Chronological / Destinations / IFWTWA Trips / Mexico

Why Chihuahua? For Copper Canyon

Between bloody drug wars, an epidemic of swine flu and the collapse of the economy, Mexico’s tourism industry has been experiencing tough times — especially in Northern Mexico, where tourism has fallen as much as 60 percent. The state of Chihuahua, which shares a border with the United States, has been particularly hard hit. That’s because even without safety and health issues, the region cannot compete with the high-end resorts that draw visitors and cruise ships to ports like Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. The name Chihuahua tells you a lot. It means “a dry and dusty place.”

Basket weaver, Chihuahua, Copper Canyon, Mexico
Basket weaver

The region does, however, possess one world-class destination — the vast mountainous expanse of Copper Canyon. Volcanic in origin and covered with lush vegetation, the views from its miles and miles of rim are spectacular.

It is possible to explore much of Copper Canyon by car along graded dirt roads and some paved highways. But the most popular way to experience the canyon is by train aboard Ferromex’s El Chepe, which connects Chihuahua City with Los Mochis on the Sea of Cortez.

The most spectacular section of the line, which was inaugurated in 1961, travels 160 miles through the western Sierra Madre Mountains, skirting rushing rivers, corkscrewing over mountain passes and rumbling through no less than 86 tunnels.

The train’s accommodations include comfortable old-style coach cars, a diner and a bar car. The windows are large. But since there are no dome cars or outside vestibules of the type found on more modern trains, such as Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer, viewing is limited. You can, however, stand between the cars and lean your head out.

During my first trip to the Copper Canyon region I learned enough to make a few suggestions on how — and how not — to visit the region.

To begin with, most people are under the impression that the only way to travel to Copper Canyon is with an organized tour. That is not the case. You can easily create your own itinerary, which ultimately offers much more flexibility. Air connections, railroad tickets and hotel reservations can easily be made online or by phone. In addition, Mexico’s offices of tourism offer a wealth of information.

When I was at the canyon, most of the U.S. visitors seemed quite content to have every moment of their itinerary and meals pre-planned and overseen. Unfortunately, the abundance of these tours has also impacted the hotel food, which tends to be bland because of the belief that Americans don’t like spicy food.

However you choose to travel to Copper Canyon, your primary destination is the town of Divisadero. It’s here that a series of luxurious hotels cling limpet-like to the canyon’s rim.

Most, like the Hotel Mirador, feature balcony rooms that offer amazing views — especially if an afternoon thunderstorm leaves a shimmering rainbow in its wake.

A radical new element is about to alter the Copper Canyon experience. In May a multimillion-dollar gondola will begin whisking visitors from Divisadero to the floor of the canyon thousands of feet below and back again. This new attraction is sure to change the entire dynamic of visiting the canyon, as it opens myriad new travel options.

My trip (traveling south to north) began in the city of Los Mochis, but I would recommend making the trip in the opposite direction. Start in Chihuahua City with its grand cathedral and former home of Pancho Villa, and end your trip in the historic enclave of El Fuerte.

Founded in 1564, the town has been a significant stopover ever since the days of the conquistadors. Brightly painted, the town overlooks the Rio Fuerte and offers an abundance of accommodations, including the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo. It’s a beautifully converted late 19th century mansion that features lush gardens, an elegant dining room, and the questionable claim that it is the birthplace of Don Diego de la Vega — better known as El Zorro. The hotel even offers a dashing incarnation of the legendary swashbuckler to entertain guests as they sip their margaritas and pina coladas. From El Fuerte you can transfer to the airport at Los Mochis for your flight home.

Another interesting stop along the Copper Canyon train route is the village of Cerocahui. A 45-minute bus ride from the station at Bahuichivo, the town is quaint and secluded. Plan to stay at the Hotel Mission, which features cozy rooms with wood-burning stoves, a congenial dining room and its own vineyard. Shuttle buses to and from the station are provided.

From Cerocahui you can drive to the panoramic vista of the Gallegos Urique Lookout. Don’t be surprised if you see one of the local Tarahumara Indians weaving traditional baskets by the side of the road. Along the way you will also pass the rustic cabins of the San Isidro Lodge. Wonderfully remote high in the piney woods, the lodge offers an ideal place to stay and explore the southern portions of Copper Canyon.


Flight information:

Mexican Tourism:

Chihuahua Tourism:

Copper Canyon Hotels: (800) 896-8196 or

Copper Canyon Railroad:

San Isidro Lodge: 01-635-456-5257


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