The dive to Copper Canyon

After a few days riding on and off pavement in mainland Mexico with GPS Kevin’s group, it was time to enter the last leg of the journey to Barrancas del Cobre, aka Copper Canyon. This system of six rivers forms a large canyon that is deeper than the Grand Canyon, creating a geological wonder that is well worth crossing a border and riding hundreds of miles under an unforgiving sun. At least that’s what we assumed and what motivated our group of 15 riders to start this journey through Mexico. Using cable cars at Areponapuchi, we got our first glance of the canyons, and it was magnificent to say the least. But unlike Grand Canyon NP, Copper Canyon has some access to motorized transportation, and the two towns of Urique and Batopilas depend on these routes. So who needs a zip-line when you can get there on your own bike?

Reaching Urique

In the early morning, after having checked the GPS one last time, we started already our bikes and follow the blue route on the Voyager Pro GPS’ screen. Before reaching the town of Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper canyon, we will have to go over two mountains and one deep valley. The profile of the track looks like a giant roller coaster, and is the promise of a tough day. Crossing the sleepy village with a few barking dogs on our heels, we quickly quit the pavement to enter the forest on dirt roads. Narrow and rocky, the trail climbs on the side of the mountain, and we appreciate the torque of our engines while gaining thousands of feet of elevation. The deep forest suddenly opens up, and in front of us a deep valley unveils. The surrounding summits are as sharp as Indian’s knifes, and the little town of Urique, barely visible, seems ready to get crushed. The dusty trail stays on the edge for a while, offering more stunning views of the valley. If being distracted by the scenery wasn’t dangerous enough, we have to deal with tight switchbacks on slippery red dirt. Trying not to burn the brakes on the downhill, we keep a slow but steady pace, using engine braking when possible. After a 10-mile long descent on the hill side, we finally reach Urique. The walls are colorful, small flags hang over the streets, and the modern gas station is just next to a supermarket with fresh water. We feel like weary travelers reaching an oasis in Africa! To complete the illusion, the temperature is over 90F by now, and every rider is looking for a bit of shade to park his bike.

Challenging dirt

The locals point us in the direction of the next road, just after a large bridge over the river. Once again, the pavement disappears with no warning, while the dirt road becomes more challenging than ever. The steep slope and the rolling rocks nullify any attempt to find traction and the only way to climb this hill is to keep any momentum you can get. It’s pretty easy in the few straight lines, but becomes much harder in the countless slippery hairpins! Whatever their bike, from nimble 690s to big 1200cc GS, the riders are sweating, swearing and ultimately fighting their way up. Elevation gains up to 8,000ft doesn’t bring a lot of relief, and the terrain stays rocky up to the summit. A big tree on a cliff will finally offer enough shade to make a perfect snack and rest point. We use this time off the bike to formulate a hypothesis regarding the probability of a tanker truck successfully using this same rough road to reach the gas station in the village. Unable to find a plausible answer, we give up and once again put our helmets on. The clock is ticking, and we need to keep climbing. Later on, an arrow made of stones indicates an alternate way to a vicious downhill wandering between boulders. Kyle, who went solo today ahead of everybody, put this sign on the ground for his fellow explorers. A few crashes were probably avoided here thanks to this smart warning! With more than 30 miles of dirt still to cover, the end of the afternoon isn’t easier. 

In the middle of nowhere, two road signs show the direction of Urique and Batopilas, while a third dirt road keeps climbing. Trusting the sign and going down straight to Batopilas would be significantly shorter, but a closer look at the GPS reveals an awful lot of tight switchbacks and a steep descending slope. Diving into this uncharted dirt road sounds like a terrible idea, at least on big and fully loaded bikes. On the other hand, going around means 50 more miles of dirt and 20 more on pavement. Thinking that longer and safer is still better than sorry, we opt for the long way around. Riding on long granite slabs, massive scree slopes, steep ruts, we try to forget our sore arms and legs, and keep going. The descending sun sneaking under our helmet’s visors to blind us doesn’t make things easier, but the ride is beautiful and we try to enjoy every rough mile of it. Luckily, our imperturbable bikes keep us on the best lines even on the bounciest sections, and we finally make it up to the pavement, with no water left in our camel bags.

The road on the wall

It’s half an hour before sunset, and it looks like we will have to ride by night, despite promising our wives that we would never do so. Still, being on this sweet bitumen, we feel like our torments are over. Never have we been so happy to see some asphalt! We also know that somewhere on this road lies a deadly trap: a steep downhill on a cliff that claimed a lot of lives in the past, due to brake failures and driver mistakes. Nonetheless, we enjoy the first 20 miles of rural road, with the birches in full fall color seemingly burning in the sunset. As the road wanders in between two big rocks, we finally reach the dreadful descent. Below us, barely lit by the vanishing sun, dozens of hairpins are waiting for us. The view from the top is vertiginous and would make an astronaut afraid of heights.

Keeping in mind that the downhill is twenty miles long and that no brakes can endure such intensive usage, we start the descent at low speed, using downshifts to first gear to slow the bikes. Talking the next day to Bryan, whose brake pads disappeared and the metal of the pads holder melted on the rotors, we would get confirmation that slow is the right tactic here. The hairpins are tight, and the last sun rays in our face are not helping with our confidence. Once all dirt, the road is now paved, which is a momentary relief; indeed the pavement has been torn in many places by falling rocks, and is often covered by a soft layer of gravel and sand. Pot holes are growing like weeds here, while goats and donkeys behave like they own the place. We take each corner cautiously, almost never exceeding 30 miles an hour in the few short straights. A bridge shows us that we reached the bottom of the canyon. The temperature is higher now than it had been at the summit, which makes the last 10 miles of winding road along the river a real sauna.

Colorful Batopilas

Entering the small town of Batopilas by night is a surreal experience. There’s almost no light in the streets if not for the headlights of some pickup trucks, loaded with passengers coming back from remote fields. Navigating in the unknown streets, thanks to the precise GPS, we reach the hotel where Kevin and Roberto are waiting for us. They took the green route, avoiding Urique but staying on pavement all the way. It’s part of the magic of these rides, where everybody can choose a different option. 

Arriving by night is a thrill, and being greeted by friends is the cherry on the cake. A nice Mexican with a big mustache and cowboy hat is guarding the bikes that will sleep outside tonight, while we take a quick shower and walk to a nearby restaurant. Once again, Roberto is helping us order the best meals, and everybody can relax and enjoy his shrimp tacos before taking an ice cream on the main plaza. In the morning, Batopilas reveals its true face with colorful streets, playful kids, and a wharf along the lazy Batopilas river. Once the richest town in Mexico when the silver mines were running at full capacity, the town is today surviving on fumes of its glorious past. There are still a few mining operations and some goat production, but tourism plays a big part to keep hotels and restaurants alive. An Ultra marathon brings athletes down the canyon each year which helps keep the town alive. Rumors of drug cartels running the city, made credible by the few brand new pickup trucks driven by young adults with two way radios, is also on everyone’s mind. We avoid having any interaction with these locals, but there is no doubt they know who we are. However, visiting Batopilas, taking a tour downtown or hiking a few miles away to the old Jesuits Mission built in 1764, you’re poised to meet the nicest people. Despite the language barrier making us deeply regret our lack of even the most rudimentary Spanish, we can always find someone to help. Looks like smiling and moving our hands like windmills gets the job done! That’s especially true when stopping in a construction site to get some gas that is pumped into bottles of soda and manually poured into our tanks!

Goodbye Mexico

Climbing back on the road the next morning is a totally different experience than going down the night before. There’s no need to worry about brakes, and taking altitude at every corner we just pay attention to falling rocks, holes, sand patches, while trying to get as much of the scenery as possible. A few Tarahumara Indians are walking on the side of the road. They live deeper in the canyon and can cross the valley from side to side in two hours tops, using almost invisible single tracks created by their ancestors. They’re too shy to wave back when we say hello with our hands, but their colorful clothes are a treat for our eyes while their resilient culture is a comforting thought in this age of globalization. The ascension of the steepest part is definitely less scary than going down, despite donkeys sleeping under the sun in the middle of blind corners. Reaching the top we can’t help but stop for a moment, soaking up the breathtaking scenery and being grateful to be here. Mexico offers us an incredible adventure with unmatched vistas, great riding, and friendly interactions with the locals. Doesn’t it sound like the definition of an ADV paradise?

Special thanks to:

Kevin Glassett, aka GPS Kevin, aka Yoda Kevin, for the invite for this tour. His website is a mine of info and a great place to order GPS tracks for future rides. Thanks to Roberto Carvajal for his priceless help organizing the trip and his patience translating every one of our requests during the whole trip; Jane Glassett for the thorough info regarding paperwork; François 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!

This story was originally published in Issue 65