Considerations for Mexico on Motorcycle

Considerations for Mexico on Motorcycle

I have traveled in Mexico by virtually all methods possible over the past forty years. A tour of Mexico by motorcycle can be exciting, rewarding and challenging. At age 27, in 1971, I traveled from Columbia, S.C. to Yucatan, Mexico on a SL Honda 175. I spent two months circling Mexico. The total trip was between eight and ten thousand miles.

 

In 1993, at age 48, I ventured by motorcycle again. I took one month and left from El Paso, Texas and went as far south as Oaxaca before returning. That trip, on a Honda Nighthawk 250 exceeded 4,000 miles. During the past ten years I’ve gone off road in Mexico on four wheelers and occasionally ridden friend’s bikes on shorter local trips. My motorcycle trips were solo and taught me important aspects of motorcycling in Mexico that should be useful to anyone undertaking such an adventure.

Aside from the border crossing and deciding what sites you want to visit, there are five major considerations for a biker traveling in Mexico:

1.The size and type motorcycle,

2.Clothes,

3.Roads,

4.Driving conditions,

5.The people (This means you as much as them).

On my trips, many people scoffed at the small size of my bikes for such a long journey. However, I am not a good mechanic, yet safely made both trips, while years ago most individuals on larger bikes never made a thousand miles in Mexico. A combination trail and road bike is probably the best overall choice for someone traveling alone or who has never visited Mexico. My SL 175 allowed me to take many trails I could only consider on the 250. In the high mountains, I was invited to travel on some rugged paths to visit interior villages. Because of heavy rains, I decided against it on the 250 street bike. On a dual sport I would have seen some areas where only true explorers have journeyed. With a 450cc and up I could never have considered such a side trip even in the most perfect weather conditions.

Determining what bike also depends on how many people are going. If your tour is to be strictly on paved roads and you are in a group, a larger bike is fine. However, if traveling solo or with one other person the choice of a smaller bike should be considered. Long stretches of lonely roadway become a problem if you have mechanical trouble. A 250cc or smaller can be easily loaded onto a passing pickup and hauled to the next town. If you’re sitting alone beside a cactus on the desert, you may have trouble deciding to leave your six thousand dollar 750 while you seek help. In either case even the smallest pueblos usually have a shade tree mechanic who will be of some help. People still stop and help others along the roads and every six hours the Green Angels pass most sections of road in Mexico. The Green Angels are sponsored by the Mexican government and travel in a heavy truck with a variety of equipment to aid stranded motorists.

Any motorcycle, accident-free, journey through Mexico is going to be a great experience. However, I can’t stress enough to really think about what you want to accomplish. A large street ride is great but you are definitely limited. If I ride Mexico again it will be on a 650 cc dual sport, and I’ll leave realizing there will be times I wished I’d used a smaller bike. I don’t care about speed and I want the option to travel gravel, dirt or muddy roads and to even follow a trail if an interesting opportunity for exploration comes up.

Clothes are a serious consideration for a biker, and there are some unexpected differences to be dealt with in Mexico. I recommend packing a warm leather jacket, a warm sweater (if room), a rain suit, two pairs of jeans besides the pair you are wearing, four or five short sleeve shirts, seven changes of socks and underclothes, one pair of pants that could be worn for fine dining, and two long-sleeve shirts. One of the shirts should be reserved to go with the good slacks.

I stress the number of clothes since cleaning clothes is generally more expensive and difficult in Mexico. You have four choices: hotels, laundry mats, village women pounding them on river rocks or doing it yourself each night. The better hotels have expensive cleaning services and laundries are often located in working class neighborhoods or in difficult to reach downtown locations. At the laundries you put your clothes in one day and retrieve them the next. Make sure they understand you want your clothes the next day and expect to get them late the next day. If you have the time to stop and use the laundry mats or plan to wash your own clothes then the number of tee shirts, socks and underwear can be reduced.

The need of a rain suit and a warm jacket may be surprising when thinking of Mexico but parts of a trip can be utterly miserable without them. Most of Mexico is mountainous and some peaks are snow covered year round. Mexico City is 7,400, and Zacatecas 8,200 feet above sea level. A warm sweater is sufficient for Mexico City at night but a coat might be needed in Zacatecas even during July. The summer is the worst time, weather wise, to travel in Mexico. June through August is the rainy season and on a motorcycle the rain can make the temperatures feel drastically colder than they are. If your journey is strictly on the east coast of Mexico and Yucatan a light wind breaker is all that is needed for the weather.

The free roads in Mexico are considered terrible by many Americans and Canadians. I personally prefer the free roads. What someone relates about a road in Mexico becomes unreliable if more than three months have passed since they saw the road. There is no weight limit on Mexican trucks so the roads are always under repair. A good road six months ago can be rubble today and a bad road now in mint condition. The only consistently good roads are the toll roads but the tolls are much too high and in my opinion you see little of Mexico.

Driving conditions in Mexico involve far more than the roads. Huge pot holes, cracked, broken and strangely melted surfaces often define Mexican roads. Never let several miles of good road make you feel secure because as soon as you are a pot hole will catch you. I use the free roads as much as possible but would not on a large street bike.

In the country you will rarely see police patrols and although speed limits are posted you are mainly on the honor system. The honor system means most people drive in excess of eighty Mph but God help you if you hit a large pot hole at fifty. You will see occasional holes that can truthfully swallow your tire. Much of the land is unfenced and mules, horses and cattle often stray onto the roads. Most Mexican roads lack shoulders and it is common for cars and trucks to be stalled or just parked in your lane. On long straight stretches it is often difficult to realize parked vehicles are not moving until you are almost on them. It is not a good idea to travel after dark as beyond the possibility of roaming animals some vehicles lack tail lights.

Night can also cause problems in the cities. Traffic flow and patterns are often different than we might expect. Their cities are more ancient than ours and street patterns can become confusing in the dark. A road marked for three lanes will carry seven lanes of traffic if it can be squeezed in. Never take it for granted someone with a turn signal on is turning and do not expect a turn signal. You can even expect someone traveling on your right might take a left in front of you. In the countryside a left turn blinker is a signal to trailing traffic it is okay to pass, it does not signal a left turn. Needless to say Gringo’s should carry defensive driving to new heights and especially while on a motorcycle.

Traffic signals and signs are also placed differently. You can expect them anywhere but often they are quite high and far to the left. No matter what direction you are going the road signs will indicate Mexico. In Mexico the word once meant more the city than the country and the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” should be changed to Mexico City. When you see “Mexico” you are on a major road and watch for the names of smaller towns to determine you are going in the correct direction. In the country as you approach pueblos and small cities watch for signs that say “topes.” Slow down as it means bump and these bumps are high enough to launch a motorcycle or flip or fast moving car.

There are many reasons to visit Mexico, the scenery, the sites, hand crafts, shopping, the ancient European cities, the Indian ruins and pyramids but best of all are the people. With the exception of Mexico City and the border towns where you should be cautious, you are generally safe and the people are outgoing and friendly. Courtesy is given and expected. I often think of Mexico as being like the United States was fifty years ago. People are friendly and helpful to strangers. If you are a descent person in the United States and treat people well you will be accepted and well liked in Mexico. Take the same precautions you would here, if someone around you has drugs, or is doing something illegal get away. In a few days you will realize you are perfectly safe at midnight in a Mexican city and you will find you are no longer distrustful of strangers.

If you’ve been thinking of taking that trip south of the border I encourage you. By motorcycle it’s a test and is riding solo a grueling test at times but you will discover delights you couldn’t imagine. When you return you will have had an adventure and a feeling of having accomplished a difficult and wonderful task.

We’ll have a road rules update each Saturday. Remember if you have any humorous insights you’d like to share for publication please use:
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