Rebecca, Mexico Specialist, discovers the magnificent Copper Canyon in the north of Mexico.
Landing in Los Mochis, in the northwest of the country, I was hit by a wave of humidity and then greeted by my cheerful local driver. We set off across the flat, arid Sinaloa countryside to the charming little outback town of El Fuerte.
On arrival at my hotel, the colonial Posada Hidalgo, the owner handed me a margarita (rude to refuse really) and I settled back in anticipation of this new adventure. I was here to catch ‘El Chepe’, the affectionate local term used for one of Mexico’s only trains. The famous beast winds its way 480 km (298 miles) from the city of Chihuahua through the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range and the system of giant gorges, known as the Copper Canyon, right down to the Pacific coast.
The canyon system itself was originally formed by the six rivers which flow from the western side of the Sierra Tarahumara all merging into the Rio Fuerte and emptying into the Sea of Cortez. It is actually deeper and more spectacular, in parts, than the Grand Canyon in the United States and its name originates from the unusual green coppery colouring of the canyon’s wall.
I was going to be making the train journey in various stages, stopping off at places of note and making the most of the dramatic, rugged landscape.
As I boarded the train with many excitable Mexicans I realised how proud the local people are of their train. After about an hour it became clear why making this journey is so worthwhile; the landscape gradually became verdant in colour as mountain peaks, clear tumbling rivers and deep valley gorges began to unfold. It was August, one of the best times of the year to witness the lush vegetation and sweeping views.
There were cheers when we headed over the first of 36 bridges and through the first of 86 tunnels, each one carved magnificently through the canyon walls. How they ever completed such a feat of engineering in such tough terrain is little short of a miracle and indeed it took over 60 years to build.
My first stop was at Bahuichivo, where I was staying at the Hotel El Mision in the nearby mission town of Cerocahui. This is a peaceful spot and I took the opportunity for a ‘caminata’ (stroll) to a beautiful waterfall before lunch.
The whole region makes for a fabulous place to travel in the Mexican summer with picture perfect weather. It was a clear blue sky day and there were some stunning viewpoints offering excellent photo opportunities, all within a short drive of the hotel, so I took full advantage and went out with the local guides to explore.
I had been warned that food in the Copper Canyon is not Mexico’s finest, due to the difficulty of accessing good produce, but I was pleasantly surprised when I returned for dinner that evening.
Meals at the hotel were simple but hearty and a very sociable affair with all the guests sitting together at wooden tables discussing the day’s events. The hotel also produces tasty wine from its own vineyard which everyone is encouraged to try.
The train ride between Bahuichivo and my next stop, Barrancas, provided the most awe-inspiring scenery of the journey. My hotel, the Posada Barrancas El Mirador, was set right on a cliff edge looking right over the canyon and I loved the view from my balcony down into the steep chasm below.
Beneath the hotel are caves inhabited by Tarahumara Indians, indigenous to the region. I learned from my guide that the actual population of Tarahumara people living throughout the Copper Canyon is unknown but is thought to range between 35,000 and 70,000.
The Tarahumara are renowned for their stamina and endurance, often running the equivalent of a marathon each day to catch deer, wild turkey and rabbit. Their hunting technique involves tracking wild animals over this mountainous terrain for long distances; the animals are obviously initially quicker than their human counterparts, but after miles of running, exhaustion eventually takes it toll and the Tarahumara get their prey.
Nowadays many of them are settled in houses and lead a slightly less strenuous existence. However, some still live on the rock face and it is therefore possible to witness this age-old community, practising their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in such a hostile environment.
Oteros & Creel
For the last leg of this route I left the train and continued, with my guide, by road to Chihuahua.
This is because much of the rest of the train journey would be in the dark and by driving I was able to stop at all the places of interest that took my fancy. The first 100 kilometres is a winding forest road with viewpoints looking back to the canyon at Oteros, then on to the town of Creel and nearby beautiful Lake Arareko, a two kilometres horseshoe shaped lake, surrounded by pine trees and home to a vast array of birdlife.
Arriving in Chihuahua just before nightfall we had plenty of time to try one of the city's typical dishes, ‘Machaca con huevo’, a delicious plate of meat, scrambled eggs and flour tortillas — washed down with a tequila of course. A truly fitting end to a wonderful journey through this less well travelled region of Mexico.
MexicoMexico is a fascinating land of contrasts; modern versus ancient, manic versus serene, rich versus poor. Diverse landscapes range from scorching deserts and immense canyons to lush rainforests and stunning beaches.View our Mexico holidays
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