Adventure/Off-road: Riding in Mexico - Going loco
By: Paddy Tyson
Losing your riding buddy deep in Mexican mud isn’t the best way to start an adventure on two wheels...
“Mi Amigo es perdido” I say in my best, grammatically flawed Spanish, but the guy gets the message. My friend was lost. Where previously there were two of us travellers, now there was only me, standing mournfully outside the hotel in Creel, northern Mexico, high in the Sierra Madre mountains.
I couldn’t think what else to do. Matt and I had spent the day riding part of the rim of the Copper Canyon, and had planned to try and make it to Batopilas, the village that nestles in the base of the canyon, that evening. But it’s a tough 70km of dirt that winds its way down over 6000ft and given the rain, we’d agreed to ride the mud together. Now I’d lost him and just couldn’t keep riding around aimlessly looking any longer, so I decided to retrace my steps to the last place we’d stayed together, in the hope that he’d do the same.
I’d already seen the police, it’s hard not to in these parts with the drugs war going on, but they assured me they hadn’t seen any other gringos on motorcycles. I think. With their balaclavas and automatic weapons they’re just not really people you can engage in meaningful conversation, at least not when your Spanish is as bad as mine.
With the temperature dropping and the light fading I took the room again, which at least was clean and at $8 a pleasure to stay in, and headed in to the town centre for something to eat. Having had some super fresh chicken the night before (it was outside walking around when we ordered it), I let all my Western prejudice about hygiene lead me to a touristy looking establishment. I had a few burritos and retired to write my journal and assess Matt’s plight. For example, I was carrying all our water and extra fuel supply and he had barely $20 left in cash. I had to find him. We were in this together, a team, and anyway he still had the chain lube and the biscuits!
It was about 9pm that I first felt peculiar, and by 9.30pm I was literally redecorating the room from every orifice. There is no polite way to describe my state. By 11pm there wasn’t an ounce of material left to be expelled from my body, but even so, every half hour, just as I was falling in an exhausted state into the arms of sleep, my stomach would remind me that it was still fighting the bacteria, and the retching would begin again. After a week in the area I was getting quite accustomed to the nightly sounds of small arms fire, but now I couldn’t care less.
I think I managed to get almost an hour’s sleep, and drank most of a glass of water before getting Alberto, the hotel manager, to help me get the bike off the stand. It’s only a 650 dual sport, but I had barely the energy to walk.
Leaving town a truck tried successfully to run me off the road and as I did my best to just keep the bike upright, I saw in the mirrors that he was turning around and coming back for more. Today really didn’t seem to be working out the way I’d planned.
He pulled up beside me.
“How are ya doin, dere man? Shure I just saw da Irish flag on da front of yer bike and thought I’d get yer attention for a wee chat!” said Mark, from Navan in Ireland. “I don’t get to see many men from Ireland riding through these parts, especially not when we are waiting for the snow.”
I did my best to hold up a conversation, but was working harder to hold up the bike, and hold down the glass of water. There are times when you curse your fellow countrymen and their friendliness. At least I knew I had found a friend (with appalling driving), if I couldn’t find Matt today.
Mud glorious mud
With thickening fog, which still managed to produce heavy rain, I overshot the unmarked turning to Batopilas by 20km. For some inexplicable reason my body had now started to sweat profusely, no doubt because it had realised there was one more way of expelling liquid that it hadn’t thought of before, and I started to feel even weaker.
Turning into the correct mud road, I had slithered barely a mile on my road tyres and was wondering whether Matt would really have come this way on his own, when I got a corner completely wrong at the same time as I met the only vehicle for an hour.
I’d like to think that I scored points for style and grace, as my wheels swapped ends in the rutted quagmire and I remained upright, coming to a halt next to the passenger window of the 4x4.
“Hi, there! You must be Paddy,” said the Canadian girl in the front seat.
I was stunned. Had my pirouetting reputation gone before me?
“Your friend is down in the village. He’s worried about you and asked us to look out for you. Take care on the road, it starts to get steep and slippery ahead.”
At least I knew Matt was alive and safe, even if thirsty and broke, and if he had made it down the canyon in one piece then I could too. Matt had only got his motorcycle licence before leaving Anchorage (three months earlier) and was on his way to his mum’s in Vermont to surprise her for Christmas. Then he met me in Arizona and over a beer or two I’d persuaded him Panama might be warmer, so he changed all his plans. Perhaps I was feeling a little responsible for getting him down here.
I gathered together the last of my energy reserves and hoped my experience from a dozen years as a dispatch rider would somehow guide me all the way there.
The first few miles didn’t seem too bad and I picked up the pace, letting the bike slide around beneath me on the relatively smooth surface. Then I got to the construction zone. There were no cones, or lollipop ladies, no stop signs or diversions, just lots of heavy machinery in the mud trying to cut a road from the canyon walls and workers huddling around fires to keep warm. The smoke was hanging in the air between the pine trees, replacing the fog that had lifted, but the going under tyre became properly stupid. The puddles were sometimes like trenches, so I adopted a ‘hope for the best’ style of riding, as sometimes they were deeper than the bash plate, but the ever-falling altitude and slick surface meant that actually stopping wasn’t really an option. I just plunged from one obstacle to the next, be it a fallen tree, semi-submerged in the mud, or a recently carved culvert. Then, perhaps carrying 15-20mph, I got in a big slide with the bars turned full lock, and held it, feet up for almost 10 yards, to the accompaniment of a huge cheer from one group of workers who were huddled round a fire ill-dressed for the cold. I don’t know who divinely intervened for that moment, but I just sat there and held on.
The last major obstacle in that construction zone was where a bulldozer was moving a load of rubble from a recent detonation in the cliff face. I pulled up behind a pick-up truck and waited, assessing the situation.
A solid wall of rock on my right and an awful lot of fresh air on my left. The road ahead looked like the sort of thing you only see in magazines reporting from the South American Andes. There was a pile of gravel and boulders lying at about 30º from cliff to chasm the whole way across the track and the bulldozer was pushing the bigger rocks over the edge into oblivion.
It was one of those times when you just say “shit” quietly to yourself.
Then the bulldozer driver backed away and the 4x4 truck in front of me just floored the throttle and ran at the small mountain of rubble. Spitting rocks and mud and getting perilously close to being bounced over the edge, the truck made it. The bulldozer driver looked at me through the broken window on his cab and waved me on.
In for a penny in for a pound – there was no way I was turning round now. Without the strength to stand up on the pegs I just opened the throttle and hoped for the best, it had worked thus far. I may have even closed my eyes at one point, but with dogged perseverance I managed to clear all the rocks and I did my very best to look cool afterwards.
With the decreasing altitude I was soon out of the rain and with the increasing temperature I stopped sweating – go figure! Miles of switchbacks got me down to one valley, before briefly climbing again after one river crossing and dropping even further into the canyon system as the road went on and on. I met one truck with three armed men and a suspiciously covered load in the back, 10 soldiers walking miles from nowhere and a handful of donkeys and goats. Otherwise the road was all mine.
The road was only carved out of the canyon in 1976 so I was intrigued to see what the town of Batopilas was like, and why it was there, completely cut off when the snows on the canyon rim close the access.
Most of the road is single track and the surface is one of broken rock, bike breaking corrugations or sand – occasionally all three at the same time. The scenery though, is truly stunning. The vegetation changes dramatically with altitude, so the pine forests at the top give way to cactus and palms by the bottom. After all, it’s only a few degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer, which accounts for the big increase in temperature too.
Lost and found
The last 10 miles or so followed the side of the river and at 5pm a single-track concrete and steel bridge took me over the water and into the town. Single width sectional concrete never felt so smooth, even if it was interspersed with huge speed bumps. The town had really only one street, following the course of the river on the narrow valley floor, with houses and small businesses crammed shoulder to shoulder into the hillside or built perilously out over the river.
This far from the rest of the world, I found it hard to believe that there was a traffic jam. Four pick-ups and I waited for a JCB to extricate itself from the tree that it just accidentally felled with its jib. There was much excitement, because it appears that other than homicides, there isn’t that much going on most days! I had a few people come up and tell me that my friend was waiting for me in the square, which was strangely comforting, but also hard to believe, because I couldn’t imagine there being room for a town square between the water and the hills.
But this being Mexico, they’d found room for a little square, complete with a church, some bullet-marked buildings, some roaming dogs and a few old men chatting in the shade of a tree. It really was, or had been, a prosperous little town, the centre of a very manual copper mining industry employing only people and donkeys.
“So what took you so long old man?” yelled a beaming Matt from across the square “And why do you look so darned white? Seen a ghost?”
He’d secured us a great room with private terrace in a small hotel and had used his effervescent personality and complete lack of Spanish to win the trust of the owner and get himself some credit! All that was left for me to do was ride through the open doors into the dining room and through the kitchen before going down a few steps into the rear courtyard.
Matt fired up the stove for tea, so that we could regale each other with stories of derring-do, mud, rocks, illness and blind panic, while sitting there in a little mining town miles from anywhere in the base of the Copper Canyon. I fell asleep to the sound of accordion music and small arms fire. A few days later we’d be making the climb back out the same way. But then that’s what they call adventure motorcycling, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world!
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