Today is Day of the Dead, here in Zacatecas. Yesterday the children celebrated by dressing up in Halloween type costumes and parading around the city asking for sweets. Today they accompany their parents to the cemetery where the graves are decorated with many flowers and examples of the dead persons favourite foods. Shop windows are decorated with skeletons and there are sweets in the shape of skulls on sale in the market.
We have been here a couple of days, it is a nice city in which to hang out and catch up with things. It also has turned out to be a good place to meet people. The first BMW we saw was being ridden by Hank and Sherrie from Texas, here for a quick trip and to follow a classic car race. Our second day in town and another BMW, this time it is Merv and Ruth from the UK, into the second year of their RTW trip.
We are now into the second week of our time in Mexico, so far we are having a great time and haven’t encountered any of the ‘Banditos’ or rip-offs our North American friends were so fond of warning us about.
From Cuauhtémoc we rode to Durango via Creel, stopping off point for Barranca Del Cobre or Copper Canyon. The canyon, or actually a series of 6 canyons, gave me my first real taste of serious off road riding. Conditions were not exactly perfect, it had rained solidly for the past 2 days, but a break in the weather encouraged us to make the trip down into the canyon itself. From Creel, it was a 150km ride, the first half on winding tarmac, the second dirt!! When the tarmac ended we met up with 3 Americans on KLR’s with whom we rode for a while.
Surprisingly the road was not so bad, yet…..
We stopped to take photos quite often, too often for our companions, who drove on ahead.
Suddenly, the road narrowed, cut through the rock and plunged steeply down into the canyon. So this was it, the start of the serious riding!
We took it really slowly, stopping for photos and to catch our breath, it was much hotter in the canyon itself. Hairpin bends over a mixture of rock and deep gravel, took all my concentration. Luckily there was almost no oncoming traffic as I bounced between the cliff face and the sheer drop! It was with sheer relief that we reached Batopilas at the bottom of the canyon – amazingly the road through the village was tarmac, complete with topes!
Of course the adventure wasn’t yet over, the next day we had to ride the same road back to Creel. We made an early start, stopping again often to take photos. At one such stop, I misjudged the width of my panniers as I often do. Instead of the usual near miss, however, I made contact with Arno’s bike and we both ended up all over the road. It was a silly mistake and the first dent in my confidence, even so we had a good laugh about it.
Onward and upward, at some points I wondered if I really had ridden down this road. Arno was having fun even though he has a much heavier bike, I was struggling at some points but chose a reasonably easy stretch to dump the bike for the second time in one day. Luckily I was ok, the bike was ok and there were no witnesses, apart from the goat which had momentarily distracted me. We levered a pannier back into place and carried on, after Arno had taken a few photos of course. It was a while before I felt confident again, but I just had to get on with it and ride – slowly. We made it back up to Creel without further incident and much learned.
A few days later brought a complete contrast. The long ride between Hidalgo del Parral and Durango had one stretch of road that was straight ahead only.
No curves, no startling scenery, just straight and that was for 80 long kilometres. We had been warned by several locals, not to ride the road at night, as the chances of robbery were high. Reinforcing these warnings was the above average number of military personnel and checkpoints. It would have been easy for robbers to spot potential targets from literally kilometres away. We encountered no problems though, and got to Durango in good time.
Located a hotel near the centre of town where we could park both bikes in the inner courtyard.
After riding down the middle of Mexico, we felt that it was time to head to some water, the coast was a little far so we decided on Lake Chapala. We had to negotiate our way through or preferably around Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city. We rode with Ruth and Merv and I was surprised how much more attention we attracted, being 3 bikes rather than 2.
By the time we had got through the city traffic – good practice for when we head to the capital, it was getting late. It was a quick road to Chapala, apart from traffic congestion outside every cemetery, the dead it seemed were still being celebrated. The town had no inexpensive hotels with parking however, so we headed out toward Ajijic and found a campsite. Pitched our tent in the semi darkness and went to find food.
We awoke he next morning to the sound of rain on the tent, oh joy!! Now to decide, stay and get wet, or go and get wet. When Ruth came back from the bathrooms saying there was no water the decision was easier, we go. Ruth and Merv decided to stay and have a look at the town, so exchanged email addresses and agreed to meet up somewhere before crossing into Guatemala in a month or so.
It was a slow ride to Pátzcauro and very soggy. At a Pemex station, where we stopped for a warming cuppa, we met up with a group of Israelies, 2 riding enduros bought in the States and 3 driving one of those large American vans. Their ultimate destination also S. America. Needless to say all their kit was nice and dry inside their support vehicle. When we got to Pátzcauro and found a place to stay with the help of a friendly local, we filled our room with drying clothes and later our tent. I don’t think the maid was too impressed.
It rained for 3 more days and so we stayed put, seeing the town in between the showers. One morning, we managed to go for a ride to a neighbouring village where the Day of the Dead celebrations are one of the largest in the country. Had a wander around the cemetery, where unfortunately the decorations had been a little spoiled by the rain. It still looked very colourful and judging by the debris strewn around, as if one huge party had taken place.
As soon as there was a break in the weather, we left for Angangueo, a small village up in the mountains. Its claim to fame being proximity to where the monarch butterflies come to spend the winter. The butterfly reserve was about 12km away, to Arno’s delight along a dirt road, well dirt and mud thanks to the recent weather. We decided to take only the XT, a wise choice I felt, as I clung on while Arno flew around the steep curves and splashed through the mud.
I don’t think he enjoyed seeing the butterflies half as much as the ride up and down.
Our next big adventure was the ride into Mexico City, most people thought we were crazy to go there. We had heard so many stories of traffic chaos, corrupt police, taxi kidnappings and pickpockets that we were beginning to have second thoughts. We had things that we wanted to do there however, so we planned to ride into the city early on a Sunday morning. Saturday evening we spent in Tula, cement factory capital of Mexico. From the top of the Toltec pyramid, a forest of smokestacks could be seen belching out goodness knows what into the atmosphere.
We left Tula as soon as it was light and headed to the capital, taking the Autopista at the first opportunity. It was expensive, U$5 each, but got us into the city limits by 8am. The traffic was not too heavy or crazy, in fact it reminded me of riding through Napoli, Italy. The worst drivers were taxi drivers, in their green and white volkswagen beetles. They seemed to delight in cutting you up, forcing you into the path of other traffic, veering unexpectedly left or right, or just sitting on your tail with just a few centimetres in between. We missed our turning towards the centre of town, so stopped for directions. Were soon back on track and amazingly enough, I could remember enough of the city from my last visit in 1998, to get us to Plaza de la Revolución, just around the corner from the hostel. Unfortunately the roads around the plaza were all blocked off by the police. We stopped and asked what was going on and whether we could pass. After the usual questions, we were let through and no money changed hands!! By 9am we were settled in the hostel, bikes parked safely drinking a cuppa. So much for the hair-raising ride we were expecting!!
Five days in the pollution filled capital city was enough for us, our main reason for visiting the city was to get our bikes de-registered and see some of the major sights. That done, we chose Thursday to leave, as it was one of the days we could both ride within the city limits. Because of the pollution problems, motorists are restricted as to the days they can use their vehicles. For example on Mondays, people whose number plates end in the number 5 or 6 are not allowed to drive. Again we started as soon as it got light and headed for the Perifico. Maniac taxi drivers, were replaced as soon as we hit the suburbs by maniac VW combi van drivers, all racing to beat each other to the next pick up point, disregarding any other traffic that happened to be in the way.
We found our way reasonably well, managed to avoid all the toll roads and were soon heading towards Oaxaca. Our original plan had been to take 2 days to drive the 500km’s but the road was good and by 3pm we only had 150km to go. We decided to go for it, little did we know that the next 100kms would take us through the mountains on a narrow winding road. Dusk was approaching and we still had a way to go, as we descended towards the city we found ourselves driving in the dark, breaking the first rule of motorcycle travelling. We had 30kms ahead of us, there was a reasonable amount of traffic and the road was ok, but it was still a nerve wracking experience. With the help of a traffic cop, who wasn’t too busy handing out parking tickets, we found some accommodation. We had to put the bikes in a parking lot across the road, not ideal, but we were too late to keep on looking for a better option.
After a couple of days in Oaxaca, we had found ourselves a better hostel, called Luz de Luna on Av Juarez 101, where we could park the bikes inside in the courtyard. Who should also turn up looking for a room, no other than Merv and Ruth. We met up for dinner and caught up on each others travelling tales.
On a Sunday afternoon, we rode up to Monte Alban, one of the most impressive ruins in Mexico, situated on a hilltop above the city. Sundays are a great day for visiting the ruins and museums in Mexico as entrance is free and consequently they are full of Mexicans instead of busloads of Europeans. The crowds are mostly tired out by 4pm and on their way home, so we had the place almost to ourselves as we watched the sun set over the site – magical.
Our next destination was Tuxtla Gutierrez and again we travelled with Merv and Ruth. The Canyon del Sumidero was the reason to stop here, Arno and I rode up a wonderful windy road to the rim of the canyon to look at the view, while Merv &Ruth took the boat ride through. We met up afterwards for lunch, then headed up into the mountains to San Cristobal de las Casas. The road was made for motorbikes, however it was also busy with lots of other traffic, most of it slow. We occasionally had nothing in front of us, but there would soon be a queue of traffic following a bus or van filled to bursting point, crawling up the hill at 30kmh. As we climbed, it also got rather chilly and we were glad to reach the town and stand in the last rays of warming sun.
Found a hostel with a garage big enough for 3 bikes and settled in. There was lots to see and do in the town, the most interesting of which was a ride up to the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula. After looking at the famous church, filled with candles and the chanting of villagers, we walked through the plaza, where lots of ladies were sat on blankets on the ground offering their wares for sale, mostly fruit and veggies. The bikes were causing the usual interest especially amongst the kids. They were unbelieving when we said they could sit on the BMW, it took a while, but a couple of braver ones eventually climbed on and had a great time “riding” wherever their imaginations took them.
The road leaving San Cristobal was not quite as spectacular but a lot faster, except for the topes. The darn things were everywhere, even in the middle of the countryside, not a building in sight and there they would be, lying in wait for the unsuspecting. We were on the way to Palenque and stopped at Agua Azul for a break and to see the waterfalls there. We met 2 Canadians on their way to Ecuador, they had ridden down from Quebec in 2 weeks and wanted to be in S. America before Christmas. Had a quick chat before they zoomed off, a schedule to keep to!! I’m glad that we are not racing along, it is wonderful to be able to stay in place more than a few hours and if we like somewhere we just stay another day or so. We won’t get to Panama for Christmas, but hope to meet up with some of those riders along the way.
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