11/30 – 12/5
I stood in the little grocery store in Arizpe watching them try my debit card again and again. I knew it wasn’t going to work. I gave them my credit card, but I knew that wouldn’t work either. We had seven hundred pesos, about $35, on us. That was enough money for a cheap room and a couple of tacos if we were lucky. The little shop had an apartment attached to it that we were hoping to rent for the night, but we didn’t want to run out of cash in the event we couldn’t get more before Hermosillo.
It is a humbling experience when you consider the fact that if you could use your credit card, you could probably just buy the house with the grocery store attached to it. But without this magical piece of plastic with its little magnetic stripe, you can’t even get a $0.15 banana, let alone this $12.50 bed.
Two days prior, I sat in the lobby of City Express hotel in Cananea. Eating my continental breakfast of papaya with yogurt, tortilla chips, refried beans, and eggs with chorizo. I watched the new Janet Jackson video on the TV in front of me for the 5th time in an hour. Much like in America, corporate hotels in Mexico have a playlist of three horrible songs that they repeat all morning. My understanding is that the military uses a similar technique as torture.
On the outskirts of Cananea you take a one hundred and eighty degree left onto Highway 89. Initially you pass a police station, some scattered houses, a few businesses, and eventually a sort of chicken encampment that looks like a miniature military base with three foot tall two sided A-frame tents laid out in a perfect grid system and poultry running afoul. After this, the world turns to gold.
From what I can tell, Arizona got the copper and Sonora got the rain. It is still an arid desert by any standards, but compared to its northern neighbor, Sonora is a tropical wetland. Small orchards line the road. Occasionally there is a river or small pond nearby. The amount of groundcover is astonishing. The waist tall grasses bend in the wind and shimmer like precious metals under a cloudless sky. You want to stare, but it hurts your eyes.
I find it peculiar that America is fixated on murder and rape when discussing Mexico in the public domain. Nobody speaks of how attractive the country is and how full its people’s smiles are. Perhaps very few Americans have cycled SON 89. Or maybe the USA is obsessed with violence and forced fornication. Regardless, you ride this road and you realize that we are the ones missing out.
The first 50 kilometers or so are a cyclist’s dream. It twists, it bends, it climbs, and it drops. There are very few flat sections and the downhill usually gives you enough speed to make it up the next climb without much work. If you’re a glutton for leg and lung destroying hills, you will have to wait until day two. This is a let loose lean into the turns and try not to lose focus and ride off a cliff because you were too awe stricken by the scenery sort of road.
I felt a nervousness in the days before crossing into Mexico that was similar to the feeling I had the night before we started off from Alaska. There was something different about it that I don’t quite understand yet, but I think it might be akin to the first day of college versus walking into a room to close your first deal. It’s as if it is this moment that you’ve prepared for, but you still have no idea what the hell you’re doing.
"Si tiras basura, eres una mierda." Sign on the road. “If you throw trash, you are a shit.”
You pass very little on the way to Bacoachi. There are some strange memorials along the road that I have yet to learn the meaning of. They range from a small cross to a 5x5 concrete replica of a church that you can walk into and light a candle in front of a picture of Jesus (prounounced “Hey zeuss” here). I wonder about the implications of sleeping in one should the opportunity present itself. Along the way every construction crew smiles and waves or whistles to us. So many drivers honk and wave.
It is worth noting that horns are used very differently in Mexico. In the United States, it is an all or nothing sort of affair. People use the horn to let the rest of the world know that they feel as if they have been exploited or to let a cyclist know that if they do not get out of the road soon there is going to be a chalk outline of a body. In other countries, there are myriad ways of signaling with one’s horn. The most common is a quick and gentle tap that is used to say “Hey there friend, I’m just here in this car having a good day and I hope you are too.” This is the honk we get from most drivers in Mexico.
Bacoachi appears to be on top of a small mesa. It is so quiet and smells like little brush fires. We ride around the empty streets and find Hotel Carmen. The owner greets us and shows us a clean little room with hot water. “Es mui tranquillo aqui,” she says. And she is right. We sit on the property and don’t even hear cars driving through town. Occasionally I hear the sound of a hammer striking metal, but it is off in the distance and a nice addition to the background of birds and wind.
From Bacoachi to Arizpe, the hills are brutal. The road tends to find flat ground between the Arizona mountains and runs relatively straight. This does not appear to be an option here. That is ok though. Riding straight through the heart of the foothills, we’re on a road that appears to be made from miles and miles of land bridges that connect the tops of little mesas. Each top is only a few hundred feet from the next with a fifty to one hundred foot drop down to the ground. These protrude for miles in every direction. Far in the distance is a Transylvania style group of peaks that rise thousands of feet, straight up, above everything.
There are several places where rivers cross over the road by design. They are typically just a few inches deep. They vindicate my fender purchase in St. George. As we are crossing one just outside of Arizpe, I see a nice place to break for a snack before heading into town. I hit the brakes and turn around. As I do this, I learn that these crossings are typically covered in algae and my bike slides out from under me and I fall into the water. A car with a few little old ladies drives by and I play it cool as if I am dusting myself off, but then I realize that I’m accomplishing nothing but staining my shirt with a bit of blood so I smile at them and get out of the water.
We sit in the park and discuss whether or not it would be a good place to camp. In the states, we generally didn’t worry about safety in rural areas. We wanted to be away from the road so lights and noise didn’t bother us, but we never cared much about being found. We’ve been warned by a number of reputable sources about being aware of where we are when pitching a tent in Mexico. Nobody has really explained what that means though.
This brings us to Arizpe….
We get to the only hotel in town and it is fully booked. I have an incredibly awkward conversation with the woman at the front desk that is saved by various forms of technology for translating and clarifying directions. She tells me about a grocery store that also has a room for rent. She also tells me that despite what the woman in Bacoachi may have told me, there is no ATM in Arizpe and she is not sure if there is one before Hermosillo. So far we have paid as little as $25 for a hotel and meals seem to run about $2.50 - $5 per person. Hermosillo is several days away and our original plan was to stay in hotels for the first week to get a feel for the country without the stress of looking for camping. Many places do not take credit. Our cash won’t last much more than a day. We go to a convenience store to try to pull money off the debit card, but they are not having it. It dawns on us that we are camping tonight and possibly for the next four nights.
We decide to ride through town on our way back to the park. I notice the little grocery store that the woman at the hotel had mentioned and decide to ask how much the room is.
“Dos ciento y cincuenta.” 250 pesos, twelve dollars and fifty cents. I notice a credit card machine. They say they can charge us for the room on the machine and pull cash off the card. They show us the room and for twelve bucks it is a steal. A few roaches, what appears to be some unfinished mashed potatoes, a clean bed, and hot water. I go back to the shop to pay…..
This brings us back to the part where my card isn’t running…..
At some point in the whole ordeal, the women running the store had called a man named Karim over to help because he spoke decent English. “It’s not much money, I pay the hotel for you.”
I sit scratching my head, wondering what we will do for the night, and this complete stranger offers to pay for the room. I tell him that I will take him up on his offer, but first want to try getting money from one more convenience store. He takes me to one, and they charge me $1.50 to get about fifty bucks worth of pesos from the drawer. We get our room, and I give much thanks to Karim.
We shower, unpack, and wander town. We find a little food truck that interestingly enough sells hot dogs and hamburgers. We continue wandering, in search of tacos, but cannot find them although there is an abundance of American street food. We try our luck at the food truck. A Mexican hotdog bun is difficult to explain. The closest comparison that I can muster is the bread from a steamed pork roll that you would get at a dim sum place in a big city. They put American buns to shame. The hot dog itself is no Koegel, but they top it with beans, lettuce, peppers, guacamole, and have a vast assortment of accoutrements for you to add. The owner, Carlos, sits and talks with us. He wants to practice his English. He is also the fire commander and tells us that if we need a place, he can open the station and give us a bed in there. Thankfully that is all taken care of now, but I make a note for other towns. We get some sandwiches after the hot dogs. Carlos tells us about Apache Indians in the area, the gold mines, and about some hot springs to the south. As we go to pay the woman at the counter, he says the hot dogs were on him and wishes us safe travels.
December 2nd, the next day, we move for Banamichi (pronounced “Banahhmichi”). Here, the Sonoran River Valley can really only be described as utopian. Straight out of a Marlboro ad. Cowboys in the valley whistle to their horses. Far down to the left you see the river cutting through a flat piece of land. A quarter mile away, two mountains nearly converge but leave a narrow strip of land between them that leads into a grassy valley where cattle graze. Mesas rise like skyscrapers out of the dust in the distance. For a cowboy, the view must give the same feeling that a New York captain of industry has when he sits in his high rise office and stares across the skyline smoking a cigar and sipping cognac.
We find an ATM in Banamichi and secure a room at Casa Leon for about $30. The owner, Juan, is a few years younger than us and is bending our ears with questions. He doesn’t speak a word of English and we don’t offer much beyond our own confusion. We wander town and find some fancy overpriced gringo tacos at a beautiful hotel in the plaza that do not satisfy our hunger.
Soph goes to bed and I grab a six pack of cheap Mexican lager and attempt to learn some Spanish. I track down our host and we sit at his kitchen table and discuss the benefits of applying home automation technology to his little hotel business. I convince him that the combination of doing his booking through Airbnb with some programmable locks and he could take off on his motor cycle for weeks at a time and let the place run itself.
We have hotdogs, eggs, and Nescafe with Juan in the morning. I think he called the hot dogs “Salchichas,” but I’m not sure. I probably get about 10% of what he says and he is really slowing it down for us. He keeps asking about kids. He says he would like to have two, but up to four is ok, he would need a girlfriend though. The dating scene in Banamichi isn’t too stellar.
In addition to the hotel, he is one of 70 owners in a 6,000 hectare chunk of land where he has some horses and sheep. He tells us this but we don’t recognize the word for sheep, so he says, “baaaa, baaa.”
The ride to Aguas Termales in Ancochi is flat and short, only twenty five klicks or so. The last 10 kilometers are on dirt. A farmer named Gustavo offers us a ride. Soph’s back is sore, so we take him up on it. I sit in the back, with the bikes. The bed of a truck drifting down a dirt road on a cool fall day is a natural state for me. It is a rare treat that I never pass on.
He gives us a tour of the place. It is a collective owned by more than 500 individuals. There is a man mucking the canals for the hottest pools. Gustavo tells us they should be open in a few hours. We set up camp and wander around. The canyon is incredibly narrow. The water is channeled through various canals. The pools closer to the top are the hottest. In some places it is forced through shallow and wide waterfalls to increase the surface area and cool it rapidly as it is too hot to touch. There are only two other groups, although we’re told that it gets packed on the weekends.
We here a family yelling "Caliente, caliente!" "Frio, frio!" to a little girl searching for something they’ve hidden. You realize this is every birthday girl in the world today. On this Sunday or Monday or whatever day it is. All the world’s daughters are playing in the sand trying to find some birthday dollars or pesos their parents have hidden.
A little boy runs up to me and says, "quiere un dulce," do I want a candy? And he gives me a little caramel. This country is full of people that are taught to be so generous and kind and full of smiles. And then they come to America and they put their heads down and hide because they never know what kind of mad man they might offend with a simple offering of a candy bar.
The next morning we bathe once more in the highest and hottest pool which overlooks the sandy bottom of the canyon, the meandering canals full of steaming water, and the trees scattered along the steep walls. A little crow lands in front of us and yawns. The day before I had seen a sign advertising the restorative properties of the pools. Apparently they can cure anything from rheumatoid arthritis to cancer. It was hand written and was not endorsed by a medical professional.
The road road back to the highway is a sand trap. We are constantly walking the bikes. It is short though and we are moving again soon. After Baviacora we ride through a cloud of butterflies for several miles as the road winds along a cliff.
Highway 89 ends in Mazocahui and we turn right onto highway 14. There is nothing noteworthy about this town. It is an anticlimactic ending to one of the most amazing stretches of flattened bituminous pitch with sand and gravel that the good earth has to offer.
The day ends in Ures at what appears to be a water park that is under renovation but has a few cheap rooms. We wander the streets looking for tacos and I am pretty sure we got what I would call “Impuesta de gringo,” or “Tax of the white man.” We paid $15 for six street tacos and three quesadillas. It was double what we had paid on other occasions. My Spanish is not good enough to have a heart to heart with the proprietor, so I clench my fist and promise myself that I will never buy tacos there again.