By Jean Medley
It had been another long day riding the ridge of mountains that bisects the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.
We could have cycled for another two hours, but decided to stop when we saw what seemed like a perfect campsite. We began setting up our tent on a level, grassy patch under a giant tree. There were some horses in the distance, but we didn’t pay them any mind. We’d camped around horses many times without any problem. They were timid and submissive and always kept their distance. These particular horses would change that opinion.
First, a foal came running up to within a couple feet of us, snorting and jumping erratically. After ten minutes, he ran off. We weren’t too worried about him because he was so small, but we had time, so we decided to build a barricade of branches around our tent, just for something to do. It was a good thing we did!
Later that night, while we were tucked in our sleeping bags, we were woken by a strange noise. The foal was back, but this time he’d brought four giant adult horses with him. They were snorting, stomping, and sticking their noses through the branches, trying to breach our barricade. I was genuinely scared. They were big.
I’d never seen horses behave like that. They could have easily pushed through the branches and trampled us. I shone my light on them and my partner had his machete out. We didn’t know what to do or what they would do.
After what felt like hours they left. We didn’t get much sleep that night. In the morning there was no sign of them.
We started our tour of Mexico in San Jose del Cabo, in Baja, then zig-zagged our way around the country for 18 months, finally ending up in the colonial city of Puebla. My friends and family thought we were crazy to undertake such an adventure in a supposedly “dangerous” country.
The idea of Mexico being a dangerous place to travel needs to be explored – and debunked. Mexico, as it appears on the six o’clock news, is a violent and insecure country. Despite that grim picture, however, we travelled without incident for 18 months and explored Mexico’s natural beauty, endless climbs and descents, roughness, dogs, fabulous food, welcoming residents, and everything in between. Yes, some things were dangerous – such as camping near wild horses – but not the things you hear about on the news.
Our first concern, never far from our minds, was water. Running out of water is very dangerous. We could carry about 15 litres between us. The first question we’d ask a ranchero after finding water was, “Where will we find it again?”
Because we toured the lonely backroads, we needed to know this. Rancheros know their land inside out and you could always count on water being where they said it was.
That said, we had two close calls. Both times, we knew where our next fill up would be, but we ran out because the terrain was more difficult than we were expecting and it took longer to get there. A whole different article could be written on just those two adventures alone!
The second major concern for us was traffic. It’s very unpleasant to be riding on the busy main roads and highways with all the traffic, exhaust fumes, road kill, noise, and narrow shoulders. The possibility of getting into an accident on a highway is much higher.
This was my first bicycle tour and the bike I rode was my first bicycle. I’m not a real cyclist. I didn’t feel the need to ride a certain distance each day and I was in no rush to get anywhere. I was more than happy to stay off the main roads. This significantly reduced the risk of being hit by a vehicle. Fortunately, Mexico is full of small roads, dry river beds, mule tracks, and other trails. Only a handful of times were we forced to take unwanted highway routes because there was no other option.
Aside from being safer, the less-travelled road showed us a side of Mexico few travellers ever get to see. We saw thermal waterfalls; thousands-of-years-old cave paintings; unvisited villages who had never seen foreigners; goats being led out to pasture each morning (we called it goat o’clock). Once, we saw a remarkable line of ants, each carrying a tiny white flower along the edge of a pale blue river. Best of all, we experienced absolute peace and quiet. All these things we would have missed if we’d taken those main roads or if our only goal was to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
Thirdly, on my danger list, are issues related to flora, fauna, insects, bacteria, viruses and things of that nature. Check your shoes for scorpions; you don’t want to be sick for days, especially if you’re low on water. And always drink clean water; I’ve heard Giardia is not much fun. There were also dangerous and unfamiliar plants to avoid, like the poisonous sapium biloculare, known locally as “hierba de la flecha,” or “arrow plant” (ouch!). Then there are mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue.
As for those six-o’clock-news fears of Mexico? Well, let’s explore them. Some people think of Mexico as overrun with drug-related crime and thieves.
People love to talk about the “narcos.” We biked through all those areas you hear about on the news and, yes, we saw a few narcos. We once saw three trucks full of guys wearing masks and tactical gear and holding machine guns. One of them even yelled “hello” to us, but we never felt like we would become the target of any violence at the hands of these men.
Before we started our trip, while we were still in Vancouver, I wondered what would happen if we biked near a drug plantation or some place we shouldn’t be. This is what I learned on the journey: you’re not a target. Don’t act in a suspicious manner, don’t bike at night, and if the locals tell you to leave town because the cartels have enforced a curfew and it’s not safe to be there, then leave.
Then there are the stories we all hear of tourists getting robbed in Mexico. Yes, it does happen and it’s unfortunate. What we never hear, however, is that for every foreigner who gets robbed there are countless more who don’t. I just want to mention here that nobody stole from us while we were in Mexico and that the only time I was robbed was in Vancouver.
In Baja, people assumed RVers would run us off the road because according to them the highway down the Baja peninsula is “too narrow.” We were frequently asked, “What do you do when there’s a narrow road and traffic in both directions?”
Well, as it turns out, people did not run us off the road! On a narrow road, with one vehicle behind us and another coming towards us, the one behind would always slow down and pass us when it was safe. This happened every single time.
So that was it! Bad drivers never drove us off the road, no one robbed us, and we weren’t kidnapped by drug cartels. The only dangerous group we encountered in our whole tour of Mexico was a gang of horses.
Danger isn’t always where or what you’ll think it’ll be.
By Jean Medley