In a Canyon, a Different Mexico

In a Canyon, a Different Mexico
By Beth Greenfield

The view from a cozy car on the Copper Canyon Railroad in Mexico is dazzling: mossy, emerald hills and slate-blue lakes slowly give way to red canyon walls that rise below and above the train tracks to dizzying depths and heights. Go stand between cars, where you can lean out of an open-windowed vestibule, and the experience gets even better — sweet mountain winds rushing over your face like water, the air warm and cool, fresh and dusty all at once.

But to step off the train, toward a journey deep into the wilds of canyon country, is to have the very best Copper Canyon adventure of all.
Copper Canyon — the Barranca del Cobre — is in northwestern Mexico, in the part of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range that lies within the state of Chihuahua. It is actually a series of canyons. The 400 miles of train tracks that follow the canyon, sometimes hugging the mountainsides, sometimes descending into deep ravines or crossing over them, was completed in 1961 and represents a marvelous engineering feat, with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels. In the last several years, ridership has boomed on the theme-park-like journey aboard the Copper Canyon Railroad, formally known as Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico and commonly called Chepe.
Most riders, many of them foreign tourists, stay on the train for a full day. They ride the most scenic stretch from El Fuerte to Creel, which takes about 12 hours, and many hop off the train for only the 15-minute stop in Divisadero Barrancas, where they can buy hand-woven baskets and freshly grilled gorditas from the colorfully clad Tarahumara Indians, or walk right up to the Urique canyon’s edge to snap photos of its rolling, vertigo-inducing expanse. Some disembark for an overnight excursion along the way, usually a margarita-fueled rest at one of the few hotels on the route.
For someone starting at the eastern end, the good views begin at Creel, but Chihuahua, the state’s bustling, manageable capital and home to an international airport, is a more convenient place to board the train.
 
It is well worth tearing yourself away from the room, though, to explore either by hiking up or down into the canyon, or by mounting a horse or burro with one of the local guides he hotel mirador provides.
 
We began by heading through the dusty town, past cement shacks and small houses, and then rode into the rocky, shady countryside, our mounts expertly scaling the rim of the canyon. Deciduous trees changed to twig like sprouts as we ascended over lichen-covered boulders and along mossy dirt trails, and the air, which had been moist and cool under cover of trees, turned arid and hot after a half-hour climb.
 
Morning is a great time to set off on the hike, which is simple and nearly flat. A well-marked path leads through a fragrant pine forest and along a rocky, grassy riverbed to the 100-foot-high cascade.
 
One of the most exciting Copper Canyon adventures is journeying down into its lowest depths to one of two former mining villages — either Urique, accessible from the Bahuichivo train station, starting at the Mision hotel , part of the Balderrama chain of hotels or Batopilas, accessible from Creel and the highlight of any Copper Canyon visit.
 
There are intriguing hikes into the surrounding land — to the mysteriously remote Lost Cathedral at Satevó, for example in Batopilas, or through abandoned silver mines and around the bougainvillea-shrouded ruins of the property once owned by Alexander Shepherd, a former mayor of Washington D.C. , who modernized mining in this area in the late 1800’s. But soaking up the slow-paced culture — your reward for leaving the train and embarking upon the slightly harrowing trip down — may seem more appealing.