Copper Canyon – On the way up (west to east)

Copper canyon is located in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua. It was formed by the convergence of six different rivers that all join and form the Rio Fuerte. The canyons cover an area of 25,000 square miles and has a depth of 6100 feet. This makes it about 4 times the size of the Grand Canyon in the USA.

The El Chepe Train service covers the 406 miles between Los Mochis and Chihuahua. It crosses 37 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels. Construction was completed in 1961 after nearly 90 years. It takes you from sea level to the upper edges of Copper Canyon at 8000 feet. The main towns are El Fuerte, Posada Barrancas, Creel and Chihuahua City. Most of the towns are also serviced by at least one bus company and the larger ones have several bus services available.

The Route

This is how we, a group of 10, did the trip, we will try to provide helpful details for fellow cruisers interested about the “ins and outs” of a trip to this area, it can be a little confusing with the trains and schedules. In the interest of full disclosure we will note that we are not travel agents, have no interest in any of the businesses we mention and hey it was our first time so we really have no idea if we did it right but we had an awesome time the way we did it.  We did make use of this website and it provided great information the website now notes some changes to the schedule and prices effective January 2020.

We began our trip by sailing into Topolobampo and mooring at Marina Palmira. A nice clean marina all be it a bit shy on amenities. The restaurant was not open and the washrooms are quite a distance from the docks. The docks are nice, concrete with good cleats, water for boat washing and power is available at the slips. There is no pump out service or facility.  The water at the slip is not potable but there is a water supplier just across the street that will deliver.  We bought fifteen 19 L bottles for 240 pesos. Wifi is available only at the office but we had good cellular coverage and just used that for our data. The office looked after checking in and out with the Port Captain for us and the staff was friendly and very helpful. There was a locked gate and security at night, so we were comfortable leaving the boats there.

The channels approaching Topolobampo are well marked. You will end up sharing them with all manner of boats from small fishing boats to large commercial vessels. We never saw depths less than 15 feet on the way in or out.

We arrived a few days ahead of our planned meet up and departure day, so we had lots of time to look around. Topolobampo is not a touristy town, its a “blue collar” working Mexican town. There are a few tour operators along the Malecon but nothing like the more popular tourist spots. Cabs are available. Uber is not.

Our original plan was bus to El Fuerte and catch the train from there with tickets that we purchased in advance in Los Mochis. So, we hopped a bus (25 pesos each) and made the run to Los Mochis. The bus from Topo to Los Mochis dropped us off in the Centro Market area which gave us a chance to check it out as well as making the short walk to Home Depot and Walmart for some required items. Then we Ubered to the train station to inquire about purchasing our tickets.

Good thing we bused to Los Mochis before hand as it was at this time, we discovered that you can’t do what we had planned. This is now Friday afternoon and our planned departure was the following Tuesday morning. The ticket office was closing early that day, so they recommended we purchase them online. An email address was provided for us and a request was sent for the purchase of ten tickets from El Fuerte to Creel. To our surprise, even though it was 5:00 on a Friday afternoon, we got a prompt reply albeit in Spanish. A couple of emails back and forth, several attempts trying to pay online but finally a Visa card was accepted for payment. Thanks to Steve from Salish Dragon for spending the evening on the computer sorting this all out. Apparently purchasing the tickets at the beginning of the route but not getting on the train until a later stop was not going to work.  For our trip back we went to the train station in Chihuahua, purchased our tickets for departure the following day, with a stop in Pasada Barrancas for two days and had tickets for both legs of the trip, in hand in five minutes, much easier!  They accept cash or credit cards.

Email info for train tickets

Our reasoning for this endeavor was that the bus from Los Mochis to El Fuerte is cheaper and faster for that leg of the train ride and you see the same scenery.

There are 2 trains and 3 “classes” of tickets. One train is the “El Chepe Express” and it’s the first-class train. It runs west to east on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and then east to west on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. It does not run the entire distance to Chihuahua, it only goes as far as Creel.

The “El Chepe Regional” train runs west to east Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, and east to west on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and includes the “Tourist class” and “Economy class” cars. It runs all the way to Chihuahua. This was the train we went on.

With the Tourist class you can reserve your seat and you have access to the dining car. Meals are extra but are reasonably priced. In the Economy car you purchase your ticket the day of travel, seats are not reserved and thus you run the risk of it being sold out, and there is only a snack bar available. In all three cases you can buy for the leg or legs you want and get on and off if you want to stay and check out the towns along the way.

The original plan was to go Economy but with a group we thought it best to upgrade to Tourist and be able to reserve seats. As it turns out the chocolate cake in the dining car is worth the upgrade on its own. Get it with your lunch, its popular and sometimes sells out prior to the dinner service.

Our specific trip began with 4 of our group taking the bus from Topolobampo to El Fuerte. 4 of our group busing from Mazatlan to El Fuerte and 2 of the group catching a late-night taxi ride all the way from Mazatlan to El Fuerte. We walked a few blocks from the bus depot and checked into the Hotel El Fuerte. A hacienda style mansion, that was rustic but very comfortable and had a cool inner courtyard. Wifi is only in the lobby. We spent the balance of the day exploring El Fuerte including its river side walkway, the old fort/ museum, walking around town and choosing between several lunch and dinner spots. There’s even a small tourist “train”. You know the ones that are really just trailers being pulled by a tractor while loud disco music is being played. As long as the pictures have not gone viral, I’m denying my participation. Next Day at 08:19 we are on the train to Creel.

View form the for at El Fuerte
Hotel El Fuerte
Boarding the train for the start of the trip

This leg of the trip takes you up through the mountains, plateaus and river valleys to Creel. The route includes enough elevation change that its one of only a few train tracks worldwide that include a spiral section to achieve the necessary change. There is a short 15 minute stop in Divisdaro and its your first chance to see the magnificent Copper Canyon. There is the breathtaking view, locals selling their handicrafts and some food vendors available.

First look at the canyon

At an elevation of nearly 8000 feet Creel is very different from the Mexican beach locations we’re used to. Think COLD! Like frost on the ground in the morning cold. Like puffy parkas and toques kind of cold.

We arrived in Creel late in the afternoon where our hotel, the Cascada Inn has a shuttle bus waiting for us. A few blocks drive, and we were at the hotel. Older but comfortable. Lobby wifi only. We had been sitting for a long day so we took a quick walk around for a “look see” at the shops, town square. We also booked (through the front desk of the hotel) an organized tour of the surrounding area for the next morning, it was 500 pesos/per person.  We also ordered bagged lunches to take with us as there is no food available for purchase along the way.

After breakfast, the 10 of us boarded a van and enjoyed an escorted tour of the area including stops at:

A Tarahumara (indigenous people of the area) cave house. For thousands of years they have used the caves of the area, walled off the fronts to secure them from weather and predators and made them their homes. They are famous for their long- distance running capabilities.  It is believed that it was developed as a means for inter village communication, transportation and hunting centuries ago with men running up to two hundred miles over a two day period. Check out the book called “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall if you want to learn more about this tradition and these people. The Tarahumara name was given to them by the Spanish explorers, they prefer to be called by their ancestral name of Raramuri.

Cave home

A walk around part of Lake Arareko with its unique rock formations.

Lake Arareko

A walk to and around Cusarare Waterfall. Stunning cliff edge views and a lot of stairs down and back up, if you choose to go down to the base of the waterfall. Keep in mind you are at an elevation of 8000 feet, climbing the 240 stairs back up was a workout or maybe that’s just me.

We ended with a stop at San Ignacio Mission and the mushroom and frog rock formations in that area.

Frog Rock

All said it was a well spent 5 hours even though our guide spoke very little English, Sue’s Spanish helped out.

The afternoon was spent walking the town, checking out the stores and it warmed up enough during the day for an ice cream. In the evening, the group of us found one of the many restaurants and enjoyed a nice dinner, then it was a night of “the dice game” with our new favourite “ 43” liqueur.

The next morning, we all boarded a highway bus for Chihuahua. We will be taking the train back, so we wanted a quicker ride over a different route to Chihuahua on this leg. The first hour or so out of Creel, the highway twists and turns along through the mountains then exits out on to the high plain or mesa. The balance of the trip is through rolling plains, ranches and orchards with small towns along the way. Don’t be surprised if the bus stops along the side of the highway in the middle of no where to pick up or drop off riders.

Upon arrival at the bus depot in Chihuahua we took taxis to our hotel. Try and picture this. 10 people and their luggage crammed into 2 small cabs. That’s how they roll in Mexico. Upon arrival at Ibis Hotel we were explosively expelled from the cabs and into the hotel lobby. The Ibis is a modern building with all the modern conveniences you would expect except big rooms. They are small with compact bathrooms and showers but very comfortable. The hotel has good wifi in the rooms. It was in a central location and we walked or Ubered to everything we wanted to see.

After a quick check in and dumping of the luggage in the rooms it was off to explore Chihuahua. We walked to the Plaza Mariachi, the Cathedral, main square, where they were setting up all the Christmas decorations and the ice rink. Yup. It’s the second time we have found an ice rink set up in the middle of a Mexican town.

Open air ice rink in Mexico

The following day it was walking to the train station to purchase tickets, the Revolution Museum, the Casa Chihuahua Museum (our favourite one) and the pedestrian mall with all its shops and restaurants. We even took in a bit of the opera / light show that was projected on the Cathedral. Apologies to those that like opera, its not my thing, we left early. There was a lot happening that evening, on our walk back to the Hotel, we walked through big crowds enjoying a live concert and all the other holiday festivities set up around the plaza.

Check out part two, The way back for the rest of the story.

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