As long as we’ve been planning our trip to Mexico we’ve heard about Copper Canyon–“the Grand Canyon of Mexico” : deeper and 4 times larger than the U.S. Grand Canyon. The BIG decision was do we drive there or take the train? Bruce had never ridden on a train and the unpaved dirt and rock road from El Fuerte to Batopilas in the bottom of the canyon is long, slow, narrow, winding, with tall cliffs, and did we say narrow with very tall cliffs…? Ultimately, we decided to take the train which the locals call ‘El Chepe’. We chose wisely!
We bought our tickets for the Primera Express at the Los Mochis train station the day before our trip. We spent the night in a secure parking lot directly across the street from the El Fuerte train station and left Livingstone there for $100 pesos per day while we were gone.
The train has assigned seating, comfortable reclining seats, and clean bathrooms. First class passengers have access to the dining car as well. We were really surprised how much the area looked the pine forests of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, but there really weren’t any grand views of the canyon from the train. The trip from El Fuerte to Creel took about 6 hours of relaxing and watching the scenery go by. At the Divisadero stop all passengers can get off the train for 15 minutes to buy hot food from cooks with steaming hot stoves made out of 50 gallon barrels, or to go admire their first real views of the canyon.
Our first night was spent in Divisadero. As we kind of suspected from the trip there, Copper Canyon doesn’t resemble the Grand Canyon at all other than being deep and big. The rocks are shades of gray rather than rust. The canyon is deep and narrow so there are no grand vistas. But it’s spectacular in it’s own way. And if you’re brave they have the world’s longest zipline there, with speeds approaching 50-80 mph. (We weren’t brave and it was cold!)
Creel is a nice little town to take day trips out of. We rented a scooter from the 3 Amigos. They gave us a self-guided tour map and helmets, then off we went: Curare Falls, The Valley of the Monks, The Valley of the Frogs and Mushrooms, and a stark little mission church from the 1600’s. Colorfully dressed Tarahumara Indians were at all the sites, patiently handcrafting pine needle baskets and varieties of needlework that they shyly offered for sale.
The next day we took the “minibus” from Creel (a 15 passenger van with seat belts neatly tied up and out out the way) down to the absolutely beautiful old silver mining town of Batopilas in the canyon’s bottom. The 4 hour ride wound along the canyon walls from an elevation of 7500 feet down to 1800 feet. The return trip to Creel is at 5 a.m. every morning except Sunday. And when they say 5 a.m. they mean 5 a.m. We took off on the stroke of 5.
We decided to take the Clase Económica back to El Fuerte, having heard it’s half the price of Primera and basically the same cars. You just go up to the second class section of the train when it pulls into the station (it’s a different color from the primera cars at the front of the train) and they’ll assign your seats on the spot, then collect the money once you’re under way. We thought the second class train was actually a lot more fun than first class. Riders went up and down the isles selling all sorts of snacks and drinks and trinkets, giving it kind of a festive air.
We found that the Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico was incredibly helpful for planning our trip to the Copper Canyon, and we booked our rooms online via booking.com. The only detail they left out was that some of the older hotels in Creel use wood stoves in the hallway for heat. We got one. It was below freezing at night. We froze.