Most of the towns along the Ruta Rio Sonora were built in the 17th Century and each has a beautiful plaza and cathedral. Here are some photos of a few of them. Click here to read about our experiences riding the Ruta.
Our first day of cycling into Mexico was so inspiring that I felt the need to make a photo post that night. The ride just continued to get better. We started our day out of Esqueda with a completely unnecessary hill up to get money at the only ATM in town. It was at a store in some sort of weird, almost gated suburb. I say, “almost gated” because they had a security guard at the entrance, but he was posted just past an intersection where you could have turned left and gotten into the neighborhood anyway. We had to go to this ATM because we were running dangerously low on cash, which can be quite a problem in rural Mexico where you are rarely able to use a card, and cash machines are few and far between. Luckily this town had one, albeit at the top of that aforementioned hill.
After scoring our cash, we continued on that wonderfully lightly traveled highway south for a few miles. We had been told of another route, the Ruta Rio Sonora, a bit further to the west, which follows the Sonora River and passes through about a dozen small and lovely villages. I had scouted on Google a connection to that route that crossed over a small mountain range, but it appeared from the satellite view that it was gravel. We have done this before, so we decided to make a go for it. I had been expecting to need to do a bit of sleuthing on the go to find the turnoff, but was pleased to find a huge sign for Bacoachi pointing down a paved road.
As we rolled up and down the grassy hills, we kept expecting the pavement to end at every corner, but it never did! It often deteriorated to a point that reigned in our downhill speeds, but it never lost the surface. The few cars we did encounter were courteous, as usual, although we were reminded of the dangers of the curvy mountain roads as we encountered this on our way up the pass:
The fun thing about passes is that you wind and wind and climb and climb. When you have a view, it gets way better way faster than seems reasonable. You keep going and going. It’s hard work and you take breaks and feel really cool whenever a car goes by and sees how badass you are. Then all of a sudden, you break through and are staring at a completely different country. Everything changes, your view, your effort, your temperature, and sometimes even the entire climate. Wow.
This pass was steep enough that we had to employ the switchback method, but it didn’t last too long and soon we were presented with a sweeping view of the Sonora Valley.
It seems we have again taken a pass in the correct direction as we coasted downhill for a blissful seven miles as the road swung around tight curves and ran ridgelines all the way down. The landscape had looked rather rumply from the terrain view and I had been worried that would mean a lot of useless ups and downs. I have to hand it to the engineers because they kept that road consistent, even if it meant a million tight curves. Never fear though, we’d get plenty of useless ups and downs a couple days hence.
We pulled into the sleepy plaza of Bacoachi and asked some older locals who were lounging around where we could find a hotel. This led to the typical questions, which led to an invitation for coffee, which soon led to us inside their home eating some hearty soup and chocolate flan. Soon Jaime took our visit as an excuse to bust out the accordion and play some tunes. Jaime and Elodie have been living in the United States for decades, but come down to this house Elodie’s parents built whenever possible.
After spending some time with them, Elodie took us over to the hotel. The rooms were big and lovely with handmade wood doors, windows and a roof from local trees, but it was a bit more expensive than the previous couple nights (like three bucks) and had no internet or heat. Elodie told us there was going to be a dance later and that she would be going. I also gathered that her daughter was in the band, which seemed odd because the daughter we met did not seem like the type to play in a band.
We happily took our showers and theeen … the beeeed … seeeeeemed … soooo … comf……
We awoke with a start and were horrified to find that something had happened to the sun causing it to vanish entirely. It was suddenly almost time to go to the party! We made some quick couscous (our secret cyclist fuel) using the coffee pot and followed the music to the party. We were obviously too early because there were about six people there sitting around awkwardly with insanely loud music. We decided to go back over to the house and see when they would be coming. It turns out that they were not going, and the daughter was not in the band, but rather the daughter was going to the party. There wasn’t really anyone around and it seemed like there was a bit of an argument going on. We were sitting at the table looking at each other. We were just getting up to go and Elodie told us, “no, no! Don’t go yet. I’m making hot chocolate,” so we sat down and right at that moment another couple came in. It was her sister who’d just arrived from LA and another fellow. We ended up talking with them for a couple hours while we waited for the kids to get ready for the dance. The guy, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, gave us some of the local mescal called bacanora, which was delicious (from what we’ve since gathered, we must have been very lucky to have tasted the only remotely palatable bacanora in the country). He was really excited about our trip and had a huge warm smile on his face by the time we left. I could tell we were doing something that touched his heart deeply, and it made me feel really good. Perhaps he’d dreamed of such a trip long ago and it made him happy to see it happening to someone firsthand, or was just a similar wandering type.
The three kids drove us to the dance, which was ridiculous considering it was about three blocks. To be fair though, they did go to the gas station to buy drinks first. The party was in full swing when we arrived. The place was really just a big room mostly taken up by the open dance space in front of the stage. There were a few tables around the outside that were filled with people who were sitting around watching the dancers. The band was on break when we arrived and it was funny that everyone kept the dance area completely clear and packed in around the outside. After the band started up again we stood around for quite a bit watching and being shy about dancing. We both like to dance, but have never really done much partner dancing, so it took us a bit to get going. Eventually we got out on the floor and had a ball. At first tons of people were bumping into us and I was thinking, ‘I must be doing something wrong. There must be a flow.’ We both realized at the same time that the entire group of dancers continuously moves in a circle, and we started looking slightly less foolish, and had a gas twirling around and laughing. We finally got out of there at 1 am because we were planning to, ya know, bike over a mountain the next day. At least we didn’t get hammered.
We had been invited over to breakfast the next morning and didn’t want to be rude and skip it, but were also worried about when we would be able to get going. We also had a really difficult time getting up thanks to the late night and the fact that the room was downright frigid, but went over nonetheless. Jaime was the only one up when we got there and he heated up some coffee while we talked more about his love of motorcycling and the work he has done in the States. Elodie came out and cooked us a delicious breakfast and eventually the kids shuffled to the table looking very much like they had closed the party. We did indeed get a late start and weren’t on the road until 11 am, but we had a wonderful visit and everyone saw us off with well wishes. They invited us over for New Years, but crossing mountains is always a one-way trip for us.
We had been told that it was flat for 40 minutes driving before it the big mountain comes up. Of course we all know that means you have several miles of ups and downs. They really weren’t all that bad and the scenery was very nice. It was also noticeably warmer than yesterday. At the base of the climb is a small town called Buena Vista. This was not at all a misnomer as it and some bucolic farm fields sat in a small valley of bubbly walled cliffs within the larger valley we’d been in all day. There really was a lot going on with the scenery around this particular hamlet, but we weren’t concerned with the scenery for long because the road got right to it. Without any foreplay, the road dropped steeply down to a bridge and then cranked right back up the other side. The shadows made it look less severe, so of course we didn’t downshift quickly enough as our speed tanked from 25 mph to 3. No matter, at least we wouldn’t have to think about shifting again for the next two hours as we carved our own switchbacks all the way up. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic so we were able to take over the road for the most part. Some more luck came our way when we happened to be on one of the rare straightaways when a truck came down carrying one of the widest loads I’ve ever seen. It was a massive cylinder that could have held a house. Memories of the wrecked truck from the previous day swam through my head and I was grateful not to have met it on the wrong side of the road at the bottom of a tight curve. We were false summited once, but the real summit could not be mistaken. We broke through at a junction with a small road to a TV tower. I had actually seen the tower road from below and had been horrified as I thought that even steeper piece of crap was the future of our road. The junction had incredible views of both valleys and we took that opportunity for a much needed break. The maddening part is that the same river flows through both valleys, which begs the question of why the hell the road goes over the mountain. The connecting section of the river must contain some insane topography. There was a bit more climbing before we saw with rejoice the sign that said, “Frene Con Motor,” which means “Brake with Motor.” The downhill was just as steep and we blazed down in a matter of minutes. At the bottom we had to ford what appeared to be a fairly deep river fraught with dangerous potholes. We watched a sedan go through and almost upend itself as it dropped into a massive pothole, but then the water turned out to be clear and the crossing was shallow and easy.
We were exhausted when we got to Arizpe and checked into the hotel at the edge of town. I just wanted to get dinner and crash, but this is the point where we realized that we only had 100 pesos left, and there would be no ATM before Baviácora, which we would not reach for two days. Yup, that meant more couscous. Of course, I didn’t feel like cooking outside, so I set my JetBoil in the bathroom so as not to fill the bedroom with fumes. I set the dry couscous on top of the toilet, which happened to have a slight, invisible slant. I caught it before the whole thing hit the floor, but there was still a massive spill of couscous all over the toilet seat and floor. Cleaning up thousands of granules of pasta in a bathroom without a broom was exactly how I wanted my evening to end. Well, we did have warm beds and good internet, and after a beautiful day of riding, I cannot complain.
We got up with the full intention of going to Aconchi where we’d heard there were some thermal baths and camping. We no longer had Google cycling directions since we passed into Mexico, so we had to resort to looking at the terrain view and kind of guessing what the road was doing in those parts. It appeared as though the bulk of the climbing had been done coming to Arizpe, and after that we’d be in a broad valley following the river downhill. While yes, we were trending downhill, there were a lot of, how shall I say, depressions in the road. You know the type; the terrain looks pretty flat, but then the road dives into a deep, narrow ravine with a waterway of little note, and then goes right back up the other side just as steeply. These are the ones where when going down, the surface of the road on the other side appears to be pointed straight at you. Well, today was pretty much just a continuous series of these. As soon as you crested one, you’d instantly see one or two more right in front of you. The scenery was nice, but damn, here were those useless ups and downs we’d avoided the other day.
As we were taking a break on this shockingly long half-mile flat, a couple SUVs with gringos whizzed by waving. The second one screeched to a halt and Gil and Izzie came out with big smiles on their faces. Gil said he’d seen us and knew he had to come talk to us. He had done his fair share of cycle touring, but mainly supported tours, so he was excited to talk to people doing what we were. We chatted for a bit and they invited us for a beer at the posada where they were staying in the next town. This sounded like a great idea to me. The town was only a couple miles away.
I looked at my odometer and saw that it was actually more like eight miles. Drat! We rode on ahead and found a couple more of our pals, those lovely ravines. Eventually it straightened out a bit and we had a nice ride and we triumphantly saw a sign for the posada indicating it was 2 km away. Yes! Almost there! No!! Two more steep hills!
We pulled into the beautiful Posada del Rio Sonora and Gil told us they were planning on getting us a room there and then taking us to the hot springs. Sweet! It was especially cool because the blog of the owner of the posada had actually been one of the sources I’d used to find info on the route, and I’d loved the look of the place, but it would have been way out of our price range.
The springs were some of the best we’ve ever seen. They had been developed long ago with the construction of a bunch of pools and complicated aqueduct network, but it had all been left outdoors and the combination of natural and built really worked. The water was a good temperature when we were there and had no odor. We unfortunately did not take any photos because we foolishly believed we’d be camping there later and could get better ones in improved light. Oh well, we passed a lovely evening with our new friends there.
Over dinner at the posada we met another buddy of theirs, Steven, a Mexican/US citizen who grew up near the border and now had a small off-grid farm just across the river where he was building using natural materials techniques.
Gil and Izzie took us out to see the farm the next morning and we immediately worked out with Steven that we would stay for a few days and give him a hand preparing the place for some new construction he’d be embarking on shortly.
The nice thing about only going two miles in one day is that you can leave whenever the hell you want, even mid-afternoon! The bumpy and sandy road to the farm was actually much easier than expected and we only had to push about a quarter of the way. There recently was a disaster at a mine upstream and millions of gallons of water and chemicals burst forth from a dam and flooded the area. The flood washed away some of the road, which doesn’t have a bridge, so the new tire tracks across the dry river were especially loose. People were talking about this event quite a bit here because it impacted them severely. They were still not drinking the water and the government was shipping in clean water for the villages along the Rio Sonora. There were lots of arguments about whether or not the drinking water sources had been contaminated and the villagers didn’t really trust anything at this point. The government was trying to wring as much money out of the mine as possible, so some people were saying that they were extending the period of hassle for the villagers. It was a big deal. Funny we didn’t hear anything about all this business in the US while being warned against getting our heads chopped off. Nope, didn’t hear anything about this really big, really real, right across the border event. An event that, ya know, just actually happened, as in for real, 30 miles from the border. In fact, some of the spill actually entered the headwaters of the San Pedro River, which flows north into Arizona and is an important migratory bird corridor.
The dirt road was a perfect country road through farms, mud brick houses and along fence lines. It’s one of those little roads that make you feel like you’re in some other century, or a book about hairy-footed little people. The village of Banámichi looked particularly lovely up on its little hill with the white church tower poking above palm trees and low white buildings. Steven’s property has a little irrigation canal running through a small woodlot on the end, and his first mud brick building sits with a view of the village in the distance over a field of dried corn stalks.
We spent two full days on the farm helping out. We didn’t actually do any working of the land, but I do recall a lot of sanding of some shelves he’d had milled from a black walnut limb from his woodlot. We also moved a lot of stuff around.
In the evenings we’d sit and watch the bird life circling around doing what they do. There was one really annoying squawky species that was pretty prevalent. I don’t think it was a parrot, but it was close in sound. My favorite was the vermillion flycatcher who sat on top of a nearby bush and would dart to and fro catching bugs. Check out this little beauty: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_of_Mexico#mediaviewer/File:Vermilion_Flycatcher.jpg
We took a different gravel road away from the farm and passed through a village that clearly didn’t see too many touring cyclists, from the looks on the faces of the people. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful and without surprise as we were riding on roads we’d already traversed in krrs.
Most of the towns along the Ruta Rio Sonora were built in the 17th Century and hadn’t grown significantly since. They all had a nice central plaza and a large cathedral surrounded by colorful buildings lining the narrow streets. Our short day gave us plenty of time to arrive in Baviácora and have a nice stroll around.
The last several miles on our little side highway were uneventful and filled with more beautiful valley scenery. We rejoined the highway we’d left after Esqueda and began climbing into a little set of mountains. The grades were much more manageable on the more major road and the traffic luckily had not picked up too badly. We pulled into Ures in mid-afternoon and were starving for a taqueria. Ures is a bit larger than the other towns we’d gone through and there were plenty of people on the streets. We were also getting a lot of cheers and encouragement. The main square was really beautiful with lots of big trees. We went there to see if we could find a restaurant. Alas, there was none, but we did have several groups of people come up to talk to us about the trip, including three teenage girls who wanted to take their pictures with us.
After finding our tacos we had to decide what to do about lodging. Brandy wanted to take a chunk out of the 50 miles we had left to Hermosillo and camp someplace. I was a bit reluctant because the sun would be going down in front of us, but mainly because it would be cold and I have been spoiled by all the hotels we’ve been in.
As we were wandering around some non-descript residential neighborhood where supposedly there was a hotel, some guy came running out of his house to stop us. He was very excited and wanted to see our bikes and show us his huge courtyard filled with fruit and nut trees. We left with our arms loaded with citrus, but that wasn’t enough, German was going to take us to a hotel and show us around town. We checked into the hotel, but declined to remove our gear because we don’t like to unload much when we stay in hotels so we can make a quicker exit in the morning. That, and we look way more cool cycling around town fully loaded.
Ures is a nice little town filled with colorful buildings and just enough crumbling ones to give good contrast to the rest. German knows everyone and we got tons of waves and shouts of encouragement. He even chased down a guy on a motorbike who goes around selling his sweet breads and bought us empanadas de panocha. Panocha is this thick, sweet substance made from sugar cane in Ures. Incidentally, it is also a slang term for vagina, at least in Sonora, which provides the obvious joke, “would you like some panocha? Of course!” As we ate the breads at his house he told us much about the sweets of Ures and then took us to a candy shop to show them to us. Naturally we bought some jamoncillo, which are local candies somewhat similar to maple syrup candies, but smoother and a bit less sweet.
Our ride out of Ures the next day was fueled by a strong tailwind and general downhill grades. We had one more little mountain range to cross that seemed to go on and on, but the grades were better on this larger road, so we still managed to make great time.
Our Warm Showers/CS host, Daniel (I’d actually conversed with him separately on both) and another WS member, Rocio met us just as the road was starting to get busy on the outskirts of town. We had some delicious carne con chile burros which promised massive heartburn, but failed to deliver.
As soon as we walked in the door of his place, we were presented with plates of food prepared by his mother. After relaxing for a bit we somehow still had the energy to go out to a CS meet up at a coffee shop. Here is where I met my match for Spanish. There were about 12 local CSers all in a group speaking rapid Spanish. I can usually hold a somewhat intelligible conversation with one or two people, but a group is still beyond me. Fueled by caffeine, we all went downtown to a cool little bar called Verbana. It has three rooms. There is a small front room with some tables (actually, they all had some tables). Our group took over half of the room. There is a middle room with a band. The room is small, so the band was basically standing up against the wall and you had to walk right by them to go to the bathroom or the large rear room where smoking was permitted. There is a single bar that was accessible from each room. I remember this type of bar from lots of other countries we’ve visited, so the layout really put me in a mood of nostalgia for travel in general. The band was great. They were doing a lot of covers, including some Manu Chao, but naturally I knew very few of the songs they played. My favorite part though was that they had a trombone, which is pretty much my favorite instrument. Oh, and the beer was about $3 for 1.2 L bottles (caguamas). We had come to the end of the Ruta Rio Sonora. Hanging out in that bar drinking beer with our new friends centered me in this place of travel and everything felt perfect.
We have several photos of the many beautiful cathedrals of the Ruta Rio Sonora. For the sake of page loading speeds, they are included in a separate post here: http://www.rudimentsofgruel.com/churches-of-la-ruta-rio-sonora/
Mexico Summary: Agua Prieta to Hermosillo
Miles cycled: 258.7
Cycling days: 8 (including the 1.5-mile day to the farm)
Days off: 2
Initial impressions of Mexico: Fantastico!
As we take a break from riding here in Hermosillo, Mexico, I want to give a shout out to my home state, Wisconsin. We made our first tour here on some crappy rental bikes in 2012, and spent about a month on this trip cycling around the state. Wisconsin is a terrific place for bicycle touring, especially for taking a first tour. Here are ten reasons why:
Almost every little town has at least one small hometown tavern. Taverns in Wisconsin are a special breed of bar with a special feeling I cannot describe that I have rarely seen outside of the Upper Midwest. Almost every tavern will at least have New Glarus Spotted Cow on tap. It is a somewhat basic beer, but still very solid. Most taverns will also have food, and often it is the place to go for dinner for miles around.
If you want to do a bit of gambling, you can play the video poker, or try your hand at the shake of the day. Every bar has one, and each one is different, although they all include tossing a shaker full of dice with the possibility of winning free beer or the pot, which is just the accumulated cash from people shaking. Usually you must get some variation of a full house or multiples of a single number within a certain number of rolls. Some allow ‘farming’, others do not. Farming is where you get to set aside dice from one roll to the next. You are always only allowed one play per person per day.
The crusty old tavern is a great place to refuel and chat with some friendly locals.
Wisconsin has over 15,000 lakes. Some may be nothing much more than a muddy leach-filled puddle, but many are not only beautiful, but are great for a cool dip on a hot afternoon. If you’re carrying a pole, you can also fish your anus out.
3. Dense network of low-volume paved roads
The state is gridded with an abundance of great county highways and local roads with very little traffic. Even where traffic does pick up you will often find a nice paved shoulder. Many of the county highways are also well-graded, despite the lower volumes.
4. Commitment to bicycling
The state of Wisconsin has been pushing bicycling and other active uses with public policy and infrastructure improvements. The state has a long history of trail development for snowmobiling and ATV use, and has naturally expanded into bicycling and walking. As a result there is now a huge network of off-road trails available to bicycles throughout the state. Many miles are unpaved, but there are also a surprising amount of paved miles, even in the middle of the Northwoods. Municipalities have also gotten onboard by developing bicycling improvements to make access to population centers much more pleasant than in other places.
Holy crow! This really could be an extension of the previous point, but these county bicycling maps are such a boon to the bicycle tourist that I think they deserve their own point. The state provides printable color maps in PDF for every county in the entire state. They accurately portray the desirability of each county and state highway based on traffic volumes and shoulder availability. If anything, I have found that they seem to overestimate what is ‘moderate’ or ‘high’ volume. The only shortcoming is that they gloss over urban areas, but many urban areas have their own bicycle maps.
I used these maps exclusively because they are the perfect scale and show just about every road. I really can’t say enough how awesome they are. I just can’t believe more states don’t do this!
6. Rural balance
Outside of the bustling Milwaukee area and the empty far Northwoods, most of the state is rural enough to get away from the traffic and provide plenty of camping spots, but populated enough that you usually will not have trouble finding supplies.
7. Mild summers
Unlike much of the country, Wisconsin summers aren’t an onslaught of eyeball melting heat. Warm days and cool nights make riding a breeze instead of a slogging sweatfest. Highs are generally in the 70s and low 80s without the insane humidity you find on the east coast and South.
Wisconsin is great for riding, especially for a first tour because the gently rolling terrain will give your legs a break without mind-numbing flatness. There are some pancake flat spots and there are some quad busting death grades, but much of the state is dominated by gently rolling hills.
9. Courteous drivers
Of all the places I have cycled (mostly on the east coast), I have not yet encountered more courteous drivers than in Wisconsin. People seem to go out of the way to give you space. If there is oncoming traffic, they will usually slow down behind you until it is safe for them to completely enter the other lane. When they need to pass closely, they usually slow way down. The times where some knob blazed by uncomfortably close at speed became the great exception as opposed to the vast majority as on the east coast. Oncoming traffic even edges away from you onto their shoulder.
It should be noted that I did get hit by a car in Wisconsin, but that just goes to show that you need to be careful wherever you ride. Also, I was on a busy highway with an uncomfortably narrow shoulder.
Maine drivers were previously my top pick. They are still pretty awesome.
10. Friendly people
The Midwest is known for the friendly folks, and Wisco is no different. People will smile and chat and make you feel at home.