The scheduled Divisadero stop on the Copper Canyon train route lasts for about 15 minutes to allow for canyon viewing and browsing local crafts.
The stop came in the afternoon during travel at some altitude, and the aroma of food cooking in the outdoors got our attention. We skipped the crafts that were for sale, caught great “magic hour” photos with shadows in deep relief and ordered up a plate of possibly the best chilis rellenos ever. They were cooked atop a clean, sizzling hot oil drum and served on a paper plate. We carried them back onto the train to not waste a bite.
On the “train ride in the sky,” the entire rail trip from Los Mochis to Chihuahua has 36 major bridges and 87 tunnels. The train wends on a serpentine route from an elevation of more than 8,000 feet at its highest point to sea level at Los Mochis.
Some say their reason for emphasizing the west-to-east (lowland to highland) route is better canyon viewing during daylight hours. The most spectacular scenery lies between Temoris and Cerocahui, on the western flank of the Sierra Madre. The train departing from the low end travels this section during peak sunlight hours (10 am-12 noon). The train coming from the high end can actually enter this area after sundown during the winter months.
The best views were reported to be from the windows on the south side of the train. The spirit of sharing prevailed on our journey. When one of our newfound friends saw some spectacular sight, they would motion for us to join them wherever they stood. We moved from one side to the other. We entered the vestibules, the open areas between cars, snapped photos and then made room for others who were intrigued with the scenery.
There were two trains daily in each direction: Primera Especial (first class) and Segunda Clase (second class). The differences are important. Generally, first class trains have a restaurant and bar car, comfortable seats, tidy bathroom facilities and security, and the trip took about 13 hours one way. We found first class prices affordable, especially in view of the fact that we had come a long way just to ride the train and see the canyons.
Second class is very economical, about half the price of first class. The accommodations are not designed for comfort or viewing. It can be crowded. We understand there is no restaurant or bar car. And very importantly, the ride takes longer, about 15-16 hours.
We purchased our tickets at the station in Creel. We arrived about an hour in advance of departure, and had cash for the purchase as was suggested. Arriving early added to the fun. We met a group of Mexican tourists from Uruapan who were vacationing together to enjoy the train experience. There was a young couple from the UK, honeymooners full of life and passion about photography and each other. And a young man in his twenties introduced himself and said he had an interest in practicing English. Several of the attendants and other riders appeared to know him well as a frequent traveler. There is congeniality among those who rely on the rail line for regular transportation, as we soon discovered.
Creel proved to be most “citified” of the communities we visited in the Copper Canyon. We found a bank where we could access cash, a number of restaurants and coffee opportunities, a laundry and even a coin operated car wash.
For our reserve-ahead lodging prior to our departure, we discovered Best Western The Lodge at Creel. The accommodations were lovely with an in-room fireplace to keep us toasty warm in spite of the icy November weather.
The dining room was cheery and the food delightful. There was even a hot tub in a common guest area.
The settlement of Creel lies at an elevation of 7,700 ft. in a pine forest valley. Looking like a 19th-century-logging town, Creel was named in honor of the diplomat Don Enrique Creel. The city’s railroad has made it a supply center for the Copper Canyon region and gateway to the Sierra Madre Mountains.
Some suggest that travelers depart on the Copper Train train excursion from west to east, while others prefer east to west. We solved the issue for ourselves as to which route is better by riding in both directions, with Creel as our “top” point of departure and El Fuerte as our “bottom end, turn-around” point.
The more eastern access road into the park offers a more panoramic perspective of Basaseachi Falls . The two access roads lie only about five miles apart on a paved road. To get there, we headed north through town and turned eastward onto Highway 16, then south onto Chihuahua 330 and followed signage, turning westward into the park overlook area.
We were ready to pay the entrance fee, (10-pesos per person at the time), but there was no one available to accept it. It was a case of scenic grandeur with casual management. We found a souvenir stand with a few packaged snacks for sale and a young man who showed us some available rooms. A part-time independent guide approached us and offered to escort us on the trail to the bottom of the falls. The recommended amount of time to allow for the hike is about three hours.
We thanked him and opted for a shorter unescorted hike. He didn’t pressure. He and his dog had wood to deliver in his truck. We breathed in the clear mountain air and knew that our Copper Canyon journey had truly begun.
In the Tarahumara language, Basaseachi is said to mean either “place of the cascade” or “place of the coyotes.” Most of the 25 inches of yearly rain falls in summer. That makes July and August the prime months for falls viewing, but we found every view angle impressive even in drier November. We intended for our visit to Basaseachi to be our kick-off on a journey to the Copper Canyon complex. Its soaring, misty other-worldliness made it a perfect choice.
The falls reside at about 6,600 ft. elevation in Basaseachi Falls National Park, the only officially designated national park in the northern Sierra Madre. The settlement of the same name and the park are easily accessible by a well-maintained road.
Of the two access roads to the park, we approached the first one when we turned south off Highway 16 past KM 276. This leads directly into the village of Basaseachi. Along the few blocks of the main street are a handful of small places to eat and lodgings before the park entrance that leads to the top of the falls.
A log cabin at El Rincon de Basaseachi (GPS Location: N 28◦ 11’ 36.7”, W 108◦ 12’ 33.4”) provided a wood stove and plenty of much needed firewood. It included a double bed, a bathroom, kitchenette with a burner, and plenty of blankets.
At the falls’ brink, there’s a breath-catching energy. A churning mass of water rushes forward. The trail to the top of the 800+ ft. high Basaseachi Falls leads to footbridges with handrails and staggered chain link barriers. Visitors get an up close and personal meeting with powerful natural forces.
The quiet surprised us. The roar of the water must emanate well below the top.
Basaseachi Falls in Mexico’s state of Chihuahua has been called the single most impressive land feature between the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and Mexico’s south-central volcanoes. It’s the twentieth highest in the world, the fourth highest in North America and and one of if not the highest in Mexico.
Note: As responsible travelers, we always add the “heads up” message. Times change and circumstances change, so heed travel advisories. According to a Lonely Planet publication subsequent to our visit, “Basaseachi National Park holds some of the most magnificent natural wonders and treks in Mexico, but its location thick in the middle of a drug-cartel turf war keeps out all but the hardiest of travelers.” Our experience was pleasant. We only wish the same for all travelers.
By planning our Copper Canyon journey loosely in advance, we were able to get the most and the best out of riding the “Chepe,” the Chihuahua-Pacifico train.
In brief, while the train journeys from Los Mochis at the low end all the way to Chihuahua, the span between Creel (we heard most locals pronounce it “krill”) and El Fuerte offers the best vistas of the canyons available from the train.
On our “write your own tour” trip to the Copper Canyon, we entered Mexico through Nogales and stopped at KM 21 to get our visitor and car papers. We continued on Highway 15, and took the Periferico (bypass) as we entered Hermosillo to avoid driving in the downtown area.
Our first overnight stay was at Hermosillo’s Hotel San Sebastian at the junction of Highway 15 and Highway 16. Over time we have found the hotel consistently clean, secure and reasonably priced. The hotel dining room offered menu dining and a buffet. In the morning, we could exit the parking lot, ease into eastbound traffic and be on our way.