Churches, Chanclas and Cheese: A Trip Into the Hills of Sonora

Karla and I had planned to explore a route that has been in my books for a while now which would connect Naco at the México-USA border to the city of Hermosillo via mostly dirt roads, as part of a project I tend to call “Ruta Trans-Sonora”, a way to cross the Mexican state of Sonora from north to south offering a continuation from the GDMBR, the AZT, and the most recent Wild West Route. This could, eventually, connect with the also recently released Trans-Mexico Route, which so far assumes you’d do the Baja Divide first. Although I don’t know why anyone would miss the opportunity of doing the Baja Divide, the idea is to put another option in the menu, and well, it’s my home state after all.

But weeks prior to our departure, we hear the news that a family of women and children was attacked by an armed group on a road near the area we were intending to explore. We weren’t sure what to make of it but, very much against our will, we decided instead to make a route I had done before, starting in the bordering town of Nogales and zigzagging south a little over 300 km till the capital of the state and our hometown, Hermosillo.

The ride out of Nogales makes for a horrible start due to the crazy urban traffic but we make it out and ride 60 km on a shouldered highway, which remains unavoidable because the surrounding land is private or roads are nonexistent. After Imuris we finally reach some backroads and make it to Magdalena de Kino, one of the two “pueblos mágicos” in Sonora. Every year in September, peregrinos from around the region come to pay a visit to San Francisco Javier, the patron saint, who has a reputation for working miracles. His sculpture lays inside a chapel and it is said that if you lift the figure your soul is pure, but if you have a hard time doing it, well, you should probably take a trip to the nearest confesionario.

Here we meet up with Daniela and Lenin, from México City, who have been riding their hybrid bikes from Tijuana after attending this year’s Bike!Bike!, an event that gathers bike collectives and non-profit bike shops. Lenin, an electrical engineer, rides in chanclas, a jarana strapped to one side of the rear rack, and a pannier on the other. Daniela, a journalist and bike messenger, wasn’t even thinking of touring when she went to Tijuana and just brought her bike along, but after the event she picked up two panniers and decided to explore the state of Sonora for the first time.

Karla and Daniela had been stalking each other on Instagram for a while now, so when the chance to tour together appeared, there was little more to be said. We showed them the type of route we were making but told them that, although not ideal, it wouldn’t be too bad for skinny tires, just small patches of sand here and there. Besides, the alternative is a 200 km straight line of pavement with not much to see other than cars.

The following morning we ride out of town and a low trafficked paved road takes us to Cucurpe, the first of a series of towns on the margin of the San Miguel River which were established in the mid 1600’s by Jesuit missionaries with the purpose of converting the Tehuima Natives to Catholicism. With the recent rains the river is flowing high and the hills are all dressed up in green. When we come out of the abarrotes we see a bunch of kids in school uniform bundled up around our bikes touching the chubby tires; they offer to refill our water bottles, and then we make camp for the night in the community center.

We pack our bikes in the morning and a few kilometers after Cucurpe we enter the world of the unpaved: the sound of rubber crushing dirt; the rattling of the cooking kit inside somebody’s bag; and besides cows, absolutely no traffic. Winding up and down on a beautiful road on a beautiful day, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Some hours later we make it to Tuape, a town of a few houses, a plaza and a church, where kids are coming out of school. The one teacher at the school is in charge of all grades from 1st to 6th, with no more than a couple of kids in each grade, and all of them in the same classroom. The kids offer to refill our water bottles, I guess it’s a thing to do around here. After having lunch in the plaza we continue on a road that goes to the hills and to the river several times through a series of short, steep ups and downs. Distracted by the view of the road ahead of us I fail to see a pointy rock that makes my bike slide sideways and throws me downhill, but some breakdance-like moves save me and my camera, which I had on my back, from stumping into a bunch of boulders. I get up and surprisingly nothing hurts, but I do hear a low hissing sound coming from my front wheel. I raise the wheel and Karla spins it and after a couple of minutes of suspense, the sound stops and my tire is safe. I pick up my saddlebag from the ground, replace the broken straps, straighten the handlebars, put a new diaper on and I continue down the road. Later we make camp among a forest of mezquites, which fuel a fire that motivates conversation till past midnight.

We leave camp the next morning and ride towards Meresichic with our minds set on finding a proper regional breakfast, as the towns around here are known for their cheese. We come across two vaqueros who tell us to ask for Doña Chichí and we are directed to her house, where she serves us chilaquiles, beans, eggs and café de talega: coffee filtered through a metal ring with a piece of fabric that reminisces a wizard’s hat. With our bellies full we continue till Opodepe, where we are offered a roof for the night by the local authorities who express their concern of us camping in the wild. This road bypasses the military checkpoint on the main highway, so the cars we heard last night were probably not carrying cheese. We accept the offer and spend the evening tasting the local citrus produce and checking in with our moms at the Wi-Fi hotspot in the public library.

The next day takes us to Rayón through a road that deteriorates a bit and makes our skinny-tired friends push their bikes, but they express to be happy with their decision to take this road. Lenin talks about acquiring a mountain bike and we have the wheel size talk. Yes, join the dirt side, I think to myself. At some point, one of the bolts holding Daniela’s rack snaps leaving the thread inside the hole. Lenin and I take each one of her panniers and once in Rayón Daniela gets some hose clamps to help the rack make it to Hermosillo. The owner of the store invites us a round of café de talega and pan dulce, which we gladly accept. After our mugs are empty we haul ass for the last 40 km of the day, riding on pavement from now on. My original route adds another stretch of dirt, but we decide to give the hybrids a break and go to Ures, a place you’d go for tamales and pan dulce on a Sunday after church. The last leg of our trip back home (at least for Karla and me) is defined by a few hours of riding on a busy narrow highway, which reminds me why I tend to stay away from pavement. We suddenly make it to a traffic light, the first one we’ve seen in days, meaning we’ve made it to Hermosillo, marking the end of a beautiful journey and the start of the planning of the next.