The secret is out. It’s actually been out for some time now. A very long and twisting time.
The century-old engineering masterpiece and eco-touristic marvel known affectionately by its Mexican hosts as ‘El ChePe,’ has been described by the Readers’ Digest as “The most dramatic train ride in the western hemisphere …”
And with good reason.
You’re not in Kansas now, Dorothy …
Try to imagine a 16-hour luxury train-ride, beginning in Mexico’s western Chihuahua highlands, winding and descending 2,400 meters (roughly 1.5 miles above sea level) through a breathtaking collage of canyons that skirt the infamous Sierra Madre chain, to Los Mochis (city of ‘The Turtles’), and on to the historic coastal port of Topolobampo, Sinaloa …
Oh, and did we mention that this 400-mile scenic wonderland trek through Mexico’s legendary Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) comes complete with a mesmerizing maze of 37 majestic bridges and 86 tunnels?
But the real journey has only just begun …
First, let’s backtrack just a bit and take a quick glimpse at El ChePe’s remarkable history.
El ChePe’s History : a long, complex and costly climb …
The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, or Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (affectionately christened ‘El ChePe,’ a word which derives from the railroad’s ‘reporting mark,’ or CHP), actually traces its earliest conception to the year 1872, more than a decade before construction of the rail system itself was actually begun.
The historical record confirms that in 1880, Mexico’s then-president, General Manuel Gonzalez, officially granted a rail ‘concession’ to a certain Albert Kinsey Owen, an American engineer from New Harmony, Indiana. As early as 1873, Owen had obtained approval at the Governor’s Convention of the Southern States to build a railway from Norfolk, Virginia, as far as Texas and beyond, to what was then the Mexican Pacific coastal region known as Topolobampo Bay. (Rumor has it that the real motive was to create an efficient trade-route to the Orient, and to facilitate the transport of American beef from Texas stockyards to Mexican markets and coastal distribution points …)
As a result, the first “Texas-Topolobampo and Pacific Railroad and Telegraph Company” was formed. The date was 1881. But it would takes 9 more years until final authorization would be granted in 1900 (by Mexican President, Porfirio Diaz, and Governors Ahumada and Enrique Creel of Chihuahua) to Arthur E. Stillwell of Kansas City to actually commence construction of what was then the ‘Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad Co.” Construction was delayed, beginning in 1912 (due to the Mexican Revolution), but resumed in 1928. The company was purchased by the Mexican government in 1940, and construction completed in 1961, at a cost of nearly 100 million dollars.
90 years after its inception, on November 24th, 1961, the new Chihuahua al Pacifico (‘El ChePe’) Railway was finally opened to the public.
Enter Mexico’s Centerpiece: The Copper Canyon’s Chihuahua al Pacifico (‘El ChePe’) Railway
Serving a vast and diverse public, the incomparable El ChePe Railway system extends as far east as Ojinako, spanning a total of 941 kilometers, including 41 bridges and 99 tunnels, one of which is 1.8 kilometers in length!
By all accounts, the trip from Los Mochis to Chihuahua is a panoramic adventure. There are two trains that leave at 6am daily from Los Mochis: The Premier Express leaves first, followed one hour later by the Economy Class train. Both trains feature comfortable passenger cars complete with heating and/or air-conditioning, depending upon the season. The Premier Class train has a deluxe dining-car and bar, and makes fewer stops (7), while the Economy Class train, which offers deli-style meals and a variety of fast-foods to its passengers, makes a minimum of 40 stops en route, and takes considerably longer to reach its destination. Both trains allow passengers to disembark at major hotels and numerous tourist sites along the way where they may chose to spend one or more days before continuing their journey.
For those planning to enjoy Mexico’s Copper Canyon Railway adventure, there are a virtual host of local and foreign tour and travel agencies which offer exclusive eco-friendly custom packages such as backpacking, hiking, bird-watching, or leisurely sight-seeing excursions.
But Mexico has saved its characteristically best vintage wine for last … the Tarahumara people
Without doubt, the rarest, most valued, and most fascinating feature of Mexico’s unique Copper Canyon tour, however, is the fact that the railway traverses the legendary landscape and ancient dwelling of one of Mexico’s most colorful indigenous populations – the Tarahumara.
Though the 21stcentury is beginning to encroach upon these proud survivors of nearly 500 years of foreign conquest and colonization, Tarahumara culture and time-honored traditions remain unspoiled. The Tarahumara people live close to the soil, in modest wood structures or natural caves in the rugged landscape, cultivating beans and corn for food, weaving their own clothing, and drawing whatever else they may require from their native environment. They are the legendary Rarámuri (their own term), the ‘swift of foot,’ and have a notorious reputation for irritating marathon runners who are incapable of outrunning their smaller, sandal-shod opponents, unless or until they decide to stop for an occasional smoke, as they are known to do …
An unscheduled, friendly encounter with someone from the Tarahumara race is an experience, indeed, provided you have the good sense, compassion and common decency to tread quietly and respectfully in the sacred precincts and paradisiacal playground of this generous and beautifully innocent people.
The time spent aboard Mexico’s enchanting Copper Canyon El ChePe is more than a simple trek through one of the planet’s more picturesque landscapes … It is nothing less than the rarest of ‘Mexican experiences’ that promises to transform anyone’s view of Mexico and its people.
Yes, the Tarahumara people may appear timid and understandably cautious…
But you can be sure that they are listening and watching (with black, bright eyes from centuries past) …
For runners from another world …
And they are waiting.