I’ve been going through my photos from Yukon and Alaska, the two places I spent most of this summer in, and I’m still amazed by all the beautiful sights I saw. It’s hard to pick favorites out of all the places I’ve been, but if I had to pick three, I’d pick:
After spending a few days taking in the big city of Phoenix and mountain biking in the South Mountain area, I headed north out of town with the plan to ride the Black Canyon Trail. With a late start and some confusion linking the various bike paths and urban trails, I made it to the Care Free Highway and found a great highway underpass camping spot
The time back in Vermont was what I needed, but with no permanent home, it’s now time to travel again. My original plan was to fly into Phoenix, grab a shuttle to the Mexican border, hop a bus south and continue where I left off; but why rush. After reading some great blogs and forum posts describing the riding in Arizona I decided to stick around for a while. Besides, after the TSA confiscated my Trianga stove and United Airlines bent the fork on my bike I needed a day to get my things in order.
After a week back in the states I was ready to get on the road. I had planned on taking a series of buses back to Creel to continue where I left off on this trip, but what I really wanted to do was get back in the mountains. After the great experiences I had riding through the Barranca del Cobre region I decided to do the ride I was originally warned not to do, the mountain roads south from Cassas Grandes.
When people talk about the dangers of traveling through Mexico, two words of caution are usually given; don’t travel at night and don’t travel in the mountains. Between the news stories and personal tales from people you meet along the way it seems most of Mexico is warzone and as a traveler you will be right in the middle of it. The truth is much of the news is about the border cities and many of the people who issue warnings haven’t actually traveled in the mountains to see the areas for themselves. After spending a week dragging my bike through the mountains and valleys of the Copper Canyon region of I’ve come to realize, as a traveler, you are as safe here as in any rural area in the USA, maybe safer. Most people will agree that traveling through an unknown area at night is not a good idea and traveling through Mexico is no exception. There is no reason to build a fort a mile into the woods to protect yourself when the sun goes down, but basic stealth camping is a good idea. During the day however, travel as you wish and the locals are happy to see you coming through.
When I reached Creel I was a little unsure of my next move – some of that paranoia had definitely seeped in. When all you are doing is looking out for the negative it becomes really hard to see the positive in an area. After talking with the great folks at Amigo Trails, a guide service and general source of wisdom for the Barranca del Cobre area, I decided to ride a loop from Creel to Urique then up the other side of the canyon through Samachique back to Creel. The only way to get over my paranoia was to confront it and this ride seemed like the perfect way.
My first day I rode from Creel to El Divisadero
I decided to spend another day. This is the land of the Tarahumara, the native Indians of Mexico who live above and below the canyon rim. Herding seems to be the primary way of life and the canyon is littered with trails from animals and people.
In an effort to promote tourism to the area, many mountain bike specific trails have been created
saw some great sunsets,
and woke to some great sunrises.
You can’t do this at the Grand Canyon. In short, the people, the trails and the area are awesome.
Technical and flowing singletrack
and doubletrack complete with animal herds
Also, there are many great hiking trails below the rim, some of which will take you all the way down to the river.
One word of caution, the wells in the area seem to be contaminated, so water is in short supply. Bottled water or a dug well hidden in Areponapuchi, the next town south seem to be the two options. I’ve been drinking local water in Mexico, including from the well in Areponapuchi and
have had no problems (after a two week incubation period I definitely question this well).
Riding out of El Divisadero the road was freshly paved
After lots of climbing, descending, one flat tire and two beers passed to me out the windows of passing pickups I set up camp just before the big decent into Urique. And a decent it was, almost two hours of constant down.
By the time I reached Urique my brake levers were almost out of travel and my rotors were an iridescent shade of blue. Hitting the main street and turning right I was instantly offered a Tecate Roja and heading back I was offered a free place to camp.
The next morning I headed south out of town to where a new bridge is being built across the river, but for now there is still a knee high water crossing to the other side. From here the blue collar grunt work begins.
This was one of the hardest days of physical exertion I have ever had. Triple digit temperature and beaming sun absolutely fried me and this summer’s record setting heavy rains have made the steep road a rutted path covered in loose rocks. Also, as a note, this is some really remote terrain and if something happens you are on your own. I didn’t see a person from the time I crossed the river until I set up camp in the evening. The area I camped in is a small Tarahumara settlement and has a great spring (white cement tank after the gate and the only water available since Urique) to resupply with. My company for the night was a large goat herd
I was told about a tienda in a small town on the way to Samachique and spending my money there was my goal for the day. Thoughts of a cold beverage and maybe….. ice cream filled my head. As it turned out there was a lot of ground to cover between my camping spot and that bebida frio.
After a lot of climbing, descending, guessing at forks in the road (fortunately I guessed right) and then climbing again I finally reached the store, only to find out it was closed for siesta. Not a lot of outsiders come through this area, so few that the school dismissed all of the students just so they could stare at me. I say this in the kindest way possible, but I’ll admit, I’ve never had so many eyes follow my every move and leap back as soon as I made eye contact back. Fortunately the person who owned the store opened it for me so I could get my sugar fix and I entertained the town by drinking an entire two liter bottle of Coke, but unfortunately there was no ice cream to continue the show with.
After destroying my tooth enamel I followed the road climbing out of town along a river and set up camp on the top of the final climb to Samachique,
or what I thought was the final climb. The next morning, after 3 hours of riding, I finally reached Samachique. There is a lot of climbing and descending between Samachique and Creel, but the road is paved and the traffic is practically nonexistent. I stopped to camp about 20 kilometers from Creel
I returned back to the place I started from, exhausted but enlightened. Everyplace has it’s dangers and Mexico is no exception, but as a tourist (and I really dread that word) and really as the average Mexican citizen, you inhabit a part of the spectrum that the news doesn’t cover. Friendly people who pass beers out the windows of their vehicles, regardless of what they do for a living, don’t glue people to their brain washing TVs, but gruesome murders committed by one mafia member against another do, so that is the message that is sent. If you go to Mexico to take part in that side of the business world you may make the news as well, but if you go there to travel and learn, chances are you will see the best of what the country has to offer.
As I write this I am back in Douglas Arizona, picking up a few much needed bike parts, shipping some unneeded kit home, finishing up some work and enjoying my last days in the states for the foreseeable future. I’m stocking up on pancake breakfasts and peanut butter, two hard to come by enjoyments in Mexico, but I miss the fresh avocados, apples, and the adventure. In a few days I’m taking a bus south to Nuevo Casas Grandes, then back into the mountains from there. I’d rather take my chances with beer passing locals who shout Pedal Amigo than urban barking dogs and semi trucks.
Keeping this blog has proven to be a greater challenge than I anticipated. Between trying to learn Spanish, many hours of pedaling, searching for places to camp, meeting locals, and just trying to relax, my time has been a little thin. I’d like to keep this going if for no other reason than to have a journal that I can reflect back upon and forum to express my thoughts, but only time will tell.
Anyway, since the last post I have finished up my work in Douglas, Arizona and Fronteras, Mexico and have begun my travel south. Right now I am in Creel, Mexico, possibly the most beautiful place in the state of Chihuahua. I started this journey from Sierra Vista Arizona and have traveled some great roads, through some amazing and ……. interesting places to get here.
The route from Sierra Vista, AZ to Douglas, AZ follows a highway for part of the way, until the highway crosses an abandoned railroad bed.
This railroad bed is quite rough and washboarded in sections, but a quiet alternative to the main road. Unfortunately, discarded water bottles, plastic bags and clothes litter the sides of the route and you are rarely out of sight from a border patrol agent or a strategically placed camera. From Douglas to the border crossing in Antelope Wells, New Mexico is where the fun riding began.
15th Street in Douglas, also called Geronimo Trail Road or the GTR, is a dirt road that follows the border with Mexico
and takes you over the mountains into New Mexico.
With the exception of the occasional rancher in a pickup, the only vehicles or people you will see are border patrol agents, and there are a lot of them, or possibly someone the agents are looking for.
For anyone interested, here are some directions and information:
- 15th Street / Geronimo Trail Road east out of Douglas
- Follow the most used route over the mountains to New Mexico (no water available until seasonal stream crossings after the New Mexico border, but border patrol vehicles carry extra water and you can possibly fill up from them if need be.
- Good camping in the trees about 3 miles east from the top of the pass on the New Mexico side
- Keep following the GTR / most used route to the intersection with Cloverdale Road
- Right onto Cloverdale Road
- Follow Cloverdale Road to St. Louis Pass Road, a major road to the left and possibly unsigned, but there are signs at the intersection for Diamond A Ranch – No Trespassing / Locked Gates Ahead
- Ignore the signs, I was told by border patrol agents that it was fine to ride through and they even unlocked one of the gates for me.
- Left onto St. Louis Pass Road through two locked gates (lift bike over) and over a cattle grate with two wagon wheels
- At road fork after the cattle grate / wagon wheels bear left and follow the road to the third locked gate and the intersection with the main paved road to Antelope Wells
- Make right and it’s about 4 miles to the border.
- Total distance is about 80 miles and the roads are washboarded but decent.
The border crossing in Antelope Wells is the least used crossing to Mexico
and this is reflected in the attitude of the agents, who were some of the friendliest and most helpful I have encountered at any US border crossing. Once crossing into Mexico the road turns to dirt
and follows ranchland fenceline and barren desert to Mexico 2, a narrow paved road that is shared with semi trucks pulling tandem trailers. Not a road to ride while listening to your iPod. Eventually I arrived in Nuevo Casas Grandes, once a dangerous Narco controlled city, but now a thriving center that is undergoing revitalization.
My plan was to loosely follow the route the Dirt Bag Chain Gang took four years ago, but warnings from locals, police and military convinced me otherwise. The violence that plagued Nuavo Casas Grandes in the past didn’t just disappear, it moved to the smaller towns in the mountains and I was told of quite a few horrors that have happened recently. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between drama and fact in Mexico, but with so many great routes to travel and the fact that I am traveling solo, I decided to change my plans and stick to the valley.
I spent two days in Nuevo Casas Grandes, most of that time hanging out with Tony, who I met when he passed me heading the opposite way on his motor scooter but turned around and insisted I stay at his place. He is a watchman for a local business, a master of frugal living and quite a good rider.
I checked out the UNESCO recognized Paquime Ruins
and Tony and I rode out to Colonial Juarez, a town settled about 100 years ago by Mormon Missionaries
and home to the Juarez Academy, a private top tier Mormon school.
I met many Mormon Missionaries and followers of the Mormon religion while in Nuevo Casas Grandes
and while I may not share their beliefs, I truly respect many of their core values and their desire to make a positive change in the world.
From Nuevo Casas Grandes I followed mostly dirt farm roads
to the town of Buenaventura and after a night of camping under fig trees
and breakfast in the plaza
I headed south to Namiquipa on a very low traffic road with a wide shoulder.
I couldn’t figure out why no one recommended this road or the town of Namiquipa, it seemed like a perfect cycling route,
but as I found out it is also one of the fronts in the Naro vs. Police battle. Arriving in Namiquipa around 4:30 on a Saturday I was greeted with cold stares and there was hardly a business open or a person wandering around.
The first police officer I saw greeted me by stepping out of his truck with his folding stock Beretta rifle held close. After answering a few questions and finding the one open tienda to get some food, I headed out of town and found a very hidden camping spot.
I returned to town the next morning (it was the only route through the area) filled up with water and headed south through police and military checkpoints. After two searches of my bags, many interrogating questions (Lo siento Yo no entiendo repeated over seemed to be the best answer, even when I understood the question), a reroute due to a road shown on my map not existing, and a night in an apple orchard I arrived in the city of Alvaro Obregon in time for breakfast.
From Alvaro Obregon I headed south to the city of Cuauhtemoc, then west on Mexico 16, with it’s wide shoulder, to La Junta, a major crossroads town that was also not on my map. Cartography in Mexico leaves a bit to be desired and traffic patterns seem to be dictated more by available space then signals, signs or lines, but traveling some of the major roads is sometimes necessary in order to avoid the current Narco problem areas.
From La Junta a twisty, hilly and very narrow road took me to Creel
where I am currently contemplating my next move. My travel preference has always been to avoid the major cities and stick to the less traveled roads and small towns, but in Mexico many of the cities are currently the safe areas and the rural areas are where the danger is. From Creel I can continue west to the coast, which has problems of its own, continue on an inland route guided by local knowledge and gut instinct, or…….. As a solo traveler I’m weighing these options carefully.