An Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Four – Riding the Famous El Chepe Train

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series Copper Canyon, Mexico

I vividly remember the first time I heard about Copper Canyon. I was working in a chemical plant in east central Illinois and my boss casually mentioned that he had taken the train through Barrancas del Cobre. He described visiting reclusive Tarahumara Indians, the remoteness of the canyon, and its profound beauty. Something clicked. I filed it away as another of my “must visit someday” destinations. So, when I decided to spend a couple of months backpacking around Mexico, seeing Copper Canyon was my highest priority.

Visitors to Copper Canyon ride the train known as “El Chepe,” officially the Chihuahua-Pacifico Railroad, which makes a daily run between the cities of Los Mochis and Chihuahua, traversing the canyon along the way. Although the thirteen-hour ride can be made in either direction, it is best done from west to east in order to see the most stunning scenery during daylight hours. I opted for this route and modified it even further; I took a bus from uninteresting Los Mochis to El Fuerte (2 hours for 120 pesos/~$10 USD), and caught the train from there. Not only is El Fuerte a gorgeous town worthy of a two or three day stay, departing from there allowed me to board the train at 9 a.m. rather than 6 a.m.

Waiting for the train to arrive at the El Fuerte station at 8 a.m.

Chal Gamez, owner of the lovely Rio Vista Hotel in El Fuerte (600 pesos/ $50 USD per night) drove me to the station on the morning of my departure, no extra charge, and the train arrived right on time. I quickly grabbed a seat on the right-hand side for the best scenic views (left-hand if traveling east to west), although for most of the journey I was hanging out the open windows between cars, snapping photos.

Beginning to climb into the foorhills, we cross the first river valley

El Chepe chugged out of the station and rapidly picked up speed on the bramble choked plains, where the only interesting scenery was the occasional extinct volcanic cinder cone hunkering on the horizon. As we began to climb, the clackety clack of the wheels ratcheted up and the swaying cars made drunken sailors of anyone attempting to walk down the aisle. Almost without warning, we were in the Sierra Madres, surrounded by jagged peaks, mountainsides carpeted with pink and yellow blooming trees, emerald lakes, and sheer canyons as we passed through 89 tunnels and over scores of high bridges. The scenery between El Fuerte and Bahuichivo is the most impressive part of the ride, and I ran back and forth between the left and right sides of the train, frantically trying to drink it all in.

El Chepe closeup
Through a rocky canyon
High mountai curve
Gorgeous lake

I even managed to shoot some video footage:

See more of the El Chepe journey by clicking each thumbnails below:

While most passengers are content to experience Copper Canyon from the windows of El Chepe, I wanted to backpack into the bowels of this deepest canyon in all of North America. I disembarked in Bahuichivo and looked around for the bus that would take me to the tiny village of Urique, located at the very bottom of the Copper Canyon complex, but the only vehicles waiting were vans bound for one of the few hotels in the area.

Arrival in Bahuichivo; vans for hotels await guests, but no bus to Urique in sight

One man approached me hopefully. “Cabanas San isidro Lodge?” he asked hopefully. “No, me voy a Urique, pero no veo el autobus.” No, I’m going to Urique, but I don’t see the bus. We were in the same boat, my bus hadn’t shown up and his guests had stood him up. Dejectedly, he explained that the bus to Urique would not arrive for another three hours, when the train coming from the other direction arrived. He brightened for a moment. “Tiene reservacion?” Do you have a reservation? When I answered affirmatively his face dropped again, but only until I inquired if there was a good restaurant in the village where I could wait. “Si. Venga.” Yes, come. Since he also had to wait for the second train, we could eat together.

Bahuichivo Restaurant

I clambered into the van with Mario and his niece and we headed up the steep hill into Bahuichivo, where he parked in front of a single story adobe building painted iridescent pink, inside and out. Halfway through a delicious lunch of tortillas, chips and salsa, refried beans, salad, and a heaping mound of sauteed shrimp, I told Mario that I am a travel writer. He mulled this information over for a few moments and then announced the new plan. We would go together to meet the second train,  where he would arrange for the Urique bus driver to pick me up on the highway near his lodge. That way, I could see his hotel, in case I wanted to write about it. I had no idea where his lodge was, where I was going, or whether the bus driver would really show up as promised but I thought, what the heck, and before long we were headed up into pine forests on the canyon rim above Urique.

To be continued….

Series NavigationAn Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Three – Mayo Indian Danza del VenadoAn Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Five – Finding My Way to Urique

17 thoughts on “An Adventure in Copper Canyon, Mexico, Chapter Four – Riding the Famous El Chepe Train”

  1. Great post. Did you take any pictures of El Fuerte? It has become a Pueblo Magico and is the origin of the legend of Zorro.

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  3. I took this train trip twice, in an RV! Yes, about 24 RVs were loaded onto flatcars, tied down, and took the same route to the Copper Canyon, where we spent two nights and a day on a siding. We were able to sit on lawn chairs on the same flatcar as we rode along. The trips were run by the RV touring company Tracks to Adventure. They stopped running this tour this year, likely due to the drug war danger on the portions of the tour not on the train. You didn’t mention the corkscrew tunnel that the train passes through.

    • Hi Marty: That is absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I am really interested in the whole RV way of life.

  4. My two friends and I are planning a trip almost identical to the first half of your copper canyon adventure. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to tell us how much your train tickets were from el fuerte to bahuichivo? We were hoping to take the first class train on the way in and the second class on the way out. I’ve had problems finding ticket prices online for this leg of the trip and would love your help as your blog has been a huge inspiration during our planning.

  5. I love train trips! how was the interior of the train? How did it compare to trains in Asia? (not sure if you took them there or not)
    The scenery looks lovely – and I can’t wait to see where you end up with this nice man and his niece!

    • Hi Sherry: The trains are absolutely great, but expensive.I took the first class one time to see all the canyons, then the second class once, and then changed to buses to save money. They’re dusty but reliable, and cheap!

  6. Hi Barbara…love traveling by train cause it often shows unique views which I can’t find in using car…No matter where it is..:), Nice share!

  7. I was so close to going to the Copper Canyon last year, but circumstances, well, you know…. I’m really enjoying reading about your trip, and I can’t wait to follow in your footsteps. Next trip maybe? I’ve dreamed about it for so long! Have fun out there, and keep up with the great photos.

  8. Great post, Barbara! I really appreciate the little details. A lot of tourists have been frightened of traveling to Mexico because of the drug war, but you make it sound so easy and safe. Do you think this trip would be difficult if you didn’t speak Spanish?

    • Hi Jetpacker: Yes, I think it would be quite a bit more difficult if you didn’t speak at least rudimentary Spanish, but I’ve met many people who are doing just that. English has become so ubiquitous that you can usually find someone who speaks it, so have no fear and just do it!

  9. Train is my favorite method of travel 🙂 Loved the video, it captures the feel of the ride. Seems like your posting more video with your posts ad am enjoying it. Hope to see them coming!

  10. The photos look great, Almost exactly the same shots i took or at least some of them. I spent about 6 hours in between the cars and took almost 700 photos. I never thought to go to the end of the train and get a shot from there, great idea. Hope your adventure continues going as well as it is. I look forward to hearing about Urique, as I wanted to go there but just ran out of time.


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