It’s easy to get swept up in the awesome mountain scenery that reveals itself around every bend, but the fact that the Copper Canyon train. All aboard!
The Copper Canyon train by the numbers
It’s amazing that the Copper Canyon train exists at all. It consists of 408 miles (656 km) of track with 86 tunnels and 37 bridges (one spans a chasm at more than 1,000 feet/300 meters above the canyon floor). During one unbelievable eight mile (12 km) stretch the train make a series of three 180 degree turns (one of them over a bridge and two of them in tunnels) in order to change altitude by more than 1,000 feet (300 meters)–a mind-blowing rate for a train.
No wonder it took 100 years to build the Chihuahua Pacific Railroad (Ferrocoarril Chihuahua al Pacifico in Spanish) which everyone now calls El CHEPE.
El CHEPE runs between Chihuahua and Los Mochis through the Sierra Madre mountains and the Copper Canyon, which is really a series of canyons, not just one canyon, which creates a system that’s four times larger than the Grand Canyon. It stops at 13 stations along the way. We spent two weeks visiting dozens of places both on and off the rail line as we explored and investigated the area with Dave Hensleigh of Authentic Copper Canyon.
Onboard El CHEPE through the Copper Canyon
Two classes of travel are offered on El CHEPE trains: yellow Primero Express cars and the red Classe Economico cars. Honestly, the seats, windows, bathrooms, heating, cooling and luggage storage areas are pretty much the same in both classes. Primero, however, has a dining car and a bar car (economico travelers get just a limited snack bar) and staff members on Primero class trains tend to be more professional and accommodating–alerting passengers to particularly great vistas, for example.
A recent schedule change has also cut the number of Classe Economico trains that run each week from seven to three but when we were on the train this did not seem to have resulted in any overcrowding at all.
Whichever class of train you’re on the scenery steals the show as you travel up, down and around some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Rocky peaks and cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, tropical vegetation (at one point we expected to see monkeys frolicking in the jungly trees amidst the banana and papaya groves) and high desert all pass by your window as the train travels from 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) to sea level.
We also traveled past tiny villages inhabited by native Tarahumara–some perched on impossible steep and isolated slopes–and saw fields of sesame being farmed (a first).
It’s a beautiful landscape, but there are dangers too. A couple of weeks before we took the train a rock slide closed the tracks stranding passengers on a train for 17 hours. They (and El CHEPE staff) reportedly made the best of it with free meals and a kind of dormitory sleepover atmosphere until the tracks were cleared by work crews who constantly ride and monitor the rails.
More Copper Canyon train videos are available on our Trans-Americas Journey YouTube page.