The Copper Canyon Made Easy: Copper Canyon Via Baja by Patrick Moriarty

By Patrick Moriarty
by permission of City Bike, all rights reserved San Francisco California re-printed from Oct. 1998

The reoccurring allure of Mexico is a strong evocative spell that seems to gain strength as summer wanes, the intense desert heat moderates and the scent of fall hangs in the air. Months of the El Nino monsoon inspire in the moto-vagabond day dreams of racing through an empty desert landscape, or clutching an ice cold Corona on a warm deserted beach, staring at the tranquil turquoise ocean standing silently at your feet. Visions of riding your motorcycle through villages that appear out of the past, unspoiled and almost surreal in their innocence.... The smell of a freshly butchered pig, boiled in oil for Chiccaronnes drifts through the air blending with acrid wood smoke and aroma of fresh tortillas warming for the almuerzo. The motorcycle sits in the sun awaiting the next tank of gas that will carry you on to yet undiscovered pleasures of Mexico.

This trip began in Baja Norte, meandering down Mex. Highway One at a nice easy pace, in awe of the giant Saguaro cactus lining the narrow dirt tracks of the Baja 1000 course. The heavy fragrance of desert bloom and salt air combine to deliver inspiration like an overdose of Ginko Biloba. The KLR 650 is an easy ride, with good comfort, OK luggage capabilities, exceptional range, and a high fun factor. A high cruising speed is not the strong suite of the KLR. On the long, flat stretches of highway in Baja a higher top speed and a little more wind protection would help on those 400 mile days. Around 70mph seems to be where it likes to be. You could run at ninety all day, but on a long trip, one is not inclined to push too hard. Wolfman soft saddle bags and tail pack hold all that is needed including extra tubes, tools, clothing, and of course, mask, fins & snorkel. As this is primarily a pavement foray, no knobbies are needed, dual sport tires covering all the bases here.

The towns drift by as we meander south. They become fewer and further apart. In Bahia de Los Angeles our hotel is right on the water, with stunning views of off-shore islands. Ice cold Pacificos' are a welcome refreshment and our biggest project for the evening is to decide where to go for dinner. The Yellow Tail are running, and the guys down the way report catching sixty fish is one day. Pescado mojo del ajo (fish in garlic butter) is a popular choice.

That evening a group of hardened San Francisco dirt riders show up. 19 riders started at the border for this annual mad ritual led by Ray Roy, of Cabo 1000 infamy. Their day began in San Felipe, on the Gulf. Now scattered across a hundred miles of desert, riders drift in through out the night. The next day we push south to Mulege, and the dirt guys head for the remote fish camp of San Franciquito and points south riding their very own private Baja 1000 race sans support, medical back up or any official sanction. In Mexico there are really no rules at all. And as my good friend Jose says: "In Mexico, if you have money, you can even make the dead stand up again" He speaks the truth.

In Mulege we visit Mulege Jake, drink his beer and look at the view from his patio: A turquoise Baja postcard. Jake is a long time Baja resident, ambassador of good will and avid motorcyclist. Jake has entertained and helped more southbound adventurers than anyone could count. The ferry to mainland Mexico leaves from Santa Rosalia at night and arrives in Guaymas in the morning. In 1998 the fare was $60 for bike and private cabin, allow for inflation of about 10% a year. Make sure you have your vehicle permit before you try to board. Get it at the border.

The route I've chosen to the Copper Canyon is from the west coast, not much information on this route could be found. Most accounts of travel to the Canyon approach from the north, around Chihuahua. This route would take us hundreds of miles out of our way and would involve Texas, home of the most despicable white people on the planet: Avoid. Our plan was to do a loop rather than having to double back. The western approach allowed this, if it was passable. The maps showed good roads, but maps of the region can be deceptive and are rarely current.

Throwing all caution to the wind we set out from Ciudad Obregon on the west coast of Mexico and headed east on poorly marked, but good roads, Highway 12 led us to highway 16 through tiny Indian aldeas like Yecora, Yepachic, and Maycoba. The terrain changed dramatically as we ascended past six thousand feet, tropical desert slowly giving way to heavy Chaparral evolving into a kind of weedy alpine forest with snow on nearby mountains. This serpentine path was devoid of traffic, perfect for the KLR. Whipping through the switch backs with aplomb, jamming higher and higher into the Sierra Madre Occidental. Having made excellent time, we decided to overnight at a little alpine motel in Mennonite country. This part of Mexico is 'dry' so sodas and water will have to suffice.

Our room had a fireplace. As night fell, I realized the fireplace wasn't just some tourist curiosity, but was going to keep us from freezing our butts off. It did. We didn't. The morning broke clear and cold, the cobalt blue sky promising a good days ride. Both bikes covered in ice, we set out for Creel, the railhead and jumping off point for the Canyon.

Creel is loaded with travelers of every strip, from wealthy retirees on escorted tours to eco-hippies and euro trash looking for natural nirvana at a bargain price. Most folks arrive by train, either from Los Mochis on the west coast or from Chihuahua to the north. This train ride is said to be one of the most spectacular in the world. But why travel by rail when you've got a bike?

We were the only people in town on motorcycles, with the exception of a Dutch couple on a early eighties 1100 Yamaha side car setup. They packed their white Scotty dog on this rig, and had ridden bikes all over the world for the past fifteen years. When we mentioned we were from the City they asked if we knew of "Munroe Motors". Seems they had purchased a used bike from the landmark Frisco dealership some years before. Apparently the thrifty Irishmen were not totally forthcoming as to the condition of said motorbike, and caused the Netherlanders many an agonizing hour on the side of the road in their quest to see our beautiful America. Small world ain't it?

After a couple days in Creel at our funky $12 a night hotel, which included two meals at communal tables, we decided to take the plunge into the depths of the Copper Canyon. In Creel we talked to many travelers and learned much about the area. Places to stay, good side trips, road conditions and everything in between. First rule of adventure travel: current, local information is always best, but always consider the source.

We were amazed at the condition of the roads around the Copper Canyon. Mostly newly paved, with lots of road projects planned in the near future. The Mexicans have big tourist plans for this area. My advice: see it now before it is over grazed. We discovered a section of road that we thought impassable (according to the map) was in fact paved and in perfect order. This road saved us a two day back track to get out of the Copper Canyon area.

The only long stretch of dirt road turned out to be the last fifty miles down into the canyon to the village of Batopilas. This quaint little historic town is a perfect place to use as base camp for hikes or dual sport explorations around the area. But it's the ride down that's the real E ticket. Starting at around 8000ft., in fifty miles you drop down to about 2000ft., and air temperatures can rise as much as 30F by the time you reach Batopilas. The narrow dirt track affords stunning views and precipitous drops that encourage you to stay upright. Ain't no guard rails here folks, be aware of giant Suburban SUV's loaded with paying customers coming the other way at speed.

Batopilas is still rather Mexican in character and hasn't become a tourist mecca as of yet. It's future will depend on the path of development. There is a very exclusive private hotel in this former mining town, converted from a beautiful old hacienda. It is run by an "Adventure Eco-Tour" outfit out of Colorado. We weren't even allowed to set foot in the hotel, and were asked to leave when asking for information. It is totally private, no walk-in guests. We sure felt good about our charming little $14 a night bungalow, after inquiring the price of accommodation, we are told $200 a night! These are pre-booked deals that are all inclusive. Patrons pay about $3000 for a ten day excursion, air fare extra. Mostly retired folks whose every whim is catered to by the operator. And guess what? They still get"Turista two-step"! This is a perfect illustration of what a bargain Mexico can be if you "do it yourself", and are just a little bit adventurous and allow a few extra days on your schedule to deal with the inevitable "Mexicanisms".

The Mexican military exert a strong presence in many rural communities, including Batopilas. Shiny new HumVee¹s manned by child-soldiers with M-16¹s patrol the area. If you ask, they will tell you they are there to stop the"Trafficante's" or drug traffickers. In reality at least part of their mission is to keep an eye out for local political movements and secretly extract a toll from said pot growers. Your US AID dollars at work. The canyon is the center of pot growing in Mexico. Good news here is that tourists are considered a valuable resource also and are generally left alone to spend their money on curios, get drunk and make fools of themselves. If you are stopped, they may be looking for guns: The Mexican government's biggest fear. Many times the young soldiers are simply interested in checking out your bike. Wheelies upon leaving are de rigeur and always bring smiles. Also, I wouldn't go looking for Marijuana fields, they are jealously guarded, and be careful when venturing off the beaten path.

On our way out of the Canyon a tormenta (storm) blew in and we got snowed on as we ascended to Creel. The KLR is not exactly an all weather mount. And I didn't pack an electric vest. Hey, it's still warm in Mexico, beach weather fer Chriss Sakes! Who knew? Having come from lower elevations, we were first soaked by rain and then briskly frozen as we continued our assent. A very painful experience.

The following day found us hotel snow bound with our Dutch friends. We built a roaring fire, sat out the Sierra storm and developed a close relationship with a new friend called Ron Bacardi. The next morning we rode carefully through the snow covered landscape on icy roads down to Parral and on to Durango, warmth finally returning to our bones.

In terms of exploration, the scope of this trip has barely scratched the surface. There are miles of incredible backroads in the Copper Canyon area that few motorcyclists have explored. If one has the time and curiosity, years could be spent uncovering great rides and interesting sites in this region. A good guide book is all you need to point you towards the many fascinating historical treasures and diverse cultural richness of the area. My favorite is Moon Travels' Northern Mexico Handbook by Joe Cummings. A great guide book and far superior to lame Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or any other UK based attempt at a good travel guide.

September and October are the best time to visit the Copper Canyon and most of Mexico as well. November is great for coastal areas. However, the fall is peak tourist season too, which means higher prices and more people. Don't be intimidated by the tour operators, this trip is doable by mortals. On the other hand, some Moto-tour outfits do a good job, and most prices are fair. So if you like group rides and have about $1000, call Pancho Villa or one of the other companies. The main thing is to do it in this lifetime.

Que le via bien.
Patrick Moriarty / CityBike
Copyright 1998 - all rights reserved

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