The stats say everything: 656km of track, 37 bridges, 86 tunnels and more than 60 years in the making. The Copper Canyon Railway is one of the world’s most incredible rail journeys, and northern Mexico's biggest single attraction. Nicknamed ‘El Chepe’ (using the Spanish initials of ‘Chihuahua’ and ‘Pacífico’), the railway operates one daily train in each direction, taking a full day.
Completed in 1961, the railway is as phenomenal in its engineering prowess as in the canyon views it yields.
The line is the major link between Chihuahua and the coast, heavily used for freight as well as passengers. It connects the Pacific coast with the mountainous, arid interior of northern Mexico via tricky canyon gradients that force it to rise up over 2400m.
Between Los Mochis and El Fuerte, the train trundles through flat farmland, then begins to climb through hills speckled with dark pillars of cacti. It passes over the long Río Fuerte bridge and through the first of the 86 tunnels about four hours after leaving Los Mochis. The train hugs the sides of deepening canyons and makes a spectacular zigzag ascent into a tunnel above Témoris, after which pine trees appear on the hillsides. By the next station, Bahuichivo, you are in the Sierra Madre uplands, with flower-dotted meadows punctuating an entrancing alpine landscape. The biggest highlight of the train ride is stopping at Divisadero, where you get your only glimpse of the actual Copper Canyon. The train circles back over itself in a complete loop to gain height at the suitably named El Lazo (the Lasso), before chugging on to Creel and Chihuahua.
There's not that much difference between primera and económica carriages – the former has a dining room, the latter a canteen. Snacks cost M$20 and meals around M$100. Coffee is instant in both classes. Neither has wi-fi. All carriages are rather showing their age (dating from the 1980s), and tickets are overpriced given the moderate comfort levels. Both classes have air-conditioning, heating and reclining seats with ample leg room. The clase económica is certainly nice enough for most travelers, although often you'll have no choice but primera.
Note that you're not allowed to consume alcohol on any of the trains, but that smoking is tolerated in the open-air gap between carriages. All trains are staffed with machine-gun-toting plainclothes police.