Yes, someone actually did tell me I would die on my trip. In fact, more than one person did. I tried not to pay too much attention to these warnings though.
Most individuals throwing around this kind of unsubstantiated travel advice have never actually been "there". Some are just simply relaying horror stories they have heard. You have to bear in mind, "people gunned down in the street on vacation" makes a much more engaging news headline then "Dave got a few nice barrels and Jen came home with a sweet tan". Negative stories spread about 7x times faster than their positive counterparts, especially in this sensationalist media age. For these reasons and more, I try to only take advice regarding dangerous areas and travel warnings from people who are from these areas, or have extensively travelled or visited these areas.
Anyone with a Netflix account has probably watched too much Narcos, and many people in New Zealand and Canada enjoyed warning me of violence-riddled Colombia (which is now one of the safer Latin American countries to travel) before the start of my journey. Plenty of people from the United States who have never left their country loved to tell me how dangerous Mexico is. I know in my heart that these were not the people to be taking advice from. The best thing you can do while travelling is to stay present and aware and listen to your gut. It does not matter where you are, if something really does not feel right, get out.
The troublesome duo of depression and anxiety makes this rather difficult. Even on my good days, I have this underlying feeling of self-doubt. Usually I can reason with my mind as it tries to convince me I am living in the worst case scenario by focusing on a few "facts". These can be facts about the positive things I truly know about my current situation, but while I am travelling through countries I have never been to, and through places that are not on the typical tourist route, I have very few of these "facts" to go on. On my bad days then, I am at a crossroads between external voices telling me I am in danger, and internal voices screaming the same, and then having to pick which direction I aim my front wheel and hit the throttle. On these days, I grip for dear life to the positive and encouraging advice I receive from other travellers and locals, as well as my faith in the good things coming.
This method has one huge flaw though - silencing rational fear. Fear is the evolutionary product that kept our ancestors alive. Fear warns us when we are in danger and has been essential to our survival for millenia. The combination of well-meaning fear mongerers, rational fear, and near-constant self doubt results in the most difficult aspect of my journey so far. Especially as I approach areas even locals warn against.
So on the coastal highway between Puerto Vallarta and Puerto Escondido in Mexico, I decided to try a little experiment. It is a 1400km stretch of road that winds its way through mountainous coastal jungle between two popular tourist towns. However, the vast majority of tourists (and locals) travel inland through the cities of Guadalajara and Mexico City. This is because the coastal route goes through remote areas of the states of Michoacan (known for its unofficial roadblocks manned by armed civilians waiting with chains and ropes across the road to stop potential drug traffickers and other vehicles) and Guerrero (home to Mexico’s most violent city - Acapulco).
So what was the experiment? Well, the internal and external voices of fear and doubt have never been louder than while I was planning my route through here, but how could I ever know if these voices were to be trusted if I did not go and see for myself with my own eyes? Here are my findings:
Day 1 - The morning before I left Sayulita, I chatted with a Mexican woman as I got a smoothie. I told her my intended route, and she strongly advised against it. Her parents live just north of Michoacan in the state of Colima, and she never goes south of there because there are always militia checkpoints on the road. “Always, always, always” she reaffirmed. She was on her way to meeting a friend for breakfast, who had just moved to Sayulita from Acapulco after seeing the bodies of murder victims dumped in public on more than one occasion. My bike was already packed though, and my mind made up. I was soon riding south, with open mind to what might lay ahead for me. To kick things off, a gas attendent at a Pemex station tried to use a slight of hand magic trick to convince me I had given him a $20mxn note instead of a $200mxn note. The shitty gas wizard did not fool me though, and after that was nothing but easy scenic riding. I found a quiet beach on the coast of Jalisco, and set up camp in an unoccupied holiday home's yard to watch a beautiful sunset.
Day 2 - I spent most of the day on the bike, making a couple of stops at the famous surf breaks of Boca de Pascuales and La Ticla. I did not have a board, but the surfing nationals were on at Pascuales, and I took a refreshing dip at La Ticla. The Michoacan roadblock rumours were actually true, and I passed through 6 of them more or less trouble free. Two waved me through unchecked, three appeared unmanned so I rode straight through without seeing any reason to stop, and one looked like stopping was not a good idea. The guys with rifles walked away as the others lowered the chain for the truck in front of me, so I took my opportunity and pinned it past all of them and around the next corner in a few seconds. I still managed to cover 370km, even with my stops, and found a beautiful quiet white sand beach to camp on. A sea turtle decided to bury her eggs next to my tent late that night, which is one of the most special moments of my trip, if not my whole life.
Day 3 - Today I had one goal: Make it through Acapulco. Guerrero gave me no real reasons to stop and take in the sights, though the wasted potential was obvious. There were regularly ripped, torn and tattered billboards along the highway for condos and resorts that may or may not still exist. I got glimpes of the rugged beautiful coastline from the highway, and the resort town of Ixtapa shone proudly in the distance at one point, but I was making good time so continued on. I soon came to the outskirts of Acapulco, and a military checkpoint took great interest in me, inspecting everything from my sunglasses case to my hammock. I was just happy they were official soldiers and not bored children with guns like from the day before. They let me through and into Acapulco. Within 10km, I saw 6 armoured trucks carrying heavily armed soldiers and police. Trash was being burnt in the street, which is actually a common form of trash disposal here, but it really added a dramatic effect. I found my way into the tourist area, then away from it again, up into the hills and out the backside of the city. I did not stop to get a real feel for the city, but really did not want to either. An agitated young man threw rocks at traffic and I swerved to dodge barking dogs and hazardous bus drivers on the road, then suddenly it was over and I was past Acapulco. I treated myself to a nice hotel 30km down the highway with a pool and secure parking.
Day 4 - A relatively short and scenic ride through lush green farmland and over river valleys through the state of Oaxaca to the beautiful town of Puerto Escondido. After a couple of days of being a tourist here, and giving my bike some well deserved love and maintenance, I would continue a couple of hours south to another little surf town my friends recommended to me. They pitched it as a "safe place with super chill vibes and good waves", which sounded like the perfect place to reward myself for boldly facing my fears in the last 4 days.
Conclusion: On one hand, all the warnings were actually true, but on the other hand, it was still not as bad as I expected. I admittedly did not have my cameras out on the bike at all, but no one had any reason to mess with me. I passed through town after town of people just trying to get by. They were selling fruit and drinks at the speed-bumps (or “topes”), working the land, waiting for buses and walking to school. There was danger to be found, but that is the case anywhere.
For instance, on my way to bed on my first night in the 'super chill vibe surf town' I encountered the most danger of my whole trip. I caught a guy lighting the palapa roofs on fire where I was staying, and had to get everyone out of their cabanas and help the whole town put the fire out with buckets. Meanwhile, the arsonist walked down the road and shot someone to death. That could easily have been me, as I stood in front of him after catching him red-handed, but after a few seconds of eye contact, he turned and walked away. Those bullets were intended for someone else, and I realise now that luck is a huge factor in my journey too.
My experiment did not really return any solid conclusions, other than seeing how afraid I can be, and still come out the other side happy and grateful for life. I learnt the importance of always trying to stay present, because you can never really know what to expect. If nothing else, it solidified my belief that there is always something better just around the corner. Always. We just have to be brave and patient enough to see it.