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North of Mexico City lies a string of pretty old cities, settled by the Spanish in the 16th century as they mined the region for silver. Of those we visited, the most personable is Santiago de Querétaro, a checkerboard of squares and churches connected by immaculate residential streets. The most captivating is Guanajuato (pictured above), a crumbling jumble of houses crushed into hills that rear up on three sides of a narrow, winding main street. And the strangest, by a stretch, is San Miguel de Allende, whose handsome centre and modest countryside have been overrun by full- and part-time expatriates from the US. Many of these wealthy gringos are presumably subscribers to Conde Nast Traveler; in 2013, readers of the magazine, apparently with a straight face, voted San Miguel the best city in the world. It proved an agreeable place to watch the Super Bowl in the barroom company of two New Yorkers, themselves fresh arrivals in town, but two nights was one too many.

On the two-day ride from Guanajuato to San Luis Potosí, perhaps the least interesting of the silver cities, the landscape gradually changes. On the road, the scenery becomes blander, drier, deader. Off it, towns appear less often, and lack the exuberance to which we’d grown accustomed. This is the north of Mexico, and its reputation precedes it.

 


 

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If you’ve heard bad things about Mexico, and you have, then you’ll have heard them about the north. Granted, danger and violence in Mexico are fluid; organised crime has a presence in many of the country’s 32 states, and the most volatile area at the moment is probably the south-western state of Guerrero. Even so, it’s the states that front the US border – Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas – that are largely responsible for Mexico’s unenviable reputation.

For the web of drug cartels and crime syndicates that runs much of northern Mexico, these featureless, sparsely populated borderlands are invaluable territory. Control the land around the frontier, and you control the supply of drugs to the United States, which is effectively a licence to print money. Some of the cartels have worked together in tenuous coalition to retain power over certain areas; others exist in sworn and violent opposition to their rivals. Some are careful about who they kidnap and kill; others are altogether less discriminating.

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Much of this violence, which seems to define modern-day Mexico to outsiders, goes on with the approval and the assistance of local police and government officials. The corruption here is often staggering, endemic, institutional. Many municipal police forces are in the pay of drug cartels, not so much fighting crime as enabling it. Local governments are shamelessly crooked. And books such as Anabel Hernández’s brave, invaluable Narcoland have even claimed that high-level officials in the right-wing National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN) governments of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, who between them ruled from 2000 to 2012, privately worked in the pay of the drug lords they publicly denounced. Other Latin American countries may be more corrupt than Mexico, but none has seen its trusted and elected officials so complicit in the deaths of so many of its own citizens. During Calderón’s six-year presidency alone, an estimated 100,000 Mexicans were murdered.

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The PAN was replaced in 2012 by the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) under Enrique Peña Nieto, a suave figure who could pass for a leading man in one of Mexico’s innumerable telenovelas. Despite the PRI’s history of corruption, which included widespread electoral fraud that helped them to retain power for 71 consecutive years (1929-2000), Peña’s arrival in office was greeted by optimism. However, his administration’s feeble, almost blasé response to the murders of 43 student teachers in September 2014, a crime in which the police, the army and a local mayor have all been implicated, has seen the president’s popularity plummet.

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This – lawless, corrupt, ‘a kind of failed state‘ – is how the outside world sees Mexico. But this isn’t the Mexico we saw, at least not often, as we cycled from south to north for nearly four months. Of course, it’s always easier to be positive about a country when you don’t have to live there; that holds true as much for our own country as for Mexico. But for culturally curious visitors, this is a wonderful, vital place, whose greatest asset is its people – industrious, energetic, positive, generous and welcoming at nearly every turn. They deserve better than the governments they’ve been given. There’s nothing wrong with Mexico that a revolution couldn’t fix.

 


 

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These northern states hold few treats for the cyclist. If you were watching a road movie, this pale scrubland of yucca forests and desperate roadside cafés might appear evocative and atmospheric. When you’re the movie’s star, exposed on these dark desert highways with the contents of several dozen frightening newspaper articles swimming around in your head, it’s easy to feel a little spooked.

We eventually grew more comfortable, reassured for once by the presence of more traffic as we edged through the states of San Luis Potosí and Nuevo León to the city of Monterrey. Local advice also helped. Off-limits two years ago, Nuevo León is reputedly much safer since the state governor fired and/or jailed more than 4,000 allegedly corrupt police officers. And as of late December 2014, the US State Department has stopped advising against ‘all non-essential travel to the state of San Luis Potosí’. (Today, travellers are merely advised to ‘exercise caution’. This became, for us, a running joke at every break we took. ‘Have you been exercising caution?’ ‘What have you been exercising?’ And so on. You probably had to be there.)

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Of course, it isn’t just drug-related crime and violence that lends an edge to northern Mexico. In terms of immigration, the Mexico-US border is one of the most volatile in the world. Some 3,000 people a day, one million per year, attempt to cross illegally from Mexico into the US; not just Mexicans but Central Americans, many of whom have already endured a treacherous journey just to reach the frontier. Most fail to cross the border illegally. A few succeed. Including, inadvertently, us.

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Warned against riding to the border town of Nuevo Laredo by everyone to whom we spoke, including several federal police officers, we decided to take a bus from Monterrey, 220km south of the US, to San Antonio in Texas. To our surprise and horror, the bus completely bypassed Mexican immigration and made its first stop on the US side of the border, and we were told in no uncertain terms that the driver would leave without us if we tried returning to Mexico to fulfil our formalities. (The only other passengers on the bus were Mexicans, who had no need to visit Mexican immigration as they left the country. US immigration was concerned only that we had the correct paperwork to enter the US, which we did.) A subsequent visit to the Mexican Consulate in Austin didn’t help. Northern Mexico is awash with would-be migrants worried that they might not make it into the US. We were surely the only travellers north of the border concerned that we wouldn’t be allowed back into Mexico.

We have made some daft journeys during our last 19 months on the road, but perhaps none more ridiculous than the one we took at the end of last week. At 7.30am on Friday, we walked over to the Enterprise office on S Lamar Boulevard in Austin and signed for a $23-a-day rental on a silver Chevrolet. We drove 240 miles south to Laredo, parked five blocks from the Rio Grande, walked over the bridge into Mexico, strolled into Mexican immigration, paid our exit fees and got our passports scanned and stamped, walked back across the bridge into the US, wandered the five blocks to our car and drove straight back to Austin. Welcome to the United States of America. Again.

from Silsbee, TX, USA