On a motorcycle you are free. Free to leave when you want. Free to go where you want. Free of time tables. Free of luggage bins. Free of pat-downs. Free of crowds. Free even, at times, of roads. But you aren’t free of your motorcycle and you aren’t free of yourself. These two remain. They aren’t neat and tide like a time table and they aren't as definitive as a boarding pass. They respond to questions with more questions and demand a great deal of faith. You can’t be certain how far you can go because you and your bike have never gone there. Lacking answers, you listen with all your senses and try to feel what your bike feels. You rub the oil in your fingers, you put your ear to the cylinder, you place your hand on the tire. You try to read the signs. You try to read yourself. This is your timetable though the lines are faint.
You are the way and the wayfarers.
After an unpleasantly prolonged stay in Mazatlan, I felt restless. We had been delayed four days. Although delay is a strange word given our context. We are not going anywhere specifically at any time specifically. Still somehow, there was a vague sense of space and our movement through it that had been disrupted and it made me anxious. Mazatlan had quickly satisfied my expectations, which were low and I was all too ready to get on the road.
The single site in the area that I wanted to visit was Baluarte Bridge, an hour and a half ride on the road to Durango. It is the highest cable bridge in the Americas and a spectacular site to behold, spanning a gorge deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. I hadn’t managed to ride out to see it by the time we left and unfortunately our planned route would take us in the opposite direction. I knew I would be kicking myself if we missed our chance to drive over it, so we decided to head out early, cross the bridge, return the way we came and then take the toll roads all the way to San Blas. It would be a long day for us.
The bridge did not disappoint. We rode through tunnel after tunnel carved through the mountains until we at last emerge to see the bridge itself directly before us. Although many people drive out to see the bridge, the engineers clearly did not have tourism in mind when the designed it. There was no place to pull over to take a picture or get a good view. Though the highway was crowded with semi-trucks, we risked stopping on the shoulder and snapped a few pictures. Then we crossed the bridge, pulled a u-turn, crossed it again and headed back the way we came.
A note on driving on Mexican highways. There are a lot of trucks. Some move recklessly fast, some move impossibly slow. There are frequently only two lanes, and generally there are no shoulders. As everyone on the highway is moving at their own pace, passing is a necessity. Trucks will kindly signal with their left turn signal when the way is clear. Sometimes, if there is a little bit of a shoulder they will also pull over a few feet to give you more space to pass. Likewise, oncoming traffic will pull over to their right to allow maximum room in the center. At times this method can be hair-raising, but I find it preferable to the butthurt lane hog in the US, who will neither increase speed nor give way, determined that he has discovered the one true speed and would rather go to his grave protecting it than allow the indignity of being overtaken.
I remember one particular curve in which I was passing two slow moving but congenial semi trucks simultaneously when, to my astonishment, I was likewise overtaken by a Volkswagen who found that I was not passing quickly enough. In Mexico, driving is not for the timid.
Mazatlan to San Blas
The toll roads were smooth and meticulously maintained, but much pricier than I had expected. Each toll charge varied, but in total I believe we spent almost 400 pesos on the 200 or so miles between Mazatlan and San Blas. There were no towns and scarcely any restaurants or gas stations along the road. When we did at last pass one, we filled up the tank and ate at the singal restaurant, which happened to be a Subway. We were hungry and weren’t willing to risk waiting for the next opportunity to eat.
We were exhausted when we reached San Blas and agreed to forgo toll roads in the future whenever possible. They were quick, but joyless. We took to San Blas immediately and set out to find our destination for the night, a surf camp called Stoners (named for a famous wave nearby, not the surfers who come to ride it). We set up our tent at dusk beneath a palapa on the beach. It was hot and muggy so we thought it would be a good idea to leave the rain fly off for the night.
San Blas has a reputation for an overpopulation of ravenous sand flies. They are called jejenes. They are tiny and at dawn and dusk they are a blight, biting everything they can and leaving horribly itchy little welts. No restaurant on the beach opens very early or stays open very late because of the bugs. But there is a silver lining. San Blas retains a rustic charm mostly unchanged for 40 years or more while other surrounding towns, for better and worse, have seen a significant influx of foreign tourists. We took to it right away.
Our first night at midnight it rained mightily. We were asleep in our tent beneath a palapa when the wind and rain came, suddenly and hard. We rushed out of the tent and desperately tried to tie down the fly. Fighting the wind, we eventually got the fly tied down. The downpour only lasted about 30 minutes, but our clothes were thoroughly drenched, there were puddles of water inside the tent, and the wind had blown out the vinyl window in the fly, so it was impossible to keep the water out if it started raining again. We decided to abandon the tent for the empty palapa above us. It wasn’t completely water tight, but was a lot drier than down below. We huddled together on a dusty mattress with only a dry sleeping bag liner to cover us and fell asleep.
We remained in the palapa for the next two nights, though the rain did not return. After San Blas, we continued south in the state of Nayarit to the town of San Francisco (or San Pancho colloquially). We had heard it was a cool town and felt it was imperative to stay a night at the namesake of the city from which we began our journey. Although San Pancho is a very small town it exhibits a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe. It is well manicured and is awash in trendy restaurants and storefronts. I immediately had the impression that many people living there were not local. When I accidentally turned the wrong way down a one way street, someone leaned out of her window and reprimanded me. I had never before seen evidence that Mexicans give a second thought about traffic laws. Nonetheless it was a thoroughly comfortable town for a young tourist. The main street had everything we needed, affordable lodging, fresh ceviche, good coffee, and at the end, some fine surf. We contemplated spending a couple nights, but the following morning decided to move on to some new scenery.
San Blas to Barra de Navidad
Although we had a lengthy ride ahead of us, we stopped in Sayulita for breakfast. We were impressed with neither the town nor the breakfast. I can imagine that the town was cool not long ago, but not much of that is left. The streets are teeming with the kind of disingenuous young tourists who believe that because they have raised enough gumption to board a bus and ride it just beyond the edges of Puerto Vallarta, they are not really tourists anymore. The shops display many of the quick trendy takeaways of Mexican culture popular with the hip crowd: dia de los muertos, Frida Kahlo, dia de los muertos Frida Kahlo. The beach is pretty but overcrowded. I’m sure somewhere something cool and genuine remains, but we were not inspired to explore.
Puerto Vallarta, like many cities, starts to appear long before you cross the urban boundaries. We wanted to pass through as quickly as possible, and for that reason, the city felt interminable. Again and again we thought we had entered the city, only to realize that it was still further down the coast. To follow the highway, we had to cross directly through the center of the city on a cobble stone road. It seemed absurd, but even more absurd was how difficult it was to return to the highway upon passing through downtown. I kept driving in circles down one-way cobblestone alleys, eventually we emerged on the highway only to discover shortly after that we were driving northward not southward as I intended. I made a u-turn and began the process of confusion over again from the beginning.
We knew that riding all the way to Barra de Navidad on the south facing Pacific Coast was a long shot, but after being delayed in Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta, it seemed quite impossible before dark. Nonetheless we had no other plan and there weren’t many town on the map in the interim. We decided to ride until dusk and stop when it was necessary.
After Puerto Vallarta, the ride became quite beautiful and curvy. We finally felt like we were on the road again. The destination was arbitrary. As we moved south, the scenery became less tropical and began to resemble, in its topography and foliage, the southern United States.
The sun was low in the sky and we were contemplating lodging for the night when the pavement abruptly came to an end. From Puerto Vallarta up to this point the pavement had been some of the smoothest and most consistent we had seen in Mexico. Suddenly we found ourselves on a dirt road carved out of the side of a hill. There was no sign indicating that this construction existed let alone how far it continued. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck on an extensive dirt road in the hills in the dark. We had just passed through a small agricultural village. I had seen a hotel, but it did not appear to be open and I dreaded turning around to find out.
Often you get a feeling about a place without being able to define where the feeling comes from. It is important to trust those instincts, especially when you have no other source of information at your disposal. I did not have a good feeling about the small town with the decrepit hotel.
I saw a construction worker and pulled over to ask, in my broken Spanish, how far the road was bad like this. He stared back at me, thoroughly confused. Diana repeated my question in her more fluent Spanish. He still seems confused. This is it, he said. It is fine after this.
Apparently, we had stopped at the only point on the road where you could see neither the beginning nor the end of the construction. From this vantage point it appeared that the dirt road would continue indefinitely, but sure enough, just around the next corner, the pavement reemerged just as glittering black and smooth as before.
We stayed that night at a modestly furnished, entirely empty, and strangely overpriced hotel 40 miles short of Barra de Navidad. Diana and I were both not feeling well, in part because we had ridden all day without stopping to eat. The smell of the gasoline escaping from the breather valve in the tank was beginning to make me nauseous. I swear the gas was more noxious in Jalisco than in Nayarit.
The roads in the town were dirt and there only appeared to be one taqueria open. There didn’t appear to be anything else in the town, but for some reason it was popular with foreign tourists, hence the inflated hotel price. Oftentimes there doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between cost and reality.
Value is a peculiar socially derived concept. When you are stationary value seems stable and almost natural, but when you are constantly moving and shifting your social context, value becomes increasingly nebulous and unreal. You can’t be certain what age-old agreements have been made, what invisible contracts signed. Maybe this explains backpackers’ obsession with quoting the price of things. How much does a taco cost in Seattle and Tijuana and San Pancho and Guadalajara and Barra de Navidad? The fact that it costs exactly what you and everyone else are willing to pay for it is an incredibly unsettling answer. Subtracting the difference perhaps returns some ground beneath your feet.
Then again, it is possible that we simply missed something. How much can one understand about a place after one nauseated night?
In the morning we drove to Barra de Navidad and bought some coffee. We still weren’t sure why we had ridden all that way, and at least the coffee provided some semblance of closure. We glanced at the beach. It did look beautiful and tranquil. However it was lined in both directions with hotels and resorts.
The road from Barra de Navidad to Guadalajara was entirely enjoyable. In fact, I don’t remember it terribly well. We arrived in Guadalajara just as the sun was setting and crept through traffic for an hour. In spite of the slow welcome I took an immediate and inexplicable liking for the city. It had been a month and a half since we left LA and I think maybe I was excited to see a proper city again.