Thursday, April 30, 2009


April 30th

Most of the time on this blog, I am posting a couple of months out of date, desperately trying to catch up....

However, recent events have brought me crashing in to the present....


Disasters do seem to follow me around (like the volcano erupting in Chile). We were about 80 miles outside of Mexico City (MC) in Taxco and planning to head there the very next day when news of the Swine flu hit a week ago. Luckily we had an internet connection and had seen the news, otherwise empty streets and seeing people suddenly wearing surgical masks would have freaked us out. News that schools and government buildings were closing in the capital demanded a rethink of the route. 

Unfortunately, we were getting in to that spiders web road system that forms round all huge cities where all roads form spokes to the central hub - narrowing our options. Cycling round Mexico City would take time and retreat back to the coast was not a good option. So we broke our self imposed rule to cycle everywhere and took a bus to Puebla about 100 miles to the East of MC. It just seemed prudent to 
1 - Get slightly further away in the direction of less cases of flu.
2 - Still be in a city should we need to get further away still.
3 - Be on the right side of Mexico City should we carry on cycling.
Currently the number of fatalities in MC is 168 with around 2000 hospitalised depending on what source you choose.

All "non essential" government services have closed down including all tourist services. Peru and Argentina amongst others have suspended Mexico flights, with France calling for other countries to follow suit. Options are narrowing and Sue and I are currently debating what next? The WHO is stating that there is no need to close borders.... but then if the UK simply refuses entry of Mexican flights to it's airports???? 

Life in Puebla seems to be carrying on fairly normally except for the face masks and museum closures. Schools are closed, and families have been asked to remain indoors, but a walk around the city centre shows that many people are taking the opportunity to spend time socialising with family and friends, streets are busy and businesses remain open. People here seem to be taking a wider perspective and it's a pretty tranquil place.

There's doesn't seem to be any reason to be overly concerned at the moment, and Mexicans seem to be taking this in their stride. However, from a totally selfish perspective, the closure of everything that is good is gonna put a serious crimp on the tour....

The WHO meets in Luxembourg today and we're awaiting their report before making any kind of a decision.... 

Hidalgo del Parral

February 9th to 14th

Our stay in Hidalgo del Parral is extended by a bout of Montezuma's revenge which strikes Sue down and confines her to a hotel bed. She's in a bad way. 

On the bright side I remain OK and have plenty of time in which to explore the town.... People who know me do understand my sympathetic side and I have often been likened to a male version of Mother Teresa.

Parral was originally famous for it's vast mineral wealth discovered in 1631 whereupon the Spanish set about enslaving the indigenous population and forcing them underground into appaling conditions to retrieve cartfuls of silver, copper quartz and lead for the remainder of their short lives. Silver continued to be mined here until 1975 when the mine flooded for the final time and was closed. Local rumour around town is that the American owners repatriated large parts of the pension funds at the time and anger still simmers amongst former mine workers. Today after the steep climb, the unflooded remains of the hand dug tunnels are open to tourists 100m below ground.


Parral is more recently famous for being the place where Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was ambushed and gunned down on city streets in 1923. After his funeral attended by around 30,000 his body was dug up and beheaded before being removed to Mexico City for "safe keeping". The building used as cover by his asailants is now a museum to his life and the Mexican revolution. This is Pancho country and tour guides are ruthlessly partisan, refuting much of what is more commonly known about the man. As they say one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Some of his finer moments in battle are vividly depicted in a huge mural here. His final moments were spent more ignominiously in a rather inapropriately name "Dodge Sedan", the bullet ridden car he was travelling in on his last, fateful visit to Parral...

Leaving politics aside and with Sue still incapacitated I find myself with a decision to make.

Should I settle for the black and red check, or go for it and get the pink harlequin - they're available in my size. I promised I would give David Galaviz and his fine store on Colegio a mention if he destroyed photos of me trying them on with an embroidered sombrero. Boots are hand made on site and are very fine indeed.

If you are Mexican and can make them look cool...

Parral's other main attraction is the recently restored Palacio Alvarado built by Senor Alvarado for his wife using silver money. Sadly she died just weeks before it was completed which is a shame because it's rather nice.

Sue's still not better, so to kill some time I'll play some light music and show a couple of nice  piccies from Parral....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Big Country

February 7th to 8th

Before Guochochi, the road forked, one leg down to Batapilas. It’s a 1500 metre descent down a twisty dirt road that meanders along the flattest bits of a precipitous canyon side. Batopilas is probably the next biggest destination for tourists after Creel and the canyon bottom is a sub tropical contrast to the warm days, freezing nights more common on the plateau above.  

But we’ve had out share of canyons and of dirt roads too, so we take the road less travelled and leave Copper Canyon behind and head for Cowboy Country…

Now the land changes from harsh exposed rock and cliff edges, to open land of swaying yellow prairie grasses, and from pine to broad leaf trees. It’s big country….

Steep climbs sneak between weathered boulders, glimpses of the next valley revealed between them….

Then the world opens out before your eyes, and another vast land lies before you waiting to be crossed….

Climb the next range of hills and look back over huge vistas….

Before the next world reveals itself….

It’s a process we repeat often over two days and 140 miles, each valley appearing the same on first inspection, but that’s just getting lost in the vastness. It takes a few moments to get a sense of scale and to see each valley’s individuality. It’s a joy to feel such a sense of horizontal space after Copper Canyon’s overdose of the vertical. This is cycle touring in a big country! You do move relatively slowly, but that just gives a very real perspective on the changing land around you. And a sense of scale as we crawl ant like, tiny dots on the massive.

Arriving in the last valley and finding a town feels like a real shock! Spending time, just you and the enormous landscape lends an alien feel to the hard edges of man made lines, square box houses marching rank and file up the hill. Hidalgo de Parral is our destination, but arriving still feels out of place….

Asking directions of the local law earns us a personal VIP escort in to town - cyclistas with motorcycle outriders no less…

And the fabulous view from our hotel rooftop terrace does help to lesson that sense of shock….

Monday, April 27, 2009

Into The Canyon

February 4th

A day of two halves really. 

The road South from Cusarare takes us to the “Batopilas Junction” from where the road forks, one route dropping a hair-raising over 1500 metres to the base of Baropilas canyon, the other leaving the Copper Canyon area behind to the East.

But first, the road and we must traverse the Copper Canyon - dropping over 1000m, before crossing a river bridge and ascending those same 1000m once again on the other side. I suspect one half of the day will be a lot bigger than the other…. In the sense that crawling up a one thousand metre wall takes a whole lot longer than zooming down one.

But zooming down 1000m - time for some grinning…

However, it’s never that simple. There are a couple of lesser drops and tough ascents before we get to the main chute down the Copper Canyon.

Some of the features on the way are just gargantuan. We spend an hour climbing towards this amazing rock amphitheatre and it’s just too wide for the camera to cover. The right side is a mirror image of the left as it stands separate from the rest of the land like a colossus. We ride between it’s jaws before the road swings away…. 

And behold the next cataract, another giant scar on the earth….

Then the road truly does start it’s final and decisive descent - the road a jagged slash across the hillside….

Sue pauses to catch a breath; and measure her surroundings….

Suddenly we are at the bridge over the Urique River - the patient sculptor whose work we have been admiring, and in a flash it’s all over.

The climb begins in earnest….

But moving slowly brings it’s own reward. The way down is a blur of high speed zigs and zags. Crank the bike hard over, take the bend, grab some brake - woah - scrub off that speed, next bend, snatch a glimpse of scenery, set for the next bend…. 

Stirring stuff! Ascents allow for a more serene approach as vistas unfold at a more geological pace. At 3 miles an hour the world is slow to change and you can take it all in, and look back at the ever growing road behind….

When finally, you have enough road behind you for this to happen…..

It’s been a big day in the world of the ciclista, and fine rewards are richly deserved by the conquerors of the Copper Canyon…..

So it is with a slight sense of  disappointment we find ourselves  in the men’s bathroom of a local petrol station for the night....

The town we were headed for looks like it upped and left when the petrol station closed down. Still the tent fitted perfectly inside, and when it’s minus a lot outside at night, you take whatever shelter is offered. Definitely got some strange comments from the security guards that found us there at midnight….
The next days ride grows steadily less spectacular as we leave the canyon system behind and the earth takes on a less tortured, but still big and beautiful look….

We do get our reward when we reach Guachochi and splash out on a more luxurious room for a couple of nights of well earned rest…. Check it out - it’s even got carpet, the first we’ve seen since the US….

Friday, April 24, 2009

El Tajaban

February 3rd

Pablo, owner of our Cabin in Creel tells us of the road to "El Tajaban", a little traveled route terminating in the most spectacular view of any canyon in the area. This is a bold claim and requires some serious checking out, especially as the road is only 22kms of "good quality" dirt road and we can leave our things in Cusarare and have the luxury of riding light. He assures us there's just a bit of climbing and after that the road is excellent.

This is Pablo....

Clearly this man is insane and has a hugely over optimistic view of our cycling capabilities.

The small climb turns out to be a 500m gain in altitude covering 5kms of sand and rock taking one and a half hours. We never leave bottom gear! Sue bails out and returns home. I'm made of sterner (read - more stupid) stuff and believe Pablo's assertion that the road is excellent after the climb.

He's soooo wrong. This is without doubt the worst road I've ridden, and I've ridden Bolivian roads!! I fall off a loaded bike all the time - falling off a naked bike is just embarrassing. But, oh, these roads. After 4 hours I've made 16kms (10 miles) fell off twice and finally get my first view of El Tajaban maybe a kilometer across a ravine. I seriously contemplate turning back; even at this point..... I can see the next 6kms of road snaking down, then back up the other side of maybe a 350m chasm. 6kms of road to travel 1km in distance. But I just can't quit. Not now when I'm this close....

The road turns to pumice stone which grips the wheels just fine. Unfortunately it doesn't grip other bits of pumice stone too well, and the whole lot has a tendency to roll and slide. The going gets really steep dropping into the ravine and the bike begins to skid as I lock the back wheel. Then the front locks as well. A quick count of my wheels reveals that's all of them - they're all sliding now, and that's bad! The bike is picking up speed and there's a bend coming up. And after that - a 200m drop!

Fortunately the front wheel hits a rock, which is good as it stops the bike dead. The bad part is that I don't stop with it and fly over the handlebars. I just manage to vault the bars and land on my feet making the hop and skip from a triple jump. Then I'm skiing on a pair of size nine's rapidly trying to find some grip and scrub off speed. I drop and grab handfuls of rock and finally come to a stop, feet dangling over the edge. I just have time to feel my ears throb with the blood pounding; and decide, maybe I'm going to live..... when I see the bike didn't quite come to a stop and is careering over the edge as well. Straight towards me....

Thinking quickly, I don't let go of the rock to stop the bike.... I use my face instead. It hurts! But being smashed in the face has never made me feel so happy! The bike will live too! Visions of it turning from one lovely piece into 50 less lovely, more flat and mangled pieces causes a slight maniacal edge to my hysterical laughter as I drag myself back on to the road. Especially when I realise that could have been me!

This is the kind of incident that makes one take stock, and the rest of the ride is conducted at a more leisurely pace. Especially as the "road" disintegrates further to this....

This is the canyon....

It's nice.... but I really can't agree with Pablo that it's the finest view in all the kingdom and now I have to go back to Creel and kill him.

And that's how I get by for the return 22kms of "excellent" dirt road. Hate and vengeance are powerful drivers....

In total the ride is 44kms of dirt and 10kms of paved road - 34 miles. It takes 8 hours and it's the hardest day's riding I've ever done. I ache all over. Sue wisely decides to "just give me a minute" when I get back to realign my sanity.

I've decide not to kill Pablo.... it's probably bad for the tour, but if you do see this man....

Make sure you don't believe a word he says. And tell him there's a man from Manchester who wants a word with him!

Thursday, April 23, 2009


2nd February

Leaving Creel we head South to Cusarare, an indigenous Raramuri Indian village 22kms away. The name Cusarare means “Place of Eagles“ in English, and in addition to a cool sounding name, there is a lovely river hike culminating in a 30 metre cascade at the end of the picturesque route. 

Descending the rubble road in to the village, it’s immediately clear they don’t get too many gringos in these parts. Locals stare and enquiries about accommodation are met with an assortment of surprise, non comprehension and just plain amusement that we actually want to stop here. One local recommends returning to Creel! Another suggests waiting as the new hotel is not quite finished?? Eventually we find a family who have a private room and will take us in. The only snag is that the bathroom is shared - and it’s in another building.
In the bedroom of the family’s 2 sons..…
Oh well - nice and cosy then.

Having secured lodgings, we head out along the river - the hike more than making up for any strange bathroom arrangements…

Then the land rears up and begins to funnel the water into a steep sided, pine tree lined canyon….


Before we clamber down, around the sides of the falls. The view looking back towards the multi coloured  rock wall of the waterfall…

It’s a swelteringly hot afternoon in direct sunlight, yet the extreme range of night and day temperatures is highlighted in the icicles that still surround the flow - even at 3pm. Icy bombs drop occasionally as they warm and melt in the heat. Shaded pools are still icy cold…

A perfectly stationed day-time moon, set against the blue, blue sky provides a nice background to the cascade….

As does this kindly local who risks all to provide scale to the photo….

It’s the dry season in Mexico, so the river levels are low. It would just be great to return here in another season to see the torrent in full flow.
Maybe next trip….

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Around Creel

January 29th to 31st

Creel is a great place to explore the Copper Canyon area. It comes as a bit of a shock after several days outside civilisation with it's paved streets, shops and restaurants. There are even a couple of "Adventure Tourism" companies where you can organise jeep tours and hire guides.

Taking the DIY route, we hike to the Valley of the Monks, or as indigenous Raramuri Indians prefer to call it Valley of the Erect Penises. It’s not all phallic though.

There are Roman Centurions…

Odin - Head honcho Norse God…

Aztec Chieftains....


And Frogs....

But some definitely look a bit erect and penis like….

Nice hike past the San Ignacio Mission where a galloping posse of 6 horsemen overtake us, completing the perfect film set look….

We decide to take it easy for a day at "Rekowate" a local natural spa . This being Mexico, it turns out not as easy as planned. 8kms on road, 8kms on a nasty section of dirt then a grinding 3km hike down 500m to the bottom of a steep sided canyon….

But it's all very, very worth it as warm water flows down the canyon sides and is collected in a series of hot pools. It’s an awesome setting and a fine way to spend an afternoon…

The rest of our time here is just wasted exploring amongst beautiful pine forest trails and around crystal watered Arereko Lake….

Monday, April 20, 2009

To Creel

January 29th

We leave Areponapuchi village, heading for Creel the only town proper along the train route. It’s the main stopover point for passengers to disembark and organise trips into the canyon.

We however can take in the views as we travel. One major advantage of the bike over the train is the ability to stop as we go. El Divisadero is the only other point along the train route (apart from Areponapuchi) where you get a view down into the canyon. The train stops here for just 15 minutes - hardly enough time to take it all in. Or you can stay overnight in the village’s only hotel, a luxury affair built into the cliff face and charging 200 US dollars a night. Neither would be good options for us.

This is what you would miss….

Raramuri Indians weaving baskets, rugs and other handicrafts…

The road also takes you past the viewpoint to the Otoro River - one of the canyons not mentioned on the train tour. Consequently we are completely alone to enjoy incredible vistas down to the river over 1000m below….

I guess the train is just a tad easier though. The road is a never ending series of steep undulations. I rue the fact I spent so much money on gears for the bike; only 2 are required - top for downhill and grinding bottom gear to climb back up…


We arrive in Creel late as the light fades from the day and quickly uncover a bargain. We get a huge log cabin for 12 quid (18 dollars) a night and before we can unpack Senor and Senora Peres (our hosts) have brought us steaming cups of milky coffee and built and lit the fire for us. How cosy, and very welcome - it’s minus a couple outside…