Mexico's Copper Canyon (also known as Barranca del Cobre or Sierra Tarahumara) offers some of North America's most dramatic landscapes. Although often referred to as the Copper Canyon, it is actually a series of six massive gorges that cover some 25,000 square miles of northwestern Mexico. It is rugged territory where most roads remain unpaved and elevations range from 7,500 to 9,500 (with a few peaks reaching 12,000 feet).
In addition to the splendors of the landscape, a visit to the Copper Canyon offers a chance to see the Tarahumara Indians, who (more than many of Mexico's indigenous cultures) have been very successful in maintaining their centuries-old way of life. Many still live in caves deep in impassable canyons. The Tarahumara, who call themselves Ramámuri ("people who run"), retreated deep into the canyons several centuries ago to escape the Spanish onslaught of disease, slavery and violence. Because the territory was so rugged, and they were able to adapt to it so well, the Tarahumara have largely escaped assimilation into modern Mexico.
What was once ruggedly impassable territory, however, has become somewhat more accessible since 1961 with the completion of the Chihuahua-Pacifico railway that links Los Mochis (on the Pacific Coast in the Mexican state of Sinaloa) with the state and city of Chihuahua (in the central interior of Mexico's north). The railway is a remarkable feat of engineering. From sea level in Los Mochis, the train crosses 39 bridges and passes through 87 tunnels as it climbs to a maximum altitude of 8,056 feet (just east of Creel, near the Continental Divide), then descends into Chihuahua at 4,700 feet. For much of the 415 mile journey, especially between El Fuerte and Creel, the scenery is simply overwhelming. Deep canyons, rushing rivers, meadows of wildflowers and towering peaks greet the traveler around almost every curve in the tracks. From El Fuerte to Creel is the most spectacular segment of the trip and visitors should make sure they pass through this area during daylight hours (which when the days are short means starting the journey in Los Mochis (or El Fuerte) and traveling east toward Chihuahua).
The first-class train is truly world-class, with air conditioned cars, comfortable reclining seats, large picture windows and an excellent dining car. Plus, since its Mexico where insurance regulations do not control every aspect of life, travelers can stand in the space between the cars and have views (and photo opportunities) unobstructed by glass. (But please, if you decide to ride between cars, don't fall out and ruin it for future travelers.)
Those who simply ride the train through the Copper Canyon will miss much of the area's allure. While the landscapes visible from the train and the 20 minute stopover in El Divisadero are certainly magnificent, there is so much more. One could easily spend a week here, visiting local villages, hiking, horseback riding and more. Our schedule was not so leisurely, but we did manage a stopover of two nights in Creel (the approximate midpoint of the journey), plus an overnight trip deep into the canyon to visit the old mining town of Batopilas on the canyon floor. Creel itself is a gritty logging town and the main commercial center for nearby villages. Brightly dressed Tarahumara women share the main street with local men wearing cowboy hats, tourist agencies, small hotels and all sorts of shops. But the real reason to stop over in Creel is its easy access to the splendors of the surrounding countryside.
If time permits, an overnight trip to Batopilas is highly recommended. The small town on the canyon floor was once a booming mining town, beginning in the 1740s. Legend has it that the cobblestone streets were once paved with silver. Eventually the mines played out and Batopilas began to decline. Today the streets are hardly paved at all, but the town retains a rundown charm that reminds the visitor just how far away the modern world can be. Several miles outside of Batopilas, in an area where one would expect to find only more of the same rugged wilderness, stands the Jesuit mission church of San Miguel de Satevo, built around 1760, and sometimes referred today as the "lost cathedral." Along the way, we also met a group of young Tarahumara children.
After our stopover in Creel and Batopilas, we re-boarded the train and continued east toward the city of Chihuahua. After crossing the Continental Divide, the Chihuahua-Pacifico ("Chepe") train travels through flat open plains and farmland. During our visit in late October, the days were growing shorter and much of this part of the journey was in darkness. Late in the evening, we arrived in Chihuahua. We flew back to Mexico City early the next morning and thus had only a quick view of Chihuahua itself.
The Village of Batopilas: On the floor of the Copper Canyon sits the once-booming mining town of Batopilas. Reached after a 5-6 drive over unpaved and tortuous roads, Batopilas is typically 30 degrees warmer and seemingly a century removed from Creel. Batopilas thrived from the 1740s until the early 1900s when the mines finally gave out. In the late 19th century, an American (Alexander R. Shepherd) arrived and built bridges, aqueducts and even a hydroelectric plant that aided both his mining operations and the town. Strangely, Batopilas, which has no telephone even to this day, was the second place in Mexico to receive electric power. Batopilas today is a dusty and rundown, but still charming, ghost of its former boom years. Once-grand houses have fallen into disrepair. But it was most definitely a worthwhile side trip to visit this town from another era, to see the spectacular surrounding landscapes and to "discover" the nearby "lost cathedral" – the Jesuit mission church of San Miguel de Satevo. (20 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
The Town of Creel: The town of Creel, at an elevation of 7,650 feet, sits on the higher reaches of the Copper Canyon and serves as a point of departure for many excursions into the surrounding areas. It is both a stopover for tourists visiting the Copper Canyon and the largest commercial center for the surrounding villages and logging operations. (7 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]