Here is a slightly out of order narrative of our Copper Canyon trip with some scattered advice. And, yes, it has a well-deserved place on the 1000 Places list!
We got on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico train in Cuauhtémoc and took it through the canyon for 11 hours to El Fuerte. A couple of notes… you can not buy tickets at the Cuauhtémoc train station (at least not when we were there) so you have to either get on in Chihuahua (or Los Mochis on the west) or risk that you won’t get a seat. There was plenty of room on the train but, during the busy season there might not be. We paid on the train and the conductor “forgot” to bring us change but my Spanish-speaking hubby tracked him down and got it. Tickets are not cheap. It cost us about $200 US to go from Cuauhtémoc to El Fuerte and $130 US from El Fuerte to Creel. When going East sit on the Right side of the train. When going West sit on the Left side of the train for the best views.
The El Fuerte train station is about a mile outside of town so we got in a taxi with two other tourists. We arrived after dark. It was a little nerve-wracking because as we were driving past a corn field some guy stepped out of a corn field and tried to flag down our taxi. I could tell the taxi driver was nervous as he swerved and sped around him. That put both of us on edge right away. In El Fuerte, we spent the night in a 200-year-old hacienda called Posada Don Porfirio, which cost about $400 pesos ($38 US). The room was nice with a private bathroom and very high ceilings – about 14 feet – giving it an open feeling. We arrived late at night so felt a little uneasy about the group of men huddled in the courtyard but when we awoke the next morning and the owner gave us a tour of the beautiful gardens, we realized it was just nerves. (We asked some of the passengers on our train where they stayed and they recommended Hotel La Choza, El Fuerte and the Rio Vista Lodge. We had called some of these places and they were full… probably booked up by these tour groups. The Posada San Francisco looked nice on the outside when we drove by.)
Overall the train ride was very, very scenic. We met lots of really nice people. Mainly Americans in their 60s and 70s on tour groups. The train went through a lot of very little towns and farm fields at the beginning, as we worked our way west. There are lots of apple orchards around Cuauhtémoc but most have black fences that unroll over the tree tops to prevent them from being scorched by the sun. We saw barely any clouds the entire time. The first stop of the train where a lot of people get on is a small town called Creel. It turns out we could have driven there if we wanted to because the road has asphalt the entire way. That is the town where a lot of backpackers get off and it is possible to hire guides and go on treks in the canyon. We read that you should never go hiking without a guide because the mountains are actively used for drug smuggling. If you are adventurous, take a small bus down 4500 feet to Batopilas, a little mining town at the bottom of the canyon on the river. There are quite a few hostel-type hotels and all the “young” people seemed to congregate here.
The second day, on our way back through the canyon, we did get off in Creel and went into the canyon to a hotel called the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge in Cusásare for about $185 US a night. It is a fairly nauseating, twisty, 30 minute van ride to the lodge. If you get easily car sick, beware! The lodge had no electricity and was lit by kerosene lamps and heated by a little wood stove which was definitely not powerful enough. Luckily, the bed had about 10 blankets. It was charming in a rustic sort of way. The only downside was the lamps put off a very, very strong gas odor that made me want to open the
window despite the frigid temperature. All our meals were included (because you are in the middle of nowhere and have no other food option). Since the train was late, we did not get down in the canyon until about 6 and 6:30 was “margarita time.” There was a group of mountain biker guys who had gotten some local moonshine from down in the canyon that they shared with us. They were super friendly and fun to chat with. Needless to say, a little moonshine and a few margaritas later I had my head in the toilet for about three hours. We were at about 7000 feet and I guess I miscalculated the elevation in relation to the effect of alcohol. Although Mex had almost as much
as me and felt nothing so it may have been the beef I ate that he skipped. It was very sad because that meant I felt like crap the next morning when we had a chance to hike to the nearby waterfall. My husband was very wonderful and not upset at all. He did have fun trying out some of the bikers multi-thousand dollar bikes. In the morning, there were a handful of Tarahumara Indian women sitting on the steps right outside our door selling their baskets but they were not pushy at all. We got back up to Creel about 2 pm and ended up taking the bus back to Cuauhtémoc because it left earlier than the train (and cost less).
A couple more notes… In Divisadero, the train stops for 15 minutes. Jump off and go down the street/stairs in between the vendor stalls to get to the edge of the canyon. Do NOT go up the stairs if you want to get to the edge of the canyon. You will get a not-so-great view for a picture and waste valuable minutes backtracking to get to the edge. There is a hotel right on the edge (literally) where I would love to spend the night if we ever go again. We grabbed some food from one of the vendors. I had tacos and Mex had chiles rellenos. It was so very good! They cook it on this oil drum stoves and it is hot and yummy (with just the right amount of savory grease). You have to chew your food quickly though because you can’t bring it on the train. Neither one of us got sick from this but who knows. It could have been the start of why my stomach has been a little off since the train ride. There were also many, many Tarahumara indian women selling beautiful baskets. They were not too pushy and none of them just begged for money. They were always offering baskets which truly are beautiful. We bought a hand-made tortilla basket for Mex’s sisters and wish we could have found more of them.
I think the train goes over 80 some bridges and almost 40 tunnels. It really is an amazing train ride. The first class train is very nice with a lot of room and there is the spot in between cars where you can take pictures through open windows (although you have to fight for a spot at the best parts). There are many tour packages that leave from the US or you can fly in to Chihuahua City and leave from there. We would definitely recommend it and advise stopping in the canyon at least one day. Early March was a nice time to go weather-wise although the scenery was pretty dry. They say the summer is really, really hot in the canyon. Another time that is supposed to be nice is in October or November because it is after the rainy season and there is a little more greenery and wild flowers.
Some notes on scenery spotting. If you are looking at a guide-book like Lonely Planet with a map, the area between Cuauhtémoc and Creel is mostly farm fields and little towns. South of Creel about an hour the scenery starts changing to pine trees. In Divisadero, you get to jump off and see down in to the canyon. Get off the train and look because, sadly, you never really get a great view IN to the canyon from the train. The area around Temoris is stunning! About 1.5 – 2.5 hours north of El Fuerte the train crosses rivers and lakes and is really beautiful. Right around El Fuerte it is more of a desert landscape with Saguaro cactuses and scrub brush.