I knew that setting off for north-west Mexico with my two children in mid-July held some risk. We faced a long journey; it was the rainy season and there was the email I had received the day before. "Please be aware there are snakes and scorpions in the area and no barriers at cliff lodge."
Acting on a request from my son, Jonathan, just turned 16, for an "adventure" holiday, I had impulsively booked six days with a Texas- based company, Canyon Travel, which offers custom-made tours of the Copper Canyon region high in the Sierra Madre in the state of Chihuahua. Never mind that my daughter, Polly, 12, required nothing more of a holiday than a beach or a pool and that she would be seeing neither.
After landing in Los Mochis on the Pacific coast, we travelled inland for 90 minutes in a raging thunderstorm to the Hotel Rio Vista in the colonial town of El Fuerte, where Chal, the hotel owner, was a bit too gleeful. In years of working with Canyon Travel only 10 children had ever made the trip. Searching our room for venomous creatures, Polly gingerly requested that she be allowed to go home - her first and only wobbly moment of the week. The focus of our trip was to be a train or, more precisely, the Chihuahua al Pacifico, or El Chepe. Opened in 1961, after 90 years of construction, and running 400 miles from the Pacific to Chihuahua City, the line climbs to elevations of 8,200ft, clings for some of the way to the sides of narrow gorges, corkscrews in mountain tunnels and skirts the Copper Canyon, actually made up of several mile-deep canyons which together are four times bigger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Mexico's best-kept tourist secret, El Chepe, offers two classes of train - the economica and the primera express - with one daily departure of each class in either direction. Travellers can get on and off as they please, spending nights along the way in different towns and exploring the canyons. You can go it alone or join a tour. With kids, I opted for the latter, setting aside my phobia of group tourism.
This and all my other fears were misplaced. As you travel north- east from El Fuerte you enter country populated by Tarahumara Indians, the least Westernised of all of Mexico's indigenous peoples. At every stop we were cared for by a different host and put up in lodges owned and managed by the Indians. …