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Riding the el Chepe Train: A Journey through Mexico’s Copper Canyon

Riding the el Chepe Train: A Journey through Mexico’s Copper Canyon

Traveling the el Chepe train through Mexico’s Copper Canyon is a thrilling experience. Discover what to see and do in Copper Canyon.

The rays from the rising sun splayed across the horizon. It was like an overturned well of ink, spreading slowly at first, and then it bathed the entire landscape in what looked like liquid gold. Perched on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, or ‘Barrancas del Cobre,’ a canyon four times the mass of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Hotel Mirador stared out at the distant Sierra Madre Occidental. Like a blank artist’s canvas, the salmon-tinted adobe brick reflected the colors radiating down from the heavens.

Mexico's Copper Canyon.

Rays of sunshine flicker across Copper Canyon in Mexico, outside Hotel Mirador. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Daylight Fans across Mexico’s Copper Canyon

As daylight began, I leaned my elbows on the balcony’s banister and breathed in the delightfully crisp air. Just what the doctor ordered, rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Surrounded by the splendor of nature, I gazed out at the stunning surroundings of the Copper Canyon. The canyon has been home to the Tarahumara Indians for centuries. The etched rock face of the canyon is beautiful after being whittled away by years of wind and rain.

A painting of a Tarahumara Indian in Mexico's Copper Canyon.

A painting of a Tarahumara Indian, the indigenous people of Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre. Photo by Vicki Lillo

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I closed my eyes to the sun, allowing the delicious warmth to spread across my face. Pure magic. I reminisced about our journey here, to Divisadero, arriving via the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, the Copper Canyon railway locals dub the el Chepe train.

The el Chepe train route in Mexico's Copper Canyon.

A placard showing the route of el Chepe through Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Los Mochis to Chihuahua, el Chepe Crosses the Continental Divide

We began in the Pacific coastal town of Los Mochis. This fifteen-hour course started at sea level, crossed the Continental Divide, and eventually stopped in the high plains of Chihuahua. For 400 miles, through 86 tunnels, and five climactic zones, over 37 bridges, up and down steep grades, el Chepe rumbled along its track.

The el Chepe train.

El Chepe approaches a tunnel, one of many on its journey through Copper Canyon. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Thundering across Mexico’s Copper Canyon on the el Chepe Train

Clack, clack, clack, the wheels of rolling stock departed its western terminal in the northern state of Sinaloa, not far from the Sea of Cortez, and headed toward the higher ground. Grinding through the desert scrub, mostly green or brown grasses, and organ-pipe cacti, the train ambled down the track. Occasionally, I could see flecks of yellow and orange peppered the landscape. These colors came from flowers blooming atop the bristly thorns of barrel cacti plants.

The train made its way toward the distant mountains. We rode past the homes of rural campesinos, Mexican cowboys. Then the train began its climb through the forests, interspersed with glimpses of the Rio Urique and its tributaries. The trees dappled in amber blooms were calming, and the dangerously high gorges on either side of the rail line were breathtaking.

A view of Mexico's Copper Canyon.

A view of the landscape in Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Riding the el Chepe train, a remnant of Mexico’s Colonial ‘Old West’

I cherished the romance of the el Chepe train as its passenger cars swayed along the track. A plateau of volcanic rock, the cordillera of the Sierra Madre— Spanish for “Mother Mountains”—zipped by our squeaky clean windowpanes. The view offered sightings of deciduous trees and mimosas, followed by landscapes of arid desert vegetation. Spiky Fouquieria, columnar Stenocereus cactuses, agave succulents, and Opuntia (prickly pear) spines with red fruits resembling radishes decorated the landscape. Hawks and crested caracaras, the resident raptors, swooped across the expanses of parched terrain and intermittent valleys screeching as they passed by.

Raptors soar over the desert scrub of Mexico's Copper Canyon.

Raptors soar over the desert scrub of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Photo by Vicki Lillo

El Chepe Recreates the Glamour of a Bygone Age

Considered a marvel of modern engineering, having taken 100 years to carve out of the crevasse, this famous railway hasn’t lost the glitz and glamour of the Golden Age. El Chepe still epitomizes the flavor of the Old West when train travel was at the height of its glory.

Even the prolonged whiff of diesel fumes, as I lingered in near-total darkness on the outer platform in between the cars through an exceptionally long tunnel run, didn’t ruin the allure. With my camera in hand, I held my breath and retrieved my arm from the opening. I wouldn’t want to lose a limb. Once el Chepe sallied back into the sunlight, I was at my roost, hanging over the edge, awaiting the next fabulous photographic opportunity.

The el Chepe train.

Vic is hanging out the platform area window on the el Chepe train. Photo by Vicki Lillo

To el Fuerte, the Birthplace of Zorro

The locomotive edged along for two hours in the direction of el Fuerte, a colonial town, supposedly the birthplace of Diego de la Vega, the real-life Zorro. At the depot, passengers spilled out, heading for the lovely boutique hotel, Posada del Hidalgo, where nightly re-enactments of the swashbuckling hero, and champion for justice, prolong the Zorro legend.

Mango trees accentuate this tranquil town. El Fuerte was once a flourishing mining town until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The subsequent devastation turned it into a pueblo of doomed-to-decay Spanish architecture. Since the el Chepe transit line began to stop here, along with the Zorro theatrics at the lodge, the former municipality is returning to life.

The legend of Diego de la Viego.

The legend of Diego de la Viego, supposedly the real Zorro, keeps the town of El Fuerte and Posada del Hidalgo alive. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Posada del Hidalgo, Premier Boutique Hotel Overnight Stay in Mexico’s Copper Canyon

The ‘Posada del Hidalgo’ inn itself is a delightful overnight experience. The hotel’s cobbled walkways flanked by bougainvillea blooms, rattan furnishings along the stone terrace overlooking the hand-tiled pool, quaint imperial-styled divans, chandeliers, and colonial pillars in the lobby are stunning.

The hand-tiled pool at Posada del Hidalgo in the colonial town of El Fuerte.

The hand-tiled pool at Posada del Hidalgo in the colonial town of El Fuerte. Photo by Vicki Lillo

An artistic flair is evident inside ‘Don Diego’s Restaurant,’ where breakfast staples of chilaquiles (fried corn tortilla strips simmered in salsa) are served with eggs, cheese, or beans.

Don Diego's Restaurant, inside Posada del Hidalgo in El Fuerte.

Don Diego’s Restaurant, inside Posada del Hidalgo in El Fuerte. Photo by Vicki Lillo

We explored the relatively tourist-free Plaza de Armas, the town square found in every Latin-American village, then we went hiking along the El Fuerte River, where egrets, tiger herons, and cormorants play. Lavender amapa blooms, and reddish-orange Mexican sunflowers blossomed beside the streets. With the springtime came hordes of bobos, practically microscopic winged insects. We wrongly dismissed these ravenous creatures. Envision insects the size of a gnat with the appetite of a piranha. Just remember to bring plenty, and I do mean plenty, of bug spray.

Atop the Vastness of the Copper Canyon in Mexico Sits Hotel Mirador

We were back on the train the following day, el Chepe began a dizzying six-hour climb as it forged into the mountains, often clinging to the canyon wall. It thundered through tunnels and rocketed across bridges high above the Urique Valley with its countless varieties of Encino trees and pines. We passed innumerable sotol cactus plants that are distilled into a liquor called stool, an artisanal mezcal and the official drink of Chihuahua. Finally, we arrived at Divisadero and settled into our fabulous accommodations at the Hotel Mirador.

So, just how big is this Barrancas del Cobre? According to our hiking guide, Alejandro Venadas Villalobos Ruiz, “No podemos calcular la distancia.” In other words, the ‘barrancas’ is so vast, much larger than a regular cañon (canyon), that it is impossible to estimate its actual size. At 25,000 square miles, enveloping almost one-third of the state of Chihuahua, Copper Canyon is quadruple the size of the Grand Canyon in Arizona’s backyard. It is chock full of mountains, waterfalls, woodlands, and caves. Even when the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental are blanketed in snow, the climate at the Barrancas del Cobre floor is semi-tropical. It is warm enough to sustain the Tarahumara Indians who live within its territory.

Mexico's Copper Canyon.

Overlook at Divisadero, sweeping across Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Meet the Tarahumara Indians of the Barrancas del Cobre

In the days of yore, the indigenous dwelled in caves—complete with kitchens, rooms for sleeping, and areas for grain storage. On our foray into the gorge, we passed by one of these grottos, and I spotted a local tribesman not far away. He wore a two-sided, diaper-like white loincloth that covered his genitalia and backside. Considered the original marathoners, these native peoples refer to themselves as Raramuri, “the ones that run,” and they do run. The uber-thin Huarache sandals that they invented simulate being barefoot. They are capable of sprinting for a hundred miles, and they can run down a deer, pursuing it until the animal collapses from exhaustion. Without a doubt, these are the authentic fitness gurus of the planet.

Caves of the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico's Copper Canyon.

Caves of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyon of Mexico. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Hitting the Trail in Copper Canyon of Mexico

The greenery of the barrancas surrounded us. Endless leaves blew in the breeze from the Encino trees. Red-branched manzanilla (chamomile) shrubs were blossoming and were vibrant with fluttering white or pink flowers. The fruit called manzanita, makes the birds drunk after consumption. The Sierra Tarahumara Mountains rise in the distance. After re-emerging from the trailhead, our group shambled past Tarahumara women selling brightly colored trinkets and baskets outside our hotel. They were clad in hand-sewn, calico-flounced skirts and blouses and of course, those famous Huaraches.

The Sierra Tarahumara Mountains.

The Sierra Tarahumara Mountains across Copper Canyon reflect the colors of the heavens. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Setting Out for Divisadero Adventure Park, Situated Overlooking Copper Canyon

The following morning I was out on my terrace at Hotel Mirador, sipping a glass of berry-colored jamaica (hibiscus) juice, wondering what time the three guys would crawl out of bed. I admired the gilded rays of sunrise bouncing off the adobe bricks. Streaks of light cascaded across the walls of the barrancas.

Hotel Mirador, as seen from the hiking trail along the ridge of Copper Canyon in Mexico.

Hotel Mirador, as seen from the hiking trail along the ridge of Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Vicki Lillo

After a pleasant breakfast of typical Mexican food, we set off toward the Divisadero Adventure Park. We planned to enjoy the tram, the via ferrata (obstacle course of rappelling, suspension bridges, and Tarzan swings), and the Ziprider. We purchased our tickets, arranged for a drone photo package to record our impending experience, and stood in the queue.

Sailing on the Ziprider a Mile High over the Mexican Barrancas

Within minutes the Ziprider tandem trolley was speeding along the cable run at full hilt. The adrenaline rush as I torpedoed out of the gate and the 60 mph wind gusts whipping through my hair made me feel akin to a cowboy on a bucking bronco, one who’s been catapulted out of the chute. I half-expect my earrings to hurl off into orbit, along with my earlobes.

As I leaned back and carefully re-adjust myself in the bright red seat harness, I was very careful as only a handful of tethers and locking carabiners secured me to the chair and the overhead line.  There was nothing but air between my dangling limbs and the forested terrain almost one-and-a-quarter miles down.

Ziprider in Mexico's Copper Canyon.

In the viewfinder of Nic’s GoPro, Vic sails on the Ziprider, across Copper Canyon. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Admiring the Splendor of the Copper Canyon in Northern Mexico

Mexico’s famed Barrancas del Cobre gorge is filled with hills of sepia and green, an oak-pine wilderness spackled with desert grasses that surge out of the earth. Let’s face it, if anything goes awry, I will be buzzard meat. You can do nothing at this point except hang on and enjoy the ride.

The conifer trees of the upper ridges, Mexican Douglas firs, gave way to brush and scrubby trees that struggle out of the crevices along the canyon walls. Their twisted trunks and brambles reminded me of Caribbean divi-divi trees as they flourished across the rocky slopes adjacent to patches of fluorescent lichen blooms.

Copper Canyon in Mexico.

Vic and Nic leave the safety of the Ziprider station, lurching across Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Surviving the Ziprider, the Longest Zipline in the World

After the initial terror dissipated, and I could chill out for the final sixty seconds or so of this two-and-a-half-minute jaunt, I could appreciate the grandeur and the magnitude of the cañon.  The temperate climate of the barrancas floor, with its cultivated landscape, mango, and papaya trees, was still beyond the scope of my vision. I could, however, make out the occasional tin-roofed houses of the Tarahumara Indians that are camouflaged amongst the deciduous encinos blancos (white oaks), and Andean alders. These indigenous nomads, to whom the Sierra Madre Occidental belongs, are free to make their homes throughout the valleys.

The Tarahumara Indians make their homes on the slopes of the Barrancas del Cobre.

The Tarahumara Indians make their homes on the slopes of the Barrancas del Cobre. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Having long since breezed by my son on the adjoining zip-line, I was acutely aware that, here at el Mirador (overlook) of Posada Barrancas, the 1.5-mile stretch of cable spanning the Continental Divide was rapidly approaching the end of its run. Stopped by a spring-dampening system, the trolley decreased speed at the approach. Upon impact, the coils rebound by hurtling my harness backward, daringly close to the ravine’s edge. It braked short of the edge by at least twenty feet. As I peel my derriere’s clenched cheeks out of the seat, my boy and his glider came screaming to a halt beside me.

Trekking to the Teleferico, the Aerial Tram that Climbs the Copper Canyon in Mexico 

The real challenge came the half-mile uphill trek back to the Mesa de Bacajipare viewpoint. This is where riders catch the teleférico, the Copper Canyon cable car. The Ziprider’s not for the faint-hearted or those afraid of heights. My husband was gracious enough to hang back with our son’s severely acrophobic buddy, who was almost too petrified to even get on the aerial tram with its floor-to-ceiling glass panes.

The Copper Canyon cable car.

The Copper Canyon cable car descends into the Barrancas del Cobre. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Soon we found ourselves heading back to the el Chepe train depot to clang along for an hour on our journey to the mountain resort town of Creel. We planned to do bird-watching at Lake Arareko and then head up to Chihuahua, at 8,000 feet. We were greeted by row upon row of apple trees.  Local communities of Mennonites cultivated these orchards.

El Chepe train.

Rambling on towards Creel on the el Chepe train. Photo by Vicki Lillo

Mexican ‘Comida Tipica’ (Typical Food) at the el Chepe Train Depot

Before getting into the passenger cars again, we decided to get something to curb our hunger. We wolfed down our fill of gorditas, stuffed tacos, at the rail terminal’s bustling lunch café. “Pasale, pasale,” the women beckon to the crowds swarming on and off the train. All the while, she stirred vats of chicken, beef, and BBQ, to eventually be slapped inside red, white, or blue tortillas.

The ladies at the train depot's 'La Cocina' prepare gorditas, stuffed with meats and potatoes.

The ladies at the train depot’s ‘La Cocina’ prepare gorditas, stuffed with meats and potatoes. Photo by Vicki Lillo

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Riding the el Chepe Train: A Journey through Mexico’s Copper Canyon