Mud running in Mexico

Muddy track with a car on it

So.. this was the first part of the detour, where the mud was dry and firm and I could ride on the bike rather than have to run behind it. Then it turned to slush. Oh – and there were cars going both ways on this track…

28 August – Day 37

Zihuatanejo, Mexico to Playa Ventura, Mexico
Distance: 399kms (time on bike = nine hours, excluding one hour for lunch)

The further south we travel, the better the beaches get. In equal yet opposite proportions, the roads get worse. I don’t want to harp on about the roads.. suffice to say that they are terrible, in every sense of the word. I’m so grateful that I don’t have to drive, that’s for sure. It’s hot, sweaty and at times stressful work just being a passenger! Today’s travel included at least 50 speed bumps – including several on highways, where we’re generally not travelling at a speed bump friendly speed. At one point, we paid for the privilege of a toll road / tunnel through a city of over 2 million people… only to have the tunnel – three lanes of smoothly tarred road with actual lane markings – disgorge us abruptly, like an unexpected and surprisingly juicy burp, out onto a two-lane dirt road. Chaos. It was utter chaos.

The day’s journey also included an unexplained and total road blockage just short of our final destination for the day. Based on the number of lorries queued up, the road had clearly been closed all day. In both directions…

It was hot and we were tired and not at all excited about the prospect of a night camped next to the bike in a queue of trucks on the road. So when a couple of locals pointed out a way around the blockage through backstreets (and, as we subsequently found out, ankle deep mud, bog, sand and pretty much any other un-motorbike friendly surface you can imagine!) – we thought it was worth a shot… especially when a couple of other smaller cars seemed to be taking it, too.

And – we did make it around the jam… but not without several extended patches with Adrian riding the bike solo and me, dressed in full motorbike regalia including boots and helmet, running (yes, running!) along behind the bike, through the mud, in the heat, trying to keep up. It would have looked hilarious – a couple of gringos traipsing through the back country, massively overdressed by Mexican standards, with this girl running and sliding along behind a guy riding and sliding what was possibly the biggest motorbike they’d ever seen. It was not our happiest moment on the bike (or off the bike, in my case)!!!

[hmm – the above possibly does count as harping on about the roads… oops. It’s actually hard to avoid on days like today, when the roads essentially are the story of the day!]

Anyway. Onwards and upwards.. or, to be more accurate, southwards.

We’re in Playa Ventura. It’s apparently an ‘it’ destination… in December, January and February. In August, I can vouch from first-hand experience that there are very few tourists in the town. We were the only ones at our hotel – and possibly the only ones in the town at all. And we were definitely the only non-Mexicans.

The beach is very rough and rocky so there was no swimming for us… and almost no dinner, too… by the time we ventured out for some food, around 8pm, pretty much anywhere that was actually open at all had closed… and it took one local taking us to his brother’s cousin’s place (or something like that) where a lady took pity on us and ceased watching what appeared to be a Mexican soapie to make us (a very nice) dinner. A good end to a long day.

Adrian standing on the beach framed by palm trees

Quite a nice place to stop for lunch!

tope or speed bump on the road

Topes – this is just one example of the many, many types of speed bumps they have here.

On the road with Noah’s Ark

Adrian in foreground with storm in background

There’s a storm coming! Or rather – we’re riding right for it. On Adrian’s left you see some turtle tracks leading up from the water. On his right, you don’t see a navy base with guys watching us closely through slots in the fortified cement walls…

26 August – Day 35

San Juan de Alima to Zihuatanejo, Mexico
Distance: 327kms

Before arriving in Mexico, I’d read in books and other blogs that the roads here are terrible and the speed bump (topes), fierce. At the time, I recall thinking ‘yeah, ok – how bad can they really be?’ I now understand.

To be fair, Mexico also has some (well, at least one) of the most impressive roads – and I’ve already blogged about that engineering feat here. In general though, the roads are narrow and often pot holed and/or in the process of being dug up (presumably in order to be resealed – although we’ve not yet travelled on many recently resealed roads…). Detours aren’t necessarily sign posted – for example just yesterday the main highway we were on ended abruptly in a half-built bridge across a river. The was no sign indicating that the road was closed, and we had to ask one of the guys working there to find out that we had to go around by turning off the highway 400m back. And there are sharp, angry little speed bumps everywhere. Most of the time they’re also not signposted, or painted on the road or accompanied by any markings whatsoever that might help an unsuspecting motorcyclist, say with a pillion passenger, see the bump until he is right on top of it. On a highway! So – it makes for interesting riding; and it requires lots of concentration… especially when you add in the windy nature of many of the roads, the blind corners, and the various people/animals/other objects on the road. To this list, we have recently added pigs, piglets, hens and a skunk. You get the Noah’s Ark of animals on the road here in Mexico, that’s for sure!

Today was also heavy on the army checkpoints. We did get stopped at one, but after asking where we’d come from and where we were going, the soldier waved us on.

We made pretty good time – by Mexican road travel standards – including risking taking a toll road in the morning without knowing how much it cost, and only having $100 pesos left. We thought it’d be enough… then again, we did have a $200 peso toll day a couple of days ago! Happily, the toll (and all tolls in Mexico are half price for motorbikes, yay) was only $25 pesos… and the petrol station we needed and found before reaching a major town with an ATM took credit cards. Lady Luck was with us today!

Adrian has found us a lovely hotel here, where we’ll be staying for two nights. He’s turned into Master Negotiator (you’d think he negotiated contracts for a living or something?!) and has been getting us deals all over the place. It’s low season here, so the hotels are pretty empty and are therefore keen for our business. Like here in Zihuatanejo, we’ve got an ocean view and private balcony, with breakfast included – and it costs only slightly more than the campsite we stayed at just outside of Yellowstone National Park in the US. And they have secure bike parking!

Turtle tracks in the sand - they come up the beach to lay their eggs

Turtle tracks in the sand – the turtles come up onto the beach to lay their eggs

A long road cut short

sunset over the sea in matzatlan

View from our motel balcony… sunset over the water. A west coast treat for an east coaster like me!

21 August – Day 30

Durango, Mexico to Mazatlan, Mexico
Distance: 270kms

Today was always going to be an interesting day on the bike. Any day when you’re potentially riding a road that is known as ‘the devil’s backbone’ (Espinazo del Diablo) and is described in western media as “a dangerous road in a treacherous Mexican mountain range known for marijuana and opium poppies”  is going to be an interesting day.

I say ‘potentially riding’ because – in a significant engineering feat involving 115 bridges and 61 tunnels at a cost of $2.2 billion – the Mexican government is/was due to complete a new highway that bypasses the devil and the drugs in August of this year. And it’s August right now!!

However… we couldn’t find any information about whether the highway was complete and therefore open – or not.

So on one hand, we were facing a 300km, 10 hour ride, including a 2500m descent with switchbacks galore. That’s an average speed of 30km/h. For 10 hours. I’ve ridden my pushbike faster than that! Admittedly, not for 10 hours up and down mountains/valleys/ravines etc… but still!

On the other hand, it was a 225km, 3 hour cruise on brand new tar admiring the latest that road engineering has to offer.

No prizes for guessing what my preference was! Adrian was sort of keen on the devil, but he’d also read that the road was so narrow and the corners so tight that trucks (and lots of trucks use the route) need the entire road to make the turn. Did I mention that a significant number of the switchbacks are blind corners? In the middle of drugland? With trucks going full speed ahead, on the wrong side of the road? And cattle, horses and donkeys just roaming about? So yeah, Adrian was sort of keen on it but could also see why the highway might be a good option – and he was interested in the new road from a construction perspective, too.

In the end, we got a bit of both: the on ramp we’d intended to use was not yet complete – so we took the old road for the first little bit. Then we got on the highway. Then we hit an incomplete section and had two hours of switchbacks. Then we got back on the highway… and an hour or so later, we were in our waterfront seaside hotel in Mazatlan! It’s lovely being back on the coast – although the beach here is dirty enough that I’m more likely to admire the view rather than actually go for a swim. We’ll be on the coast for the next little while, so there’ll be plenty of other opportunities for swimming.

A more general observation about travel in Mexico: there are hawkers by the side of the road offering a range of things for sale at almost every point where cars have to slow down… eg in and out of cities, next to speed bumps etc. Today, in addition to hawkers selling mangoes at 8 for $1 (one of the moments when I wished we were in a car so I could get some!), we saw bags of prawns on offer. The hawkers were standing in the sun, it was about 30 deg C, I couldn’t see any ice, and they were waving around bags of prawns for people to buy! I’m not a fan of prawns at the best of times, but prawns that that have been sitting on a table by the side of the road in the middle of summer for a few hours?! No thanks!!!

Downtown Matzatlan, near where we're staying.

Downtown Mazatlan, near where we’re staying.

Yellowstone National Park

Waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park

By Adrian

7 August – Day 16

West Yellowstone, Montana to Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Distance: 202km

Rocks in yellowstone national park

Yellowstone National Park

Seriously I don’t know how Harley riders ride without a full-face helmet. Maybe I’m a bit soft but I copped a dragon fly in the neck on the way back into Yellowstone and it stung like a %&$#@. Another indeterminable bug decided to provide Lauren with an up close view of its yellow guts on her visor. There also tends to be a general lack of consideration regarding what happens when skin hits asphalt, the majority of riders wear T-shirts and… here we are as I sit, a guy pulls up on his Harley in a T-shirt, shorts, shoes and a baseball cap… backwards… bet that’ll do a lot when someone runs into you! It’s getting hotter the further South we go, however both of us are still donning the full swag of protective gear favouring a bit of sweat over any other potential consequence!

The other side of Yellowstone is its natural thermal features of hot springs and geysers. Upon entering back into Yellowstone to continue South, and after experiencing another three ‘bear jams’ where driving etiquette gets firmly shoved out the window, we arrived at the Lower Geyser Basin where pools of boiling water and steam gushed to the surface emitting that pungent odour of rotten eggs from the sulphur. Continuing on, Old Faithful was the next obvious stop, being a geyser that that regularly explodes in a fountain of superheated water. For a natural phenomenon, it really is an enjoyable spectacle and provides a scene similar to the fountain on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra although not quite as high.

Hot sulphur pools in Yellowstone National Park

Sulphur pools, Yellowstone National Park

The rest of the day was spent tootling along at frustratingly low speeds and waiting at multiple roadworks that seem to involve extensive delays for what appears to be very minor work. Arriving in Jackson Hole quite hot and very interested in exploring the menu of one of the local coffee shops, we sat down and observed our surroundings deciding that they deserved closer inspection. We found a motel close to the centre of town and unpacked our gear to complete our shortest day ever of 202km. The rest of the day was spent moseying around the various shops and chilling out. Lauren found a yoga session running from 5.30 til 7.00 while I found a nice tavern selling microbrew beer and proceeded to sample the menu. We had live country music with dinner and dropped by a bar with a swinging jazz band for a nightcap on the way back to the motel.

6 August – Day 15

Red Lodge, Montana to West Yellowstone, Montana
Distance: 246km

The Beartooth Highway is one of the top motorcycle roads in the USA, extending from Red Lodge to the Eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Sure we could have dropped a couple of 100 kms off the route by entering through the North, however having now ridden this highway I can now understand its popularity. It was chockers full of Harley riders in both directions, some off to Sturgis some just seeing the sights like ourselves, all of them enjoying the twists and turns up and down the mountain. The terrain changed from pine forest to alpine meadows to jutting rocky outcrops, all of which provided a beautiful backdrop. A bit of a crosswind combined with precious cargo meant I didn’t test the handling limits of the Beemer, suffice to say I had plenty of fun.

The last time I rode through Yellowstone back in 2007 it was breathtaking and it remains one of the must-see National Parks in the USA. The plethora of wildlife lining the roads is simply amazing with herds of buffalo (in the hundreds if not thousands) roaming the plains as we rolled by. Arriving at the Eastern entrance enabled us to explore parts of the park I hadn’t been lucky enough to visit previously.

The Upper and Lower falls of the Yellowstone River are dramatic and the view magnified by the stark multi coloured sandstone walls rising up each side. We managed to wrestle our way through the other snap happy tourists to take a few photos which will show up later. Somehow at the second viewpoint we managed to find ourselves walking the 320 odd steps down to into the valley along Uncle Toms Trail to get an up close view of the lower (larger) falls. Needless to say, dressed in motorbike jeans and boots, the walk back up was not as easy as it was down. Lauren leapt up the stairs, heart barely beating, patiently waiting for me to stagger breathlessly to catch up. I had justified going down by determining that the 320 steps could be taken two at a time on the way back up, who was I kidding?

We decided to head for West Yellowstone for the night and given the weather was looking good and the hotels were either booked or damn expensive, the decision was made to camp (yes our 3rd night in a tent). We found a dusty patch in a campground on the edge of town hoping to save some coin. That’ll be $43 + tax thankyou. Hmmm… When you are tired, can’t be bothered looking for anywhere else, and kinda scared of bears (camping wild) you do cough up ridiculous money for a place to pitch a tent!

On the way into West Yellowstone, we hit our first ‘Bear Jam’. I had informed Lauren of the ridiculous notion that a traffic jam could form in the middle of a National Park due to the sighting of some form of animal. Needless to say we were caught in one where some bugger decided to stop his car in the middle of the road somewhere ahead to observe a reindeer. Common courtesy tends to go out the window and by the time everyone else gets there the animal is no longer seen and everyone else is left to ponder what it was that caused the jam in the first place…

Hot sulphur springs in Yellowstone National Park

More sulphur pools in Yellowstone National Park

Hot sulphur springs in Yellowstone National Park

Still more sulphur pools in Yellowstone National Park

Beartooth highway

Beartooth pass – you can see from the small segment of road in this pic why Adrian (and all other motorbikers) like it!

Luck of the Irish

Along the Alaska Highway - Stone Mountain Provincial Park

Along the Alaska Highway – Stone Mountain Provincial Park

28 July – Day 6

Liard Hot Springs, British Columbia to Fort Nelson, British Columbia

Distance: 320kms

Today was a lovely day spent riding with our new Irish friends. I love the Irish. They’re my people, so I guess that makes sense. And it was nice riding in a bit of a BMW R1200 GSA convoy for the day! We had a late start, and lots of stops along the way for pictures – the scenery really is getting better and better… as is the native wildlife! I think today we tallied up a caribou, mountain goats and a bison herd. There was also lots of roadwork. Given that there is such a limited number of snow-free months in this part of town, over summer the place goes CRAZY with road works. And they have a strange system when it comes to traffic management at roadwork sites…

A bison crossing a road in front of a BMWR1200 GSA

A bison crossing the road in front of Lesley, one of the Irish riders we were with.

Imagine you’re an F1 driver. You’re racing in Monaco. It’s the grand prix (I’m not sure if the grand prix is an F1 race… but we’re playing make believe, so just go with me on this…). It’s been raining. Another car crashed. So the pace car is out. You’re following it, single file, with all the other cars still in the race lined up behind you. You’re doing 40km/hour. On the corners, it’s  20km/h….

That’s pretty much what happens at road work sites here. There’s a “pilot car” which goes back and forth to either end of the road works – sometimes up to 10kms – and then escorts one direction through, before turning around and letting the other direction through. And so on. Which means that if you just miss the pilot car, you can wait up to 20 minutes for it to return to escort you through. All pretty funny really, given that the road condition through some of the ‘roadworks’ sites is actually better than the road more generally! It also makes for a slow trip. It meant lots of man biker time for Adrian and the Irish lads though, while Eileen and I did our own thing!