Between Mazatlan on the west coast of mainland Mexico and Durango, which lies east of the Sierra Madre Mountains, there is a famous road known by locals and internationally as the Devil’s Backbone. Local legend says that when the Archangel Michael threw the devil from heaven and he landed here on earth, his backbone formed the rugged ridgeline of the Sierra Madres. This 140-mile road is so curvy and twisted that it takes 7-8 hours to cross (that’s an average speed of 20 mph or less). It is the only place to cross the Sierra Madres for more than 500 miles. The road has had a bad reputation for many reasons: it’s accident-prone and hundreds of people have died on it, these mountains have historically been remote and inaccessible enough that they are used for growing marijuana and poppies, and therefore, there has been a lot of crime in these mountains related to drug trafficking.
The government began planning more than 15 years ago to create a new road that would reduce the travel time, open up the area to development, grant access to law enforcement to the remote mountains in hopes of reducing crime, and therefore, improving the economy. Work began in 2010 and this incredible engineering feat was completed in late summer 2013. There are more than 60 tunnels (totaling more than 11 miles) and something along the lines of 40 bridges (I’ve heard varying reports of 35-100 bridges). One of the new bridges is now the highest suspension bridge in the world at more than 1280-feet above the gorge’s floor. Mexico names all its bridges, even the small seasonal creek crossings, but the Baluarte is deserving of a name more than any other. It is a work of art.
I have asked locals, friends, acquaintances and strangers where the good roads are in Mexico, and have done research online as well. The one common road that I keep hearing about is the Devil’s Backbone. So as I ride west out of Durango I am excited, as riding this road has been in the planning for weeks now. But first a decision must be made.
There are two roads to choose from now, the old and the new. The old road is still open, and Mex 40 has changed a lot. The past 3 years of construction has opened up the country and made it a little less dangerous as far as drug trafficking. Traffic is changing on the road as far as the mix of traffic as well as volume. I’ve heard that a lot of trucks still use the old road because there are no tolls, therefore less expensive to use. So some say there are more trucks on the old road than on the new which makes me as a motorcyclist a little concerned. It takes a full day to cross the mountains on the old road, and on a motorcycle the old road requires your full attention (which keeps you fro sightseeing as you ride) and all your energy. The new road is faster, but also doesn’t have the character that the old one does. It does have stunning views and incredibly-designed new construction marvels…and it has the Baluarte Bridge. But it does come at a price, and I have no idea how much the tolls will cost. People suggest both roads and in the end I opt for the new road, but another day I hope to take the old. And so off I go…to my first tollbooth of a few on this road.
The first toll is 29 pesos, just over $2 USD, not bad. The road starts an immediate steady climb from the plains up into the Sierra Madres.
I cover a lot of miles before I go through my first tunnel, the first of many.
Somewhere before the halfway point, I have to go through another tollbooth, and this one takes $38 pesos, around $3 USD.
I see several runaway truck ramps because of the steep mountain climbs and descents in the mountains. This highway has a red path painted on the roadway leading distressed truckers to the ramp with this very visible line.
The road passes by another tollbooth and when I see the cost is $121 pesos, nearly $10 USD, I think that I must finally be getting close to all the good stuff, the Baluarte and the tunnels. The roads traces along cliff edges and the landscape is getting more dramatic.
And then just around a slight left-hand turn and past a runaway truck ramp, there it is….
The Baluarte Bridge in all its glory.
There is a second smaller bridge, very similar in design, just up ahead and then more tunnels. Eventually the road starts to descend toward Mazatlan, but not after I pass my 4th and final tollbooth and drop another $64 pesos. I can feel the air getting warmer and the hillside plants change from mountain pines to tropical trees and vines. And in a while I will see the Pacific on the horizon. Since I’m off Margaritas (after my first day in Mexico), a beer is sounding really good about now.