Border crossings are generally a cause of concern for any traveler and rightly so. Language barriers, cultural differences and the inevitable unexpected. They can make for a pretty stressful experience. I'd researched Mexican border crossings well so had a fair idea of what to expect.
Leaving the US was very easy. We paid a toll to cross a bridge whereupon half way across we were technically on Mexican soil. We then trepidatiously proceeded through a customs checkpoint where some officials had a root through our luggage for any contraband. I’d read unsurprisingly that smiling and being able to exchange simple pleasantries in Spanish goes along way with getting on the Mexican people, official or not so with that in mind the pearly-whites were out 'Hola’s’ were thrown around. We breezed through but finding the Immigration office proved to be trickier than we thought. After a few wrong turns we eventually found it. The process was relatively simple. We showed our passports, filled out a form to get our Tourist Visas then did the similar to obtain the Temporary Vehicle Import Permits. It was definitely an easier process than what I was expecting.
They say the most dangerous areas of Mexico are all within 100 miles of the border so with that in mind, we pointed the bikes towards Monterrey and gunned it. Our first glimpse of the troubles of Mexico was were apparent all the way to Monterrey. Pickup trucks of balaclaved, heavily-armored and M16-toting Federales were regular sightings on the road. While a bit unnerving at first, we soon accepted it as the norm in these high-risk areas and that a shootout was luckily not imminent.
We casually picked out a well reviewed campsite on Google Maps outside Monterrey in Hidalgo the preceding night. La Posada at El Potrero Chico. Not expecting much, we were pleasantly surprised. After riding around lost for a few minutes in the town of Hidalgo, we had a helpful chap on a scrambler escort us right up to the campsite. The place turned out to be a fantastic world famous rock-climbing site, one of the top 10 sport climbs in the world apparently. Sadly, we were told two rock-climbers perished on the rock face only in January, both with a few days of each other. What made it worse was that there had never been a death prior to that.
It was Easter so the place was packed with foreign climbers and vacationing Mexicans alike. There was a pool, hammocks suspended over water and an inexpensive, tasty restaurant. Details of our trip soon spread around the camp and we soon became known as 'them guys riding motorcycles to Argentina’. It was a great conversation-starter and we met a bunch of cool folks who had a ton of recommendations for us to hit up on our way South.
The one day we had wanted to hike the mountain, it rained, so instead we went to check out a hot springs which was recommended to us about an hour away into the desert. When we got there, we were in awe at this random, well-built, underground hot spring that resembled a big Russian bathhouse. The smell of sulphur was strong and the water was a roasting 38C/100F. We lapped it up though and spent several hours there, relaxing and stretching out any kinks we'd accumulated over the last few days of hammock sleeping.
Due to the relaxed, play it by ear nature of our trip, we ambitiously scribbled down any recommendations people gave us on our route South. This is how we learnt about Real de Catorce, a beautiful old town 9000ft up in the Sierra Catorce mountains of the San Luis Potosi state. Translated, 'Royal Fourteen' it was named after 14 Spanish soldiers were ambushed by an indigenous Mexican tribe during colonial days. 'The Mexican' starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts filmed here. A once thriving silver mining settlement(abandoned in 1900 when price of silver plummeted) which is now a pilgrimage site of Huichol Indian shamanists who walk for weeks to get here to perform their sacred rituals. The areas has a reputed spiritual energy and is known for it’s abundance of peyote cactus which the Huichol use in their rituals to guide their consciousness and spirit.
The ride to Real de Catorce was not without excitement. We witnessed the landscape change dramatically from arid outback to cactus desert. What Google maps failed to tell us however was that there were two roads to the town. One was 27km of windy, cobblestoned road which finally led you through Ogarrio Tunnel, a 2.5km old mining tunnel. The was the easy way. The other was 8km of incredibly steep, narrow and rocky road with 70-100 foot drops and no guardrail. I made the mistake of stopping the bikes on one of the steepest parts of the road when Pat got held up and I couldn’t get around him. Trying to get the fully-loaded bike going uphill again whilst avoiding it slipping backwards down the mountain was very hard. The altitude made staying in first gear without conking out and rolling out near impossible. After several failed attempts to get enough traction and forward momentum I had dropped my bike twice. It took Pat standing behind me and stopping me rolling backwards for me to finally get enough juice and traction to get moving again and I did not stop until I got to the top. It was by far the most hair-raising and nervy half an hour I’ve had on the bike. Had we known what we were getting into, I doubt we would even have attempted it. We survived it though and beat the crap out of our bikes. In retrospect it made for some good hardcore off-road experience and really tested our mettle and limits.
Real de Catorce is known for its caballeros(cowboys) so taking a horse ride up to the sacred Huichol Indian ritual site an hour and a half up a mountain seemed like a fitting activity for a half day. Randomly enough it would be my first time up on a horse. I’d been up on an ostrich and a camel but how was this my first time holding the reigns of the equine variety??! Another ‘first’ on this trip I thought.
Once we agreed on a price for the three hour trek (only 400MXN Peso or 26USD), our guide Bernardino disappeared to fetch our horseys. He returned with two grand beasts, brown Sino and a white stallion called Guerara. Since we both had eyes for the caballo blanco, me and Pat decided to flip a coin for him. Yours truly won and after a very basic, quick horseriding tutorial, we were off, practically airborn between trots and holding on for dear life.
Having only just gotten used to taming the 33 horses of my 2 wheeled beast, controlling a cheeky animal who insisted on playing chicken/chase with the other horse Sino was a different kettle of fish altogether. Despite the beating my arse took, it was brilliant. We even got to do the ritual and enter the sacred area with the watchful eye of our guy Bernardino.
Having had our fill of the mountainous altitude and hippy vibes, we set off deeper south into the San Luis Potosi state towards the famed mineral water swimming-hole, Laguna de la Media Luna in Rio Verde.
On the next update: Scuba diving at Media Luna, Surrealist Garden exploring at Xilitla and the cosmopolitan life in Mexico City DF(April 12th - April 19th).