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Cartels and canyons: This rail route offers fearless travellers an alternative side of Mexico

The 350 kilometre train route takes 10 hours to travel through the stunning Copper Canyon.
The 350 kilometre train route takes 10 hours to travel through the stunning Copper Canyon. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Katya Skvortsova with AFP
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Departing from Los Mochis in Sinaloa, the Chepe Express train takes passengers on an awe-inspiring trip through Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

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From the heartland of a notorious drug cartel to rugged mountains which are home to Indigenous communities, the Chepe Express is the most popular way to travel through Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

It makes four stops along the way with the journey lasting around 10 hours. The route has been recognised as one of the greatest rail trips in the world by National Geographic.

See an alternative side of Mexico

With the exception of urban rail systems and a short tourist service in the tequila producing region of Jalisco, the Chepe Express is Mexico's sole passenger train. It offers a unique perspective on the country rarely experienced elsewhere.

Traveller Christophe Schild from France describes exploring Mexico through this train journey as a good alternative to visiting more popular destinations.

"It's another way of discovering Mexico. Of course, many people know the big Mexican cities like Cancun or Acapulco. But we want to discover it another way, so this train's the chance to do so,” he said.

What route does Mexico’s El Chepe train take?

El Chepe takes its name from the roughly 350 kilometre route it follows through the Copper Canyon.

It pulls out of Los Mochis in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, heading for the town of Creel in the mountains of Chihuahua.

Along the route, passengers are treated to breathtaking views of mountains, farmlands and rivers. Copper Canyon is four times bigger than the Grand Canyon in the US and takes its name from the copper colour of its walls.

As the train ascends alongside steep canyon walls, it crosses 37 bridges and 86 tunnels.

Beyond its sights, the Copper Canyon is home to the Raramuri Indigenous people, also referred to as Tarahumara.

Famous for their long-distance running ability, the Tarahumara people hosted an ultramarathon in March racing against athletes from around the world.

Is it safe to travel on the El Chepe train?

Visitors are encouraged to stay informed about the current situation with travel advisories about crime and potential kidnapping.

But, despite a dark history that includes past crimes targeting tourists, armed groups have generally respected the safety of visitors.

"You don't want to stop living. On tours like these you're not walking in the midst of drug cartel wars," says Adair Margo, a visitor from the US who brought her family on the rail trip.

This fact, however, does not negate the need for caution when travelling.

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During summer, Mexican travellers dominate the passenger list, but at other times of the year almost half of the people on the train are foreigners.

For deputy train manager Emilio Carrazco, boarding the Chepe Express is not about taking risks.

"I get on the train and I feel in the safest part of the world. I come here to the Sierra and all the people here are very friendly, very grateful that tourists come,” he said.

The Chepe express departs every day except Saturday, year-round.

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Watch the video above to see the El Chepe train’s awe-inspiring journey.

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