South of the Border: The Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico

Parque Nacional Cumbres de Monterrey (Summits of Monterrey National Park)
The Parque Nacional Cumbres de Monterrey (Summits of Monterrey National Park) is just south of Monterrey, population 1.1 million, but feels worlds away. The riding can be challenging on a big bike. Photos by the author.

I’ll admit I was skeptical. A land of mountains, twisty asphalt, endless dirt tracks, cheap lodging, good food and friendly locals just a few hours south of the Texas border? 

But I’ve seen this dual-sport promised land and I’m here to report it’s all true. The Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, which begins just south of Monterrey, creates an international motorcycle wonderland that’s easily accessible for anyone living in the Midwest or Eastern United States. 

You’ll need a temporary vehicle importation permit (TVIP) to bring your bike this far south into Mexico. Getting one requires a valid registration in your name, your Mexican visa (free if you are staying seven days or less) and a passport. Some riders report also needing a vehicle title, but no one asked to see mine. You also pay a refundable deposit that varies depending the age of your bike; it was $300 for my 2006 Suzuki DR650. Make sure you get insurance, too. Again, nobody asked to see proof of insurance at the border, but if you get in an accident in Mexico you can land in jail if you aren’t covered. 

Mexico motorcycle ride map
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

We made quick work of the McAllen/Reynosa border tangle and headed southwest on Federal Highway 40, the equivalent of a state highway in the U.S. South of the border, the posted speed limits are low, typically 60 mph or less, but few pay attention to them. The thing to remember is to stay to the right. People will pass and you are expected to pull as far to the right as you can to let them by. Even on a narrow, two-lane road, pull to the right as far as you safely can. Other drivers will do the same for you.

The fun began with a section of tight, twisty blacktop that turned south from Federal Highway 85 between Ciudad de Allende and Montemorelos. The temperature dropped and the clouds closed in as we wound over the Sierra Madre for the first of many times this trip and down into the pecan-farming town of Rayones. We were taking the “fast” way to Galeana, our base for the next few days, and that meant a 10-mile dirt road south from Rayones that might be a challenge for inexperienced riders on bigger bikes.

Sierra Madre Oriental
Take a bike that can do it all because the Sierra Madre Oriental has everything from twisty pavement to endless dirt roads to challenging trails.

Galeana is small city at the base of Cerro El Potosí, which at 12,208 feet is the tallest mountain in the Sierra Madre Oriental range. The town has plenty of restaurants, stores, banks and supplies, and makes a great base for exploring the area. We stayed at the moto-friendly Hotel Magdalena, where a double room was $36 a night with secure parking for the bikes in the back. There are probably cheaper places to stay, but the Magdalena is right on the spotless square, the heartbeat of this vibrant town.

We based in Galeana for the first few days. It’s a small city at about 5,400 feet in elevation, so it can get cold. After clearing Reynosa on the Texas border, Galeana is a three-hour ride by the fastest route.

One of our best routes took us back north to Rayones, then on a combination of sinuous asphalt and well-kept dirt roads, loosely following the Río Pilón through mountain towns too small to even have restaurants. Eventually the dirt road turned to steep, rocky, loose two-track that tested the big bikes in our group — a BMW R 1100 GS, Suzuki V-Strom 1000 and Triumph Tiger — to the limit. It all felt about right on my DR650, though.

The real apex of the trip was spending two nights in Real de Catorce, an old silver mining town three hours southwest of Galeana. Real is situated atop a plateau at almost 9,000 feet, and if it looks like a movie set of a forgotten Mexican mountain town, that’s because it is. A good portion of “The Mexican,” the 2001 film starring Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie, was shot there.

riding motorcycles in Mexico
Off-road terrain in the area varies from smooth dirt to goat trails, sometimes in the space of a few miles. Be prepared to do some rocky hill climbs.

There are two ways into Real: a steep, rocky, narrow jeep trail from the west, or right through the side of a mountain via the one-lane Ogarrio Tunnel. We chose the latter, and even getting to the tunnel is an adventure: 17 miles on a cobblestone road. The trick, I learned, is to keep your speed up. Ride too slow and the cobblestones take control of where your bike is going. This stretch should probably be avoided in the rain.

Pay a small toll to get through the tunnel and 1.5 miles later you’ll emerge into Real, once one of the largest silver producing towns in the world. When the price of silver collapsed, the town’s economy went with it, and the downsized village is now largely dependent on tourism. Many travelers come to Real for the town’s reputed spiritual energy or to hunt for peyote, the cactus fruit that is sacred to the native Huichol people who originally inhabited this area.

Real de Catorce
The town of Real de Catorce is accessible either by a tunnel or a rough jeep road. Real was once a silver mining hub, and served as the backdrop for the movie “The Mexican.”

We parked the bikes and toured Real on foot, hiking up to the Pueblo Fantasma, an abandoned mining quarters for the workers who extracted precious metal from these hills. Expect warm, sunny days and cold nights in Real.

Food in Real is basic and cheap. We ate a breakfast of eggs, tortillas and beans for less than $3. Lodging ranges from basic to luxury, but even the most expensive places in town only cost the equivalent of about $70 U.S. per night.

Cobblestone streets in Real de Catorce.
Cobblestone streets in Real de Catorce.

After a week in the Sierra Madre Oriental I realized I had barely begun to experience the area. The mountains stretch south past Mexico City, after all. Further explorations await.

Because of the times we live in, no story about riding in Mexico would be complete without a word about safety. I’ve been to Mexico a handful of times and don’t consider myself an expert on the topic, but I will say this: not once on this trip, nor any other, did I felt threatened in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have found the Mexican people to be warm, inviting and accommodating. Speaking even a few words of Spanish pays dividends.

motorcycle ride in Mexico
Searching for a tiny church tucked away in the mountains, we found that maps aren’t always accurate. It’s best to consult the locals.

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