Mexico

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Mexico

Mexico
Change of course

What to do when a hard winter suddenly arrives in the land of deserts, beaches and volcanoes? Michael Schroder describes his adventurous off-road escape to the south.

Michael Schroder

December 23, 1996

Franca clutched the steaming coffee cup with stiff fingers. You are bitterly cold. Disgruntled, she watches the pitch-black clouds that are chased across the highway by icy gusts of wind and pile up in the distance to form high-rise structures. The thermometer on the outside wall of the truck stop shows zero degrees – winter in Texas, suddenly and unexpectedly. We push the cups aside and spread out the menu. There are still around 300 kilometers to the Mexican border in Brownsville. From there we wanted to drive west, across the Barrancas, the northern Mexican mountain landscape. Usually spring-like temperatures prevail there in March. Just not this year, says a truck driver in difficult-to-understand southern gibberish who has just passed the border. Nobody wants to say first what is in our heads – we have to change our route. Even if it’s difficult. Without a word we let our fingers wander over the map, quietly adding up the distance information. It takes a while to make up our minds, although the direction is clear: to the south. And then, if the temperatures allow it, across the central highlands to the tropical Pacific coast. A few more kilometers to the border. The road leads through a desolate area on the banks of the Rio Grande, which divides the United States and Mexico across the continent. A dirty brown barrier between the richest and one of the poorest countries in America. We follow the signs to the border. Dark-skinned figures in ragged clothes are waiting everywhere on the roadside. Illegal migrant workers who escaped the searchlights of the American border guards at night and secretly made it across the river. Some Texan farmer will come and chase them across his fields for a few dollars – if they’re lucky. If not, they’ll be back here tomorrow. You know that the US authorities are almost powerless against it; we can pass without any problems. “Alemanes?” “Si, Senor, from Germany.” No gringos, as the unloved Americans are called in Mexico. The official’s stern look gives way to a friendly smile. He wants to know where we want to go. “Al Sur – to the south, where it’s warmer,” I reply. He doesn’t think twice. I would definitely like Acapulco. Because of the women, he winks at me. I accelerate. The road runs in a straight line towards Ciudad Victoria. Flat, boring pastureland. Nothing that distracts our gaze even for a moment, that could tempt us to stay for a few hours or days. Franca keeps nodding. Every now and then she winces when her head slips off my shoulder. I just stop to refuel or so we can warm up somewhere for a few minutes. I still don’t really know where I’m going. The more desolate this landscape becomes, the more I miss a tangible goal. Shortly behind Ciudad Victoria, the first mountain formations of the Sierra Madre Oriental are shadowy. The mountain range runs almost parallel to the Gulf coast, behind it extends to the Sierrra Madre Occidental, the central highlands, in which most of the Mexican population lives at an altitude of between 1500 and 2500 meters. We decide to go there. No matter how cold it may be in the mountains, after a few kilometers the road twists through a tropical forest, climbs steeply up to about 1500 meters, and then leads a mountain and valley railway straight through a stretch of land, which is becoming increasingly drier, more desert-like – and warmer. We stop two or three times. Each time another sweater disappears into the aluminum suitcase, at last we button the thick inner lining out of the jackets. We are wide awake again. We leave the highway at a dusty intersection. The narrow path to El Carmen is initially asphalted, but finally ends in the deep, sandy tracks of a dry river bed. Meter-high cacti grow along the slopes and on the steep, red-brown slopes of the deep canyons. Otherwise only bony undergrowth covers the dusty subsoil. It doesn’t seem to have rained for a long time, and we estimate the temperature to be 35 degrees. Or warmer. Fine, brown dust soon sticks to our sweaty faces, penetrates even the smallest opening in our jackets, makes us thirsty. At some point we reach El Carmen. A desolate nest. Just a handful of simple, windowless mud huts. A couple of mules doze in the shade under a corrugated iron roof. The sound of the boxer aroused the curiosity of the few people who live here: old women with Indian facial features, a few barefoot children who fearfully hide behind their mothers’ aprons. There are no men to be seen. One of the women waves us in. It’s dark and pleasantly cool in her hut. A handful of tin cans and a few dusty packages of coffee, flour and sugar are stacked on a simple shelf behind a small counter. An ancient television is playing in one corner. The only decoration on the gray walls consists of a kitsch picture of the Virgin Mary. Finally the woman offers us a couple of cans of ice cold beer. Could we pay in US dollars? No problem. The men, she then explains, were often on the road for days as migrant workers, always looking for a job on one of the large corn and bean plantations further south. But they wouldn’t have earned well in a long time. We reach Matehuala in the evening. The streets of the colorful colonial town are bustling with life, as everywhere, when the temperatures drop to a bearable level after sunset. People promenade around the plaza, couples in love, fashionably dressed teenagers, strutting men with thin mustaches. The scent of flowers mixes with the roast smell of meat tacos and grilled chicken. Pimped up pick-ups cross the main street, the chrome-plated bumpers reflecting the bright neon lights of the well-stocked shop windows. Prosperity and poverty are closer together in Mexico than elsewhere. About 40 kilometers beyond Matehuala, a path paved with rough stones winds through a spiked area. The cochineal cacti, up to three meters high, pile up a thousand to the right and left of us, with long thorns with barbed tips protruding from their blades. We drive through still, hot air. Meter by meter it goes uphill through an inaccessible labyrinth of gorges, up to a height of over 2700 meters. After a short tunnel, the path ends at the gates of the formerly rich silver city of El Catorce, a colonial baroque gem with narrow streets, a magnificent cathedral and low, whitewashed houses where more than 50,000 people lived 200 years ago. Today there are just 300, and it will be there in no time. A cheeky eleven year old. “Tres Dollares, Mister,” three dollars for keeping our motorcycle in the parking lot untouched while we walk around town. I agree with him on two. Still enough to allow three people to partake of the wages: one dollar for the owner of the parking lot, 50 cents for the young guardian, the rest for his father. We sense the sophisticated system of a Mexican underground economy that keeps millions of people afloat without permanent employment. Which doesn’t necessarily make it easier to endure the constant “Mister, Mister.” It’s market day in the streets of El Catorce. What is offered is what the barren soil around it has to offer: potatoes, beans, chilli – cleaned and piled up to form artistic pyramids on simple tables. A few civilization-weary dropouts offer silver jewelry and leather goods. The money they get from the tourists is enough to escape the North American winter for a few months in the “cheap country” Mexico. Incomprehensible to the locals. Most would give anything to get a work permit in the US. The world is upside down. We are heading south. Monotony spreads before us. Brown, barren land, whose curved uniformity is only occasionally interrupted by jagged rocks and narrow canyons. And of the sheer splendor of Guanajuato, probably the most beautiful former colonial city in Mexico. The wealth with which churches, plazas and house facades flaunt comes from the abundant silver mines that were still exploited until the last century. None of the patio houses in the broad streets are like the other. Flower-covered balconies, stylish restaurants and coffee houses, live music in many places. In our completely dusty motorcycle clothes we suddenly feel strangely strange. Nevertheless, we stay two days, passing the blue shimmering Laguna de Chapala, we cross through the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. All the way to the steep flanks of the Colima volcano, which pushes its smoking peak into the sky like a pyramid. We bunker water and food for two days and disappear on a slope that should lead to just below the crater opening at an altitude of 3800 meters. After a few kilometers, the path splits into a promontory. Now we can only guess – the age-old signpost is illegible and our Mexico map is proving to be completely useless in this area. The slope that branches off to the right looks more tempting. But only a short distance. Then there is only deep sand, peppered with coarse gravel. The steepest passages are almost impassable with the heavily loaded BMW. We dig our way uphill for many kilometers in first gear, but we don’t see the volcanic summit. But it’s far too exciting to turn back. We climb higher and higher, and slowly the vast land disappears under a blanket of clouds from which only the surrounding mountain peaks protrude. The altimeter now shows 3700 meters. The boxer noticeably loses performance in the thin mountain air, and also creates the oxygen deficit – our breaks become longer. But it’s beautiful. Suddenly the Colima behind a bend. Right in front of us. Seemingly close enough to touch. White smoke rises from its crater opening, which is driven westward by the wind. We don’t care that we promptly landed on the neighboring summit, the view is simply overwhelming. In the meantime the sun is already disappearing on the horizon, the evening light transforms the summit regions into a red sea. It’s too late to go back. We quickly set up our tent between tall grass bushes. Only a few more minutes and it will be pitch dark – and bitterly cold. The thermometer drops to two degrees below zero at night. We are terribly cold in our thin summer sleeping bags. And now the mountain air is really bothering us: We have severe headaches and we feel sick. The next morning we sit on the motorcycle with the first rays of sunshine. Shortly after Manzanillo we dive into dense tropical vegetation, driving for miles through shady palm forests. It’s hot and humid. Then the road leads straight down to the Pacific coast. White, palm-fringed beaches, behind them the endless blue of the ocean – a dream. We stroll leisurely to the small fishing village of San Blas. A room right on the beach, a good restaurant and cold beer in the evening, that just has to be done now. Winter in Texas and Northern Mexico? That is long gone.

Info

Mexico offers motorcyclists all types of landscape: snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, hot deserts, tropical forests, wild canyons and cactus-lined dusty slopes. However, the distances in the huge country should not be underestimated and enough time should be allowed for route planning.

Arrival: Entering Mexico with a motorcycle is completely problem-free – provided you come with your own vehicle: Entry with a rental machine is currently not possible (exception: Baja California). If you want to drive your own motorcycle through Mexico, you should inquire about an open jaw flight to the USA (for example: outbound flight to Houston, Texas; return flight from Los Angeles). The following companies offer appropriate motorcycle transports: Big Bike Tours transports the motorcycle including driver via Lufthansa from around 4600 Marks there and back. If you book by February 28, you will receive a price reduction of five percent. Information: Geislinger travel agency, Riedstrasse 1, 72351 Geislingen, phone 0 74 33/24 91, fax 64 21. The Bielefeld company Fly & Bike uses LTU jets to transport a motorcycle from 3,100 marks to the USA and back again, around 1,050 marks are also due for the driver’s ticket. Info: Fly & Bike Reise GmbH, August-Bebel-Strabe 32, 33602 Bielefeld, phone 05 21/17 41 05, fax 13 87 38. Both companies have specialized in motorcycle transfers for years and take care of the customs clearance of the bike on site. The Frankfurt company GGG-Gruner Logistik transports a motorcycle from around 1900 marks to the USA and back again. There is also the cost of the ticket for the driver. Information: GGG-Gruner Logistik, Gate 26, Building 453.4049 / HBK 441, 60549 Frankfurt, Telephone 0 69/69 59 01 28, Fax 69 59 01 29. All prices mentioned may vary depending on the season and weight. Documents: A carnet de Passage is not required for Mexico. In addition to the passport, you need an international driver’s license, international vehicle license, extra passport photos and a credit card (Visa or Mastercard) to enter the country. The name of the credit card holder must match the name of the owner of the motorcycle in the vehicle documents, therefore no rental motorcycles. Have three copies of each document ready. About ten dollars are due for the border formalities, which can only (!) Be paid by credit card. Travel time: If you only travel to the highlands in northern Mexico, you should choose the summer months. Until March or April, the thermometer can drop below zero during the day. If you want to go further south of the huge country, you should travel in spring or autumn because of the hot and humid summer months. Temperatures of up to 30 degrees exist on the Pacific coast as early as March. Accommodation: There is no shortage of accommodation in Mexico. Hotels are available in every major city from around $ 15 for a double room. Rooms in small country pensions are even cheaper, starting at five dollars a night. The infrastructure along the Pacific coast is particularly good, and has been adapted to meet the demands of American tourists. Wild camping is not a problem in remote regions. Finances: Mexico is a comparatively cheap travel destination. Credit cards are accepted in many shops and hotels. US dollars and travelers checks (only in US currency) can be exchanged in all major cities without any problems. Health: No special vaccinations are required for Mexico. However, if you are planning a detour to the tropical south of the country, you should get vaccinated against yellow fever, typhus and hepatitis. It is better to drink drinking water only from closed bottles or boiled and avoid salads and unpeeled fruit altogether. Literature: English-speaking »Mexico & Central American Handbook for 42 marks from Trade & Travel handbooks. The wealth of information about the country and its people, routes, hotels and activities is unrivaled. For a trip through Mexico, the general map Mexico, 1: 3,000,000, from Bartholomew, for 15.80 marks in specialist shops. Time required three weeks, driven distance approx. 3500 kilometers

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