Mexico: Cowboys and engines in the true Wild West
Chihuahua is not just a dog but the largest state in Mexico, with mountain ranges that dwarf the Grand Canyon
The El Chepe train trundles along, old-school big windows and bendy walks between carriages, clickety clacking above canyons, snaking rivers and isolated farmsteads straight out of The Little House on the Prairie.
Indigenous native tribes people sell their wares in the sleepy villages or stations along sections of its 665km route.
Welcome to the true Wild West.
When it comes to cowboy movies, we think of the United States, but you can really get a feel of that era south of the US. Borders are the big talking point nowadays, but back in the 1800s, Mexico swept from the humid climes of Central America right up through states such as Texas and California, along the Rocky Mountains as far up as the edge of Oregon.
Ironically, for a place best known as the home of some of the world’s smallest dogs, Chihuahua, home of El Chepe, is the largest of Mexico’s 31 states. And at three times bigger than the island of Ireland, it packs in a host of things to experience.
Situated off the beaten track, bordering Texas and New Mexico, it’s not a tourist-filled trap and this is a huge part of its attraction. Now, though, it’s getting much easier to reach, with a one-stop connection from Dublin via Dallas, and then a flight of an hour and a half from the single-terminal US airport (see panel).
El Chepe is an ideal way to reach the state’s crowning glory, Copper Canyon — Mexico’s answer to its better known neighbour, the Grand Canyon, across in the States. The area is a huge system of ridges, spanning 25,000 square miles, dwarfing Nevada’s version.
As the express train only travels part of the route, you’ll have to take the slower train from the state’s major town, Chihuahua City (more on there later). It’s over six hours, but the journey — argued to be the best train journey in the Western hemisphere — is worth it. The Divisadero station stop is handy, dropping you at the top of Copper Canyon. And there’s nothing more I like to do than zipline or walk on ropes above rock faces with a 1.1 mile drop to the bottom. Kidding, but I did it anyway!
The Barrancas Del Cobre park is a must-do — even if you’re not mad about heights. It boasts the longest system of ziplines in the world— 5km in all — with riders travelling at speeds of up to 110km per hour. If that’s not creepy enough, it has a system of walking rope bridges, with only the exotic birds for company up there. If you’re a wuss, there’s always a cable car, but don’t forget to bring the camera.
I stayed at the nearby Hotel Divisadero Barrancas, right on the top of a cliff and a stone’s throw from the train station. With its wilderness setting, it’s one of the best places I’ve been to for stargazing, with the Milky Way opening up as the hotel lights dimmed and I sat on my balcony.
Nearby is Creel (an hour on the train), one of Mexico’s designated Magic Towns — so-called because of their attractions for visitors. In an area that’s home to the native Raramuri people (many of whom still live high up in the mountains, along cliff edges, preserving their way of life), you’ll hear their ancient language along with Spanish on the streets.
The town itself is pure small-town America, and cowboy hats are still firmly in fashion in these parts. But Creel is also a great base for visiting local attractions, such as the nearby Valley of the Monks.
The area is home to rock formations that are sacred to the Raramuri. Guide books call them ‘mushroom-like’; locals — and me — think they look more like male, well, you get the idea... The local 3 Amigos centre offers three-hour guided tours of the rocks for around US$100. And the best part? You get to ride your own giant ATV — basically a souped-up quad bike, with room for a passenger behind you. Definitely recommended.
What you won’t expect to find in Mexico are people who, to the untrained eye, are straight out of the Eighties movie Witness, starring Harrison Ford as a cop out of place in a rural Amish community. But Chihuahua is home to 90,000 Mennonites, who have the same roots in 16th-century German Protestantism as the better known Amish. Originally from Central Europe (old West Prussia to be precise), they moved down from Canada in the 1920s with the promise of good land and freedom of religion.
They’re still here today, and live the simple farming life of the Amish — their cheese is renowned — and you can visit them if you like. I met up with Abraham Peters, a grandfather farmer who lives with his wife Katharina about an hour and a half, but an era away, from the big city.
It’s an area of horses and buggies, but many Mennonites have also embraced technology, and SUVs and computers are commonplace, even in lives dedicated to farming, family and simplicity. They’re so modern, in fact, that Mennonites own pizzerias, and the local one, Los Arcos, is excellent.
If arriving from Ireland, or preparing to fly home, spare at least a day and a half for the big city of Chihuahua. About three-quarters of the size of Dublin. At first glance, it looks like a bit of Spain, with grand boulevards, Belle Epoque buildings and charming squares. But you know you’re on the other side of the Atlantic when you see Stetson-clad guys and their well-dressed gals dancing to country and Mexican tunes in front of the sprawling 18th-century cathedral.
The city is also home to a museum dedicated to national hero Pancho Villa, possibly best described as the country’s Michael Collins, who led a revolt on behalf of the country’s peasants. And watch out for a picture of Anthony Quinn, a friend of Villa’s widow. Born in Chihuahua to a Mexican mother and Cork-born father, the Hollywood actor is still a legend in these parts. A far away place, but there’s always a connection to Ireland...
Although exotic, Chihuahua City is almost directly west of Houston in Texas, and farther north than cities such as Miami. Getting there is easier from June 6, with non-stop flights from Dublin to Dallas with American Airlines (aa.com), which has great short-hop connections to Mexico, including Chihuahua City.
Watch out for specials given that it’s a new route.
DIY to Mexico is easy, but a little Spanish goes a long way. If you want the ease of an organised package, specialists, including trailfinders.ie, with offices in Dublin, offer all-in choices.
Where to stay
Mark stayed at Copper Canyon’s Divisadero Barrancas, bookable through all major hotel sites, including Booking.com and TripAdvisor.
In Creel, I recommend the Best Western, which although a chain hotel, has been lovingly created in Wild West log-cabin style with all the creature comforts, in the heart of the tourist town. bestwestern.com.
In Chihuahua City, I stayed at the mid-range Quality Inn Chihuahua San Francisco, in the city centre beside the cathedral. qualityinnchihuahua.com
Activity-wise, you can check out the Copper Canyon park at parquebarrancas.com. It’s Spanish-only, so translate via Google Chrome.
El Chepe train fares start from around €15 return, and increase depending on length of journey and whether you want to go standard or first class. Tickets are bookable in advance or on the day of the journey.
Find the 3 Amigos tourist centre at amigos3.com.
For more details on the region, check out visitmexico.com
This feature originally ran in The Herald.