Adventure by Rail in Mexico’s Copper Canyon

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Sunrise over Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Sunrise over Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

The beat of a goat-skinned drum that sounded like a distant throb awakened me with its magic. Musicians from the local Tarahumara clan signaled the start of another day for families living in caves throughout Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

During the night, my ever-present insomnia slipped away while the only thing piercing the darkness was the silence of a shooting star.  I stumbled from the hand-hewn pine bed laden with two comfy, woolen blankets and felt drawn toward the open balcony door.

Incredible views of Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Incredible views of Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Crisp air filtered inside when I stepped onto the terrace. I couldn’t describe what unfolded before my eyes, as the image burned into the recess of my mind. Words would have shattered the sanctity and miracle of sunrise over Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

Chihuahua – Pacific Railroad (CHEPE)

Ten years ago, we had marveled at the magnificent vistas on the north-south train route from Chihuahua, Mexico, which lies across the border from El Paso, Texas to the train’s mid-point, Creel, aboard the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad. Enthralled by this vast stretch of wonderment, four times the size of the Grand Canyon, we returned for a different look. This time, we boarded the train in El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Mexico, and disembarked at Posada Barrancas located deep inside the Copper Canyon.

The Chihuahua Estacion-Pacifico Estacion coming into the station. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The Chihuahua Estacion-Pacifico Estacion coming into the station. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Balderrama Hotels and Tours

We booked the entire independent trip through Balderrama Hotels and Tours, which owns and operates a series of resting places along the train route. This well-oiled machine emerged as the most efficient operation I have ever experienced in traveling throughout 50 countries. Flying from Guadalajara to Los Mochis located on the Gulf of California, we left without one document, train ticket, hotel or transfer voucher – nothing.

Everything would be available when we arrived, we were told. We didn’t even have a phone number to call if our unidentified pick-up failed to materialize. We live in Mexico. What could go wrong, right?

Mountain lakes reflected towering cliffs in the Copper Canyon. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Mountain lakes reflected towering cliffs in the Copper Canyon. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

Copper Canyon Adventure

With a blind eye and a faith-filled heart, we set off on our Copper Canyon adventure. Within five minutes of arriving at sleepy Los Mochis Airport, including three minutes to collect our bags, Lupita from Balderrama Hotels spotted us. She asked if I was Bowman Carol.

I surmised by the way it flowed off her lips with such confidence, that this was going to be my name throughout the trip. I didn’t feel the need to correct her. Lupita directed us to a waiting taxi, handed the driver a voucher and he whisked us away. Where we were going remained a mystery.

Outside the Balderrama Santa Anita Hotel in Los Mochis, tour manager, Jerry, spied our taxi and sprinted from the hotel lobby to greet us.

“Are you Bowman Carol?” he asked, handing me our packet of travel documents, train tickets, hotel vouchers, etc., before I could even nod. Our bags mysteriously found their way onto a luxury 40-passenger, empty bus, onto which they also ushered us for a private one-hour drive to the hot, steamy, colonial city of El Fuerte.

Chihuahua Estacion-Pacifico Estacion

Here we spent one night at another Balderrama hotel, Posada del Hidalgo, to rest up for our morning train departure on the CHEPE (Chihuahua Estacion-Pacifico Estacion) into the Copper Canyon.

The hotel staff knew the process of fast check-in down pat. They whisked us to the front desk, handed us icy cold margaritas, and asked, “Are you Bowman Carol?”

They snapped the hotel voucher from my document packet and handed two keys to me without so much as a signature. Normally I wouldn’t drone on about a tour agency, but we were in Mexico, land of mañana mentality. I felt whiplashed from this unusual efficiency.

The Balderrama Corporation, which owns and operates hotels throughout Copper Canyon, reserves all accommodations, and coordinates transportation with the train schedule, which made this the easiest, most seamless travel ever. We headed off into the canyon, carefree and ready for adventure.

Emerging from tunnel darkness time and again, we plunged deeper into the canyon. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
Emerging from tunnel darkness time and again, we plunged deeper into the canyon. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

The first-class train hadn’t changed since our last venture, with comfortable reclining seats, adequate overhead luggage storage, dining and bar sections. The open-air platforms between the cars provided an electrifying place to hang out while the train click-clacked back and forth.

The hot steam from the engine blew in my face and I could feel the uneven texture of the rock as I brushed my hand against the walls when the train entered pitch black tunnels. Elevations rose quickly, as we had climbed from sea level to 3080 feet at Temoris within two hours.

The landscapes changed from parched, dry plains to verdant ponderosa and apache pines. Since most of the route’s 86 tunnels and 37 bridges occur from El Fuerte to Creel, this route has earned the distinction of the most exciting train ride in the Western Hemisphere.

Emerging from tunnel blackness repeatedly, we plunged deeper into Copper Canyon. The vistas going from west to east far exceeded those in the other direction. Mountain lakes reflected towering cliffs and the word “wilderness” took on life. The train switched back and forth toward the summit at 8000 feet.

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