IN 1993 the leader of a multi-billion dollar drug empire was brought to his knees during a spectacular arrest at his Guatemalan bolt hole. Being a particularly resourceful drug boss, El Chapo managed to escape from his Mexican prison and return to the Sinaloan Cartel throne. In 2014 he was re-arrested at a fancy hotel in the resort city of Mazatlan. The crafty king of escapes manage to again ferret his way out through tunnels but now, finally, as I type he’s undergoing one of the biggest trials of our times in the States (the DEA clearly didn’t trust the Mexicans to keep “Shorty” out of those damn tunnels again).
El Chapo’s rise to infamy from a dusty Sinaloan village is one of Mexico’s most well known stories and so with thoughts of terrifying cartel yarns playing on repeat in our heads we stepped off the ferry on a balmy morning in none other than Mazatlan wondering exactly what we were in for.
Would coca bosses cruise down the streets in black Chryslers? Would we fall asleep to the sound of gun fire? Would we wind up with a pistol in our face down some side alley?
The rational side of my brain said “no, stop watching ‘Narcos Mexico’ Sarah”! But constant warnings, tales of grizzly hangings under bridges and negative rhetoric from the States (not to mention Netflix) had had their effect. Never before had we felt so apprehensive about a region. Never before had we carefully gone through our wallets and separated cards, while hiding others in the hopes that were a gun shoved in our face we wouldn’t lose everything.
I’d convinced myself we were hoping for the best while preparing for the worst but the truth was fear’s barbs had burrowed deep.
Despite the fear it felt hard to be afraid in Mazatlan. The sunny, coastal hot spot for elderly Americans was incredibly touristy and while it was instantly likeable there was still that sense (that we’d constantly felt throughout the Baja) that we were yet to experience real Mexico.
Nevertheless we liked Mazatlan enough to stay for a few days but eventually it was time to leave its bustling central market, tasty ceviche stands and oppressive humidity and strike directly east for the Sierra Madre Occidental.
Euros was calling. And so was the devil.
Weaving our way out of the hustle and bustle was surprisingly easy and by late morning the bulk of traffic had veered off to “La Cuenta” – the toll road. This impressive feat of engineering cost an estimated $2 billion dollars (USD) and boasts 115 bridges (eight over 300 metres high) and 63 high altitude tunnels making the climb from sea level to 2800 metres considerably easier for the many trucks, buses and cars travelling to Durango.
But we weren’t looking for easy. We were looking for beautiful. And while it was tempting to shave a few thousand metres of elevation off our route (we’d be climbing about 1000 metres every day for the next week on the “free” road) we’d take epic views and quiet roads every day over heavy traffic.
We reached the colonial Concordia in the early afternoon feeling hot and headachey. The humidity had drenched us to the point that every inch of our clothing was covered in salt lines and after snapping a few tourist pics of the town square we dived into the shade of a cheap hotel room.
The road rose steadily from Concordia the following day and as the forest thickened the cars thinned out leaving us on a green and peaceful mountain road that snaked its way into the heart of the Sierra Madre.
By 4.30pm we’d climbed almost a 1000 vertical metres, seeing little but rugged tree-filled landscapes and tiny, run-down villages filled with aggressive dogs, scraggy looking chickens and wary looking men.
The reserved villagers didn’t help our nerves and when we reached yet another dilapidated hamlet I merely wanted to stock up on water at the shack cum corner store before pedalling quickly out of “town” to find a quiet camp spot. But as we hauled our bikes over to the shop our escape was foiled. A fancy looking car pulled in and a larger than life bloke with a walrus moustache jumped out while booming at us to come over and introduce ourselves. He spoke rapid fire Spanish with the force of a mega phone and after some wild gesturing we realised he was offering us his village to camp in for the night.”
“I am the mayor here,” he said in Spanish, before pointing to a house up the road and insisting we pitch the tent there.
He then jumped back in his fancy car and hurtled off down a dirt side road to his ranch.
And so an hour later our house was pitched on a bed of cracked concrete as we cooked a pot of rice and veggies marvelling at the generosity of señor walrus.
The next day the road rose another 1200 metres over 30km, looking like a four-year-old’s drawing of a snake on the map. After a tough first two hours we fell fallen into the pattern of slowly weaving our way around the side of a mountain, before plunging down into a rustic little village and then clawing our way back up again via a series of switchbacks.
Lunch was spent in the almost bustling hamlet where we feasted on gorditas (which translates to fatties and consists of two chubby tortillas filled with a variety of meats, cheeses and veggies).
As we scoffed down our fatties a pick up truck loaded with men carrying pretty hardcore looking assault rifles drove up and down the street before heading up into the mountains. No one looked bothered by the spectacle and so we tried to act all cool about it but as Scott pointed out “you don’t go hunting with AK47s do you”?
Well maybe you do? But not the kind of hunting we were thinking of.
After lunch the the scenery was nothing short of breath taking and we crossed the Tropic of Cancer before diving off the road into a forest cleaning that stretched out to the edge of a dramatic cliff overlooking the mountains. We pitched the tent on a flat patch of pine needles and threw on our jackets before soaking up the view. We were tired, cold but nothing short of stoked to be out of the desert and back in jaw-dropping mountains.
Where the air was thinner, the views more dramatic and the weather wilder the gap between life and death seemed to narrow.
Ironically, it made you feel more alive.
We trundled easily into the village of El Palmito the following day and after a late breakfast feast on gorditas we decided to take the rest of the day off. The air was frigid and infused with the smell of woodsmoke from nearby fire places and the cheap as chips hotel offered a big room for 250 pesos. Sure it came with walls smeared in grey boogers and a lukewarm shower but for that price you couldn’t complain.
At first glance, El Palmito had seemed like a nothing town filled with sleepy characters but as we lunched on gorditas later that day we noticed something odd about the locals. There were small groups of youngish men in balaclavas armed with black assault rifles. They either walked through the village or rode their motorbikes in a way that made you feel as though they were waiting for something.
Again the locals didn’t look bothered but it seemed… odd.
Four kilometres out of El Palmito we farewelled Sinaloa and it’s shady cartel characters and entered the state of Durango. Despite climbing roughly another 1200 metres over 35km it was one of the most beautiful days of cycling we’d had in a long time. Autumn hues rained gold on the forests while the mountains rippled out in spectacular form from the winding road, dubbed El Spinoza del Diablo (the Devil’s Spine).
Near the top of yet another pass we’d pulled over to take pics when a small sedan swerved in and two well dressed young men got out. In broken English and Spanish they asked us where we were going and where we were from before explaining that they were taking mezcal from Zacatecas down to Mazatlan to sell. One of the men then disappeared into his car before coming back with a big bottle of the said mezcal, offering it up as a “souvenir”. It was such a kind and selfless gesture and we gave them big hugs before waving them off.
Before leaving they’d said in English: “Welcome to Mexico, this is your home.”
As we continued pedalling up the mountain I reflected on our past two months in Mexico. We’d never felt unsafe, we’d never been in any danger and any meaningful encounters with locals had resulted in us being given food, good cheer or in this case, expensive liquor.
The only bad vibes or feelings had come from us and our preconceived ideas on this diverse nation.
That night we camped just a couple of kilometres from a tiny logging town in a peaceful patch of forest at 2500 metres and as we packed up the frosty tent the next morning an old gaucho wandered into the cleaning with a handful of dogs. We were both surprised to see each other but he merely tipped his head and commented: “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it,” before trundling on.
For two days we climbed again to the logging hamlet of La Ciudad and then on through the final breathtaking climbs of the Sierra Madre to the working class town of El Salto.
Perched at 2500 metres El Salto is one of the colder Mexican towns and with little to offer tourists it seemed to be a working class hamlet filled with cheap and hearty street food stalls, bustling markets and tight neighbourhoods.
It also seemed to mark the end of the real climbing but we we were nevertheless relieved to reach the lively city of Durango the following day. We’d planned on a a few days rest and hopefully a gordita-fuelled Christmas but after pedalling through the European-esque town we discovered “little fatties” was was too poorer fare. The city of $1.5 million plated up everything from fancy buffets, to Japanese, French style bakeries and steaming hot pizza while featuring a wealth of gorgeous plazas, walking streets and colonial buildings.
So we wound up staying five days.
While we had a strict itinerary of eating our way through Durango there was another reason we’d delayed our departure.
Where to go from there? Mexico is big – proper big – and we’d long speculated about skipping parts to not only avoid the very obviously dangerous regions, but the bland, busy or overly built up ones. This would also help us with our goal of reaching Colombia in February and thus avoiding the rainy season.
The road between Durango and Leon was filled with busy, bland roads and monotonous farmlands and so we lopped off a sizeable chunk and instead spent the day on a bus.
Every man, woman, child and pet seem to travel during the festive season in Mexico and getting bus tickets, let alone accomodation in Guanajuato’s biggest city, wasn’t easy.
Nevertheless on the 27th of December we emerged into the hustle and bustle of Leon, a city which Lonely Planet had described as “not worth visiting”.
Renowned for it’s leather production and, well, not much else, we were expecting a dismal gateway to hell where you could at least pick up a nice pair of boots for the journey but instead we found a charming, picturesque city.
Huge plazas, grand old buildings and a plethora of street food made for a warm welcome and we lapped up the ambience minus the tourist hordes.
From Leon we planned to pedal east to the waterfall-filled state of San Luis Potosi and then on to Mexico City but for the time being we felt content to bask in a city that Lonely Planet had utterly written off.
This, we thought, was a place we could one day live.