How “Not” to Visit Copper Canyon

Copper Canyon was on my bucket list for years and for some reason I just could never seem to get there. However, the craziness of 2020 was the perfect time to get away from the US and find some wide open COVID-free spaces in Mexico. My research didn’t turn up much information about traveling there without booking an expensive tour, so I just drove my car from Houston to the Mexican border, caught a bus to Chihuahua with plans to just figure it out on my own. Nothing went as planned, but eventually everything worked out and no one died. If you’re doing a similar trip, maybe my missteps and successes might be helpful in making your journey a bit easier.

The three hour bus ride to Chihuahua from the border was exactly what I expected: desert and a whole lotta nothing. Chihuahua, however was a nice surprise. There are some beautiful buildings, an amazing cathedral, Pancho Villa’s home and a vibrant art scene. It was also allegedly the easiest jumping off point to visit the canyon.

I discovered than many of the people who live in Chihuahua have never ever been on El Chepe, the famous train that cuts through the middle of the mountains and gorges before arriving in Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa. It’s one of the country’s highlights since Copper canyon is twice as deep and a great deal bigger than our Grand Canyon. My curiosity was piqued about this epic trip, but the locals seemed to know very little about it.

My sources at the hotel told me that we could arrive at the Chihuahua train station before 6 and catch El Chepe for the first leg of the trip, to the picturesque pueblo magico town of Creel, where the canyon and beautiful scenery begin. We had been using Uber to get around the city so that wasn’t an issue. A ride anywhere didn’t set us back more than $1 or 2. We planned to arrive at the station at 5:30 am and we’d have time to spare. It sounded like a good plan. What could go wrong?

Our first stop in the morning was to grab some pesos from the ATM. As luck would have it, the machine sucked up my card and left me with nothing more than a receipt. I pushed every button to no avail. The card was stuck in the machine and I couldn’t wait until the bank opened or I’d miss my train. I called the US to cancel the card while our Uber picked us up and dropped us at the train station. Once we arrived we saw no signs of life; just a notice that indicated the building wouldn’t be open until after 9. Doing the math we realized that with only one train a day, 9 am was 3 hours too late for the fictional 6 am train. Our hotel concierge had been seriously wrong about the schedule and now we had to find an alternative.

I usually have a backup plan ready, so we went to option 2, Uber. It turns out we could wrangle a car that would drive us the 4 hour journey to Creel for $100. We decided we could split it, so we booked it and our driver was there in moments to take us to one of the most exciting towns in Chihuahua. However that was about to go wrong too.

As soon as we got started, the taxi driver realized he couldn’t get a map to our destination because he needed to buy data for his phone. The stores were closed so we waited for him to roust a shopkeeper to buy a phone code through a locked door. It still didn’t work.  It turns out that Creel was so far that Uber wouldn’t pull up a map or tell him where we were going. He made a call and we soon learned that his boss wanted him to cancel the Uber and charge us more money since he’d have to do a return trip. Things were becoming very complicated very quickly and he pulled in front of the bus station to figure out a new plan. 

Waterfall near Creel Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I decided to run inside and see about a bus option in case the other deal went sour. The bus was leaving for Creel in 10 minutes and tickets were less than $15 each. Of course they didn’t take credit cards, we hadn’t been able to get cash and there were no ATMs anywhere to he found. Ryan and I had a few hundred pesos between us from another trip, but it wasn’t quite enough. Damn bad luck! 

Once I came back to the taxi, the price had already passed $150 and getting our driver to take us to a working ATM seemed to be a Herculean task. The bus had just pulled up and was not going to be around for much longer. A decision had to be made.

We grabbed our bags, mixed our combined pesos with a US $10 bill and hopped on like we were VIP. The Uber driver was happy to be rid of us. The travel hack we discovered that morning was to sit down and get the attendant to write the ticket before they saw our American money (which they really don’t want). Sure enough, it worked! There was a little counting, recounting, grunting and calculators being slammed around, but I told the ticket taker how wonderful and amazing she was for helping us and the deal was done. 

So we were headed to Creel. And the ticket taker gave me change back. Life was good. 

Creel is a beautiful town and there’s plenty of fun places to explore nearby. The indigenous people are quite interesting. We hired a driver to take us to a beautiful waterfall, mushroom rock and to visit a family who were living in a cave. It would have been nice to spend a couple of days in Creel, but we were anxious to get to the canyon, so we decided to head out the following day.

I suppose I could have booked the trip through an agency, but the thrill of putting together my trips as I go outweighs the hassle usually. I had asked quite a few questions about riding El Chepe  and was told by our hotelier there was a train in the morning to take us to La Divideras,  the most popular stop in Copper Canyon. We went to the station with our luggage and waited. Nothing seemed to be happening. We asked several people and they confirmed the train was coming. 

It never came. We were approached by a guy who appeared to work at the station. He told us that the train wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow. Rather than spend another day in the same town, we opted to take a bus. The bus would supposedly get us to where we were going in 1 1/2 hours. Okay, we’d eventually catch up with El Chepe we decided. At some point we’d all arrive at a train station together and embark on our magical train voyage. The buses are pleasant enough in Mexico and very cheap.  Everyone has their own seat and they play movies in Spanish. We used the time to catch up on some writing and passed some beautiful scenery but when I looked at the map, we still had 3 hours to go to get to our destination. Had I misunderstood the ticket agent? 

Creel, Mexico Photo: Bill Wiatrak

The bus kept stopping to drop people off and we actually saw a guy get off and then get picked up 2 stops later. Were we going in circles? The bus seemed to barely creep up the mountains. Suddenly we arrived at an amazing view- THE VIEW it seemed… there were little souvenir stands and an epic drop-off unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I was sure the bus would stop for a photo, but it only stopped for an old woman to board. We were tempted to jump ship, but we already had our hotel booked and God knows when some other transport might come by. 

I started wondering how far our hotel would be from the bus station. We were going so slow I began to wonder if we’d even arrive during daylight. I miraculously had internet for a moment so I plugged the hotel into my map. Suddenly the signal was gone and my map disappeared. We drove another hour and then the bus stopped and everyone got off. Was this our destination?  I thought maybe it was further. The bus driver told us that he had passed where we wanted to go two hours ago. We were stranded in a little town that looked like it had never seen a tourist. 

A man in a truck was parked by the bus and the bus driver and he started talking about the dumb gringos. My Spanish is okay for basic things, but I’m not great with travel conversations without a map. I knew this town was on the Chepe line so maybe we could catch a train the next day or a bus back the opposite direction. We got the guy in the truck to give us a ride to the only hotel in the city. No one spoke English. So we were in a town that no ones ever heard of, with a two hour bus ride from where we’d booked our hotel. The only hotel in town was only $15/night so we paid and tried to come up with a plan. 

When we walked back to our room, we noticed 4 guys with machine guns outside our door. They had uniforms and didn’t look like they wanted to kill us. We said hello and one started speaking perfect English. They were hired to guard people coming out of the mines and the one speaking had lived in Utah for a few years. 

With his help, we talked to the lady who owned the hotel into finding a guy to drive us to Divisadera- it was only an hour or so by car. We gave her a finder’s fee and got dropped off at our hotel 90 minutes later… happy ending. 

We woke up early to a small cash problem. We had expected to find an ATM in Divisadero and there was none. In truth, there wasn’t much of anything except a few hotels, some rustic eateries and Mexico’s million dollar view of the canyon. It wouldn’t have been a huge problem but the hotel needed to be paid for, the tour was cash only and the train didn’t take anything but Mexican pesos. We couldn’t take a chance of not having enough cash for El Chepe and having to wait two more days to leave. Our hotel guy offered to take care of everything if we’d send money to his debit card. Seems easy enough doesn’t it? I called Wells Fargo and was told that Zelle, Venmo and Cashapp were not going to work and there was no way of doing such a transaction short of PayPal. I discovered an app called XOOM that allows money to be added to overseas friends’ accounts with only their debit card number. After I’d done everything, I discovered our guide wouldn’t get his money for 4 days. He found a credit card machine somewhere and we drove around the town trying to get a good enough signal to process a card. It worked! We were rich again! 

Our “tour” was really just a ride to the Copper Canyon Adventure Park which has some great views, a teleferico, a restaurant and a zip line. Not just any zip line, mind you. This one stretches all the way across the canyon. It’s billed as the longest one in the world and goes 95 km/hr. Our guide dropped us there and told us he’d be back in 4 hours. After waiting in a line that looked as if it was going nowhere, we were asked if we had a reservation. We replied no and were told that we could come back tomorrow. I pulled out my press card and suddenly there was a place for us. The problem was the weight limit was 200 lbs. I tried sucking it in, but the manager insisted that I go to the giant scale and get a real reading. 

When we came back with the results, I was told I couldn’t go, but Ryan could. I offered to take off some clothes, donate organs or spit a lot, but no one was amused. I enlisted a local’s help and had her tell them about my YouTube channel, that I was ridiculously famous and explain how I was only in town for a few hours and they needed to let me do what I do. There was some talking to managers, a few phone calls and suddenly I was in! In Mexico, “no” is always a potential “yes”. 

We got geared up and went to the drop zone . It wasn’t any scarier than jumping off the Zambezi gorge in Africa, but still there remained a giant leap of faith trusting the equipment and people who would be sending us hurtling across one of the world’s largest canyons. 

In a moment I was sitting in the cat seat waiting for blastoff. I held my iPhone tight so I could film the journey without dropping it. My case is good, but I don’t think it could survive that drop.

Once the attendants released me, I felt like I was skydiving. The gorge is so vast it’s difficult to judge your speed visually, but the wind whipping into your face let’s you know that you’re moving very fast. 

The canyons are breathtaking and once I relaxed a little, I tried filming the mountains rushing past me. I zipped through the finish line and the stop was just as dramatic as the start. Once I landed, we had about a 15 minute walk straight up the hill to catch the cable car back to where we had started. It dips very low into the valley before rising back up, so it provided a good opportunity to see the bottom of the canyon. 

Back at the “adventure park” we stopped in the restaurant. It’s known for its plexiglass floor but the hassle of putting on paper socks to walk on it killed the mood for me. It was a bigger crowd than I’ve seen since this COVID started and I find myself shying away from large groups

We grabbed a couple of delicious chili rellenos from the street vendors before heading to the train station and taking a picture with the famous Barrancas De Cobra sign. Then we waited. Could we get on this damn train after 3 unsuccessful attempts? Would it be going the right direction? Some days it goes one direction. Other days the opposite way; and as I can personally attest, some days it doesn’t go at all. 

After an hour, I heard the whistle blow and there she was! The kids were shouting El Chepe like the train was Zorro or something. We got on and that was that. It cost $45 and we began the 8 hour journey to the west coast. I had read that it was a luxury train, but it seemed like pretty standard European passenger cars. There were crying babies and blasting Tejano music but some amazing scenery I doubt one could see if you drove. I figured out that La Divisadero must be the halfway point between Chihuahua and Los Mochis. You could do both halves or just one. If I were to do the trip again, I think I’d take a bus to La Divisadera with a couple days in Creel and then take the train back to Chihuahua. I’d triple check the schedule, because you can’t believe anything anyone tells you.

I was half expecting to hear gunshots when the train pulled into Sinaloa. The state’s cartels are notorious and half a dozen people had warned me about unnecessary travel there. An Uber took us to our hotel in the center of town and the city looked pretty peaceful. We were a little restless after 8 hours in a train so we dropped by the casino next door. The Mexican casinos issue cards and you add cash credit to them so there’s no money changing hands. There’s nothing but slot machines as well. We decided to put up $10 and see what our luck might be. Within moments, Ryan was up almost $100 and I’d lost $5. Ryan was buying dinner tomorrow.

Our hotel had the best internet we’d seen all week and it was a nice feeling to be back in civilization. There’s not a lot to do in Los Mochis, but I found a botanical garden, a museum, a park and a plaza that looked interesting. The town was pretty mediocre to be honest, but we still captured some great shots in the gardens and met an interesting man along the way. 

At first I thought he might be homeless, but he started speaking to us in English and seemed pretty intelligent. He was standing next to a grocery cart with a few bottles in it and a few young kids were hanging out. He told us he was from Chihuahua, and I told him how impressed I was with his town and that we’d be there tomorrow to visit the house of Pancho Villa. He launched into a history lesson about senior Villa with dates, facts and figures that would have impressed Wikipedia. We filmed him for a bit, did some magic tricks for the kids and headed back to our hotel to grab our bags and catch up on social media. 

The Los Mochis airport was tiny and once we’d provided sufficient evidence we weren’t carrying Corona virus, we were let on our plane headed to Tijuana. Our final destination was Chihuahua, but the cheapest/most convenient flight option involved a 3 hour layover at Mexico’s most notorious border town. I hadn’t been in years, but TJ had been on my restaurant bucket list ever since I’d heard it was the birthplace of the Caesar salad. Ironically enough, I’d been in San Diego exactly 3 years ago before and had wanted to cross the border, but my traveling companion had forgotten to bring her passport. Everything eventually comes back around if you live long enough and our accidental stopover was just enough time to sample the famous salad if nothing went wrong. 

As soon as we landed I summoned an Uber and we were in downtown Tijuana in less than 20 minutes. The streets were bustling with souvenir shops, bars, pharmacies and hawkers offering everything from illegal drugs to prostitutes. As tempting as that all sounded, we were on a mission. I could think of nothing except trying that plate of romaine lettuce with a harmonious blend of dressing created almost 100 years before. The Caesar Hotel was impossible to miss, and below it, an outdoor high end restaurant with great views of the street. We sat down, ordered our salads and a side of escargot and started a Facebook live. 

The salad was 5 leaves of romaine with one giant crouton and a generous dollop of dressing on the leaves. The secret to a great Caesar is it’s dressing and I half expected to be disappointed. It was delicious! Just the right balance of everything. 

By the time we finished, we still had an hour before we needed to return to the airport. We walked through the souvenir alley, bought some street tacos and sampled some rattlesnake-infused tequila.

It was a short flight to Chihuahua and then we headed to El Paso after visiting Pancho Villa’s house. Of course we’ll have to visit the famous 100 year old Kentucky Bar in Juarez- it’s famous for having one of the most plausible claims to inventing the margarita. 

What did we learn from all of this? There’s a luxury El Chepe train that has a dining car, meal and is a short part of a tour package that includes stops at the same towns we stopped in. The train ride has some beautiful moments, but turning it into a week long trip seems a little long to me. The most beautiful section is La Divisadero. Creel is a great time as well.

Leave a reply