The following is an account of my 2008 ride during the infancy of the Mexican drug war, in and around the state of Sinaloa.
My brother and I decided to ride from Boise, ID in sub-30 degree weather to Mexico February, 2008 with little more than a rough itinerary, a couple of KLR’s, and the necessary documentation for the border crossings… no reservations… no real plan at all.
While I wouldn’t recommend this approach, it did make for the following silly-assed time:
Day1: Boise to Vegas
Day2: Vegas to Phoenix
Day3: Phoenix to Douglas, AZ
Day4: Border crossing to Creel, MEX
Day5: Creel to Batopilas/BFE Canyon Country
Day6: Batopilas to near Choix… Banditos… back to Batopilas… back to Creel
Day7: Creel to Yecora (very dodgy town)
Day8: Yecora to Cuidad Obregon & north to Guaymas & San Carlos
Day9: San Carlos to Topolobampo
Day10: Topolobampo ferry overnight (across the Sea of Cortez) to La Paz, Baja
Day11: La Paz to Cabo San Lucas
Day13: Cabo back to La Paz
Day14: La Paz to Loreto
Day15: Loreto to Calavena
Day16: Calavena to border & north to Malibu
Day18: Malibu to San Francisco
Day19: San Fran to South Lake Tahoe
Day20: Tahoe to Boise
TOTAL: 5,065 miles in 17 days of riding (20 days total)…
This was my longest tour to date, so it quickly became a trial by fire approach to buffing out my Spanish and learning just how painful a 700 mile day can be on a stock KLR seat.
TO THE BORDER:
The first day we were slowed by 30-mph head and cross winds paired with 25-degree temperatures between Twin Falls, ID and just south of Ely, Nevada. The occasional snow flurry added to the fun, but we just kept riding… 13 hours and nearly 700 miles later we were just south of Las Vegas. The next day, the wind didn’t slow up, but it was a much shorter haul to Phoenix, so we took our time and enjoyed the warmer temps. We serviced the KLRs in Chandler, AZ.
Phoenix to Douglas was a surprisingly nice ride. We stopped and took a few photos at sunset in Tombstone, and pushed on to the Motel 6 in Douglas.
As many veterans of this region have noted, I can confirm that all you need to enter Mexico–at least at Douglas/Agua Prieta–is your bike’s registration, a passport and a drivers license. I suspect the border officials were supposed to confirm some sort of insurance, but I was never asked about it. We obtained our vehicle importation stickers, and headed slightly south… then considerably east (the highway from Agua Prieta runs east parallel to the border for several hundred kilometers). It didn’t really feel like we were in Mexico until the road jogged south again a few hours into it.
We broke the hell out of rule #1–never ride at night–on our first day in Mexico. We rode for about two hours after sunset to get to Creel, the gateway to Copper Canyon. It’s about 390 miles from the border, but the going can be slow because there are little towns every 20km or so, not to mention those unreasonably large topes (giant speed bumps). We often observed a police officer snoozing in his truck on either side of these towns, and consequently decided to abide by all posted limits adjacent to said towns. This made for a sluggish ride as the route through some towns could be over a kilometer long (at 40kmh/26mph). One caveat: we came to learn that there is no real speed limit in most parts of Mexico. Cops don’t typically care how fast you are riding, as long as you aren’t being a nuisance. As noted, we kept to a respectful speed in towns, but ramped up to 80-85MPH on the open road.
We stayed at Margaritas on the plaza in Creel. The people were super-friendly and for about $17 each, we got a clean room with an awesome breakfast and dinner. The bikes were safe on the front patio. From Creel we decided to head into Canyon Country via Batopilas. This ride was incredible. We had missed much of the scenery coming into Creel the night prior because it was pitch dark, but heading south the next day made up for all that we missed.
Per the recommendation of the Lonely Planet, we crashed at the Batopilas hotel that night. We each got our own relatively clean but very basic room for $8/night. I woke up at 5am to a pig slaughter outside my window… freshest bacon I have ever eaten!
NOTE: Batopilas is an interesting place. It seems to be something of an oasis in the middle of nowhere. We noted several dodgy individuals driving new Hummers, Grand Cherokees, or other pretty nice rigs. This is when I began to suspect that Batopilas is the epicenter of a significant Central Mexico drug trade.
WHERE THE STORY TAKES AN INTERESTING TURN…
Batopilas is 140km from Creel, and takes 5-7 hours by bus. The first 80 or so km is tight, twisty hard top through some incredible scenery–by far the most fun paved riding of the trip. The last 60+/-km is on a gnarly switchback dirt road that skirts the canyon walls (also fun). We took our time and made it in 4 hours on the KLRs. This is relevant because there is generally only one way into Batopilas and one way out; except for a seasonal route that takes those who choose to venture it west to Choix, Los Mochis, and the heavily traveled coastal highway on the Sea of Cortez. This quickly became an appealing option because we didn’t really feel like doing any back tracking, and had entertained the idea of heading as far south as Nicaragua. The route to the coast apparently has several variations, but I was told that they all resemble each other. We chose the “short cut” which avoided the tiny town of San Ignacio, and sent us straight up Batopilas Canyon. A local guide had drawn us a pretty legible map on a napkin at the bar in Batopilas the night before. We had to stop twice to ask permission to cross private property, but the ride was fairly do-able… until the river crossings. The route we took required us to cross the Batopilas River 5 times. These crossings varied from 6-inch deep long crossings to waste deep short ones.
The crossings were not the problem. The road had turned into mostly deep sand, with occasional single track sections above the water line in the canyon. We asked a goat herder if we were heading in the right direction, and he told us (in some broken Indian-Mexican-Spanish dialect) to keep going. We did, which resulted in us bouldering up a dried up creek bed for a few hundred yards. This was not the right route. Heading back, our goat herder friend came back out of his tent and promptly informed us that we could either go up the hillside (canyon wall) where we had just been, or go back a few hundred yards to a mining road. He also kindly added that there was a camp of banditos at the top of the hill who made a living stabbing people and stealing their stuff. We looked up to the top of “la montana,” and sure enough there was a white Ford pick-up full of guys with guns parked on the ridge looking down on us. After an entire morning of river crossings and canyon switchbacks, we opted hi-tail it back to Batopilas. A little bitter, my brother and I took note of a few unique drainage and piping features along the trail. There were hoses running off of the side of the road that appeared to go to nothing. I cannot say definitively, but based on the geography, remoteness, and presence of a few unsavory characters we are fairly convinced that there is a massive pot grow operation going on in Batopilas Canyon.
It turned out that Choix was on just the other side of the mine where we were. We would have been in Mazatlan the next day, but instead we backtracked all the way back to Creel that night–dodging cows, goats, potholes, etc. in the road the entire way.
Frustrated and somewhat defeated, we had to reevaluate our itinerary. We came to find out that the alternate route south from Creel through Urique was at least as dodgy, and the rail route was “unpredictable.”
We spent the night at Margaritas again, and got up early the next morning to brainstorm another route. We ran into some fellow riders while using checking emails at the Creel Best Western. They recommended that we ride west on the main highway with them to Hermosillo for some coastal R&R. These guys had come from Choix through the Urique route, and been harassed and followed by banditos for two days. This made me feel much better about backtracking.
Now plus 3 riders, one of our collective party who had ridden ahead laid his Beemer down in road construction. We ended up at the hospital in Santa Juanita for several hours getting our fellow traveler squared away with an ambulance ride to Chihuahua.
Leaving greater-Creel at 2pm now, we figured we could suss out the 350+/- miles to Hermosillo by dusk… not the case. The highway is one tight, twisty turn after another; and it seemed like there was an animal, semi, 2-foot deep pothole or drunk local around every corner. I had a near miss with a large bovine, and made the executive decision to not become a statistic. We stopped in Yecora and got an overpriced crappy hotel for the night.
Yecora was super-sketchy, as the majority of the locals were kind of unfriendly in a generic sense. I doubt that many gringos come through this small industrial/ag town on vacation. Our neighbors were up all night playing loud tejano music, and driving their Jeep around the block… literally ALL night. We brought the bikes inside the room, and locked all the windows.
The next day we rode for about three hours to Cuidad Obregon instead of Hermosillo per the recommendation of some soldiers at a military checkpoint. This turned out to be a good call because the road straightened out nicely and we were able to crank out a more efficient pace.
NOTE: We asked a lot of questions in Mexico. I found it to be most effective to ask a minimum of 3 people the same question and then average any numerical answers, and determine a 2/3 majority for more subjective topics. The ride from Creel to Hermosillo was estimated by the locals to be between 5 hours and 14 hours. We did it in about 10. People WILL assume that you can do things in half the time because they see you as a high-strung supergringo, or because your bike is bigger than a 125cc. Calibrate accordingly, and always know that any individual answer you get will probably be at least a little bit misguided.
From Obregon, we headed north to Guaymas and San Carlos for some tourista time. We fronted for a nice hotel on the marina, met some new friends, drank too much, did some fun things I will leave out for now, and got up refreshed the next day.
From San Carlos, we took the toll highway back south to Topolobampo where we caught the overnight ferry across the Sea of Cortez to Baja. It was $160 (bike included), if you are curious. Ferry’s also run from Mazatlan and Guaymas.
Baja was fairly predictable. The roads were far better here than on the mainland, and the presence of tourists was exponentially greater. We rode south from the ferry port in LaPaz to Los Barillos, where apparently two days earlier federal agents had busted one of the kingpin drug lords of Baja in a violent shoot-out. We had no idea that this went down until we were informed later that day by a hotel manager in Cabo San Lucas. It’s really funny how much goes on in the underbelly of some of the sleepier Mexican towns and villages. Cabo was Cabo. I developed a strong dislike for the place after spending two days there. Its kind of like staying in a circus for tourists.
Heading north, we changed rear tires and serviced the KLR’s at a BMW shop just north of Cabo San Lucas. We rode north on the Trans Peninsular Highway to Loreto the next day. This was a really nice change of pace from Los Cabos. We had hoped to do some deep sea fishing, but the weather blew out the catch.
There isn’t much north of Loreto, so we began a long haul towards California. We went through Mulege, which ironically was where a pilot from Boise would be hijacked just a few days after we passed through by some local criminals. Again, it amazed me how violent the crime was in some of these sleepy little towns.
We stayed in Calavena for a night, and pushed north to the border the next day. Two decompression days in Malibu, then San Fran, then Tahoe, then home to Boise.
All said and done, I would have done a few things differently, but the trip was a tremendous success. The only advice I can offer is proceed in northwest Mexico and Baja with caution. The US State Department issued the same recommendation the day after we got back.