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Peregrinations Mexico and Central America on Motorcycle: Open road, open heart, open mind.

Week eight: The Sierra Madre

USA | Tuesday, 10 May 2011 | Views [2019] | Comments [2]

While Charlie and I were in Durango, a fellow ADVrider looked us up. Stephen has lived in the city for four years with his wife and two children, while working for a silver and gold mining corporation. On the weekends, he gets out and rides, and he passed on to us a tip for where to go: if we thought the Devil's Backbone was beautiful, just wait until we took the southern route back to the coast. All the beauty, and none of the traffic. This road wasn't even paved a few years ago, and there's still a thirty-mile stretch that isn't. The whole trip was going to be about 300 miles with very few towns, no gas stations, and very little Spanish spoken. We were stoked.

The morning we left we got an unfortunately late start. Three hundred miles of straight road is one thing, three hundred miles of windy, treacherous road with a dirt stretch was different--we'd need to make absolutely sure we were in a safe town before nightfall, because this region of the Sierra Madre was known for its lawlessness, especially on the road after dark.

The ride was exquisite, but it definitely kept me on my toes. The first section wound gently through agricultural towns and along gentle bends in a dry river bed. The road steadily climbed until we got our first real vista, with a surprising section of road below us: the pavement curled back on itself over and over again in its descent of the canyon walls, looking for all the world like the loops and coils of an enormous black snake. Unfortunately, it wasn't pavement as it had appeared, but rather chipseal and gravel, so I couldn't pump through the turns as I would have liked. It was also peppered with innumerable rockslides and rockfalls, which was understandable considering how unstable the slope was where they built this road. In many places the road narrowed to less than one lane, flanked by piles of rubble. 

On and on we went, past amazing view after amazing view, through tiny towns with unpronounceable names, populated by Indians in brightly colored clothes, riding donkeys down the streets. The Indians here don't even speak Spanish for the most part, just their native Indian tongue. 

It being the dry season, there was a lot of smoke in the air, which made the late afternoon descent from the pine forests at 8,500 ft to the scorching canyon bottom at 3,500 ft look that much more mysterious and unfathomable. Tendrils of smoke clung to cliffsides and cast an eerie shade over the forests. 

We got gas from a cowboy in the canyon, and asked how long until the next town with a hotel: Jesus Maria was the best bet according to the locals. It was about 50 miles away, no sweat.

Until the road turned from clean pavement to rough and rocky dirt. Charlie could go forever on that stuff and never bat an eye, but it's still very tricky for me, so I took it pretty slow. Fortunately, we had done thirty miles of dirt just the two days before, so I was feeling much more confident about my diving skills, and was honestly having a good time on the dirt. I was just pondering how grateful I was to have had practice the day before when...I bit it. 

While accelerating up a small incline, my front wheel dove into a pothole of deep, fine dirt and took a hard lurch to the left. As my wheel popped up and out of the hole, it landed square in another one, lurched the other direction, and bucked me off. 

As I sailed a very short distance through the air, I thought, "Crap, I can't believe I crashed there, of all places! Well, at least it won't hurt too bad since I was only going about 30 mph." Then my shoulder piled into the dirt hill, and I changed my mind--this wasn't going to be okay at all. 

Adrenaline got me up and moving, even as I cursed the pain in my left shoulder, left wrist and right knee. I tried to lift the bike up, but only got it propped onto a pannier before my shoulder screamed at me to stop. Then tunnel vision set in, and I sat down. Every time I tried to do anything, like open a pannier to get some ibuprofen, I was overcome with nausea and tunnel vision, and had to stop. Eventually I lay down, waiting to hear the sound of Charlie's bike coming back for me. It was very quiet in the mountains. I was injured on a dirt road in the heart of the Sierra Madre as the sun sank towards the horizon to the west. This wasn't good.

But it wasn't going to get any better sitting there. Charlie pulled up about half an hour later, and we chatted about how silly it was for me to be taking a nap in the middle of the road like that. He got me my ibuprofen and some water, righted my bike, put the right pannier back on, and told me to man up. And then I had to drive my bike over a rough road to Jesus Maria. Oh, and my handlebars were out of line with the front wheel, so I couldn't steer correctly at first. Right away I accidentally hit sand again, and as I struggled to keep the bike upright, I felt something tear in my shoulder. It was going to be a long ride.

It was, one of the longest of my life, as I puttered over rocks and holes, trying to overcome my fear of falling again, and trying not to hurt my shoulder further. The towns we passed through on the way to Jesus Maria were dodgy at best. Each one was nearly deserted except for a pack of twenty drunk men all gathered in front of one store in the center of town, eyeballing us like a hungry dog eyeballs sausage links. Could we make it to Jesus Maria before dark? Did we have another choice? 

Thanks god, the dirt ended and we cruised along on pavement the rest of the way. Jesus Maria was not friendlier, per se, but it was bigger, and bigger towns at least have some law. We found a dingy hotel, parked the bikes, and slowly hauled our stuff inside right as darkness set in for real. We'd made it.

Jesus Maria was an interesting town, and despite the circumstances that landed us there, I was glad to have had the opportunity to stay in a untouristed town in the Sierra Madre. We cautiously walked to a taco stand and drank a six pack on the curb with other drunk guys as we ate. The town was dirty and full of drunks, but seemed peaceful enough. On the way back to the hotel we passed a group of military guys, and they stared at us with the most unabashed look of surprise I have ever seen from grown men. It was as if they'd all said at once, "What the hell are you guys doing here?!?" 

As we walked into our hotel, we heard the door open and close behind us as someone followed us in. On guard, we waited to see who it was and what they wanted. Ends up it was the ticket-taker from the local bus company, and he was just popping in to use the bathroom. He ended up talking to us for nearly an hour, answering all of our questions about the town and the region.

It ends up we'd picked a good day to visit the town. Usually the town has no military presence, but it just so happened that the day before, three truckloads of narco hitmen had rolled into town to make trouble. Someone called the military, they'd showed up that morning, and the hitmen had fled town. So even if the town usually wasn't safe, it would be that night because the good guys were on the corner, armed and alert. Wow. 

We also learned that three cartels were currently battling for ownership of towns on the region, and even for the large city of Tepic on the coast. Again, we were cautioned not to drive at night, and then our new friend left us to go sleep under his bus. 

Our door had no lock, so we chained ourselves in with a bike cable. We were a little edgy all night, but nothing happened.

The next morning we left after a healing sleep-in. My shoulder was a mess--putting on a shirt or jacket took minutes, and I couldn't lift so much as a glass of water with my left arm. But on we drove, mostly on pavement, through even more gorgeous terrain. Despite the crash and scary town experience, I was extremely glad we'd done the ride. 

We are now in the town of Sayulita, just north of Puerto Vallarta, resting up. Charlie needs to heal as well, after his own exciting experience the day after I crashed. But that's his story to tell. Next on the list is Guadalajara, to get some sight-seeing and bike work done. Then onward to Mexico City, where hopefully I'll run into Alex and Tom again, as Charlie jets south to meet a friend in Costa Rica. Wish us luck, safety, and quick healing! 

Until next time,



wow! glad you got through that section okay sis. close call. best of healing to you and your shoulder. i'll give mom a hug to help her cope.


  esus May 11, 2011 5:12 AM


You are my kind of girl. That route is high adventure.

  Jimmy May 14, 2011 1:25 PM

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