TRAVEL

How we did it: Our trip by road, rail to Mexico's Copper Canyon

2013-06-23T00:00:00Z How we did it: Our trip by road, rail to Mexico's Copper CanyonJoe LaTourrette For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Is Copper Canyon, Mexico really five times bigger than the Grand Canyon?

How come I didn't even know it existed?

Is it safe to travel to Mexico by car?

These are the kind of questions we got from some people when we mentioned that we were planning to drive deep into Mexico to visit the Copper Canyon.

My wife, Kathy, and I recently drove from Tucson to El Fuerte, Sinaloa, took the Chihuahua-Pacific (Chepe) train to Creel, Chihuahua, then rode with a contracted driver to the bottom of the canyon and out again on winding mountain roads.

We traveled with another couple from Tucson and worked with a small tour company in El Fuerte to line up lodging and drivers. The round-trip drive took four days and we were in the greater Copper Canyon area for about a week.

While planning our trip, we learned a lot about Copper Canyon, both online and from the library. But we were unable to find much accurate, up-to-date information about travel and safety conditions, especially in the canyon area itself. Although we have friends who have safely driven their own cars in Mexico, other people told us that we would be crazy to travel in Mexico by private automobile.

One trip to Copper Canyon does not qualify me to write a travel guide or certify that it is safe to travel in Mexico, but I thought it might be helpful to other travelers contemplating a road trip to Mexico, specifically Copper Canyon, to share some of our own observations about common concerns like safety, road conditions and documentation needed to drive in Mexico.

Traveling By Road

We traveled south from Nogales to El Fuerte, Sinaloa on Highway 15, a toll road that goes to Guaymas and San Carlos (where we stayed going down and back), through the city of Los Mochis, and all the way to Mexico City.

The highway is in good condition, although there was some road construction when we traveled. There are occasional toll booths, where you may either pay with cash (65 pesos) or credit card.

The trip into the canyon has its challenges, and for this reason I'd recommend working with a reputable tour company to make lodging and travel arrangements. It's also smart to hire an experienced driver with a safe vehicle that is equipped for unpaved and lightly traveled roads.

The main road to the bottom of Copper Canyon goes from Creel to Batopilas, a distance of about 88 miles and a vertical drop of more than 6,000 feet. The road is famous for its switchback turns, but it is being improved and paved.

As of our trip, all but about the last 25 miles has been paved. The rest was under construction.

We left Creel at 8 a.m. on March 2 with a local guide secured by Cristina's Canyon Tours in El Fuerte. He drove a GMC Suburban with good tires, good clearance and air conditioning.

The temperature when we left Creel was 26 degrees; when we reached Batopilas five hours later, it was almost 90 degrees. If you make this trip, consider traveling in the fall or early spring. The winter weather is very cold in the mountains, including Creel, and it gets very hot in the canyon after about mid-March.

The trip down was scenic and uneventful until the pavement suddenly ended at a row of road barriers and working construction equipment. When we were allowed to proceed it was slow going since the road was narrow and full of boulders. (This is when you'll be glad you hired a good driver!)

We reached Batopilas in a little over five hours. When the road improvement and paving is completed, the drive from Creel to Batopilas should only take about four hours.

After two nights in Batopilas we set out with our same guide to drive up and out of Copper Canyon, but on a new and different route. Instead of going back up to Creel, we made a huge loop on a road that was only cut through the mountains about two years ago.

This new road took us from Batopilas, over three mountain passes, to the town of Urique on the river of the same name, then on through the village of Cerocahui and back to Bahuichivo, which is on the Chepe railroad line.

The new road is narrow, winding and unpaved. The trip from Batopilas to Bahuichivo took more than 10 hours and we only saw one other vehicle on the road - from another tour company. Because we had a good driver and a vehicle in decent mechanical condition with good clearance, we never felt in danger.

Air conditioning was important because the road was so dusty in places that it was not advisable to open the windows.

Someday, this new road will be paved. Until then, if you don't mind long rides, it is almost certainly the best land route you can arrange if you want to see the most you can of Copper Canyon.

Traveling by train

The Chihuahua-Pacific (Chepe) Railroad runs daily between Los Mochis, near the Sea of Cortez, to Chihuahua City, a distance of about 400 miles. It is the primary way to get to the Copper Canyon, especially for tourists.

The scenic train trip crosses many beautiful rivers and high bridges near the canyon rim, but does not actually descend into the canyon. Travelers who only take the train without stopping overnight along the way will only see the full depth of the Copper Canyon from one overlook during a 15-minute to 20-minute stop each way at the Divisadero train stop.

The first-class fares are reasonable, about $200 round trip. More information about the Chepe can be found at chepe@ferromex.com.mx

We boarded the eastbound train in El Fuerte, about 50 miles east of Los Mochis, and made a long vertical climb to our final destination of Creel, at 7,600 feet. At times the train moved very slowly, at one point even turning 360 degrees to make the steep grade; the full trip from El Fuerte to Creel takes about seven hours.

Our train trip was a very positive experience. The trains were clean, comfortable and on-time, and the railroad personnel were courteous and helpful. The railroad has its own security and we felt totally safe, both on the train and in the various train stations we used.

What you need to know about driving in Mexico

Permits and documentation

• About 13 miles south of the border we had to stop and go into a government office to obtain individual tourist visas - which must be surrendered at the border when you leave Mexico. To get a Mexican tourist card you need to show your passport or birth certificate.

• If you only plan to drive within the western part of the state of Sonora, and no farther south than about Guaymas, your trip will be within Sonora's "Hassle-Free Zone" and you will not need to buy a Mexican Vehicle Permit. Since we were driving all the way to El Fuerte in the state of Sinaloa, we did need to buy a vehicle permit - which included a large decal for our windshield. We also had to post a refundable bond of $400 U.S. to ensure that we would bring our car back out of the country.

• To get the permit, you must document that you have purchased Mexican car insurance. And you need to provide an original and two copies of your passport, driver's license and automobile registration. If you are driving a rented or leased vehicle you will also need a copy of your rental or lease contract. (If you don't have copies, an on-site copy center will make them for a nominal fee.)

• All of your documents should be in the name of the person driving across the border.

• The vehicle permit and surety bond must be paid in cash or secured with a credit card. I paid for everything with my Visa card.

• The whole process of securing tourist visas, a vehicle permit ($30) and the surety bond only took about 30 minutes. The Mexican authorities were polite and efficient. They returned all my original documents and gave me copies of everything else, including Visa card receipts. Everyone spoke English.

On our way home, we turned in our tourist visas and vehicle permit at the border checkpoint and we were on our way in a few minutes. After about 10 days, a $400 refund for my vehicle surety bond showed up on my Visa statement.

Traveling by car

• There are plenty of Pemex gasoline stations, many adjacent to clean, modern Oxxo convenience stores. Some stations accept credit cards, others only pesos; they have both 87 and 91 octane gasoline.

• The speed limits on Highway 15 are about the same as state highways in Arizona.

• We encountered absolutely no safety issues or serious travel problems driving in Mexico. We saw police cars monitoring traffic, but were never stopped or questioned by anyone. The speed limits are of course reduced around Hermosillo and other congested areas. In case you forget to slow down, there are lots of speed bumps to remind you. Some are marked, others are not.

• Try to stay on the main roads. Use toll roads like Highway 15 when possible; they are usually in better condition and safer than other parallel roads.

• Follow speed limits and don't drive on highways at night if you can avoid it.

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