November 11, 2023

The Copper Canyon train: World's Longest Day Trip?

It's 4am and the alarm clock is going ape.

We tumble out of bed, shower, dress, and with hardly a word spoken, head for the Lido Restaurant where strong coffee may, just may, make us feel human.

Two hundred other hardy souls are already there, staring blankly at steaming coffee, or almost sullenly pushing scrambled eggs, pancakes and maple syrup around their plates. Few say much; a colleague mumbles “Morn’” as she stabs a fractious tomato that refuses to stay attached to her fork.

Just one group is full of chatter, excitedly comparing cameras and massive lenses, discussing exposures, shutter speeds, double-enders, four-headers, turn-outs and something called a “rising tunnel helix.”

They’re rail buffs, and today’s the main reason they’re aboard the cruise liner Ryndam that we joined in San Diego a few days earlier, and which overnight slipped into the Mexican port of Topolobampo so we can join the train to the legendary Barranca del Cobre – Mexico’s Copper Canyon that’s four times the land area of the Grand Canyon and 2,200m high in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

It’s still dark as we’re summonsed to our fleet of coaches waiting on the dock to take us the 1.5hrs to El Fuerte, where we board the Chihuahua al Pacifico Express for the so-called “Train Ride in the Sky.”

We rumble out of El Fuerte as golden sunbeams rise up over the distant mountains to which we’re heading; the shutter-bugs crowd open windows at the doorways as we wind through arid cactus country and snake into the first of eighty-seven tunnels on the train’s 13-hour journey to Chihuahua.

We start climbing into the mountains, hugging narrow escarpments, clicketty-clacking over seemingly endless bridges (there are a near-40 on the line,) past little villages displaying colourful Mexican Indian blankets and handicrafts for travellers driving the road alongside the rail track.

Our guide explains how the train was first conceived in 1861 to link booming Wichita in Kansas, across Oklahoma, and through the Sierra Madres to the cargo of ships from the Orient at Topolobampo.

Some passengers are playing cards, others reading, some beseeching Gard as to how long its goin’ a-be before we get there.

The rail buffs and ourselves are amongst a seeming handful actually enjoying the train ride for the train ride itself – not because it’s the means of getting to Barranca del Cobre.

Hearty boxed snacks are offered mid-morning as we U-turn along one side of a long river valley, across a bridge at the end, and back up the other side. Our guide tells us there’s soon an even more unusual 180-degree turn to come – in a tunnel with the train amazingly rising all the time to cross over itself inside a mountain and emerge 200 metres higher up than it entered… the rail buffs’ “rising tunnel helix.”

Then we’re rolling into tiny Posada Barrancas, alighting just before noon on the very cusp of the Copper Canyon to marvel at its enormity. In fact it is five canyons, a spectacular interconnecting jumble of razor-back peaks and deep ravines that seemingly stretch forever, and it bears not a gram of copper: the name derives from the colour of lichens growing on the rocks.

And away from the hot, dusty, cactus-littered flats of the coast, we’re now amid cool pines, conifers and patches of rainforest fed by an annual 1300mm of rain.

The cliff-hugging Hotel Mirador boasts one of the world’s most spectacular views: we enjoy a buffet lunch here, a performance by local Indian dancers and the opportunity to buy intricate needlework, hand-woven blankets, jewellery and pottery.

Then mid-afternoon its back aboard the train for the long run back down the mountain to El Fuerte and our coach to our ship.

We arrive dockside just before 11pm and are surprised to find the Captain and his senior officers resplendent in their white uniforms waiting to greet us on the pier... and to let us know they’ve kept restaurants and bars open for us.

We’ve been on road and rail 18-hours, covered 620km and wonder if today’s has been the world’s longest day excursion?


The Copper Canyon train costs US$399pp including snacks and lunch; for details of Holland America Line cruises to Mexico and visiting the Canyon see travel agents, phone (02) 8296 7072 or check-out

- David Ellis

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