After a couple of weeks in the fleshpots of San Blas, the time has come to move on. I have to start moving northeast. My next major destination is the La Reserva de la Biosfera del Cielo, which is over there somewhere.
I like to take small roads and set off up on a tiny one over the mountains towards the city of Fresnillo.
We go from sea level to 3,000 meters on a very, very steep and very broken road. I am in first gear coming out of the hundreds of hairpins that lead us to the top.
The prospects are breathtaking for a hundred miles!
The road has been tarmac covered at some date but now is in very bad condition. We swerve and slalom around the 50 cm deep potholes that judder the truck painfully if hit. There is no one on this road. Not quite true as there is quite a lot of horsey traffic.
At one point, three police/military trucks come by. Each has a heavy caliber machine gun and carries six horribly be-weaponed young men. I waved and to my surprise they waved back!
Occasionally, a collection of wooden huts shows up. The inhabitants are Indian and dressed in bright colors. It is getting dark and I do not know where I am. Wonderful thing about the 4wheel camper is that you can peel off into the woods and set up camp at will. This I do.
After a peaceful night, I gently weave my way out of the mountains and end up in the city of Fresnillo.
Fresnillo is a nothing sort of place but has lots of interesting small shops.
The recent, let’s say the last 200 years, history of Mexico is complex. This is another way of saying I know very little about the recent history of Mexico. A guy in a bar told me that at one point of time the government made Christianity illegal.
I stumble into a non descript restaurant that is full of men with weathered faces, all wearing white cowboy hats, and women wearing highly colored skirts and shawls. They only serve variations on mutton stew. I get a rack of lamb chops for 150 pesos. So good!
So, I am in the middle of Mexico with no very clear idea of where I am going. It will become clearer with time.
Sorry folks, more birds and food. A recent commentator on this blog pointed out that it is only about birds, food and sailing. I had not spoken this person for 30 years or so. “Is this what your so promising life has become?” he asks.
Well yes, I suppose so but I feel no guilt.
I spend some days in the grounds of the glorious Hotel Paraiso el Miramar near San Blas. There are masses of birds and 4 fish restaurants on the beach about 5 minutes walk away.
I return to San Blas for a boat trip into the mangroves.
There are so many birds. This is definitely one of the great birdwatching excursions. Do it.
I go back to San Blas to eat carnitas tacos.
What a wonderful time I have had in San Blas but St Valentine’s Day is approaching so I have to get out of town.
San Blas is my principal Mexican destination and is about as far South as I will go. So many reasons to come here, sea , sun, food, people but I am here for birds.
I meet up with old compadre Jose Antonio.
We meet at 6:30 and go after esoteric species. The first day, our prey is birds that are impossible to see in wetlands.
Birdwatching with someone who knows what they are doing, rather than my own aimless stumbling around, is a joy. Antonio is very good and we see so many birds, few of which I managed to photograph well.
Next day we head up in to the mountains to ferret around in the abandoned coffee plantations.
Great fun to spend a couple of days with Cathy and Santiago. She skippers her own Annapolis 41!
This is what I like to do: watch birds and eat fish.
Now cured, the truck is frisky, she paws the ground, she wants a good gallop.
A two day drive to the coast. So beautiful; mountains, plains, huge distances, no traffic. The truck revels in her health. She swoops and glides down to Durango. At a roadblock, I give a heavily armed FBI agent, his words, $150 because I do not have a vehicle importation paper. Fair cop. I hope he buys his señorita a pretty dress.
The road from Durango to the coast is a classic. It cuts through mountains and deep gorges by means of probably hundreds of tunnels and extravagant viaducts. One of the great drives. Sorry, I didn’t take any photos.
I camp at Caimanero beach. Of course, there is a fish restaurant just a couple of minutes walk away.
Grey whales frolic just off the beach. Dolphins play games with the breaking waves.
I start on the short hop down to San Blas but am much delayed by the wildlife beside the road.
I have reached San Blas! It was give or take for a couple of days but the truck is running better than ever. A glorious future awaits!
Nothing for it but to light out to the territories and try and find a garage. The nearest reasonable town is Creel, which to my surprise is at 2,300 meters. It is a 4 hour drive.
The truck works just fine over 1,500 revs; below that the engine stops. We haul ourselves up the appalling zig zag road out of Urique.
Those who have travelled in Mexico will back my assertion that the biggest danger is Topes. We used to call these things sleeping policemen but the accepted term is speed bump. I prefer sleeping policemen. There are hundreds between Urique and Creel. At each the engine cuts out. Huge trucks roar their anger as I stop dead, right in front of them.
In Creel, with much help, I find a garage. Antonio stops what he is doing and does what he can. Unfortunately he does not have the magic wand that diagnoses and cures Toyotas. “Go to big city.” he says.
I am fairly depressed. I am usually quite good at fixing things but Engine Control Module is beyond me. I have to find the wizard with the wand.
It is a 2 day drive to Hidalgo del Parral. Holy cow! The landscapes are jaw dropping. I must stay on the main narrative, otherwise I will fill pages with the descriptions of the very varied country we amble through.
I find a hotel with WiFi and Google ‘Toyota garage Parral.’ ‘Go to Garage Campos!”
Not easy to get there in rush hour traffic, stalling truck, no idea of where I was going.
Edouardo says come back in an hour.
I look at a couple of very old churches. I think I have seen too many. I can only think about the truck.
“Everything is fine.” grins the excellent Edouardo.
Phew! What a relief. I am back in business. The truck feels more relieved than I after 3 days of illness.
After my exertions driving over from Batopilas, I luxuriate.
Luis and Teresa’s garden is on the bank of the Urique River, which abounds in small trout, black headed vultures and great blue herons hang around the banks. The garden is full of beautiful flowers, fruit and cacti.
Teresa cooks me breakfast and dinner over a wood fire. She squeezes liters of fresh passion fruit and grapefruit juice. She washes and presses my rancid clothes, whilst Luis cleans my truck. I did not ask – they suggested.
Anyway feeling unco happy, Luis takes me to see Pepe the welder. He fixes up my exhaust pipe no problem but for some reason disconnects the negative battery lead.
Things go badly wrong. Disconnecting the lead upsets the engine computer. Upset? She is enraged!
The motor starts with difficulty but cuts out at low revs. It will not idle. Oh dear. With my usual optimism I feel it will be alright in the morning; strangely it is not. I suppose electronic systems do not just get better by themselves. Hmmm? Urique is the wrong place to get your engine computer control system reset.
There are 2 roads out of Urique, the main one that I came in on and another mountain road over to Batopilas. I intended to take that road but the recent heavy rain had made it very muddy, slippery and generally muy, muy, peligroso. I chicken and take the road I came in on, which is only peligroso.
Finding myself in Batopilas, I feel honor bound to take the mountain road to Urique.
Folks in Batopilas tell me that it will take about 4 hours. Behind the town there is a sheer rock cliff that must be 1000 meters high. I see no way that you can drive up something like that .
Every thing starts well and the noble Tacoma, in 4 wheel drive and low ratios, grinds up to the bottom of the cliff. Then the exhaust pipe falls off. I notice this because of loud clattering and much enhanced engine noise. Oh dear.
I manage to rig it again using a bit of string and a USB cable. This works fine for about 10 minutes then more crashing and loud engine noise. I refine my USB cable set up and change string. Remarkably, this stay strong until I eventually get to Urique many hours later.
Batopilas used to be center of silver mining and the produce was carried out on mules. This mule track has been widened a bit to allow one way motor traffic. It is about 4 meters wide, on one side is a dizzying drop and on the other is the rock face. I try to stay in the middle.
Up and up we go and the most beautiful views unfold. Hundreds of kilometers of mountains and valleys stretch away to infinity. Everything is going swimmingly. My impression was that when you reached the top, you gently worked your way down to Urique. Not really.
The track goes on and on; up more steep climbs and down vertiginous descents. Of course there are no signs and I try to ignore junctions. I keep to the road that looks like the most travelled. I meet nobody and I am racked with doubt. Am I going in the right direction? Every time the track starts downhill I convince myself that this must be the final descent into Urique, only to have to labor up another very steep incline in 2 gear of low ratios. During the whole trip I only used 2nd and 3rd gears always in low ratios and never exceeded 10 mph. Crash, bang, lurch, shudder, shake, rock and er roll. It is hard going.
I do not want to give the wrong impression, the trip, although very nerve-wracking, is glorious! The mountains, the canyons, the sky, the isolation ! This is the real thing. I am lost in Mexico in a 4WD truck. What more could you want?
After about 5 hours, two boys appear from nowhere, first people I have seen. I point down the track, “Urique?” They look at each other hunch their shoulders and say, “Si.” “Quanto kilometros?” They look at each other again and one says ten in Spanish.
I am heartened even though I realize they have no idea where Urique is, let alone how far away.
I start a particularly clenching descent. Going down is much worse as each time you go around a hairpin, the front of the truck is right over the void and the tires only feet from the edge.
My courage is rewarded by the occasional small farm and the lower we go, the more signs of human activity. I realize we are finally heading down towards the Urique river. I get to Luis and Teresa’s camp site, I mean garden, after nearly 7 hours on the road. I am beat. They remember me and look after me like a long lost relative.
On the wood fire, Teresa cooks me big chiles stuffed with cheese, there are refried beans, rice. To drink, she gives me liters of passion fruit juice that she has squeezed from fruit from the garden. This is followed by peaches, from the garden, with syrup. One of the best meals.
This is an epic journey. Everyone should do it. Hats off to the remarkable Tacoma, her 4 wheel drive, her low ratios. Luis says we can get the exhaust fixed mañana. All is well.
I reach the Mexican border with trepidation. Do I have the right Covid papers? Do I need a recent PCR test? Will they find the guns and drugs?
In fact you just drive through. There is a place where you have to slow down and a machine takes a photo of your truck. Suddenly you find yourself in the insane traffic and loud music of Cuidad Juarez!
No one spoke to me, asked me for my passport, asked for my car insurance etc.
I drive south on the smallest roads I can find. Mexico is very big, the views are even more amazing than the U.S.
One thing I have noticed about small Mexican towns is that they have very, very, few road signs. You drive in but driving out is a different matter and you usually end up with the crows and vultures at the town dump. Having toured the town of Buenaventura a few times I see some road signs. Hooray, but actually boo because lurking behind a big cable and stuff are traffic lights.
I start to cross but a guy is also pulling out from the right and hoots. I stop and wave apologies. There is a rap on my window and there, magically, is a policeman.
He smiles, takes my driving license and invites me to the police station that is conveniently placed by the junction.
The office is full of other criminals who greet me with grins and “Buenos tardes.”
The policeman is very young, maybe 21. He is very polite. He pulls out his cell phone and thanks to Google Translate, which incidentally has completely changed the nature of travel, he shows me the screen. “You disobeyed Red Light signal. Fine 1500 pesos.”
One thing I have learned is never argue with police, custom officers and the like. They always win.
I give him the cash, there is no receipt. I leave. The criminals grin. The whole incident took 15 minutes.
At first I am colonially miffed – such corruption, disgraceful etc. Then I reflect on getting a ticket a ticket in most countries, maybe court appearance and eventual payment of fine, maybe 3 months of hassle. I am miffed no longer. I hope the young man buys his señorita a beautiful gift.
I drive south through wonderful mountains and plains.
I camp at the Cascada de Cusarare.
This is on the edge of the Copper Canyon where the Tamahumara people live. The women wear brilliant, coats of many colors.
I camp by the river. It is ideal; gentle river and friendly horses.
I then head for Batopilas, a tiny town at the bottom of a gorge that is apparently deeper than the Grand Canyon. The road down the sheer rock face of the canyon is truly scary.
One good thing about Covid is that there are no foreign tourists anywhere, except me.
The town is beautiful.
It is Sunday morning. The church bells ring, the mass is well attended and it sounds as if a woman is leading the rite. I am too shy to stare in.
This time the weather is perfect. I stay in a campsite about 5 miles from the reserve. It has flat ground, tables and little noise. It is however extremely cold. Thank God my heater is working in the camper otherwise I would have been found Scott-like. The mornings are tough as without gloves it its impossible to operate, yet with gloves, it is impossible to make coffee due to clumsiness.
I take photos of birds.
I stay for 3 wonderful days. Tomorrow, I negotiate the Mexican border. I hope they let me in!
I have set off for epic birdwatching trip and am now near the New Mexico/ Mexico border. The plan is spend time here, then drive down through Mexico to San Blas in Nayarit, subsequently drive back across Mexico to shoot out into Texas. I then birdwatch in Corpus Christi before heading off to Charlotte NC to scrounge off Ben. Then drive back to San Francisco.
Seems like a good idea but whether the truck and I have the resilience remains to be seen.
I set off but after a few blocks I realize that I cannot make this trip and turn back home. I have forgotten my passport.
I surge down to Southern California to pick up remnants of Route 66.
I love driving down U.S. back roads. The space is incredible, nothing but desert, scrub an d huge blue skies for hours.
Anyway, you get the idea and after 5 days of semi roughing it I check in to a Motel in Socorro. I need a shower and an internet connection.
So I am now clean and ready for the next stage which is obsessive birdwatching.