Apr 7, 2009

Mexico 2003

wo years ago, in February of 2001, I stood next to my motorcycle at a gas station in McAllen, Texas, just across the border from Reynosa in Mexico. A man walking by asked where I was going on this grey, drizzly morning. I told him I was riding into Mexico. He wondered why on earth would I want to go there. I answered that I had never been there before. That pretty much sums up in a few words why I often ride great distances on my 1998 Honda ST1100. I did have another motive in this case, my wife's father lives in Patzcuaro, a few hundred kilometers from Mexico City.

However, due to an ill-fitting helmet, big miles were definitely not part of that trip, unless you count the ride down there hauling the ST on a trailer. Even that part didn't go smoothly. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the drive back, I skidded on black ice and collided with a disabled car on the side of the road. Ever have that feeling that you should have just stayed at home and vegged out on the couch?

A few weeks after my crash, I flew from Canada down to Tulsa to retrieve my repaired truck. After buying a new trailer to replace the one I wrecked, I picked up my bike which had received a clean bill of health from a local dealer. While finishing my trip home, I knew I would ride into Mexico again. I hate failure. My stubborn side simply will not lie down and accept such random acts of disappointment.

Indeed, the cold temperatures and relentless snow of southwestern Ontario in January, 2003, found me planning this trip all over again. My trip to Mexico actually started on the corner of Wharncliffe and Wonderland roads in London, at my dealer, Hully Gully. They were having an open house, and I had agreed to display my bike there. It meant leaving a day later than planned, but I always enjoy these things. There was a possibility that I could extend my trip a day on the other end if I was enjoying myself too much down south.

After the fun of the open house, I was loaded on the trailer for the 3000 kilometer trip to Texas. It was Saturday, February 1st, 6PM. I was concerned a high terrorist alert plus the shuttle Columbia disaster over Texas would make my travel difficult. In the end, only my tired state slowed me down as I made my way south behind the wheel of my Chevrolet Tracker.

Southern Illinois - I hadn't seen a landscape without snow in months.

I planned this trip south to avoid Oklahoma, and not just because that state drips with negative karma. After my accident two years ago, the state trooper on the scene wrote me a ticket which I had promptly forgotten about. In the weeks before this trip, I had received the ticket again in the mail with a warning that a warrant for my arrest would be issued if I didn't pay up. Not looking for trouble, especially in today's atmosphere of paranoid border crossings, I decided I would pay it. This I did, once arriving in Texas on a sunny and oh-so-warm Monday afternoon. I bought return postage for the S.A.S.E. they would use to send me the receipt, and mailed that along with my money order to Okie.

Arriving in south Texas.

Once making contact with my friend Tomas Perez in Mission, near McAllen, and unloading the bike at his house, we went for a short ride. He allowed me a stint on his new ST1300ABS, a very nice motorcycle. Tuesday morning I was set to ride over into Mexico to begin my trip.

This would be a good time to inform you of the paperwork requirements of entering Mexico, and to pass along a warning. Along with a passport and driver's license, one must purchase three documents to ride into the interior zone of Mexico. Those three things are a tourist permit, daily insurance for your vehicle, and a temporary importation certificate. This certificate is your bond that you will leave with your vehicle, and not sell it while you are in Mexico. And now for the warning: do not leave Mexico without canceling your importation certificate at the Banjercito office.

The infamous "Permiso de Importacion Temporal de Vehiculos."

My trip of 2001 once again came back to haunt me, for I had not cancelled that permit. Instead, I had dropped it into a box at the border on my way out of Mexico, thinking this would suffice. Naturally, they had questions. Fortunately, I had answers. I also had the same bike I used in 2001, with permit sticker still displayed on the windshield. This was extremely fortunate for me. I might have been fined and turned away at the border had I not been able to prove I returned with my bike two years ago. While all this was going on, I noticed a heavily laden KTM out in the parking lot. Eventually, I saw the rider. I was surprised to see that he was wearing the very same suit I was, a blue Aerostich Darien.

All of this legal and linguistic wrangling took a fair bit of time, and before I knew it, my Tuesday morning was shot. Ah well, I had my fuel cell mounted for extra range, and a helmet that did not give me migraines, so progress promised to be swift.

Mexican roads had not changed significantly in the two intervening years. City streets tended toward the atrocious side, while the toll highways were the equal of anything seen in Canada or the US. The free-use highways slotted right down the middle of these two extremes, but had the major disadvantage of taking one straight through the aforementioned cities. I opted for the expensive tolls at the beginning of my ride towards Torreon, where I had turned around two years ago.

This answers the question we've all been asking:
Where is Eric Estrada these days?

With feelings of deja-vu, I stopped in Torreon as night was falling, and stayed in the same hotel I stayed at two years ago. I liked the security of its courtyard and locked gate, and it had a charming architecture which perhaps tried a bit too hard to be the typical colonial ideal.

Torreon is a major centre. The big three automakers and all the fast food operators familiar to North Americans have a presence there, and the streets are better maintained than most, although a detour on my entrance to the city had me doubting this. This detour had me (and dozens of honking, belching cars) on such bad roads, that I couldn't help but wonder how bad the closed section was.

On my way to the hotel, I was startled when I noticed a police vehicle in my rear view with the red and blue lights flashing. My heart leapt into my throat as I pulled over, visions of decrepit Mexican jails flashed before my eyes. Relief washed over me as I watched him pass me by. Then I noticed that the police all drive around with their red and blue roof lights going all the time, ignored by other motorists. It seems they simply like the way they look, and leave them on. When on an emergency, they turn on the siren, which sounds like a European high-low type.

My hotel was right across the street from a large grocery store. I stocked up on bottled water and snacks, and purchased a TelMex calling card. After calling home to my wife, it was off to bed.

Day two in Mexico didn't start out much better than day one had. I forgot to remove the lock I applied to the right front brake disc the night before, and managed to tip the bike over as a result. After getting help to right the bike from the desk clerk, I was off.

Things warmed up nicely as I continued south along highway 49. I recorded temperatures in excess of 30°C, under blue skies criss-crossed by a few wispy clouds. Cactus was plentiful amongst the dry scrub bushes of the sparse landscape. At one point, my reverie was interrupted by two tumbleweeds making a frenetic trip across the highway, driven by crosswinds from the west.

What really made me smile, however, was noticing on my StreetPilot GPS that I had passed through the tropic of cancer (latitude 23.5 degrees north) in the state of Zacatecas. Its capital city, also called Zacatecas, is truly a feast for the eyes. Densely populated, it is built between peaks of the western Sierra Madre mountain range. I thought its combination of modern and old world architecture a tantalizing mix, often distracting me from the road. Everywhere I looked, colourful buildings lined narrow, spiraling roads.

Zacatecas from the surrounding hills.

The corridor up and down toll highway 49 towards Mexico City contains many industrial parks and manufacturing plants. Looking like prisons, these plants are surrounded with high fences topped with barbed wire. Workers' housing units line the barren land within walking distance around the plants, packed tightly like rows of corn. Houses appear little more than boxes, some made from mud and straw. Cheap labour seems to be Mexico's primary crop and export.

Leaving the industrial corridor at highways 45 and turning south towards Morelia, conditions seem to go from bad to worse. Without an economy propped up by nearby manufacturing, many towns are stuck in perpetual poverty. Only main streets are paved and street signs are often hand painted and attached to buildings that crowd the narrow lanes.

And the gas station bathrooms aren't much better.

A prime example of this is Valle de Santiago on highway 43 just north of Morelia. On its outskirts, I saw a sign indicating an alternate truck route around the town. I eagerly turn down this street hoping to avoid the slog through yet another crowded “centro.” I realize this is no ring road as I encounter a full size tractor trailer stuck trying to make an impossible turn around a tight corner. It towers above the shacks which block its path, and could surely knock down a whole city block in first gear.

I veered left, looking for a way around the blockage, only to get lost in a maze of one way and dead end streets whose surfaces would make you average rock quarry look as smooth as a gymnasium floor. Pretty soon, I was on the “bypass,” a cobblestone affair surely built before the last century - or maybe even the one before that! When I think of cobblestone, I think of charming lanes in quaint European villages, made of smooth stone in a neat pattern. I've dubbed the Mexican version “hobblestones.” After bobbing and bouncing the loaded ST1100 over the large and uneven rocks for a few kilometers, I glanced at the GPS for a way out. It indicated several more kilometers of this. I turned off and back towards town.

I entered the town center and instantly realized I had jumped out of the frying pan and right into the proverbial fire. The one lane “main street” was jammed with people, donkey-propelled carts, and smoking cars so old they disappeared from your local junk yard decades ago. Eventually, I adopted the method used by other motorcyclists of simply riding down the side of the road. Pedestrians wisely backed away and waited for me to pass. This was the only access to the city of Morelia to the south.

I eventually wended my way through Morelia and on to Patzcuaro on highway 14. I had estimated I would be there at 6PM, but conditions put me in after 7:30.

My wife's father, Roland, who was waiting for me in the town square since 4:30 I later found out, had gone home as it had started to cool off. At 6000 ft elevation, it was the coldest it had been all day, around 15°C. I walked around looking for him, but had no luck. I found a hotel with a secure courtyard, and checked in. My small room cost 220 pesos, or about US$20.00 After putting my bags in the room, I covered the bike, set the alarm, and put the disc lock on - after applying a homemade sign in front of the ignition lock to remove it.

I went walking around in a t-shirt, while most of the locals were wearing jackets and hats; this was their winter after all. The square was very busy on this Wednesday night, with sidewalk hawkers and food stands lining all four sides. Not trusting the cleanliness of roadside food, I walked into a nice sit down restaurant decorated with copper place settings and colourful woven wall coverings.

The waiter walked over and I issued a sturdy “uno cerveza por favour - Corona,” fulfilling a primary entry on my itinerary. My spanish or perhaps my appearance gave me away, as he came back with my beer and an english menu. I ordered the Patzcuero Chicken, a dish with tasty enchiladas, chicken thigh, and somewhat dry and bland carrots and turnip. The total, including the barly pop, was a reasonable 75 pesos, or under US$8.00. I went back to my room and fell asleep quickly.

I was awake before light, wondering when and if Roland would come to town to meet me. I decided I would head back home. It was Thursday morning, I was 4000 kilometers from home, and I had to be back to work Sunday night. I pulled open the map and spread it out on the overly firm queen-size bed. There was no way in hell I would pass through Valle de Santiago again. I decided to detour through Salvatierra and Celeya on my way to Queretaro where the free highway 57 starts north. I made the changes to the route in my StreetPilot and packed up the bike.

I chose a different route while leaving Patzcuaro in the dark, and wound up on another hobblestone road. I would have been upset if not for the nice decorations on display. Presumably leftovers from the Christmas season, streamers and banners were hung on shanties and shacks and across the road. I saw not a single string of lights in this poor area if town.

My detour on highway 57 through Salvatierra ended up being a pleasant romp through rolling hills in a fertile valley. I think I saw more cropland in ten minutes than I had in my two previous days in Mexico. The road was also a surprise. It was a four-lane divided highway with good quality pavement, and wasn't clogged with traffic.

Buying tequila at the drive-in liquor store in Celeya.

I soon encountered the first of six military checkpoints in the northbound lanes. Ignoring the tequila I bought, they were looking for guns and drugs being smuggled from Mexico City north to the U.S. As a motorcycling gringo, I had an easy time, although on several occasions, soldiers carrying automatic rifles unpacked all of my bags to look in each.

I quickly learned that producing my passport would speed these checkpoints. Pulling it out, the top-ranking officer on hand would hold out his hand for it. After reviewing it and handing it back, this officer would inevitably wave his hand, indicating I could leave. The others would simply stop what they were doing, and I would go.

A roadside stand selling copper goods.

The sights were much better along this “libre” highway than the toll roads. Roadside markets appeared occasionally, like an oasis in the desert. Copper and beaded trinkets were popular among Mexican artisans. Other tasty treats for the eyes included pottery, porcelain, and of all things black velvet art. Each state also had a series of signs along the roadway indicating the condition of its roads. I was encouraged to find that my roads that day would all be “bueno.”

Bueno, senior!

Its getting warm out here.

Mid-afternoon in the central plains turned downright hot, and I appeared to be entering a desert-like environment with few stops. When the opportunity arose, I decided to stop for gas at a state-owned Pemex station on highway 101. That turned out to be my best tankful of the trip. I had already ridden 636 kilometers that day, and still had 10 liters in the tank.

Continuing north, brown rusty peaks began to appear over the horizon. Crossing over the eastern ridges of the Sierra Madres between Tula and Ciudad Victoria proved to be the absolute highlight of my trip. Mostly excellent quality switchbacks tempted me to leave behind some of the metal underneath my footpegs. Unfortunately, the sheer drops and lack of guardrails were a deterrent. The massive peaks that towered above rivaled a good many of what the Rockies can muster, especially as those fourth gear corners turned to third and second gear corners.

Switchback curves visible on mountainside in the distance.

Steep roads climbing up.

Looking down over the edge of the pavement.

As seen on many roads in North America, locals have erected crosses at the sites of automotive gore. One such turn, preceded by many signs with big red letters of warning, contained more than a dozen. I didn't count them, as that would likely have resulted in one more. Looking the other way towards the outside of the curve, the cliff began where the road surface ended - without any shoulder.

As the road flattened out, I kept looking back towards the peaks I was leaving behind, as I often find myself doing. It's sort of like watching the credits after a good movie. I was also watching my last day in Mexico slip away. I was so engrossed by the twisty tarmac, I didn't notice the sun slipping behind the mountains to the west.

Crackers, potato chips, and water. Mmmmm.

I was still several hours from the U.S border, and was not thrilled with the prospect of riding in Mexico after dark. I had lost track of the number of animals I had seen on the roadways.

Horse grazing in the median.

I was pleased with myself, when after several hours of mild and breezy riding under a starry sky, I was successfully canceling my importation certificate and riding back into the U.S. It may have been -20 degrees and snowing back in Canada, but this warm winter ride would be safely tucked away in my mind, ready to relive at a moment's notice.

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