Copper Canyon is a huge natural gash in the earth in north central Mexico. There are actually 6 different sprawling canyons that come together on the west side of the continental divide. They form the Rio Fuerte and that river flows into the Pacific Ocean near Topolobampo. The feature stretches from northeastern Sinaloa state to the west central part of the state of Chihuahua in a roughly east-west direction. It could be loosely compared to the rugged Hells Canyon area of the Idaho/Oregon border or the magnificent Grand Canyon of Arizona. All three have their own claim to fame.
Hells Canyon is a very deep canyon on a single river, the Snake river. Jet boats and river rafting are the easiest and best ways to explore. The Grand Canyon, too, is a single river with very steep relief on either side. The terrain allows good visual overlooks and the Colorado river is good for rafting. But neither Hells Canyon or Grand Canyon have railroad tracks running through it’s depths.
As Mexico was trying to develop into modern nation in the late 1800’s it was decided that a railway line needed to connect central Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Mexican topography does not lend to any easy route, so the builders chose to lay a railroad through the only reasonable alternative. I guess you could call it reasonable. After a 100 year struggle, the final spike was pounded in 1961. Due to the extremely rough terrain and dangerous conditions, it is the only access to the canyon for all but the most determined people. Many backpackers have had extreme difficulties trying to explore the depths of Copper Canyon.
The link at the start of this blog entry gives a quick overview of history, culture and access. I will concentrate on what I know best, the railway and how to visit.
Of course a person can book a tour with many operators in the US. I find that expensive and unnecessary. Both times I’ve visited have been by RV. It is a long one day drive from Nogales to El Fuerte by car, two medium days with an RV. There are several motels in the area and two RV parks. Simply leave your car at the motel or RV park while you explore the canyon. Many accommodations have 24 hour security available at no extra charge. There are also pet sitters available if you have a critter with you.
Both trips I overnighted in Creel. There are many motels, an RV park
with cabins, and a hostel. That will allow you to sample the day trips available to visit local
scenic attractions. Most prices are reasonable, making this a great way to spend a 5 day trip. There are motels at most of the major stops in the canyon. I’ve wanted to visit some of these more outlying areas, but that will have to be a dream for a later trip.
The first trip actually was the reason for the second trip. I was unable to get many quality photographs due to events beyond my control on the first visit. So, armed with a digital camera, I returned. The following story and photos will be a loose combination of both trips. If I make another trip, I will be photographing with a high quality SLR camera. Novia has expressed great interest in a train ride, and I can think of no better place to go. Someday…
There are several good reasons for starting your journey from El Fuerte, rather than the true western starting point of Topolobampo. The train leaves from there quite early and the next stop at Los Mochis is still around 6:00am. Many people start from Los Mochis, and there are any number of motels that have good accommodations and a safe place to park your car. I like the rustic feel of El Fuerte and it has the look of a real Mexican pueblo. The train station reflects this…
Notice the wet parking lot. There was a bad rainstorm for my first trip in December of 2000. It was impossible to get quality pictures on the eastbound segment. I would peer out the doors between the cars and snap a shot, then duck back into the passenger car to dry out and warm up. This was a huge disappointment, but fortune changed on the return trip.
Passengers wait for the 1st class train. There are no hand rails, and only a painted line warning people to stand back. Clearly I’m photographing from the right-of-way. If you are stupid enough to get run over by a train, (in Mexico) you deserve to be flattened. The crowd caused me some consternation. When I boarded, I became alarmed. There were 5 nearly full cars of people headed into the canyon. That meant that a lot of people were going to be staying in motels somewhere. And I had no reservation. My plan was to get off the train in Creel and search around, hopefully getting a room at Casa Margarita or the KOA. Now I had to come up with a quick backup plan. After some thought, an idea occurred. The best alternate seemed to be catching the second class train from Creel to Chihuahua if there weren’t any rooms after searching through Creel. I would get there late and leave early. Perhaps I could spend the night in the station, or spend an extra day exploring the city of Chihuahua.
A passenger coach on the first class train. Comfortable and clean, this is quite luxurious. I’ve never been on the second class train, but I can see from the outside the busted windows, bench seats, and crowds of people. It looks like a colorful ride. If you are on a tight budget, go for it. Otherwise, I think the first class train is the way to go for the average tourist. It is ahead of the second class train on the time schedule by about an hour.
The first part of the ride is rather uneventful. There is one stop at Loreto, a station that serves the pueblo of Croix. The scenery follows along this line.
At 1,637 feet long, this is the longest bridge on the railroad. The bottom photo has two men with white shirts heading towards the river, I assume to go fishing. This bridge is at least 100 feet high, I cannot find an exact height by searching my books or looking on the internet.
There are many stops for the second class trains along the way.
This is the station of Los Pozos, the wells. We pulled over
here to let a freight train pass and it gave me an opportunity to
compose a nice shot of the waiting room. By our standards, the weather
is warm year round in this location. The Mexicans will often be bundled
up in heavy coats when the weather drops below 55 degrees.
The entire length of the trip through the canyon is extended lengths of single track with short sidings for passing trains. I pondered the possibilities of meeting another train head on. The Mexicans seem to have it worked out, though. We pulled over and waited several times and had no problems. I believe most of the freight trains travel at night. None of the trains seem very long, maybe 30 cars at the most with 2-3 engines. This makes sense to me. You’ll see later there is no way you want to get overloaded and have a runaway.
The couple in the first photo were from Culican, Sinaloa enjoying their honeymoon. The second photo is of a young lady that spent hours standing quietly watching the scenery as her husband darted from place to place shooting photos. Mentioning video, It occurred to me as I’m writing this paragraph that I need another trip to the canyon. Armed with my Hi-def camera, it would be spectacular for friends to see the sights rolling by on the big screen television. Photos are best shot from the vestibules between the cars. It was crowded on the 2008 trip, I had the place pretty much to myself on the 2000 trip.
We approach and pass through the station of Temoris in this and the next three photos. This area is a
magnet to railroad buffs, we had a whole car load that had made a
special trip from the US. What you are seeing here are the tracks
describing a giant "S" as the terrain steepens significantly upstream of this
location. Because of the engineering difficulties, this was the final
area to be completed. The first photo shows the commemorative marker at
the location of the final rail connection. And yes, that is a bridge
in upper left of that photo with a waterfall underneath.
Stopped at the station and looking upstream.
And a better view. The bridge directly over the white building is spanning the left falls. There is a short unnumbered tunnel, the commemorative marker, then another tunnel, number 48. The railroad passes underneath the right falls via tunnel number 48, which bores 623 feet through solid rock.
I have another spectacular and lucky shot from the return trip that shows what is truly going on. I had vowed to take as many pictures as possible before leaving El Fuerte. This involved experimenting with different ideas and one occurred to me 10 minutes before we arrived above Temoris. On a whim, I grabbed a companion and told him to follow me for what I though might be something special and I told him to have his camera ready. There is a brief open area between the two tunnels near the commemorative
marker and I wanted to be ready and waiting. I had no idea what the result might be.
As you approach from the east,
there is a series of 6 tunnels (43-48 if you want to get this picture and keeping count,
watch the tunnel entrances) cutting nearly a mile through solid rock in a 3 mile stretch.
This is your cue to be on the alert. Other passengers are unaware and get to
the vestibules too late. There is lots of time to prepare coming from the west, but there are also crowds taking in the view and in your way.
This was the result. 2 seconds to get this…
The tracks come up the left side of the canyon, turn and cross the river, then pass through Temoris station. The station is not visible from here as we are at the top of a steep cliff and the station sits directly below. I didn’t realize I had got the rusty engine of the commemorative until I had gotten home! The very bottom of the canyon on the right side is an automobile road. Next "road" up is the railway ascending the canyon while going downstream. The top "road" is the tracks returning upstream after completing a 180 degree turn while inside tunnel La Pera, the pear. What makes this shot special is that you can see both entrances and the elevation gain of the 3,074 foot tunnel that is shaped like a huge pear. I don’t believe there is another train based location to get this good of perspective. You would have to be on foot.
Perhaps you can appreciate from this angle why I consider the previous photo as one of the luckiest photos I have ever taken. A good SLR might give you 5 shots. I had a mediocre pocket cam good for one shot.
Above Temoris there is a noticeable climate change. There is a dry desert-like feel from El Fuerte to Temoris. Upstream seems cooler and indeed pine trees soon appear along the tracks.
San Rafael has a railroad work camp and and place for a crew change. There is always a fairly long stop here unless the train is running late. Which brings out the most common of Mexican flora, the street vendor. Here we have the old and the new.
The old lady with the new tennis shoes and younger lady with the old
shoes. Who did I buy my baskets from? Easy, the younger one. She had taken the time to look authentic. I appreciated that. But I’m a sucker for something like the next photo.
The little boy in the foreground was well trained. He held his baskets out and away from his body for 5 minutes without hardly moving. Most of the time his baskets were held above his head and he looked so cute. He must have had strong arms, so I had to buy a basket from them too. They all looked so somber. These are Tarahumara Indians. Most are dirt poor. These folks seemed pretty well off. They looked healthy and happy.
Next stop of note is El Divisadero and it’s famous overlook. There are the usual vendors here.
No pictures of the overlook in this blog. Why? On both eastbound trips, the photo opportunities sucked. In 2000, the weather was rainy and foggy with visibility at the overlook of about 1/4 miles. In 2008 I simply didn’t have the time. I got out, looked around, shopped a bit, and tried to have someone photograph me at the overlook. My camera was messed up and the photo didn’t turn out. The the train tooted. I lolly gagged and shot a few more pictures near the train. Suddenly it started to move and Yipe!, I had to jump on board as it started to pull away. But I’ll give you a peek…
Continuing on to Creel, there isn’t much to see other than mountainous terrain. But here is a highlight.
The 2000 picture shows part of one of the seats in the train. But these two pictures show opposite ends of a rare feature for railroads. The tracks come down a long ridge (going east to west) and the ridge suddenly gets steeper. What does the engineer do? He loops the tracks back around on themselves. Called El Lazo (the loop), this is one of only three such places on the north American continent where such a loop occurs.
Onward across the high mountain valleys to the logging/tourist town of Creel.
My adrenalin was running strong as I got off of the train both times. First trip everything was new. We had made reservations at the KOA camping cabins on the far end of town. Fortunately, all was well and we got our cabin lined out in a driving rainstorm. A guy picked us up in a van, and offered to give us a tour of the area the following day. We accepted.
I knew my way around in 2008, yet I had no reservations. The train was still crowded, but many people had left at El Divisdero or Posada Barrancas. I got off the train and walked into the station with crossed fingers. I was in luck, a man was shouting "Motel rooms available!" I immediately latched on to him and found out the Casa Margarita had rooms at $45 US available and a free breakfast the next morning. "I’ll take it" (whew!) with no thought of dickering. Looking through my bag I had realized that my coat was still in my trailer 100ds of miles away and I was freezing.
Casa Margarita lived up to all the billing I’ve ever heard about it. Clean, warm, comfortable bed, hot water, and TV if you understand Spanish. It was a bargain.
What more could you ask for?
I ventured to a nearby restaurant for dinner and immediately returned to my room afterward. An exhausting day had passed.
Next–Returning to El Fuerte
Tip–You saw it above, but I’ll expand a bit. Motel rooms. Out of the way places usually have a place to stay or a desperate person might be able to convince a local family to put them up for the night for a fee. But, be sure to check out the room before you take it. I did check the room at Margarita’s, as mentioned, it was fine. If you don’t have reservations, don’t panic. Unless the place is a tourist trap or there is a festival going on there are usually some sort of accommodations available.
On a trip to see the Monarch butterfly refuge in 2004, we looked for a room in Zitacuaro, Michoacan. The Hotel Villa Monarcha had rooms for $85 and the hot tub didn’t even work. Rooms were OK (not great) but the price seemed mighty steep for Mexico, so we continued searching around. Through downtown Zitacuaro and around the area. No motels. Finally on the downtown bypass we spotted the Hotel Valliodad (I think that was the spelling) and we pulled in. We looked at a room with a queen bed that was ideal, and the manager suggested the "suite" after sizing up our buying power. OK, we agreed to look the room over. It was spartan with little for decorations but…a comfortable king bed, hot water, clean as a whistle, TV (with the Hallmark channel in English subtitled Spanish), locked and gated parking for the pickup, all for the grand price of 250 pesos, about $23 US. It was the most expensive room by far but we grabbed it because…
What more could you ask for?
I had a friend book a fancy sounding resort motel near Cabo san Lucas against my better advice. I told him to book a cheap, clean place for a couple of nights and look around for something better if he wanted something better. He paid a lot in advance for two weeks ($50 a night I think) and took off…to…a big disappointment. Old and run down, the picture on the internet showed the only room that was decent. Sand blowing in under the door. Indifferent service. Lousy location. etc. etc. He couldn’t stand it so…after two nights he looked around. And found a place selling time shares and/or condos with slack business at the moment. They agreed to put him and his friend up without a membership because…they were trying to drum up business and hoped he would buy in or recommend their place to a friend and they would buy in. He kind of had the look about him that he might be looking for a place to buy (and he was). And he represented cash flow so…now he had US TV, huge swimming pool, great service, stunning view, laundry, great restaurant on the property, a luxurious brand new 4 room suite over the beach with all amenities for (get this!) around $60 a night for a two week stay. He was astonished. I was astonished.
What more could you ask for?
The other place refused to give him a refund. This is standard practice in Mexico. You buy it, it’s yours; like it or lump it. So my friend lost that money. A lesson to be learned here.