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It’s four times bigger than the Grand Canyon, at least as majestic and awe-inspiring, and just as difficult to get to. Still, Copper Canyon, a northern Mexico marvel, should definitely be on your bucket list. Copper Canyon is made up of a network of seven major canyons and 200 smaller ones, some of which are more than one mile deep, dotted with cliffs and waterfalls, thick with forests and populated by indigenous communities and historic towns. There’s no way to see it all, but you can make a serious dent in 3-5 days.

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Copper Canyon

Getting there

You can drive, but the most popular way to see it  is to take the train.
The Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, better known as the Copper Canyon Train and affectionately known as El Chepe, is one of the world’s most spectacular train rides. A bonus is that a ticket lets you stop off for a day or more along the route for hiking, off-roading, zip-lining, visiting villages or just to sit on a rock to soak up the silence, and the spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, affectionately known as El Chepe

The train operates between Chihuahua City, the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and the Pacific Coast, 400 miles away. Chihuahua City is about a five-hour drive south of El Paso and Juarez along a busy highway. Most visitors board here.

El Chepe chugs south through cattle and sheep ranches and fertile farm fields producing corn, pecans and apples, then skirts precipitous canyon drop-offs until reaching the Pacific coast 15 hours and 407 miles later, at Los Cabos. It’s faster to drive, of course, but not as picturesque or memorable.

That’s because this marvel of early 1900s engineering boasts 37 bridges, 87 tunnels and numerous switchbacks in which the train makes sweeping turns, some as much as a full 180-degrees. The switchbacks have passengers ping-ponging from one side to the other to take photos.

What to see and do

Most visitors use Creel as a stop-over base. It’s the largest town in Copper Canyon, with a charming central plaza and historic mission church. There’s an American-style brewpub and pizza joint in the Best Western Lodge on the main street, and traditional Mexican fare served family-style at the Quinta Mission lodge a few blocks away.

The local museum, Museu de Arte Popular, at the train station, traces thousands of years of history, including the region’s famous basketry and pottery, crafted by the indigenous Tarahumari, also known as Raramuri.

There are about 30,000 Raramuri in Copper Canyon. The men are mostly farmers while the women weave remarkable baskets colored with natural dyes that are also used in woven blankets, rugs and shawls. Men and boys tend to dress in modern jeans and shirts, while women and girls are almost always in traditional dress.

Just after Creel, the train stops in Divisadero for 20 minutes. It’s less to pick up or discharge passengers or grab a homemade taco from one of the vendors than for everybody aboard to inhale a heart-stopping overlook across the canyon. And it has nothing to do with the altitude, which is around 8,000 feet.

The next stop along the way south is Barrancas de Cobra, where the recently-opened Hotel Mirador sprawls across the canyon rim with what feels like acres of outdoor and glassed-in terraces to soak up the view. Hiking trails lead almost to the canyon floor, with more breathtaking vistas at every twist and turn.

Valley of the Monks

From any of these three stops, you can explore the Valley of the Monks, a landscape of surreal volcanic grey towers and cliffs shaped by eons of wind. According to local legend, these were giants coming to steal the children, and frozen in place by the gods.

Follow one of the trails about a half-mile to the top for a panoramic view of the Conchos River and green valley floor, which just happens to be on the Continental Divide. A few miles away, the Cusarare Waterfall spills more than 100 feet into sparkling green pools from a trail paved with Raramuri vendors.

Be sure and check out the Copper Canyon Adventure Park. The park offers the world’s longest zip-line, a one-mile trip that can hit speeds of 60mph as it crosses the canyon hundreds of feet below. Luckily, your body releases enough adrenalin to let you climb up more than 1,000 feet along a rocky trail at the end, carrying all your safety harness equipment to the base of a cable car and the ride back up to your vehicle or tour bus.

There’s also a Via Ferrata (climbing path) that’s not for the squeamish, and off-road bicycle and ATM trails. The park is on communal tribal land, and profits support the local families.

A small village

Just outside Creel, in Cuauhtemoc City, is the Museum Mennonita, or Mennonite Museum, representing more than 100 years of Mexican history. Displays are marked in Spanish, German and English. There are historic threshers, toys, school books, Bibles and musical instruments.

German, Austrian and Swiss Mennonites settled here after the Mexican Revolution, when the country needed farmers. Today, they operate some of the area’s largest and most profitable businesses, operating restaurants and motels, importing tractors, and farming hundreds of thousands of acres.

The Copper Canyon Train does a round-trip daily, so you can stop off a day or more along the route and continue, or head back from any stop to your starting point.

Tour operator Copper Canyon Adventures will transport your luggage from Chihuahua City while you take the train, pick you up from any station to guide you to the must-see and must-do attractions and caravan you back.

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn is an NYC-based travel writer who would rather ride a chairlift, river raft or zipline than the subway. She's a regular contributor to major publications, including airline inflights, and has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks. Evelyn's website is www.ecoxplorer.com

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