Happy Hauling Through The Heart of Copper Canyon

For the full photo diary of my trip to and through the Copper Canyon click here

Seven days, 225 miles, 21,366 feet of climbing… doesn’t sound like anything particularly out of the ordinary. Throw in remote Rarámuri villages, a punishing sun, the effects of altitude on healing lungs, unforgiving roads and some breathtaking scenery and then you start to get closer to the true essence of my ride out of Urique through Samachique and eventually to Hidalgo del Parral. This is a route that asks for commitment, if you oblige then the reward is a genuine privilege and one hell of a treat.

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Looking back down the road as I edge closer to the Urique canyon rim and completion of the routes first challenge

It doesn’t take much research to ascertain that the first couple of days out of Urique were going to be tough; starting at an elevation of 1,800 feet there is a relatively gentle 4 miles stretch downriver to the village of Guapalaina (1,500 feet) where you ford Rio Urique and really start enjoying yourself… about a 5,500 foot climb in 12.5 miles up to the canyon rim. In mountain biking terms this really isn’t much, but in fully loaded trans-continental touring terms this is one mighty obstacle. It’s not so much that the grades are steep (which they often are), nor that there is little shelter from the elements, nor even that the climb is unrelenting (there is a brief 3 mile period of respite 3 miles in) but more a combination of all these factors wrapped in a heavy paper of variable unpaved road conditions. Now don’t get me wrong, the roads aren’t out of the ordinary as far as Latin American unpaved surfaces are concerned it’s just that the thick layer of dry powder fine dust laying on loose and/or rutted rocks isn’t always the best recipe for traction. It felt like I pushed my overloaded bike up most of the first 3 miles, an awkward challenge at the best of times.

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I set off from Urique with just some notes and a hand drawn map I’d pieced together from information on the internet  as guidance… and my compass of course

My first day on the climb the sun was ferocious, forcing me into a three-hour shade break between 13:00 and 16:00 (as briefly became habit). I started early to get as far as possible before the heat struck but I still had to surrender to dehydration and heat exhaustion. Dehydration was a constant worry, one that had me carting a heavy 12.5 litres of water up out of Guapalaina and fearing whether the route was actually possible at this time of year (it hasn’t rained since August in Urique). Despite attempts to ration my water I was running really low by the time I hit the first small village 6 miles from Rio Urique. I knew from previous riders that water could be obtained from the school there but unfortunately it was Easter holidays and the school shut up and deserted. With all creeks running dry I approached a small mud brick open fronted dwelling where a little boy helped me fill my dromedary bag. The home was basic but extremely cosy, with the master bedroom being the kitchen, porch, bathroom and chicken run all in one.

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A road drops down to the school 6 miles up from Guapalaina while the main route snakes around behind it

I worked as hard as I know how that first day and drew record low statistics of just 11.42 miles, 1824 feet climbed in 3:08 hours of riding at an average speed of 3.6 mph. The fact that I was ‘on the bike’ working for over 7 hours and yet only moving for 3 hours of it speaks volumes. Things improved the second day though, the road became easier to ride and only minimal pushing was required. Statistics for day 2 read; 10.71 miles up 3281 feet at an average speed of 3.2 mph. Progress evidently remained tough but unlike the previous day now there was the canyon rim in sight, a massive dangling carrot if ever one was needed. Here the figures mean nothing and the experience everything. By now the views were magnificent and the small homesteads perched at improbable angles across the canyon wall intriguing. The air was getting thinner but also slightly cooler with it.

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The canyon from whence I came looms large behind at the junction with the road to Samachique

The rhythm of progress had developed into a  pattern of standing on the pedals for about 20 yards then stopping exhausted to get some breath back. I’d focus on a point up the road and get there by hook or by crook… each success a small victory. Sometimes I’d be bucked off into the dust, others my rear wheel would just spin, but I’d get there. After a good few hours of this and having already taken the left turn onto the road to Samachique I could see the summit. However, my water had all but run out and each exertion had my head spinning with exhaustion. There had been a few false horizons so I elected to shade it up for a while and pray a car would come by. There is very little traffic on the road; that day I had only had one truck pass and a guy on horseback proudly hauling a massive bag of marijuana. The only other human contact had been an incredibly fortunate one when an old man shuffled past just minutes after I’d reached the unsigned (to Samachique) junction of the road to Samachique… he saved a lot of head scratching and uncertainty.

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You may very well detect a hint of a fist-pump as I celebrate topping what I named ‘The Right of Passage’ climb out of Urique Canyon towards Samachique

Luck was on my side (as it often seems to be) or is it that fortune favors the brave, whatever, two trucks past me and I managed to get enough water from them to rehydrate and cook the meals that would get me to Cieneguita de Barranca and water the next morning. True to form one of the drivers offered me a smoke, which I politely declined. Without these good Samaritans I would have for want of a better phrase been a bit fuct for water and that having tried to drink sparingly and carrying as much as possible with my 10 litre dromedary bag and 2.5 litres of bottle space. The moral of the story being that if you get a choice try to hit up the route a bit earlier than the juncture of April and May.

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The view from the canyon rim… looking down on the road I’d just cycled up

After my siesta I went 200 metres up the road to top out the climb and let any anxieties that bike or body may not last the route slip into history. I took my turn to marvel at the huge canyon vista that sprawled down through the haze below me. But my joy was somehow tainted with frustration as I seemed unable to focus on nature for the pompous fogging of achievement. So much had been invested in the route up to the rim that I could not detach it from my thoughts; instead of pondering one of natures gold-star creations, it was the scar of road that defaced this purity with reminders of my recent ascent that hogged eye and mind. I caught myself reveling in the strength of my humanity rather than the beauty of what fell away beneath. Although this feeling would mellow over the coming miles to Samachique it still haunted my perspective. With the purity of hiking I do not suffer this subjective clouding, seeing vistas with a clarity that leaves me weak to the raw power of natures majesty (Grand Canyon). Although the possibility of cycling through the heart of the Copper Canyon is an opportunity only the foolish or perhaps timid Pan-Am rider would pass up, it highlighted once again some of the minor curbs my chosen means of transport puts on the mental and physical freedom I’m in search of.

Topographical graph of the route from Urique to Samachique (altitude marked) courtesy of GWC & Adventure Rider (www.avrider.com)

After the first big climb, or two climbs depending on your perspective, the route to Samachique continues to treat you to varied ground. In fact I can happily relay that no flat land exists between Urique and Parral, it’s a genuine roller coaster. The topographical graph above I stole from a motorcyclist who did the route shows how at the 30 mile point there is a big descent that drops you into Cororeachi and then 6 miles or so of steady climb that builds to a steep section before peaking just below 8,000 feet. In between these main themes there are constant rises and falls that keep the mind busy and the lungs bursting.

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Celebrating the high point of the route between Urique and Samachique… that is a genuine double fist-pump

The climbs followed a similar pattern of exertion as those already described but for me one of the big challenges was the long descent. I’ve already documented how I’m riding with a crack in my rear rim that causes the back brake to lock and takes it out of play completely on unpaved roads. All the descents on this route I did with just a front brake and I became an expert at it. On such dusty and loose surfaces I had to keep the front wheel straight to prevent it slipping out and was constantly ‘feeling’ the movement. On many of the descents I had no option but to walk the bike down, shuffling down with her stuttering along between my legs. I came through it all unscathed and without any falls but it was hard work, especially on my forearms. I don’t suppose these descents are that much easier with both brakes but I guess I’ll never know. For me the downs were just as slow and laborious as the ups and offered not the slightest chance to relax the mind or body.

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Having spent so much of the last few months in desert I really embraced the smells and textures of the pine trees… nostalgia for the earlier Alaskan part of the tour was unavoidable

After three and a half days of thrilling labour I eventually dropped into the thoroughly unremarkable village of Samachique. It came a couple of miles earlier than I had expected but offered no other surprises. Samachique had occupied my thoughts for a while, I knew if I could make it there with my ill bike then there was always an easy way out to civilisation, it marked the point of relaxation where paved road would resume once again. Despite this significance I filled up with water and headed straight out onto the black-top. It was a fortunate thing that I hadn’t wasted any energy celebrating as the celebration came straight out of Samachique… a 1,000 foot plus climb to over 8,000 feet! I was tired but the climbing felt great, suddenly the normal contract a cyclist holds with nature was resumed; I pedal and the bike moves forward. These rules had been all but forgotten since a few miles after San Rafael, west of Urique. Now I felt like Superman, able to ride for miles up hills without stopping… I was back in the mode. Whats more, now I was free to let my mind wander and really drink in my surroundings.

Topographical graph of the route from just outside Samachique to Hidalgo del Parral

Having treated myself to the rest of the afternoon off I rose the next morning, added some air to the tires and sped off towards Parral. From here it took me only three days to cover the remaining 170 miles. I make no secret of the fact that I enjoy a good climb so when you take a look at the topographical graph of my route from just past Samachique to Hidalgo del Parral (above) you can see why those three days were filled with cycling as perfect as it can get. There were long steady climbs, picturesque descents (I can manage some rear wheel braking on asphalt) and a clear transition in landscapes and societies. The bike which I had thought to be burdening my freedoms only a few days earlier once again came into its own as the perfect means of transport for my ends. With 50 to 60 mile days I could see things change from small subsistent based Indian homesteads towards a slightly, but by no means majorly commercial, larger scale farming. The valleys opened up, the pine trees receded and the colours turned from greens to golds as I left the Copper Canyon behind and picked a course through the Sierra Madre Occidental foothills. My senses were getting excited and I allowed myself to relax into pondering matters beyond my course, the very restraint I had bemoaned topping out the climb from Urique. I witnessed cosy valleys and the apparent perfection of a small subsistent lifestyle and then reality as men, women and children toiled in hot and incredibly arid fields. I saw why I am here.

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An interesting fire watch tower marks the highest point of my tour so far… I couldn’t climb it unfortunately

The topographical graph showing the way into Parral also shows a particularly significant moment for my tour; the 8694 feet of elevation I reached on the climb out of Rocheachic is the highest point I have cycled to so far. I had stayed up high for a while before and was thoroughly enjoying the cooler weather it bought, it was a blessed relief after the hot nights in Urique to have to hunker down against the cold at night. Waking to crisp mornings under sweet-smelling pine trees on a needle mattress filled me with nostalgia for those long Alaskan days gone by. The temperature change really hit home when I dropped down to near 5,000 feet and through San Pablo Belleza. To me it felt as if I’d entered an oven, I’d moved further from the sun but it suddenly seemed to have been turned up a couple of notches, a timely reminder of what’s to come.

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Golds steal the thunder of greens as I leave the trees and prepare to dive down into Balleza

I currently have a great deal at the Hotel Chihuahua in central Parral and am really enjoying this soft and tactile little town. Perhaps most notable as the place where the infamous revolutionary Pancho Villa was shot dead, the town has a really friendly feeling. I shall be staying here tomorrow to look around and do the museums and then it’s off south to Zacatecas. After what feels like an eternity ‘messing around’ it feels great to have a clear and direct course south and I look forward to rejoining my old routines of happy miles and stealthy camps. Shermy still has a limp but I’m hoping (against the better judgment of any self-respecting bike mechanic) she’ll hold out until Mexico City where I’ll treat her to a new rim and general over haul.

I’ve just been testing out the VeloFreedom, now its time to get on my bike and do some ‘Cycling South’.

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5 responses to “Happy Hauling Through The Heart of Copper Canyon

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