Three armed men jumped out of their pick-up truck in front of us and one of them put his right hand up motioning us to stop. We slowed to a stop in the middle of Mexican Federal Highway 200 in a small Michoacán town a few hundred kilometres north west of Zihuatanejo. It was mid-afternoon and the three men were carrying assault rifles (looked like AR-15s) slung across their chests. They were not wearing any uniforms and I wondered if they were undercover police or part of the vigilante groups active in these parts to counter the Narcos (members of the Mexican Drug Cartels). Of course, there was the possibility that they could be Narcos themselves questioning us to determine if we were part of a rival gang encroaching on their territory. One of the men wearing sunglasses and a pink polo approached Jeff with his hands resting on his rifle. He started asking Jeff some questions in Spanish.
Period Covered: September 3 – 10, 2013
Locations: Mazatlan, San Blas, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido
The overnight ferry ride was not as painful as I thought it would be. The general passenger lounge was thankfully air conditioned but noisy children and people walking around (we were in the first row so there was quite a bit of traffic) made it difficult to sleep for an extended period of time. Jeff and I left pulled off the ferry last since we were stuck at the very bottom end of the cargo hold. We quickly navigated through the city streets of Mazatlan making our way south on MX15 for San Blas which was just under 300km away. On the way to San Blas, we encountered women and children asking for donations. As a vehicle slowly approached speed bumps in villages, women or children on either side of the road would pull and lift up a string with a few hanging cans off the ground to block the vehicle. Someone would then talk to the driver and ask for a donation. The first time we encountered this we politely declined. We also couldn’t understand what they were saying and and after a few seconds they let us through. Subsequently we no longer rolled to a stop and just kept moving. Fortunately, the women and children manning the blockades never pulled the strings up in front of us so we never figured out what would happen if we rammed a blockade.
San Blas is a small beach town planned for tourism which never materialized due to the persistent presence of sand flies. Other than one stop for gas and some refreshing cold coca cola, the trip to San Blas was smooth and we arrived mid-afternoon. We settled into a double room at the Hotel Posada del Rey for 714 pesos ($54) including secure parking and jumped into the pool to cool down. So far, the mainland did not feel as hot as Baja but it was still nice to cool down by going for a swim and staying in air conditioned rooms.
As we ate dinner at a restaurant on the main street just a few blocks away from our hotel, we could hear the thunder and watch the heavy rain coming down outside. Fortunately, it passed quickly and it was no longer raining by the time we left the restaurant. However, the massive amount of rainfall in such a short time period and the lack of drainage meant there was flooding everywhere. Looking back, I’m not sure why I wore my hiking boots to dinner instead of my KEEN sandals. Due to the lack of sidewalks, it was impossible to avoid stepping into the water (at some point over 1′ deep). Is there a worse feeling than wet feet in wet socks and wet boots? During the 7 blocks back to hotel, I watched the periodic flashes of lightning in the distance and listened to the booming of thunder. I’ve never heard such powerful thunder and it was akin to artillery barrages.
The next morning, Jeff and I got separated from each other leaving San Blas. I pulled around the corner from hotel and waited for Jeff to pass me and lead us out. When I checked my mirrors, he was no longer behind me so I waited expecting him to circle around the block and meet up. After waiting for 20 minutes, I decided to circle around a few blocks to look for him with no luck. After a frustrating hour, I sent him the address to the hotel I had booked in Puerto Vallarta (Vallarta Sun Hostel) using the wifi from our hotel and left San Blas. Puerto Vallarta was only 165km away south on the coastal MX200 highway. The winding road passes through many small towns which means lots of slowing downs for topes (speed bumps). In addition to watching out for speed bumps which can sneak up on you, I had to be careful with tight turns and oncoming traffic passing aggressively.
I knew I was getting close to Puerto Vallarta when I saw lots of billboards for expat community homes. At a population of roughly 250,000, Puerto Vallarta is a mid-sized resort city located on the Pacific coast popular with American and Canadian expatriates (especially retirees) and domestic tourists from Mexico City. Jeff showed up at the Vallarta Sun Hostel ($35) an hour after I did. He had taken off for the gas station in San Blas to fill up and expected me to meet up with him there. After waiting for a bit, he took off for Puerto Vallarta. He stopped at a Starbucks or McDonald’s in Puerto Vallarta and received my email before making his way to the hostel.
Jeff and I grabbed dinner at Pancho’s Takos. Their al pastor (pork spit-grilled similar to shawarma) tacos and quesadillas are famous so I just had to order them. The restaurant was simple and we sat outside eating our delicious tacos washing them down with Pacifico beer. After dinner, we walked along the malecon (promenade/road along the shore) to the pier to get some views of the city. There was a couple at the very end and I caught the end of the man’s marriage proposal. I was happy for them and smiled when I heard her repeatedly saying, “Yes!” So far on my travels, I’ve witnessed two successful proposals (#1 was at the top of the Eiffel Tower).
I sometimes wonder what people think when they see me with my travel partners. I usually travel by myself, so nothing too interesting there although people do love asking where you’re from, where are you going, how long are you travelling, etc. Fellow adventure motorcyclists are usually older Caucasian men. When we’re with our motorcycles in riding gear, it’s simple enough. But what about after we’ve changed and are walking around town? Perhaps we could be travelling on business although the sharing a room (to keep costs down) would go against that. Puerto Vallarta is considered the most welcoming and gay-friendly destination in Mexico with a solid gay scene (including a gay beach)! While walking around relaxedly and declining offers to check out timeshares from touts, I wondered if some people assumed we were more than motorcycle buddies!
There are good and bad people everywhere in this world. I choose to believe the vast majority of people are good. Of course, it is still important to be vigilant and protect oneself from being taken advantage of, but not at the expense of not trusting anyone and being suspicious of everyone. The next story really shows the goodness of people. Jeff was leading us through the narrow city streets of another small town which the highway 200 passes through. We both have enough experience to slow down and be cautious of pedestrians, traffic, and speed bumps. Jeff and I were travelling in the left lane of what we thought was a one-way street. I noticed the car to my right moving a bit towards me to avoid potholes. Within my lane, I moved further away from the right lane just in case the car didn’t see me and veered into my lane further. I maintained a little bit of distance between Jeff and I but I was now directly behind him in the lane position instead of being staggered. We were on the main street cutting through town. As we approached an intersection with no stop sign, I took a look at the side street and noticed a car approaching from the left side which should have been slowing down to stop for us. He stopped at the last moment right before entering the intersection. I looked up and saw Jeff’s rear brake light on as he stopped suddenly. I quickly applied my front and rear brakes but in my horror, my motorcycle slowed, skidded and smacked into the rear of Jeff’s Super Ténéré.
Jeff and his motorcycle lurched forward on impact and I could see Jeff trying to keep the motorcycle upright but he couldn’t and it toppled over to his right side.I was shocked and angry with myself but I was also concerned about Jeff. I turned off the engine and got off my motorcycle to check on Jeff. He was mumbling and seemed to have hurt his right knee. At this point, some passerby stopped to see what was going on. I got a teenage boy to help pick-up Jeff’s Super Ténéré off the ground and move it away from the intersection. Jeff was still down on the ground and not entirely responsive to my questions. His eyes were either closed or glazed over. I was quite worried about him and an ambulance quickly showed up at the scene five minutes after the accident. A paramedic checked on Jeff. He opened up Jeff’s jacket to help cool him down and rolled up his right pant leg to take a look at his knee. I gave Jeff his bottle of water to drink but also to spray over his face. The paramedic asked if we should take him to the hospital but Jeff said he just needed some time to cool down and recover from the trauma. He indicated it was similar to his crash at the White Rim in the Grand Canyon. Together with the paramedic and the teenage boy, we picked Jeff up and moved him to the sidewalk on the corner under some shade. The paramedic checked Jeff’s knee again and and wrapped it up in stretch bandage. Jeff got up and limped around a little bit to test it and said he thought it would be fine. I thanked the paramedics profusely and they indicated that the hospital was only a few blocks away if we needed to go there before they took off.
Ten minutes since the accident and Jeff seemed a lot more responsive now so I was a little bit relieved. I checked his motorcycle to see if there was any major damage. I only noticed a bent license plate and his right footpeg (also acting as a fairing slider) had snapped off when he toppled over on the right side. My motorcycle on the other hand suffered significant damages. The brackets snapped off from the fairing at the windshield mounting points on both sides. The windshield mounting points had been cracked from my crash on the Trans-Labrador Highway in 2011 and I had used ABS epoxy and a clamping piece of metal to try to hold the cracks. Unfortunately, that fix did not survive the impact, even at low speed. Without the support of the windshield brackets, a lot of force of the impact was focused on the central column of the front panel carrier close to steering head which resulted in a crack. I would have to keep track of the crack and address it to prevent it from becoming a major issue. I used duct tape to tape down the fairing cracks and re-secured the windshield mounts to the fairing. I hoped this would be enough to get us to Manzanillo which was a city nearby where we could find a hotel and rest up. When I went back to check on Jeff, I noticed that he now had a quarter full 2L bottle of coke which he got from a homeless man at the corner. He along with his friend were laying on the sidewalk at the street corner where we had the accident and witnessed the aftermath. After Jeff was moved under the shade right beside him, he shared his remaining bottle of coke with Jeff. The sugary liquid seemed to be helping Jeff’s recovery and I was appreciative of the gesture from someone who had so little. I went for a walk and bought a medium bottle of cold coke to give to the homeless man as a thank you.
After Jeff assured me he was good enough to continue riding, we got back on our motorcycles and headed for Manzanillo which was 30 minutes away. I kept my eye on Jeff in my mirrors and used the Bluetooth intercom to ask him how he was doing periodically. I grabbed us a room at the first hotel (Hotel Real Posada) just off the main highway and we called it a day. I gave my bottle of ibuprofin and some wrap bandages to Jeff for his recovery over the next few days and apologized again for running into him. I was glad Jeff was not overtly angry with me and he indicated these type of things happen and fortunately it was not worse. He was also hopeful the injury to his right knee was not overly serious and it would fully recover in a couple of weeks similar to his left knee after his crash at the Grand Canyon. We planned on seeing how he felt the next morning and perhaps aiming for a short ride if he felt up for it. Otherwise we could take extra rest days and decide the next step.
After a night’s rest, Jeff’s knee was sore but he felt good enough to get on the motorcycle. I suggested we do a short day and ride 115km south to San Juan de Alima. It was an easy and enjoyable ride to San Juan de Alima as we followed the winding road along the coast. We left Manzanillo at 11:30am after a late start. We crossed into Michoacán (considered the most dangerous state of Mexico) and arrived an San Juan de Alima just before 2pm. I intended to stop and make it a short and easy day. I pulled over and asked Jeff how he was feeling and whether we should head towards the beach to look for hotel for the night. He said he felt good to continue and preferred to push ahead to the next destination. I was hesitant about that plan because Zihuatanejo (my next planned stop) was 327km and approximately 6 hours further south. That was quite a bit of riding and got us arriving quite close to sundown at 8pm as well. Additionally, I did not want want to be riding around in late afternoon or early evening in a state as infamous as Michoacán. I voiced my concerns to Jeff but he smiled and said, “Well let’s just continue and see how far we can go.” I didn’t have a good feeling about this.
There was a distinct change in the landscape and my perceived security in Michoacán. Once we crossed the state border and past the army checkpoint, the infrastructure and people just seemed a little rougher. I had done a bit of research and read a few travel advisories regarding travel in Michoacán and Guerrero. I know travel advisory warnings are typically excessive but I still read them to understand worst case scenarios. It is important to be cautious while travelling but there’s also an element of chance/luck for bad things to happen. For example, some people get robbed at gunpoint in supposedly safe North American cities. Conversely, many people have no issues travelling through “dangerous” areas with severe travel advisories. What has been in the news recently has been the emergence of vigilante militia groups. Tired of the Cartel’s crimes (murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, etc.) and losing faith in the government’s ability to curb crime, citizens have been taking up arms to form vigilante organizations. These organizations man checkpoints into towns and they have also attacked and captured Narco members. They do not operate under any official authority but have some form of understanding with the Mexican Army and local officials. (NOTE: In January 2014, the vigilante groups reached an agreement with the Government to be incorporated into the old and largely forgotten quasi-military units called the Rural Defence Corps.) Check out Vice’s article and video documentary below.
We were on Mexican Federal Highway 200 passing through a small Michoacán town and came around a bend to see a pick-up truck pull across the highway blocking our way. Three men jumped out of their pick-up and one of them put his right hand up motioning us to stop. It was mid-afternoon and the three men were carrying semi-automatic rifles slung across their chest. They were not wearing any uniforms and I wondered if they were undercover police or part of the vigilante groups. Of course, there was the possibility that they could be members of a Mexican Drug Cartel themselves questioning us to determine if we were part of a rival gang encroaching on their territory. One of the men wearing sunglasses and a pink polo approached Jeff with his hands resting on his rifle. He started asking Jeff some questions in Spanish.
The Dutch people I’ve met in my travels all have outstanding language skills and can usually speak four or five languages. Jeff is not one of them. Even after living in the Ottawa area for approximately 20 years he speaks Dutch, German and English but no French (helpful for learning Spanish). His Spanish skills are nearly non-existent and every morning I had to remind him the Spanish words for “scrambled eggs” when it came time to order breakfast before he started making a whisking motion to the waiter. Over time, whenever a local asked Jeff some questions in Spanish about his trip, he responded with the following sequence complete with hand motions: “Me… Canada… Arctic Circle… Argentina… Mucho loco!!!” The reaction from police and and army personnel at checkpoints are especially entertaining since they are typically only asking where we’re coming from and where we’re going for the day.
The interrogator asked Jeff (who was ahead of me) the question again. I couldn’t quite hear the question and I don’t think Jeff understood it. Jeff replied, “Me…(motioned to himself)…Canada (points above)…Arctic Circle (draws a circle up high)…Argentina…(points downward)…Mucho loco!…(circles his finger around his ear)”. The man looked confused and asked Jeff another question. Jeff replied back with a blank stare and hunched his shoulders. From the little bit that I was catching, it seemed like he was trying to ask what we were doing there. The other two men took a closer look at our motorcycles and looked us up and down but did not say anything. Our interrogator then noticed Jeff’s helmet camera mounted at the top of his helmet facing forward. He started motioning to it and asked Jeff another question. Jeff did not understand what he said but replied back, “Si … it’s filming!” and motioned his index finger in a circle close to the camera to get the message across. The men seemed a bit shifty and asked a few more questions again pointing to the camera. The interrogator looked at me since Jeff had no response. Perhaps they wanted us to shut it off during our questioning but I went along with Jeff’s story and pretended we were just tourists filming the countryside. I built on Jeff’s answer, “Si, camera abierto! Photographia….playa…carretera…paisage”, to crudely indicate the camera was on and we were filming beaches, roads, and landscapes. At this point, he could confidently determine we were tourists and not a threat. He glanced up frequently at the camera perhaps concerned he was being filmed and his face captured on camera. After a brief moment, he stepped back with his two colleagues and motioned for us to move along. As we pulled away, I noticed in my mirror a blue police pick-up truck follow us out of the town before pulling off. Jeff’s helmet cam was not on during the whole exchange.
The whole incident was over within 5 minutes. As we were riding away continuing south along MX200, I was rather surprised by what just happened. I had a ton of questions but I also had a sense of relief that nothing worse happened. I never panicked nor did I have time to feel afraid. How dangerous can a man wearing a pink polo shirt really be? I was now focused on getting to Zihuatanejo and off the street as fast as possible. The road conditions seriously deteriorated and at certain stretches I was weaving quite a bit to avoid deep potholes. We encountered some heavy traffic just before Lázaro Cárdenas and I lost Jeff again. The traffic was extremely slow through a small town and when it stopped, Jeff took a quick look at the right shoulder and took off to go around the stopped vehicle traffic. I wasn’t too fond of riding on the shoulder and when I checked my right mirror I noticed that a small car was coming up along with other small motorcycles preventing me from following Jeff. I figured I would catch-up with Jeff somewhere further along but lost hope after an hour. In the city of Lázaro Cárdenas, I had to turn back from my intended path on the libriamiento (free road) when I saw rocks blocking the road. I then followed MX200 onto the cuota (toll road) and stopped at an overpass just before a toll booth to get change ready. I noticed a blue motorcycle travelling along the highway under the overpass and realized it was Jeff! I quickly clicked on my SENA Bluetooth headset and rapidly told Jeff that I was on the overpass and to pull over to wait for me. It was quite fortunate for us to run into each other like that since we did not have a hotel or destination picked out in Zihuatanejo to meet. It would be another hour before we arrived our Zihuatanejo just past sundown and settled into Hotel Villas Las Azucenas ($48 USD negotiated by Jeff).
Zihuatanejo spent most of its history as a quiet fishing town along the Costa Grande until recently. It was even referenced in the movie “Shawkshank Redemption” as the village where Andy Dufresne would like to live when he gets out. Today, it has been developed as a tourist attraction popular with domestic tourists and sports fishermen. We arrived in Zihuatanejo late and after the incident earlier, Jeff and I agreed it would be a good idea to stay an additional night to relax and check out the town. I spent the free day checking out Playa La Ropa, central Zihuatanejo, and the Museo Arqueologico de la Costa Grande. I enjoyed the relaxing feel of the town and lack of over-the-top commercialization. I would definitely revisit Zihuatanejo one day, but perhaps next time I’ll fly in.
Compared to our ride to Zihuatanejo, the 235km trip to Acapulco was rather uneventful. We continued following MX200 along the Pacific Coast and passed a few fields full of palm trees. The high-rises and high volume of vehicular traffic in Acapulco (pop. over 1 million in the metro area) was quite a shock. It took some time for us to navigate the traffic and find our way to the Home Depot where I was looking for ABS glue or fibreglass repair kit to to fix the crack on the central column of the front panel carrier. We settled into Hotel Marbella for the night and I walked around La Costera for a bit after dinner. In the 50s, Acapulca was a place where the rich and Hollywood elite vacationed on the beach. The situation these days is very different due to the high level of crime and police corruption. It is true that most of the crimes have not targeted tourists but in fact take place in the working neighbourhoods away from the coastal strip. However, Acapulco’s murder rate of 142 killings per 100,000 residents still makes it the second most violent city in the world. With the recent troubles, international tourists have been staying away and while more domestic tourists from Mexico City have been taking their place, Acapulco’s glory has been fading. I didn’t stay out too long. It was quiet during the offseason and I wasn’t interested in checking out the nightlife. The main street was regularly patrolled by blue and white pickup trucks full of Mexican Federal Police Officers armed with a range of semi-automatic weapons.
One night in Acapulco was enough for both of us so we took off for Puerto Escondido (398km) the next morning. There were some lovely views of the Acapulco Bay and Bay of Puerto Marqués as we travelled out of the city to connect with MX200. We got flagged down by a policeman for apparently failing to stop at a traffic light. This time, I was closer to the cop so I spoke to him. I clicked the video record button on the remote to my helmet mounted GoPro Hero 3. At first he thought I was Mexican but then realized we were tourists after I started responding. He asked to check my documents (passport, international driver’s permit, registration). I wondered if I would receive an on-the-spot negotiated “fine” like some motorcyclists experience but I was lucky. He gave me back my documents, warned us to slow down and be more careful since he doesn’t want us to get hurt and let us go on our way. I told Jeff what happened on the intercom as we pulled away and suggested we ride more conservatively. I believe we followed the speed limit for all of half an hour.
It took us 7 hours to reach the beach town of Puerto Escondido due to the winding coastal roads. The last 3 hours were especially miserable because of extremely heavy rain. Absolutely everything was soaked including my socks and boots. I also heard thunder and saw lightning flashing nearby but we had no choice but to keep pushing for Puerto Escondido because there was nowhere to stop and take shelter. Fortunately, I had researched and picked out Le P’tit Hotel in Puerto Escondido so we didn’t have to ride around to find a hotel. We filled up our gas tanks at the station on the outskirts of the city. The gas pump attendant asked the usual questions: Where are you from? Where are you going? How much does the motorcycle cost? When I told him I was from Canada, the attendant and his friends couldn’t believe it. “Chino!” they would reply back. I smiled and shook my head and said, “No chino. Canadiense.” The gas attendant then pointed to his eyes and made the slant-eye gesture. I dismissively laughed it off as the action of a simple non-politically correct man.
The hotel property was nice but it was quiet in the off-season and there was no secure motorcycle parking for our motorcycles. The French owner suggested we ride them up the stairs to the lobby but that was not possible with our big bikes so we left them at the bottom of the steps and covered them up. There wasn’t a lot of tourists in the beach town during the rainy season. I had dinner and watched Mexico lose to the US in a soccer World Cup qualification game. It was not the end of the Mexican’s hope of going to the World Cup but it was another tough loss. Most of the locals were glued to the TV during the game and seemed pretty disgusted with the performance. I strolled around the main street filled with restaurants, art and the usual souvenir shops. I had seen enough and called it a night. The next day of riding to the city of Oaxaca up through the mountains would be a very tiring day.