Riding the Sierra Madre

Story by Clinton Smout// Photos by Richard and Christie Prine, and Clinton Smout
September 1 2014

Mexico’s spectacular mountain regions

I rode over the hill to see the brake lights of the three riders in front of me. Then I saw ten men, some wearing masks. They were holding machine guns and motioned us to stop. I thought about the things I had heard or read in the media and from friends about travelling in Mexico. I assumed we were all going to be robbed, our BMWs stolen, or worse. It was the Mexican Army doing a routine roadside stop. The leader was very polite and simply asked John Gilbank, our tour guide, where we were coming from and where we were going. We were simply six Canadian gringos on a six-day guided tour with Riders of the Sierra Madre (ridethesierra.com), a tour company based in Mexico, owned and operated by transplanted Canadians.

mexico travelIn the days preceding my flight to Mexico, I was a bit worried. Media, friends and even the Canadian travel advisory board gave dire warning of risks to tourists. The number-one concern for me was crime. Based on what I had been told, I would be mugged, shot up in a drug cartel war or arrested for not bribing corrupt police and left to rot in a Mexican jail. My concerns were unfounded. In six days of travelling, the only crime I witnessed was some of my own riding. The Canadian tour organizers, John and Lynn Gilbank, live in Ajijic, Mexico, and in five seasons and approximately 26 tours they have never had an issue with crime on any of their tours. I often walked around Ajijic with my camera before and after riding, and met hundreds of residents. If I made eye contact, they always had a friendly greeting for me. I was lost a few times and was always helped, even when my rescuer didn’t understand English. They were all very accommodating.

My paranoia did cause me to pack a backup plan. I carried a second wallet filled with other people’s business cards and papers that couldn’t be traced to me. I also stuffed in a wad of Canadian Tire money. Smart, eh? If I got held up, I was sure the banditos would be fooled. As it turned out, I forgot about the wallet until my return flight, when a United States Customs agent in Atlanta, Georgia, found it in my riding jacket. He wondered why I had two wallets with different identities. Those guys have no sense of humour.

I was scheduled to experience the Hub and Spoke tour. Each morning, we would depart from our home base of Ajijic (half an hour from Guadalajara) and head out in a different direction. This city lies in the heart of Mexico, a thousand kilometres from the American border, on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountains. At 1538 metres above sea level, the high altitude reduces the humidity and the tropical latitude makes for a great year-round climate.

Before I left, my family and friends lectured me. “Don’t drink the water, don’t eat the fruit or have ice cubes in your drinks.” Breakfasts and dinners were held at one of Ajijic’s restaurants or came from Lynn’s fabulous home cuisine. As a result of John and Lynn’s years of research in the area, our lunch stops on the road also offered great meals. Fresh fruit is inexpensive and available everywhere. Being with experts who could explain the menu meant I returned home with a healthy digestive tract and an appreciation for Mexican food – I even gained a couple of pounds.

The Mexican government has spent billions on roads and signage in recent years. We spent very little time on multi-lane highways, but when we did, they looked just like our own. The big difference is the nostalgic variety of vehicles used in Mexico. Rust isn’t a big issue in this climate, and people aren’t as quick to discard old for new, nor can most afford to. I loved seeing forty-year-old Toyotas, Chevy trucks and Volkswagen Beetles. They are still plugging along and had the beautiful patina that only age can give them.

mexico The travel routes John and his team chose were mostly two-lane paved roads. There were some potholes and uneven pavement, but for the most part the roads were fantastic. One of the best parts of the guided tour was going off the main roads into the small towns and villages to see the real Mexico. The roads were often cobbled with rocks of various sizes. It was bumpy, but nothing the electronically adjustable ESA suspension of the BMW GS couldn’t handle. Speeds in this area were controlled by speed bumps called topes. There was no uniformity of size or design of the bumps, but I found that standing up was the best way to handle them. If I slowed down to second-gear speeds and preloaded the suspension by standing up, I could launch off the bigger speed bumps with a shot of throttle.

I hadn’t realized Mexico was so mountainous. The route selection took us on the best curvy motorcycle roads I have ever ridden. Western Canada or the Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee doesn’t come close. On the second-to-last day, we rode 350 km through the mountainous roads north of Guadalajara. Without traffic congestion, I really got into carving through the amazing canyons. The F700GS I rode was perfect for the third- and fourth-gear curves. I enjoyed the great brakes, tires and strong fuel-injected motor, which pulled perfectly despite some elevations of over 2100 metres. The canyon scenery was spectacular, but focusing on the road was important – guardrails are few and the drop-offs huge. It’s also prudent to keep a lookout for rocks and gravel – and sometimes a free-range horse or cow might cross your path.

There is a different attitude about safety on Mexican roads, and traffic laws are loosely interpreted. In our first riders’ meeting, John told us we were going to break the law. I sat there (Mr. Chief Instructor) thinking, “Ha, you might buddy, but I will obey all the signs.” That is, until I attempted to obey the first stop sign. I was lucky that the bus had marginal brakes, since I heard the squeal coming up behind me, which translated into “move estupido, and don’t stop at the stop signs since most drivers won’t expect it.” In Canada, we frown on people who drive with a dog in the back of their truck. I counted nine people in the back and four in the cab of a two-seater 1983 Toyota pickup. The predominant motorcycle size is 125 cc, which could be due to the helmet law for bikes 150 cc and up, but it isn’t enforced much. It was common to see three people riding on a scooter, with no protective gear or helmets. ATVs are also popular on the road, and I got used to seeing entire families on one tired unit.

Riders of the Sierra Madre has a good selection of BMW GS bikes ranging from the F650GS to the new liquid-cooled R1200GS. The bikes are all expertly maintained in perfect condition by a BMW dealer in Guadalajara. The GS fits perfectly into Mexico’s variety of roads. It was easy to adjust the suspension on the fly – as the road surfaces frequently changed – simply by pushing the ESA button. Having fuel injection also allays the worry that elevation change creates about carbureted bikes. The GSs are very comfortable for touring, yet can easily carve the incredible canyon roads.

My tour mates, Maureen and Armen, rode two-up on the R1200GS during the tour. They spend a lot of time on the road at home in British Columbia on either their Kawasaki ZX-1400 or Harley touring bike. I won’t be surprised to hear that they found room for a new BMW GS in the garage. The other couple with us, Dee and Keith, were on a F700GS like myself. Keith has a Kawasaki KLR 650 now, but has owned dozens of bikes over the years. Dee did amazing in Mexico with very little experience as a passenger. I did feel a little goofy riding solo, but I’m looking forward to going back next year with my wife, who will love the riding as much as the great destinations we travelled to. Perhaps the Hub, Spoke and Beach tour will be the perfect fit for both of us.

Hub and Spoke GuadalajaraWe did a great mix of riding and hiking on foot, allowing us to get a better glimpse into Mexico’s history. John has met many local entrepreneurs at the various destinations. For example: Jose gave us an exciting boat ride on Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, to an historic fort on Mezcala island. His cousin drove the boat, his buddies took care of us on the island, and his wife prepared the fantastic lunch after our exploration of the fort. At another stop, we were able to ride our bikes right into the Hacienda El Carmen’s courtyard for photos. The Hacienda was originally constructed by Carmelite monks in the early 1700s and is now a beautiful hotel-spa.

Later, we rode to the round pyramid archaeological site known as Guachimontones. The amazing tour describes life of the Teuchitlan tradition, a complex society that predates the Aztecs and the Mayans.

On our last day of the trip, we visited some other “Canadians” wintering in Mexico. Over one thousand pelicans from Great Slave Lake fly down every year to the shores of Lake Chapala. John paid two of the local fishermen’s children to throw fish bits to the shy pelicans, who ventured up on shore near us for a photo op.

All the other tours provided by Riders of the Sierra Madre run from October to April and travel further into Mexico, staying each night in first-class hotels. You can still travel light, since Lynn follows in the support vehicle. I now have a great appreciation for the benefits of travelling with a guided tour company. They provide much more than just a bike. Having the experience and know-how of people who live in Mexico was invaluable. I would have gotten lost riding around on my own for sure, but with John or Ray leading, I could relax and just follow them on amazing roads that would have taken me years to locate. Knowing where to go is half the battle. Then there’s the language barrier.

The Spanish I learned from Speedy Gonzales (remember the little TV cartoon mouse?) would not have helped me when lost or trying to order food. As hosts, I give our tour operators and their staff top marks. It is a very good sign when business owners talk fondly of past customers by their first names. The passion John and Lynn have for Mexico’s history and her people is infectious. The riding every day was amazing, and it was fun getting together at the end of each day to relax and talk bikes with other bike nuts. Doing it all in 30 degree Celsius temperatures under clear skies in November was just perfect. Muchas gracias mis amigos! We’ll see you next year.


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