México: Balleza to Tepehuanes

Leaving Balleza just before lunch we quickly turned of the pavement at Rancho San Juan onto one of our backroad sections. Following directions gleaned during our recuperation in Creel the route cuts of a particularly hilly section of highway and tracks along a pastoral river valley. It was even flat in places and allowed us our first camp-spot by running water since northern New Mexico (2500km earlier). The enjoyment was only marred by the local habit of tipping dead cows into ditches for the vultures.

The wonder of running water - Sarah washing clothes at a lunchstop on the Balleza/El Vergel road short-cut

The pavement to El Vergel and another backroad route turned out to be mostly un-remitting climbing. All the elevation we’d squandered swooping 20km down into Balleza had to be paid for. It is becoming increasingly difficult not to view every free-wheeling descent as a dark cloud mounting over us! We hit El Vergel at 4pm, and opted to “shop and run”. In the forested land of the Sierras we tend to camp shortly before a town. In this case there was too much obviously private land in the 10km before El Vergel for stealth-camping comfort and we anticipated that the 145km afterwards would be hard work. Our capacity to think and communicate in Spanish was at rock-bottom, so we felt hassled, harried and even more of the “freak show come to town” as we went from shop to shop gathering supplies for the 4 days to the silver mining town of Guanacevi and a return to pavement.

Only part of our anticipation for the dirt road to Guanacevi was physical. We’d also heard that this part of the Sierras was the hide-out for Narcos and bad-boys on the run; and maybe growing of drugs too. It also was to be a test of our computer-generated directions – the longest off-pavement stretch we’ve done. We admit that part of our time-investment in producing them in Creel was the desire to avoid the need to ask directions too much and stress our fragile Spanish too much.

The area around La Rosilla has a reputation as one of the coldest places in the Sierras. Most of the streams have ice in the mornings as we pass and we're glad we tend to camp on ridges.

In the end they worked well with only a small segment producing any doubts. That not helped by a large section of recent clear-felling and subsequent road re-alignment.

The route had it’s hard climbing, almost to rival the Urique section, but saved by being much shorter. It also had plenty of easy riding through little hamlets and fields perched on ridges and in cold valleys. We passed La Rosilla and all those who stopped to talk commented on how icy this place was, and weren’t we cold. In the end the tightly packed ridges never felt ominous at all, and again the only danger was from heavily loaded logging trucks making their noisy progress. A beautiful place.

In the last 30km before Guanacevi a local cattle-guard design genius has been at work. It may be possible that having the bars in the direction of travel uses less metal, but we challenge anyone to ride across one on a bicycle. Some have logs instead of recycle rail-tracks, and the majority are very loose indeed...
The rock strewn tracks through the Sierras are known to be hard on bikes. I puzzle out a way to fix a broken trailer with the ghost of Abiquiu/Cuba haunting us again.... (photo S.Hedges)
In the midst of tortuous rock-strewn and dust-deep roads we came across a large truck that had sprouted legs. Caught on a particularly steep hair-pin, this truck was a match in length for any that fill Mexico's paved highways.

Guanacevi nearly left us the same impression as El Vergel, but was saved when we opted to buy lunch in a cafe close to the centre. We joined non-mining elderly locals quietly eating and exuded calm and peace away from the bussle of the rev-head traffic outside. Our only regret was that we didn’t pluck up the courage to ask to photograph an old lady with a smile that twinkled and sparkled from a face battered by a life-time of sun.

In the midst of a road verge rendered monochrome by vehicle dust there was a burst of startling Christmas colour, complete with a small nativity scene.

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