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Copper Canyon Train – “El Chepe”


We drove towards the town of El Fuerte expecting the train station to be “in” El Fuerte. Nope; turns out the station is 6km outside the city in a tiny pueblo called Hoyanco at the end of the paved road. The terminal itself is right after the end of the road and there are a few dirt streets where the residents live. We pulled up the station figuring we’d purchase our train tickets today and there were a few people around but no real ticket office and we were told to come back in the morning about a half hour before the train and that you purchase the tickets on board.  okay……

Fran had reached out on Facebook (via the Pan Am Association) and was told there used to be a place across the street that allowed people to park there for a small fee.  As we turned ourselves around to head back to Tigger, we saw a house across the street that had a sign saying “parking” and “trail park”. So over we went and an elderly woman was waiting for us at the gate and Doug worked out that we could indeed park there and sleep overnight tonight and the day we get back and she would allow us to plug into her house.

She charged us 100 pesos a night and the back yard where we parked had a locking gate as well as a horse and a few chickens!

Wednesday morning, we had brekkie and walked across the street to the train station. There were a few other tourists there including Mike & Barb from Thunder Bay whom we’d met the on ferry (they got off the train before us but we met them again the next day when they go to Creel), a young French woman and her father and a couple from Bellingham.

The train actually left ON TIME and we were on our way. This rail system took nearly 100 years to complete due to the huge elevation changes. It was opened in 1961 and travels over 900 km (nearly 600 miles) from Los Mochis to Ojinaga – east of Chihuahua (the map above does not show the eastern part of the route). The train we took was the first class one which was a little more expensive but had much fewer stops. It was only four cars long: the engine, two passenger cars and a dining car. The porter assigned us seats and later came to sell us a ticket. One way cost 2508 pesos for us both which is about $150.

DSC01170 our train ticket

As the first part of the journey from Los Mochis to El Fuerte is not too scenic, we had opted to take it from El Fuerte before the climb begins. There are 86 tunnels (the longest of which is 1818m/5966 feet) and 39 bridges (the longest of which is 499m/1637 feet) and the complete journey takes 14 hours. We travelled only from kilometre 839 at El Fuerte to Creel at kilometre 564; almost 7 hours on a train was enough for us.

FUN FACT: during our approximately 1500 miles on the Baja, we drove over countless bridges and “rivers”. We never once passed over a bridge on the highway that actually had water in it. Here on this train, we did pass over a few actual rivers!

This is a popular course of action as there are many things to see and do in Creel and nearby and it takes you through the station at Divisadero. This is the one stop where you can get off the train for about 15-20 minutes and go out to see the views into the canyonlands. The Copper Canyon is actually a canyon system comprised of seven canyons which when combined they say is deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon. The name Copper Canyon is from the green colour that resembles oxidized copper. We have read opposing articles about whether the Copper Canyon is now a Mexican national park or not. The view from Divisadero was spectacular even though the weather was not perfectly clear. This was the first day in a loooooong time that we had a lot of clouds although the sun still peeked out of large “sucker holes” a great deal. Considering how high we were getting, it was no wonder.

The altitude also meant the temperature was cooler. We were actually wearing layers and brought vests and long sleeves!

elevation chart in metres

On board this train we met a very nice young man named Daniel who is from Guadalajara and he works for a Canadian company there. He offered to show us around his city when we are there so we hope he keeps in touch.

We arrived in Creel around 3:30 and were at an elevation of nearly 2400m (7750 feet) and it was starting to drizzle a bit but didn’t last long. We did feel the ‘cold’ and had to turn the heat on in our hotel room. Through our hotel, we arranged a tour for the next morning and then went for a walk in town. During the train ride, we saw varied scenery including rock formations, rivers, a huge lake and changing vegetation.   El Chepe actually rises high enough that you find pine and cedar trees in Mexico. Who would’ve have thunk that!

Thursday morning after breakfast (btw the hotels here often include breakfast AND dinner), off we went with 7 others in a minivan to explore the area. There were two French couples who actually live in Mexico, a couple of teachers from Tijuana and a man from Switzerland along with us. The weather was cooler than we like but we were fine once it warmed up. It was partially sunny and very comfortable by midday.

The first stop was the rock formations at the valley of mushrooms and then the valley of frogs (a little lame but sorta cool). Close by to that was the mission of San Ignacio. This area around Creel is home to the Tahahumura peoples of Mexico and much of this tour included the culture and places of their ancestors.

Enroute to Cusarare waterfall, we stopped at yet another rock formation, elephant rock and then at Lake Arareko which was quite beautiful.  The highlight of the trip was the Cusarare waterfall by far. We went down a dirt road, across a river twice and then had to walk about a half a km along a trail to the lookout and falls. There was not a lot of water but it was still very nice.

DSC01195 Elephant Rock

Heading back to the hotel, the final stop was a Tahahumara cave home. There are still a good number of these native peoples living in caves and it reminded us of the cave dwellings we’d seen in China but not kept quite so neat! 🙂

We were back at the hotel around one and although we had considered an afternoon tour to the local hot springs, when we googled it, it was not in a natural setting as we’d hoped but a commercialized one we so we opted out and enjoyed the warmth of room, and some relaxing time and a walk around town before dinner.

Dinner here the first night was not great, breakfast was pretty good the first morning.  The second dinner was better but the second breakfast left a little to be desired.  The only beverage included was coffee or tea at each meal and a orange drink at breakfast which came pretty much once you were done eating.  The hotel had decent wifi and the water was hot for showers.

The teachers from Tijuana sat near us at dinner and chatted with them. They are retired and have houses in Tijuana, Mexicali and La Paz so maybe we’ll meet them again when we return to the Baja.  They too, had been on the train the day before but we had not really spoken to them.  They both speak excellent English and he helped translate for the driver on the tour that day.  The hotel had described their tours as having “excellent knowledgeable guides”, but our guy was really just a driver who didn’t speak much English.

It began to rain that night and was still raining in the morning (memories of our year in Renton, Washington 🙁 ). We had causally thought about staying another night a little ways down the rail line enroute back to El Fuerte in the hopes of enjoying more opportunities to see the canyon and hoped the weather would be good enough to do so, but it was raining pretty hard (left over from Hurricane Sandra we were told) so we opted to just go straight back to El Fuerte that day. The train left on time again from Creel around 11:30 am, but the weather had played havoc with the railway. We should have arrived back around 6:30pm but we stopped a few times for the tracks to be cleared of debris due to the rain. And at one point, just after dark, a rock fell from the mountainside and hit the window right beside Fran! Luckily, the windows are double paned and it only broke the outside one. A little freaky, that was. Also, we learned the train is not waterproof, as often water could drip (and pour) from the overhead ventilation system onto the aisle seats. It was especially bad after we had a long unplanned stop.

DSC01243 broken train window from falling rock

So instead of arriving at Tigger around 6:30, we got back around 9:30 in the rain of course!