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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

The Road to Bernal

Updated: Dec 7, 2020


After a couple of wet days the sunny morning and blue skies were a welcome sight for my day of leaving. Hurricane Katia had turned out to be a dud thankfully.

As I was packing my bike, the hotel owner came out to talk. I forget his name, but he spoke pretty good English, having worked in Houston for 15 years and getting his masters electrician rating. Over that time, he’d sent his money home to his wife in Xilitla. When his work permit renewal came up, he never received the notice in the mail and ended up losing his status. Now, he can never return to the U.S., but with the money saved, he'd built the entire four story hotel/home by himself including all the furniture, by hand, even cutting the trees in the forest to use for lumber. I was more than impressed. He'd spent nine years and still had the top floor yet to finish.

We talked about my trip and he warned me not to ride at night, not to go to any part of the states of Michoacan or Guerrero, and even to be very careful in Tamaulipas. I chose not to tell him I’d ridden in much of Michoacan the previous spring. He told me goodbye and went to work on the top floor, while his wife Elizabeth came out to watch me finish. In my pocket I still had some quarters, nickels and dimes rattling around. I handed it to her, not knowing how to say it was for her two young boys. I handed it to her and said "niños". She saw me struggling for the words and laughed, finally saying it was for their “colección”. I laughed and said "si!"

Once the side cases were closed and the duffel strapped, I backed gingerly out into the alley on my tiptoes, the 650 pound motorcycle feeling especially tall and unwieldy. The differing angles of the steep alley and driveway made it tenuous, but I got it revved and up the steep street to the main road, stopping at a little grocery shop or "abarrotes" for bottled water and a pack of tortillas for my breakfast and the road.

As I swigged some water with a fresh tortilla in my hand, a lady struggled to push her old mother in a wheelchair up the street past me. I smiled with a “Buenos dias”. They both responded with big smiles. A minute later I noticed the lady trying to lock the rear wheels of the wheelchair on the steep cobblestones, preparing to hold it for her mother so she could try to get out of it. In front of her stood a high curb that I new she'd never be able to climb. Mexico is not what you'd call "handicap friendly". I jumped off the bike, half eaten tortilla hanging from my mouth, and ran over to help. The old woman was too weak to even lift herself and the fact the chair was facing up a steep hill didn’t help. I took her hand and she struggled greatly to stand, but then I just said “perdón” and deadlifted her up to her feet. She wrestled to stay standing while her daughter struggled with the wheelchair, unable to hand me the old woman's cane. I held her, slowly moving us to the doorway, where she clung dearly until her daughter came with the cane. I looked up at the set of concrete steps she had to climb to her apartment and just shook my head. It broke my heart to think she had to struggle that way each day.

I got the motorcycle turned around and hit the road out of town, climbing up into the mountains. It was an incredibly beautiful day, temperatures in the sixties and sunny. The road was twisty as it wound higher and higher. I rode slowly and just took it all in, the thick vegetation and deep valleys of green, high waterfalls and many fruit trees.

My destination for the day was the quiet and lovely town of Bernal, one of Mexico's "Pueblo Magicos". It was about 150 miles away, but I kept stopping and looking at views, absorbing and just having a great, easy ride. Freedom reigns.

Xilitla lies on the eastern side of the Sierra Madre range, amid the tropical climate from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. As I traveled west, climbing higher to crest the Sierras, pines became common along with cooler temperatures. Little villages appeared on the steep hillsides, several with beautiful churches or missions, and I’d loop around the plazas to see them. The most impressive was the church facade in the town of Landa Matamores, where I pulled up to park and found myself next to a man and his little boy on the sidewalk.

The man, Santiago, was enamored with my bike being a BMW, as I find all across Mexico. I indicated that he could set his little son Manuelito on the bike since kids always seem to enjoy getting on it. Santiago communicated that he wanted to take a picture with a cell phone, but it was with his wife in the government building across the street. I indicated to him I’d be back in 10 minutes and went off to see the church, under the scrutiny of a few Mexican soldiers on the sidewalk.

Upon my return, Santiago and little Manuelito were gone. I figured they would return and waited. Ten minutes turned into twenty. I saw him running back to me, showing me his car key and indicating it wouldn’t start. He ran away again and about 15 minutes passed before I saw him and his family returning. They stood aways off, almost as if afraid to approach. When I waved they excitedly ran to the bike for pictures. I shot a couple of family photos with the bike on their phone. It was sweet, as they had obviously gone home and changed clothes for the photographs. When we finished, a man came out of the government building to hand me a brochure of the town. He was genuinely friendly and happy to see me, shaking my hand and nodding with a big smile.

The nearby soldiers were still grimly watching, but the open-heartedness of the three people I'd just met won my affection for the town. There are times when being a moto traveler has its perks. One of those perks is often the friendliness and interest of people whom you meet. It's the rare time when an everyday man gets to be a mini-celebrity!

Leaving my mini-celebrity status behind, the road climbed higher and higher, with views even better, until reaching 8,500’. The temps had dropped to the mid 50’s in the sunshine and I'd gotten a bit chilled in my mesh jacket and short sleeve T-shirt. I stopped to take a butt break and grab a juice from a tiny store in a small village. The folks weren’t friendly as in the previous town and I didn’t get a good vibe. When I walked into the little store, a man from an auto repair shop a couple of doors down ran quickly up and into the store where he sat on a chair behind the counter. I nodded and smiled but he didn’t care. I bought a bottle of juice from the young girl behind the counter with him, but she seemed somewhat afraid of me. The man continued to stare, obvious that he neither liked nor trusted me. I sat outside on a tiny bench to rest for a bit. He came and stood in the doorway to watch me until I left. It was apparent I was unwelcome there, a rare feeling in Mexico, but it was what it was. Only when I got on the bike did he walk back inside.

The small town seemed to be primarily of an indigenous tribe. The rare times I have felt uncomfortable or unwanted in Mexico have usually been in indigenous villages. From there I crested the mountain range, where there was a sudden change from the lush, cool, green and forested eastern side of the mountains, to a sudden dry, barren, brown and cactus laden high desert. From the heights, ahead I could see a twisting ribbon of switchbacks and curves swirling around the mountainsides below.

The dry climate and higher temperatures of the desert made the ride less comfortable, though the curving roads and vistas were enjoyable. The 140 miles or so to Bernal had taken me almost 5 hours due to my multiple stops and slow pace to enjoy the ride. I was ready to be off the bike by the time I made it into the center of town.

Bernal sits beneath a huge stone outcropping. It is a small, quiet town of simple yet colorful buildings not too far from the bustling city of Queretaro to the west.

I had forgotten to find an ATM in Xilitla and was very low on pesos. I was distraught to find that the only ATM would not process any card I tried, then finally locked me out. I tried to call my card companies, but my variations of calling codes to the USA kept giving me a recording “Servicio no disponiblé”. I'd found two quaint hotels off the main plaza, however they would only accept cash and not take a credit card. Crap!

As I stood in the empty plaza, a waitress who’d apparently been watching me came over to offer help, but she spoke no English. My phone was dying and I couldn’t use my translation apps. She grabbed my arm and drug me to the restaurant, shouting a man’s name. The cook came out and he knew as much English as I know Spanish, but I asked him if the hotels took credit cards. He said "yes" and pointed out one down the street.

The waitress took me down the street and around a corner to make sure I found it. I thanked her and she ran off. Ringing the buzzer several times brought no response. I saw a workman in the courtyard who'd wished he’d not made eye contact. Rather than let me in, he yelled down a hallway. About 5 minutes later, through the glass I saw a very old man with a cane, walking as slowly as Tim Conway’s "old man" character. He came out into the hall, stopped and looked, then turned around and headed back into a room. I gave up and as I turned to leave a woman appeared off the street, apparently the owner. She was very nice and happy to get me a room, then when I said “tarjeta” she said no. Dang it!

I rode about the town on the bike, finding no hotels that would take cards and I didn’t have enough cash for a room. Disappointed and tired, I rode out of the sleepy little town onto the main highway where I finally found a ridiculously priced place, but at least they accepted credit cards and at last I got a room for the night. I'd made a rookie mistake by not getting pesos in Xilitla.

After getting checked in I rode back to the old square at dusk to find a meal. With the few pesos I had, I found a street vendor selling about 6 kinds of "elotes", a blend of steamed corn mixed with mayonnaise, grated cheese and other things and grabbed a cup of it for dinner.

The sun having disappeared, it was chilly as I walked around and headed back to the bike. There were two women and a man in the plaza as I walked towards my bike, shooting a few photos. Though I didn't pay much attention to the three, I noticed they were all looking up in the evening sky.

Jesus watching the phenomenon in the sky

As I neared my motorcycle, I heard a man shouting and turned to see him running across the plaza towards me. He breathlessly came up pointing at my camera, then up into the sky, speaking to me in Spanish. I fumbled with my words and he quickly changed to broken English. He pointed to the sky to my right and then back across the plaza to my left. At each point, I saw a round, white, orb sitting motionless in the sky. Each was small, but identical, and they were definitely not stars or planets. Their appearance was similar to a pearl. At first in all the rush I was confused, until I realized he was trying to get me to take a picture of the event. He waved his cell phone and pointed at my lens, indicating I could get a much better picture than his phone.

I stared for quite a while at the two orbs in the air. Though small, they were absolutely undeniable and something unnatural. Had there been only one, it would have easily been able to discount it as a distant white balloon in the sky or something similar. The fact that there were two, identical, in different places, at the same height, and neither were moving was hard to explain. I observed them for several minutes. Using my telephoto lens was quite frustrating, as the evening light was very low and my lens dark, so much so I could not get it to focus properly. It had gotten so dark that I couldn't even focus manually. The few shots I was able to capture were blurred from camera shake due to very slow shutter speeds. It's somewhat embarrassing to be a professional photographer and yet unable to capture such a bizarre phenomenon.

As the man and I watched, the two orbs vanished. We looked at each other, me with raised eyebrows, and shook our heads. In his broken English, he introduced himself as "Jesus" and shook my hand. I was still incredulous, but he said that the orbs appeared somewhat regularly and frequently over the town. He told me that their appearances had been increasing. I wasn't sure what to say, and I'm not sure what it was, but I've never seen anything like it and can't deny what I saw.

This was only the second time I've seen something in the sky that I cannot explain. Interestingly, the other time was 6 months earlier in Mexico in San Cristóbal near Guatemala. There, an entire plaza of people, including myself and my riding partner watched in disbelief at a phenomenon in the skies over the town for a good 15 minutes.

Whatever, it was quite an interesting way to end the evening. Jesus climbed into his truck as I fired up my bike and headed for the hotel in the night. The road from Xilitla through the Sierra Gorda to Bernal is highly recommended.

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