"HEY! GOD DAMN IT!" I yell as I see a guy with MY DAYPACK going out the door. I jump up from my chair and chase after him out of the restaurant. There are two of them, one going each way. Which one of these bastards took my pack? Thief No 1 escaping to my left seems empty handed but I can´t be sure. Thief No 2 is heading across the street to the town plaza. He looks empty handed too. Which one do I chase? Then out of the corner of my eye I spot my pack lying on the sidewalk. Outrage and disbelief turns to relief and mild aftershock. My first day in Peru, just arrived in Tacna and this is the welcoming committee? Not impressed.
What a change from Chile. The standard of living is noticably lower. But to be fair the Peruvian Border and Customs folks were very helpful. They helped Bob and I sort out the several pieces of highly important papers and get the six stamps so we can bring our motorcycles into their country without further hassle. All in a record two hours. Hope going skiing to Whitefish Montana never gets this detailed.
We head north, then out to the coast after my adventure in Tacna. Fortunately, to balance my perspective of Peru, we meet a great guy in Ilo at day´s end. Wilfredo Contreras Chacon is a business and relations consultant and must be one of Peru´s best ambassadors. Our hotel overlooking the ocean is great, the seafood is lovely, the wine hits the spot.
Not all coast line highway looks this appealing. Back in Chile days ago, we chose a road less travelled along the coast. It offered views all right, and chewed up switchback corners, rock slides, sand drifts, loose boulders and a one-way ticket to the hereafter if we go over the edge. Turns out there´s a good reason why some roads are less travelled.
Also back in Chile some days ago, Bob and visit the adobe village and tourist central pueblo of San Pedro de Atacama. Home of the Valle del Luna, pink flamingoes, salt deserts and geothermal delights. Los Andes tower into the heavens to the east. In the evening we walk San Pedro´s dirt roads shopping for a nice restaurant. They´re all nice. With nice tourist prices too. I like it here in spite of all that. In the night picture below, that´s not all streetlamps hanging over wood carved signs. A full moon goes with the mid-twenties temperature to help create the perfect desert evening ambiance.
As we travel the rutas of Peru, we encounter our friends, the Carreteras, or national highway police. They prove to be very approachable and helpful. In exchange for us sticking to the speed limit, they wave as we pass. And we pass lots of patrol vehicles, it seems like every 100 kms or so. And just for good measure, Peru has control/toll gates on their highways, each called a peaje. As motorcyclists, we are waved through without having to pay. All right, what a civilized country!
Some arqueologico historia is always good. We stop and check out some petroglyphs in the several hectare area known as Toro Muerto. Back between 700 and 1400 AD, who would climb out of a perfect oasis of a valley to pound away on some boulder field in 40 degree heat? Some 2200 petroglyphs were hacked out by these unknown authors, sometime after the Wari culture but before los Incas. My guess on the image below is, even then, it was just another case of true love. Hey, maybe it was the mujer who made the picture. Notice how big el hombre´s hands are? Maybe she thought he was all hands.
The Nazca Lines. Well, what can I say? Everyone has seen the air photos. But still, when I take an early morning flight with pilot Americo Torres Venegas in a Cessna 206 I am staggered by the immensity, genius and mystery of the lines, triangles, animals and accuracy of it all. (I also have a bit of a reaction to the US$80 fee.) Constructed on an alluvial plain, fanned by a myriad of dry river beds, the Nazca removed the covering rock and exposed the white tierra beneath. The rocks were then used to border the image. it seems impossible to understand what the Nazca culture, over several hundred years, were thinking. Lots of theories. I like the religious concept that the deities from above were the only ones to see the works, and the other theory of agricultural and astronomical calendars tied together makes sense. Where were the star alignments 1000 years ago anyway? Some of the lines go on for kilometers. Straight as arrows.
The older and more exquisite creations, like the hummingbird, catch my fancy. As later generations came along they obliterated parts of the earlier works. Pity. I can hear the ancients now, "That just like young people nowadays. No respect for their elders."
Just a few kilometers out of the city of Nazca are the burial grounds of the Nazca people. The aridity of the climate has preserved the mummified remains. The government of Peru, in an attempt to stop graverobbers from spreading skulls and bones across the landscape, created a very compelling outdoor museum. However, in a tiny on-site building, in a glass display case, is the man below that impacted my senses the strongest.
After Nazca, we ride north and east into the heart of the Andes. The picture below shows Katie and msc before the adventure of the day really started. I thought I´d include it just so you know this is being written by yours truly and not some highly talented biographer, as some of you might be wondering.
After this picture was taken, Bob and I ride the switchbacks higher and higher until we get to over 13, 000 feet. We stop for lunch in the mountain village of Puquio. This is Peru with the traditional multicolored dress, women with hats and colored blankets as backpacks, terraced mountain sides, ages old stone fences, goats, sheep and llamas. Pan flutes, adobe homes eight feet high. Monster size mountains.
After lunch right by where the photo below is taken, Bob goes on ahead to look at a church constructed in 1734. When I get there minutes later he is gone. Lots of questions I ask, including to a helpful police officer. Seems Bob has riden out of town and is headed over the pass to Abancay, our next stop. That seems incredible to believe but when I get out of town and stop to ask the Carreteras parked there, they confirm a motorcylist has just gone by 10 minutes ago. I follow. I stop oncoming traffic, ask pedestrians, llamas, goats and vicunas. They all say the same thing. A moto is just 10 or 15 minutes ahead of you.
It turns out that´s not the only thing in front of me. As I continue to climb into the heavens, they come down to meet me. First cloud build-up, then lightning. Damn! I´m at 14, 800 feet and still rollercoasting along on top of this barren land. Then it´s rain. Then hail. The pista I´m riding on turns white and gathers a couple of centimeters of freezing slush. Katie is not happy breathing above 13,500 feet and I have to keep the revs up or she´ll stall. The temperature drops to 2 C. It´s sunset soon. I lose my sunglasses when my wet gloves fumble them off my face. My face shield fogs with my breath and I have to open the visor to see. That lets in the cold and wet. This high plateau goes on for an eternity.
It´s getting dark when Katie and I finally start down off the top. But the fun´s not over yet. With the surpentine road the downhill switchbacks combine with cambered pavement. Now if I slip on this standing and running water, sleet and ice I´ll be over the edge and there´ll be nothing to find at the bottom, whereever the hell that is down there in the dark.
I manage to get in behind a semi. He´s in double-dumptruck low and I´m in neutral because I need to keep the rpm up to 4000 or Katie will stall. And I need the headlight badly in the gathering dark. Plus I´ve got the electric grips on high to keep my hands from freezing. I´m on both brakes but as little as possible. No time for a skating party to break out now. I follow the truck´s tracks. That helps a little. I watch the altimeter on the GPS and the thermometer on the cockpit dash. I need lower altitude quickly and warmer temperatures. Where Bob is right now I have no idea and don´t care: it´s now just a matter of keeping my ass in one piece.
At 7:30 I´m back down to 12,000 feet and still losing altitude. It´s 4 C now. It feels bloody tropical. The rain quits. I think I´m in a canyon but can´t tell for sure because it´s darker than Tobby´s ass. Tomorrow I´ll find out I´ve been driving in a canyon alright and beside a river bigger than the Bow. But right now I am so happy to have lived through that last couple of hours. Too soon to get too happy. Now the road likes to surprise me with it´s cows, horses, goats, people, cars with no lights, rock slides in my lane, bridges at right angles and rivers of water running across the road when I least expect it. I thump into small villages over unmarked speed bumps built by the locals with dirt and stones.
By the time I get to Chalhuanco, the first pueblo with a hotel, I´m pretty well done. Mostly, thanks to my gortex riding gear, I´m dry. My hands are soaked but workable. I´m hungry, chilled and exhausted from the concentration of keeping Katie and I in one piece. The dimly lit town, with its swarms of folks plying main street seems like home to me. Tomorrow, I´ll start looking for Bob again. Right now a hot shower and supper? That sounds like me.
The absolute magic of Machu Picchu. As SonGlenn would say, "It takes all my knowing!" just to fumble for the words to describe how this 15th century pueblo/citadel/university/astronomical observatory touches me. Resting in the col of an Andes montaña, its steep terraced slopes drop dramatically to the Rio Urubamba far below.
I arrive at 6 in the morning at the parque ingresso of Machu Picchu after a pleasant 4 kilometre bus ride climbing steadily from Aquas Calientes. The night before, as we rode the narrow gauge train to Aquas Calientes, I had talked several fellow travellers into meeting at the town plaza at 5 am and walking up the road in order to arrive before sunrise. As I passed my gang hiking about 3/4 of the way up the next morning, I nearly spilled my coffee trying to hide from view. Ah, the last minute whims of an old biker but really, my guide had convinced me late last moment to take the bus and so I did. Sorry gang. The cool thing is we still all get to see the yellow light of sunrise spill onto the ancient ruins.
My lovely wife Joyce gives some credibility to the theory that Machu Picchu is one of the few places on earth that have a vortex connection to the universe. I don´t know about that but I stay here all day, wandering about, sitting on high terraces overlooking the site, within the pueblo itself and on the high peak of Waynapicchu nearby. It is such a compelling, peaceful and beautiful site. I have a hard time leaving when the parque closes at the end of the dia.
I take an organized tour with a very knowledgeable Quechua guide. It would be hard to read in a book what this man knows. In addition to the scientific, religious, agricultural and astronomical perspectives, he adds his connection to the mountains, to his peoples who once inhabited Machu Picchu and shares his own spirituality of this special place. Among many other details, he explains the use of the coca leaf to the Quechua and we all get to jam in a bunch of leaves in our mouths for a chaw. Placed between the cheek and gum, you swallow the juice produced, not the leaves, don´t you know. I take my ration and for the next hours savor its tea-leaf like taste in my mouth. I´m not sure if it helps when I climb the hour to the peak of Waynapicchu, but it sure doesn´t hurt. Must of been the Quechan substitute for oxygen in this high altitude town (although surprisingly, Cusco is higher than Machu Picchu - but then they´re chewing and drinking coca leaves there tambien). Waynapicchu is the peak you always see framing the backdrop in the classic Machu Picchu photos. Check out my first picture again.
As well as water pools to better observe the stars at night, los Incas were clever little devils in figuring out compass directions. Look at the image below. One might think at first glance the rock is the draft stage of becoming a kite without the laws of aerodynamics being fully thought through. But wait, my friends, it is really the shape of the Cruz del Sur. The Southern Cross is the equivalent in reliability for navigation as our North Star. Look closely at the rock face. Each of its four corners point to a cardinal direction, north, south, east and west. The guide places a compass on the top point to demonstrate. As well, when the sun rises on the summer solstice the combination of piedra and its shadow outline the head and neck of the sacred llama. Oh man, this is spooky how smart they were.
Not to mention the incredible stone masonery. How did they quarry, move and finish such huge granite rocks then fit them with such incredible precision that not even earthquakes have disturbed them for centuries? I am told the master Incas and Quechua people carved the granite with the only stone they knew harder than that: precious pieces of meteorites, heavy with iron. The more questions answered, the more that take their place.
The day before in present day Ollantaytambo, also the site of another great feat of los Incas, I met a vendadora by the name of Frida Vara Rado. After she realized I wasn´t interested in buying one of her muñeca dolls, she accompanied me on my walk around town. Frida is one of those friendly and intelligent people who will sadly never get a chance to live up to potential. Even with my limited spanish I was amazed at her unaffected story about her family life (many brothers and sisters and no father), her dream of working as a hotel administrator or elsewhere in the tourist industry, the proud history of the Quechan and Incas, the local geography and many other things. Although I use my kindergarten-dropout spanish everyday, it is the hour listening to Frida and asking questions that I am the most thankful for my "second" language.
Amigobob and I shake hands in Cusco, he to head south to Bolivia, me to head north to Columbia. Travelling solo is not my first choice but Katie and I will be fine. We will meet lots of excellent people along the way. The roads of los Andes norte are calling.
"This isn´t a road, it´s a damn one-lane llama track! And a f*@king bad one at that!"
Words to that effect come up between Katie and me many times as we bounce, rattle and growl along in first gear for three days. But it isn´t the embedded rock, mud, neglected landslides, deep ruts, steep dropoffs or the heat that worry us. It´s the camións, those cab-over, stockrack three ton trucks that bear down on us like runaway Atlas missiles. Often dominating the road, the cab just visible ahead of a billowing black diesel and white dust contrail, these six wheeled rockets are deadly. We move over and stop if we get warning but the blind corners-with-no-options really have us on edge, so to speak.
I would like to show you a picture of Katie's nemesis but we are so busy staying upright and out of harm's way I have no time to get the camera out. Besides, the polvo (flour-fine dust) threatens everything so I keep the Canon well hidden most of the time.
In deciding to investigate the 400 kilometre carretera tierra (dirt road) from Abancay to Ayacucho, through a less-travelled area of mountainous Peru, I know it is less travelled by los touristas for good reason. But it is travelled by a surprising amount of trucks and for God´s Sakes, buses.
What happens when camión meets bus I can only guess for the carretera is contoured into the side of los montañas and it looks more like the Dewdney Trail than a national artery. Think of the Going To The Sun Road in Montana, narrow it to one lane, lay down flour-fine dust, loose rock and/or mud, your choice, and lift it to two miles above sea level. Then fill at random big vehicles with drivers having a frantic urgency to get to nowhere as fast as possible and there you have it, the road to Ayacucho.
Katie and I idle through many small mountain side pueblos. Life is basic. No electricity, no vehicles, no running water, no septic systems. Just adobe walls, dirt floors, tin roofs. Main street has crater sized potholes. No grader has seen these roads since they were built. I want to take pictures of the locals with their traditional dress but have been told the mountain folk don't take kindly to the invasion of their privacy. The women, almost all well under 5 feet tall, wear broad flared skirts, fedora or tall boler hats and carry multi-colored blankets on their backs like backpacks. The older men, also surprisingly short in height, usually wear dark sweaters under black wool suit jackets and sport a fedora of some shape. Los joven (the young), especially the boys, wear western wear, with t-shirts advertising the Chicago Bears, Adidas etc. My greatest admirers seem to be the ubiquitious perros. Often boiling out of nowhere, they give chase to Katie and I as we pass by, barking fiercely and putting on a great display as psuedo guard dogs. I ignore them and hope it's all for show. It is only the goofy perros that crisscross just ahead of the bike that worry me.
At the end of Day One I make it to Andahuaylas, just 138 kms from my starting point that morning. Even though it's only 3:30 PM, it's not smart to go on this late in the day. I check into the El Encanto de Oro Hotel and am wonderfully taken care of by Juan Jose, his wife and their young two sons, both of whom are also called Juan Jose. After dark I get the hankering for some helado (ice cream) so me and my two young companions walk down to the store. Right in the middle of negotiations, capably led by the older of the young Juans, a town wide power failure occurs and the store turns blacker than coal. Within a few moments candles are lit (they were mighty handy which makes me think this is not an uncommon occurance) and negotiations are resumed. We come away with an assortment of exotic looking ice cream and popsicle treats.
The vistas of los Andes are breathtaking when I do get a moment to stop and admire. For part of the time we are over 13, 000 feet and among the daytime culumus cloud. What distracts from this experience is Katie leaking fuel when hot. Long periods of uphill, slow going causes the radiator fan to run frequently. By some design fault the hot air expelled blows on the left fuel tank, forcing the contents to shunt into the right tank until it overfills. When that condition happens, Katie vents off as much fuel as she burns. Our range drops to 200 km, not giving much room for error. Also, the smell of gasoline near a hot engine is not comforting.
On Day Two, I am caught still two hours from destination in spite of my best efforts to cover 270 kms in a day. An inviting looking ridge top calls, so just before sundown me and Katie idle off the road a few hundred yards and set up camp. We're lucky, it is windless, even here at 12,000 feet. Great view, even a waxing half moon for company. We are high above the general population yet I can still hear dogs barking late into the night.
While sunflowers and cereal grains grow at river level, there are hillsides of corn higher, at two miles above sea level there coca leaves, onions and potatoes. Inbetween there are cultivated crops of stuff I´ve never seen before, but obviously has great importance in this market economy. Since the carretara is the life artery of these communities, sacks of goods are left beside the road, waiting for a certain camión to come along. Often the back of the truck is as full of people as produce.
On Day Three I arrive at 10,000' asl city of Ayacucho, founded in 1539 by the conquistadores. On December 9, 1824, the decisive battle of Ayacucho was fought, bringing Spanish rule to an end in Peru. Liberator Simón Bolivar decreed the city should be named Ayacucho, 'City of Blood', instead of its orginal name, Huamanga, given by my friends the Incas. More recently in the 1980's, the city was home to the terrorist group known to us as the Shining Path. Fujimoro's government cleaned up the place in the 90's, well before Katie and I ride into town and onto lovely pavement. So it was a busy place, what with all these takeovers but from the look of things it hasn't hurt business any.
After washing ten tons of polvo off Katie and I, we look for a place to stay. Hotel San Francisco is a little pricey at 40 Soles a night (US$12.12) but Katie gets pick-of-the-litter parking in the front lobby, with period piece manikins for company. For comparison, some other prices of things are: internet 33 cents an hour, supper $3.80, shoe shine 66 cents, taxi $1.00, gasoline $1.12 per litre.
After a nice day in Ayacucho, it's westward ho and onto Pisco, home of the famous pisco grape and fortified brandy. The drive from the sierras down to the coast is exceptally scenic and I enjoy the drive in spite of the 10 to 15 degree Celsius rarified air. Crossing Abra Apacheta pass at 15, 567 feet is the high point before starting the long descent to sea level and Pisco.
Hazard warnings often as hazardous as the object being warned about are placed on the road in illogical patterns. This one below is easy to figure out what the camión driver was thinking. What is not shown is how often after the main hazard is gone, the "warning signs" are still strewn about the pista.
"Oh shit! It's too late now!" The ground cruelly disappears beneath the KTM and Í'm bloody airborne. The landing, some several feet below, arrives instantaneously with a wallop. I strike my face on the cockpit dash, whiplash back, then do a slow motion crash into la arena (sand). My aerobatics provide much amusement to my fellow Peruvian bikers, as they watch in surprise as the extranjero pops up like orange toast then disappears much the same way.
How was I to know racing the KTM 625 SXC up the front side of a lovely golden sand dune that the back side of the dune would be totally missing, sculpted out like a empty bowl. As I crest I can see the five pack of bright orange KTM's in the desert ahead, waiting for me. The next thing I see is the face of Mother Earth hurtling up to meet mine.
Diego Maranzana, leader of today's adventure, rides over to make sure I'm OK. After words of reassurance, his advice is sound, "Moo-ray, just follow my tracks and you'll be safe. The desierto can fool you if you don't know how to read it."
Luckily, mostly only my pride is hurt, and besides, it's just part of the day. I manage a few more "unplanned dismounts" during my day in playing in the arena (spanish for sand). We climb cerros that, as I watch the leader, seem straight up and impossible for me to climb, even riding this 53 HP Hollowe'en coloured stump puller. And on the flat (well, relatively speaking, flat) the arena is sometimes loose like quick sand, other times it is grey and fairly firm. The 625 snakes and skids around taking all my concentration to stay upright. Upon Diego's suggestion, but against all common sense, I accelerate up to third gear and as predicted the bike becomes almost normal. Except the world is going by at a horrifying rate. Ahead I watch five orange dots blasting across the tan and gold landscape, weaving this way and that, rooster tails of sand and dust smoking up behind them. All I have to do is keep up with those wild men. And avoid the random piedras (rocks) jutting out of the sand like tiny tombstones.
Having defied gravity and mastered the top of the hill, I shut off the engine and look around. The view in all directions looks bewilderingly the same. Garúa, the cold ocean fog, hangs over the coastal desert to the west. Other than that, I haven't a clue where we are from anywhere. So I look down at the ground. Stange, it is covered in sea shells and jagged sharp rock, clustered on edge like knives in a blender. This is good news. Our tires have 14 PSI for traction in the arena; piedra like this is murder on low pressure tires if hit too hard. No time to think much about that, hit the starter button and we're off again to plummet down this tilted real estate and tackle some other hill. Why? "Because it's there!", to quote some equally deranged and antique mountain climber way back when. Boys will be boys.
So let me explain how I got to Chilca, the setting in the desert about 60 kilometres south of Lima where all this foolishness takes place. I knew I would need a service done on Katie in South America and earlier internet research had turned up a great KTM dealer in Lima. Diego Maranzana of KTM Peru came with solid supportive comments from fellow travellers, including non-KTM riders.
And how right they are. Diego, in addition to being a high quality guy, spent some time in Ontario, Canada, and speaks fluent English. He is happy to take Katie in for a 22,000 km service. That evening, while having coffee at the fashionable Centro Comercial Larcomar with him and his very lovely girlfriend, Solange, he invites me for a Saturday ride in the desierto with him and four of his friends. There will be Gino Hoyos, Carli Forsellado, Pachin Arribas, Claudio Venegas, Diego and me. Diego generously offers to lend me a spare KTM 625 SXC, all I have to do is pay for the gas and bring my own gear. Wow! I can't think of anything I'd rather do! Diego, in addition to being a competent dealer, is one hell of a moto-crosser and as Saturday in the arena unfolds, he skillfully leads us all to ride at or above our normal comfort level. My confidence slowly rises as I manage the "impossible".
By the time Diego drops me back at my hotel about 8:30 PM, I am trashed. My arms feel like lead and my whole body aches. My riding gear is so covered in grey polvo they stand up by themselves. But God Damn, what a day! I buy a bottle of vino blanco and order arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) to my room. I am almost too tired to eat it when it arrives 20 minutes later. But I do and I nearly scrape the design off the plate it is so good.
I stay a week in Lima. While I am waiting for Katie to be fixed, Diego's friend and taxi driver Nestor Cáceres, another quality guy, and I tour Lima. Nestor, jovial and knowledgeable, shows me all the stuff worth seeing. Lima, founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro and some of his conquistador boys, was the chief city of the Spanish American republics until early in the 19th century.
Getting the Readers Digest version of Lima's history suits me perfectly. The morning lesson works up a bit of a appetite, which Nestor suggests calls for some ceviche. Now, I have my own little history (almost as unpopular as the Spanish Inquisition, but not as long) with uncooked fish from a trip to Northern Manitoba some years back and I am a tiny bit reluctant. But Nestor reassures me ceviche is so popular in Lima many restaurants serve nothing but. I trust him and good thing I do, for the meal is second to none. The view from the restaurant balcony overlooking the broad Pacific below is equally brilliant.
The masters at work on Katie fix a bunch of little things. The engine oil leak turns out to be the oil pressure switch, the Scott Oiler gets working again, the rear tire is replaced and the valve clearances checked, in addition to the usual stuff, like oil and spark plug change. Skillful mechanics Vladimir Brzovic and Aberto Cadow bring Katie back to 100 percent.
There are two kinds of travelers. Some will sacrifice everything for the destination, and some will sacrifice everything, including the destination, to enjoy the journey.
"You were measured on radar back at the overpass. You were doing 50 km/hr in a 45 km/hr zone. The fine is 150 Soles. You can pay me here now. And your driver's licence is a photocopy. Where is the original?"
These words are coming from an officer of the Carreteras, the Peruvian police force I have found up til now to be professional, helpful and honest. This officer is one of the few exceptions. But word has gotten around about this little band of extra-profit entrepreneurs: watch out if you are travelling the Pan Americana Highway north of Lima.
My reply to this young officer is one of respect but firm denial of the charges. I explain my respect for the laws of Peru and my attempt to go exactly the speed limit but the tsunami of trucks, buses, cars and taxis I'm travelling with on this autopista free-for-all flood by me at such a terrifying speed I have real fear for my life. I explain my concern of being hit from behind by these waves of flashing metal. All this weaving and lurching traffic create diesel exhaust like a black fog, restricting my view of the dangers ahead. My exact words to him are far more childlike but the genuine concern is not lost on him. As far as the photocopy license goes, I deny that too, even though we both know he's right. I'm not about to surrender my real license to a guy who is abusing his legitimate power. When he runs the charges by me one more time I suggest "nosotros iremos sus jefe, quizás?" The thought of both of "us going to see his boss, perhaps?" seems to be the turning point. In the end, much to my relief, I am released under the promise "viajar mas dispacio". I am happy to travel slower, even if that means it'll take a month of Sundays to travel the rest of Peru.
The rest of the day I spend tooling along at exactly the speed limit or below. Now on the four lane divided highway that essentially cuts through empty desert, doing 90 km/hr is fine if somewhat pedestrian. But for reasons still unclear to me and to other extranjero motorcyclists as well, there are sections where the speed limit is mysteriously posted at 60. As far as I can see there is nothing but sand ahead, sand on the left, sand on the right. As well, the start of the zone is usually clearly marked but the end is not. How does one know where the slow zone ends? No wonder this stretch of highway is a profit maker for some.
In an effort to maintain sanity and reduce the growing number of mysteries I face, I stop in one of the pueblos along the way to find out what in hell are in those trucks. I'm told it is sugar cane. OK, well at least that makes sense.
Things take a turn for the better after a pleasant night in Barranca, some 200 km north of Pandemonium, Peru (otherwise known as Lima). I turn off the Pan Americana and head north east for the famous Cordillera Huayhuash, then north between the majestic Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra. Garúa, the coastal fog that obscures the vast fields of green sugar cane surrounding me, is gradually replaced with clear mountain air as I climb steadily away from the coast to 13,000 ft.
At the summit I enter into a broad valley and turn north. I'm riding in the cordillera of "Touching the Void" fame. The range to my west is the Cordillera Negra (black mountain range), so named because it has no snow, being lower and under the drying influence of the coastal desert further west. The Cordillera Blanca to my east have peaks of over 6700 meters, most capped with brilliant white snow and vast glaciers. Their moisture is gathered from the moist Amazon Basin further east.
At the mountain city of Huaraz, I find Simon. The meeting was previously suggested by Diego while his Lima staff at KTM Peru were working on Katie. An ex-pat from the U.K., Simon owns the restaurant Chilli Heaven with Beatriz, his charming Peruvian partner. Simon also owns a KTM 950 and is more than happy to guide me on a tour around the mountains for a couple of days.
The KTM's are put to the test, as is my resolve not to think of possible consequences from some of the narrow rugged trails. Even though I'm riding along at over 10,000 feet, some mountain peaks tower more than two miles above me.
On one of our excursions, we stop in to visit another expat from the UK, Alex. We have tea and pan con miel (buns with honey) at his most remarkable mountain hostal, The Way Inn.
Skillfully taking advantage of existing landscape, Alex has hand built his idyllic retreat out of field stone and local wood. The views are spectacular, whether looking down the valley to distant Negra peaks or to look east to the Cordillera Blanca towering next to his doorstep. The rooms are equally inviting, with cozy warm beds, great views from spacious windows and lots of sunshine.
In Huaraz, I stay at Hospedaje Los Retamas, owned and managed by a close friend of Beatriz, Ybett Penagos. She inherited her hospedaje, essentially a motel with a shady courtyard, from her aunt. In spite of a young daughter to care for, Ybett works hard every day to restore the business to its days of former glory. Like Beatriz, I wish her much luck and good fortune.
On May 31, 1970, a severe earthquake shook the Ancash department (county or region), of which the city of Huaraz is the capital. The resulting damage destroyed the city. As a child, Beatriz survived by living under a park bench in the Plaza de Armas (the town's centerpiece park). In the aftermath, choking dust from collapsed buildings killed many survivors. At Yungay, an hour's drive north of Huaraz, that town suffered an even worse fate. While the tierra de temblar shook Yungay to pieces, creating general chaos and billowing clouds of obscuring dust, it also shook Nevada Huascaran (6768 metres), a mountain some 15 kilometers distant. A huge section of glacier dislodged, resulting in an avalanche. The ice and snow crashed into a lake, causing it to overflow and creating a wave of mud, ice and water 4 kilometers across and as much as 25 meters deep. This terrifying force then funnelled down a natural valley and inundated the town. What was left of the town was completely obliterated by this catastrophic force. Only a handful survived, having the remarkable luck, when the flood hit, of visiting the cemetary located on the top of a modest cerro (hill) closeby.
In the town itself over 20,000 people lost their lives. Today, the orginal site is marked with fields of roses, scattered white crosses and a facade replica of their beloved catholic cathedral. In the first photo below, you can see Nevada Huascaran shrouded in cloud in the background.
In the second photo, you can see the former town's main street outlined with hedges and flowers. Look on the left side of the picture, beyond the green space. You can see the small white hill and the cemetary, ironically enough, that was responsible for saving some lives.
As a result of the disaster, the Peruvian government lowered all mountain lakes and continues to monitor their levels to this day. The new town of Jungay was re-established further north.
After a day's ride in the Cordillera Blanca with Beatriz and Simon, I am looking forward to cena (supper) at Chilli Heaven in Huaraz. To patronize their restaurant seems the least I can do to repay for their guiding services. What I didn't expect were my friends from Cusco, Patricia Thomson and Sheonaugh Ravensdale, sitting there having supper and waiting for me. What a pleasant surprise to see Sho and Pat again!
A word or two seems in order to pay tribute to these two intrepid travellers. Both career professionals now retired, both calling Weymouth, England home (when they are at home), these two lassies are travelling South America each on a Honda Falcon 400. They have been down to Ushuaia, the furthermost city on this continent and are now zigzagging north, heading for a world conference for women motorcyclists in Georgia, USA, the end of June. To know more about these two charming and very capable women, see their website at:
Over cerveza, pasta, tequilla and real coffee, we spend a lovely ending chatting and catching up. Simon, done with restaurant business for the night, joins us. I notice one restaurant wall is dominated with a floor to ceiling map of Africa, on which a red pencil line tracks over much of the continent. When I ask, Simon says it is the route of one of his many adventures from younger days. His Africa stories are spellbinding. I'm amazed at the collection of world experiences we all share.
It is the wee hours when we all spill out onto the plaza but a plan has been laid. Tomorrow we will ride to Caraz, check out a high sierra lake with Simon as guide, then Pat, Sho and I will join forces for the ride through the dramatic Canyon del Pato on our way back to the Pacific coast. The Canyon ride will take 8 to 10 hours so we make a plan two days from now to get close to the canyon entrance, hotel overnight in Caraz and leave early the next morning.
Next morning Simon and I are joined by Ivan, a very likable Peruvian with a Honda Africa Twin, for our ride to Laguna Parón. The 26 kilometre road switchbacks up the mountain sides, past collections of adobe homes, goats, chickens, burros, cows and kids as the crude track climbs to the narrow valley that is home to Parón. I don't think this dirt track has seen a grader since the day it was built. Erosion channels alternate between crisscross and running at length down the road. Finding the best line takes all my attention: there is no time to admire the unique scenery going past.
When we arrive at the lake, my GPS shows 16,656 feet above sea level. Now this is an alpine lake! It takes some breathing effort at this altitude to walk to other view points along the lake. My motorcycle clothes feel like a medievel armour of lead. Even at this altitude cliffs of sheer rock climb steeply from the lake to the heavens above.
That night after safely getting down from the lake just at nightfall, Pat, Sho and I follow our plan and stay in a nice hotel in Caraz. We park our bikes in the hotel lobby. Early next morning I start Katie and ride up the stairs and back out of the hotel. All goes well until a grumpy guest comes downstairs complaining loudly about the noise. I apologize but he goes on complaining. I finally tell him if he hadn't been up so late last night making a disturbance we could all hear, maybe he'd of been awake this morning to help me move my bike so I didn't have to start it. On the sidelines, I notice the hotel management is looking hopeful they won't have to take sides. They don't. Luckily for me it's my first argument in South America. Luckily for him he wasn't trying to sell me a Nikon camera....
Sho, Pat and I still manage to get away on time and are happily riding the remaining pavement when we are stopped by the police. Now what? Well, they politely explain, there is a car rally and the road ahead is blocked for two hours. After a moment of frustration, we decide to make the best of it. We chat with a few of the over 60 drivers from around the world here to compete in La Carrera Sudamericana Rally. Held annually, this year the race goes from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Guayaquil, Ecuador (over 8000 km by the time they're done buggering around the continent). We make friends and before you know it, we are allowed to follow the last rally cars out of the starting gate for today's stage.
With the taillights of the last Toyota Hilux 4x4 still in our sights, we launch at 10 am. We are two hours behind schedule but agree to ride slow but steady through the Canyon del Pato. The Canyon is formed by the conjunction of both Cordillera Blanca and Negra, forming an impossibly steep and deep canyon that is the most dramatic piece of tilted real estate I have ever seen. Originally constructed for the railroad, the narrow dirt and gravel trail was hacked into steep cliff faces and contains 32 hand dug tunnels for over 80 some kilometers as it follows the Rio Santa down to the ocean. It is a true engineering wonder. Until the violent earthquake in 1970, only the train came this way. Now it's only the foolhardy.
The only way I can get an picture of the whole canyon is to take a movie, which of course I can't show here. The image below shows two of the tunnels.
Imagine going into a black tunnel choked with dust, with rutted gravel floor, dripping water, walls and overhead jagged with angular blocks the size of refrigerators, and the tunnel curves so the other end is not visible. Strangely enough, ventanas or windows have been blasted out into the canyon. As I ride by, a blinding ray of light temporarily destroys my "tunnel vision". The dust on my helmet visor reflects and diffuses the light further. Boy this is fun and at 17 kilometers an hour, the three of us can keep on having this much fun til the cows come home. Out in the sunshine, where a landslide has run over the roadbed, and that occurs often, the new road just climbs up over the slump and continues on. The canyon traps the noonday heat and pretty soon Katie is running with the rad fan on almost all the time. Fuel overflows out of the right tank and onto my pant leg. Guess Vladimir's solution at KTM Peru didn't get to the heart of this troubling problem with Katie yet. No option but to keep idling along. We balance on narrow train bridges as they span the rio below. Bites of road are abruptly missing like a toothless grin, I can see the rio below through the gap. That's comforting. It's only a 9 million mile vertical drop to the Santa should I not be paying attention to the right place at the right time.
For five hours Pat and Sho both take turns leading our little group until we hit pavement at Chuquicara. We find shelter behind a leaning wall in the little pueblo and take off our helmets. Pat, in order to see, has kept her helmet visor up for most of the ride. Her face tells it all.
A quick lunch out of the blast furnace wind then we ride until sunset and the surf town of Huanchaco. We are now just north of Turjillo. What a day! What a ride!
We spend a couple of days washing gear, including bikes and helmets and generally kick back and relax at the Naylamp Inn. Our second story rooms with a view of the ocean help recharge our batteries. The food is great and going barefoot in the sand is a nice change. Playing Jenka while quaffing cerveza on the sun deck is downright therapeutic.
As our days in northern Peru wind down, Sho, Pat and I visit three significant pre-Columbian sites. Just north of Trujillo rests the remains of the largest adobe city in the world, Chan Chan. As the capital of the Chimu culture (circa AD 1100 to 1471), the adobe city spread over 28 square kilometers and held a population that varied between 60,000 to 250,000 people, depending on the era. The Chimu surrendered to the pesky Incas after eleven years of heavy badgering and threats to destroy their irrigation canals.
When a Chimu king died, his palace was abandoned and another was built for the new king. By the time the Incas took over, nine palaces existed in Chan Chan. The adobe walls surrounding the royal palace were decorated with molded images of fish, condors, sea otters, pelicans, fish nets, the Southern Cross and other stuff. The image below shows a calendar record of many seasons, including years when El Niño came stalking.
When a king died, usually around 40 years old, the cause of death was often because of a hemophiliac related condition. Strangely, Chimu custom dictated the king marry his sister. But not just one death occured when the MMWC (main man what counts) died. Accompanying the king to his grave was his primary wife, 90 concubines and the lead officials from each kingdom district. I assume that unhappy prospect encouraged everyone's best efforts to keep the MMWC healthy and happy. Not helping matters was all the heavy gold and silver symbols of office the old boy had to wear. Hence he was carried everywhere he went. No exercise, bad blood and married to his sister. Not a winning combination.
The adobe walls surrounding the royal enclosure were 8 to 10 metres high and two meters at the base. Constructed of sand, clay, sea shells and cactus mixed with water, the interior walls were then painted in rich colors of red, blue, white or yellow and adorned with silver and gold. Today much of the city has been destroyed by floods, earthquakes and rain, not to mention the rude intrusion of conquistadors and today's huaqueros (grave robbers). Still, it is an impressive site.
After three lovely days in the sun at Huanchaco and visiting nearby Chan Chan, our trio heads north to the city of Chiclayo. Again, following a winning plan, we set up base in a comfortable but inexpensive hotel, park our bikes in the hotel's outer courtyard (within view of their watchful security) and grab a taxi for the next historical must-see. At their height around AD 1 to 750, the Moche culture were masters of art in precious metals, stone, pottery and textiles. Today it is difficult at first glance of the three crumbling pyramids to realize the grandeur that once was Sipán.
What looks like some dirt hills turns out to be a grand set of handbuilt structures made of adobe bricks. Time has not been kind to the Moche heritage site.
Excavations since 1987 have uncovered 12 royal tombs, each a treasure cache of funerary objects considered to rank among the finest examples of pre-Columbian art. The weathiest Moche tomb, that of El Señor de Sipán, contains a high priest clad in gold, silver, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper and exquisitely woven fabrics. In the picture below, I am standing on the ceremonial pyramid looking down at the cemeterial pyramid. The metal roofs down there protect the excavated tombs from the elements, guards 24 hours a day protect the site from the huaqueros. Before the protection much of the stolen wealth was bought by North Americans and Europeans. In times past even foreign museums were a market. We can all share some blame for this permanent loss to the Peruvian people.
As seems to be the fashion then, El Señor de Sipán was buried surrounded by his wife, a military commander, a boy, guardians (with their feet cut off), llamas (with their heads cut off), and a look-out man perched in an alcove above. Ceramic containers held a variety of food and materials needed to carry on business in the next life. Later we visit the world class Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipán in the little town of Lambayeque where the dazzling riches uncovered at the site are on display. Unfortunately we have to surrender cameras so we take mind pictures.
The last in our triad of pre-Columbian cultures is a visit to the ancient city of Túcume (circa AD 1000 to 1375), 35 km north of Chiclayo. The Lambayeque people built 26 massive adobe brick pyramids here. The largest, Huaca Larga, measured 700 metres long, 280 metres wide and over 30 metres high. Obviously anyone in this part of the world with shares in Adobe Inc. were doing well in those days.
Remarkably, much of what is known today about Túcume is attributed to the leadership and efforts of explorer-archeologist Thor Heyerdayl of "Kon-Tiki" fame. As Sho, Pat and I stand on a high cerro overlooking this incredible kingdom below, a 30 C breeze waves up at us from below. With the heat comes the scent of clay, the smell of 1000 year old history. What are now non-descript mountains heavily eroded with deep vertical wrinkles used to be a magestic and awe inspiring mega metropolis, that much is plain. Beyond the ancient city below, through the shimmer of mid-day, we can see vast fields of luxuriously green crops, the same rich fields that once fed many thousands still feeding many thousands today. I can't help but feel these elaborate cultures of ten centuries ago were doing as well or better than the Europeans I learned about in school. How could this much South American history have gone unnoticed or untold by our North American educators?
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