Beyond the Mayan ruins... The Copper Canyon

| November 25, 2011

Nick Wilkins, Latin America expert, recently returned from a fascinating trip to Mexico where he discovered that there is a lot more to the country than first meets the eye.

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Think of Mexico and perhaps the first things that come to mind are the huge metropolis of Mexico City, Aztec and Mayan ruins and the white beaches of the Mayan Riviera. The country has many more attractions however. The north is generally much less-visited than the south, but in May I travelled there to one of Mexico’s lesser known gems - the Copper Canyon.

The Copper Canyon is the common name given to a series of canyons in the Sierra Madre mountains, in the northern state of Chihuahua. In overall size, it is four times bigger and in places much deeper than the Grand Canyon. The best way to experience this stunning landscape is to take the Chihuahua-Pacifico railway, known as the Chepe train. The train runs every day from the town of Los Mochis on the Gulf of California to the city of Chihuahua or vice versa.

Having flown into Los Mochis, I travelled by road to the charming town of El Fuerte. The sleepy town centre is filled with colourful colonial buildings and my hotel, Posada del Hidalgo, was reputedly the home of Don Diego de la Vega, better known as Zorro. Fact or fiction, the town, on the banks of the El Fuerte River, is pleasant to walk around and an ideal place to start your Copper Canyon journey.

The rail journey itself is part of the attraction of the area. One of the great rail journeys of the world, the train is functional, but comfortable and even has a dining carriage. The railway travels 653 kilometers over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels as it winds it’s way through the countryside. The landscape is flat from Los Mochis until past El Fuerte, but gradually you begin to climb up and through the hills, the train winding through ever narrowing valleys and gorges. The higher we climbed the more beautiful the landscape became, the arid lowlands being replaced by forested hills.

I left the train at Bahuichivo, from here I took a dusty 12-mile drive to the small village of Cerocahui. I spent the afternoon taking a lovely hike through the surrounding countryside up to the Valley of the Lion, which gave great views over the area. During the summer rainy season you can also make hikes to some of Cerocahui’s nearby waterfalls.

The next morning I was taken by road to the Cerro de Gallego lookout, which gives spectacular views into the deepest of the canyons, the Urique. In places the canyon is over 6000 feet deep. The early morning mist had not totally burnt off when I got there, but the sheer, vast scale of this canyon was obvious.

Back on the train and still climbing, my next stop, an hour further up the line was at Posada Barrancas.  This was definitely the highlight of the whole trip for me as it is here that three canyons in the system all intersect.  My hotel, the Posada Barrancas Mirador clings to the side of the canyon at 7500 ft up.  The views from all parts of the hotel into the canyon were simply stunning.  I could not get enough of just sitting on my balcony and looking out at the sweeping vista below me.  It is a sight and a place that I will never forget.

The Copper Canyon is home to the indigenous Tarahumara people and a walk around the canyon rim lets you see how they live their lives in this amazing environment.  The walking is pleasant through the pine trees and every few minutes brings yet another unforgetable view.

The next morning, the sunrise slowly lit up the canyon in a brilliant orange glow.  I spent the morning exploring further afield, taking the new cable car into the heart of the canyon.  It is a sight to behold in itself, a single cable stretching 3000m away into the distance.  For the intrepid hiker there is also the challenge of walking back up to the hotel or vice versa.

In the afternoon, I reluctantly boarded the train once more as we continued onwards, dropping down out of the mountains to reach the town of Creel.  By now you are out of the canyon country but the countryside around the town still makes Creel a nice stopover on the way to Chihuahua.  The area has many strange rock formations such as the Valley of the Mushrooms and  the Valley of the Frogs as well as the pretty Lake Arareco, surrounded by pine trees. One of the country’s highest waterfalls can also be reached from Creel.

The train continues on from Creel to Chihuahua and whilst purists may want to complete the whole journey by train the scenery quickly flattens out as you continue into the flat lands and it is quicker to go by road as I did.

The Copper Canyon was simply one of the most unforgettable travel experiences I have had and a place I was yearning to return to as soon as I had left.

Cox & Kings offers luxury tours to Mexico.


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