A pickup truck loaded with people went past me as I cycled slowly up a steep hill. It stopped about 50 meters in front of me. In the rear tray were three children, maybe aged between 8 and 10 years of age. I cycled up to the passenger side window. The guy in the passenger seat was wasted. High on goodness knows what. Clad in military fatigues, this guy was not military, even if he did have an automatic weapon by his side. Firstly I was offered Cocaine, then Weed. I politely declined. I did mention that I liked Tecate, the local beer, as evidenced by the thousands of empty cans on the side of the road. Without hesitation he reached down to his legs and gave me 2 cans of beer. The vehicle then drove off. I should have felt some fear or anxiety over such a situation. Heavily armed militia stopping me on the road. Truth is, its not the first time it happened. I was cycling in the somewhat lawless area of the backroads of Copper Canyon.
A couple of days earlier I left the comforts of my hotel in the rustic town of El Fuerte after quickly recovering from my stupidity the day before. I could have caught the train to Copper Canyon, to the tourist town of Creel or some other location nearby but I chose a rather ambition route into the mountains. Checking the internet I was unable to find anybody who had traversed these remote roads. I checked cycling blogs, Adventure Motorcycle blogs, forums but the resourses were limited. My last resupply point before heading into the remote mountain gorges was the town of Choix. It was lunchtime and as luck would have it I stumbled upon a Pizza Shop. Chapo’s Pizza was run by Jesus and Raymondo. Two of the nicest guys I’ve met thus far in Mexico. I ordered a Pizza, which was delicious. I wish I ordered another. In fact, looking back I wish I stayed the night in the town to look around a little more. Anybody visiting Choix should make the time to have a Pizza at this joint.
In the early afternoon I set off and before long I was at a crossroad. Turn right and I could follow a mountain road to the town of Tubares and onwards to Copper Canyon. Several people had done it before. Or go straight and turn onto a series of rough dirt tracks to Copper Canyon. Inexplicably, I chose the rough dirt tracks. It was late when I turned onto the rough 4WD road passing several burned out vehicles. I camped on a dry river bed not too far from a small settlement of about 5 houses, or shacks.
The following morning I cycled about 5km to a dead end. The road stopped at a lake. In fact it was a Dam. I was out of water so I filtered water from the lake and sat eating a Grapefruit that Jesus had given me the day before. A small boat on the lake arrived and motioned for me to bring my bike to the edge of the lake. This I did. I was unable to communicate with the boat driver as he indicated that he was unable to speak and was deaf. I think. With signs and pointing he indicated that there was a road on the other side of the lake. My maps indicated this to be the case. I asked if it was normal for cyclists to be here. Never, was the indicated reply. Up a small narrow canyon we went with the boat until we reached the road and a larger vehicle ferry with two guys there. I said hello and kept cycling. They indicated that it was very difficult with lots of hills. I indicated that I had strong legs. Later this would prove to be untrue.
I cycled ever uphill through the narrow gorge past an occasional farm house. The crops being grown were rather unmistakable. It was not a food source. Lets call it a cash crop. I wanted to take a photo of the millions of dollars worth of crops but thought it not the best idea. I was now in the lawless drug cartel controlled area of Mexico. Already I had noticed that everybody had portable radios with them. I passed several heavily armed militia. They were curious but very polite and friendly. By now there was no use hiding, everybody knew a crazy cyclist was in the area. There were crops everywhere, I mean everywhere. There were irrigation pipes running in all directions. Near the village of La Reforma I began a ridiculously steep ascent. For 5 hours of solid pushing and little riding I covered only 5km. The loose gravel made pushing near impossible in some places as my feet slipped with the effort. By the time I crossed over the first mountain pass and descended to a small river on the other side it was late afternoon and I was exhausted from the effort. Normally I hide myself when I camp so I don’t bring unwanted attention to myself. I thought it best to be visible in this strange environment. I figured everybody already knew I was here anyway. The portable radios that everybody carried had seen to that. I set up next to the river in the company of Cows, Leaf Cutter Ants, Scorpions and Tarantulas. This was not what I expected.
The following morning I set off early to try and crest the next mountain pass before the main heat of the day set in. My map indicated there might be a river on the other side which would be the last one for many kilometers. I was passed by a couple of cars, motorbikes and people on horses as I pushed and rode up the hill. A car stopped to talk with me. They asked if I wanted a lift. They explained that the road ahead was very difficult. They told me it would take two hours by 4WD vehicle to reach the top. Wow. Two hours by vehicle. I quizzed them about how steep the upcoming climbs were in comparison to what I climbed the day before. They said the climb yesterday was easy and hardly even called a climb. I struggled on the climb they said was easy, I thought to myself. Reluctantly I threw my bike in the back of their truck and off we went.
The truck struggled its way up the so called difficult hill. All four wheels were spinning at some points as it struggled its way up the hill. This would have been impossible for me. I would have had to take off my panniers and carry them up the hill, then return for the bike. There was no chance of me making it up this hill. It climbed for about 1500m over slippery loose rocks and dirt over maybe only 10-15km. I would certainly have run out of water and had to of relied on the assistance of others. We talked a lot about everything on this trip. I was frustrated by my failing language skills. I decided I had to do something about it. Time to take some time off the bike and practice my language skills.
Around lunch time I was dropped off at the small village of Cieneguita. I located a small store and bought some supplies. The road was now a little easier. I made camp rather early on a small side road off the main dirt track. I’d been approached by several people during the day offering Weed, Heroine and Cocaine. With my two beers that I got from one of the militia I set up my tent on the side of this little used track. The sun was almost set and I was enjoying my beer and eating dinner. A motorcycle appeared and later at 9pm when I was asleep a car drove past within a meter of my tent.
I’d been advised that when I made it to the town of Cerocahui I would be able to finally start riding on easy sealed roads all the way to Creel. I stopped in the pleasant town of Cerocahui to eat and stock up on water and food. While shopping at the local grocery store I enquirer if any of the restaurants were open, they all appeared closed to me. She smiled and offered to make me breakfast in her house attached to the store. So in I went. My favourite Mexican breakfast is Huevos Rancheros. Two sunny side up eggs placed on a tortilla and smothered with a chili and tomato based salsa with a side of refried beans. She obliged my craving. I lingered to talk with the family for a while before cycling ever uphill.
A new highway has been constructed recently. It started at the town of Bahuichivo and even had Google confused. It didn’t appear on any maps. Looking confused a local approached me and pointed me in the right direction, assuring me that the new road did indeed exist and would take me all the way ti Creel. On route I stopped in the small village of San Rafael. It was late and all the hotels looked abandoned. I found one that was open and got a room. I signed in the register, as one must do in Mexico, and found I was the first guest in several months. I was a little early in the tourist season which runs from December to March. I took dinner in a small shop run by the local Tarahumara women. These indigenous ladies were almost too shy to approach me to ask what I wanted to eat. The food was good and cheap.
The following morning I cycled the short distance to the famed lookout area of Divisidero. Famed for looking out over Copper Canyon and its vibrant street food and markets that service the local train that stops here. No food and no market when I arrived mid morning. Nothing.
I reached the town of Creel by mid afternoon. It’s the main tourist town in the Copper Canyon area. I was exhausted, several kilograms underweight and a little jaded about the prospect of exploring further in the Copper Canyon area. Time for a rest to reconsider my travel plans.