El Vergel to Tepehuanes, Durango

Here’s some pictures from an area that’s considered to be amongst the most remote, dangerous and challenging in the Sierra Madre – the dirt road mountain crossing between Chihuahua and Durango. Epic riding!

A paved climb led us out of the funky, colourful cowboy settlement of El Vergel, before we turned back on a dirt track leaving the vast state of Chihuahua and crossed into Durango. Finally! It’s been a long time coming… After a sharp descent, the path rolled up and down towards a ridge, where the occasional small village working the timber trade – oaks, pines and douglas fir – peppered the way.

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Up in the juniper forest, there were plenty of good camping opportunities, and ample dry fuel to cook and keep warm. We’ve built a fire almost every night we’ve been in Mexico, laying our pots on the embers, the air rich with the smell of sizzling garlic as we chat or read.  Our soundtrack was the call of cayotes. The area is also home to deer, turkeys, razorbacks (wild pigs) and mountain lions. 

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Max was the first person we met in Durango, and his kindness boded well for the road ahead. After providing us with the rare insight of accurate information for a route the mountains, he appeared from his house bearing gifts of chocis – one of our all time favourite chocolate biscuits – and toilet roll! He’d been surprised to see us camping that morning – apparently no one does that round here – and warmly wished us well for the journey ahead: Que Dios le lleve – May God carry you safely.

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The road was still steep in places, but easier going than the last couple of days, and very quiet. 

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It wounds its way in and out of the forest.

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Trucks loaded up with timber passed us by, their loads swinging precariously from side to side as they pumped their brakes on and off, negotiating the pothole-strewn track.

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Compared to the concrete structures of Chihuahua’s settlements, painted in garish pinks and green, most villages here were built from timber. Some had fallen into complete disrepair, their rooves sagging with the exhaustion of time.

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Streams were generally dry, so we stopped in villages for water, or found the occasional spring. It seemed clean enough not to need to treat it.

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A fast, dusty descents into a forest settlement. These places felt truly remote. In heavy snow or during the rains, I expect they’ll all but cut off from the rest of the world.

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Cuidado! Careful! The cattleguards round here are death traps for cyclists, as they’re placed long ways, rather than across the road.

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Finally, the road broke out onto a ridgetop, affording views of the surrounding mountains.

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From here, it wound its way every downwards. Almost as challenging as the steep sided barranacas of Copper Canyon, it felt like we might be leaving the most unforgiving of the Sierra Madre’s mountains behind.

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Finally, we emerged out of the dusty heavens alongside a active silver mine, riding through the rough and ready settlement of Guanacevi, a higgledy hotchpotch town with a clutch of wild looking bars.

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We camped on a hillside a little down the road. Spot, an emaciated puppy, came to join us, and nuzzled up in Jason’s tent out of the wind that blustered all night. The evening proved to be an eventful one. While we were gathered round the fire, two military soldiers crept silently up on us, stepping ominously out of the darkness. Togged up in full combat gear – body armour, handguns and knifes – they cut quite a menacing look. ‘What are you doing here?’ one demanded in a surly tone, his long assault rifle in his hands. We explained what we were doing and they relaxed, chatting and asking us about the trip. Still, they did enquire as to whether we had any drugs or firearms, and poked around our kit a little before their searchlight went dead. Watch out for the cows and the rattlesnakes, they advised, disappearing back into the undergrowth…

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It was still gusting hard in the morning, and rain clouds were circling around us.

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Coupled with rolling hills and a strong headwind, the next 60 kilometres were tough ones.

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Thankfully, after the unremitting, crumpled mountains of the last few days, it felt like the landscape here had softened. Endless forest was replaced by brush and open views

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In fact, it was a quiet, beautiful road – blighted only by the ridiculously strong headwind that slowed us to a crawl. The gusts were strong enough to knock us off our bikes.

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A nice little spot for a roadside picnic.

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But that wind! It was punishing, brutal. When I stopped to take a drink, it was hard to hold the bike up straight.

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Finally we topped out on a plateau, and began a long rolling descent down into Tepehuanes.

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Tepehuanes proved to be a colourful, rambunctious place. Compared to settlements in Chihuahua, which felt closed and cold, people here wandered the streets and plied their trades. Still, as we were riding around searching for a hotel that wasn’t closed and run down, a man in a thick, american mexican accent advised me to be careful: ‘Don’t take any photos of people here. Lots of men come down from the Sierra,’ referring to the narcos who hole up in the mountains we’d just been riding across.

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Plenty of colourful wall art. Good bike-leaning walls.

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And nice colour co-ordination…

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The central church gave Tepehuanes a colonial, Spanish feel.

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As did its central square, around which men were sitting in the shade of trees gossiping. Various street vendors were selling local goods – cheese, honey and chunks of quillote – chunks of sucullent agave that’s chewed on and then spat out. Choppy, uplifting Mexican music piped out from the shops. It was a great scene. Way more happening and friendly than anywhere I’ve travelled through in Chihuahua, a state that in comparisson felt bleak and unfriendly, blighted by its drugs and corrupt cowboys.

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That evening, we tracked down an excellent restaurant. This fresh fish set me back 60 pesos – a little over 4 dollars. Before photo…

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And shortly after photo… (burp)

The Need to know section

Distance: around 230km.

Navigation: Tricky, as there are a couple of ways to get to Guanacevi, all unmarked on the map: ask for El Cedro and Laguna Seca, and keep checking at junctions. Logging drivers often know best.

Road conditions: pavement past El Vergel, then very rough forest trails, constantly up and down…

Cheap digs: plenty of camping possibilities, cheap looking fleapit hotels in El Vergel, Hotel Plaza in Tepehuanes (325 pesos for 4)

Food and drink: occasional springs and villages with very basic supplies, great sustenance in Tepehuanes

Internet: wifi at the Hotel Plaza

19 thoughts on “El Vergel to Tepehuanes, Durango

  1. Simon G

    Mexico looks amazing…despite the everpresent narcotrade. I guess that you are going to keep heading down the mountainous spine rather than heading to the coast. At least it looks warmer now…all well with us…S

    Reply
  2. otbiking Post author

    Thanks guys. Really nice to read your comments. Doing great here, am in Durango at the moment. Big, swish city! Off for a ride with the local bike club.

    Reply
  3. Mark Cunnington

    Hey Cass,

    Remember me from Sach Pass 2007? Sounds like a great ride through interesting terrain.

    In April I’m planning a kayak trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska. I’ll set up a blog soon. I got a D300 which is nice.

    Look forward to following your trip, I hope to do that myself some day.

    Reply
  4. Eleazar Gamboa

    Hola my name is Eleazar Gamboa I am from el municipio de Tepehuanes tanks for telling us about your trip and showig us some pictures of this remot part of the word. I grow up walkig all that beautiful sierra.

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      Thanks for your message Eleazar. The Sierra Madre is certainly a beautiful, remote mountain range. Hopefully I will make it back one day…

      Reply
  5. Ivan Chaidez

    wow I want to go back to my parents native land so bad, im 18 and I use to go every summer and winter I sat right on that bench in tepehuanes. My mom is from a smaller pueblo called el corazon (the heart) and my dad from cerritos by la purisima, how I miss it. Thanks for the pictures your lucky you got to go Ive been busy with school. hope you enjoyed it, isnt it so relaxing? it might not be riches but for me it’s still paradise!

    Reply
  6. Jannette

    my father was born in Metates in 1929, he traveled 4 days by horse to go to Tepehuanes on a regular basis. His name is Enrique Chavez, He worked in the mines, helped build the runway, was a justice of the peace and wore many other hats, he traveled throughout the region. We came across your photos because he loves to see where he grew up. He is happy you chose to ride through there and wishes he could too. : )

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Thanks for your words, Janette. We had a really good time in the Sierra Madre, despite all the warning we’ve received. I’m sure it’s changed a lot since your dad’s day, but it’s very rugged. It’s great imagining your dad on horseback out there!

      Reply
  7. Gabriel

    was a very interesting journey with many adventures, and the photos were very nice :)
    I have a doubt, you’re in mexico?

    Reply
  8. A

    Thanks for pictures of Tepehuanes. My mom (Gaitan) was born there in 1930 and taught briefly in Carreras when she was 17 years old. My father (Herrera) was born in 1928 in one of the smaller villages nearby. My grandfather Manuel Gaitan’s passion was mining, but he never struck it rich. I visited Tepehuanes a few times and have not been there since the early 70’s. Throughtout my childhood, my mother told me stories of her life while in that small quaint town. (Some which involved her at age 7 fishing with dynomite she took from her dad). I remember it as a friendly warm place.

    Reply

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