Jet and Rent: Mexico by motorcycle

Want to see Mexico by motorcycle. Well it's easy, really it is. We did it


Name: John Cantlie
Bike hired: 2003 BMW GS650
Miles covered: 2,048
Total cost: £1,112
Pros: Undiscovered country, amazing roads, perfect weather, beaches, food, beer
Cons: Huge distances involved
Adventure rating: Very high

Right now I’m in Mexico, and 1,433 miles into this journey it’s occuring to me that this place is big. Far bigger than my estimates at home with my Times World Atlas have previously suggested. Mexico City, home to 25 million people. Shit, well that is big, at nearly four times bigger than London even I can work that out. But let me see here: Mexico City to the border of Guatemala, only 680 miles. Easy, that’s the same as Portsmouth to John O’Groats, we’ll be able to do that in a day. Guatemala: stunning beaches, active volcanoes, pretty girls – yep, that’s us. And so my plan was hatched. Mexico to Guatemala via the mountains on the way out, and return along the coastal roads next to the Pacific on the way back. A proper man-size adventure.

I can tell you little about Mexico City other than my American chum Landers Sevier and I left it very quickly on our brace of BMW 650s. Picking up the road south to Cuernavaca, from there we wheeled south-east on Route 160 towards Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hakka). And for the next seven hours, we enjoyed what is unquestionably the best riding road I’ve ever been on. “That is completely world class,” is how Landers described the 200 miles of Alpine-esque turns in his deep Alabama drawl as we carved our way through forests of cacti. You get this kind of riding in France and Austria, yes, but for 30-mile stretches at most. These mountain roads went on forever, the edges of the BMWs’ tyres absolutely shredded as we flipped them from one side to the other for hours on end. Honestly, the 160 out of Cuernavaca is the best riding road I’ve ever been on, perfectly surfaced and in ideal 28-degree heat, and it was completely unexpected. As opening days go, this was as good as it gets.

A good adventure ride, a really good one, should combine many things. Wild and exciting scenery, great locals, some moments of real danger, a sense of drama and new experiences along the way. For many, this is too much and they’ll shy away to an organised tour. But I live for adventures like this and Mexico just kept on serving it up. After Oaxaca (we stayed in the Hotel Bel Air for a not-so-Rodeo-Drive £7) it was another 120 miles of wild riding roads, the scenery hardening and becoming tougher, dustier and more Mexican as we went.

Stopping for a quick tortilla (love the salsa) next to a towering 16th Century monastery being restored stone by stone, we asked  “how long have you been working on it?”  “About 10 years,” said the labourers. “And how long until it’s finished,” we asked. “About 10 years” came the reply. Time isn’t a precious commodity in Mexico.

In the town of Tehuantepec we discover a market town full of fruit, music and colour. I also discover mangoes and chilli sauce (to eat) and Mescal (to drink), the hallucinogenic spirit distilled from maguey leaves. It’s excellent fire water and sits well in your stomach. So do the Mexican beers – like the roads, they’re all world class. The outstanding favourite was Victoria, served ice cold with juicy limes crushed into the mouth of the bottle. Bang! Landers gets a puncture as we forge ahead for the border, a right bugger because we’re hopelessly behind schedule. The roads have been electric but our average speed has been dreadful, around the 50mph mark due to all those endless corners. But Mexico is the sort of place where a mere puncture is no problem, and after flat-rimming the bike back to a roadside mechanic we watch amazed as he proceeds to cut the valve out of one old inner-tube and melt it into ours using something akin to a Breville toaster. Fixed.

At the next gas stop a pair of kids come running over. “Senors! You must be careful of the wind, it is too much for you.” They didn’t say this in English, of course. My pidgin Spanish was enough to get the gist. Sure enough, the next 60 miles were taken at an angle of 15° as we had to lean fully into a whistling side-wind just to stay straight. Apparently it’s always like this here, but it was brutal. My diary reads, “the most ridiculous cross-winds I’ve ever ridden through, whipping in across the plains. We literally had to hang off the bike just to stay upright. But straight roads at least, so painful progress is being made.” We made it into the border town of Tapachula in the dark, battered, bruised and exhausted.

Mention must now be made about the road kill spotted along the way. Never in my life have I seen such a huge amount of dead things at the side of the road, nor in such variety. We had dead pigs, dead donkeys, hundreds of flattened dogs, narrowly missed a cow at 80mph in the dead of night that had just had a collision with a taxi, t-boned a goat (very low speed) and in Guatemala squashed frogs and snakes littered the roadsides. It was like a Charles Darwin guide to the animal kingdom - dead. The dogs especially were unbelievably stupid, walking blindly into the paths of oncoming vehicles with suicidal determination. At least the goats had the decency to leap out of the way once you’d clipped their hind quarters.

At the border crossing into Guatemala we got absolutely fleeced. It was bloody hilarious, at one point a group of hustlers (official immigration officers) had our passports, driving licences, registration documents and $200 cash. Landers and me looked at each other and burst out laughing – they had our entire existence in their hands. I sampled an aphrodisiac while we waited, a mix of raw eggs and orange juice. Tasted foul and had no noticeable effects. Three hours later and they come back with our official documents, stamped and approved for travel in Guatemala until April. We snapped our visors down and crossed the border, pursued by a sea of waving hands demanding money for things they hadn’t done. We were in.

Guatemala is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Tourists don’t come here much, the country is still tarred by the memories of a 35 year-long war of repression that ended just over 10 years ago. As such, we’re the only tourists we see for two days, cruising through this lush, green sea of palm trees and jungles on our bikes. After the crazy riding of Mexico it’s great just to take it easy and we ride South-East towards Retalhuleu. Over bridges collapsed by earthquakes and past scores of waving locals, the intensity of colours and sounds in a typical Guatemalan town is almost overpowering. We keep riding until we hit the coast at Champerico. And then we stop.

For one whole day it was like being on a proper holiday. Crashing surf, volcanic black sand under our feet, the BMWs parked up in the sunshine. We stayed in a thatched beach-front room for less than a pint of beer in a London bar, and I drank Mescal and slept on the beach for three hours. “We are the only tourists here but nobody gives us a second look,” say my notes. “Fantastic beer, great food, what a place to find yourself. Four days ago I was sitting in an office in London in January, and now I’m on the beach in Guatemala in my shorts at 10pm and I got here on a motorbike. Absolutely incredible.” A great adventure ride is always about the experience, and sometimes you just have to let it wash over you to take it all in.

In many ways, the Guatemalans seem quite a timorous race. They’re extremely friendly, but they tend to shy away from my camera and they’re very aware they’ve had a mixed press in the West. “Please, you must not go further up the beach,” two girls warn me as I wander up the shore the next day. Don’t be daft, why not? “There are bad men up there, robbers. They will take from you.” I’m sure it’ll be fine. But when an entire football game stops to earnestly tell me the same thing 20 yards on, it pays to listen. My watch and camera would make fine targets.

After making some adjustments to the bikes with the aid of a local called Charlie (the Guatemalans, like the Mexicans, don’t wait for an invitation to get stuck in), we loop round via the volcanoes east of Quetzaltenango and back towards the border. Our time in Guatemala is cut short because of the sheer distances we have to cover, and it is with a heavy heart that I ride out of this extraordinarily beautiful place. Our BMWs never miss a beat as we cross back over the border, but I do. I’m genuinely sad.

After copping a bout of food poisoning from a grey-meat tortilla in the town of Tonala, I find myself blasting out terrifying farts that threaten to blow the backside out of my trousers as we ride the coastal road towards Acapulco. Route 200 along the Pacific twists and turns past a thousand hidden beaches, the surf pounding against the shoreline as we reach the hippy surf town of Puerto Escondido. This tiny paradise in the middle of nowhere is a mecca for surfers around the world, huge waves thudding into perfect sand. The heat is intense, a stifling 34 degrees and we stay for the night, halfway to Acapulco, and the sound of the surf sends me instantly to sleep.

The last 400 miles of our journey north-west past Acapulco and back towards Mexico City are memorable for two things: the brutal speed-humps and the number of men with automatic weapons. Mexico is festooned with a million speed-humps placed at the entry and exit of every village, a sensible enough move but many are cunningly disguised with dust and it’s not uncommon to hit them completely unseen at 60mph as the suspension clangs home and your arse is launched into orbit.  And the men with weapons are the Army. There’s a ton of cocaine and guns moved up into the USA along this route from Central America, so get used to being stopped for regular checks. It’s no big deal.

This journey left me wide-eyed and desperate for more. As a destination to fly to around Christmas time with a friend, rent a bike and have the adventure of a lifetime, it’s perfect. Guatemala was the objective, but Mexico was the star of the show.

Mexico by motorcycle

Flights: British Airways offer flights three times weekly from Heathrow to Mexico City from £730 return including taxes. To book visit or call British Airways on 0844 4930787 (add £15pp surcharge for telephone bookings)

Bikes: BMW 650GS rented from Oscar Calderon in Mexico City. Expect to pay around £40 per day for bike rental, with a returnable deposit of £250. Oscar speaks excellent English and is capable of supplying bikes or suggesting routes to suit the rider’s needs. At the moment he doesn’t yet provide guided adventure rides, but this is coming in 2008. A personal, basic but highly recommended outfit.



Phone: (0052) 155 91907981

Fuel and accommodation: Are ludicrously cheap in Mexico and Central America. Petrol stations are everywhere and gas is just 40p a litre. Hotels range from £5 to £20 per night with even a five-star in Acapulco costing just £35, while basic but delicious meals are around £3. My total costs for petrol, food and hotels after riding 2,048 miles in seven days was just £280. That’s cheap.

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