Stunning Ruta 40


The old federal highway 40 linking Mazatlan to Durango is arguably one of the most beautiful roads in the world. That’s what you’ll find online anyway. It is also listed as one of the most dangerous. For a touring cyclist, however, the road is absolutely not dangerous. In fact, this is one of the safest I have cycled on. Since the completion of the superhighway 40D in October 2013, the old road sees a lot less traffic, leaving the road pretty much empty. Someone driving between Mazatlan and Durango using the old road, it would take 8 hours. On the new Autopista 40D going through tunnels and tolls, it would take 3 hours.

We read blogs of other cycle-tourers who have ridden on the 40D so it is possible to ride on bike on the superhighway, but hearing all that traffic passing beside us wasn’t for us. We wanted to follow the mountain edges, admire the spectacular views and go through the villages.

Leaving Mazatlan on the quiet highway 15, we reached the edge of town in a blink of an eye. We kept on pushing to Villa Union and reached Concordia in what seems like minutes. From there though, the real climbing started. We slowly passed through thick, humid rainforests, birds signing letting their friends we were coming. Our second day was all climbing through the rainforest and more sweating. We went through dormant and abandoned villages with only a few active houses, the after-effects of the new 40D highway which most travelers decide to take. Gaining 2200 meters in altitude over the last 2 days made the temperature cooler. At the end of our second day of climbing views of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the mountain range we were crossing, started to materialize. We camped on a secluded spot of a dirt road beside the main highway just passed the small village of Portrerillos.

Large trees on Ruta 40

On the third day, the road climbed a little less than previous days and enjoyed short downhill sections, giving a little break to our tired legs. We stopped often to take photos of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The road, carved on the mountain edges, rarely saw vehicles passing by. The perfectly paved road belonged to us. The thick rainforest was far behind when we started our third day. Palm trees replaced by the beautiful aroma of pine trees. We started to hear the loud cracking and shrieking of military macaws before seeing them taking flight into the emptiness of the valley below. Those majestic birds are rare in the wild. Many are capturing the bright green and blue colored birds to keep them as pets, leaving the wild population in decline.

Dark clouds over the Sierra Madre Occidental

Toward the end of our third day, the road made a sharp left turn on the mountain’s edge to face another valley where the weather changed dramatically. The sun was hidden by a thick layer of clouds. In the distance, looking over the valley where the new 40D snaked its way in the valley, lightning started to illuminate the wooden forest. From 2600 meters high, our vantage point was pretty good. Directly above us, clouds were rolling over the 3000 meters plus rocky escarpments, creating a mist we only see in movies. The rain was coming and we needed to find a camp, fast. The dark clouds quickly rolled right above us. Mother Nature was waiting to unleash its might on us. We passed by a dirt road and pushed our bikes on it as the rain started to fall. In seconds, the rain started to pour down on us. We had picked a spot without any tree cover from the rain and didn’t have time to grab our rain jacket before quickly leaning our bikes on their wooden sticks, secure the brakes so they stay stable and ran up the hill to find shelter under a rock barely wide enough to protect us both from the downpour. In shorts and t-shirt, we watched lightning landed extremely close, the thundering results as proof. One must have landed a few meters from us as the earth trembled as we heard the thunder, stopping our heart upon hearing it. In the thick of the forest, only this 2 feet wide rock protected us from not being struck. We hugged each other, both in shock after hearing this destroying sound of thunder. Every 30 seconds or so a flash of lightning illuminated everything around us. A river formed on the dirt road below us and must have moved some rocks on the stick holding my bike because I watched my bike crashed on the side. The impact opened my handlebar bag, leaving my SLR camera and phone exposed to the increasing rain. I had to go down there and pick it up. I told Tiph I’d run down and comeback quickly; I couldn’t leave those under the rain. I picked my bike up, grabbed whatever items that felt down the small stream that formed and unclipped my handlebar to bring it back up. Despite being wet, nothing seemed to be broken, to out relief. We stayed under that rock for about 30 minutes, until the heart of the storm passed.

By the time we pushed our bikes back on the pavement we were drenched to the bones, the wind made us shiver. Looking toward the top we were heading to, in between the trees, we could see a structure we could use for cover and potentially stay the night. There was no place for us to camp now unless we pitched our tent in a small pool of mud. We were beaten down but there was no other choice; we had to push all the way up there. Tiphaine’s knee was hurting so bad that this would be the place we would stay. There was nothing left in me when I arrived at the structure which turned out to be a school from a small village. Nobody was there when I walked up to the open court. Tiphaine approached and saw a kid entering a house through a door. She went up to knock on the door and a lady opened up. We explained we were cyclists and asked if we could pitch our tent on the covered concrete schoolyard. She gestured to follow her to the side of her house and opened a door revealing a room with two beds. We almost cried. We certainly had wet eyes. On top of that, we had amazing views of the valley on the other side of the mountain which was, until this exact moment, hidden from us. It didn’t take long before the word that two strangers were in town got around and as we prepared dinner we had a small crowd around, inspecting us from a distance.

After a pretty good night sleep and a photo with the lady who saved our lives the night before, we continued our route on what would be the best day of the entire route to Durango. The clouds had cleared overnight and the views were simply breathtaking. On every turn, the view was better than the one before. We stopped a lot on this day and enjoyed the views of the valley down below as much as we could. There were a few sections where rocks had fallen on the road, some were recent probably due to rain the night before. The road, literally carved on the mountain face, twisted and turned constantly, going up and down. Occasionally, the edge of the road sharply ended and we could see hundreds of meters straight down. It was amazing riding.

Espinazo Del DiabloViews of Sierra Madre Occidental

We arrived at a section referred to as the Espinazo Del Diablo; the Devil’s Backbone. Going for about 10 kilometers, this section of road 40 followed a rocky mountain cliff formed by conical rocks reminding me of a giant church organ. The local legend claims that when the Devil was thrown from Heaven to Earth by Archangel Michael, he landed on earth in this area. In his fall, as the legend says, the Devil’s backbone formed the rugged ridge of the Sierra Madre Occidental, giving this section of the road its name.

After such amazing riding over the last two days, we entered a flat region of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The spectacular mountain views became extremely rare and pine trees dominated the landscape. We didn’t hear birds anymore and it was pretty standard cycling. We passed a military checkpoint where the guards waved at us as we slowly passed by. We arrived at La Ciudad just in time before the storm and booked into a small cabin, a popular accommodation in the area. Everyone seemed to be doing some. The next day, Tiph woke up with a funny tummy so we decided to stay an extra night and take a day off before getting back on the road the next day. The road was very boring compared to the previous days so we simply cycled as much as possible before finding a camp in a thick pine forest, quickly installed our tarp to give us extra sheltering from a storm that never came. The following day was all downhill until Durango, our first large city since Mazatlan a week before.

Riding the Sierra Madre Occidental

Pascal coming up a hill

Camp site along ruta 40

More images available in the Mexico Photo Album

Author: Pascal Lachance

I'm Pascal, cyclist, travel lover, software developer by trade and an enthusiastic photographer. I'm now cycling around the world, take the time to visit as many places as I can!