The Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) is a system of canyons in northwestern Mexico. The canyons are huge; they are considerably deeper and cover a larger area than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The region’s indigenous inhabitants are the Rarámuri or Tarahumara who are known for their ability to be able to run for hours on end. Many communities live in very remote areas, having few contact with modern life and maintaining their traditional lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the canyon’s ecosystem is threatened by logging (the wood of some trees yield high prices on the market), erosion due to logging, damming of the rivers, and the government spraying herbicides to halt cultivation of opium poppies and cannabis.
Riding the Chepe
Mexico’s only passenger railway, the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico or short Chepe, links the city of Chihuahua with Los Mochis, passing through, along, and over the Copper Canyon. Construction of the railway began at the end of the 19th century but it wasn’t completed until 1961. The train passes 37 bridges, 86 tunnels, and runs 673 kilometers, for which it need almost 16 hours. It’s probably the slowest train I’ve ever been on.
First class trains depart every day, second class only three times a week (it’s true, I didn’t mix this up). From what we’ve heard, first class isn’t much better than second class, it only costs double. Second class is still overpriced and to be honest, we expected much more from the train ride. The scenery is beautiful, for sure, but it’s not like you couldn’t stop looking out of the window.
At this time of the year, there’s not much tourism in the north of Mexico (but it’s a great time to be here!) so there were only few tourists on the train. Since it was a Sunday however, a lot of locals returned home from the city. Women in brightly colored skirts and headscarfs, men with cowboy hats carrying big bags of potatoes and young guys with radios/CD players playing Mexican ranchera music.
We didn’t take the train all the way to Chihuahua but stayed a few days in the mountain village of Creel. At this time of the year the nights are very chilly and we appreciated the (dangerous) heater in the room. Which was also very handy to warm tortillas. The landscape around Creel is fantastic. There are fields, small houses, grazing horses and cows, pine trees, cliffs, and interesting rock formations. It’s best to explore the region by yourself – on horseback or by bike – and most attractions are close to town.
We rented mountainbikes and although the maps they gave us looked a bit mysterious, we found everything easily. Riding bikes on unpaved roads at 2300 masl is pretty exhausting (when you’re not used to it) but the landscape was worth the effort. There are areas with strange and funny rock formations, like the “valley of the erect penises”, as the Tarahumara call it – chastely named “valley of the monks” in Spanish. Interesting change of name, really. There’s also a lake, where it’s possible to rent rowboats in high season, and, a “bit” further away, an amazing viewpoint.
Roughly 65 km from Creel is Divisadero, the joining of three canyons. The train stops there for 20 minutes but this is not nearly enough to go to the viewpoint, take in the astonishing vistas, and eat some delicious gorditas. That’s stuffed corn tortillas (the blue corn ones are the best), freshly made at the various food stalls and infinitely better than the train’s snack bar which doesn’t offer much for the foodie’s taste buds. Therefore, on our last day in Creel, we took the bus to Divisadero and had a lot of time to enjoy the views and walk the trail along the rim of the canyon. It’s definitely one the best places to really enjoy the views of the incredible canyon scenery.