Dramatic trip into exotic locale sure to impress



Juim Fox/CP


The balcony at the Mirador Hotel offers spectacular views of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, seen in this photo.

It’s a long journey to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, but getting there is a big part of the attraction. In fact, it’s one of the world’s great train rides.

The Chihuahua Pacifico Railway train chugs six hours each way through about 80 tunnels and more than 35 bridges, climbing almost 2,200 metres on the trip.

Onboard cruise passengers are in for a ruggedly exotic and lengthy — at 18 hours — shore excursion.

The excursion from Holland America’s Ryndam makes it possible to absorb the splendour of Mexico’s Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) in one day.

“It is essential that you bring a spirit of adventure — this is not a typical train ride in any sense,” Holland America cautions passengers. Even so, the Copper Canyon trips are a sellout with long waiting lists and a $399 US price tag.

Leaving the ship in the pre-dawn darkness at Topolobampo on the Sea of Cortez, passengers arrive two hours later by bus in El Fuerte, a colonial town with cobblestone streets.

Winding through the twists and turns of the Sierra Madre Mountains in northwestern Mexico, the train passes towering waterfalls, crosses wild rivers and dramatic gorges and heads into the remote and beautiful wilderness.

The Chihuahua Pacifico Railway, known by the nickname “Chepe,” is an engineering marvel that took almost 90 years to build over the rugged terrain.

The train at first traverses flatlands when continental boxed breakfasts are served and a guide tells of what lies ahead.

Then, the views become spectacular, offering glimpses of rural Mexican life as a burro loaded with agave is led along a path and women wash clothes in fast-running streams.

The scenes change from fields of giant pipe organ cactus to pine-studded hills, slate-blue lakes and red cliffs around every corner.

The destination, Copper Canyon, is deeper in many parts than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and more verdant. Copper was never mined here, but the name derives from the green-coloured lichen clinging to the canyon walls.

Copper Canyon actually comprises six separate canyons covering almost 65,000 square kilometres and ranging from 1,000 metres to 1,870 metres deep. The Grand Canyon’s depth averages 1,220 metres.

About 60,000 reclusive Tarahumara Indians live primitively in Copper Canyon in caves and small huts.

They’re adept at making handicrafts, such as agave and pine-needle baskets, costumed dolls, pottery, drums and flutes. Many sell their wares to tourists at the canyon.

After arriving at the canyon’s Posada Barrancas station, passengers board a bus for a five-minute ride to the Posada Barrancas Convention Centre for a lunch of traditional Mexican favourites, including flour tortillas and corn-wrapped tamales. Then there‘s another short bus ride to the Mirador Hotel where the observation terrace hangs out over the canyon.

There’s only an hour or so to look around and take hikes before the return trip that follows the same route.

It’s 10 p.m. when passengers arrive back at the ship where they’re given a rousing welcome with an outdoor reception line including the captain, officers and crew, and an invitation to dinner in the Lido.

if you sail …

  • Holland America’s 1,258-passenger Ryndam features itineraries to the Sea of Cortez and Baja California round trip from San Diego. Cruise fares start at $999 US per person, double occupancy.