As cruisers are wont to do, we changed our minds at the last minute and instead of heading directly to Mazatlan we detoured to Topolobampo to visit Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon region, one of the world’s most scenic railways. Topolobampo is 200 miles north of Mazatlan on the mainland, and only 15 miles from the southern terminus of the Ferrocarril Chihuahua-Pacifico (Chihuahua – Pacific Railroad) in Los Mochis. Affectionately known as “El Chepe”, the train begins in the Sinaloan coastal lowlands, where it winds through farmland before beginning its ascent into the mountains of Chihuahua. Along the route the train passes over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels while climbing from sea level to an elevation of about 8,000 ft. With a construction time of over 50 years, this represents Mexico’s greatest engineering achievement.
Our trip began with a 5 am taxi ride from Marina Palmira in Topolobampo to the train station in Los Mochis. We arrived at the station with 15 minutes to spare. The taxi driver wanted US dollars, we had none, but fortunately John (John and Diane from Konami traveled with us) had some and was able to pay the taxi. We were a bit worried as the station accepted only pesos for tickets which pretty much cleaned us all out, leaving us with the equivalent of about $10 in pesos. Tickets are expensive by Mexican standards, with first-class tickets costing about $100 per person one way. Hoping there was an ATM at our destination, we hopped on the train.
Passing by fields of corn and beans, you could have imagined you were in North Plains, OR, but for the palm trees and cacti. After the town of El Fuerte, the train crosses its first and longest bridge over the Rio Fuerte before starting up into the hills.
The train continues through the foothills long the largest reservoir in Sinaloa. Being dry season, the reservoir is relatively low.
The train hugs the side of deepening canyons, and climbs into sub-tropical forest with papaya, guava, and all types of tropical hardwood trees. Strangler figs cling from impossible perches as the train passes through tunnels bored into sheer rock faces.
The scenery is spectacular, and photos do not do it justice. The train itself is clean and comfortable. There is a dining car that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you can have a T-bone steak and bourbon and coke if you so desire! Each first-class car comes equipped with an automatic weapon-toting guard. We did not see any other Americans on the train. We met several German groups, a couple from Brazil, and mostly affluent Mexican families.
As the train continues to climb, you pass out of subtropical forest and into an alpine landscape with pine forests dotted with oak, madrone and rhododendron. This is the home the Tarahumara, indigenous people who live in caves and small houses throughout the region. Most recognizable are the women who wear colorful skirts and sell beautiful hand-woven baskets.
One of the highlights of the trip is the stop at Divisidero, where you get your only glimpse of the actual Copper Canyon, and have a chance to grab some local food cooked up in makeshift oil-drum stoves.
We got off the train in the town of Creel, which is the main tourism center for the Copper Canyon. The elevation here is about 7,700 ft above sea level, and boy was it cold! Strangely, it reminded me a lot of Leavenworth, WA. We had previously booked our hotel on Expedia, and were delighted with our choice. The Hotel Plaza Mexicana Margarita’s was everything we were looking for – quaint and charming, with breakfast and dinner included in the room price (about $50 USD).
And happy days, there was an ATM in town which spit out pesos allowing us to purchase our return tickets! We wandered the town where I purchased a beautiful scarf/wrap from a Tarahumara woman weaving in the plaza -also scored a nice little basket woven from pine needles.
We returned the next day, with no further adventure other than having our taxi stopped late at night by a roadblock of heavily-armed individuals just outside of Topolobampo. Apparently they weren’t looking for a carload of old gringos and we were allowed to go on our way.