All Aboard El Chepe, the Copper Canyon Train – Copper Canyon, Mexico

This post is part 2 of 9 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

Our two week exploration of the Copper Canyon with Dave Hensleigh of Authentic Copper Canyon started on board the Copper Canyon train, an engineering marvel that takes train travelers through one of the most dramatic landscapes in Mexico. 

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 most people affectionately call El Chepe.

All Aboard!

All aboard!

The Copper Canyon train runs between Chihuahua and Los Mochis through the Sierra Madre mountains and the Copper Canyon itself, which is really a series of canyons, not just one canyon, which creates a system that’s four times larger than the Grand Canyon. The Copper Canyon train stops at 13 stations along the way.

Onboard the Copper Canyon train

Two classes of travel are offered on the Copper Canyon train: yellow Primero Express cars and the red Clase 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.

The Copper Canyon from the CHEPE train.

The ever-changing Copper Canyon as seen from the El Chepe train.

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 among 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 indigenous Tarahumara people, some perched on impossible steep and isolated slopes.

The Copper Canyon from the CHEPE train.

Yes, that’s a boulder right by the tracks. Copper Canyon Train workers recently beefed up anti-rock slide efforts by adding chain netting and layers of cement over particularly at-risk hillsides.

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 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.

Accidents happen, but luckily usually to the freight trains.

Remnants of accidents, like this derailed freight car, are reminders of just how close to the edge this train is.

Local Tarahumara women and children sell baskets and other hand crafted souveniers on the San Rafael train station.

A Tarahumara woman selling baskets and other handicrafts at the San Rafael train station.

The Copper Canyon from the CHEPE train.

The dramatic Copper Canyon as seen from the El Chepe train.

Check out our Copper Canyon Train video, below.


Passing over the Temoris bridge.

Passing over the 266 foot (81 meter) long Temoris bridge.

The u-shaped temoris bridge where the train make a 180 degree turn.

Just past the U-shaped Temoris bridge the train enters a nearly half-mile long tunnel which allows it to make a 180 degree turn inside a mountain.

Wo says trains aren't romantix.

Who says train travel isn’t romantic anymore?

The Copper Canyon from the CHEPE train.

The jaw-dropping Copper Canyon as seen from the El Chepe train.

Passing over the Rio Fuerte on the CHEPE train.

Passing over the Rio Fuerte on a 1,638 foot (500 meter) long bridge, the longest on the Copper Canyon train line.

The Copper Canyon from the CHEPE train.

The Copper Canyon as seen from the El Chepe train.

Karen enjoying the view from the back of the Copper Canyon train.

Karen enjoying the view from the back of the Copper Canyon train.

More of our video from the Copper Canyon train, below.

By sunset the train leaves the Copper Canyon and the Sierra Madre mountains behind and heads to El Fuerte.

Sunset light washes over the Sierra Madre mountains as the Copper Canyon train heads to the town of El Fuerte.

Light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the 86 tunnels that had to be blasted through the Sierra Madre mountains when the Copper Canyon train was built.


The Copper Canyon from the CHEPE train.

The Copper Canyon as seen from the CHEPE train.


The CHEPE train passing through Areponopichi.

The El Chepe train passing through one of many level crossings, this one in the town of Areponápuchi.


Here’s more about travel in Mexico

Series Navigation:<< WAY Off the Train – Villages of the Copper Canyon, MexicoWorld’s Best Blue Corn Tortillas – Cusárare, Copper Canyon, Mexico >>

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