Some notes on driving in Mexico.
Petrol :- The oil and petrol business is state owned, there is one brand of fuel, Pemex. The price is the same every where in the country, even on the toll roads. Octane is variable, they all have “87” which the the equivalent of our old 2 star and then there is “91” which is the same as the UK unleaded and sometimes “92” or “93”.
Topes :- The speed bumps from hell. There are two types. Most are similar to ours, but not as smooth or small. They are sometimes sign posted and sometimes not, when you hit one at 50-60 miles an hour on a main highway you learn to slow down more near villages. The other type are lines of small metal lumps, semi-spheres, that will send the wheels every where if not taken slowly, best taken by lining up the wheels and going over a single one.
Creel is the main backpacking stop off point for the Barrancas de Cobre, Copper Canyon, Mexico's equivalent of the Grand Canyon, just bigger and with more trees.
The town has 2 passenger trains a day, one West bound and one East, which are met by the hotel and hostel owners touting for business. At least twice a day a goods train will pass through, slow down and stop. To our amusement heads appeared from the goods wagons and people jumped on and off.
The rest of the time people just walk and sit on the tracks.
When we arrived at the hostel an “Adventure Trip” company owner was there and gave us some of his time explaining the roads and the canyon places to visit. Especially the road to the canyon floor at Batopilas, with no tarmac, tight turns, sheer sides and a 2000 metre loss of altitude. We decided to attempt a trial look at the road and decide if we could get down it.
After 50 miles of good tarmac, canyon views, and fir trees the road just disappeared into compact stone and road works.
Gravel was being piled up making steering hard, especially truck avoidance. Jean sensibly turned us back after about 8 miles of it.
At least we got to ride the good bit again.
After Creel we headed out to Hidalgo De Parral, at our third fuel stop in 100 miles (destroyer tactics) we met three Americans on bikes, Jim, Gavin and Tony, that we had briefly met the day before. As we were headed he same way we hooked up to ride together.
The road to Parral from Creel is currently my favourite road of the trip, our first Altiplano, more canyon views than you can shake a stick at, and no traffic, until a military check point where we were amused that they spent more time furtelling in Jean's panniers than ours.
Because we were all ultimately heading for Mexico City and getting on well we decided to stick together for a few days.
The following sequence of events had a lot to do with the heat, attempting a 350 mile day, riding with strangers and dehydration. The previous nights beer and tequila probably also had a bearing on it.
We had taken some back roads to avoid a city, and I use the term road in a loose sense, there may well have been some tarmac between the holes. As we passed through an intersection in a small town the traffic lights seemed to be ignored by the locals, Jim went on green and I thought he was going to a Pemex, except he saw the lights go red again and stopped, he has ABS, I don't. I instinctively used the front brake, locked it, the road was dusty, and slid into his right pannier. It was a slow bump but enough to make me lose my balance and I had to let the bike go down to my right.
There was a crowd of locals staring at us even before I did this, I should have done a bow.
The only damage to my bike was a crack in the front mud guard, the solid panniers stopped it hitting the floor. Jim looked at his pannier and suggested I do a better job of polishing it next time.
I think you can guess what happened next.
Half an hour later, leaving another town we started to pick up speed. Then Jim hit the brakes to avoid another sudden topas, once again I locked the front, the bike slid and I recovered but was still going 10 or 15 mph as I tried to dive right. I felt a moment of relief as my front missed Jim, but then my pannier hit his. Everyone thought I was going down properly this time as the bike weaved everywhere and I struggled to stay up and miss a truck which was parked in front of the topas warning sign. I stopped and just sat there bemused for a minute.
This time I had smashed Jim's bike hard, and bent some brackets taking off his pannier, mine was dinted a bit. Later I asked him if I had polished it properly this time.
For some reason, no one wanted to ride in front of me after that.
We stopped in Parras, in the Mexican wine district (yes you can get Mexican wine), at a budget breaking resort, all sharing a large cottage. It was literally an oasis in a desert.
We had now passed into what looked to be a more wealthy region, there was still poverty but it was not as dirty or as uncared for as early regions. This part of Mexico is where the original Spanish colonists had populated.
Then it was back along semi tarmaced roads and more desert with Joshua trees, later we went through what can only be described as a huge Joshua tree forest, covering an entire valley floor.
Our target was Real De Catorce, a ghost town in the mountains. The final 14 miles of road are cobbles, winding up into it. As we approached I did not want to let Jean have any second thoughts so I just turned in and went for it.
I think my teeth rattled, the bike certainly did. Tony and I quickly got to 40 mph and left Jean and the others behind, so waited for a bit. Jean came flying round the corner and as she passed us all I heard was “I'm not stopping”. I gave chase.
After jumping the queue to enter the tunnel into the town we found our selves in a square, and realised we had no contact numbers with the other three. We made our way to the hotel that Jim and I had discussed, opposite the cemetery and hoped Jim would find it as well. While waiting I bargained with the owner, Eduardo, over prices, if the three had been with us I would have got an entire house for 100 GBP.
Eventually they found us and we spent Halloween out side the walls of a ghost town cemetery and walking round the town square lit up with candles, where the locals had decorations and family shrines with “offerings” for the Dia Del Morte.
The ride out of the town was interesting as well, extremely steep cobbled roads, that I had to do twice as Jean was not confident. As it was I nearly put her bike into a wall. Only Jim made it down unaided as the rest of us had someone balancing the rear.
We are currently in the town of Ixmiquilpan staying with Jim's in laws, which is a nice break after some wild(ish) camping next to the convergence of two rivers last night.
I've not crashed into Jim for three days now.
On hillside at Real De Catorce
The local grafitti "wall"
View from 'Garry hostel' roof.
He's not in Liverpool now!
Or Mexico D.F (District Federal) as it is known, or just Mexico. It does not seem right following signs for Mexico while in Mexico.
The Mexican motorway service areas are a little different from ours, a line of restaurants appear with ladies waving brightly coloured flags to attract our attention.
We had some nice Chorizo Verde tacos, everything in it was green, including the taco.
Jean does not think I should mention we had green poo the next day.
The next morning we had a shock, it was cold. So cold that I had frost on the bike, it was our second reminder that it is winter as the previous night we had gone shopping and had been assaulted with Xmas tunes.
The temperature swings from hot (25C) to cold (4C) because we are now around 10,000 feet high. Are we really in the Tropics ?
As the city is a nightmare to navigate, it has 22 million people and 3 separate weather forecasts, our host Garry met us at our hotel and led us all in.
The first part of the trip was a bit like the M25 but after we left Jim, Gavin and Tony to be met by their host the roads and drivers got a little bit more "interesting". We were not sure of the rules, if any actually exist, so just did what Garry did and hoped for the best.
After a week with our "Tres Amigios Viajes" we finally parted, they wanted to carry on south with us but they need to turn north and start heading back. Hopefully they will take up our invite to visit us in the UK next year.
Garry works in an English Language school, and every November the 5th he does a roast beef dinner for the teachers and students, we emptied one of my panniers and put the entire meal in that, including gravy, and Jean went pillion as we followed Garry back into the city at a reasonable speed. Between the "topes", the pot holes and traffic I did not dare take my eyes off Garry to see where we were going.
We finished they day by riding back in the dark at 22:00. All I had to follow this time was his tail light.
Today we sat and watched some traffic from the middle of a "roundabout", both sides were used.
Whatever the unwritten rules are, they work as no one hits anyone else.
Just north of the city, is the excavated city of Teotihuacan, which also has two Pyramids that you can walk up, they have been restoring them. We spent a day there with Garry and Iyvonne, wandering around streets and rooms that had been excavated.
The plaque at the bottom explained that they now believed it was a temple for the water god, I doubt they will rename it.
As we left spotted a motorbike with Eire registration plates and pulled over for a chat. Pat (yes, and Irish man called Pat) has been on the road since July, he has been to Alaska, and was heading to Panama to catch a boat to Columbia on Nov 27th, so this would be his only cultural visit.
I've had to do a lot of work on the bike this weekend, mine is obviously the sick one, the list comprises of.
* Full beam not working (Baton Rouge fix)
* Horn not working (no power to it)
* Rear light/brake light intermittent
* Petrol fill catch release not working. (I've disabled the lock now)
* Wires to coil causing intermittent stalls.
I had to take the panniers off to check the rear lights, only fault found was a bent bolt for the pannier frame.
I'll start taking bets now as to how far my bike gets..
Garry led us out of the city, dropping south to avoid the ring road and a scenic detour to view the volcanoes, then as he had to go to work he pointed us in the direction we needed to go and with a wave merged with the traffic and faded into the distance.
For the 1st time in two weeks we were on our own again.
Our general direction was towards the Yucatan Peninsula.
On the way we had the worlds worst traffic jam, caused by someone selling lottery tickets at a tope, aided by a statue of Jesus.
We saw a church built on top of the worlds widest pyramid, so an early example of a "victory" church.
We stayed in a town (Orizaba) that boasted an Iron Palace designed by Gustaf Eiffel. And could not resist staying at the Grand Hotel de France.
The guide books had said to avoid Orizaba, but we found it to be genuinely nice. People could tell we were not local and would stop us and ask questions, they were really happy to have tourists.
Once we had dropped out of the mountains, and smog, we both found walking and climbing stairs much easier, then the scenery became very "tropical" with palm and banana trees every where.
We have also stayed in our 1st "Love" motel, at the end of a long hot day we pulled int the first decent looking Motel on the highway, I asked for a night rate, the receptionist was amused that we wanted a whole night, directed us to our room and then we opened the garage door.
But it was the wrong door. Oops, think we disturbed someone.
It would appear that you are meant to only drive in to one that is open, close the doors and get out unseen. There are no keys to collect or drop off. You can order food and drinks and have them delivered via a rotating hatch. The entire rental can be done without being identified.
The room, bathroom and shower were immaculate, and they even provide condoms.
Just 250 Pesos/night or £14.
More about driving in Mexico
Road signs - These are variable, they will sometimes tell you the name of where you are heading then list another city completely (which may or may not be named on our map). Often they expect you to know you should have made a turn, and reward you with a fresh sign to let you know you guessed correctly.
Use of indicators - They are used for everything except letting others know your intentions.
If moving slow, hazards on.
If preparing to stop or maybe turn, hazards on.
Approaching topes, hazards on.
To let someone know that it is safe to over take, indicate left.
(Remember we re driving on the right, and over take on the left)
Topes - I finally got around to taking a picture of the evil raised metal ones.
8 weeks of being dry, and then we finally got tropical weather.
As we entered Chetumal, on the Mexico / Belize border, looking for a Couchsurfer's house, the clouds let rip, big style. Within minutes the roads were flooded and we were ankle deep in water (that is, ankle deep while on the bikes). It went dark, and the rain so "thick" we could hardly see,
We quickly found shelter in a tyre fitting bay.
We just pulled in, got off the bikes, smiled at the staff and stood there dripping.
Eventually, the rain went off a bit and we started talking to the staff. OK, we attempted to talk to the staff - once again their accent was totally different and they would not speak slowly. After much sign language we managed to get some directions to the couchsurfer's address and a place that might do tyres for the bikes.
One of the workers even led us to the tyre shop on his moped, through the flooded streets.
These Mexicans "ROCK".
It was so wet, the camera stayed away, so here is a photo of our stay in Campeche on the Gulf Coast instead.
Unfortunately it would take at least a week to get the tyres we want in Chetumal, so we decided to pre-order them from a shop in Guatemala City.
The CouchSurf was a bit unusual.
Our host was not in, he had gone to Belize and not told his house mate we were coming. She let us in anyway and gave us a very welcome hot cup of mint tea.
The house had just been partially flooded, our room was a bare concrete floor that we shared with some wild lizards, there was no hot water and before going to bed I saw a 3 inch cockroach by the bathroom sink.
I know how to show Jean a good time on our wedding anniversary.
We got up early, packed and headed into Belize. During the 2 hour border crossing, the language changed from Spanish to English and Creol. The friendly Belize custom officers all sounded like Bob Marley, and one was singing.
It started to rain again.
We rode in to Corozal, a whole 5 miles over the border, and had a massive Chinese meal with Niel and Miin, who we had met at the border.
Meanwhile a beggar cleaned Jean's bike, for the grand sum of 21 pesos she had in left over change.
The rain was getting heavier, so we stopped at the most secure looking hotel in town. Warm, dry, hot water and not a cockroach in sight.
It may be wet, but it is warm. This feeling is something we'll have to get used to now we're properly in the tropics......like wearing a warm, wet nappy.
The only bad thing about Belize so far is they also have Topes ....
Nowhere is far away in Belize and there are only 3 main roads. In theory, you cannot get lost, so they don't feel plentiful sign posts are worth the money.
And if you do make a wrong turn, concerned locals wave you down and tell you to go back. It's possible to drive through the country on one tank of petrol, without stopping or seeing any thing. However, this would be a shame.
We spent a couple of days at Dangriga, on the Caribbean coast, after riding through more heavy rain and opted for a guest house on the beach.
I don't think we could get any closer.
The town was pretty lively as the locals celebrated Garifundi Settlement weekend with music in the streets, interspersed with some heavy rain. Not that this spoilt the celebration. Everyone just stepped under the nearest overhang and carried on, then stepped back out again when the rain went off. All very friendly, all very Caribbean. The streets were filled with Rastas, and the shops with Chinese. Hardly a Latin American face was in sight, a very strange mix.
The upside of lots of rain is that it is a very green and fertile county. The road to Dangriga is through jungle, where I had to have a swim.
Utilising some hijacked Internet we were able to contact Jean's cousin Peter who works "high up" in the Belize Ministry of Health.
By the time we got to Belmopan, the capital, we were warm, the sort of warm that makes people want to keep their distance. Jean managed to stop me from parking in the Prime Minister's spot and we eventually found our way to Pete's office where, despite our disheveled state, he greeted us with a hug and then introduced us to the Minister for Health.
Pete has nearly finished building a house in amongst the embassy area, in a prominent position. This is a view from his roof terrace.
Shortly after I took the above photograph, including a grey flat topped building, the security patrol from the USA Embassy came past and questioned Jean who was outside "faffing" with the bikes, co-incidence ?
Belize has a way of slowing you down, it certainly seems to have done that to us, and we hung out at Pete's for a few days doing very little.
Sorry, who am I talking to again ?
On our last night, Pete took us over to the British High Commission (Belize is a commonwealth country and does not get a British Embassy) for drinks.
The building is spitting distance from the US Embassy and security is low key in comparison. However it had a well maintained tennis court, swimming pool, and nicely landscaped gardens instead.
Pete kept introducing us to people, and titles of deputy this, deputy that etc slipped by. After talking to a couple of Americans for a while I had to turn to Pete and ask who they were, "oh, thats Vinai, he's the US Ambassador". Apparently they don't have a bar in the US embassy.
We managed to cover topics from motorbikes, health service and "freedom fries". I owned up to crashing into an American, twice, and seemed to be forgiven.
In all, a very surreal evening, Jean especially enjoyed drinking Pink Gin at the HC.
Now, I have just realised I am only 1 handshake away from Mr Obama !
They both finally got upset with all the torrential rain, first of all both our left hand panniers filled with water. We think this my have something to do with us both damaging the sealing foam on that side.
Also after sitting in the rain for 2 nights neither wanted to start when we left Dangriga, WD40 and patience did the trick. We will have to resort to using our rain poncho as a tarpaulin in future.
Then, while checking my bike over yesterday we spotted the left rear foot rest was hanging loose as both bolts had fallen out. I've replaced them and will be keeping an eye on them.
Hummingbird Highway, Belize.
It's stopped raining!
Meeting people on the road is one of the cool things that happens, it can change the day, dissolve any possible plans and lead you off on paths that you would never normally take.
First we met Evan, a Canadian doing the trip on his own. He spotted the bikes, we started talking and decided to ride to Tikal the next morning together.
Tikal is another "must do" backpacker pyramid touristy site.
As we changed out of our bike gear in the car park, two more bikers pulled in, Mike and Alex from Alaska, they had the same model bikes as Evan, so we started talking and now we were five. After touring the site we met up for beer in the evening back in Flores and Mike suggested we all head off to a remote hostel he had heard about, but is never advertised.
It sounded like a plan.
It has probably led to the most exciting, exhilarating, white knuckle inducing days riding I have had so far. The off the beaten track roads in Mexico we used with Jim, Tony and Gavin were just a warm up.
Back to riding in a group again, with no one really sure really sure of which way the road we wanted was as Guatemala probably has the worst road signing we have come across yet (and helpful locals who seem to give you any directions they can think of rather than admitting they do not know the way). It took us over half an hour to find the road. And what a good road, great surface, fast bends and well signposted "Tumulus" (the Guatemalan Topes). Then the road ran out and we had to take a ferry. Or what looked more like a flat platform, with a thatched cabin and a motor.
The road conditions kept changing, some times we had brand new fresh tarmac, others times it was loose gravel for miles in the middle of road works, and then it just stopped being a road. It was marked on all the maps as Highway 5. But it was little more than a dirt track.
A dirt track that wound its way up int the mountains with large boulders, tight climbing hairpin bends (with boulders) and trucks filled to overflowing with people being transported to and from the many isolated hamlets.
This went on for over 30 miles, it was slow progress and we knew the sun would set just after 17:00, we had no choice but to carry on hoping the rain that was threatening stayed off. If it had started to rain we had agreed we would just stop and pitch the tents as no one wanted to ride the rocks in the wet.
We were all elated when we found the turn off for the hostel, at the same place the real road started again. However we had another 5 miles of dirt track to negotiate, which didn't pass without incident.
Earlier in the day, Jean had told me that she felt it would be best if she had a slow spill on her bike on a dirt road to get it over and done with. They say you should be careful what you wish for.
Mike and I had hung back to try keep an eye on Jean, and then she wasn't there. We waited, we waited a bit longer, so I turned round and went back up the hill. I found her being helped to pull the bike upright by some passing locals. I tried park my bike, managed to get the side stand down. got the road camber wrong and dropped it, so they had to help me as well.
Jean was OK and smiling, she had not negotiated the bend properly as a car came round and had taken a comedy roll off the road and down the hill. Which fortunately was covered in soft grass and bushes, not one of the big drop offs.
Looks like I need to get the gaffa tape out on the indicator. I can straighten the brake lever, but she will have to live with the dented pannier. However the dented confidence may take a bit longer to resolve.
The trip was worth it.
A "thatched" Rancho that has a bar, restaurant and dorms, nestled on a hill top near the village of Lanquin with lush green mountains surrounding it.
We arrived (finally) just minutes before the bus came in (it left Flores at 0900 to our 11:00 so I think we had a better time). Jean and I nabbed the last private room.
A room with a view.
The place is idyllic, the people (owners, bar staff and guests) laid back and friendly.
I partied into the night, and now its chill out time.
Trip down to caves at Semuc Champey. The tour 'bus' from the hostel, get on and hang on. Single track dirt road winding around steep hills all the way!
The cave tour. All done by candlelight. In parts this involved swimming one-handed while holding your candle over your head, and jumping in pools while again attempting not to extinguish your candle. Followed up with swim in beautiful outdoor natural pools.
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