Great Sierra Madre Motorcycle Roads in the Real Central Mexico

[This Great Sierra Madre Motorcycle Roads in the Real Central Mexico Favorite Ride was originally published in the March 2011 issue of Rider magazine]

By Dr. Jerry Smith; Photography by Lynn Gilbank and Steve Milligan

Tops of Sierra Madre Occidental
Ray, the trip leader, looks south to the Pacific Ocean across the tops of the Sierra Madre Occidental. This area should all be tall pines, but deforestation has taken its toll.

Whether you’re escaping harsh winters in the north or hot summers in the south, central Mexico and its more moderate alpine temperatures is the perfect place for a two-wheel adventure any time of year. Early retirement brought my wife and me here for the year-round ideal weather, fabulous mountain roads and scenery. We and our motorcycle friends who live here are certain that we live in “motorcycle heaven.”


One recent ride took us approximately 2,000 kilometers, primarily on new two-lane blacktop roads through the mountains, valleys and plateaus of the famous Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. In less than an hour after departing the Pacific resort town of Puerto Vallarta, we had snaked our way to San Sebastián del Oeste, a 400-year-old colonial silver mining town situated 4,856 feet above sea level. When the mines played out more than 100 years ago, the area was abandoned. Since the town was so isolated, it was perfectly preserved in its original condition. It is now a National Architectural and Historical Site. It is a quaint village complete with narrow cobblestone roads leading to the main plaza, an ideal spot to sample the locally grown coffee.

Parícutin volcano in Mexico
The Parícutin volcano is the most studied volcano in the world. It rose from a village corn field and slowly grew to a thousand feet. Active steam vents can be seen through the clouds.

Within a couple of hours we descended into the Mascota river valley with its sugar cane and agave plantations. This led us to the forested, curvy roads that wind around the snowcapped Volcán de Colima, which is still quite active. We continued up to the alpine forests and town of Mazamitla at 7,500 feet, which is designated a “Pueblo Mágico.” Its name means “The place where arrows are made for hunting deer.” Even today mountain lions, deer and golden eagles can be seen among the pine and oak-covered mountains, which have been referred to as the “Switzerland of Mexico.” I also know of two other “Switzerlands of Mexico”! While gazing around the plaza, it did seem comparable to a Swiss village. Diversity is the key word when describing the topography of Mexico.

One evening was spent in Ajijic on the north shore of Lake Chapala, the largest natural lake in Mexico. It is rumored to have one of the two best climates in the world, the other being in Kenya. At 5,000 feet, it doesn’t get hot, and it is so far south that it doesn’t get cold. The lake in this beautiful mountain valley acts as a heat sink, keeping the temperature hovering around 75 F year-round. Not surprisingly, there are about 20,000 expatriate retirees from around the world living there. They even have a motorcycle club called “Hell’s Prostates.”

Indigenous people clear forest to plant crops
Indigenous people clear the forest to plant their crops, sell lumber and make charcoal. This is the greatest threat to the monarch butterflies.

The Sierra Madre mountain ranges, which run roughly north and south, are transected by a volcanic belt across central Mexico, resulting in spectacular mountain scenery. Riders are provided with huge, sweeping turns around mountains which overlook deep valleys. The newly surfaced roads are well banked on turns and make many elevation changes. Traffic is usually light but you need to stay alert! There are plenty of challenges for the motorcycle rider, such as rock slides or goats in the road, and the infamous topes or speed bumps when entering or exiting villages. Here is where the BMW GS suspension shines, as it smoothes out the many topes which aren’t always marked.

One afternoon while riding across 9,000-foot extinct volcanoes covered with pine forests, we came across the Parícutin Volcano. In 1947 a farmer noticed smoke rising from his corn field. In a few days a huge volcano rose, and lava began flowing toward his village. They had time to dismantle the town because it was built of lumber, but not the church, which was stone. The lava covered the village and flowed into the church, stopping short of the altar, which is the only part left. They offer horseback rides to the site, but we needed to move on.

Pátzcuaro, a Spanish colonial town, is situated on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, one of the world’s highest lakes. Its name means “Door to Heaven,” and it has been designated a “Pueblo Mágico” for its many historical fountains, churches, plazas and shrines. Situated at over 7,000 feet, the white adobe buildings and red-tiled roofs are a wonderful backdrop for the many sidewalk cafés and shops that ring its two plazas. It is also the ancient (and current) center of the regional indigenous people. Most still wear their traditional highly colored dress.

Church in Mexico town plaza
Every town has a plaza and every plaza has an old church such as this, many dating to the 1600s.

We departed Pátzcuaro for Zitácuaro on the western slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental. It was the scene of 19th-century battles during both the wars for independence from Spain and the French intervention. We rode through some of the most spectacular curves, elevation changes and mountain scenery anywhere. Forests of pine, oak and oyamel surround lakes and hot springs. From here we followed a twisty cobblestone road to the monarch butterfly biosphere, a highlight of the trip. From 9,000 feet we hiked up another 1,000-2,000 feet, where hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies hibernate each winter after migrating from their summer homes all over North America. Have you ever seen a million butterflies break a limb off a pine tree with their weight? It takes 4-5 generations for these insects to make the trip to Canada and North America in March, but only one to make it back to Mexico in the fall.

Leaving the altitude of the butterflies, we opened onto a valley in which the “Pink City” of Morelia stands out like a rose-colored Oz. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built with cantera, a pink-colored volcanic stone. The classic Spanish colonial architecture is rich in baroque styling, and its massive cathedral with twin towers is said to be the most beautiful in Mexico. Like entering the Wizard’s castle, we felt we were entering another realm when riding beneath the arches of the aqueduct built in 1785. It was built to provide water to the many fountains and convents in the city.

Michoacán beach
Vast stretches of the Pacific coast of Mexico are completely undeveloped such as this beautiful beach in Michoacán.

The next day it was on to Uruápan, the famous “Avocado Capital of Mexico.” It also has Ruiz National Park where a “river is born” from beneath a huge rock, upon which our hotel was constructed. The crystal-clear river flows about a kilometer through a tropical valley featuring 20 water features, but no pumps. It is all done with gravity. The route we traveled from Uruápan back to the coast at Manzanillo continued to amaze us with breathtaking landscapes and photo-ops.

Mexico has much to offer the rider seeking a wide range of new experiences in a relatively short period of time, with varying altitude, topography, old places and new. We traveled from beaches to butterflies to beaches again in seven days. Within minutes of leaving the urban areas we entered the “real” Mexico of the Sierra Madre Mountains where the air is clean and crisp. Senses come alive with the smells of cooking on a wood fire, sounds of birds, cicadas and tree frogs. The big sky and panorama open up at every turn in the road and seldom fail to elicit a “WOW!” Combined with the kindness of the Mexican people and their colorful history and culture, you have what we call the “Mexican Mystique.”

Dr. Jerry Smith is a retired dermatologist from Texas. He and his wife made this ride with a tour operator called Riders of the Sierra Madre.




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