Sep 022010

The Copper Canyon region is one of the most remote parts of Mexico. This remoteness helps to explain why the area is the home of about 50,000 Tarahumara Indians, and how they have managed to preserve much of their highly distinctive culture to this day.

The Copper Canyon railroad line, “the most dramatic train ride in the Western Hemisphere” (Reader’s Digest), begins in Ojinaga and continues, via Chihuahua, to Los Mochis and Topolobampo. The railroad was started in the 1870s to enable produce grown in southern Texas to be exported via a Pacific port. Simultaneously, the twin settlements of Los Mochis and its port Topolobampo were developed on the other side of the Western Sierra Madre. The railroad project floundered and successive attempts to complete it all failed. Some innovative engineering finally led to the line being completed in 1961. Total cost? Over $100 million.

The highlights include a 360-degree loop at El Lazo (km 585 from Ojinaga), one of only three comparable examples anywhere in North America), and a 180-degree turn inside a tunnel near Temoris at km 708. The line crosses the Continental Divide three times, reaches a maximum height of 2400 m (at km 583) and skirts the rim of the Copper Canyon. Between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, there are 37 bridges (totaling 3.6 km) and 86 tunnels (totaling 17.2 km). Almost all passenger rail services in Mexico ended in the 1990s but daily services continue along this line, mainly for tourists.

Tarahumara Indians wait for a sale at Divisadero, the station on the rim

Tarahumara Indians wait for a sale at Divisadero, the station on the canyon rim. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Almost all trains stop for a few minutes at Divisadero, a station set right on the rim of the canyon, with a lookout offering a magnificent panoramic view. Shy Tarahumara women and children sit quietly, weaving pine-needle baskets (see photo) and hoping for a sale. Many of them speak very little Spanish apart from the numbers; on the other hand, how many tourists speak even one word of the Tarahumara language? Thirty years ago, most articles sold by the women were items similar to ones they would use everyday themselves in their daily tasks. Sadly, many of the articles sold today are made specifically for the tourist trade.

Unlike the railway, Los Mochis and Topolobampo both soon flourished. Topolobampo was started by US engineer Albert Kimsey Owen who chose this previously unsettled area for a socialist colony based on sugar-cane production, and as the terminus for the railway. Topolobampo has one of Mexico’s finest natural harbors, a drowned river valley or ria, which affords a safe haven in the event of storms. Los Mochis was officially founded in 1893 by a second American, Benjamin Johnston, who built a sugar factory there.

Los Mochis became especially important in the second half of the twentieth century as a major commercial center, marketing much of the produce grown on the vast El Fuerte irrigation scheme. Much of this produce is still exported to the USA via the famous Copper Canyon railway. Los Mochis and Topolobampo are unusual—there are few other examples of such “new towns”, with no colonial or pre-Hispanic antecedents, anywhere else in Mexico.

Previous Geo-Mexico posts related to the Copper Canyon:

External links of interest:

Chapter 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico is devoted to Mexico’s indigenous peoples, including the Tarahumara Indians. If you have enjoyed this post, please suggest to your local library that they purchase a copy to enhance their collection.


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