RV caravan companies organize piggyback train rides into this beautiful part of Mexico, giving motorhomers a chance to experience Mexico “in depth.”
By Lazelle D. Jones
Nowhere does the expression “Ay, Chihuahua!” find a better fit than when it comes to describing an RV piggyback caravan aboard a train through Mexico’s Copper Canyon. It’s a trek that caravan companies know will impress you, and they’re right.
The Copper Canyon is located in the northwestern Mexico state of Chihuahua. Rail travel through the canyon is made possible by the Chihuahua al Pacifico (Chihuahua to Pacific) railroad. The tracks took more than a half-century to build and were completed in 1961.
Between Los Mochis, a town on the west coast of Mexico, and the city of Chihuahua, several hundred miles inland, the train traverses 87 tunnels and 39 bridges. Inside one mountain tunnel, the train makes a full U-turn. Making this piggyback railroad adventure even more special is the fact that only RV enthusiasts can enjoy it.
Several RV caravan companies offer this adventure, and because of positive word-of-mouth from those who have experienced it, more people than ever before are taking it. You live in your motorhome while it’s securely anchored (chained and choked) to a flatbed railroad car, while a locomotive pulls the train through Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains and the Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon.
Seeing the Copper Canyon in and of itself is spectacular and could be considered a complete adventure if nothing else were included. But caravan companies also feature excursions and activities during the days leading up to boarding the train. First-rate adventures are enjoyed after leaving the train as well, as the caravan makes its way north, back to the United States.
Caravan companies work with the season, which means that they schedule these caravans in the fall and winter months, when temperatures are at the most pleasant in Mexico. Many North American motorhome enthusiasts live within a three-day drive of the Mexican border where these odysseys begin. Since piggyback RV caravans are offered between October and March, many snowbirds who migrate to the warmer climes anyway are taking advantage of the mild Mexican winter and the Copper Canyon trip. Augmented by dramatic landscapes, topography that extends from the sea to snowcapped volcanoes; bustling, high-energy cities; and laid-back colonial villages that are peopled by warm, friendly folk, an RV caravan to Mexico can be the experience of a lifetime.
Many practical reasons make it wise to visit Mexico by RV caravan. Mexico has a legal system (based upon Napoleonic law) that is different than the one in the United States. Spanish is spoken and written there. But the RVers who will guide you on your tour know where RV service facilities are located, and their expertise extends to practically everything you need to know about the trip.
When it’s time to cross the border, caravan tour experts can advise you on which documents you need and which items cannot be taken into the country. They’re also well-versed in the types of insurance you’ll need; some agents either can sell it to you or direct you to companies that provide it.
Your stay in Mexico will be pleasant because your guides know about laundry facilities, potable water, mail, restaurant tipping, government road service, shopping, the Mexican telephone system, and more. And your sense of security will be enhanced because you’re in a group that can assist you in case of a medical emergency or a mechanical breakdown.
Each caravan is guided by a professional RV enthusiast called a wagon master, who is familiar with Mexico. This is usually a husband-and-wife team. Many are fluent in Spanish and have developed good working relationships with the Mexican businesses that cater to RV travelers. The wagon masters know how to efficiently get caravan participants and their RVs into Mexico, and how to obtain the appropriate vehicle permits and tourist visas. The wagon master’s expertise also is appreciated when the caravan returns to the United States, too.
Caravan companies make all campground arrangements and reserve space for each RV on the railroad. The price of the caravan package usually includes several meals in excellent eateries along the way; these are places that are familiar to the wagon master. The caravan company also arranges for the tours and tour guides, with buses usually provided to take those in the caravan from the campgrounds (or the railroad) to the local sites. The caravan company provides detailed lists of things that RVers need to do before they depart and lists of items that each participant should bring.
Following at the rear of the caravan as it travels is a tail-gunner coach. The tail-gunner RV is usually occupied by a husband-and-wife team also; typically, the husband also is a skilled RV mechanic. This coach is the last to leave camp in the morning and the last to arrive at the campground at night. The tail-gunner ensures that everyone completes each part of the journey. If a participant’s coach develops mechanical problems, the tail-gunner can help get the RV back on the road, or knows where to get the RV repaired and on its way.
Wagon masters request that each RV in the caravan have a CB radio. It’s a great way for them to communicate helpful information to everyone in the group, such as to warn of upcoming speed bumps; tell where and when to turn; and more. The tail-gunner uses the CB radio to notify the wagon master when everyone has completed a border crossing or passed a checkpoint, or when everyone has turned at the correct intersection. Should those in the caravan have any questions, they can use the CB to talk with the wagon master.
Another important reason to join a caravan is the opportunity to experience camaraderie. You can make new friends during one of these adventures, and that’s a benefit that cannot be assigned a dollar value.
The tour begins
Copper Canyon RV tours often begin in El Paso, Texas. I took a 16-day caravan offered by Fantasy RV Tours that began in El Paso and concluded in Nogales, Arizona. The following is an idea of what you might expect on such an adventure, regardless of which company sells you your tour.
We rendezvoused at an El Paso campground where an orientation was held and a get-acquainted party was hosted by the wagon master. Usually at this time, participants can ask the tail-gunner to take a last-minute look at their RV, in case they have any last-minute questions about its readiness for the journey.
On the first day, our caravan traveled south, taking rest stops and a lunch stop between the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez and the city of Chihuahua.
The deeper into Mexico we drove, the more quaint and charming the passing scenery became. Mexico Route 45 is a four-lane road in very good condition. Toll roads were used by the caravan whenever the wagon master deemed it would benefit everyone.
When we reached the outskirts of the city of Chihuahua, the wagon master told everyone via the CB radio which lane to be in, and at which intersections they needed to turn. Of course, you simply can follow along, too, without needing a radio. The tail-gunner uses the CB to notify the wagon master when everyone has completed the necessary stops, turns, and so on. This CB communication method is very helpful.
By the time we reached Chihuahua, one of the things I noticed was the substantial availability of gasoline and diesel fuel. In Mexico, the petroleum industry (called Pemex) and all of the service stations are owned by the government. In addition to fuel, these service stations offer other items in mini-marts similar to those in the United States and Canada.
Both the state and the city of Chihuahua have a rich and colorful history. One of the city’s most notable characters is Pancho Villa, a desperado-turned-revolutionary who aided in the overthrow of the Mexican government in the 1910s. A side tour that most caravanners enjoy is to Pancho Villa’s home, which now is called the Museum of the Revolution. Magnificent murals adorn the walls inside. Villa’s personal effects, along with many period pieces, are included. The old Dodge truck that Villa was driving while assassinated is on display, with the bullet holes clearly visible. Visitors also can stroll through the home’s garden.
Mennonites in Mexico
After touring Chihuahua, our group made its next overnight stop at a Mennonite colony in the town of Cuauhtemoc, roughly 60 miles west of the city. Approximately 60,000 Mennonites call Mexico home. We stayed at an excellent RV campground in town that was operated by a Mennonite family. The family also conducts guided tours of a local Mennonite cheese factory and the one-room schoolhouse that is still being used for its intended purpose. The Mennonites settled here in 1923 after leaving Canada because of their religious convictions. They hold dual citizenship (Mexican and Canadian), with the only requirement being that, before the age of 18, each child or young adult must spend a year living in Canada. German is spoken here and is taught in the school. Spanish is a second language.
Time for the train
Two hours farther west is the town of La Junta, where our RVs were loaded onto flatbed railroad cars. The loading process is fascinating to watch and takes approximately four hours. The train is ample in size and can accommodate not only motorhomes, but fifth-wheels and travel trailers, too.
Everyone spent the next five days on the train as it wound its way through Copper Canyon. This canyon is part of the Sierra Madre mountains and is four times larger than the Grand Canyon — and nearly 300 feet deeper. From La Junta, we rode the train for 279 miles, crossing nearly every type of topography and climate zone on the way southwest to the Sea of Cortez.
Nearly 50,000 Tarahumara Indians live in the canyon in simple dwellings or in caves, as they have for centuries. The women especially enjoy bright, colorful cloth and fashion all of their garments from the same. The men are known for their prowess in long-distance running and hold competitions that can cover more than 100 miles.
The train set off at 7:00 a.m. each day and took us farther, higher, and deeper into canyon country, and then down and out again. The train typically stopped at noon near one of the many villages that lace the mountains. Markets full of merchandise sprang up as the train pulled into towns such as Creel, Divisadero, Cuiteco, Bahuichivo, Temoris, and El Fuerte. Guides hired by the caravan company were waiting to meet us in these towns, and they immersed us in yet another cultural experience. We enjoyed excellent dinners in high-mountain eateries in the evening as the train made its way down the canyon. This is simply one of the grandest ways to visit colonial Mexico.
The Sea of Cortez
When the train reached the town of Los Mochis near the Sea of Cortez, the RVs were off-loaded, and the next exciting leg of our journey began. The caravan company may arrange for the caravan to spend the night at a campground in Los Mochis or begin heading northward, making stops and overnight stays at campgrounds near small towns such as Alamos, or the city of Guaymas.
We visited the latter. Guaymas has been a favorite spot among RV enthusiasts for years. A five-star RV campground called El Mirador RV Park is located minutes north of Guaymas on the shores of San Carlos Bay. It includes a superb restaurant and offers guests 50-amp shore power, a coin laundry, and even a concierge who can make arrangements for excursions such as whale watching, deep-sea fishing, and shopping in town. Guaymas is known for a pearl factory that is located at the water’s edge. Here, the combination of cultured pearls and Mexican silver are blended to create some of the most beautiful jewelry found anywhere.
Time to go home
On the final day of the caravan, we drove 250 miles to the border at Nogales. The drive revealed why the Mexican state of Sonora is referred to as the “breadbasket of Mexico.” Grain is grown there in huge quantities. Beer made with this grain is regarded as some of the world’s finest, and breweries could be spotted as the caravan wove its way through the city of Hermosillo. Linking Guaymas to Nogales is Mexico Route 15, a well-maintained, four-lane highway. This final day of the trip revealed foothills, cities, farmlands, and ranches. We traveled at speeds between 50 and 55 miles per hour and completed our crossing back into the United States by late afternoon.
From start to finish, our Copper Canyon caravan was unforgettable. It proved to be a grand way to experience the dramatic scenery and rich culture of northwestern Mexico — from the comfort of our rolling homes.
The following companies provide RV piggyback caravan trips on the Chihuahua al Pacifico train through Copper Canyon.
Adventure Caravans, C6954
124 Rainbow Drive, #2434
Livingston, TX 77399-1024
Fantasy Caravans Inc., C5644
103 W. Tomichi Ave., Suite C
Gunnison, CO 81230
Tracks To Adventure Inc., C1034
2811 Jackson Ave.
El Paso, TX 79930