Mexico's Copper Canyon Pure Gold

Chicago Sun-Times, January 24, 2010
 

THE TRAIN HAD BARELY PICKED UP SPEED before passengers abandoned their cushy assigned seats to gather on the rickety gangway between train cars and stick their heads out the open windows.

The views, after all, are the main attraction of the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, or “the Chepe” for short. The 400-mile rail journey winds through Mexico’s spectacular Copper Canyon network, an awe-inspiring geological formation four times the size of Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

What makes the 16-hour chug across northwestern Mexico so worthwhile is not one single view, but the breathtaking series of landscapes — impossibly diverse — between coastal Los Mochis and the Chihuahua plains.

No one budged from the shaky gangway as our train moved faster. Take a coffee break and you might miss the tomato fields, or the thorn-tree jungle or the aqua lake that appears out of nowhere.

You want to save the best vistas for daylight, which is why everyone recommends taking the train west to east. The less obvious option is whether to choose the first- or second-class train. The Chepe’s official Web site (chepe.com.mx) bears few clues, although any honest conductor will admit they’re essentially the same train.

Twice the price, first-class adds only a dining and bar car. While these lounge cars make it easier to mingle with fellow passengers, you’re unlikely to meet any Mexicans onboard. Locals ride the second-class economy train, which leaves one hour after its first-class counterpart. The economy train is where you’ll find Mexican ranchers in white Stetson hats on the gangway, if not marveling at the view, awaiting breakfast. When the train rolls into El Fuerte at mid-morning, entrepreneurial vendors on the platform get on their tiptoes to sell warm burritos through the windows.

As we wound through the mountains, I was thankful to be riding eastbound. To pass this stretch of the Sierra Madre at night would mean blotting out the turquoise pools of water, the barrel cacti and the tall rock formations poking up like pillars. Many people consider this leg the most gorgeous stretch of track. It certainly ranks as the most difficult to build.

For decades, one third of the railroad remained unfinished: the 122 miles leading up to Creel, in which the train has to climb 7,000 feet.

The train takes some shortcuts — straight through the mountains. Our first entry into a tunnel was dramatic, like plunging underwater. Passengers waited silently in the pitch-black darkness for the hum to end and light to return.

Just 86 tunnels to go.

The longest tunnel of all, nicknamed “the Rest,” keeps you cloaked in darkness for a full mile, while “the Pear” takes you on a 18-degree curve. If the landscape looks different after emerging, it’s not your imagination. One tunnel, for example, passes you over the Continental Divide.

Just when I thought I’d had my fill of jaw-dropping scenery, we pulled up to Divisadero station. If this trip has a Niagara Falls moment, it’s the ledge at Divisadero, where passengers can get off the train to gawk at the sublime gorges and snap photos that can never do a 100-mile panorama justice. The 10-minute stop at Divisadero is far too brief, and you can’t afford to dawdle. One blow of the whistle and the Chepe races off to the old timber town of Creel.

The most popular place to spend the night, Creel these days boasts more log-cabin motels than saw mills. And after nine hours aboard the Chepe — whether sitting or standing — it’s is a tempting place to call it a day.

Tour operators in Creel point visitors toward nearby rock formations and lakes that are, at best, a sideshow to the rifts. Penetrating this rugged wilderness takes a full day’s journey; once inside, the best use of your time is a hike or drive into the canyon lands.

Set out by car to Batopilas and you’ll watch alpine country give way to a subtropical ecosystem. The temperature plummets on this harrowing six-hour drive to the floor of the Batopilas canyon.

A forgotten silver mining town, Batopilas has dozens of old mines within hiking distance. The most impressive ruins of all — the estate of a former mining mogul — are just alongside the river. Wandering around the grounds of this time-ravaged hacienda, you’ll hear only the crunch of dry bougainvillea petals underfoot.

The challenge in canyon travel is finding a fresh route out. Leaving Batopilas, unless you plan otherwise, you’ll spend six hours doubling back over the same road. Consider getting off the train in Bahuichivo for a circular route from Ceroauchi to Urique, then Batopilas, and finally, off to Creel.

No matter how meticulously you plan, you’re bound to feel like you saw just a sliver of the Sierra. Every local I met had a different “can’t-miss” list: the lost church at Satevo, Paquime’s maze of mud walls, the country’s tallest waterfall.

Five days had seemed like an eternity when I booked my trip; once there, I wished I’d had another week.

My schedule gave me just enough time to revisit to Divisadero. My plan was to get there, midday, just before the locomotives blew through, to watch this classic train town bustle. But I arrived late and found just a few stragglers by the tracks. Vendors were bundling up woodcrafts and closing up tortilla comales.

No one, I learned, actually lived here. Once the trains whisked away the 10-minute tourists, the people of Divisadero headed back to the real Divisadero, two kilometers up the road.

It’s difficult to overstate how much this train — the only daily passenger train still running in Mexico — sets the rhythms of life along its lengthy path. Even if you ride the train in a one-day blitz — stopping nowhere but Divisadero — it’s the journey of a lifetime.

By the time I re-boarded the Chepe three days later, I’d explored the Sierra by horse, motorcycle, van and foot. So it was no small relief when the terrain flattened and the sun set over the Chihuahua plains. Finally, it was safe to take my seat.
 

PHOTOS HERE.

 

IF YOU GO


TRAIN TICKETS: Reserve tickets by contacting the Chepe at (888) 484-1623 orchepe.com.mx and buy them at the station on the morning of departure. To buy tickets in advance, try a travel agency in Chihuahua, such as Viajes Flamingo (mexicoscoppercanyon.com). First-class tickets cost about $140; second-class tickets are roughly $55. Keep in mind that the second-class train runs only three days a week and never on Wednesdays.

FLIGHTS: To ride the train eastbound, fly to Los Mochis (airport code LMM). Mexicana Airlines and Aeromexico both fly there. Plan to spend the night in Los Mochis, as the trains leave early (6 a.m. and 7 a.m.) The Chepe doesn’t reach Chihuahua until late at night, so plan for an overnight there, too. Many airlines service Chihuahua, including Continental and American.

CUTTING COSTS: If you’re short on money (or time), consider riding half of the railroad — the more scenic half, between Los Mochis and Creel. Ticket prices are based on the length of your ride. With an airport under construction in Creel, you’ll soon be able to fly from there.

WHEN TO GO: Creel and Divisadero are extremely cold in December and January. To give yourself the option of hiking and camping, consider visiting in the warmer season of October and mid-November, or March through early April. The dry season, late April through June, isn’t optimal, either, as the vegetation is brown.

WHERE TO STAY: In Los Mochis, your best option is Santa Anita Hotel in the center of town (800) 821-0000; (santaanitahotel.com)

In Creel, choose from a cozy cabin at the Best Western Lodge at Creel (thelodgeatcreel.com) and less expensive rooms at Margarita’s Guest House (casamargaritas.blogspot.com, popular among backpackers.

In Batopilas, hotels seem to open and close at the whim of the owners. You’ll know what’s available meandering down the town’s only street.

In Chihuahua, the Hotel Boutique San Felipe El Real (sanfelipeelreal.com) is a delightful, antique-filled bed and breakfast. The friendly staff will help you plan a day of sightseeing in the city, home of Pancho Villa.

TOUR OPERATORS: “El Aventurero” Norberto Padilla Rodriguez offers horseback rides and hikes in Creel (ridemexico.com). The 3 Amigos in Creel rents motorcycles or bicycles for exploring canyon country (amigotrails.com).