Motorcycle Diary: Riding a Motorcycle in Oaxaca, Mexico

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

My longtime passion for riding a motorcycle took a twenty year hiatus until taking up residency in Oaxaca.  I ignored the foreshadowing and warnings. While my story pales compared to the epic journey of Ché Guevara popularized in the film Motorcycle Diaries, there is a tale to be told, with observations and advice for those with such suicidal ideations.

For Oaxacans, it’s part economic necessity and part climactic permissiveness, with street logjams and a parking crisis factored in, as well as, dare I opine, a somewhat different attitude towards life and living amongst those at and below a certain socio-economic level…fatalistic.   What’s striking is the paucity of helmeted riders, and prevalence of entire families (the record number of family members seen on one bike is currently five) who take to negotiating the jammed streets on a single motorbike  often mechanically unfit, each member including young children bare-headed and unsafely dressed (no gloves, leathers, jeans, etc.).  Enforcing the helmet law and mandatory education might help.  Educators must remember to teach that the helmet is to be worn on the head, not simply slung over an arm.   Additionally, owners of deliver services such as and by example, Chuchos Tortas y Mas, shouldwatch their couriers leaving the premises to ensure helmets are worn and not carried. 

For my part, I’ve been accused of having yet another mid-life crisis at 55, having recently purchased a 150 cc.  Honda “Bros”, off road moto for use on the streets, complementing our car and pick-up.  Perhaps each above-noted reason applies to me, despite leading a middle class existence.

I sold my Suzuki 550 in the mid 1980s when my wife became pregnant.  But now, in quasi-retirement, family grown, life insurance policies kept current, I was only minimally fazed when Canadian Consul Frances May warned that she’s lost three friends to motorcycle accidents.  And compadre Pancho was in three accidents within about 2 years.  He once took me on a trip with some of his motorcycle buddies through the mountains to the town of Sola de Vega.  It was the first time in 15 years that I’d been on a bike.  I forgot a cardinal rule:  never brake while negotiating a turn on gravel.    I recall regaining consciousness, covered in blood, with severe knee pain, in the back room of some pharmacy, to teary-eyed Pancho, shaking me with hands on my shoulders while screaming “¡compadre, compadre!”


But by adopting and adhering to a number of simple riding guidelines, some of which are admittedly difficult to follow, I’ll hopefully stay out of the hospital and my 20-year-old daughter will never “benefit” from my being over-insured. My less-impetuous and more level-headed wife surprisingly enough enjoys riding with me despite serious reservations.

For those unattached and in their 20s and 30s, I’ll indicate which of the following rules I’ve set for myself you’ll likely want to break and how to minimize the adverse implications of so doing:

1)      Don’t ride at night unless absolutely necessary.  Alcohol-related and other driving deaths increase when road conditions are less than perfect.  Lighting and highway markings are often absent.

2)      If you know that it’s likely the weather will become inclement (i.e. during the rainy season) consider another means of transportation, or at minimum dress appropriately and check your tires.

3)      Try to follow the rules of the road to the extent you can discern them, and when in doubt fall back on the highway traffic laws with which you grew up.

4)      Try to resist the temptation to weave, as difficult as it will be.  Once you’re in your fifties you’ve likely lost much of your neck range-of-motion, so if you must weave, rely on your peripheral vision and mirrors.

5)      Always use full-face helmets, appropriate footwear and leathers, gloves and jacket at minimum.  It’s better to be hot and uncomfortable than require jaw surgery and extensive skin grafting.  Leather provides that first layer of defence and it gives…cotton, wool and polyester each will simply rip, along with your skin.

6)      Never permit an unhelmeted passenger to ride with you.

7)      If you’re a tourist and have an opportunity to rent a motorcycle, unless it’ll be used strictly for cross-country, or you have a great deal of experience driving in third world congested cities and are certain of the condition of the bike, resist the temptation.  As my father often said, “don’t be an idiot.”  It’s not worth the risk.

8)      When buying, make it a new cycle, and keep it in top condition.

9)      Don’t buy a small scooter or anything under 125 – 150 cc.  You may need power to extricate yourself from danger caused by other drivers.  The most popular bike in Oaxaca is the Honda 125, used by a plethora of businesses.  If you can afford a Japanese make, or better, go for it.  Many Oaxacan friends have cautioned against, for example, the Chinese models. My off-road Honda 150 was carefully selected, even though it’s smaller than those that I’d been accustomed to riding in my former life.  It’s an off-road model given the numerous topes and state of disrepair of the streets.  Motor size is 150 because it’s the smallest engine I feel comfortable gets my wife and I up the steep hill to our home, is light and has sufficient power for defensive maneuvers.  It’s small enough so that it helps me resist the temptation to do highway touring. 

10)  Think twice before opting for a larger bike that you may use on the carreteras.  There’s nothing like open highway touring, but the danger increases exponentially the higher the speed of vehicles.  By contrast, while living in Toronto I always felt safer riding on the highways than in cities…more control, drivers more vigilant and experienced, and easier to avoid potential dangers.  By contrast, in Oaxaca the highways aren’t as good, many motorists drive under the influence, and vehicle mechanical condition is generally questionable, leading to less control by drivers. If you are set on touring, make it at least a 550 cc. model, the minimum power with which I felt comfortable and safe on the open roads with a passenger.   

Apart from organized cycling groups that meet periodically for generally weekend off-road challenges, there is at least one traditional motorcycle club in Oaxaca, Los Caballeros Templarios.  These riders are the exception to most of what I’ve indicated.  The individuals, at least when touring outside of the city, follow virtually all of the rules I’ve set out.  The group is comprised of mainly shopkeepers, tradesmen, restauranteurs, and professionals such as doctors and accountants, average age being 40 something.  Their bikes are kept in excellent condition, they dress appropriately, complete with leathers embossed with club and rider name and logo, and they host and attend national conferences as well as enjoy frequent local get-togethers and regional excursions of one to several days.  The camaraderie is strong, warm and welcoming.  And thus with my little Honda 150, I continue to resist invitations to fulfill the initiation requirement and join…until the purchase of a larger bike, and with that a divorce.

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