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Introducing The Copper Canyon & Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico

When explorer Frederick Schwatka visited the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) in the 1880s, he was sufficiently wowed by the stunning scenery to predict that, within a century, tourists would be converging here in droves. He was right. Today the Copper Canyon is northern Mexico’s tourist magnet. There are two overriding reasons to visit: some of the world’s deepest, most diverse canyon country, and the fact that you can ride right through it on Mexico’s (and one of Latin America’s) last and greatest passenger train rides. Of everything there is to see in the north, none compares in wonder to time spent in this region.

The focal point is a labyrinth of seven main canyons that cover an area four times larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and are in several parts considerably deeper (over 1800m). The canyons have been gouged out of the sierra’s 25-million-year-old volcanic rock by tectonic movements and the rivers that now flow along their feet. Tropical fruits grow in the depths of some canyons while the high ground above is covered in alpine vegetation and, often, winter snows. Such diversity makes the Copper Canyon area a nature lover’s paradise, and it’s becoming still more of a buzzword for thrill-seekers too, following the creation of an adventure theme park, the Parque de Aventuras Barrancas del Cobre, where you can soar over precipitous drops on Mexico’s most hair-raising zip-lines or by cable car. The entire region is also home to one of Mexico’s largest and most individual indigenous groups, the Tarahumara.

As if this rumbustious rocky topography were not enough, you can also travel up, into and through some of it on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Pacífico (Chihuahua Pacific Railway, aka the Copper Canyon Railway), which takes passengers on a jaw-dropping rail journey over 656km between Los Mochis near Mexico’s Pacific coast and Chihuahua on its central high plains.

You can ride the train all the way through, or make an overnight stop then head back the way you came. But the spectacular canyon country deserves much more exploration. Most travelers make Creel their initial base, approximately eight hours from Los Mochis: it’s the main base for Copper Canyon tourism and near some fascinatingly scenic spots. For similar cusp-of-the-canyon experiences you can also stay at the smaller Cerocahui, Areponápuchi or Divisadero, all near the railway. To get the real feel of the canyons, venture right down into them and stay at Urique or Batopilas. All manner of natural wonders – canyons, cliffs, towering rock massifs, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, forests – as well as fascinating human culture are accessible from all these places by foot, horse and in many cases mountain bike or motor vehicle.

Good seasons to visit are spring or autumn, when temperatures are not too hot at the bottom of the canyons or too cold at the top. A particularly good time to come is late September and October, when vegetation is green after the summer rains (which fall from around late June to late August). Hiking and riding down in the canyons is only really practicable from mid-October to March. May and June are unbearable at the bottom of the canyons but OK for activities at the top.

It’s advisable to load up on cash in Los Mochis or Chihuahua: ATMs en route (in El Fuerte and Creel) should not be depended upon.

The remote recesses of this region harbor marijuana and opium plantations, from which part of the population makes a living and which yield some bloody incidents involving rival groups and/or the Mexican army. The narcos do not target tourists, but it’s advisable to sound out the situation before venturing to remote areas, and take a trusted local guide if you go anywhere off-the-beaten-track.

The name Copper Canyon, coined by the Spanish when they mistook the greenish glow of lichen for copper, refers specifically to the chasm carved by the upper course of the Río Urique. The canyon’s region also forms part of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Apart from the Barranca de Cobre, its other major canyons are the Barrancas de Urique, Sinforosa, Batopilas, Oteros, Chinipas and Candameña. All seven plumb to depths of 1300m or more.