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Mexico - Part 2

Continued from part 1

By Colleen First

December 20, 2004 � January 28, 2005
Total Miles: 6,563 miles, 40 days
San Diego, CA � Seattle, WA (via Baja and Southern Mexico)
Tickets: 0
Mishaps: 1
Puckers: too numerous to count

Day 10 � Cuicdad Constitucion � La Paz
156 miles
The clouds didn't blow away overnight and, although the rains had stopped, it was still overcast when we got up the next morning. Our room was quiet and comfy with plenty of hot water; something extremely rare in Mexico. The road from Cuidad Constitucion to La Paz is unremarkable, with long straight stretches and not a lot to look at along the way. For the first time I was able to notice some of the techniques that Mexicans use on the road. They use their hazards lights whenever they are slowing down for any reason, or for no reason at all. Turn signals are used to indicate when it's safe to pass, but it's not a guarantee that it's safe, only that they're aware that you're behind them. Of course these same signals will be left on for miles even when no one is around.

We reached La Paz at noon and immediately headed for the ferry office to find out what our options were for getting to Mazatlan. The clerk at the counter told us that the Thursday ferry was cargo only (it was currently Wednesday) and Friday's ferry wasn't sailing for some reason. This wasn't good news, as it meant spending days in La Paz, something we weren't looking forward to doing. Then we asked the most obvious question: how about today's sailing? Is there any room? Yes, there was! We would have to hurry though. So we quickly got out our papers and gave her our information and paid for our passage (as well as the separate passage for our bikes). We made a quick run to the bank and then zipped off to the ferry dock, a distant 17 kilometers further down the road. We arrived, showed them our papers and then proceeded to the scales. They had me pull my bike on the scale, step back while they got the weight of my poor loaded-down KLR and then waved me through. Mark and James were disappointed when the workers didn't want to weigh their bikes and instead waved them on past to join me at the end of the dock. We parked the bikes near the mouth of the ferry and sat back to watch them load the boat. Unlike the enclosed ferries I'm used to in the Pacific Northwest where they load from one end and unload from the other end, this ferry had only one opening. This meant that every truck (which there were a lot of) had to be backed into the ferry. We watched for quite some time, wondering why we were rushed to the dock so early when it didn't appear that we were going to move for quite some time. James asked one of the dockworkers and found out that motorcycles load last, and it would be at least an hour before that would happen.

Mark and James went off in search of lunch for the three of us while I watched over our stuff. They returned, the cars loaded and then it was finally our turn. Ours were the only bikes on the boat. We rode them into the cargo hold, started to tie them down and they closed the doors. We could feel the ship moving away from the dock and a crewmember told us to get upstairs. But we weren't done yet securing the bikes and he left us alone. About 5 minutes later we were done and ready to join the rest of the passengers, except we couldn't! The doors were blocked, it was dark and the air was getting bad. No matter which way we turned we found our way blocked by the tightly packed semi trailers, cars and trucks. The ship's diesel engines were running and exhaust fumes were filling the cargo hold. There were no windows for ventilation or lights for visibility. We wandered around, looking for an open door, trying not to imagine what would happen to us if we were trapped there for the entire 18-hour ferry ride. It was looking dire. Finally, through some fluke, I figured out how the doors were secured and we were able to make our way upstairs. Fresh air at last! We climbed up the stairs, found some unoccupied seats, stowed our gear and settled in for a long ride.

Day 11 - La Paz - Mazatlan
11 miles


The sailing was uneventful, with heavy overcast skies, lots of people and not much to do. People could have reserved cabins, but most of them just made do with the chairs they could secure, or benches, or the floor, or the aisles � wherever they could make themselves comfortable. The ferry was very big and offered two full-service restaurants, a bar, a cafeteria, TVs broadcasting old movies and even a small dance floor. The service and the food in the restaurant left a lot to be desired. I had to laugh when I saw what they offered at the cafeteria line: toilet paper! And for a good reason too: I did not find one roll of toilet paper in any of the restrooms on board. I had finally gotten used to the idea of putting toilet paper in the wastebaskets provided and not the toilet. That was a hard thing to adapt to. Sleep wasn't easy, and I was up to see the sunrise over the city of Mazatlan. That would have been much more impressive if it weren't so cloudy.

Being the last on the ferry, we were the first off. This was tricky, because they let everyone down to their vehicles at the same time, which meant that we had almost no time to untie our bikes, stow what stuff we had taken off them back on, and get our gear on before they were waiting for us to get out of the way. When we finally did ride off we headed directly for the hotel district of Mazatlan and spent an ungodly amount of time looking for a place that had rooms available for three people. We finally found a decent place, unloaded the bikes and took a walk on the beach. We had finally arrived in what I pictured as "Mexico:" palm trees, warm water, sandy beaches and margaritas.

Day 12 � Mazatlan � Mazatlan
21 miles


We spent the day looking for tires for James' DRZ and a place for Mark to wash his KTM. We finally found a rear tire for James, someone to wash Mark's bike and a tasty street vendor lunch before heading back to the hotel. James put the new tire on his bike, much to the amusement of the guys working on the building next door to us. Afterwards we decided to take a walk and ended up walking the entire 4 miles of waterfront, from the hotel district to the historic district. This was completely unintentional as we were just looking for coffee, but when we reached the end we stopped and had dinner at the first restaurant we found. After dinner we took a taxi back to our hotel, watched the fireworks on the beach and then went back to our room, where we could hear the sounds of not-so-distant parties for the rest of the night. Happy New Year!

Day 13 � Mazatlan - Mazatlan
18 miles
New Year's Day in Mazatlan. After a poor night's sleep, and spending most of the previous day riding around in hot, crazy traffic, we decided that we deserved a day of rest on the beach. Or a relaxing day on the bikes. This time we rode to the historic district in search of breakfast, but couldn't find anything to our liking. We walked around the main plaza for a while before giving up and riding back to the hotel district, where we finally succeeded. We dropped our bikes off at the hotel and headed back to the shore, where we watched the locals on the beach and in the water. It was overcast and not terribly warm, so most of the tourists must have been in hiding.

Day 14 � Mazatlan - Durango
210 miles
On the road again! We packed up the bikes after our long New Year's Eve siesta and headed inland. Our goal was Espinoza del Diablo, a road fabled to be 90 miles of nothing but curves that follow an amazing ridge top with views grand enough to make you miss the next bend. But first we had to get out of Mazatlan. The pollution, litter and traffic were horrendous and it was with great relief that we greeted the turn off to Hwy 40 that would take us up and inland for rest of the day. Almost immediately the road started to curve and rise. We had been at 72' and would reach 8,945' by the end of the day. The terrain was quick to gain in elevation and tree coverage. The forests became thicker and greener, and the road bent and twisted in order to follow the rising mountains. Little settlements of houses would appear, clustered close along the road or perched on the hillsides. I was really fascinated with the tiny fields of corn planted on near vertical slopes and tucked in among the trees.

Surprisingly, this squiggly line on the map is a main transportation route and the road surface reflects the heavy use of trucks and buses, each leaving their own trail of oil and grease. It was early in the day when I discovered just how poorly this road surface and my somewhat knobby tires went together. It was a nicely cambered uphill right-hander I was taking at about 35mph when I was surprised to be on my side, leg trapped momentarily under the bike as we slide across the lane. The bike pulled away and I was quick to get on my feet and out of the way of James, who was right behind me. He helped me get the bike off to the side where we assessed that all was well, with both the bike and myself. We rode around the bend to where Mark was waiting anxiously for us and took a short break. We re-assessed our speeds and the fact that we were on vacation and should probably take it easy. We mounted our bikes and proceeded to continue up the mountain. The road never gave up in its twists and turns and surprising views. It is indeed the Spine of the Devil, as it follows ridge tops and hugs mountain walls, with valleys dropping off steeply and expansive vistas that indicated just how much more we had to enjoy. The pavement cleared up, but never got really good. Each corner was a surprise in quality and sharpness and kept us on our toes. We eventually reached La Cuidad and stopped for a bite to eat and to put some warmer gear on. Warm sunny Mexico was a thing of the past now. The trees had changed to tall pine trees and the vegetation reflected the drier slopes of a mountain's eastern side.

The road had reached a plateau and started to straighten out again, but by no means was it straight. There were just less intensive corners. This was the only time during the entire trip that the police took any notice of us. We saw the officer making a "slow down" motion with his hand from within his car as we went by and then the lights came on as he pulled out on the road. But there were dozens of cars nearby, and three of them stopped and we didn't. No one pursued us, so we continued on to Durango, our intended stop for the night. There were holiday activities in the Plaza, including carolers and vendors and lots of Christmas lights, so it was all very festive. And best of all, the shower was hot.

Day 15 � Durango - Zacatacus
194 miles
Leaving Durango we headed south to Zacatacus, a city fabled for it's cable car that travels between two 8,000' + peaks and gives an amazing view of the city. The landscape opened up and golden hills stretched away into the distance, dotted with trees � this is how I would imagine the African savanna to look. There were a lot of miles to cover, but they went quickly on the smooth pavement and the fast curves. We stopped in Sombrerete for lunch where we were greeted with narrow flagstone streets, which were different from the cobblestone streets that we found in most other towns. South of Sombrerete, the roads straightened out even more and I noticed what would become the ubiquitous red Mexican stone. There were stout red stone walls crisscrossing the landscape, delineating fields and pastures for mile upon mile. The red soil also became apparent in tilled fields and even in the coloring of lakes. The agricultural basis of the area became more apparent as well, with many fields of cattle and horses, and even the sight of a horse-drawn cart and and plow dragged by a pair of oxen in a field as we zipped by.

Zacatacus is a fairly good-sized town but with great character and a bustling Central District. We eventually found a hotel just a few blocks from one of the many old churches located throughout the city. No sooner had we found our hotel then we met Frederico, a local motorcyclist who also has a hotel and specializes in accommodating motorcyclists. Ahhhh, ten minutes too late. But we made arrangements to meet up with him again and have dinner together the next day. Our hotel appeared luxurious that night: it had three beds, carpeting and wooden bed frames. Previous to this (and frequently afterwards as well) the rooms we found had only two beds, concrete or tile floors and a mattress set upon a concrete platform. The carpet provided warmth, the wooden frame provided comfort and the third bed provided even more comfort, as previously one person would sleep on the floor. We cleaned up and then took a leisurely stroll around the city, marveling at the architecture and the cultural differences around us. It was warm again, and it felt good to relax at the end of the day.

Day 16 � Zacatacus � Zacatacus
0 miles
We had planned for an "off day" in Zacatacus to take in the sights and do some laundry. We did a lot of walking around and eventually found our way up to the cable car loading point. The day was bright and clear and it would be a good view of the city. The cable car ride was interesting, with plenty of views of the city laid out below us. The city itself was set in the mountains in such a way that there wasn't much to see beyond it, but the views that we did have didn't leave us feeling cheated. There was the option to take the return ride, but we opted to walk back, experiencing more of the "back yard" view of this high Mexican town. Walking through Mexican towns leads to a whole new world of dangers. Sidewalks are uneven and steps are of various heights. Construction sites may or may not be blocked off, vehicles have no regard for pedestrians and shops have low-hanging awnings at eye-level. One has to be alert for hazardous conditions at all times when walking through Mexico. We then walked to the other side of the Central District to take a tour of the local silver mine, but found that it was closed. Instead we gathered up our laundry and returned to our hotel, to prepare for our dinner with Frederico. He was very helpful in providing information and maps about local destinations (mostly bike-specific, but that was the topic of conversation anyway). We left the restaurant that night armed with maps and route suggestions and slept well in anticipation of the next day's ride.

Day 17 � Zacatacus � Chapalla
264 miles
For the first time on this trip we had planned and successfully executed a departure before 9am. We were on the road by 8am and heading for the ancient ruins of Chicomostoc, less than an hour south of Zacatacus. It was amazing to see what was left of structures built hundreds of years ago, all out of local rock and, at one point, tree parts. I climbed to the (almost) highest point and was rewarded with a view of the structures below and the valley stretching out in the distance.

After spending an hour or so checking out the ruins we got back on our bikes and continued southward towards Guadalajara. The arid region soon gave way to green hills, more trees and more agriculture. I saw my first fields of aguave, which appear bluish when seen en masse . There were also pear trees, cornfields, cows, goats and pigs to see along the way. The road rose and fell with the landscape, stretching out to the distant mountains that always seemed to surround us. We couldn't resist not stopping in Tabasco for lunch and were rewarded with some of the best grilled chicken that we had on the entire trip. Oh, was it ever tasty! After lunch the road climbed up the mountains that we had been taunted with all morning and the corner radiuses became tighter and more challenging. I was riding at a fairly decent pace when I felt the rear wheel slip slightly. We were on a similar surface as the one on Espinoza del Diablo and I immediately backed off. I had no intention of repeating my earlier low-side performance. 

Another reason for keeping the speeds down was the Mexican's complete disregard for the yellow line down the middle of the road. It apparently did not matter if the road was straight of curvy, but an oncoming driver was almost guaranteed to cross over the yellow line at any given time, with no visible reason. There was many a turn I came around only to be startled by a bus half in my lane. We enjoyed the twists and turns of the road as it reached for the tops of the mountains, and when we were at the top we continued to enjoy the faster, longer curves that ran along the ridgeline. This is where I came across the most frightening point in my entire trip. I was leading our group along this ridgeline and came to a very long, even, left-hand corner that stretched around the edge of a shallow ravine. It was situated in such a way that I could see that it was evenly constructed, no vehicles were coming and that it looked like a really fun corner to hit hard! I rolled on the throttle a little more and figured that I was probably going about 55mph or so and about 1/3 into the corner when I got the biggest surprise of the day: it was all gravel: freshly laid, loose and deep. The front tire slipped out, then the rear tire, and I thought for sure that I was going to lose it and slide right off the edge of the road and into the deep brush and who-knows what else. Fortunately, I didn't go down and the guys were far enough behind me to make adjustments in their speed and approach to minimize their danger. It took me quite a few miles to fully recover from that scare.

From this point on the road started to slowly descend into a large valley, weaving in and out around the edges of the mountains, giving us teasing glimpses into what was in store around the next corner. When we finally reached the bottom of the valley we found a large river and banana trees dotted the yards of the houses that we passed. It was another agricultural valley and it was very lush and green and beautiful. After crossing the river we had the pleasure of climbing back up the other side, winding upwards and giving us great views of the side of the mountain that we had just descended. As we rounded one bend we caught a glimpse of a fairly large waterfall that cascaded down into the river valley below. We would have stopped to take pictures but the road was so narrow and there was so much traffic that none of us felt that it was a safe or wise thing to do. Besides, it was getting late and we weren't even in Guadalajara yet. But that was about to change.

Less than two miles later we rounded a bend and found ourselves facing the city. It was terrible! Dirty, litter everywhere, cars everywhere, terrible roads, smog in the air� it was not my idea of a pleasant place. The road lines had been worn away and the four lanes of traffic were random and constantly shifting. I noticed people driving with their kids on their lap and the beds of pick up trucks stuffed with people. It was a crazy place, but quite honestly, I enjoyed fighting my way through the traffic. We made the decision to continue riding, heading around the city and ending up somewhere outside of the outskirts in a hopefully more pleasant environment. We managed to achieve this, even though it meant riding on Mexican roads in the dark. It was a long ride, but well worth it. The only time I was stopped during the entire trip was along this stretch. As we passed through Tonala a policeman noticed my lack of a license plate and pulled me over for questioning. He wanted to know where the plate was and I tried to explain that it was somewhere on Baja. He was happy with my registration papers and let me continue. We finally reached Chapalla, a small town full of ex-pats that had a hotel ready to welcome not only us, but also our bikes. As the final bonus, it had three beds and hot water!

Day 18 � Chapalla � Chapalla
0 miles
I woke up in my comfortable bed to the sounds of horses' hooves on the uneven cobblestones, roosters crowing, dogs barking, a man singing and the gas truck luring people out of their houses. It was a good morning. The gas truck, I should explain, was a pick up truck that drove around town with liquid propane in the back, the common fuel used by Mexicans. The truck had a recording that would play repeatedly, consisting of a gentle two-tone horn and then a voice calling out in a most friendly and enticing timbre "Gaaassss!" The best part about this truck was that it wasn't isolated to Chapalla; the same recording was in many of the small towns that we visited. This was another day that we had decided not to travel, so it was a leisurely morning of walking around the markets and seeing what the town had to offer. My other sandal had torn, so I made a point of finding someplace that could fix it for me. The first sandal tore while in Mazatlan and I found a one-eyed leather worker who fixed it for 10 pesos � what a bargain! We met a local who lives along the shore of the lake, and he was very pleased to answer our questions regarding the lake level and it's history. We spent a good deal of the afternoon talking, and when we left him the sun was setting and it was time for dinner. It had been another pleasant day in Mexico.

Day 19 - Chapalla - Union de Tula
198 miles
There are two volcanoes south of Chapalla Lake, near Colima, one of which was supposed to be active so we packed up the bikes and took off around the lake. It was very slow going through the numerous little towns and their accompanying topes (speed bumps). We finally got to the south side of the lake and took Rte 110, a road that led us south and into more mountains. I should note that until now, bugs had been almost non-existent. In fact, I had forgotten what a pain they could be until I started to run into them more frequently south of Chapalla. The road surface looked slippery and was pocked with ruts and bumps, so it was a pretty casual ride for the group. The road rose up from the edge of the lake giving me a great view of the long narrow body of water and the frequent towns along its shores. Eventually the pine trees started to cover the land and the road began its descent, winding downward through rich pine needle-covered earth. As we dropped in elevation we entered a land of vast and lush fields, something I later learned to be sugar cane. They stretched out for acres and lent a very vibrant hue to the landscape.

We stopped for lunch in a small town with a view of the two volcano peaks. As we waited for our food, the active volcano let out a large plume of steam that curled and stretched its way hundreds of feet into the sky. How very exciting! The locals at the restaurant were also excited about the steam cloud, so I could tell that this was a rare occurrence. Our route after lunch took us along the northern slopes of the twin peaks and we dashed through narrow twisting roads until it opened up once more and we were able to see the peaks, this time from the west side. We climbed another mountain pass that challenged our cornering skills simply by the amount of "road apples" we came across on the way to the top. Apparently this route was not an uncommon one for horses. There were more beautiful views of deep valleys full of farms and houses. We found the town of Union de Tula nearby and chose to stop there for the night.

...continue to part 3


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