-conscious backpackers hitch rides for free, riding along on transport carriages and open flat cars.

The most comfortable option is one of the private carriages attached to the end of many trains. Several much more luxurious private trains also operate along the line in prime months in the winter and spring.

But though the Chihuahua Pacific provides access to the Copper Canyon region, it offers only tantalizing, passing glimpses of the abysses themselves, and a 20-minute stop at the canyon's edge. Getting at least a lay of the land requires stopping for a few days in one or more of the small towns along the way. That was our plan.

Los Mochis may be the Chepe's western railhead and the nearest airport, but the nearby colonial town of El Fuerte (the fort) is a better place to catch the train. Four hundred years ago, the Spanish built a hilltop fort here to protect themselves from the local Indians. The fort, now the site of the local water tower, overlooks a picturesque market town that still retains its traditional architecture and ambience, especially around its cobbled central square. The quaint Posada Hidalgo, once the mayor's mansion, is now a small, luxury inn, and the poshest place in town to stay.

From there, the village of Bahuichivo is a three-hour train ride east, but what a ride it is! As it winds up the ever-deepening canyon of the Fuerte River, the rail line lives up to its hair-raising reputation.

Standing on the train's rear balcony, at dozens of tight turns, I peered over the edge of a sheer cliff down hundreds of feet to where the corpses of railcars that hadn't made the turn still lay where they had fallen.

Bahuichivo was a whistle-stop of no particular interest other than its proximity to the village of Cerocahui, which was our second sidetrip. It was a bumpy, half-hour bus ride along a dirt road to this peaceful pueblo of 600 residents that was once a Jesuit mission. The old mission provides Cerocahui's primary and very quaint accommodations, although the Margaritas Hotel has opened since we were there.

Set in a tiny valley amid the towering mountains, Cerocahui is a good base from which to explore the lower canyons by foot or horseback. Along the way, magnificent waterfalls blossom at every turn. The nearby Gallegos lookout offers a sweeping panorama of the river Urique 6,000 feet below and its centuries-old mining town of Batopilas.

The high point of the rail trip, both literally and physically, is the tiny town of El Divisidero. For decades before a way was found to lay tracks through the mountains to the west, this settlement, perched on the rim of Copper Canyon, was the end of the rail line. It's still where all trains stop for 20 minutes to give through-travelers a chance to get out and gawk over the stone parapet at the precipitous view beyond.

Our plan was to spend a night a bit farther up the track at Posada Barrancas, where several small hotels offer superior accommodations and stupendous vistas.

Supreme among these hostelries is the Posada Mirador, an eagle's nest of a hotel perched right on the canyon's lip. Each of the Mirador's 48 guest rooms open on a private balcony hanging over what must be one of Earth's most awesome expanses of atmosphere. It's not a place for those who suffer from vertigo. We could lie in bed and watch the sun play color tricks with the opposite wall of the canyon's steep, shimmering flanks many miles away, with nothing but nothing in between.

Later that afternoon, a guide showed us the short way down to a Tarahumara habitation tucked in a crevice several thousand feet below our balcony.

The Copper Canyon area is homeland of the Tarahumara, a Native American people who first took refuge in the deep valleys some 500 years ago to escape enslavement by Spain's conquistadors, who wanted them to work the area's mines.

Thousands of their reclusive descendants still inhabit the remote corners, following their traditional ways. Living at the edge of civilization, they move up and down the canyons' flanks with the changing of seasons, hunting, fishing and farming the deepest fissures of this realm, living in crude homes built of rock or hewn log cabins, sometimes erected inside caves and under sheltering ledges.

Despite their primitive living conditions and limited diet, the Tarahumara are known as a hardy people, as evidenced most recently in their world-class prowess as ultra-marathoners. Villages hold run-till-they-drop races, in which team members lope along for two or three days on end, covering hundreds of miles, while dribbling small wooden balls with their feet. In fact, in their language the Tarahumara call themselves "Raramuri," which translates roughly as "people of the swift running feet."

The Tarahumara also practice a pantheistic form of Catholicism. Pagan gods hold sway in their churches with Christ, and sorcerers consult with priests on spiritual matters. The rituals of their religious feasts, Corpus Christi, Christmas and Holy Week, are all familiar, but the colorful Tarahumara interpretations are unique in all the world.

Although we didn't have time for further exploration, most travelers who crave serious exploration of the canyon use the town of Creel as their base. Situated 20 miles farther along the track at the head of Copper Canyon, Creel is a bustling rail town reminiscent of the Old West, interesting to walk around and look at people going about their daily business.

That's how we passed our final morning until 3:15 p.m., when the eastbound train came through, already running an hour late. The five-hour journey over the dry plains from Creel to Chihuahua offers little to look at along the way, especially as darkness settled, but it left lots of time to read, so take a good book.



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