by Deonne Parker
photos by Lynn Castner
The Copper Canyon train had carried us 5,000 feet above sea level in Mexico’s Sierra Madre (Sierra means mountain range in Spanish) to our destination, the Hotel Mirador near Divisadero. This train journey is considered one of the most spectacular in the world.
At times the train seemed suspended between the sky and the canyon floor far below. A magic carpet could not provide a better view of the dramatic canyon walls that plunge from the rim that is bathed in full sunlight down to the shadowy depths of the canyon floor.
Views from the Hotel Mirador were just as magnificent as the views from the train. From the balcony of our hotel room we looked out over a vista of rugged mountain tops. The nearest mountains were engulfed in green even though it was November. Next to the hotel a stone mountain gleamed in the afternoon sun. The mountain peaks turned smoky blue as they receded in the distance, becoming paler until the furthest peaks were mere shadows on the horizon. This vast wilderness, where canyons converge, seems too remote to be inhabited. Much of it is unexplored.
The Hotel Mirador was built on the top ledge of the canyon wall. Looking down from the balcony we could see the canyon floor far below. Two tiny dwellings were perched on the side of a nearby canyon wall. The resourceful Tarahumara, indigenous people, who have lived in the canyons for thousands of years, build their small homes in niches, crevices and on ledges that appear to cling precariously to the sides of cliffs, seemingly unreachable to outsiders. Their remote environment has allowed them to retain their aboriginal culture.
Our Copper Canyon train journey on the Al Pacifico Railroad began in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico on the coast of the Sea of Cortes, which separates mainland Mexico from the Baja Peninsula on the Pacific coast. The train pulled out early in the morning and we had a great breakfast in the dining car. We traveled slowly though the outskirts of the city and miles of farm land that gives the Mexican State of Sinaloa its renown as the bread basket of Mexico. We barely noticed the side to side rocking of the train. The rocking gave no sense of risk to our safety as we traveled through the flat fields that stretched out on both sides of the train. We were eager to reach Copper Canyon, which is located in Chihuahua, the largest state in Mexico.
The railroad was built over a period of decades, beginning in the late 19th century. In 1912 the Mexican Revolution interrupted construction. The rail route opened in November 1961. Copper, gold, and other metals are again mined in these canyons after years of shut down.
The train began its ascent slowly, following the twisting course of the river at the canyon floor, at times crisscrossing the river. The water flowed around mammoth boulders placed there by a force of nature. Much of the river systems in the canyons are impassable.
As the train climbed we saw mountains that pierced the sky. The rails were laid so close to the edge of the canyon walls that the rail bed was not visible to passengers. We appeared to be floating above the canyon floor far below us. We were truly riding the rim of the canyon.
As the train rolled along these precipices, we became more aware of the swaying motion. Sometimes a passenger standing in the aisle would be thrown against the seats by the abrupt motion. This did not deter passengers from crowding into the open spaces between the cars to take pictures and enjoy the view from outside the coaches.
As we crossed each bridge (there are 37) high above the river, we could not see the bridge supports from the train. We had an unimpeded view to the river thousands of feet below and a sensation of riding through space. We marveled at the engineering miracles that created this train and the decades that it has safely carried passengers in a wilderness that looks so perilous.
The train continuously winds around and through the mountains that form the natural phenomenon known as Copper Canyon. The turns are so sharp that the engine can be seen from the coach cars at switchbacks, as we ascended the steep canyon walls. The 87 tunnels along the Copper Canyon train route were blasted out of mountain rock. They are so narrow, only inches separate the swaying train from the raw stone walls of the tunnels.
The dramatic gorges kept us in awe. Scores of hawks flew between the canyon walls just outside our train window, catching updrafts that kept them aloft, soaring effortlessly. We saw small patches of corn on plateaus carved from the sides of mountains. There were occasional huts in isolated places that looked inaccessible. A few goats and cows appeared behind make-shift fences keeping the livestock off the train tracks in areas where there was no evidence of human habitation. Mostly untamed wilderness surrounded us as mountain peaks rose higher and the ravines became deeper and steeped in shadow.
We disembarked at Bahuichiva, a small pueblo, after a 5 and ½ hour ride from Los Mochis. We had a 45 minute van ride over a dusty, rocky, rutted road cut out of the mountain, to Hotel Misión, our first stop. We were welcomed by the hotel staff, who greeted us with Margaritas. The hotel was named after a 16th century mission founded by Jesuits in this small town of Cerocahui. The hotel rooms were built around a courtyard of apple trees laden with fruit. Although the hotel is more recent, one could envision monks living in these spartan rooms, which have wood stoves for heat in the chilly evenings.
In late afternoon the mission church bells call the faithful to mass. Before dinner a local guitarist serenaded the guests in the hotel lobby with familiar Mexican songs. A planned menu was served on long country style tables. It was a setting which successfully created a convivial social milieu out of tour groups and individual travelers. It was an international experience, with travelers from all over the world, including Mexico and other Latin countries.
Day trips were available the next day. A guided three mile hike to a waterfall is rated as hard and two very fit motorcyclists attested to that. We took a three hour van trip over very rough roads to a location where four canyons converge. That Jesuit missionaries found this place in the 16th century was astounding. We silently drank in the view. A Tarahumara basket weaver displayed her baskets while her two young children played nearby. She wore the traditional dress of headscarf and long skirt. She continued to weave using long pine needles from local trees.
At Hotel Misión the staff and a musician entertained hotel guests with a show of song, dance and comic revelry. It was a spontaneous gathering of joyful fun where we had no TV.
In the morning we returned to the train for an hour ride north to our final stop, the Hotel Mirador. We went directly to our room for the spectacular views. From our balcony we had a 180 degree view of mountains, canyons and views down a precipice thousands of feet to the canyon floor.
The next day our tour guide took us to an overlook of the deepest canyon in the Copper Canyon system. Platforms of steel and plexiglass had been built so they extended out from the side of the mountain. We could look through the metal grid and the clear platform to the gorges thousands of feet below and across the canyons to the mountains beyond. It is a panoramic view we won’t forget.
The return train ride to Los Mochis was striking because we traveled in the afternoon. The sun glanced off the rocks at an angle that caused them to burst with color. The steep walls on the far side of the canyons fell dramatically from the brilliantly lit precipices to the canyon floor, where shafts of sunlight disappeared. The stunning sunset was a perfect ending to our unique train journey.