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2013 and earlier

Copper Canyon

Cracks on tracks, delays because of leaves and wrong types of snow. Forget all that. To spend a day on the Copper Canyon Railway is to sit back, enjoy the scenery and experience what train travel should be like.

The adventure begins in northwest Mexican town of El Fuerte, a sleepy town dominated by its Spanish fort. The daily train from the Pacific Coast city of Los Mochis is timetabled to arrive here at 7.30am but locals assure me it always arrives at 8.30am. "Mexican trains aren’t like European trains," says one man, reading my confused expression at this information as disappointment at its lateness. I don’t tell him about Britain’s railways!

There is no platform at El Fuerte - passengers wait in the morning sun (scorching by 8am), by or even on the tracks. Nor are there any porters - though the local children who stampede to carry rucksacks and suitcases as big as they are would make short work of anyone trying to move in on their trade.

At 8.30am precisely, a great single headlight beams into view - from this distance the train looks just like Casey Jones’ steam engine. A minute later and with a deafening whistle blowing, the great red engine is beside us. I ask the guard why there is no steam; he explains patiently that diesel trains don’t tend to produce steam and I feel suitably humbled.

The Chihuahua-Pacifico Railway, to give its official name, was built to give Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua access to the Pacific Ocean via the state of Sinaloa. Construction began in 1872, but as the only route to the sea was straight through the peaks and valleys of the Sierra Madre mountain range, it was a slow and tortuous process, not finally completed until 1961. It was worth the wait - today the railway’s 407 miles of track wind through the mountains (there are between 86 and 99 tunnels depending on who you talk to) and over mountain rivers (via its 39 bridges), making the journey one of the most spectacular in the world.

Arguably the best thing about this railway is that you can get off and explore the region. The views from the train are dizzying as it twists and climbs, through the canyons from low-lying El Fuerte to the highest point on the line at Creel (over 2300m).

The first great overall view is the stop at Divisidero, about six hours into the journey. You are given just enough time to leave the train, gawp at the huge split in the peaks that is the canyon, devour a rail-side taco and get back on again. For the ultimate room with a view, you can opt to stay at one of the handful of comfortable hotels here, situated right on the canyon rim.

For those looking to explore the wider region, probably the best place to make a longer stop is Creel, the commercial centre of the Tarahumara Indian community.

Creel is a small town, and makes a good base for excursions into one of the many side-canyons or to the impressive 806 feet high Basaseachi waterfalls. Outdoor activities include hiking, mountain biking and horse-riding.

This part of Mexico is truly off the beaten track and whether you just take the Copper Canyon train straight to Chihuahua, or stop and take time to explore the region as a whole, you won’t just feel like you are getting away from it all - you really will be.

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