Riding El Chepe Through The Copper Canyon
Like a scene out of the old westerns, riding the El Chepe through the copper canyon is a blast to the past. Vast desert canyon valleys and indigenous Indians are all part of the adventure that is the Barrancas del Cobre.
The Copper Canyon
What Is The Copper Canyon?
The Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) is a large canyon system in the Sierra Madre Occidental which lies in northwestern Mexico. It is considerably larger as well as deeper than the Grand Canyon in the United States. It gets its name, not from the mineral but its copper-colored canyon walls.
Two Worlds Collide
The canyon has had a rough history. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the17th century, they were met by the Rarumai Indians (Tarahumara as they now like to be called). As history goes when two civilizations meet, the more advanced one usually takes over the others land. In this case for mining of silver and gold. The Tarahumara tried a few uprisings but to no avail. Many of the descendants still live in the canyon, riding the train in and out for work and basic supplies.
What Is El Chepe?
El Chepe, also known as the Ferrocarril Chihuahua-Pacífico, is a passenger train that runs 418 miles from the city of Chihuahua to Los Mochis and vice versa. It runs over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels. It is said to be the most scenic train ride on the continent.
Once the brainchild of Albert Kinsey Owen, the leader of a socialist colony in New Harmony Indiana. The prospect of the railway was granted by the Mexican president in 1880 to connect Mexico and the United States.
A man named Arthur Stilwell was the Project Engineer and was the one who took up the cause to actually build the railway. At the time it was called the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway (KCM&O), because believe it or not it started in my hometown of Wichita Kansas! It then ran down through Oklahoma and Texas. Although due to the difficulty of building a railway through a massive canyon in the late 19th century, it was not completed until 1961.
Read all about the KCM&O here!
Into The Canyon
It’s A Beautiful Ride
To ride on the El Chepe is to go back in time. A time when we worked the land to survive and horses were the primary modes of transportation. The train cars are full of modern conveniences like A/C and snack bars, but in between the cars is where the magic lies.
Warm, dry air lightly blended with smoke from the train’s engine rushed through as I cautiously leaned out from the guardrail. Quickly returning to safety every few minutes as a rogue branch or cow tail would brush against the cold rolled steel.
Tip: Stay on the right side of the train if headed towards Los Mochis and the left side towards Chihuahua.
There is quite a wait for the prime spot of hanging out of the train. The little kids will make you feel really guilty for using a place that they think should be theirs. You may have to wait awhile to get a perfect view, just be patient. If you are determined you will outlast the crazy guy with face and neck tattoos that smokes a whole pack of cigarettes before moving on.
Barreling towards the coast, I started to notice my clothes sticking to my body and my camera getting foggy. The climate had taken a massive leap from dry, desolate desert to wet and tropical forest. The leaves were getting larger, and vines now hung from the canyon walls. The dense humid air forced the almost translucent smoke from the engine to roll low and strong right into my face. It was great!
About three-quarters of the way through the trip, we entered a tunnel just like all of the other bazillion tunnels that we’d gone through already, or so I thought. I counted 4 minutes on my watch going about 60 mph. It seemed to go on forever.
As it turns out, we were buroughing our way out through what must have been a couple of miles of thick canyon wall. Once on the other side, the landscape opened up into some pretty sweet views.
The River Fuerte
The clouds were out in force the majority of the trip from Divisadero to Los Mochis. The Picture above was the last moment before the sun decided to show its face. Let me tell you; it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen! The sun giving light to the pyramid-like mountains out in the middle of flat land with three story high cactuses standing strong amongst the dense vegetation. I had to put my camera away. Sorry, you will just have to see it for yourself.
There are some things that I refuse to look at through a lens!
As the train pulled into the station in Los Mochis, after 9 hours of standing, my knees and back cracking with every step, I grabbed my gear and headed out in search of my next big adventure!
Words Of Advice
Riding on the El Chepe is not the most cost-effective way of traveling Mexico. It is, however, the only way to cross the copper canyon. There are ways around riding the entire 16 hours and paying the maximum price. I would recommend that you take a bus from the city of Chihuahua to Creel which costs 204 pesos. You can spend a few day mountain biking in Creel and save 400 pesos.
If you want to save even more time and money, you can take the bus from Creel to Divisadero for 50 pesos and have more time to check out the best views of the copper canyon. The train only allows for fifteen minutes. You will save about 600 pesos.
Caution! The train only runs certain directions on certain days of the week Make sure that your plans follow suit. You can check out the schedule and much more Here.
Does riding the El Chepe sound fun?
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