I am sitting on a low wooden bench in the Ciudad Juárez train station. There is very little to keep me company except for flies. The ticket office is closed. I’ve been traveling almost non-stop for 32 hours. I haven’t eaten in the last twelve. I’m so tired it hurts.
What, I wonder, am I doing here? The answer is that I have come to take a train ride; but such a train ride. Through an area as spectacular as the Grand Canyon (but bigger) with an interconnected system of six canyons. If, like me, you are fascinated by trains, you will not be able to resist a ride through some of the most incredible landscapes in the world.
The trip is not for everyone. If you insist on Pullman service and fine dining on the train, you’ll be much better off on the Blue Train in South Africa or the Orient Express. This Copper Canyon train is of a different breed. Not inferior. Not one bit less pleasant. Just different.
I have been to Mexico four times before and found Acapulco exciting, Jalisco exciting, Mexico City a big concern and Cancun not to my liking.
He knew little of the Copper Canyon and the journey from Chihuahua to Los Mochis. I first came across it while reading Fodor’s Guide to Mexico. The book described the train ride as “the most picturesque train ride in the world.” That is why I have now arrived at the deserted station of Ciudad Juárez.
He had flown to Los Angeles. From there I had to get myself to the Copper Canyon and its railway.
I arrived in Mexico by an unorthodox route.
I flew on a night ‘red eye’ to El Paso in Texas via Las Vegas and Albuquerque. From El Paso I took a taxi to Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s sister city. Juárez is on the other side of the Rio Grande and you need a tourist card for $US17. I have since found that it is better to cross and take a taxi to the other side.
From there I took the train to Chihuahua.
A little advice. Don’t take the bus. The bus station is clean and comfortable and the bus ticket is only $15. But the bus travels 380 km to get there and this is a very tiring journey. I had been warned about this and I took the train.
The Juárez train station is not cheerful even though it is being improved. Today, as I sit here and write this, it is a concrete structure open to the air on one side, like a bomb shelter. Low, dirty, rickety benches to sit on; a toilet that I dare not investigate because the smell would choke a horse; and nothing more. Nothing at all. There is no soda machine. No kiosk. Any.
Except the flies. (I’m told it’s now been cleaned up and redecorated. When I see it, I’ll believe it.)
This is the lowest point of the trip. As soon as I get on the train that will take me to Chihuahua, everything improves dramatically. The six o’clock train for which I buy a first class reserved ticket is of a very high standard. The ticket costs around $15. This for a journey of around 400 kilometers.
The train is nothing like the station. Fortunately, the carriage has air conditioning. It is spotlessly clean and the seats recline airplane style. I laugh out loud with relief. The train passes first through the suburbs, the poor suburbs, of Juárez. We are now traveling across a flat plain with dry vegetation. Very similar to Australia.
The conductor, immaculately dressed like all the train staff, walks across the train and announces dinner. There are few takers. Reckless to the end, I walk to the dining car and face a pre-arranged dinner. A small plastic cup of Coca-Cola. A plastic plate with four chips, two saltines, a scoop of cold macaroni, a small portion of dried fish flakes.
As a meal, this does not inspire or encourage me.
The train arrives at the Chihuahua station. A fleet of taxis, rapacious hawks to a man, lie in wait. They want 10,000 pesos to take me to a hotel. A brisk haggling reduces it to 6,000 pesos. This hotel, the Exelaris, was once a Hyatt. No more.
That night I went into a bar called El Pantera Rosso that seems to have little to do with Pink Panther. On a previous visit to Chihuahua, he had gone to the museum that was once the home of Pancho Villa. There I met a lady who was said to have been the wife of that great revolutionary. But she seems to have had many, many wives. Not always with the benefit of the wedding ceremony.
On this visit I skip sightseeing and organize a wake-up call at 5.30 am so I can take the train to Los Mochis. Go out to the station and claim my seat on the Chihuahua-Pacific railway that covers the 640 kilometers to Los Mochis.
Important to know that I booked in advance. You will find advice elsewhere on the internet to say that you can take a risk. This is not good advice. Books. I’m in first class which costs $US125 round trip. The second one, which I would have booked if I had known how, is only $53. First class is excellent with reclining airplane type seats.
This is not a cheap trip to do through a tour package. Some of the tours from El Paso cost between $1,600 and $2,000 per person. This is really silly when you consider that the price is usually around $126 round trip and that’s in first class. Go down to second class (trainers were first class a few years ago) and it can be a little more than half of that.
They will tell you that the second class train is going slower and you will miss the scenery. If you are making the return trip this is not the case.
Departure times, in Spanish and quoted in Mexican dollars, are here:
Prices and reservation phone and other good things:
We left Chihuahua and the landscape is flat, almost Australian, not at all fascinating. This was the country that was fought for the most in the Revolution and the breeding ground for Pancho Villa’s Northern Division. The train then begins to climb in a series of winding curves towards Creel, which is a logging town.
After Creel we continue to climb and the air becomes clearly energetic. The desert slowly changes and turns into a pine forest. It’s two in the afternoon.
Just before the Copper Canyon is Divisadero, where the train stops for a quarter of an hour. At Divisadero, the canyon floor is nearly a mile below your feet, with views that take forever on a clear day. Tarahumara Indians on the platform sell souvenirs to tourists. His people originally occupied the highlands, but during the Spanish invasion they had to move to the canyons to avoid forced labor in the mines and on the farms. The colonists have a lot to answer for.
Copper Canyon covers more than 65,000 square feet. km of extremely steep mountains and canyons. Made up of five major river systems, these ravines (canyons) are four times the size of the Grand Canyon of Colorado.
Before the completion of the Chihuahua al Pacífico railway in 1961, the only access to the area was on foot or on horseback. Now the train magically makes everything accessible.
The scenery is, the only word to describe it, amazing. In another country, I once took a sightseeing flight with the Hallelujah Chorus playing every cannon in sight. The Choir is precisely what this trip deserves. Fortissimo.
After Divisadero, the train passes through several tunnels and over tall, narrow iron truss bridges as it travels along the various canyon side branches. The train approaches Temoris, where you must find a good position by a window. Here the tracks pass over themselves three times.
When I look out the window of the train, I can see there, on the opposite side, another railway going in the opposite direction. What is this railway? Where is he going?
It is, of course, the rail I ride on, folding back on itself to get around the canyon walls. In fact, at one point the track makes a complete 180 degree turn, inside a tunnel.
The track twists, twists, twists, turns. The train meanders while looking for the way to go. The train passes 100 meters over the Chinipas River.
From the window I can’t see the bridge. I am suspended in space. I am a little afflicted with vertigo and sweat and stare with wild guesses. My hands grip white knuckles.
Eventually I relax, I get bored; this is, after all, a ten hour drive.
I start inspecting my fellow travelers, pause for a beer, talk to the person sitting next to me. However, the landscape always drags me back.
It was dark when we got to Los Mochis, so I missed some of the spectacular scenery on the run to the Sea of Cortez. No matter. The next day I got up early again and took the train back to Chihuahua. This time I took the slow train. Mexico is not a place where one wants to rush things.