COPPER CANYON MEXICO - PART 1
By OLIVIER DE VAULX
On the other side
Living in the US, the stories you hear about Mexico are usually a mixed bag of greatness and distrust. You hear a lot about Baja California being an off-road paradise, where thousands of Americans ride every winter. No hassle at the border, endless hours of desert riding and cheap tacos, Baja seems like the go-to destination for most SoCal riders. On the other hand, the simple mention of mainland Mexico can be enough to freeze the most enthusiastic of these Baja riders, who will then start to whisper in your ear some horror story involving drug cartels, abductions and murders. In this context, no wonder why we never really considered riding on the other side of the border! Nonetheless, everything changed when we received an invitation from Kevin Glassett, aka GPS Kevin, to go on a week-long adventure in Mexico to reach Copper Canyon. Kevin, who decided more than a decade ago to make the use of a GPS easier for motorcycle enthusiasts, developed a dozen of GPS-friendly off-road adventures on his website. gpskevinadventurerides.com is not a guy who would take this chance if he didn’t know what he was doing. The fact that he planned the ride with Roberto, a good friend and a native Mexican, was a confidence booster and it didn’t take more than a few seconds before we decided to forget the naysayers and to give it a try.
Crossing the border
However, riding abroad brings more challenges than any ride within the 50 states. Jane Glassett was very supportive and sent us a lot of information regarding the paperwork required at the border, where regulations are strict compared to Baja California. With 3 printed copies of every document including: title, registration, US insurance, Mexican insurance, temporary import permit, tourist visa, passport, and $400 in cash as a deposit for the temporary import of our bikes, we arrived at the border in Douglas, AZ fully prepared. We crossed the border a first time by foot to enter the customs building, with our papers in hand and a lot of confidence, which disappeared when we realized that none of the employees spoke English! Roberto was already here though, and managed to help each of the 15 riders of the group to successfully go through the process of clearing our administrative path to Mexico. Even though the custom agents requested different documents for every rider, the criteria for doing so appeared to be more random than anything else; it took less than half an hour for each rider to get cleared. We could then go back to the US side, pick up our bikes, and finally cross the border without any of the heavily armed agents checking our paperwork.
Rules in the south
Once in Mexico, everything changes in a blink. The cars suddenly drive slowly in streets where speed bumps are not signaled and stop signs don’t have a white line to prevent you from entering an intersection. Luckily, the traffic is very sparse and we had time to adjust to the local usage, like when drivers use their turn signal to the left to indicate that you can pass them, while you have no clue and wait endlessly for them to turn. After getting our butts kicked a few times over hidden speed bumps, we finally got it right and adopted the careful walking speed of the locals while crossing towns and villages, trying to remember that all the signs here are in kilometers and not in miles. During the first few miles, we rode on large highways where miles of great pavement alternated with dirt sections under construction. It set the tone for the rest of the ride: enjoy the near perfect conditions, but always expect for things to get sideways at any moment. The first stop at a gas station was the perfect illustration of this principle. On one hand, we were welcomed by a friendly top-model woman, true clone of Letty in Fast and Furious. The movie was incidentally on the computer screen behind the register. But unlike in the franchise, we had to fill our tanks with liters of 87 fuel that smelled very different than the premium fuel we’re used to in the US. It was no big deal for our bikes, whose ECU can adjust to different quality of fuel, and we just kept going. Fueling the tank of our adventure bikes was not always that easy. Some little towns don’t have a gas station, and if you ever forget for one moment Kevin’s mantra: “never pass a gas station without refueling,” you might get yourself in trouble. Luckily, Mexicans are really eager to help and even without speaking Spanish, we always found a way to get pointed in the direction of a local shop providing “gasolina”. There, a nice guy would pour gas in empty 5 liters Coke bottles before filling up our bikes. We then could pay in cash, either in pesos or dollars. It was easy, and made for great encounters with friendly people.
With our final destination being 500 miles south of Douglas, our planned route used many highways. Except for the first day when we had a lot of uneventful straight lines through vast agricultural plains, a good excuse to use cruise control, the journey on pavement easily beat our expectations. The traffic in Mexico is so light that you can ride for half an hour without seeing another vehicle, to the point of being actually surprised when a car shows up in a corner. Speaking of which, we wondered how Mexican civil engineers managed to build such beautiful winding roads. In the mountains of Chihuahua state, every stretch of road was an invitation to file our footpegs, especially since our adventure tires proved to be surprisingly good on pavement. One day, we had 252 miles of twisties with no interruption, a feat that made us feel that we were riding some sort of Isle of Man Tourist Trophy on steroids. In those conditions, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to compare my Triumph Tiger 900 to Joey’s “race ready” KTM 890 R. We switched bikes and went full throttle for miles, each one trying to figure out why he couldn’t take a definite advantage over the other. The two bikes are polar opposite, with the brutal power of the KTM twin responding to the linear confidence of the British three cylinder. On paper, there’s advantage to the KTM, but on the road the Triumph was always pulling away in the straights. Leaning the bikes in the countless curves, Joey’s stiff WP suspension gave the impression of being more precise, but I couldn’t really outpace the Tiger and its comfortable Showa units. The bigger windshield of the Tiger made for a quieter ride than the almost obnoxious Austrian, and added to the deceptive impression that the bike was not as fast, even though the two machines ended the test in a tie. With all this fury unleashed, we almost forgot that riding on public road is always a compromise with safety. A few trucks widening their corners were here to remind us of the danger of oncoming traffic and we finally slowed down to safer speeds. Later on, the perfect pavement would disappear under falling rocks, narrowing the road to the point where only one lane was usable. That was obviously the exact moment when the pot holes and random patches of sand decided to appear, making the ride even more difficult. On top of that, those tricky sections seemed to have a special appeal to some local drivers with a death wish, who would drive like crazy and avoid our bikes at the last minute in blind corners. In those moments we could feel the adrenaline rush even though we would ride at the slowest pace possible. We all made it through, proof that it was maybe not that bad.
Tough dirt roads
Even though riding on pavement was mostly fun, none of us could resist the opportunity to get dusty and try some long portions of Mexican dirt roads. Looking at the maps, we assumed that these detours used by locals on standard vehicles would be easy, but the terrain proved us wrong. Whereas in Mexico they were considered roads, in the US they would have been called double-track! Every time we were on dirt, we couldn’t believe how challenging the tracks were. Rolling rocks, silt, ruts, rugs, switchbacks, dust, everything nature could throw at us to make us sweat was on our path. Every mile was a fight, and the heat reaching the mid nineties was not helping. In those conditions, the Tiger 900 was a great companion, its stability and the comfort of its suspension compensating for the combined weight of the machine and the fully loaded bags. Its stability had a slight downside though, as last minute changes in lines where not easy to apply. Anticipation was key and that wasn’t really a bad thing, since it forces the rider to read the terrain way ahead, a skill that’s helpful on any bike. Still, riding on this rough terrain over rocks and ruts, we were humbled by twenty-year old cars and pickup trucks following those exact same roads to reach remote villages. For these drivers, it was just normal commuting. For us modern adventurers on two wheels, the rewards were at the height of the effort; astonishing views of mountains and canyon were waiting for us, with some wooden crosses to remind us that riding here is not a virtual game. Reaching some of these remote towns in the middle of the forest, we would wonder about the lives of these families. How can they get trucks with supplies to reach them? What about hospital, schools? We were only a few hundred miles from the border but felt in another dimension altogether. Yet, everybody in the mostly empty street was waving at us, and the people we saw here and there working with horses or growing corn in the fields all seemed fit, healthy and friendly.
Stopping at local restaurants, sometimes not much bigger than your grandma’s kitchen, we would each time feel welcomed despite the language barrier. Nobody out there speaks English, and very few of us took the time to learn any Spanish. Feeling a bit like clumsy giants, we communicated by force of smiles and gestures, getting fresh Mexican food on our plates for just a few dollars, tip included. After all the stories we heard about Mexico being a place of terror, those halts in these small villages seemed so peaceful that we started to relax. Beside the agents at the border, a traffic accident on the road was the only time where we actually saw weapons, as the military was displaying a few Humvee’s with machine-guns and elite troopers in commando gear. Even that didn’t frighten us, as we assumed that such a demonstration of power would deter any potential bad guy to make a move. At times, we would see some brand new pickup trucks driven by young guys with two-way radios, and we usually looked in the other direction. We never knew for sure if they were part of the so feared drug cartels, but who wants to know for certain? They never payed attention to us, or pretended not to. It didn’t matter, the overall feeling was that we were safe. Of course, the fact that we came into Mexico as a group was a confidence booster, but not only regarding any issue with the local population. Each time a rider encountered a mechanical problem like a flat tire, a bent rim, a broken fuse, there were a few fellow riders ready to stop and give him a hand. Visiting villages in small groups also gave us the opportunity to share ride stories and to get to know each other better. We couldn’t really speak Spanish and communicate enough with the friendly Mexicans we met, but at least we consolidated our friendships with our fellow American riders. That’s the magic of riding within a group of adventurers. Reaching Areponapuchi, 30 miles south of Creel, to spend the night in a castle-like mansion overlooking the tiny hamlet, we were all accustomed to riding on this side of the border, and were enjoying it more everyday. We also knew that the hardest part was in front of us, the last leg to Copper Canyon. To celebrate, we went for an unexpected cable car ride over the beginning of the canyon. Going for almost 2 miles over the deep valley where some crazy engineers built no less than seven zip-lines, we were like kids on their first trip to Disneyland. The place was full of grandiose majesty and we felt truly blessed to be here. Whatever our neighbors would say about Mexico back home, we all knew we were at the right place at the right moment… and ready to keep going! To be continued…
Special thanks to…
Kevin Glassett, aka GPS Kevin, aka Yoda Kevin, for the invite on this tour. His website gpskevinadventurerides.com is a mine of info and a great place to order GPS tracks for your future rides. Thanks to Roberto Carvajal, for his priceless help organizing the trip and his patience translating each of our requests during the whole trip; Jane Glasset for the thorough info regarding paperwork; Francois and Kyle for the many u-turns during the photo sessions; Joe, Tim, Joey, Dale, Dave, Mike, Chris, Bryan, Greg, Joe, Shaun, Ralph, and Tracy for the friendly atmosphere in this group!