Creel, Chihuahua – Dream vacation for train fans

The Grand Canyon, one of the world’s big miracles of nature, has to be conquered on foot, all the way down and up again. The Barranca del Cobre, even bigger although less known superlative is a must for train fanatics, a highlight for sleeper riders, one of the big rail travels locomotive friends dream of. The railway line from Chihuahua to the Pacific should be the fastest east-west-connection on the continent, but it was finished only 100 years after planning start. In those days ships already passed the Panama Canal and roads, cars, and trucks existed. But still today the construction of the railway line is a masterpiece of engineering. The iron worm spirals up- and downwards for 673 km / 325 mi through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, from sea level up to 2440 m / 8000 ft elevation of the Sierra Madre Occidental and down in 13 hours. El Chepe, how the train is called, is the last remaining passenger train in Mexico, but the line is used by freight transports as well. For some tourists not the rail travel is the decisive reason for the journey, but the landscape. The Copper Canyon, where the train passes through, has with 30,000 sq km the numerous size of the Grand Canyon and is nearly 100 m (around 100 yards) deeper. Six rivers carved into the copper-coloured volcanic rock that was the canyon’s namesake.

Three times per week the second class trains leave at 7 o’clock in one or the other direction, the first class daily and an hour earlier. The second class isn’t significantly more uncomfortable that the first but has no restaurant car, just a snack bar. But there’s everything else: A stop at every train station (the first class only stops at selected stations), Mexican welcome and farewell scenes, and vendors shouting into the wagons, offering fruits, juices and local fast-food. Mexican life pulsates here, and that makes the trip so exciting.

In the beginning the train glides through the intensely irrigates fields around Los Mochis, passing tiny huts with gardens, dogs, cars, and sometimes even air-condition. They might look poor, but never hopeless, and always tidy. Cacti stand in disconcerting but peaceful unity with banana plants and hardwood trees. The train ascends higher and higher, in adventurous 180°-bows, along slopes and over bridges that are hardly as wide as the train. With the pine and juniper forests in higher elevation it cools down to more bearable temperatures. Indio women and children stand at the stations, trying to sell their craftwork: dainty baskets, pearl necklaces, and braided bracelets. The train stops for 15 minutes in Divisadero to offer travellers the opportunity to look into the impressive Barranca de Urique canyon, as well as to buy Indian craft and the typical lunch snacks. Now the steepest section of the line follows with a 360°-curve in a tunnel and the highest point that the rails reach. Then El Chepe starts its descent. Nearly on time we arrive at 6 pm in Creel where the hotel bus is already waiting for us. The small hotel Plaza Mexicana, where rooms on two floors gather around a snug inner courtyard, is delightful. Wrought-iron tables and chairs with sunshades, rocking chairs and finely carved wooden benches invite to rest. The rooms were lovingly decorated, as well as the bathrooms with their hand painted ceramic in glowing colours. We get the double room with half board for 600 instead of 700 Peso.

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