Heaven on Mexican Highway 16

Texas was fun but being back in the US was far too easy. Well most times. Having crossed from Mexico our first stop in the US had been a gas station to buy a chilled bottle of water. “Sorry Ma’am, but we can’t sell you any water just now. Our system has crashed and we are unable to take payment. In fact we can’t sell you anything, not even gas. We called an engineer but we don’t know when he’ll be here”. Too much technology! No, after a few weeks in the US we were pining to regain that rough edge to our travels and so we crossed the border at Presidio to Ojinaga and struck out south across the Chihuahuan Desert, headed for the city of the famous Wee Dogs. Chihuahua was a fantastic place to slip back into the Mexican way once again. It’s a cool city – very easy going with some of the most amazing cowboy statues we’ve ever seen. It was a big cattle centre and today lots of the men sport cowboy hats n’ boots giving the place a feel of the modern Wild West.

On arrival we found that most of the restaurants had closed at 8:30. A half hour walk found us an excellent little street café where we set about demolishing a plate of Chilli Rellenos – battered long thin mild green peppers stuffed with prawns and cream sauce, served with a side order of Frijoles – those delicious refried beans that you can eat with just about everything. An old guy came in, smartly dressed in a brown leather bomber jacket and sporting a neat little black leather hat. He clocked us as gringos, took the table beside us with a nod and a ‘Bon Provecho’ and ordered a bowl of soup that was immediately sent back as it apparently wasn’t done the way he ordered it. He had an amazing face with jowly cheeks that looked like his they had begun to run a little but then set before leaving any permanent disfigurement giving him a lazy, hang dog look. The lazy look was immediately dispelled by large, dark brown, cigar smoke eyes that sparkled out from under the rim of the hat. His thick black moustache moved in an animation of it’s own as he proceeded to tell us the most fabulous tale of Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo as we finished our dinner and he slurped his way through his, now acceptable, soup. Apparently the two Tenors, who hail from different parts of Spain, have always disliked each other. It is partly professional jealousy, partly due to the fact that Domingo is a Madrileño and everyone in Spain hates people from Madrid as they are all arrogant and think they are a cut above the rest (just like folk who live in capital cities the world over). Anyway – Carreras career was cut short when he found out that he had cancer. He immediately set about finding a cure and was spending a fortune travelling to specialists in the USA and around Europe but sadly with no success. Then he was approached by a clinic in Madrid, who offered to not only treat but also cure him. He gave it a try and the treatment was successful but when Carreras went to pay, he found that all the bills had been taken care of by his archrival, Placido Domingo in an act of unparalleled generosity! Apparently too the story was everywhere and in these times of war and terror it was a refreshing tale of how one man’s sworn enemy turns out to be his benefactor, with an act of such kindness and charity that you can only emerge from the parable feeling really good for the future of all mankind. The old guy was so enthused in telling us the tale and I only wish I had half his story telling skills to put it down on this web page with the bright conviction and credibility that he showed in relating it to us in the cafe. In fact he was so excited on telling us his wonderful tale that he jumped up from his table and ran out to his car and returned clutching a bunch of photographs. He’d read the story on the Internet. It was everywhere. It was big news! He was so excited he’d taken some photos of the story to help tell it better. The photos were 35mm and were a series of blurred images, just developed at the chemists, taken of a computer screen. On one of them we could make out pictures of the two tenors. The rest of the photos were poor quality images of text on a PC monitor that was totally unreadable in 35mm print. He apologised for the poor quality but wasn’t his story fantastic? The soup finished, he ordered a coffee and then sent it back as it wasn’t made right. The waiter returned with a cup of hot water, some Nescafe, sugar, milk and a spoon so he could make it whatever way he wanted. The waiter also made a screwy sign with his finger against his head indicating to us that the old guy was loco. Please, please, please someone out there tell us that the old man’s story is true! We checked the next day in the papers and on the Internet but aside from finding that Carreras had leukaemia years ago and now funds his own foundation we could find no evidence of the tale.

Our next stop in Mexico would take us to one of our pre-conceived highlights of the whole trip. Las Barrancas De Cobre – Copper Canyon. We’d known of Copper Canyon before ever setting foot in Latin America. Seven times larger than the more famous Grand Canyon it is once again another example of scenery on an industrial scale. To be honest our first impressions were a little disappointing. We rode out from Creel, a touristy little mountain town and our base for touring the area, to Divisadero and the Canyon Rim to behold the beast. As expected there was just so much scenery utterly extending way beyond our limited peripheral vision that it was impossible to look at the thing all at once. Add too the hazy atmosphere and a clear view was out of the question. It was quite a nice ride out ‘though on a 40 mile twisty road that was a mild portent of what was to follow over the next few days. On the way back we visited the ‘Valle de los Monjes’ a staggeringly beautiful valley at the end of which stands a phalanx of rock columns that look like a procession of gigantic monks frozen in stone. The Valle was a serenely beautiful location, viewed in the late afternoon sun set in land owned and cared for by the Tarahumara Indians. There was no on else around lending even more authority to the serenity of the setting and we found ourselves sole possessors of a wide tract of beautiful scenery – a place to just sit and take in the world around us for a while. Next day we set out on the road towards Batopilas, a little town down at the very bottom of the canyon complex. We already knew we wouldn’t go to Batopilas itself as the last 60km follows a narrow descending switchback dirt road, but the paved road out through Humira also ran to the bottom of the canyon. On the map the road looked fairly innocuous with no indication of the motorcycling heaven that awaited our pleasure. The huge rocks and boulders around Creel have a wonderful soft rounded appearance. They look just like the background from the Flintstones and in fact along the road we saw some of the larger assemblies contained caves where people had made homes by adding a house front and are still lived in today. Our road took us out gently at first through the soft boulder field through soft silky smooth curves that climbed away from Creel and then began a smooth descent into the first of a series of river valleys and canyons. Half an hour later we were full tilt, tyre sidewalls warmed plenty for the snake of a road ahead. Stunning sinuous asphalt slithered, slalomed and slathered through the awesome canyon lands with crusty shortbread coloured rock walls punctuated with pine trees and everywhere a mouth watering aroma of wild Tarragon penetrating our helmets along this gourmet road. We stopped in a lay-by aloft a high mountaintop to survey the valley road we’d just climbed. Looking back we viewed God’s Scalextric laid out in the mountains; the road we’d just ridden, stretched out along the valley in a lazy twisting fashion like a careless child’s plaything. Gods Scalextric has few straights, mostly bends and the curves looked impossible in places. Throw it over the stunning Copper Canyon scenery and you have one of the greatest motorcycle roads in the world!

We left Creel sad to be on our way and leaving such a paradise, but we had to get to the coast, as we wanted to end our Mexican trip with a ride up the Baja peninsular. It looked like a fairly easy extraction from the mountains following Highway 16 toward Hermosillo, so there we were looking forward to an easy Sunday ride back on straight roads along the main highway. But Highway 16 had other ideas. Highway 16 wanted to play. Highway 16 was real bad boy rock and roll in asphalt. It turned out our little canyon rides over the past few days were but the gateway to Nirvana. Now here was the real thing. Mexico, Highway 16 – 130 miles of bends, twists, curves and switchbacks up and over mountains through canyons, valleys, ridgeways and breathtaking scenery. Take your top-10 biking roads, mix them up in a bag and spill them where they fall and you have some idea of what this road is like. To begin with we were a little frustrated as the road was severely denting any progress we hoped to make. It was a great road to ride for sure but there were added elements thrown in to make it even more ‘interesting’. You’d be running on baby-bottom smooth tarmac, with lovely painted road markings, cranking the bike as far as it would go when suddenly that bit would end and you’d be unceremoniously dumped onto a section of the most horribly dog chewed gravelly runt of a road, road markings gone, replaced by a thick gravel bank stealing your line inducing ass-puckering clinches of hitherto unknown dimensions! For just a little extra spice, mix in a hullulah of potholes and the odd loose farm animal grazing the roadside. But then once the fear settled there’d be the reward of another few miles on pristine hardtop. Did I say this was a twisty road? On one of the smoother sections, I was sad enough to count the bends over a one-mile stretch – 15. 15 times 130, let’s see that’ll be 1950 curves! At times we rode like gods, correctly lining up on the run in to the bend, easing off on the throttle, picking up the exit, power on and you’re off on the right line for the next one; get a couple of these right and you’re positively slaloming through the bends. At other times we rode like complete nonces, the bike suddenly way off line entering a curve that turns out to be much tighter than planned for, desperately down shifting and sitting up to brake and bleed speed, wondering how much more of this strain can a man’s underpants withstand. Oh and the road’s just changed back to pot hole heaven with an approaching Mexican pick-up with a sleepy driver who’s drifted way over to your side of the road and has just woke up to see a blinding light bearing down on him. Highway 16 – ride of a lifetime – Motorcycle Nirvana! The road severely impacted on our plans to get to the coast and we found ourselves making an unscheduled stop for a night in a little mountain town called Yecora. I have a Scott Yecora mountain bike at home. Riding these awesome roads and looking at the spot on the map I got this romantic association that hey, maybe this is the place that my mountain bike is named after! We were certainly up in the mountains and there were some fantastic looking trails around so why not? Maybe this area is also Mountain Bike Nirvana. Well there must be a lovely place called Yecora somewhere else – maybe in California because it sure wasn’t here! Most of the time on our trip, we end up in a lovely place at the end of the day. A goal is reached and we unload the bikes to settle in to explore another new world. Now and again the rest at the end of the day turns out to be not quite what was expected and in Yecora we found probably one of the worst stops of the whole trip. The grumpy attendant at the gas station threw an arm down the road into town when we asked if there was a hotel nearby. “Right down that road and into town, you’ll find one,” he mumbled but it sounded like “Who cares. There’s a selection of dumps down that shitty street and I’m sure you can doss in any one of them”. The Motel next. It had graffiti. On the ceiling of our room. Later on, we lay in bed, sorry, on top of the bed in our sleeping bags and looked up at it. The bed was just too dirty to sleep in. Blood stains on the pillow and an assortment of other dubious stains on the sheets looking like maps of assorted Caribbean Islands. No. We’ll use our own sleeping bags. The graffiti was just a bunch of initials – ‘HVF’ or something like that – spray painted in several groups in one corner of the ceiling. Done some time ago too. We were a little shocked that the owners obviously didn’t care and just left it there. Dinner next. Everywhere was closed, bar a small corner shop, so we ended up with a can of sardines in tomato sauce, a packet of Doritos and a bottle of Pacifico Beer to wash it down. Glad every day doesn’t end like this!

The gloomy Motel did have the advantage of encouraging a bright and early start next morning and we said farewell to Highway 16 with a 30-mile whoop and holler until it was time to part as we took a tamer road off down to the coast. If we’d just experienced the pits of travel in Yecora, the wheel of fortune was about to swing the other way when we rode into the delightful little town of Alamos and our last stop on the Mexican mainland. We took a guided walking tour of the little town with Señor Jose Trinidad, who according to ‘Lonely Planet’ is the Jumping Bean King of all Mexico. He exports Mexican jumping beans all over the world when he’s not guiding gringos around the cool shady streets of Alamos. The ‘beans’ are the seedpod from a flower (Sebastiani Palmeri or Sebastiani Pavoniana) and they contain a small caterpillar that is busily eating the seed from the inside out, causing the bean to ‘jump’ in the process. The Shrub is only found in a small area around 650 km in southern Sonora yet Mexican jumping beans are famous the world over. For us Jose Trinidad was remarkable not only for his jumping beans but for his builder’s crack – the biggest we saw in all of Latin America. He was a big old boy and introduced himself to us whilst we were waiting for breakfast on the Plaza. He offered to give us a guide around town, was very polite and not too pushy, a good way to sell a tour to Gringos like us. We agreed to call over and see him after breakfast and he sauntered away. He was wearing a grey polo shirt and his ample belly stretched, extended and lifted this to reveal the declining waistline of a pair of Levis Jeans. The builder’s crack thus revealed was easily on a par with Copper Canyon! Alamos is a World Heritage Site and is one of the best preserved colonial towns we would see in all of the Americas. It started life as a base for surrounding silver mines and also had a local silk industry with immigrants brought in from China and Japan to work in the factory where they spun the silk collected from silkworms in planted mulberry orchards. Jose pointed out their descendants as we trotted after him around town. He also took us to see an old print shop where they still print flyers and stationary by hand on old presses. It was a lazy tour and a nice way to see the old town through the eyes of a local.

Our stay in Alamos coincided with the Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – when the Mexicans believe that all the dead people return to their homes for a day and so they prepare favourite meals for the dead folk and lay out their favourite possessions in remembrance. On the day before, the little market place was a blaze of colour, full of flower vendors selling from vast tables laden with Marigolds and Carnations, the traditional flowers for the occasion. In the late afternoon, we sauntered up to the cemetery a little way out of town to see a hive of activity as people tended the graves and arranged the flowers from the market. We felt a little awkward at first and were wary not to appear as voyeuristic intruders gawking at the personal grief of others but the families at the graveyard were all very polite and happy with no hint of resentment at our presence. It was a lovely thing to behold, this collective remembrance for the dead folk with little hint of sad pain or regret at their passing. We found a shady wall and sat watching as locals cleaned up gravestones, repainting them, re-lining the gold inscriptions on tombstones and turned the whole cemetery into a profusion of colour as the Marigolds and Carnations were set in place. Some people had brought food and were picnicking whilst young children ran amok everywhere. It was definitely a festive occasion rather than a sombre one.

Whilst in Alamos, we stayed in the exuberant surroundings of the ‘Casa de los Tesoros’ – the ‘House of Treasures’ for a quiet couple of days and had the best Mexican food ever in the homely and welcoming Las Palmeras restaurant on the Plaza. Here you can sit on the terrace and take in the beautiful wrought iron bandstand set amidst a delightful oasis of luscious palm trees with the backdrop of the ancient sun-washed Catedral. It is also a good observation deck for clocking the rich Americans, who seem to own most of Alamos, and passing remarks on the accuracy and success of their plastic surgery. Alamos was a great little stop-over and after a few days we were fit to set off for the ferry for the next part of our adventure – across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz and the Baja Peninsular.

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