Creel, Mexico The Chepe Express leaves from Los Mochis on an 8 o’clock schedule through Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madere mountains in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. It’s a comfortable train that sets off with many empty seats but arrives in Creel 10 hours later having filled up along the way. Many get on, but few get off. This is one of those well-kept secrets that Mexicans embrace, where foreigners turned out to be largely unknown, partly because it’s not easy to get there, and partially because, thankfully, industrial tourism has not reached the Copper Canyon yet. In Mexico, its reputation must be alpine. Heavy hiking packs were common and hiking boots almost standard along with puffy winter jackets and excited shrieks more common for the sightings of snow, as for the glory of the many canyons.
The canyons had been on my mind since boyhood, largely because they seemed huge, exotic, and unknown. When younger, I knew it was in the Sierra Madere Occidental where the last remnants of the Chiricahua Apaches hid after Geronimo and Chief Naiche surrendered to General Miles in September 1886. All of their people that the U.S. Army knew about, including the Army’s Chiricahua scouts, were shipped to prisons in Florida as prisoners-of-war. The Grand Canyon is legendary in the US West and magnificent to behold, as I was growing up there, but the very idea that not all that far south into Mexico, Copper Canyon was four times as large and though almost next door, seemingly remote, has been a magnet for me for decades and constantly on the list for our family’s travel, whenever we could make it happen.
It didn’t disappoint through the train’s windows, even though it’s not the same experience as being able to stand along a guardrail and gawk. Looking down from the windows into the deep crevices of the canyon at the huge boulders and occasional waterfalls was amazing. It may not be the trip for everyone, but in my book, it was fantastic.
The train itself is something of an engineering marvel, only completed finally in 1961, after having first been conceived as a way to get cattle shipped to the US in the late 1880s. The construction involved building 39 bridges, some at incredible heights and a number of tunnels. It took twenty years to break through the last sections of rocks to complete the route.
The endpoint for the journey was Creel, a small town of 5000, losing population, and not quite a travel destination. Leaving Los Mochis, the temperature dropped 40 degrees to below freezing by the time we arrived after 7:00 pm on a 5:30 pm schedule. The last place for food closed by 9PM, so it was pizza on offer. Hotels were booked. We were in an Airbnb, that was pretty much the last available. Three small logs in the fireplace in one room and an electric heater in the bedroom, meant under the covers quickly. We left no bad review. It was better than camping. We had to leave at 430 am the next morning to catch a plane by 10 am from Chihuahua. We saw no small dogs there.
No complaints though. It was all worth it!