Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Devil's Backbone and Copper Canyon

The sun fights against the icy wind for temperature control of the day as Shane and I battle with the long stretches of solid ice lurking on every shadowy corner. We are 9,000 feet up and the wind is winning! It's cold! We stop and look at each other with concern. How much worse is this going to get? The shadow cast by the mountain we are still climbing is ensuring the sun cannot get through to help clear our path. It was going to be a long day with many long stretches done at walking pace, with our feet out! There were no gritters up here and there were certainly no prizes for being a hero today - only a nice big mug of hot chocolate if we made it in one piece! We were on the long road out of the High Sierra Madra mountains.  Our mission was to get out before the weather got worse and the snow reigned supreme! We wanted to be in the warmer climates of Baja in time for Christmas! The thought of being snowed in up here was not something that appealed to us! 

Our week started on The Devils Backbone (Espinazo El Diablo)! The Mazatlan - Durango road runs through the centre of the mountain range in Sinaloa state. An area known for it's marijuana and opium fields as well as some of the worst drug violence in Mexico. The road has since been by-passed by a toll road that is considered an amazing feat of engineering. It has 115 bridges and 61 tunnels. We chose the old road and expected neglected tarmac, some dirt and a lot of speed bumps (the blight of Mexico). This could not have been further from the truth. The road was empty thanks to the new road. It was as smooth as a racetrack, and it was 300km of perfect twisties, through magnificent scenery! This is the road that bikers dream of! As we passed the tropic of cancer sign, we stopped to make a coffee and waved back at every friendly V8-driving local who passed by (EVERYONE drives a V8 pick up here!). This has to be in my top 5 of favourite roads so far! 

Durango is a pleasant city with a history of film making.  Many of the old wild west films were made here and they are very proud of this fact. We met some local bikers - members of the Motorrad Federation that we had recently become ambassadors for. They were so kind, taking us for a wonderful Mexican meal and giving us a tour of the old film sets. This is where Shane was hanged for crimes against his Honda  (see photo)- the list of atrocities he has inflicted on that bike in the last 5,000 Km’s is endless (poor Dinky!). After a full day of resting and checking out the area, we took to the highway once more. This road was in total contrast to the windy mountainous road into Durango. It was long, straight and flat, and it went on for 430 km’s - all the way to Parral, Chihuahua.

This whole area and it's small towns remind me of a cross between Texas and Alaska. Most of the men ride around the quiet, frosty streets in pick-ups, wearing big white stetsons and looking like they are about to go wrestle a bull! It really is cowboy country - spurred boots and all! As I potter on through, I wonder if the size of the hat is significant to anything. Status perhaps? 

As well as the cowboys, we start to come across Tarahumara indians. Originally these Native American people occupied most of Chihuahua, but retreated to the High Sierra and places like Copper Canyon upon arrival of the Spanish during the 16th century. Today it is estimated that there are still around 60,000 still living and most still following their traditional lifestyle. This lifestyle includes traditional dress, farming livestock and living in natural houses such as caves or cliff overhangs as well as cabins or stone huts. They are apparently well known for their long distance running ability! Much as we tried to get a smile or a wave as we passed, most were reluctant to communicate with us in any way. For this reason we did not attempt to take any photographs, and respected their privacy - tempting as it was! 

As we neared Copper Canyon, we stopped for a night in the town of Guachochic. It had an eeriness about it that I can't explain (not scary. Just different perhaps. It felt like a ghost town). The few people we saw here were mostly indigenous and still speak their traditional language. We found a room for the night and spent the evening trying to decide which route to take to Batopilas and the bottom of the canyon the next day. The usual route would be all tarmac but half of it would be down a road that we had read was 'not for the faint hearted'. It sounded like fun. However, there was another option. A mountain trail that promised a little more adventure than the paved route. The problem was, we had no idea what was in store down that route! We decided we would take it and then ride North out of the canyon to Creel. This way we could experience both! 

Batopilas has only just started receiving visitors! It has a history of kidnappings and violence by the Cartel who run this area, not to mention the fact that there is no easy way to get to it. It is said that the whole town (population of 1,220) is involved in some way in the drug trade. We had no idea what to expect and no idea if any of what we had read were true. First, we had to get there! It turned out that we made the right route choice. A little anxious at first, we pushed on down the dirt track that we had found, and past the initial loggers traffic of bulldozers and pick-ups. Soon the traffic died and the trail became ours for the taking. We raced through the pine trees and stopped for the views which got better and better with each explorative mile! Deep in the forest we came across small settlements and families on horse-back, driving their cattle to who-knows-where! We commented on the hellish rush hour traffic as we waited for the path to be expertly cleared of livestock by the cowboys. We so wanted photographs of all this, but still we felt it would be intrusive, and so, once more, we just stored every glorious image into our memory banks for our future enjoyment. 

The forest gave way to an extremely exposed mountain track that would eventually take us down to the bottom of the canyon. Now, I am not good with down hill, slippery hairpin bends that have no barriers and drop down to certain death! I can cope with one or the other. Possibly even a combination of two. All three however, is a little too much for my rational mind, which tends to run and hide at the worst possible moment! I carefully negotiated the first few bends with relative ease. I had been on a riding roll today! I felt good - but suddenly, out of the blue, my fear of heights kicked in and I stopped - frozen, with a very tight grip on my bars! I looked back for Shane who was still taking pictures a few corners behind me. I could see him as a small dot up on the trail above. Slowly I convinced myself to edge forward, but began to slide towards the drop on the lose surface. I was going to die! O.K so the drop was not  as close as all that
(a few meters) but in my head, at that moment, I was inches away from certain death! Shane arrived and thought I had just stopped for the view! I explained that I couldn't move, but we both knew that I had to ride out of it as trying to get off the bike in this position, even with Shane's help, would have been near impossible. It was too steep and slippery. Slowly I did just that and fear was replaced by embarrassment for allowing my fears to take such a hold! I had ridden many similar corners already that day but this one had, for some reason, just got me! My fear of heights had taken control for that brief moment! Embarrassment was quickly followed by the usual biker piss-taking! "Too soon?" asked Shane with a grin. I smiled and we continued down the rest of the trail, through legions of the biggest cacti I have ever seen, and down to the floor of this magnificent canyon.

Batopalis turned out the be a sleepy little place, and beautiful. As we rode along the river and into town, the Cartel quickly made themselves known. We didn't feel threatened though. They drove passed us in Pick-ups (of course) wielding guns and looking the part - fit and well trained. I mean they didn't look like local thugs, more like soldiers without the uniform. However, they waved in unison as we entered town (an authoritative, none smiling kind of a wave) and left us alone during our stay. It seems harassing tourists is not good for business these days and I felt the waves had been ordered by some hierarchy to ensure our peace of mind. Tourism was good for the local families and happy tourists kept the military at bay! We were one of 4 visitors (that we know of) in the area that day and it seems our presence and money was very much welcomed!

Our ride out of the Canyon two nights later was actually quite disappointing after the ride in. The road had been written about as if it were terrifying, with views to die for! It WAS a very pleasant ride. It did offer a fair few rock falls and a little off-road. I'll give it that! Perhaps we had been spoilt by the ride in, which had been full of adventure and scenery that was hard to beat.  I do hope that ride is never paved and remains a little found gem in the beautiful mountains of the Sierrra Madra. 


  1. Well-done, both of you! Like many others, I'm following your path in the hope of riding parts of it one day soon. Thanks!

  2. I also have a fear of heights. I can imagine being paralized in the situation you found yourself in. Well done.

    Such an amazing adventure.

  3. Hi Steph, amazing, all that is missing is a 'base jumper' hurling past Shane's right 'hand' indication. You appear to have forgotten the golden rule of 'look where you want to go and not, where you don't want to go.' Have a good xmas and see the new year in style. Cheers U Kev.

    1. Hi Uncle Kev. Good to hear from you. Yup. Did everything totally wrong in that few seconds! Hey ho! I made it out alive! :) Have a great Christmas yourself. Love to all in the Jones household xx

  4. Brilliant again! I so understand that combination fear, the perfect storm just brews right up without a sound and.....wallop! Stay safe and Nadolig Llawen!

    1. Thanks Ian. Nadolig Llawen to you too xxx

  5. Amazing photo. Good luck on your new adventures