El Mexico Real
Words and photos by Stephen Smith | Film by Sinuhe Xavier
I was in the city of Oaxaca working on a film shoot about the magical powers of mezcal when I met Miguel Lerdo, the owner of Concept Racer, a boutique motorcycle shop in the La Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Our film had a scene where this gringo is riding a motorcycle through the valleys of Oaxaca looking for something real, something to wake him up from his midlife lethargy. Miguel brought down a beautiful Triumph Scrambler for our film hero to ride. If you know about working on set, you know there is a tremendous amount of downtime, be it waiting for the sun to set or the cameras to get set up. There is no better way to kill time than putting the hurt on an off-road motorcycle. Miguel and I flew down the dirt roads of rural Oaxaca, putting just the right amount of grit on the bike to make it look legit.
We also had lots of time to talk. Miguel Lerdo is a lawyer. He has traveled around the globe via motorcycle and greets every situation with a smile and positive attitude. We later discovered that we must have missed each other by hours in some South American towns while we were both traveling on solo rides around the continent in 2010. During our first day hanging out in Oaxaca, he told me of some very special places northeast of Mexico City where the desert meets the jungle, leading to a surrealist castle built in the 1940s by the largest collector of Salvador Dalí at the time. He enthusiastically described waterfalls, colorful vegetation, delicious food, and kind people deep in the canyons dropping from Mexico’s central plateau toward the Gulf of Mexico. Shifting gears, he suggested we make it to the altiplano of the state of San Luis Potosí, to a mountain village by the name of Real de Catorce, where the streets are covered in cobblestone and the nearby desert is the home of the infamous peyote cactus buttons. I was sold.
In a time of social, cultural, and political polarity, there is always common ground. I feel that we have more in common than we do not, and one of the great equalizers in my life is motorcycle travel. Getting lost, meeting new people, overcoming an obstacle, trying exotic foods, and sharing a laugh with a stranger in a foreign country disarms any constructed barriers to authentic human connection and builds a deeper bond than most other superfluous experiences.
We scored some sweet bikes from Concept Racer and BMW and began to assemble our little crew. My pal Sinuhe Xavier—a world-renowned director and photographer—is a great friend, never shy about heckling the crew and building team morale. Along with Sinuhe came his buddy, the talented videographer Andrew Laboy. We linked up in Mexico City a day before departing and enjoyed some of the amazing food that this culturally vibrant city has to offer before blasting the highway north. We set our alarms for a 4:30 a.m. pre-traffic start. Upon meeting at the Concept Racer shop, we realized that someone had left the keys to the padlocks inside. (Um, sorry, Miguel.) I figure every really amazing trip has to start with a ridiculously annoying obstacle, just to get the bad vibes out of the way. There we were, fully kitted up, in the dark, waiting for a 70-year-old locksmith to make his way to the shop. About an hour, three broken tools, and four padlocks later, we got into the shop to retrieve our gear and motos.
Navigating Mexico City as a foreigner, or even as a local, requires every ounce of focus and acute reaction time. Potholes the size of pools, broken-down tractor trailers, and children running across freeways are part of the daily driving experience. After the video-game exit of Mexico City, the endless buildings gave way to cactus and desert hills. As we traded the highway for two-lane roads, we carved our way down off the central Mexican plateau, and with each turn came more green, more humidity. The stark, dry earth above gave way to the warm, wet, welcoming jungle below. The thick floral smells met the enticing aroma of fresh tortillas and grilled meats as we arrived in the town of Xilitla after eight hours of beautiful, nonstop narrow curves.
Xilitla is situated in the jungle canyons of the state of San Luis Potosí and is the home of Las Pozas (The Pools), created by Edward James between 1949 and 1984. These 80 acres are filled with cascading waterfalls and surrealist structures and sculptures made of concrete, slowing being swallowed by the surrounding jungle flora. Walking through this creation offers a visceral immersion into what feels like a marriage of Dalí and M.C. Escher. We explored the staircases climbing illogically into the sky, the columns supporting air and the winding pathways leading to a dead end. We enjoyed a good mezcal or three while floating in natural pools, surrounded by waterfalls in a place from a dream. If we were not together on this crazy adventure, it seems highly unlikely that we ever would have discovered such a gem of a place, and after just a day and a half, four total strangers were enjoying all this as if we were lifelong friends.
We rode deeper until we settled into the jungle plain just above sea level. We continued to Ciudad Valles and rode to Cascadas de Micos, an aqua-blue travertine waterfall coming out of the altiplano above. As we sat in awe of the flowing blue water, we noticed the sky growing darker. Weather was moving in fast, and the clap of thunder inspired a hike back toward the bikes in an attempt to outrun the ominous storm above. We made it no more than a mile before this humbling gulf storm unleashed on us. These are the moments when you remember why you ride motorcycles. Being completely immersed in your environment and at the mercy of the natural world really offers perspective. Sets you straight, humbles you. My leather jacket, soaked completely, started to stick to my skin; I could feel my boots filling with water, and my visor was fogged. I could make out the small red taillight on Sinuhe’s motorcycle in front of me as I picked lines between deep puddles and patches of gravel, hoping for no surprises in the extremely limited visibility. It was that point when you consider seeking shelter from blinding lightning and deafening thunder—and then you realize the best way out is through. We reconnected where this country road met the highway, all intact and smiling from ear to ear. After some high-fives, we found the hotel and didn’t even change our clothes. Instead we stayed soaked, telling stories, drinking mezcal, and sharing laughs. We were having a blast.
The next day, we rapidly ascended from the dense jungle basin through canyons and sweeping mountains. With each mile the terrain changed dramatically as the humidity stayed below. Atop the central Mexican altiplano again, we pinned it north, ultimately arriving at the turn from pavement to cobblestone toward the old mining village of Real de Catorce. This mountain town rests just under 9,000 feet and was named for the 14 Spanish soldiers killed here in an ambush by Chichimeca warriors. The only way to get into town is by a one-lane mile-long mining tunnel. Exploring the winding dirt roads leading out of town, we watched the sun set over the expansive western desert, making way for a full moon. The cobblestones had a subtle glow to them as we rode back into town for dinner and beers in a stone building from the late 18th century.
The final day was a haul from Real de Catorce back toward Mexico City. Through the rain, traffic, dodging trucks, and potholes, we made it to the heart of the city knowing that everyone was safe, feeling inspired and more connected. Mexico never disappoints, and with each adventure in this rich, diverse land our minds are filled with stunning, rarely seen landscapes and our bellies with delicious food made with love, all alongside new amigos that you feel like you’ve known your entire life. It’s always a good sign when you’re having those drinks after a successful trip and already making plans for the next one.
This is why we ride.