Once upon a time in Mexico

Taking off to ride around Mexico sounded like a good idea at first.
Words: Warren Milner   Photos: Courtesy of Warren Milner, unless otherwise credited

BMWs are not bulletproof

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Of course I’d heard the marketing hype that suggested that BMWs are tough, BMWs are sturdy, BMWs are so reliable they’re damned near bulletproof! But little did I know when I left Toronto full of optimism that I’d get the chance to find out if the bulletproof myth was literally true.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started out simply enough. Having recently retired, I thought I’d tour Mexico while it was still too cold to ride comfortably in Canada. The decision was not exactly spur of the moment I had bought a BMW G650GS Sertao specifically for the trip but left the planning until the last minute.

So I hit the internet and asked people on the usual adventure forums for recommendations. Some replies were from the “have you been living under a rock? Mexico is too dangerous” point of view. Others were more reassuring “don’t worry about the naysayers Mexico is a fabulous place to ride and relatively safe”.

What's a bit of drug cartel violence between friends? Photo: The Common Sense Show.
What’s a bit of drug cartel violence between friends? Photo: The Common Sense Show.

Everyone suggested that a good idea for your first ride into Mexico was to take an organized tour, which I immediately waived off with a pish tosh as I’d already ridden in Alaska, Peru, Chile; I was experienced, I didn’t need a baby sitter.

Warren didn't join a commercial tour, but the folks he went with had experience in riding around Mexico.
Warren didn’t join a commercial tour, but the folks he went with had experience in riding around Mexico.

Ultimately I hooked up with a group of Arizonians and Texans who were going for a ride in Mexico, at the right time, on the right bikes. They were experienced riders who had been to Mexico many times before and, although this was just a fun ride for them, they had previously led tours there too. Perfect.

My first question to the group’s organizer was, “is it safe?” “Mostly”, was the answer. Her first question to me was, “can you ride?” “Mostly”, I answered, feeling very clever. She didn’t laugh. “You’re not going to hold us up are you? There’s some off road, are you sure you can handle it?”

Stick up at El Fuerte

Well, in the end, mostly happened to be a good description. I did suffer a minor crash (deep sand has always been my nemesis) but despite that I didn’t hold them up. Unfortunately, we did get held up, at gunpoint, which is the real subject of this fable.

The directions to El Fuerte were a bit vague, but the dirt road seemed safe enough at first.
The directions to El Fuerte were a bit vague, but the dirt road seemed safe enough at first.

On that fateful day we left our hotel for an off-road, day ride with the most basic of instructions; Head down this path untill you get to the cemetery, turn left on the big dirt road then just follow that road for a couple of hours and it will take you to El Fuerte (a cool town and is supposedly where the legend of Zorro was born). If you get lost just point and say “El Fuerte”, everyone knows where it is.

Follow this map if you want to repeat Warren's adventure. Photo: TourbyMexico.com
Follow this map if you want to repeat Warren’s adventure. Photo: TourbyMexico.com

My Spanish vocabulary is limited to, cuatro cervesas por favor, so after numerous trials and tribulations, four and a half hours into our two-hour trip we finally came out of the deep sand and choking dust onto a big, wide, smooth, paved road in perfect condition only a few kilometers from El Fuerte.

That euphoria that all exhausted dirt riders feel when they finally hit pavement after a taxing ride, made us all relax and we started to spread out a bit. We were up to speed we were starting to cool off, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, a real Disney moment.

Suddenly as we crested the top of a rolling hill I saw some people running out into the road waving frantically. Caught up in the Disney of the moment I thought ‘Isn’t this cute, some local kids waving at the bikes as they go by.’ Wait a minute – these kids were wearing masks and brandishing handguns. There were five of them and five of us.

The trip was a gas, until things unraveled at gunpoint.
The trip was a gas, until things unraveled at gunpoint.

The person leading at the time was a woman named Pricilla riding one of those BMW 650 twins that really are 800s. Since we were a little spread out, the first person they got to was Pricilla, who duly stopped.

Warren and his friends knew they were in trouble when they were confronted by Dopey and his cohorts.
They were doing OK until confronted by Dopey and his cohorts.

Gunman number one (sticking with the Disney theme, let’s call him Dopey) grabbed her by the arm as she rolled to a stop and put a gun to her head (helmet) then started to force her toward the soft gravel shoulder.

In the meantime gunmen two thru five had started running the 100 yards or so back toward where the rest of us had stopped. I was next in line so it was decision time. I realized I couldn’t leave Pricilla, so turning and running wasn’t really an option, I also had no idea what the guys behind me were doing so I had to decide for myself and quickly.

I started to think those desperate thoughts that come to mind in these situations (though this wasn’t the first time I’d had a gun pointed at me, did I mention I was originally from Jamaica?). Maybe, just maybe Dopey would drop his guard once he got Pricilla onto the soft sand of the shoulder, allowing her to make a run for it.

Unlike Dopey I knew she was fearless and a very good dirt rider, so I decided if she goes I go too. So I put the bike in first gear, revs up, clutch in – watching, waiting.

In the middle of the hold-up, Warren and his friends were likely wishing Zorro, the legendary hero from El Fuerte, would swoop in and rescue them - although bringing a sword to a gunfight might not be wise.
Warren and his friends were likely wishing Zorro, the legendary hero from El Fuerte, would swoop in and rescue them – although bringing a sword to a gunfight might not be wise.

Gunman number two (we’ll call him Grumpy) was getting closer, and Dopey still had Pricilla and almost gotten her onto the shoulder.

Pancho Villa's days may have come to an end, but his profession is still alive and shooting.
Pancho Villa’s days may have come to an end, but his profession is still alive and shooting.

Grumpy, who was only 15 yards away now, perhaps sensed I was about to do something stupid and fired his gun into the air to let me know it was loaded and that he wasn’t screwing around.

My window of opportunity was closing, I decided on discretion, and let the revs drop to idle (still in gear, clutch in though). Grumpy grabbed the top of my windshield with one hand and put his gun to my head with the other. He had fire in his eyes and was screaming at me in Spanish so I just kept saying “no comprende,” all the while watching Pricilla, waiting for her to make her move.

Gunmen three through five were behind me now, so I didn’t know what was going on back there. I didn’t even know how far behind me the other guys were, they may even have taken off for all I knew. I kept my eye on Pricilla, figuring that what happened to her would be a good indication of what was going to happen to the rest of us.

All thoughts of flight were now slipping away.

The Great Escape

In the middle of nowhere, Warren's group had to figure out their escape for themselves.
In the middle of nowhere, Warren’s group had to figure out their escape for themselves.

Suddenly my imagined scenario started to play out, Dopey finally got Pricilla to the shoulder and relaxed; he still had her by the arm but had turned around to see what was happening with the rest of us – taking the gun off her helmet in the process. In an instant, she was gone.

This is the recommended way to escape a robbery. Photo: Woody's Wheel Works
According to the cops this is not the recommended way to escape a robbery. Photo: Woody’s Wheel Works

Dopey, his hand still on her arm, was pulled off his feet. He clawed desperately with his gun hand trying to grab the back of her bike, but she was already in second gear, and he went tumbling.

Grumpy, hearing the roar of the engine and the spraying of gravel, looked over his shoulder to see what was happening but kept his gun on me. Spinning back around he saw something happening behind me, raised his gun and fired over my shoulder.

Here was my moment. The second the gun left my helmet I popped the clutch and hit the throttle. The bike launched (thank you fuel injection) and Grumpy, still holding the top of my windscreen, was knocked off balance.

I was flat on the tank, 2nd gear, 3rd, 4th. Two of my riding buddies on larger more powerful GSs went blowing past, while more gunshots rang out.

Pricilla and Rufus kept going while my other buddy Carlos and I stopped over the crest of a hill to regroup. There was no sign of Leroy, the last member of our group.

Once in town, the group talked to the local fuzz. They weren't a whole lot of help. Photo: Wikipedia
Once in town, the group talked to the local fuzz. They weren’t a whole lot of help. Photo: Wikipedia

While we were dithering trying to decide what to do (we couldn’t just leave the guy, but we couldn’t go back unarmed either), we saw his headlight coming down the road. With all five of us now safely away, we booked it into town where we found Pricilla and Rufus already talking to the cops.

The getaway was not without incident ...
The getaway was not without incident …

As we pulled up we realized that Carlos’s bike had a flat rear tire and gasoline was pouring out of a hole in his under seat fuel tank. It seems that not all the shots were fired into the air. Then, as Leroy pulled up we noticed the spider web of cracks radiating from a bullet hole in his windshield.

Turns out, this was the reason he decided not to run for it one of Grumpy’s “warning shots” had gone through his windshield and being too close for comfort had had the desired effect. After giving the Gunmen a dummy wallet (with very little money in it) and his cell phone he was smacked in the side of the helmet with a gun and told to “vamonos” which he gladly did.

The cops took a statement to make us feel better but we all knew that the bandidos were long gone and there was little chance of catching them.

Check out the damage to the rim, and one of the slugs that was dug out of the bike. International travel isn't without perils, although none of the group was injured.
Check out the damage to the rim, and one of the slugs that was dug out of the bike. International travel isn’t without perils, although none of the group was injured.

They told us that it was not a coincidence that there were five of them and five of us. Apparently the likely scenario was that we had been spotted on the dirt road and it was assumed we were heading to El Fuerte. A quick cell phone call was all it would take to set up an ambush in an appropriate location down the road.

The whole stick-up was likely orchestrated by cell phone, cops told the riders. So much for the wonders of modern technology.
The whole stick-up was likely orchestrated by cell phone, cops told the riders.

“Why the hell did you run?” they asked. “You could have been killed; all they wanted was your money.” How were we to know? Besides, once the getaway started to unfurl, everything else just sorta happened.

After admonishing us for destroying evidence, (while they were taking statements I’d repaired the bullet holes in the fuel tank and rear rim of Carlos’s bike with an epoxy-based glue) they let us go.

Carlos’s tire was plugged and re-inflated and we made our way back to the hotel for a much needed margarita or two.

Stories of adversity seem to make more interesting reading than just another travelogue about how fabulous some far off destination is. But the truth is, I would go for another ride in Mexico in a heartbeat.

Overall, the trip was a success, if you don't count the gunplay.
Overall, the trip was a success, if you don’t count the gunplay.

Hopefully one day I’ll have an opportunity to describe how wonderful the riding was, the food was, the scenery was and most importantly, the people were (most of them anyway).

So, although the bike did perform flawlessly for the duration of the 14,500km round trip, I guess BMWs are not actually bullet proof after all, at least not literally.

Gallery

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10 thoughts on “Once upon a time in Mexico”

  1. Hi Warren,

    Inspired by some of your past adventures, I too struck off for Mexico in November of 2011, but unlike you I went it alone. The naysayers out numbered my supporters 100 to 1, but I still went anyways. I must admit that once crossing the US/Mexico Border at Tecate, Baja California, all those predictions of dome and gloom did begin to weight on me, but stubborn pride would not allow me to turn back now! My Varadero was pointed South and I was determined my adventure was going to take place, come what may. I reached Ensenada early afternoon but decided it was too early to stop for the day, so fueled up and headed further south. Now before leaving Nanaimo, BC, I had made myself two rules, I would not run low on fuel and I would ride after dark. Several hundred miles down the road I was short shifting in an attempt save what little fuel was left in the tank, and of course it was now dark! It seemed like an eternity before I finally saw the lights of a town and I could only pray that it was the lights of Guerrero Negro, but I could reach it before running out of fuel? As I literally coasted into town, I headed straight for the Pemex (gas station). Although I had not run out of fuel, I was coasting in the off chance it might be closed and I would need to go even further down the road in my desperate search for fuel. Luckily it was open and I proceeded to put 25.6 litres into a 25 litre tank, now how does that work?

    That night I stayed at a fantastic motel in Guerrero Negro where they fed and watered me like I was royalty. After a good night’s sleep and a fantastic pancake breakfast, I was off once again on my solo journey south. Today the combination of absolutely breathtaking views and a road that was built for the Varadero, this day would prove to be one of the reasons that I would make this journey again tomorrow if given the chance and like you, with no second thoughts whatsoever. This afternoon and long before darkness had set in, I would stop in Loreto for the night and once again be treated like royalty by the people of Mexico. That night at dinner I asked a local where to find a good breakfast in the morning, and they told me of a tavern (for breakfast?) just down the road that was run by a Gringo (slang for Americans in Mexico). He said “Best Breakfast in all of Baja California”. With an endorsement like that, how could I not go? Next morning, just south of town I turned onto a road that leads to the local air field. A short ride up this road I found a tavern that looked every bit like it was right out of a Clint Eastwood Western, and sure enough it was open for breakfast too. After I had enjoyed one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten, I asked to meet the owner. The first surprise was the lone person who came out of the kitchen to great me (the owner) was a women. The second was that she was not a Gringo but instead a Canadian from Courtenay, BC, just 100 kilometers north of where I live. She had fallen in love with the area and moved here several years previous! This is “must stop” if you’re ever in the Loreto area of Baja California.

    This day of riding would also turn out to be picture perfect with almost no traffic in either direction. By this point on the Baja the only real intimidating moments had been the several Military Check Points, all manned with less than friendly soldiers carrying very large guns! However they had little interest me and after a brief look around the bike, pointed their guns in a southerly direction and I took that as my cue to get the hell out of there.

    In the previous days I had only stopped in well populated areas with plenty of people around, safety in numbers you know. I would also leave my helmet and gloves on when ever possible, just incase a hasty departure became necessary. However I had reached an isolated yet picturesque potion of the road and it demanded I stop and take a few photos. I pulled off into a wide area on the left-hand side of the road and a makeshift view point. The view was spectacular but in order to take my photos, it required removal of gloves, helmet, etc. This where the brain begins to play tricks and “what ifs” can get the best of you. I had not passed another vehicle for some time so I should be fine, right? As I started hastily snapping photos, of course this would be interrupted by the sound of a noisy vehicle coming my way. To make things worse, once they had spotted me they began slowing down as well! In my self-inflicted panic I was certain they were sizing up the situation and my rape and plunder was imminent. I began to quickly stow my camera gear but knew that a hasty departure was now not an option. However the old pickup truck did not pull off the road and approach me, and instead stayed on the roadway with the driver yelled something to me in Spanish. I yelled back to him “sorry, no Español”. He then proceeded to stick his fist out the window while pointing his thumb up and then down, up and then down. It was at this point that my self-made fear and lack of rational would not let me believe that his only intension was to insure that I was OK, and not in need of any of his help! With arm a trembling I gave him my “thumbs up” while yelling “Mocho Gracias” and off he drove. It was then that I realized that the naysayers had left a bigger mark on me than I had first realized, and that I was now in the desperate need of finding a washroom!

    The balance of my trip through to Guadalajara was filled with more days of being treated graciously and of the Mexican people, I just can’t say enough. For the most part they are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people on earth. It cannot be denied that Mexico too has its share of people who mean us harm, but for the most part I believe the press spreads much more fear about Mexico than is warranted. I guess it is an unfortunate reality that good news just doesn’t sell all that well.

    Thank you for your inspiration Warren, Dale.

  2. Great pictures to go along with a great story. Looking forward to reading many more. From what I hear you spend more time on your bikes than off.

  3. I’ve been through El Fuerte and it’s absolutely beautifully awesome. That’s some good riding…especially out to the coast. We saw no sign of threats or violence that far south…it was near the U.S. border that we felt exposed. I hope you got to see and ride Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon).

  4. The only reason this tale isn’t a tragedy is because the thieves were bad shots!
    Also you were stalked so the event wasn’t just a random act by a deperate person who saw an opportunity.
    Nothing to grin about your adventure here.

  5. Warren! First you surprised me to no end by personally buying a BMW after retiring from Honda Motorcycles Canada (I personally would have have preferred you defect to Triumph). Then you proceed to bike tour Mexico after being told basically that your crazy. Don’t you read newspapers? Internet world news? You get held up @ gunpoint & shot @ by bandits barely escaping with your life. Then you say you want to return to Mexico for another bike tour! My brother tells me you used to road race in Canada. Did you fall on your head & suffer lingering brain damage or are you returning to Mexico in an army tank?

    1. I chose the BMW because i specifically wanted a 650 single but it had to have a fairing and high alternator output (I ride a lot in winter) so that eliminated the XR650L. So in the end it came down to the KLR or the Sertao, now if Triumph ever brings out that rumoured single ……..

      I also did two major trips on Hondas in 2012 on my Varadero and the new NC700X perhaps you’ll run across those stories eventually and of course there’ll be many more rides in 2013. As far as the Mexico thing goes the story was really about the hold up so there wasn’t really room to explain how fabulous the rest of the trip was. So would i go back definitely, would I do it differently absolutely. I’m heading to Daytona at the end of Feb for the bike races and could easily be talked into a return to Mexico any takers?

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