You couldn’t script it… there I am about two-thirds of the way down the gnarly 2,000 metre descent into America’s deepest canyon and in perhaps the most aggressively remote spot imaginable when BANG, my rear tyre exploded. Although initially confused the episode soon added-up, relieving me to efficiently whip out the spare Schwalbe I’ve been carting around, a spare tube and get things patched up faster than an F1 pit crew. Gone are the early days of the tour when I’d shoot scorn at the entire world, machine gunning an X-rated tirade worthy of the most foul-mouthed lout. These days I’ve mellowed, the blunt maturity of experience releasing a resigned chuckle, cloaking the inevitable relief that I’ll have a little less weight to cart up out of the canyon. I know why the tyre blew, I had been battling with the cause of the effect for the previous couple of days. Shermy had an issue, the severity of which I had failed to fully comprehend, but one that had prepared me for limping 700 metres altitude down a loose dusty track with only a front brake to prevent a premature and slightly messy introduction to the canyon floor.
Mechanical malfunction, roads as harsh as they are stunning but fair as the clouds that have fleetingly shielded me, making a disco ball of the sun, and the drug farmers who make this area a notoriously dangerous place to visit… none of them are yet to kill me. But I am wounded, my bike is fast becoming its own worst enemy and as a strain in my right Hamstring prevents me hiking or riding my resentment towards the Baja peninsular grows in intensity daily. I should let it go, but I feel it is the characterless cruising on Baja roads that lulled my body into a false sense of security that I have shattered with the sudden reintroduction of ‘proper’ riding. Yet, even these considerable issues cannot tarnish the relief and unadulterated joy I have been feeling the last few days. A week ago I was in characterless La Paz and now I am camped up in Urique, nestled in the Urique Canyon, one of the seven stunning gorges that make up the Copper Canyon. This was no accident, more an orchestrated reflection on my altered approach and renewed flexibility.
My journey north from La Paz began with the 20km ride out to the ferry terminal at Pichilingue and ended on the train platform of Divisadero, overlooking the Barranca del Cobre itself, three days later. The ferry that took me over to the mainland port of Topolobampo was a seven hour affair that had me rolling up to the only hotel in town at what I thought was about 11pm. Following the slight inconvenience of having had to take all the bags off the bike and check them in as luggage before wheeling a naked Shermy onto the vehicle deck. As the other young males relaxed into a marathon Tecate fueled karaoke marathon in the bar and the ladies buried themselves in the universally familiar and equally mindless Mexican soaps in the restaurant, I sought out a quiet bench on deck, settling into my new novel. A bit of writing, a lot of studying my shiny Mexican road atlas and a good inch into my intriguing new book, we finally escaped the foreboding dark clutches of the night sea and docked.
The Hotel Marina car park was deserted, a lifeless scene that dragged my tired heart down to meet the nerves rising in my stomach. Finally on the hallowed Mexican mainland I was going to have to ride out into the thickest of darkness to find a camp spot. Or so I thought before the night janitor appeared and offered me a room for 400 pesos (about US$36). A thick layering of umming and arghing reinforced my inability to pay such a price, a strategy that won me a nights free lodging in an undercover area by the pool. With my own pool and en-suite bathroom for the measley price of having to ensure I was up and out by 6:30am. At 5am the next morning I was awoken by the janitor and the realisation that the clocks had gone back an hour… I was wondering why the ferry departure time had changed!
A short ride through level farmland and thick wet fog spat me out in the centre of Los Mochis. A bustling and seemingly utilitarian town of about 230,000. My first task was to get breakfast, a task achieved at a typical little plastic chaired restaurant. As they amused me with limp wristed impressions of Mick Jagger I tucked into eggs and beans, spooning instant Nescafe into the mug of hot water that passed for a cafe negro. There was a mutual fascination which quickly developed through bitty Spanish into respect that had them pull out a phone and call the train company. I had called ‘El Chepe’ as the Copper Canyon Railway is known whilst in La Paz and had been told flat that I couldn’t take my bike on board. This message was again confirmed by my Spanish-speaking friends. But this wasn’t going to dissuade me. I rode the couple of miles out-of-town to the train station and asked at the ticket office directly. Although non-committal the guy behind the desk told me that if I got to the station at 6am the following morning for the 7am Segunda class train then there my be a chance of getting Shermy aboard.
Having escaped the clutches of a predatorial older woman at the train station I made it back to Los Mochis and checked in at the cheap but functional Hotel Hidalgo. Following an afternoon wandering the streets of Los Mochis, conspicuous as the only Gringo around, I was up the next morning at 5am and at the station by 6. Still not committing to allowing the bike on, the ticket seller sold me a one way ticket to Divisidero for 500 pesos and told me to talk to the conductor on the platform. The conductor at first said no and asked who told me I could, when I explained in terrible Spanish that the ticket office and the people on the phone had all assured me it would be no problem he eventually conceded and Shermy got a ride in a luggage rack.
A French family on their way up to Creel relieved me of the honor of lone Gringo on a fascinating and long train journey. It didn’t feel like 9 hours, any tedium was relieved by the fascinating window views which were offset by further engrossment in my current read. The whole experience was undoubtedly an education, especially at first when we cut through flat arable lands. I got to spy on track side shanty dwellers as they went about their morning routines; ladies proudly raking dirt, men starting fires and feeding animals, a family of four puttering along on a single motorcycle and kids on their way to school. Soon topography usurped anthropology and I was marvelling at lakes, hills, ravines and then eventually canyon lands. There were breathtaking views both in and out of the train as an attractive young Mexican took a particular fancy to me. A student, she made up just a fraction of my fellow passengers demographic, joined by brightly dressed indigenous Raramuri women and men folk dressed in the intriguing Mexican Cowboy stylings. Not many spoke to me but everyone was polite.
As 4:20pm rolled around the train departed Divisadero, leaving me at the mercy of begging young children and desperate market sellers. I had chosen to start cycling from this point for a number of reasons: I felt that Creel sounded a bit touristic to warrant a visit, knew that Divisadero was famed for its views of the Copper Canyon and figured that the 20 or so km of paved road that would take me south would be ideal for easing my body back into the ways of hill climbing before the ungraded stuff started. I pretty much failed on both these latter two lines of reasoning as in my tired state I was unable to relax into the views for the hassle I was getting. And I’m sitting here three days later in Urique crocked with a leg that couldn’t take the strain.
I spun past a woman aggressively trying to rip me off claiming a 20 pesos fee for entering the area, down to a camp spot about 3km south of San Rafael before relaxing and reflecting on my new surroundings. Over the coming couple of days I would be frequently reminded of the Dalton Highway as the unpaved road cut through pine forests thick with a welcome scent. I rode up and down menacing hills with a smile on my face. Not perhaps the smartest move as incredible gusts of wind would whip up the fine dust from the compacted mud and gravel road surface, thrusting it in my face. The price of happiness appeared to be a mouth full of grit.
Waking on what was to be my first full days riding in the Canyon I felt free and relaxed. As my morning routine gathered momentum I was able to reflect on just how good it felt to have breeze, trees, clouds and undulation. I was finally out of the desert, leaving Baja as just a bad dream, a stain of bad decision that I could now file away under ‘mistake’. Reports from the few other cyclists that venture down this route noted that the paved road ran out about 6km south of San Rafael. Having pedaled through a number of work crews and run the gauntlet of some huge earth moving machines I finally left the asphalt just under 10km from San Rafael. The speed of road building here suggests that work in a road crew is a job for life!
Now riding a loose surface of compacted mud, gravel and layers of fine dust, new challenges arose. For the first time on tour I was forced into pushing Shermy up some hills, no mean feat I can assure you… that girl needs to lose some weight! The gradients I was faced with combined with the loose road material to make a mounted ascent literally impossible; no matter how I finessed the pedals I just couldn’t get the traction to progress. It wasn’t too much relief pushing either as my feet would also slip. At times I’d find myself pushing for ten yards and then stopping to exhaustedly suck in the thin highlands air. It was a challenge but one I was here to embrace; any potential frustration lay smothered, imperceptible beneath the mesmerising vistas that bombarded my retinas.
Setting off from my camp spot about 8km south of Bahaichivo the next day, I knew I had a ‘small mountain’ to climb before dropping down into Urique. Yet again I rode behind a massive grin into the small and picturesque ejido of Cerocahui. Centred around an eye-catching yellow domed church, this gorgeous little village marked the start of the days climbing. I climbed and climbed for over 3,000 feet before reaching the Urique Canyon views just under 20km from the village itself. The route was signposted save for a left fork just before the village of Mesa de Arturo and again had me pushing up some of the hills. The toil was worth it though as I became reaquainted with the canyon landscapes that awed me to the point of break-down in Arizona.
The Grand Canyon and Copper Canyon are two completely different breeds of the same animal. The latter actually being a network of seven individual canyons. I have found the Copper Canyon to have a bit more subtle charm than its northern cousin; its lush and green with vegetation, the dramatic rock strata often buried beneath refreshing life. The Grand Canyon gives you full frontal nudity while the Barranca del Cobre gives the fleeting flash of a nipple. They both seduce you into wanting more but you’re going to have to work harder with the Copper Canyon. They are also managed in very different ways, with the Grand Canyon rightly and tightly controlled, cuffed by strict National Park restrictions. The Copper Canyon is an open playground, one that you’re free to pedal and clamber around, restricted only by the availability of water and your location within the epicentre of the Mexican drug trade and its accompanying issues. I can only imagine that it is for this final reason that I have only seen one other tourist on my travels here (charming fellow Londoner Sarah who is thankfully with me in Urique for another few days). In that respect the two Canyons are chalk and cheese.
16km out from Urique I finally started the uncompromising 6,000 foot descent down dusty switchbacks to the Canyon floor. Over the previous couple of days I had been really struggling with descents because of an issue with my rear rim. When I put on my back brake there would be a pulse in its effectiveness as the brake pads grab around the point of the valve hole. On ordinary roads this was only slightly noticeable, I’d investigated it a number of times but foolishly dismissed the problem as manageable. Problem is that on a loose ungraded surfaces down steep tracks, when the brakes grab they really grab and the wheel skids. I had been trying to manage the situation by holding the rear brake only slightly and using the front lever to actually control descent. This had made going down hill as hard, if not harder than labouring up (even those I had to get off and push). If the rear wheel skidded on any kind of camber it would come around and unsteady me, something that was prone to happen on every rotation. Then, with any kind of momentum the front wheel would likely skid out too. My descents have therefore been at a snail’s pace and had me hitting the deck on a couple of occasions.
The mega descent down to Rio Urique was one step too far for my ailing stead. The Schwalbe Marathon XR that had travelled over 10,000 miles with admirably minimal wear finally threw up its hands in surrender. The constant skidding wore a hole clean through, taking with it the second of my hideously expensive heavy-duty tubes (what a waste of money they were!). I hope that I’ll be able to do something with the rim before moving on, otherwise my front brake and corresponding forearm are going to eventually revolt.
Presently resting up at the legendary Entre Amigos in Urique I cannot say when I’ll be on the move again. Much to my and my bank balances dismay, I shall have to sit tight until the strain behind my right knee recovers and I shake off a lung clogging cold. It is only then that I can consider hiking and eventually attacking the 20km, 6,000 foot ascent up out of the canyon. I will never face a more daunting climb, infamously compared to the discomfort of childbirth by tough Pan-Am tourist Anna, I’ll need all my mental and physical strength intact. And that is just the first of a series of punishing climbs that will finally deposit me into Hidalgo Del Parral. So as I hermitise amongst the scorpions, snakes and spiders my tour is once again riding a stammer. With a slight niggling fear of the encroaching heat and rains it would be nice to progress but I am pacified by the knowledge that this is what I always imagined the tour to be: challenging riding, eye-popping scenery and alien cultures.