An early morning start brought us in to the tropical backcountry, old roads through small villages, tiny homes stacked impossibly along sharp mountainsides. We stopped at a small convenience store with the usual racks filled with snacks and sodas, but displayed along the back wall were stacks of shrink-wrapped coffins. Each coffin was adorned with simple decor and sized to fit humans of all ages. I examined the offerings, noting our distance from anything resembling a hospital. We were truly in the back of beyond. Where did the locals go when they were sick or injured? As we climbed on our BMWs, I noted the wide-eyed children watching, looking on as if they had never seen motorcycles like these. I smiled and waved, wondering if they would remember us later in life. Were we a rare sight or just another group of riders exploring the backcountry?
We continued on our way through the foothills and across a lush valley floor laden with flowing rivers. Locals fished in the serene waters, roadside stands sold fresh fruits and vegetables. Ahead, mountains of unspeakable beauty filled the morning sky. The road turned sharply as it wound through steep granite passes. Walls of thick tropical foliage bordered the small two-lane passage, gaps revealing the valley below. We were climbing high and fast.
We turned off the tarmac onto a rocky dirt path beside a small rushing river. We bumped along, stopping at an array of large, clear pools. We stripped to swim trunks and braved the frigid waters. Man, oh, man, it was cold! A pair of young boys—about the ages of my own kids—were enjoying the swimming hole. I watched as they spoke with my guides, noting they were teaching them some of their own native tongue. My guide Luis explained, “These boys are Native Americans and speak Mazatec and Spanish. There are more than 68 different languages in Mexico, spoken by more than 12 million indigenous people.” I was shocked to hear this, as I did not realize there was such a large language diversity in Mexico. Through patience, we were able to make out a few words like “water” (na ntá) and “cold” (hnchan), a perfect description of the deep, frigid water into which we were cannonballing. “The boys can’t swim and asked us to help them if they go too deep,” guide Apollo explained. Again, I was shocked by these unsupervised children, swimming in remote jungle pools with reckless abandon. This was not all that different from my own brazen childhood but now, as an adult and parent, it was a nail-biting experience.
We left the river pools and suited up. A short ride brought us to a small village near the mountaintop, where we stopped for a meal of fresh fish, beans, and rice. After lunch, I excused myself from the table, found a corner, balled my riding jacket into a pillow, and lay down for a siesta. I was spent. The riding was manageable and fun, but the trip as a whole was mentally exhausting. It had been a difficult experience, but not for the reasons I expected. My friends and family had warned me about going to Mexico, citing tales of anarchy and danger. I do not doubt these are real concerns, but I had not experienced anything that had invoked a sense of danger. Even the road rules, which could easily be construed as lawless and chaotic, carried their own pragmatic logic. Approaching a red light? Go ahead and cruise through if the coast is clear. One-way road? Take it the wrong way if it’s not busy. None of this would fly in the US, but in Mexico, it seemed to work.
The difficulties lay in the contradiction. The passion displayed by the people of Mexico is palpably intense and wonderful. Everywhere we found ourselves surrounded by warmth, celebration, and kindness. This is a place of staggering poverty, where people struggle with attaining even the most basic needs. Just below the surface, a lingering undercurrent of unrest can be felt. On our first day of riding, we passed by a funeral procession, people walking solemnly behind a slow-moving car, a casket nestled inside an open rear hatch. As we passed, I noted a detour in the road ahead, our path blocked where a truck had recently caught fire. The flames were long extinguished; all that remained was a hulk of gnarled steel and debris, welded to the tarmac. This was easily explained away, I thought, probably a random accident. But, as we continued on, I noted another burned truck, and then another. In total I counted seven charred vehicles along a half mile of road. Clearly this was not random, and I wondered if the funeral and the car fires were connected somehow.
It wasn’t until several days later that I thought to ask my guides about what we had seen. “It is possible that the local village was protesting,” Apollo explained, citing recent natural disasters from which many villages were struggling to recover. “Many people are angry with the lack of assistance from the government.” As they explained, I had the sense they worried my impression of their country would be tainted by this occurrence. “I did not come to Mexico expecting puppies and rainbows,” I gently explained. “I want to see what life is like here, and I want to use this to help place my own life in a perspective. I have struggles but I do not have to worry about where my next meal will come from or whether my kids are receiving proper health care.”
Waking from my siesta, I joined the group, and Apollo prepared us for the roads ahead. “We will reach the mountaintop soon and leave this tropical region behind,” he said. “The weather will become hot and dry very quickly.” Man, he was not kidding. Soon after cresting the mountain, the desert appeared and a furnace of heat blasted us, quickly reaching more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We stopped at a roadside store for hydration. A somewhat-domesticated dog greeted us with a round of snarling and barks before the shopkeeper yelled at him to go. Before running off, the dog lunged at my leg, taking a nip out of the reinforced plastic exoskeleton of my boot before giving up and retreating. He probably chipped a tooth, and I was glad for the armored gear. We downed our drinks and headed out, eager to cross the desert floor and find cooler passes. Soon the country roads turned to large multilane highways and we quickly found our way to Mexico City. We rolled into an underground parking structure, and I was off my bike before realizing I had finished my adventure ride through Mexico. My melancholy at ending the experience was short-lived, as my guides eagerly prodded me to change into street clothes. “We have reservations at a wonderful restaurant in Mexico City. Come and let’s celebrate!”
A short ride into the town center found us at an open-air restaurant, famous for fish and—you guessed it—tequila. We ate and drank and laughed, occasionally stopping to sing along with the wandering mariachi bands. Rain began to sprinkle down, soon turning to a torrential downpour. We hopped in a cab, enduring two terrifying blocks as the driver navigated without working windshield wipers. We finally made him stop and hailed another cab. This one had working wipers but no defroster. Another two blocks of driving—this time with a completely fogged-over windshield—and we stopped again, opting for yet a third taxi. Finding safe transport at last, we headed to the hotel and capped off the night with a toast to new and lasting friendships. In the morning, I would depart for home.
My friend Sam Manicom, a famous world traveler and one of my favorite authors, once told me, “The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist knows what they came to see, a traveler allows experiences to unfold as they will.” Upon reflection, I realize how little I knew about Mexico before this adventure. I wanted my first trip though the country to be a surprise, and even asked my guides to withhold details about where we would go. I wanted to shed my presumptions of the country and let it speak to me, to show me its true nature and soul. I wanted to leave the region with a sense of its essence, and I truly believe that there are few ways to do this more effectively than from a motorcycle.
With its varied laws and customs, Mexico would be difficult for some to travel through alone. But like any great tour company, the people of Moto Explore Mexico handled the tough logistics, leaving me to focus on enjoying their country. I left Mexico harboring many emotions. It was very hard to see the difficulties its people endure, especially the children. But this feeling was overcome by the genuine kindness and pride the Mexican people showed for their homeland and their happiness at meeting the strange tall gringo wandering their streets. I think anyone interested in visiting Mexico has been warned about the dangers they may find there. Some may be true, but I did not experience these. I think having guides was key, and if I went again, I would likely go with Moto Explore Mexico. There are many parts of the region that I would happily share with my wife and kids, so that they too could experience the many wonders of this beautiful country. In short: Go there. Celebrate the similarities and the differences that come with seeing a new part of the world. Create your own adventure and enjoy the happiness it brings you. You will not regret it.
Also, try the mescal. It’s awesome!