By C. Coons
There were three vans full of people and bikes.
The one-week crew consisted of Kris Lambert (Honda CX500), Mark Skamp (Suz DR370), Paul Streeter (KLR650), Bob Ueeck ( Yam XT550), and Rick Waschek (Yam XT600). This crew traveled in a huge cargo van and pulled a trailer loaded with the bikes plus a Triumph sidecar outfit to be delivered to our host in Marathon TX.
Part one of the two week crew consisted of Dan Cunningham (Yam XT550), Scott Erikson (KLR650), George Magnuson (Suz GS550) and Tom Phillips (XR600). They used a borrowed conversion van with a trailer. The fact that the van would not start when hot was a problem, but they learned to live with it.
Part two of the two-week crew included Charlie Coons (Suz DR350), Lissa Golden (in a rare stint as passenger) and Marty Mataya (Lissa’s BMW F650) all packed into Marty’s work van.
Marty was the de facto leader but he led by consensus and example so there were no violent rebellions.
After arriving in Marathon we set about getting ready for the trip to Mexico. Some folks did some last minute repairs, some crashed their bikes jumping curbs, some went to scout a dirt road for tomorrow and some went looking for food and lodging. Lodging was a problem, as in un-available. Eventually Dan and I took an expensive room at the Gage Hotel and the rest elected to sleep in or around the various vans. Supper was at the Gage and everyone seemed to enjoy the outdoor dining. Especially those with enough foresight to secure a seat near the fireplace.
After breakfast we headed down toward the Big Bend Nat. Park since our originally planned dirt road wasn’t open. After paying $5 each to drive about a mile into the park most of us exited the park toward Terlingua Ranch on another dirt road. The road was OK with only a few muddy spots and a little path finding required. We made good time, losing only one rearview mirror to a roadside bush. Mark, Dan and Rick spent some time tracking down a faulty condenser on Marks bike and so took a little longer. Scot and George toured the park on paved roads (mostly). We regrouped in Study(pronounced Stoody) Butte and had a snack.
When all were ready we followed the Rio Grande river up to Presidio for a late lunch and border crossing. The border crossing was fast and easy, but getting the vehicles properly registered and bonded to go into the interior and buying insurance took some time. Insurance appeared to be required, and was about half price on the Mexican side. As part of the group finished the paperwork, Paul and I went into Ojinaga and reserved some expensive rooms at the Motel Diana on the west end of town. Eventually we all arrived at the motel got settled and went next door to the street vendor for supper. You are not supposed to eat at street vendors in Mexico as you will inevitably get sick and die. The food was good and by only occasionally eating on the street we nearly all avoided any illness. Those that got sick had only mild symptoms, not enough to put a damper on any activities.
Monday we got an early start heading for Cuahtemoc (Hwa TE moke) via Ciudad Chihuahua. Early on Bob’s XT550 started to act up, running when it felt like it. While Marty and Bob attended to the bike George broke out some food at an overlook.
At the lunch stop Bob decided to look for a ride to Ciudad Chihuahua where there was a Yamaha shop. Tom found Octavio who agreed to transport Bob and the XT. Octavio maintained a speed somewhat faster than convenient for most of us so we let them go ahead with Tom in tow.
In Chihuahua we split up to do various tasks. Most of us went in search of the Yamaha shop to which a local biker eventually led us. Bob and Tom weren’t there and we never did find them that day. For less than $3 I got a new retrovisor (mirror) to replace the one snapped off in Texas.
After calling all over town we gave up on finding Bob and headed out for Cuahtemoc. There is a toll road but we took the scenic (free) route through the countryside and the barrios of Cuahtemoc. Eventually we found the rest of the group at a nice motel. The people there recommended a restaurant that turned out to be nicer than we deserved, but the food and service were good.
After a good breakfast at a small restaurant in the center of town we headed for Creel, taking the paved road to Carichi and a nice dirt road part of the rest of the way to Creel. Nice roads, nice scenery. Creel is at a pretty high elevation, so it gets a little chilly in February. There was frost on the motorcycle seats in the morning. We stayed at the Hotel Los Valles, a nice place that we used as a base for the next few days. We got 3 double rooms and their "grande" room that had a living room, kitchenette, 3 double beds and bunk beds. It worked out great, we used the "grande" room as our clubhouse! Again, a courtyard to park in. The owner/manager was Manuel Fiero and he was please to help us learn more Spanish as we helped him learn more English.
In Creel, we ran into street vendors. Kids who are selling wares made by their parents. The stuff is pretty inexpensive and nicely made. Here Lissa got out the Polaroid and proceeded to amaze and delight the locals by letting them watch the photos develop. She was a major attraction once the word got out. Without a Polaroid it cost me $2 to get a picture.
Tarahumara mother and child (Photo by Lissa)
Bob and Tom arrived later in the evening. At first it appeared that Bob’s bike would be OK, but then it quit a few times as they worked their way toward Creel. Marty looked at it again and tried a few things, but they decided that Bob would spend an extra day in Creel testing to be sure the bike was reliable before venturing even farther from help. It wasn’t OK, the best guess was an intermittent ignition box. Bob accepted this in good humor and ended up sliding the bike into the luggage compartment of a bus and heading back to Texas. We heard interesting stories of the time Tom and Bob spent in Ciudad Chihuahua, but were unable to get two witnesses to agree on the details, so we fabricated our own, which will not be repeated here.
Marty, Bob and Paul work on the XT550
We started for Batopilas fairly early. As we were buying gas at Pemex it started to look like rain. Most of us put on some type of rain gear. Dan and Scott decided the rain would make the dirt road not so much fun, so sought other entertainment. The rest of us were of course unaware of this situation. It actually rained for a few minutes, but nobody got very wet. The paved road was very tight and demanded your full attention. Things like guard rails and warning signs are not common here. The consequences of inattention or error were potentially HUGE. By the time we got to the gravel road to Batopilas the sun was out. It wouldn’t rain again on the trip.
On this gravel road I had my first near miss of the trip. A goat committed to a steep downhill that ended right in front of me. By the time he saw me he couldn’t change course, but I missed by a few inches as his owner looked on disapprovingly. Eventually we came to an overlook of the canyon that was just incredible. Fortunately the traffic was light so we could stop for a look. At this point George headed back to Creel as planned and the rest of us went to cross the bridge that appeared so far below.
Along the way we stopped for a break in the small settlement of La Bufa where Tom struck up a conversation with a couple of Tarahumara men that lasted (off and on) for several days. The elder of the two, Ignacio, was skilled at making many craft items including musical instruments and various toys. They wore traditional dress and Tom was able to get Ignacio’s wife to make a couple of the traditional pleated shirts for him.
By the time we all got down (about 5000 feet down) to Batopilas Marty and Lissa had rooms reserved an a nice hotel with a great courtyard and a Catholic school next door. No phone, no pool, no TV, but pets were OK. It was quite nice. We settled in then went to the bar where a couple of locals played guitars and sang for us. They also offered to sell us some smokin’ dope, but we didn’t feel the need. The bars close at 8 p.m., so we didn’t get in too much trouble.
We did some shopping and at least one person bought a little pouch made from a scrotum.
The church at Satevo, near Batopilas (Photo by Kris)
Thursday was a day off for the two-week people. We went for breakfast at a small café run by a young mother whose kids checked in before school and even helped with our meals. She was very friendly, not to mention an excellent cook and quickly got into the spirit of helping us learn to pronounce more Spanish words.
The one-week people were planning to head for Urique, another small pueblo in a big canyon. We had gathered some info on the route the day before and got some more in the morning. An American who lived in the area made it clear that lower order beings such as ourselves shouldn’t try to ride the route shown on the map as it was a footpath. He tried to be polite, but it was clear that we were not on the approved list. I rode up the river crossing where the road to the footpath starts and got similar information from some local folks (my ability to communicate in Spanish was improving).
By air it is about 16 miles from Batopilas to Urique (according to the GPS). It is a three day trip on the footpath. We got directions for a route of unknown length that went over roads and through towns that weren’t on any of the maps we had. The one-week guys would try this route. Everybody went to the north end of Batopilas where the guy with gas in cans was and filled up using a siphon hose. Somewhere around noon Rick, Kris, Mark and Paul took off for Urique. The rest of us settled in to another fast paced day in Batopilas. We reasoned that if they came back we would know we couldn’t make it either.
Buying gas in Batopilas (Photo by Lissa)
Mark’s obviously male DR370 loaded for the trip
Clan elders discussing strategy in the Hotel Mary courtyard (Photo by Lissa)
Just as it got dark Rick and Kris returned. Kris was seriously dehydrated as the CX500 had worked him pretty hard. We got a couple of liters of water in him and extracted the story. It seems that Marks bike was in it’s final resting place and Paul and Mark were working that problem. We closed down the bar by the time the whole story was told so we adjourned to the after hours spot (open ‘til 10) to wait for Paul and Mark. They showed up around 9 p.m. with Paul’s bike in a pickup and the DR370 still in its final resting place. The good news was that the route looked promising, so we made plans to try again with the whole group in the morning. Kris gave his bike a rest and rode back to Creel. Mark made plans to catch the van to Creel.
Sometime in the middle of the night we were awakened by very loud crashes. I thought someone was loading our bikes into a truck with an end loader, but a quick check showed the bikes to be OK. I returned to bed, but some more curious folks discovered a cow in the courtyard. It was using normal cow technology to try to get out.
Friday morning we set out early for Urique. The plan was for Tom to head west to the coast at some point and Rick and Paul would continue on to Creel while Marty, Lissa and I would spend the night in Urique. We had enough water and some trail food as we didn’t expect to be near anything at lunchtime. We had no real idea how far it was but we had estimates from the locals of 5-10 hours. Rick and Paul had been about a third of the way the day before so that helped with the early path finding.
Right out of Batopilas it was a fun set of switchbacks up the side of the mountain. Great views and long falls if you weren’t careful. The scenery became a little less spectacular as we came back down into the desert valley toward the pueblo of Rodeo. There isn’t much in Rodeo except a school and small store. We stopped for a break and to try for a final photo of Mark’s DR370. We think they let school out when we arrived. We were pretty much surrounded by kids, who kept a respectful difference. Lissa broke out the Polaroid and once again was very popular.
A little farther south we came to the spot where the DR370 actually failed. After a brief (2-3 millisecond) but respectful moment of silence we continued on. On the rare occasion that we saw somebody we asked where the road went. We had been advised that if we asked if we were on the road to Urique we might get a false positive response even if we were on the wrong road. This could occur to avoid having to tell us bad news. Bad news is not easily delivered in Mexico.
Somewhere on this stretch Tom got fairly far ahead of the rest of us and took a wrong turn. We spent the rest of the day assuming he was ahead of us. After a long tour of the countryside he got back on track and spent the rest of the day hearing from the locals that we were “just an hour ahead of you”. Not that there were a lot of locals. This was pretty desolate country.
In due course we came to THE RIVER. We had just passed a couple of Indians so Paul and I went back to ask if we really needed to cross here or if there was another way. While we were gone Marty waded around to try to find a good spot to cross. Paul and I couldn’t understand what we were being told so at length one of the two Indians motioned us to follow and led us back to the river, running alongside the bike to show us the path across the river. He then sat on a rock and watched us cross. He was probably much amused at our antics.
The water varied from thigh to waist deep in the middle and the current was strong enough to cause problems keeping upright if you were not careful. We carried our packs and riding gear across and then brought the bikes across using 3-4 people per bike. All the bikes started up relatively easily after we got them out of the river. We packed up and headed on. When Tom came along he had to cross by himself and apparently his bike swallowed a little more water. He said it took him an hour to get repacked and restart the bike.
The bikes didn’t like this a bit (Photo by Lissa)
A little later we came to an intersection near the pueblo of Tubares. We stopped for travel info and it was a bit confusing. The lady said izquierdo but motioned derecha. Left seemed a better choice to we trusted her word more than the hand motion. We were now heading for Urique. This was wild country with only a few very isolated ranchos. A few places the road was bad enough that Lissa got off and walked a ways so Marty could make it through.
There were two very small pueblos on the road. Piedras Verdes didn’t offer much so we just waved and went on. Tom actually got fed by the locals here. Of course his Spanish was much better than ours. At Mesa de Arturo there was a tiny stand that sold a few groceries and pop, so we took a break. This is where Paul and Rick left us in an attempt (successful) to get to Creel before dark. Marty and Lissa and I turned toward Urique. Pretty soon we came to an overlook from which the GPS indicated 2.9 miles to town. One of those miles was straight down. It was 15 miles by road.
We got into town before sunset, got a room and found supper. Urique just got electricity from the outside and as we walked around we noticed that the poles, cables and insulators were brand new. They looked out of place in this very old pueblo. After supper Tom appeared, got a room and filled us in on his solo adventures.
Our room at Urique; this wall hides the bathroom, not a lot of privacy there
Gas in Urique was available from plastic bottles at a private home on the west side of town. After gas we headed back up the 15 miles of switchbacks, north to Bahuichivo and northeast toward Creel. There are several small towns on this route which appear to serve the locals and not really be tourist oreiented. We spent some time at the major exception, Divisadero, looking into the canyon, shopping for hand crafted items and eating at the “food court” near the train station. Food is prepared on the tops of 55 gal drums which have been converted to cookstoves. Tacos, gorditas, quesadillas etc are offered by several vendors all of whom were doing a brisk business.
The road is new pavement from San Rafael to Creel and we made much better time than planned. Back at the motel we found out where everybody had been and what they had done since we left on Wednesday. We also began to hatch a plan to take the passenger train that goes down some of the scenic parts of Copper Canyon.
Bob, Kris, Mark, Rick and Paul were on their way back to Minnesota and Tom was somewhere on the west coast so there were only six of us left to take the train ride.
We arrange with Manuel to keep our bikes and luggage at the motel while we were gone so we could travel light. I had no small bag so went to store and bought a backpack for about $4.
We elected to take the Second Class train. This was actually a pretty nice train, two years previous it was the First Class train. The way it works is you get on, find a seat and after while the conductor comes around and sells you a ticket. The passengers were mainly local people apparently heading home. Except for our group I only saw a couple of gringos.
The scenery is the usual stunning views of mountains and deep canyons. Occasionally there is a railroad car, usually upside down in the bottom of the canyon. Very confidence inspiring. The other thing you see from the train is lots of bad roads and two tracks. There is exploring to be done there.
Canyon Scenery (by Lissa)
Canyon Scenery (by Scott)
Typical train stop (by George)
Every so often the train stops at a tiny settlement or a bigger pueblo to take or leave passengers. On one occasion the train stopped at a clearing with no sight of human habitation except for a small footpath leading out of the canyon. A man waited as a woman got off then the train left. At some stops there is a longer pause and the passengers stream off to buy food or snacks.
Around 8 p.m. we arrived in El Fuerte. With a little jockeying we ended up with the best taxi driver for the 15 minute ride to town. On the train we had sought advice from a woman who got on in Temoris. Based on our desired room rate she recommended the Hotel San Jose. Our driver knew the place and took us there. As we got out to go in we agreed that he would accompany us in case we didn’t like the place. There were some car parts on the floor of the lobby and a couple of struts from a small car on the desk. At length the clerk showed up and our driver said to him “Hay cuartos con banňos?”. The answer being “No”, I asked the driver if he knew another place. He did and it was very nice.
La Posada de Don Porforio was a new inn made from an old Hacienda. Carmelita was the proprietress. Carmelita was recently retired from AT&T in Sacramento and was in the process of making an inn. We made a deal for the rooms and she arranged for the taxi to pick us up in time for the train in the morning.
La Posada de Don Porforio
Our room at the inn
After we settled in the room we wandered into the spacious courtyard where Carmelita was enjoying a drink with her general factotum. We inquired about supper and she suggested that we could get take-out and eat right there. Her man made taco fixin’s appear along with some liquid refreshment and we ate under the stars. It was a very satisfactory way to end the day.
In the morning Carmelita took us to a small restaurant and made sure they would take care of us for breakfast. After breakfast we took a quick tour of the town. It is a very attractive town with one of the nicest central squares that we saw. There is a reconstructed fort that now houses a museum near an attractive river. It would be nice to spend more time there.
At the appointed hour the taxi arrived and we made it to the train on time. The views seemed a little better on the return trip, but it was otherwise uneventful. We arrived in Creel in the afternoon and relaxed for the rest of the day.
In the central square
Walking by the river (by Lissa)
Tuesday was a traveling day. We needed to make it to Guachochi (wah cho chee), about 100 miles south. This is advertised as the gateway to Tarahumara country. The road to Guachochi is very twisty and mountainous. The views are excellent. Unfortunately there are no places to pull over to look, and the road is so demanding that you have to watch it full time. It was on this stretch that we had our only injury producing accident. On a corner that tightened up as you went around it George’s GS550 ran out of ground clearance and he slid into the ditch, but not over the edge. Scott and I got stopped before we hit the part of George’s bike that was sticking out into the road and Dan rode into the ditch for a better look. Sight lines were so short that I immediately rode back up to warn any oncoming traffic while the others righted George’s bike and patched him up. George jury rigged his damaged luggage rack until we could find a safe place to fix it. A little farther on we came to a small town and did a better job of fixing it.
He’s up and moving (By ?)
Lissa used the available materials (By ?)
Around lunchtime we arrived in Guachochi and booked rooms in one of the two hotels. It was quite nice and as usual, inexpensive. Once settled we went out to find lunch. In a three table café we found a bit of home. This place had lots of calendars on the wall and in the process of examining them we discovered a picture of the Rio Santa Cruz in Minnesota. That’s St. Croix River (for the language impaired). We of course got all excited and our hosts did too when we told them about it.
After lunch some went to the bank and the rest of us went to look for better bandages for George and some lime chips for Lissa. We had a rough time. Even Dan’s sign language couldn’t get us the bandages. At about the third farmacia we finally found the right words to get them. As we walked around we decided that this wasn’t a tourist town. It had what you needed for your ranchero, but that was about it. Asking at the hotel confirmed this opinion although they did say that a museum was planned, but not open yet.
Later in the evening some people went to the bar at the other hotel, but there were some very drunk cowboys there and it got a little rowdy so they left.
Wednesday was another heavy traveling day. We covered well over 100 miles getting to Parral. Parral is a fairly large city compared to the places we had been, but we drove right in and eventually Marty found the Hotel Turistica for us. This downtown hotel was fairly ordinary but it did have a locked and secluded playa de estacionamiento (parking lot). Once we were parked and in our rooms the desk clerk informed us that the rooms would cost more than we agreed on. The substitute clerk had given us the wrong price. I asked to discuss this with the manager, but she wasn’t in so we went shopping. Upon our return the manager finally agreed that it was a management error, but we had to split the difference on the increase or risk becoming obnoxious. It was only a buck or so apiece.
The square and church in Parral (By George)
Hmmmm (By George)
We were right downtown and there were lots of small shops, each one fairly specialized. It seemed that every other store was a zapateria (shoe store). Shoes must be a big deal there. Near our hotel was a historic and very ornate church. We wandered around checking it all out. This is another town where we could have spent a couple of days.
This was the day we were to meet Tom in Ciudad Chihuahua. We set out fairly early and after a tour of the town headed north. A short way out those of us in the rear saw an amazing display of riding skill and courage. A puff of dust came out of the back of the F650 near the rear tire. It was of course loaded with Marty and Lissa as well as the Jesse Luggage system and miscellaneous other stuff. The rear wheel stepped out, straightened up and then the bike appeared to go full sideways, still on the pavement. Next it was into the ditch with another impressive sideways action and then to a nice stop. I’m crediting the skill to Marty for obvious reasons and the courage to Lissa for not dying of fright. By the time I got stopped they were off the bike, but there was none of the “Holy ---- did you see that” stuff. Marty just went to work checking the rear wheel out and removing it. There was a major tear in the tire and a smaller one in the tube. Hmmmm. What to do? There were a couple of spare tubes at hand, but we were still 90 miles from anyplace that would have a tire. Dan came up with some wide sticky backed Velcro and with a thorough cleaning of the tire inside we used the Velcro to boot the tire. Marty then used the old tube as a liner and installed the new tube. The photos tell the story. Putting two people back on the dodgy tire didn’t seem like a good idea, so Lissa got on the DR-350 with me for the next 90 miles. Seems that I was the only person traveling light enough to actually have rear seat room. Dan decided to go ahead and buy a tire in case we didn’t make it and the rest of us proceeded at a reduced speed.
The BAD spot
Scott had the CO2 (By George)
Uniformed mechanics fitting the tire (By Lissa)
Ready to Ride (By Lissa)
Two-up on the DR (By Dan)
In a couple of hours we were in Chihuahua, but hadn’t seen Dan with the tire. We went to the Yamaha shop because we knew where it was. Marty bought a tire and had them put it on the rim, I guess he thought he’d changed his tire for the day. The installation was apparently included in the tire price, but the counter guy said we should give the mechanic a propina (tip). He seemed pretty happy with the 50 peso bill. Just as we were getting ready to pack up and look for the lost Dan and the not yet found Tom, Dan rode up with another tire. The shop cheerfully took the tire back for a full refund.
Eventually after a lot of hanging around parking lots, shopping and general driving about we all ended up together, even Tom, although he was already checked into a different motel than the one Marty had found.
As usual in larger towns, we toured the town for a while then got on the road. We had breakfast in small groups and made our way to Marathon Texas. Some of us made two border crossings, the second was to take care of the Mexican paperwork for our bikes. The Border Patrol probably figured we were too dumb to be smugglers, so we breezed right through the crossings. At 250+ miles this was out longest day.
Eventually we all arrived at the vans and got packed up. Most of the group headed straight home. Marty, Lissa and I stopped in Kansas City to visit Marty’s dad who lives with Marty’s brother and associated family.
Home at Last…and not necessarily happy about it.