February 15, 2015 | Posted in:Mexico, Places, Sinaloa, Sonora

We spent a week in the “Pueblo Magico” of Álamos, Sonora. Luckily our Warm Showers host, Paul let us stay a preposterous amount of time during the FAOT music festival when we would have had a hard time finding reasonable accommodation. I think he secretly welcomed the excuse to sit around drinking coffee and talking instead of working. What a strange festival! It is in honor of a famous opera singer, and much of the music is oriented as such, but there are also random acts such as an American blues singer and whomever wants to get together in the streets to play. The old ladies and classical music students rule the week, but on the weekends the squares are flooded with youths carrying bags of beer. The final weekend is especially crazy as every youth in Sonora pours into town to party. Rock bands headline and the uniquely Sonoran cyclone mosh pits grow. Rather than just running around slamming into whomever you can hit, everyone skips, jumps and prances in a smooth counter-clockwise circle bouncing off one another, forming linked bands for others to attempt to destroy and throwing beer around. The hardcore moshers run in the opposite direction to get thrashed. Drunks roam the streets singing joyously and Norteño bands blast their Polka in the arroyo until the full light of day.

One of the two main plazas in Álamos, filled with revelers for the Festival Alfonso Ortiz Tirado

One of the two main plazas in Álamos

Lots of delicious candy from the festival street vendors

Lots of delicious candy from the festival street vendors

After over a week of this, it was finally time to move on. Paul convinced us to go back to our original route plan and take the back roads to El Fuerte, another “Pueblo Magico” in the neighboring state of Sinaloa. He told us it was very challenging, but had been the best part of his ride from Álamos to NYC. There are no direct routes between the towns, only a web of unpaved tracks connecting small villages. I drew out a detailed paper map including mileages and villages gleaned from Google and we set out midday after a leisurely breakfast.

We immediately became confused. There were far more intersecting roads than had appeared on the map and the couple people we met were of no help. Eventually we came to a road that was probably our turnoff and we left the pavement to climb a steep hill into the bush. As we continued, I was more and more convinced we’d made the correct decision and it was confirmed when we flagged down a truck full of drunk old men. They all talked at once giving conflicting directions on how to get to El Fuerte, but the one thing their flailing arms all agreed upon was that straight ahead was the way to go.

Brandy riding cobble stones to a bridge on the road to El Fuerte

Shortly after flailing arms guys

The road serviced a huge mine, so it was well maintained, and despite being gravel, we moved along at a good pace for the rest of the day. Although it was a mine road, traffic was very light and without trucks so we had a tranquil cruise through some fantastic scenery. Late in the day we came across some ranchers working on their fence and we got to enjoy the same silly colloquialism we have met throughout our travels. When I told them we were going to El Fuerte, which is in the neighboring state of Sinaloa, they asked if I was scared.

“Of course not. Is there something I should be scared of?”

He made the universal machine gun gesture.

“Is the rest of Sonora safe though?”

“Oh yes, absolutely.”

Right. Duly noted.

It’s always the next place that’s scary and dangerous.

As we cycled off, “regresa vive! (return alive!)”

We decided to set up camp while we were still in the totally safe Sonora rather than the bullet-ridden warzone of Sinaloa. Well, the fading light made the decision for us. Fortunately the sun painted yet another brilliant swath of color across the sky just as we came across one of the only places we’d seen all day where the fence was not right against the road. We had a nice space in some bushes above an arroyo where we cooked dinner over a fire. We sat into the night watching storms pass by the neighboring mountain and just as we were thinking of heading to bed, the skies above us opened and drowned our fire for us. We slept beautifully under the patter of heavy drops on the tent fly.

It was a good thing we got our sleep because the next day would be a monster. We had somehow passed the turnoff I’d plotted, so we were into the unknown for distances, but luckily we’d picked up a rudimentary map from the tourist point in Álamos so we weren’t completely lost. We would also be crossing into the notorious Sinaloa where we would need all our energy to dodge ambushes from machine gun and machete wielding maniacs. Knowing how overblown dangers can be, we were not too worried.

As it turns out, we had plenty to fear.

: Jaw-dropping mountain vistas threatened to take our attention from dodging potholes and washboard.

Jaw-dropping mountain vistas threatened to take our attention from dodging potholes and washboard.

A cow stares at us as we pass

Angry local casting menacing glances

Getting bogged down in sand

Getting bogged down in sand

A pink abarrotes in La Quintera

Cute pink tiendas diverting our attention

A couple kids with a donkey

Kids with their silly ass and piercing questions about our origin and intentions delayed us for minutes.

Lewis chatting with a cowboy and some dogs on the road to El Fuerte. Mountains line the horizon.

This guy was surely up to no good with all that smiling and friendly banter.

The secondary road was in poor condition and undulated up and down steep grades that sucked our energy dry. The sun was searing and I’d lost my sunglasses again, so was reduced to squinting and the rare passing car filled my eyes with dust. I figured the road would improve past El Chinal because that town was printed in bold face on my map, and the road was shown as a thicker line. Nope. El Chinal was nothing more than a collection of homes and a pretty church.

The church of El Chinal, Sinaloa

This is it

The road actually managed to deteriorate, but on the plus side, the traffic was nonexistent. Only two cars and a donkey passed us in three hours. We followed a massive dam for several miles, but rather than provide relief, the road would tease us by following the grade for a bit before dipping back down a steep drop in FRONT of the dam so that it could return up an equally steep climb back up, again and again. On top, a headwind pushed us back. I had picked up some bug along the way, which was odd considering we’d made our own food that day. I was feeling worse and worse as the afternoon heat bore down. My stomach was tensing up and I felt I would vomit at any moment. It was the kind of nausea of the athlete who has pushed too hard. It kept coming in waves, each worse than the next. I thought I might have heat exhaustion or dehydration, but I’d kept up with the water and electrolytes and I didn’t have the typical piercing headache. In fact, the homemade sports drink that usually satiates an afternoon sapping made me feel even worse. The bouncing of rubble and surprise washboards shook my bones and rattled my mood. I became angry. I take this anger out on my bicycle like a stupid asshole. I bomb the hills and take the holes hard. It makes me feel better, but I know I’ll be even more furious if I break something.

Lewis slumped in the shade not looking at the vista behind

Demolished

Flying down hills I should not be flying down. Lots of ruts and stones and washboard.

Flying down hills I should not be flying down

By the time we reached the actual sluiceway of the dam about ten miles from town, my life was flashing before my eyes. I begged for pavement. I needed pavement, or at least a graded surface. There is a junction, so presumably the road should be better, but the road should have been better after El Chinal. Why the hell would they pave a road out to some dam?

Not only was the road paved, it was beautiful. Silky smooth and new and there was no additional traffic! As the sky deepened into the now familiar orange and purple, we climbed long gentle hills onward. On each climb we dreamed of the top opening into a wide-open valley with El Fuerte shining beacons of light at the bottom. Each ridge provided a view of the road sinking down to a stream and rising back up yet another hill, until… stuff!

We finally pulled into the central plaza of El Fuerte and slumped into a bench. Darkness descended and we stared up through the palm trees at the twinkling stars overhead, unable to move. It was 6:30. We had left our camp at 9:30. That netted us 42 miles. My energy was gone, the sickness was overtaking me and it required everything I had to get back on the bike to find a hotel. Brandy wanted to shop around, but that was impossible. So we paid too much (500 pesos), but it was nice and it was a bed. I spent the night rolling around in pain and running to the toilet to do horrible things you don’t want to hear about. I was still feeling ill the next day and couldn’t make the effort to find another place.

The ride was hard. Very hard. It was also completely worth it. I would recommend it in a second, although I would suggest not getting dog-ass sick.

Current status: We are in Mazatlán for Carnaval. Tomorrow we will take a bus back to Culiacán to get our bikes and make a quick ride down to the state of Nayarit where there are supposed to be some great little beach towns. We plan to spend a couple weeks not moving around much before catching a bus to Mexico City for a music festival.

7 Comments

  1. Pablo
    February 15, 2015

    See, I told you you’d like it…

  2. Tom Kepler
    February 15, 2015

    Nice to see tBrandy’s Navigator is holding up on the tough roads. Right now, it’s frigid in Iowa, lows down to zero. Thanks for the great treat of reading about biking while sitting next to my wood stove. I just bought a new seat for my Navigator–a Serfas seat with springs. If I were on your trip, I think I would have appreciated it on the road you traveled. Best travels to you.

    • Lewis
      February 16, 2015

      Brandy has a Gyes leather saddle that is great for her. She is actually a bit woeful about not having front suspension because her wrists are what bother her the most.

      I do miss a nice wood stove on a frigid winter day.

      • Tom Kepler
        February 16, 2015

        Yes, the wrists do get tired. You ride a paratrooper, don’t you? Those have suspension that can lock and unlock, if I remember.

        • Lewis
          February 16, 2015

          Yup, mine has the suspension, but Brandy’s Navigator does not. What I need to get my hands on (totally intended) are some position bars.

  3. Pablo
    February 16, 2015

    This is Regina. So glad that you have had a good trip so far! And glad you choose the back roads. There is nothing like the goodness and warm hospitality of dangerous Mexico. Que la vaya muy bien.

    • Lewis
      February 16, 2015

      Hi Regina!
      The back roads have always been great. Even if there is a slight increased risk, it is worth the payout. On balance though, the risk is less because of reduced exposure to krrs. I actually feel safer here than the States because drivers are significantly less aggressive.