Riding the Copper Canyon and the Baja of California - Part II
by Tim Zierman
DAY 3, CREEL TO BATOPILAS. After breakfast we loaded up and headed for Batopilas. The first 50 - 60 miles is paved. Once again, an awesome road. However, it was somewhat marred by sand on the pavement in spots. Apparently left over from the last snowfall. The road winds its way through mountains with fairly steep climbs and descents, so one can see the need to use sand when there’s bad weather. We turned on to the dirt road to Batopilas at Cusarare. Since I hadn’t been to Batopilas for several years I was concerned that the road not be "improved". I needn’t have worried. It was in similar condition to the last time, perhaps even a little worse (better!). The total descent in to Batopilas is about 7000Ő and it takes about 20 miles to accomplish. We encountered some bikers heading in the opposite direction and the first rider held up four fingers signaling that there were four more behind him. This is useful information since the road is very narrow and at the point that we encountered him I was tending to ride on the left side of the road, away from the cliff side. Remember, I have a fear of heights. I rode slow and cautiously until I counted the fourth rider and then I picked up the pace slightly and moved to the left. As I rounded a blind corner there was another biker! We practically collided. He was on a BMW GS and despite wearing ear plugs I heard his antilock system clicking away. That was too close for comfort. We reached Batopilas in the early afternoon and proceeded to the hotel Casa Real De Minas (Royal House of Mines). A nice clean hotel that is reasonably priced. Batopilas is an old mining town with lots of history. The mine was operated by an American company and Batopilas is said to be the first town in Mexico to have electricity. When you walk around town and see the wiring hanging from the buildings, it looks as though the original wiring is still in place. One of the best places to get information is in the local cantina. After showering and putting on some clean clothes we headed for a familiar cantina and a beer, some lunch, and some conversation. This is where we met Chris. A U.S. Citizen of French origin who has taken up residence in Batopilas. It was good to find someone familiar with the area who could speak good English. I should mention at this point that Batopilas is a major marijuana growing area and aside from tourism, the drug trade is a dominant part of the local economy. Some things that Chris said made me suspect that he may be involved in the drug trade. This was later confirmed. After a few beers and some chips and salsa, we returned to our room for a little siesta time. We later had dinner and then enjoyed relaxing at the town plaza. The town plaza is the social center of Mexican villages and we watched as the kids played and the adults carried on with their conversations. An aspect of Mexican society that I envy. Over the years we’ve lost this tradition.
DAY 4, BATOPILAS TO TOPOLOBAMPO. I wasn’t sure what route we were going to take to get to the coast. Our maps didn’t show how this could be done but I knew it was possible. The next morning after breakfast we once again ran into Chris and asked for his help. He took our maps and said he’d return shortly. After 15 minutes or so he returned and said to forget the maps. He said we’d have to navigate by going from village to village, asking directions along the way. Here’s the route he gave us: Batopilas to San Ignacio to San Vincente to Real Blanco to Cajon de Camino to Choix and then follow the map to Los Mochis and Topolobampo. The villages between Batopilas and Choix are not on the map. He also warned us that we would have to ford the El Fuerte River. We knew this was probably going to be the most challenging part of the trip so we needed to start with a full tank of fuel. The hardware store across the street from our hotel sold gasoline out of barrels. You purchase it by the liter and it was somewhat expensive but there is no choice. We struck out about 10am and headed for the mission at Satevo and then took a sharp right and started climbing over the first and one of the most knarly mountain passes. At the top of the pass you could see for miles in all directions and all you could see were mountains and canyons. Extremely beautiful, but at the same time intimidating. We began the descent which was somewhat slow going as the ‘road’ consisted of rocks and ruts and constant switchbacks. After some time we approached the village of San Ignacio. There was a pickup truck in the center of town with several men in it. We asked “direction a San Vincente?" One of the men pointed to a road leading out of the village. Later, when we reached a point where the road divided. I chose a path and Pat followed but Pat pulled along side and said he thought we were headed on the wrong road. Instinctively, I thought he was probably right so we pulled into the yard of a farm house. As we approached three women emerged from the casa of log construction. An older woman and two younger ones. I assumed it was a mother and two daughters. I was struck by how beautiful one of the daughters was. She was a real looker. It's only noteworthy because this was the last place you'd expect to find such a beauty. It caused me to think about all those “farmer's daughter" jokes. Again we asked directions and they pointed to the river. We could see faint tracks crossing the flood plain approaching the water but on the opposite bank there was a clearly defined two track road. As we departed the farm yard, the young, beautiful woman fluttered her eye lids and waived goodbye in a somewhat flirtatious way. She probably wanted a ride to the United States. Otherwise why would she flirt with a couple of old farts like Pat and I? As we reached the bank of the El Fuerte River, which was about 50 yards wide at this point, it was apparent that it was not very deep, probably no more than a foot. The bottom was all rocks but the water was perfectly clear so we had no trouble navigating our way across. The next village was San Vincente. Here we got some help from a rancher on an ATV. He led us for a short distance to be sure we got on the right road. The road started us on a climb over another mountain pass. We continued on until we came to another group of cabins where the road split again. A farmer pointed us in the right direction. As we progressed along this road it seemed to descend to the base of a mountain with no apparent way out. I kept thinking we would probably come to a canyon that was hidden from view. As we looked up, there was a mountain, perhaps 9000 feet high, directly in our path with no apparent way around and then suddenly there it was, a two track logging road that snaked upward. Going was very slow at this point. It seemed to go on forever. Constant rocks and ruts and switchbacks as we climbed, mostly in low gear, for seven miles. At a point near the top we stopped for a break and to check out the scenery. It was stunning! When we reached what appeared to be the top of the mountain we encountered a logger who was camped there. He pointed in the direction we were to go to reach Real Blanco. As we started out the 'road' continued to climb for a short distance and then started its long descent. We encountered two soldiers and with them verified that we were on the right path. I thought it odd that they would be stationed in this extremely remote location, just the two of them. About a mile past where the soldiers were stationed we were traveling on the side of the mountain with a rock face on my right and a steep downward slope to my left. Pat was about 50 yards behind when it happened. BANG! BANG! and then BANG, BANG, BANG in rapid succession. The rock face seemed to be exploding beside me. At first I didn't have any idea what was happening so I stopped and looked behind me. Pat was surrounded by three men armed with automatic rifles. We had encountered the much feared Mexican banditos and they had fired five rounds near me to get my attention. They waived at me to come back to where Pat was but I wasn't about to do that. I got off the bike and put up my hands and two of them approached me while the apparent leader stayed with Pat and proceeded to bang the butt of his rifle against Pat's helmet. They demanded our money which when you've got an automatic rifle pointed at you and you know they have bullets in them, your inclination is to comply. They wanted our wallets but we showed them that our wallets were empty after they took the cash so they let us keep our wallets. In total they got the equivalent of between five and six hundred dollars. However, both Pat and I are seasoned travelers and know better than to put all our cash in our wallets. In fact, we had most of our money hidden elsewhere. When traveling in Mexico I always keep my passport, an extra credit card, and most of my cash strapped under my clothing next to my body. As an extra maneuver to convince them that they had gotten all of my money, I asked if I couldn't have a 200 peso note ($20) back for gasoline. At which point he stuck the AK47 about six inches from my nose and motioned for me to go. I was happy to oblige. Somewhat shaken, we proceeded down the mountain through the village of Real Blanco. At this point the going got easier until we eventually reached pavement as we approached the town of Choix. As much as I like dirt riding, I was happy and relieved to reach civilization. We stopped at a roadside stand on the outskirts of Choix for a cold drink. Incidentally, it was at this point that I discovered the bandits had taken my WD40. Bastards! Happy to be alive, we even managed to laugh about what we had just been through. As we were enjoying our drinks a pickup truck with four Mexico Federal Police (Federales) drove by. We waived them down and gave them a full report of what happened. They took down our names and phone numbers but I really don't expect anything to come of it. For some reason they wanted to know how old we were. When I told the leader, he looked at us in disbelief and insisted that I write it down at which point he looked amazed. The ‘Federales’ are easily recognizable because of their black uniforms and strong firepower, submachine guns, etc. Before we left the road side stand I found that I still had a one peso coin and two peso coin. In a gesture of good will, I gave them to a boy (El Nino) and a girl (la Nina) who were hanging out at the roadside stand. Grandma smiled and thanked me on their behalf. We gassed up in Choix. We knew we were in civilization because there was a Pemex station. The ride to Topolobampo was uneventful and thankfully boring. We arrived at the Baja ferry terminal about 6pm which gave us plenty of time to get our tickets and relax before boarding as the ferry is scheduled to leave at about midnight. I should mention that the fare is $55.00 for a motorcycle and $65.00 for the rider for a total of $110.00 and the fare does include a meal. We had some trouble figuring out the procedure but a very nice Mexican gentleman acted as our interpreter and was very helpful. One of the many warm and friendly people we encountered on the trip. In fact, except for the three bandits, everyone we encountered on the trip was very pleasant and nice.
To be continued...