May 5, 2021
The adventure today was something we had been looking forward to since we heard of Copper Canyon. El Chepe is one of the most famous train rides in the world. The Chihuahua to Pacific railroad traverses some of the most rugged and scenic country in North America. The tracks run from Chihuahua to the Sea of Cortez near Los Moochis, but the most exciting and beautiful part is from Creel to El Fuerte. This section descends from 8000’ elevation at Creel to near sea level at El Fuerte. The railway clings to the sides of sheer cliffs and descends in gigantic loops and tunnels as it plunges from one canyon wall to the next. The total railway had 37 principle bridges and 87 tunnels between Chihuahua and the sea, with most in the 170 miles section that we rode. This is over 11 miles of tunnel and 2.25 miles of bridge. The railway took 90 years to build and was finished in 1961.
Our adventure would span over two days as we rode El Chepe from Creel to El Fuerte and back. We left Creel at 11 am for the 9 hour ride. We rode the regional train that had many stops at both large towns and small villages. The train would even stop for a single person standing alongside the tracks. We even had to stop for cows on the tracks.
The train’s interior was not in great shape, but not too bad. At least the air conditioning worked well as the temperature rose as we descended the mountains. The train had several vendors selling food and at least 3-4 armed guards (sidearms and AR-15) to protect us from the banditos (drug cartels). There was also a guy that would go from car to car singing a song about El Chepe.
During much of the ride many of us stood on the platforms between the cars. This was the most exciting spot to stand and hang your head out the window to look at the train and the scenery. You had to be careful and watch for limbs and branches that hung close to the train. The rock cliffs and tunnel walls were also only a few feet away as we sped by. A few of the tunnels were over a mile long and we were in total darkness for a few minutes.
We had a 20 minutes stop at Divisadero where there was a mad rush from the train to the vendor area to get lunch. There were several vendors selling gorditas (small pita sandwiches made from different colored corn tortillas). They cooked the food on 55 gallon barrels with a fire underneath. We hurried to get the food and ate fast, as we didn’t want to miss the train. We worried too much, as there was plenty of time before the whistle blew and the train left the station.
The section of tracks before Temoris was the most fun as the train steeply descended the canyon walls passing through many tunnels and winding through switchbacks to get to the canyon floor where you crossed the river on a sweeping curved bridge.
The final section was a little flatter as we finished the ride into El Fuerte, arriving around 8 pm. Frenchie, Eva and I rode in a taxi, driven by a wanna-be race car driver. I felt lucky that we made it to the hotel alive as he sped the 6 kilometers to town. We stayed at the El Fuerte Hotel, a very nice hotel that appeared to be an old hacienda that had been remodeled into a hotel. The hotel was filled with antiques and had several courtyards with many balconies. We ate dinner at another nice restaurant and since it was such a nice warm evening, we took a walk around the town square before returning to the hotel.
May 6, 2021
We thought the hotel was great, until we tried to take a shower in the morning. The water temperature was 1-2 steps cooler than lukewarm. I was surprised that Eva went ahead and showered, but it was much shorter that her normal shower. After getting dressed, Eva and I took another walk around the square before taking the same taxi back to the train station. This drive was even quicker, as there was less traffic at 7:30 am.
While waiting for the train we witnessed a cattle drive of about 40-50 head past the train station. We were also being eaten alive by the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Fortunately the train was only a few minutes late and we quickly boarded for the ride back to Creel.
The return ride was a little calmer as we mostly stayed in the cabin and rested. It was still a 9 hour ride, but it was nice to see the scenery again.
After returning to Creel we picked up our laundry and visited the Tarahumara museum before getting some ice cream at the town square. We later returned to camp to clean things up and relax for the night.