Touring Mexico on a BMW R80GS | The Kindness of Strangers

Our Dependence on One Another is a Good Thing

By Tim Courts, Photography by Tim Courts

I’ve always loved riding in Mexico. Pretty roads, cheap hotels, and warm weather would be enough to get me down there. But there’s something more.

Back when my son was too young to care whether he was in school or not, we used to go down to Baja California in the spring and camp on the beaches. Once south of Ensenada, nobody ever passed by a vehicle stopped on the road. Everyone would try to help, and sooner or later somebody would have the piece of wire for the muffler or some brake fluid, or whatever was needed. It’s still much that way off the major highways throughout the country, and even in the more rural areas of mainland Mexico.

In December of 2004, my wife Carrie and I headed for Mexico on our R80GS, escaping the frostbitten landscape of New England. I hadn’t really used the bike in a couple of years, so we spent the U.S. portion of the trip doing a sort of rolling tune-up. We stopped at BMW shops in Atlanta (new throttle cables), Baton Rouge (voltage regulator), San Antonio (headlight bulb), and finally Tucson, where in the course of fitting a new rear tire I noticed the brake shoes were down to metal and replaced them. A pilgrimage to Al Jesse’s shop near Phoenix yielded a pair of aluminum saddlebags, de rigeur for the adventurous, and off we went. A mere 80,000 miles on the old boy at that point, so why worry?

We crossed into Sonora at Agua Prieta, heading south toward the coast. The plan was to meet up with friends in Guanajuato for Christmas, 1200 miles or so. The highway was agreeable for the most part, with only the odd third-world detour around some problem spots.

On the second day, south of Sahuaripa, a bridge was under construction. Just before the bridge there was a row of white-painted stones across the roadway, and an arrow pointing off the road, so we dropped down off the highway onto dusty, truck-chopped dirt toward the riverbed beneath the bridge. We did fine for a while, waving to the bridge crew, but as the going got wetter the bike got heavier and less and less wieldy. Finally, distracted, I misinterpreted one of the rows of white stones and sank the bike in mud up to the saddlebags. It was stuck so deep that we didn’t even need the sidestand; we just stepped off and sloshed away to higher ground. We could hear the crew laughing up on the bridge.

Had we been alone we would have unloaded the bike and looked around for brush, sticks, rocks, and levers. But as I’ve so often found, there was a better way. Wrestling out of my riding gear, I walked over to the bridge crew, hat in hand. In terrible Spanish I tried to say I hoped they’d enjoyed my little show, and wondered if they might spare a few moments to help.

The foreman was a dashing fellow, obviously in charge, and apparently glad for the distraction. He grabbed the gang and we walked back to the bike together. He asked about our trip, how we liked Mexico, told us about a big rodeo and fiesta happening nearby that weekend, and with no great effort the five of us dragged the 600-pound package out of the mud and onto terra firma. Handshakes all around, along with many thanks and admonitions to watch where I was going from then on. And off we went, warmed by new friendships.

We had a beautiful ride down through those dry hills, little towns with only a restaurant and maybe a gas station, which maybe had gas. Fortunately a full tank is 11 gallons on my GS, easing one of the usual rural-Mexico worries. A couple of days later we hit the coast road north of Obregon, and I figured now we would make some time, the coast road being a modern highway, tolls and all. But as soon as we got to highway speed I could feel the clutch slipping, and in a glance confirmed the telltale drip of oil from the clutch housing.

We were coming into Navajoa, a city I hadn’t heard of until then. I thought if I could find a place to work on the bike, I might be able to get seals sent from the U.S. or Mexico City, so I stopped at a car dealership with a big service area. They were very helpful, but with my lousy Spanish I soon lost track of what was going on. Many phone calls were made, lots of “wait here” hand gestures, and eventually a pleasant fellow on a Honda Shadow showed up and indicated we should come with him.

We followed him across town and into the courtyard of the nicest motel I’ve ever seen. Tasteful nouveau-Mexican décor, a swimming pool, and a workshop (!) adjacent to the pool area, with every tool I could want. And an R100GS parked in the corner. As we looked around in wonder, the owner of the property and of the GS walked over smiling and, hand extended, welcomed us to Navajoa and asked if he could help in any way.

Could he ever! Friends of his were leaving Tucson the next day, heading for Christmas in Navajoa. They agreed to stop by the dealer and pick up our package. A phone call, predictable damage to the credit card, and the two seals were on their way, along with a new friction disc.

A couple of days in an excellent motel in an interesting city, and the parts arrived as promised. Another few hours of grease-monkeying and we were ready to go. We left just before dawn and got to Guanajuato in 48 hours, a day late but no worse for wear.

A lot of that coast highway is toll road, and it’s expensive. A mile or so before the toll booth, we’d often see an arrow pointing to “LIBRE.” That indicated a place to sneak off the toll road, and onto whatever road went around the toll booths. Probably it was as much to bring commerce to the communities bypassed by the highway as to save us money, but we always availed ourselves when we could.

Fellow travelers, seeing we were not from there, would often help us find the libre road, waving us across the median, down the gully, and up onto the free road. Very appealing to the anarchist in me. One guy, in a truck piled high with fruit, made a point of having us follow him through a complicated series of turns, finally getting out of the truck and handing us a bunch of bananas. Off we went with his cheery “Feliz Navidad!” in our ears.

Those first few days of our four-month tour set the tone. We didn’t have all that much trouble from then on, but whenever a problem arose, solving it became a part of the experience. On the outskirts of Mazatlan we stopped to eat and I realized a saddlebag mount had broken. We were parked outside a busy restaurant, and had taken seats just inside the low wall that separated eating from parking. A boy came up and offered to watch the bike while we ate, even though we were right next to it. I pointed out that I could use my coffee cup to hit anyone molesting the bike but the young entrepreneur persisted. After a while an uncle arrived, and pitched the boy’s case in good English. I remained unconvinced, but he did direct us to a welder, and that seemed like a good enough reason to pay the kid the 10 pesos he wanted. After all, the bike had come to no harm under his watch.

The welder was up on a ladder, working on the bow of a fishing boat. As we rode out onto the dock, he came right down and attended to our problem, putting a good heavy weld on the bag mount and painting it with red lead bottom paint. Once again it struck me how much better the service was than it might have been back in the States.

To be clear; I am not always on the receiving end of life’s helpful impulses. I’ve come through, from time to time, for those without water, or gas, or tools. I like stopping to help push a car out of a ditch, fill a radiator, or tie up a dragging exhaust pipe.

Years ago, on a mountain road in Oaxaca, I came upon a couple of guys in a Beetle, stopped on the road. The throttle cable had broken, a problem they’d not even diagnosed. “No va” was all they knew. One of the guys had some dental floss, and that worked okay. Shoelace was too fat to fit in the housing. A few days later one of the guys recognized me in a bar on the Zocalo (Mexico City’s historic main square) and bought me a beer. My companions were very impressed. Karma is where you find it, it seems.

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By Tim Courts
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