Por La Libre

Gustavo and Lizbeth travel the backroads of Mexico
Dec 2005 - Jan 2006

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Last week Lizbeth and I started our long awaited motorcycling vacation through Mexico. Lizbeth flew to Chihuahua and I rode to meet here there from Portland. I lucked out and got a break in the weather that allowed me to ride straight down I-5, having cold, but dry weather crossing the Siskiyous.

My first stop was Sacramento to visit my brother. The ride was pretty good, after I defrosted from riding the Siskiyou and Mt. Shasta passes (it snowed on the way down from the top of both). Made good time to Sacramento, a bit of lane splitting in rush hour traffic and I was there.

Thursday started out wet, I had rain for the first two hours, then the rain stopped and was replaced by very strong winds on the way to Bakersfield. It was strong enough that I had to slow down to keep the bike in my lane. The winds never really stopped, but were relatively softer and easier to manage going out of the LA metro traffic (more splitting, I love CA). I made it to Phoenix that evening, but made the mistake of not going all the way across town to Mesa or Chandler. I had to deal with rush hour traffic the next day due to this. After a short stop-n-go section, I joined the unofficial NASCAR track known as I-10 through metro Phoenix. I was going a real 80 MPH and having trouble keeping up with the fast traffic on I-10...

I made my destination of Las Cruces, NM, early in the afternoon. I went shopping for parts for a service I decided to do before driving into Mexico. My friend John offered his garage, so all I needed was oil and a pair of spark plugs I had forgotten at home. I went to Las Cruces Motorsports and got to buy 2 plugs for the price of 3. Unless you absolutely have no other option, I highly recommend not shopping there if you are on a trip in that part of the country.

I had dinner with John, Phil and Lois, all of whom I had not seen in ages, it was fun to catch up with old friends.

On Saturday morning, I finished the maintenance on the bike and Lizbethís cousinís car and headed out to the Santa Teresa border crossing to get my and the bikeís permit to go into Mexico. There were some people there already (close to noon) but it only took 30 minutes total to get all the paperwork sorted. At 12:30 I was blasting down the road to Chihuahua. I got caught in a (very usual for this area) dust storm that made visibility very limited for a while. Given these conditions, I decided that it would be most effective to use the toll highway in this case, rather than get stuck on the two lane road I was planning on using.

Driving in Mexico can be two very different experiences. The toll highways (also known as cuota) are very similar to US style highways, typically two lanes in each direction, mostly (but not always) limited access, and usually in reasonable, sometimes even in very good condition. But, they come at a very high price. The tolls often seem like highway robbery, given the cost, frequency and road conditions in some states. So far, the state of Chihuahua stands out on this trip as having the best roads/facilities in the toll sections. Itís also noteworthy that itís the only state that gives a lower rate to motorcycles, roughly 50% of the rate they charge cars. What is really not like in the US are the speeds. The official speed limits vary from 90 KPH to 110 KPH, but most Mexicans absolutely ignore these signs. At a real 85 MPH (140 KPH) I was passed regularly by other cars. But, you also have to keep in mind that some of the vehicles that circulate on these roads are barely capable of keeping up with the speed limits, so a lot of caution is required when estimating closing speeds. The best part is that there is a very strict lane discipline. I never had to wait for a car or truck to move over (unless it had US plates, then all bets were off, some were just as asleep at the wheel as when they drive in the US).

The free roads, usually posted as por (la) libre or simply libre when there is an option, are the old roads that typically go through every little town along the way. They show a different Mexico than that seen while traveling the new highways. But going through every little town (and it literally means through, the road is usually the townís main street) along the way means it can be really slow. You have to make the choice. On this trip my intention was to stick as much as possible to the libre roads, to see the Mexico we usually miss when we have less vacation time.

Just before Chihuahua there is a short section of toll road, whose alternate is a very nice winding road, which after days of mostly straight highway riding was a very welcome change. I made it to Chihuahua early in the afternoon.

From Chihuahua we started heading south and east. Our first destination was Saltillo, one of the oldest cities in northern Mexico. Saltillo sits in the high desert, and appropriately, it gets rather chilly after sunset. Actually, as we discovered on the way into town, it gets rather chilly even before the sun sets. It can also be windy on the road from Torreon. We found the hotel we were looking for fairly quickly, after checking the map just once to get a better idea of how the downtown streets ran. Saltillo has a nice, old, colonial center that doesnít really feel like a big city. We stayed at Hotel UrdiŮola, which is walking distance from the cathedral and several other attractions. We found it very curious that the downtown area is full of shoe stores. And I mean full, as in several per city block on almost every block of the downtown area we walked through.

Our next target was Jalpan de Sierra, deep in the Sierra Gorda. We started with a blast down highway 57 towards San Luis Potosi, but got off the highway on the road to Rio Verde. It wasnít a bad road, but I had hoped it would be more interesting (as in more winding). But, it was good for making time, and it helped make up for the long defrosting stop in Matehuala.

In Rio Verde I got some bad gas that made the bike stumble and surge a bit. The stumbling was pretty obvious as soon as I tried to make the first overtaking maneuver, it didnít like WFO settings. I probably should have slowed down, but I didnít, and I suspect that it did some damage to the chain and sprockets, because after these 180 miles, all were showing more wear. It probably wasnít the root cause of the excessive wear, but I expected the chain and sprockets to last more than 10K miles. I didnít realize this was happening until the next day, when the chain needed another adjustment, and after only 200 miles another one.

Before that, we enjoyed the spectacular views of the Sierra Gorda, as we made our way to Jalpan. Rio Verde was true to itís name and the scenery became a lot greener than it had been for the last two days. As you climb into the Sierra, the forest becomes denser, the vegetation is different, and it changes as you climb in altitude.

The road got really windy, the pavement was mostly good and the roads had little traffic. One thing they did have, as most secondary roads in Mexico do, is topes, or speed bumps. Mexican roads that go through any sort of town will usually have several topes as you get to the urban area (and urban is very loosely defined here). Some are sp steep they could damage your wheel if you donít slow down to a crawl. Obviously, it doesnít make for good (or pleasant) progress through these urban areas. You can make it up outside of town, where passing happens whenever and where ever you feel like it.

Jalpan didnít look like much when we got there, until we took the side streets to get to the plaza, where our hotel was. The town is actually very nice, it has very well kept buildings, a nice plaza and the mission, which is one of the many Sierra Gorda missions that were built to help "civilize" the locals in the 16th century.

Our plan of starting to make our way to Papantla after Jalpan was changed when I realized the chain was not going to make it through the whole Mexico loop. We decided to head towards Pachuca, a relatively large town, to try and find parts. Now keep in mind that Suzuki is only starting to import the V-Strom to Mexico this year and there are almost no bikes, let alone spare parts in the country. Also, most Mexican shops sell smaller displacement bikes as their bread and butter, and only a few larger bikes, so I didnít expect them to have parts in stock, but maybe be able to order them. We got to Pachuca early enough to make some calls. A Yamaha shop had a chain but no sprockets. The rest couldn't even begin to figure out where to get the parts in a timely manner. While I was waiting for the Yamaha guys the next day to make some calls, I asked the Yahoo VStrom2 guys for help with alternate parts that fit. Within the hour I had several replies of what other Suzuki bikes share similar sprockets and offers to mail me the parts if needed. A fantastic group and a great showing of the power of the Net. I ended up finding a shop in Toluca that said they could get the parts within 3 day max. We were going to go to Toluca later, so we changed the order and rode to Toluca.

On the way to Toluca, I found the exit for the highway that goes around Mexico City (DF) closed. I figured there would probably be another up ahead and continued on. Next thing I know the signs only read Mexico Centro... We stopped as soon as the highway ended and changed to surface streets to see what options we had. It seemed that at this point the shortest way to Toluca (on the opposite end of the DF) was straight through. Lizbeth didnít like the idea much, but accepted that we had to do this to get to Toluca early. The route took us through two of the DFīs busiest roads, Insurgentes and Paseo Reforma. There was a lot of traffic, but since lane splitting is not only allowed, itís expected and encouraged to keep traffic flowing faster, we made really good time despite the traffic.

The Suzuki shop in Toluca is a very small shop, but these guys know how to get stuff done. They found a chain set fit the V-Strom and had it installed that same afternoon. The only issue is that they didnít tell me the front sprocket they got is smaller than the original I had, and now my speedometer is really way off. Luckily, I had installed a Sigma speedometer, which is still as accurate as it was before the gearing change.

Since we were already in Toluca, we took a day trip into Mexico City. This time we used public transportation, as the cost is so low itís ridiculous and the convenience of not having to secure the bike and riding gear while walking around town is a great benefit. The bus trip from Toluca to the DF is $3.40 and the Metro costs $0.20 (yes, you read that right, twenty cents, includes as many transfers as you need). For reference, just the toll on the (very nice) highway between the two is $8.

We started in Chapultepec, Maximilianís palace, then the anthropology museum, and then we walked along Paseo Reforma to see the different monuments the adorn the glorietas (traffic circles). This is a beautiful part of the city, it divides some of the best neighborhoods in town. When you drive in or out of the DF, you get to see the slums most of the people live in. Itís as if you were in a different planet. We lucked out and our friend Chayo was in town for work, so in the afternoon, she gave us a guided tour of the historical center of the city. Lizbeth observed there were a lot of people everywhere you went. Well, it wasnít as if the 18 million that live here were there, but it certainly seemed like it.

One of the biggest issues the city seems to be having difficulty with are the vendedores ambulantes (roving vendors). Itís in the news on a regular basis, how the city is trying to clean up the streets and how the vendors keep a step ahead of the authorities to avoid being caught. In some areas of the historic center, 4 lane avenues have been practically shut down to vehicle traffic, as the vendors take over the driving lanes to set up their merchandise.  And they are everywhere. You can buy anything from indigenous handcrafts to pirated CDs, DVDs and other merchandise on the streets.

On Saturday we went to visit my friend Johan and his wife Juanita in Valle de Bravo. The road from Metepec to Valle that goes by El Nevado de Toluca (a snow capped volcano) is spectacular. Not only the views are fantastic, the road is well paved and is an endless series of curves after leaving Toluca all the way to Valle. It also goes by a section where Monarch butterflies pass on their annual migration. It wasnít a very sunny morning, so they were not out in great numbers, but it was still a beautiful sight. It is also note worthy that some organizations in Mexico make a serious effort to protect the butterflies by having state police slow traffic down in this area to reduce "road kills" and to allow people to safely pull over if they want to take a closer look.

Johan and Juanita gave as a great tour of their city, we hiked up a river to a waterfall, drove up steep cobblestone streets to get a spectacular view of the city and had way too much to eat. It also happened to be Johanís birthday, so he said it was a great birthday gift to have us visit and to go for a ride together.

We are on the road to Veracruz, stay tuned for more.

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