As we chugged across a 355-foot-high bridge linking mountain passes in the rugged Sierra Madre in northern Mexico, my 75-year-old father, Gordon, stood between two vintage railway cars and gazed straight down at a footbridge suspended hundreds of feet below. A retired electronics engineer, he marveled at the technological feat that is the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway. Running through Mexico's Copper Canyon, its 435 miles of track climb from sea level on the Pacific Coast to more than 8,000 feet above sea level--across 36 bridges and through 87 tunnels.
Copper Canyon is deeper and bigger than the Grand Canyon, and for hours, our family watched, transfixed, as the dramatic scenery rolled by. First, the train went through carefully tended plots of corn, then landscapes thick with cactus and thorn trees. Next came a tropical valley dotted with palm trees, bananas, and mangoes, and finally, after a 3,900-foot climb complete with a loop and switchbacks, we emerged from a tunnel to find ourselves at the top of pine-studded canyons with views stretching for 100 miles.
The Copper Canyon trip is one of the world's most spectacular train adventures. The railway was the brainchild of Albert Owen, an American who in the 1870s dreamed of a rail-cargo link between Mexico's port of Topolobampo and Kansas City, Mo. It took nearly 90 years and $90 million to build and wasn't inaugurated until 1961. Today, it's the only direct link between the Pacific Coast and Chihuahua, a mining and cattle capital.
Our trip started just after dawn outside of Los Mochis, in Mexico's Sinaloa state. We hopped onto a gleaming, 1940s-vintage stainless-steel railcar, one of 15 refurbished and operated since 1994 by Copper Canyon Limited, a service of the Houston-based Mexican-American Railway. Bilingual stewards serve snacks and meals and a tour director describes the train's history and the vegetation and wildlife along the way.
These luxury trains cater to the thousands of foreign tourists who travel through the canyon each year. The cars have huge windows and spotless bathrooms, unlike the regular--and cheaper--passenger train cars. It takes 16 hours to reach Chihuahua, but, like most passengers, we stopped at several points along the route, staying at hotels and taking excursions to local villages and waterfalls. One of the most worthwhile stops is Divisadero Barrancas, the midpoint of the train ride, where we stayed at a dramatic cliffside hotel, the Posada Barrancas. Each room has a balcony offering a panoramic view of the canyon. We also enjoyed Cerocahui, a pretty little village that started as a Catholic mission outpost in 1681. There, we stayed at the Paraiso del Oso, a small, eco-friendly lodge lit by gas lanterns and run by an American, Doug "Diego" Rhodes. He took us on a hike to a Tarahumara cave burial ground and on a spectacular drive to the nearby Urique Canyon, with its magnificent vistas.
Our trip lasted five days--and we would have liked a few extra days to squeeze in more outings. If you go during peak seasons--mid-OctobeR through early December and late February through April--reserve early because tour groups often snatch the best rooms. And expect surprises: A year ago, the railroad added two-way radios and guards after bandits on horseback attacked the train, shooting to death a Swiss tourist. Surprisingly, news reports of the attack barely affected bookings. On the other hand, having seen Copper Canyon, I wouldn't let it keep me away, either.