Copper Canyon: Baby Steps
I should take some time to introduce the other members of our group that I met on the ferry, before telling you of the adventures we had in Copper Canyon.
First up is Stefan Knopf and his wife Ira, both from Heidelberg. Stefan used to lead motorcycle tours in Mexico for many years, and is pretty much known worldwide as the guy to contact when shipping a motorcycle from/to anywhere to/from Europe, through his company Knopf tours. He was leading the group and had the route planned, hotels booked, etc. Ira rode passenger, and is extremely pleasant. She suffers from some type of asthma, so one of Stefan’s panniers is full of a specialized machine to cure attacks, making our long ride (and their many other long rides) all the more impressive.
Andi, the guy I met the night before on the ferry, is a plumber in Heidelberg and a motorcycle aficionado as well. Actually, he’s Stefan’s plumber, and Stefan invited him out on this trip, as payment for some work back in Germany (I’m assuming.) That’s pretty awesome of Stefan if you ask me. Andi would ride the whole way with a young kid named Noah. Noah was a straight badass, because, well he’s so young but he hung with all of us through some really hard days. I initially thought he was Andi’s son, however I later learned they just have some kind of good father-son relationship from a previous relationship? Not that it’s important to this story.
Next up is Peter, a plumber from Heidelberg. Yep, same deal as Andi. Peter and I would get to know each other very well as the day proceeded, as you’ll soon find out.
Rounding out the group were Chris and his partner Agnes. Chris is from San Diego and has been long time friends with Stefan, and he rode a pretty new and very nicely kitted out 1200GS, the biggest of all the bikes in the group. I believe he does some kind of online training of teachers.
And of course, me.
So the next morning, we wake up to find our hotel has provided breakfast for everyone. Stefan picks up my tab, payment for use of the hotel room the previous night, and while delicious, it does delay us a bit. The Mexican way is one of bringing out multiple dishes at different times, something none of us is really used to yet, so we don’t leave Choix until a bit later. All packed up with my 2L of water and we’re on the road, jiving to conquer the Copper Canyon by 9:30AM.
We head out, and immediately get lost. Stefan is leading however we’ve missed the turn onto the dirt road, and it’s another 20 km until he pulls over and asks someone, and I consult my GPS. Yep, we passed it. So, we turn around, find the entrance, and hit pay dirt: no more asphalt!
Weaving through small puebla’s (and dodging donkeys) the motorcycles climb higher through the mountains, with road conditions remaining generally the same: dirty.
It quickly becomes clear that I’m riding the superior machine for these conditions; the BMWs are fairly heavy and apt to get caught in smaller ruts, while the much lighter weight of my DR650 lets me rip open the throttle to charge up the hills and stay nimble in the sand. The big 1200GS particularly has some problems, laden down with two humans and all the gear, and Chris and Agnes have to continually stop so Agnes can walk a bit as Chris maneuvers the motorcycle through deep sand. After about an hour we stop for a break and some photos.
It’s a little after 11AM, and my phone says we still have about 7 hours of riding left. But we’re making good time, so we hop back on our bikes and continue on, and I encounter my first stream! Excitedly I gun it across the water after watching Stefan’s line and then turn around and do it again so he can get a photo of me, as we wait for Chris and Agnes to catch up and cross the stream.
TEMPORARY INSERT UNTIL STEFAN SENDS ME THE PHOTO. FOR RIGHT NOW, JUST IMAGINE HOW DASHING AND AMAZING I LOOK.
We stop again about an hour later. I’m itching to go a bit faster though, so I pull Stefan aside and ask if he minds if I ride ahead, still a bit unsure of the groups dynamics since I did only just meet these people the day before. He’s totally fine with it so I mention that I’ll stop again in about an hour or so and wait for everyone to catch up.
I snap another picture, rip open the throttle and barrel down the two track road, a massive grin on my face. The DR is incredible responsive, and I quickly grow more confident with the tail end sliding around curves as we tear down mountains, through valleys, and back up other mountains. No guard rails, at times sheer cliff faces, and just pure enjoyment.
I stop a few times throughout the ride to take photos and find Peter, the oldest rider of the group never too far behind me. At one point, I lose my phone in the dust and sand, and Peter comes up behind me. I motion for him to stop, fearing he’ll run it over, and sentencing the rest of my journey to be music-less. A few minutes search and I find it lying in the middle of the road, well hidden. Close call, that’s for sure. We head out again, and pretty soon we find a decent pace riding together, only stopping later when Peter feels a bit guilty for our quickness as we spot some river, whose name escapes me. We pull over and wait for the others, who soon arrive, with the big 1200GS many minutes later.
As we feel the day go by, we’re all a bit keen to pick up the pace, wanting to arrive before dark, so Stefan, as German as he can, tells us all not to stop again until we hit the bridge, after a town called La Mision. Peter has been wanting to stop at the next Coca-Cola sign (and mentions he lost his water bottle somewhere), and with the group getting thirsty, we press on. I glance down as I ride and am glad I filled a two liter bottle of water before I left. Just in case of course.
Off we go then, here’s the video.
VIDEO OF RIDING TO THE BRIDGE. USE YOUR IMAGINATION BANDWIDTH IS LIMITED DOWN HERE.
What might not be clear is that, as I arrived at the bridge, with Peter well in front of me, three gun shots rang out somewhere down the valley. The deal was to stop at the bridge, so I get off and wait, and Andi and Noah appear soon after. They too heard the shots.
We wait a while and eventually Stefan and Ira show up, and they tell us they were stopped by the military.
“Yeah they just came running out of the woods yelling at us, asking us where we were going and how many of us there were.”
Peter shows back up, having seen zero Coca-Cola signs across the bridge, and with everyone thirsty we decide to regroup in the town and search for drinks. Soon after I arrive I spot “the Army.” It looks to me like one guy in uniform with a gun and two locals in plain clothes, though perhaps the others have gone back to their posts? The uniformed man starts to get a bit agitated and begins yelling at and waving us off, so we make a quick decision to GTFO and look for some drinks after the bridge in the next Puebla.
We cross over, and stop on the other side, and wait for Chris and Agnes, who still haven’t shown up yet at this point.
Stefan spots a refrigerator and goes to speak to a local about the route to Batopilas, and hopefully grab some beverages. He comes back dejectedly with cans of Coke, and no water; apparently the entire fridge is full of Coke products. Impressive.
Worse, the remaining bridge between us and Batopilas had been washed away, and there is no way to get there; the water is too deep and swift to ford. We certainly won’t reach the town by nightfall.
I take a sip of Coke, look back, past the bridge to where we spotted the military (or bandits). It’s the only way back.
I give a little bit of my water to Ira, as she needs to stay hydrated.
Note: I don’t have many pictures of this time period, and all the video is contained below. Scroll down to watch it if you can’t or don’t read.
Up to this point we’ve been relying heavily on my Nexus 5 phone and the Skobbler app. I highly recommend it for your offline mapping needs.
Stefan has some handwritten notes with distances as well, which have worked out as well, to my surprise. Despite my reliance on technology, there must be something to these tried and true old ways, and I stash that knowledge away to be used at some future date.
Either way, he asks me to accompany him back to the old man who sold us all the Coke’s and see if we can find a way around. Walking across the road, onto a porch shading the house from the beating sun, the smell of fresh blood wafts through the air as we’re greeted by a freshly quartered and carved cow, pieces hanging from the rafter and dripping into the dirt beneath. The old man stands by the bright Coke machine and mentions that there is a mining road we can potentially take, but you need a permit. He and Stefan speak in Spanish (Stefan speaks pretty good Spanish, among other languages), and I attempt to find it on my maps, but it doesn’t look like anyone has gone that way yet. Or they never reported it back to the OSM project, which Skobbler relies on. We thank the man and head back to rejoin the others.
So, we have three choices:
- We can go see the missing bridge ourselves, and potentially investigate a side road that seems to go a bit farther I have found on the maps, and hope to find a way across.
- We rely on Coke mans intel and ride the mining road. He’s told us it’s about 12 km north, and then we’ll see an iron arrow pointing towards the mine.
- We turn around and hopefully find another way through the Copper Canyon.
Well, I can tell you that right away we knew the third option was right out, and how dare you even mention it as we’ll lose a few days figuring out and, more importantly, we’re god damn adventurers.
No, we decide to take the mining road. Worst case scenario, we can come back and see how the bridge looks, as well all have plenty of gas and there is sufficient daylight still.
Chris and Agnes finally show up, and, after a bit of an argument with Stefan about the groups riding speed, clarification of our current situation, and some Coke (so much Coke during this time, we would desperately wish for some later on), are on board as well.
A grader rounds the corner, Stefan asks him about the bridge (yes, it’s out) and the mining road (he’s not sure), and we mount up and ride on through the dusty road.
The terrain is much more difficult here, and the road climbs far higher than any other we’ve traversed to this point. Onwards and upwards we go, occasionally glancing at each other wondering how much longer this road continues on, until, finally, we reach a gate.
With armed guards.
The mining road certainly exists, and it leads straight to an active gold and silver mine. We unpack as Stefan and Chris (who also speaks a ton of Spanish, having done a similar trip like mine many years ago) ask about passing through the mine, explain that bridge is out, and, no señor, we’re very sorry but we don’t have enough gas to turn around and go back, we promise .
I notice another guard in a watch tower, high above the cliff face above us and the gate peering down at us. It’s a great tactical position.
The guards radio down to El Jefe, and we wait. I can only imagine what was going on through their minds, when four motorcycles and eight brightly dressed spacemen appeared at their gates, gibbering in foreign tongues.
We wait a while. I mention to Stefan (in German, apparently Mexicans love Alemania) that we’ll probably have to bribe these guys.
And then, they let us in the gate! We’re only allowed in the guard area, but, having paid nothing yet and no holes in our bodies, things are looking up. We sit in the shade and wait a while, and even use the bathroom facilities. Sadly there is no water to drink, but I give a little of what I have left to the group, confident we can ask the mine owners for some when they let us proceed.
If they let us proceed, the paranoid part of my brain reminds my conscience.
Anyway, after what is probably about an hour, a truck with emergency lights comes up through the other gate, the guards come over and tell us we can proceed. I turn on the GoPro, and we drive through the mine, escorted by a truck in frond of and behind our group.
We’re ecstatic! We made it! Through a damn gold and silver mine! How many other people have driven this road before? Has anyone? Boastful Me doesn’t think so, and I’m grinning ear to ear as I wait at the exit for Chris and Agnes, to make sure they get through before the guards close the gate, until they wave me off.
I ride about a kilometer later and see the rest of the group.
And the river.
Outside the mine, we were greeted by the Rio Fuerte. At first glance, the water seemed shallow enough to ride through, but as we strode in to gauge the depth (as one does), we realized that would never work. Cold water rushed up to my knees and into my waterproof boots, and the current was strong enough to have to grab on to rocks to maintain balance in certain areas.
As Stefan and I retreated to the shore, the mining security guard gunned his engine and plowed into the river, and we watched as the rear-end of truck began to shift to the right, being pulled by the current. This was going to be trickier than we had first thought. This was going to be an actual river crossing, not simply blasting through a puddle or small stream. Stefan walked upstream to see if there was another, more shallow crossing, but there was none. So, we would need to push the motorcycles through, with at least three people on each machine to fight the force of the river.
Stefan’s bike was first. He fired up the engine and we began to push the bike into the river. A few feet in and the engine died, and as Andi and I held the bike steady Stefan sparked it into life once more. A few more feet, and much deeper, and the engine died again. Not good. We were certain the engine was waterlocked, and Stefan, cursing and barking orders, steered and pushed while Andi and I heaved the bike onto the opposite shore. To our great relief the engine sputtered to life; no one was relishing the thought of having to do extensive repairs out there.
The rest of the bikes went much easier; we removed the panniers to lighten the load, put them in neutral and simply brute forced our way through the river. My DR650, being the lightest, was easily pushed through the river, while the GS1200 was an absolute bear.
The whole process took a little over an hour, though it wasn’t without some mishaps.
With daylight slipping away, we bid adieu to our security escort and continued on our way. We had zero maps of the area, and my app showed no roads either, but Chris had spoken with the guard and he assured us that going left at the fork would get us to Batopilas, eventually. We were in good spirits, a river had been forged, and our destination lay just over the mountain. I passed out some more water from my bottle, and we briefly considered refilling the rest of the bottles from the river, but decided that drinking what was undoubtedly mining runoff would probably be more trouble than the hydration was worth.
Geared up, we continued on our path, riding through some deep sand and whoops, eventually coming to the fork. Was it right? Was it left? We were a little confused, but Chris was certain that left was correct, so on we rode. Dehydration was starting to set in and affect our judgement, but we had to press on regardless, no one wanted to spend the night on the mountain. Well, I didn’t mind the thought, seeing as I had camping gear, but I was the only one.
The setting sun treated us to some of the most incredible panoramic scenes I’ve ever seen as we crested the top of another mountain, and descended farther into the Copper Canyon.
The road into the valley made for some extremely hairy riding; deep sand was everywhere, just waiting to attack the poor fool who grabbed too much front brake and kick him over the side of the mountain. Further, extremely steep switchbacks met you every few hundred yards, requiring constant vigilance. Any sort of lack of concentration, or coming in too hot, and oops, nice to have known you.
It was, without a doubt, some of the most fun I’ve ever had on this Earth.
In the valley, we tore through a river bed, and eventually ended up at a small town. Stefan asked for directions and the indigenous natives confirmed that, yes, this was indeed a road to Batopilas. Whether or not it was the shortest road, we’ll never know. Maybe we should have turned right at the earlier intersection? Either way, they didn’t have any treated water for us. I remember now that, at that time, we were positive that Batopilas was immediately over this next ridge. I mean, it had to be right?
And then the wheels fell off.
The terrain we encountered next is the worst I’ve ever ridden. Being on the lightest and fastest bike, I had ridden much farther ahead than the others. Slippery rocks were everywhere, and deep gouges and ruts in the road made choosing ideal lines nearly impossible. At some point I just had to twist the throttle and hold on, hoping that the bike would carry me over whatever came next and keep me on the path. I remembered back to my times in Big Bend, and what another rider had told me one night in a bar that has stuck with me since.
“Confidence and momentum. It’s all you need to get through anything.”
So on I rode.
Couple the bad road conditions with faltering sunlight and (as I soon found out) a headlight that only worked 8% of the time (due to some loose wiring), and you’ve got yourself a bonafide terrifying adventure.
I had no idea how the others were managing, but there was really no where safe to stop and wait for everyone, so on and on I climbed up and over the mountain, finally coming to a level area and a T-intersection with another dirt road.
So I waited.
I waited a long while.
Stefan and Ira eventually showed up, and we waited a bit longer, and then Andi and Noah showed up.
Peter, Chris and Agnes were no where to be seen and after 20 minutes, with it almost being dark, we started shouting down into the valley to see if they were alright, and eventually heard Chris again.
Which means broken, in Germany. I looked at Stefan and knew what he was thinking.
No water, no light, and limited tools would make any sort of repairs damn near impossible.
We needed more information, so Stefan and I hopped on our motorcycles and rode back down the mountain. He was ahead of me, which was fine as my intermittent headlight and the growing darkness increased the pucker factor of the downhill ride. I could at least see where the cliff faces were (or had been) from his headlight. We finally came upon the three missing riders sitting in the middle of a switchback turn.
Turns out, Chris meant they were kaput; the motorcycles were fine. the three were completely wiped out, and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) ride anymore. Emotionally and physically drained. Peter had even passed out standing after crashing for the second or third time. A long and grueling ride, probably severe dehydration, and in Peter’s case being pre-diabetic (news to me), had taken their toll. We couldn’t have half the group stay down there, and we certainly couldn’t ask the others to ride back down, so it was decided that Peter and Agnes would walk up the hill to the plateau we had found, probably a kilometer or so, and Stefan would ride Peter’s motorcycle up again. Chris, at first adamant against riding more, eventually caved and powered up the hill on the big GS to the meeting point.
When we were finally all together again (and Stefan had returned on Peter’s bike), I whipped out my phone and looked at my mapping app; excellent! The T-intersection where we were hanging out was on the map, and it looked like Batopilas was only 20 kilometers away. The app said it would take an hour, so we debated on our next move. What the apps (and maps, for that matter) don’t tell you is how long it takes to ride 20km in horrible conditions with a well-worn group of riders who are dropping like flies. A smaller town named El Rodeo was only 6 km away, and with the need for water rising by the minute, Stefan decided that he’d ride down that way with the rest of the group, as Ira’s condition demanded she have water.
There was no way Peter was going to be able to ride, so I volunteered to stay at the intersection and camp out with him over the night. He was keen on sleeping outdoors “like a real cowboy.” Having camped out plenty in the Baja, I was content with setting up my tent and air mattress for comfort while he would just sleep on a blanket. The others said that, if they found water they’d ride back and give us some, but if they weren’t back in an hour or two to not worry about.
We watched the rest of the group ride away into the night. After setting up camp, we laid on the ground looking at the stars, and talked about the important things in life, as one does when often faced with hardships; life, love, and loss.
Finding Brake Lines
The Germans and Chris were headed north to Creel, and I was going to go with them. After a night in that mountain city, Chris and Agnes would peel off head west to their homeland of San Diego, while the Germans would continue Northeast to Austin (I know, right!?) and eventually Daytona for bike week. I’d ride along and eventually break off just west of Chihuahua, and head south to Parral.
If you remember, at this point, I have no front brakes, and no one in Batopilas could repair them, and they definitely didn’t have any replacements.
The road from Batopilas to Creel is paved, or it will be by the end of this year, guaranteed. There’s a beginning stretch of 40 km of graded dirt, with a mass of activity from construction machines, but believe you me, it’ll be paved. I feel conflicted about this as we head north; on the one hand I’m glad I’m one of the few who got to ride the Copper Canyon in it’s ‘primitive’ state, but on the other, I’m sad that these areas will soon see many more snowbirds and RV owners in the near future.
After a breakfast from a neighbor of Juanita’s, consisting of mostly fruits that gave all of us diarrhea, and a brief conversation with the owner that, yes, marijuana was indeed how everyone made their living around here, we headed north.
Being well-rested, everyone was able to tackle the terrain this time round.
Parts of the road that seemed to be paved would quickly become a bit more treacherous as there were rock slides everywhere. I’m not sure what the Mexican government plans to do about them, but they’ll probably get tired of repairing brand new roads every few days.
The road hugged the base of the mountain ridges for a few kilometers, and we drove by scores of these rock slides. We even crossed a few sketchy bridges made out of wood, but they held up just fine.
An hour in and we started to climb the mountains again, though this time on pavement. Fresh new asphalt was everywhere, accompanied by construction crews marking the dividing lines with string and spray paint.
The sun climbed higher in the sky, but with the elevation change the temperature began to drop. Still, it was completely bearable and I had time to take in some gorgeous last views of the Canyon.
Cresting the mountain (whose name I never learned), a rollicking ride lay ahead, as switchback after switchback accompanied us up and down the mountain ranges, through many a small farming village. At one point it started to drizzle, the road getting slick, which made my motorcycling quite exciting, what with it only having a rear brake. If you’ve never ridden before, it’s exceedingly easy to lock the rear wheel, which is usually not a problem (and often warranted), but it can be quite dangerous on wet roads, occasionaly resulting in a lowside or (god forbid) highside crash.
I had the skills to pay the bills though, so I trucked along and took it easy, and we eventually stopped at a tiny town called Samachique until everyone caught up.
Standing there on the side of the road, looking at the map, Stefan came over and pointed out that it would be much shorter to just go directly to Hidalgo del Parral now instead of looping north. It’d be safer too I mused, and after a few minutes of internal debated I decided that I shouldn’t press my luck, and it was time to part ways.
We took some photos, and I bid my new friends adieu. I’ll never forget our journey together through the Copper Canyon, and even now it remains a highlight of my journey. I’ll see you all in Heidelberg one day soon.
As they roared off on their BMWs, I turned around and went through the small village of Samachic, promptly getting lost. A local told me that I indeed was supposed to go the way of the Germans, at least a few more miles before turning, so off I went.
No real pictures of the next few hours, but it got cold. Really, really cold. I could see the treeline at times while riding in this almost alpine climate but just kept going.
I immediately regretted shipping back my riding liners in La Paz.
I stopped in Guachochi for some gas, and kept riding east. The vast majority of the houses in this area are log cabins, which was unexpected, and it was smokey most of the time as people burned timber to keep warm. I half expected to see red lumberjack shirts everywhere, but most everyone was smart enough to stay in because it was too cold, so, on I rode. Finally I started descending through the mountains and the land opened up.
The scenery changed dramatically, as wide open plains and highlands were splattered around, the road cutting through them. There was not much traffic here, but the views, the views! All that suffering through the cold was more than worth it.
As I neared Hidalgo del Parral, I passed through a town that looked to a bit forlorn. Entering there was some kind of deserted military embankment, which raised my wariness level a bit, but I passed right on by and never saw nor heard anything. But of course, they don’t just build these things without reason.
Entering Hidalgo del Parral you’re stopped at a police checkpoint, and as has been the case my entire journey, they just wove me on. Still, there were many more police here than I had seen before, but I can’t say whether that was due to a higher criminal presence or it simply being the biggest city around.
After gassing up and checking my phone, I broke out into a massive smile; Parral had a Suzuki motorcycle dealership! Yes! This was going to be easier than I thought it was.
And, it wasn’t.
Because the dealership only sold motorcycles with drum brakes, and not disc brakes. The poor girl working the place, having to deal with my broken Spanish and wild flailings of the arms as I gestured towards the brakes, just shook her head sadly, they didn’t have anything for me.
But, yes, perhaps they might have something at a local independent shop called “Gabriel Moto,” so she took out some paper and drew me a map to the place, and off I went.
Parral is a pretty big town, most famous for it’s silver mine as well as hosting the site where Pancho Villa was assassinated. As it was 5PM, it took me a while to snake through traffic and into the city, but eventually I found the small shop.
And things started to look good.
For the life of me, I can’t remember this guys name, but he spoke some English and he understood that I needed a new brake line. Initially I thought it was Gabriel, but, as I have so often been on this trip, I was wrong. Anyway, there was an older Suzuki in the back of the shop, but sadly the brake line was too short, and would have certainly broken (or broken part of the caliper) off. He called up his boss, came back, and told me that his boss also had a Suzuki, and he would bring his line for me and we’d see if it would work.
So, I waited a while, talked with the guys, and watched the employees go about their day.
I made this video too, though I don’t know why, since, while writing this dispatch, I just realized I explained everything in 30 seconds.
Eventually Gabriel showed up and had a brake line.
And the line, while a bit short, and a bit old, fit just right! Huzzah, I have front brakes again!
Ecstatic, I handed over my 200 pesos (!!!) and shook hands with everyone, before running out and coming back with some Coca-Cola’s for everyone (they didn’t want beer). It was the least I could do.
I headed in to town, splurged on a decent hotel, and stayed there an extra day, checking out the Pancho Villa museum, doing finances, and writing some blog posts. You know, the unexciting things that must be done that drive this adventure.
Carnival in Mazatlán was coming, and soon there would be only time for festivities!
Despite reports to the contrary, my trip ain’t over yet! I’m holed up in Playa del Carmen and have been very lazy with the updating of the blog. Apologies!
I recall cursing into my helmet the day I left Mazatlán, having tarried longer than intended, and now for having to breeze through much of central Mexico.
Salem had mentioned to me that a surf competition was going on in Sayulita, a beach down about 5 hours south of Mazatlán.
Of course, leaving at nearly 11AM on the day of departure ensured that I would miss the entire competition and arrive around sunset. Which of course is exactly what happened. Upon arrival, I rode around for a few minutes until my mind decided it wasn’t ready to camp again, so I rode another 20 minutes to the tourist town of Puerto Vallarta and checked in to some hotel.
The day had been fairly uneventful, except when I whacked my foot while riding into a road marker.
I didn’t feel much until I took my boot off.
Bruised the heck out of it! Anyway, despite Puerto Vallarta’s party reputation, I stayed in that night as I had quite a ways to go the next morning. Besides, I had just partied an entire week straight.
When I woke the next day, I scarfed down some free toast and jam, hopped on the freeway and headed west. I was not expecting the ride that lay before me.
What was some fairly brushy scrubland soon turned into lush green pastures as the road carved through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range (the same range that contains the Copper Canyon).
At one point I stopped in a small town called Juchitlan, right outside of Guadalajara, drawn by this brilliantly white church.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but every decent sized population center in Mexico that I’ve run across has some kind of colonial style church or cathedral. And this one was particularly impressive.
My final destination was to be a lake town known as Ajijic, just south of Guadalajara. I had considered staying contacting the doctors I met in Mazatlán, however I knew for sure I’d miss my deadline if I partook in the delights that I’m sure Guadalajara has to offer. I don’t remember how I found out about Ajijic, I think perhaps some random website, but it seemed as good of a destination as any. What I know now, of course, is that it has an expat population of something like 50,000 Americans and Canadians, which probably explains why there’s a website about the town, as well as the real estate prices there. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, it was just wholly unexpected.
Right before I rolled into town I spotted a motorcycle rider who was pushing his bike up the highway, on a shoulder the size of a human shoulder. Pulling over, and with many hand movements and some broken Spanish I learned he had ran out of gas, so I siphoned some out of my tank, and off we rode to the next gas station. He was pretty stoked.
The guy even escorted me a few more miles before peeling off to his home, which was pretty cool, and I headed off to Ajijic.
It’s a big art town, both local and expats, and a big vacation area as well. I pulled in right at sunset and started scouring for a hotel, but the prices were higher than some places in the US. Eventually I found the Hotel Italo owned by a Mexican man named Italo, and 300 pesos later I had a place to store my bike and put my head.
I figured I should take some photos and grab some dinner at the lakeside while I still had light. Here’s the results.
And that was pretty much it for Ajijic.
The real challenge, or so I told myself, lay the next day.
See, all the “bad stuff” you think happens in Mexico? Well, it really only happens in one state, Michoacán. The state is essentially close to martial law right now (or was at the time), with autodefensa groups popping up everywhere as the government sat back and did nothing about the narcos in the area. Of course to be completely fair to Michoacán (and much to the chagrin of my friends in the states of Jalisco and Sinaloa), it’s not completely isolated to that one state, but it is the place you’re most likely to run into trouble. It’s where another rider went missing a few weeks before my arrival as well, a thought that was on my mind throughout my travels. Sadly he’s still missing.
Luckily, things seem to be getting better, much better.
Anyway, I bring all this up because I was NOT STOPPING IN MICHOACÁN. Nope, no sir, no how. I had met a nice woman in Baja who had grown up in Michoacán, and she told me how beautiful it was, how nice the people were, etc, and even she warned me to not cross through that state (though not without getting misty eyed).
So, it was to be toll roads the entire way, non-stop until I reached the down of Puebla. This would be the safest route for me, and the most patrolled by the cops as well.
And of course, nothing happened. I’d show you photos but there are no photos to take on toll roads. Well, I did take this video while riding (hi Mom!)
I rode close to 450 miles that day, for about 8 hours, and who knows how much money I spent on toll roads. Probably $100 or more. Pulling into Puebla with 3% left on my phone, I was mentally exhausted and just tired of riding. I managed to look on advrider.com and find a hotel someone recommended; I believe the phrasing they used was “oh, it’s decent I guess.”
I guess some of us just travel differently, but I was so tired I ponied up the $100 and proceeded to use every single complementary product in the room. Even the shower cap.
900 miles in 3 days!
Yes, despite my egregious lack of updates on this website, I’m still alive, and well!
I’m currently in Playa del Carmen, and have been for the past two months. Or has it been three? This place, while expensive compared to other cities I’ve visited, is fantastic and full of wonderful new travelers everyday. I’m also not sure where the time goes or how I’ve managed to neglect my readers for so long, but that’s how it goes on the Riviera Maya.
But before I get into how I got where I am now, let’s finish up the Mexico tour portion of this grand old trip.
The following takes place on and after March 19th, 2014 (was it really so long ago?).
Throughout the trip so far I’d been pretty lucky with staying connected to friends and family through various social networks and text messaging (thanks for that amazing plan T-Mobile!). A friend of mine that I knew from an Austin watering hole kept posting updates on his travels through México, except he was going north. And in a happy coincidence it looked like we were in the same area, so we made plans to meet up in Villahermosa.
First though, I wanted to visit Palenque. Palenque is the site of a Mayan city-state, containing some spectacularly preserved ruins. The best part? 90% of the site is still covered by the jungle, so there is so much more to explore.
So, I headed out very early from San Cristobal de las Casa, and subsequently broke down about 20 minutes later on a steep decline in the middle of Chiapas. Being in heavy Zapatista country (and, at the time, still being extremely wary of many local people), I was a bit nervous and positive I was going to be kidnapped. I’m not sure why to be honest, especially considering I had ridden so far without incident, but the irrational paranoia was there. Luckily the problem was easily resolved; the kickstand kill switch is a bit loose, so as the suspension unloads and the kickstand drops, the switch disengages and kills the engine. And that’s why I brought zip ties!
The bike all fixed up I headed down out of the mountains and into the sweltering heat of the jungle. Pretty uneventful and hot ride, except for me almost getting decapitated. Well, maybe; you decide.
These women were holding up ropes and wires, some with flags, in attempts to stop cars and get people to buy bananas and what not. I was pretty furious and scared at this point, not quite sure how tight that rope was tied on and, as I later found out, rightly so. A few days later while in Merida, while chatting with some other motorcycle travelers, they told me that a tour bus had been stopped in a similar fashion and people had rushed out of the jungle and robbed everyone blind. Lucky me! All that said, things aren’t great in Chiapas these days, so I sympathize with the local’s plight. It’s a beautiful state though!
Eventually I made it to Palenque. I didn’t have much time, so I paid the park employees to watch my motorcycle and belongings, gained entrance to the park and shadowed a tour guide for about an hour, admiring the ruins. They are indeed excellently preserved.
Afterwards I grabbed something to eat at the park and headed off in the sweaty afternoon to meet up with my friend Steve in Villahermosa.
Steve was down here scouting out locations for a new movie he’s producing about baseball in México, and was set up in a really nice hotel. Heck, it even had the Miss Tabasco contestants staying there while the pageant went on. Bonus!
It was fairly hilarious to me walking into this fancy hotel, disheveled and smelly, looking like an astronaut and asking the front desk for the extra key. First thing I did? Clean up and get a shower, you know it!
While there, he invited me along to a couple of meetings and dinners with the director, art director, and other producers. It was a fascinating insight into the film industry that I hadn’t been privy to before.
Left to my own devices most of the time, I lazed about on his couch for about 3 days, caught up with writing on this blog, hit the gym, and slept. Eventually Steve and the others geared up to leave for Mexico City, and I packed up and headed towards the Yucatán. I had some friends that I had to meet in Playa del Carmen in three days, so I had to get moving! Many thanks to my good friend Steve for his generosity and hospitality!
So my destination that day was Merida, a place famous for hammocks. At least that’s what everybody told me. This was my first time seeing the Caribbean as well, but it was a very long ride. Six hours later though I finally made it and checked in to a hotel. No pictures, but I had a good time. It’s a very European city, with great restaurants all around and multiple zocalos dotting the cityscape.
My memory is a bit hazy at this point, but I believe I left two days later to Playa del Carmen. First though, I wanted to stop at Chichen Itza, a famous Mayan ruin. Sadly, I wasn’t too impressed. It’s very commercialized, and after seeing Palenque and actually explore the ruins it’s a bit of bummer to not be able to climb the pyramids. They’re pretty spectacular, and I imagine very beautiful during sunrise or sunset, but the hordes of people there soured my mood.
Finished with the sightseeing, and anxious to meet up with my buddies in Playa del Carmen, I cruised another three hours, stopping in Valladolid for lunch and eventually arriving in Playa.