October 30, 2008 GMT
Peru

Peru - I cross the border into Peru late Saturday afternoon. I was going to hold off until Sunday, but had a feeling that the customs office could be closed with a subsequent delay. Crossing into Peru was the easiest border yet. Really logical and straight forward. At 4pm I'm in Peru. Unfortunately the usual horde of money changers and market stalls were absent - so no money and no map either. The lack of map wasn't a problem - essentially there's only one road - to Piura. I got some money en-route, so thankfully could fill up with petrol (a slight worry). As I head to Piura its getting dark. I'm aware that my dipped headlight bulb is blown so decide to run on full beam (its a motorcycle). However as its getting darker, I realise that in fact I have no lights (i.e. nothing working). Not a major problem in South America, lots of people run without lights. I push on. However the oncoming overtaking cars are a concern. I get passed by a van - he's on a mission, so I tuck in behind. By the time I get to Piura its well dark. I grab the first accomodation I can find - a hostel. Wasn't sure what a hostel was, but this one has a cafe for breakfast, a swimming pool and motel style rooms. Also secure parking and free internet access. Every bit as good as any hotel.

The next day a replacement fuse and new headlight bulb gets everything working again.

My initial thoughts on (northern) Peru are not good. Its pretty clear that it is an under developed country in comparison with Ecuador next door. The landscape is uninspiring, the main road south running down the coastal plain. It is pretty flat and relatively desolate. There is an abundance of litter everywhere and it is clear that there are sanitary and sanitation issues. Most villages are visually unattractive. However the first couple of major towns I stay in, Piura, Chiclayo and Chimbot are all reasonably good with excellent hotels at a reasonable price. Driving standards are poor - there is no disipline, not helped by a lack of road markings, stops signs and give ways. There are traffic lights - but you have to look hard to find them. There may only be one light and not necessarily close to the road. Pedestrians fair particularly badly. Pedestrian crossings are abundant but their significance seems meaningless - cars take the right of way at all times.

After Trujillo the landscape changes, becoming very rugged and barren. There are mountains in the distance and a proliferation of sand and sand dunes. It's fairly exposed and windswept here being relatively close to the coast. And so it continues down to Casma. At least the landscape starts to inspire.

Following a lead from the blog of Darren and Emma Homer, I head for Huaraz. They found it challenging, but I was confident that their hardship was down to the weather conditions in May. For me, the weather on the coastal plain has been excellent. Huaraz is only about 60miles from Casma on the map following what looks like a relatively straight road. I fill the tank with petrol (Darren ran out) and pack some food. I set out early. The initial 30miles is a good fast tarmac road. It climbs up into the mountains taking in some pretty stunning scenery - everything is barren with little greenery. After a small village the road suddenly changes - its now a narrow gravel track. However its reasonably smooth so progress is OK. It winds its way up and up into the mountains through several fords and over some fairly suspect bridges. Despite the glorious sunshine, there is obviously water coming from somewhere. I pass through numerous villages with inquiring looks from the villagers. Need to take care due to livestock on the road - pigs in particular, but also chickens and cows. I'm on this road for several hours making good progress, although my average speed must be below 20mph. Certainly, I believe, conditions are good compared to Darren and Emma. The road just keeps climbing. Eventually it reaches the clouds with the inevitable rain. Thats when it starts to get slippy with a coating of clay like mud on a hard base. Judging by the road it rains here most of the time. On several occasions the back of the bike squirms. On the approach to an uphill hairpin it goes down - totally unexpected, catching me unawares. How did that happen - more concentration required. The bike has spun through 180deg and is now pointing back down the hill. I hear laughing - two villagers (women) are on the hillside above. I'm sure theyv'e seen it all before. Its only after I pick the bike up and try and turn it around that I realise how slippery the road is. However there is no damage (not a mark) so I push on with confidence intact. Eventually I'm over the top and thankfully find good tarmac. Not far now. However within sight of Huaraz I find the road closed due to construction work. Judging by the queue of traffic its been closed most of the day. I wait for 3 hours by which time it's dark - well at least I know my lights are working. We proceed in convoy once the road is open. Its horrendous. The first part through a village has mud 10inches deep - no more tarmac. I have to paddle with my feet to keep the bike upright, while trying to keep it in the ruts and moving forward. Once we clear the construction site its downhill all the way. The road is narrow, wet and extremely muddy (for muddy read slippery). At times I can barely see through the diesel fumes from the trucks. The fumes are choking but I'm used to that by now. I have to stop twice and try and create a gap in front. On one part the bike nearly gets away but I somehow catch it and keep it upright. However its now sitting jammed at right angles to the track with the rear wheel deep in a rut. I think the sumpguard is bellied out. Again I find it hard to hold the bike steady with my feet slipping from under me. My boots are carrying a thick layer of mud. Getting it out and pointing downhill is awkward to say the least, but fully realises the benifits of the lightweight KLR. By now there is a queue behind me - but they can wait. Eventually I get to Huaraz. In reality its 95miles on the bike. Sitting in the hotel afterwards, reflecting on the days activities I am in a buoyant mood. Its probably one of the best days I've had so far, providing a reasonable level of challenge. It certainly beats driving directly south on the main road.

I get up the next morning and wash the bike. The weather's good. The run back to the coast should be straight forward on what I believe is good tarmac. Leaving Huaraz, the road seems to climb higher. Its getting cold and the distant mountains have snow on top. I can see rain in the distance. The rain starts but quickly turns to hailstones - I certainly wasn't expecting that. The road is white. I run in the tracks of a bus. On a corner the tracks run right to the edge - the bus had hit the armco barrier and clearly fish tailed its way up the following hill. The bike is squirming and for the second day in a row I realise that the road is slippery. I decide to park up and let it pass. That afternoon at the hotel I wash the bike again. Tarmac here doesn't necessarily mean a clean road.

The approach to Lima is pretty spectacular. The road hugs the coast, but runs high up on the edge of a steep hillside - except its not a hillside, its the largest sand dune imaginable. The sign at the last junction reads "No Motos" - not sure why but I igore it. Do I have a choice?

Lima itself it a Unesco World Heritage site. Despite some attractive buildings, the overall feel is not particularly inviting. I stay two nights downtown (the old part) and then move for one night in Milaflores - a more upmarket neighbourhood where all the tourists hang out. It has an affluent feel which doesn't much match the rest of Peru.

From Lima its onto Nazca and across the lines. The Nazca Lines are the ancient Inca markings scribed into the desert floor. They consist of images of various animals including birds, a monkey and a lizard. Also the figure of a man who looks like a spaceman. Large trapazoidal markings are said to be landing strips for spaceships, suggesting that the spaceman is actually an alien!!. When I said crossed the lines I literally meant it - the Peruvian's built the Panamericana straight across the desert and through the middle of the lizard. Nazca town is very nice - its also the beginning of the tourist trail. Cusco is tourist central - my next destination.

The run to Cusco is broken at Abancay. Nazca to Abancay is 300miles with nothing in between. Cusco is a further 100miles. Both sections are through the mountains, with winding roads climbing ever upwards. However the majority of the road is motorway smooth tarmac which is great. The other remarkable thing is the absence of traffic - only the occasional truck to share the expanse with. On the run to Abancay the weather breaks. The sky blackens and there is lightening in the distance. I'm on a high plateau with nothing for miles around - I feel really exposed. There is a lone figure standing on the roadside - its miles from anywhere!! Once the rain starts it quickly turns to hailstones. Its cold. I reach a village - everything is white, but the road is still OK. I could stop but theres really nothing here - its a hill village built from mud bricks and corregated iron. Certainly no four star hotels. I decide to push on. Thankfully the road starts to drop back down - this is the summit. Soon I feel warmth returning. The last 100miles to Abancay is along a valley floor. Its still raining, but its reasonably flat so progress is good. Abancay to Cusco is similar territory, but the sun is shining and its pleasantly warm. Its a beautiful run, but 100miles takes nigh on five hours - not two as expected. At one point I'm almost level with snow capped peaks. The hillsides are dotted with small farms. This is subsistence living which looks primitive. Ploughing is done with cattle. However the people look happy - some even wave.

And then Cusco - the base for Machu Picchu. The train turns out to be the best option for visiting Machu Picchu - the road only runs part way and I can't be bothered with the 4 day hike along the Inka trial. Its obviously busy - I have to wait 2 days for an available train seat. At least Cusco makes a nice place to hang out and explore. Being tourist based its full of bars, coffee shops and upmarket restaurants which is nice. Oh and souvenir shops abound.

The train to Machu Picchu takes 4 hours for the 110Km journey - about 70miles or 17.5mph. It takes about 40minutes just to get out of Cusco - the hillside is so steep that the train has to make a series of back and forth zigzags along alternating tracks just to climb. It does give a nice view of the city however. Its then on out into the sacred valley following the Urubamba River. All very nice. The last 8km is done by a convey of buses - not the most auspicious arrival at such a renowned landmark site. I wont go into the details of Machu Picchu, but its certainly impressive and worth a look, if only to tick it off a ''things to do before I'm'' list. Arriving early will avoid the throng of day trippers like me who turn up by the train load - obviously. As an aside, I also visited a small Inka site at Tipon on the bike, way up on a hillside along a rough track. Although inconsequential compared with Machu Picchu, it was quiet and peaceful and easy to grasp the isolation and splendour. It was purely a terraced hillside, but continuous running water gives it that tranquil feeling - a nice place to relax.

The run south takes in Lake Titicaca. At times it stretches to the horizon - its big. Its also high - 3812m above sea level (Machu Picchu is a poor comparison at 2400m). Heading back to the coast I take in a mountain pass - the sign reads 4800m (15,748ft). Ben Nevis has a summit of 1344m - Mmm!! Does the KLR suffer at altitude - I don't think so. At one time it does struggle to maintain 50mph. However its blowing a hoolie, I think its a steep hill (sometimes hard to tell) and the last fill was 84octane petrol (all that was available). It's hardly surprising that it was sluggish!! However the next morning, back on the coast and sea level, it felt like a flying machine again. Maybe a week at altitude had numbed both me and the bike.

Do I like Peru? I'm not sure. Any tourist following the tourist trail would come away mightly impressed. The northern region unfortunately gives a poor first impression. My last night is spent in a small town called Tacna. It could be anything, but is suprisingly nice and helps save Peru in my mind. It has great scenery, whether sand dunes, desert or mountain. Also great roads with good quality tarmac. However I think I will reserve judgement until I see how Chile compares.

Some interesting facts about Peru:
i. The staple diet of Peruvians is chicken. In small town Peru 9/10 restaurants are chicken restaurants. They have a menu - you can have 1/4, 1/2 or whole chicken. The tenth restaurant is chinese - they also serve chicken.
ii. A peruvian taxi driver with no fare is dangerous. They doddle on the road searching for potential passengers giving no thought to other drivers. A taxi driver with a fare is dangerous. They drive like there is no tommorow in the expectation that their passenger will give them a bigger tip for getting there 2 minutes earlier. Basically peruvian taxi drivers are just dangerous.
iii. There is a drink called pisco sour. Its alcoholic and tastes really nice.


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Posted by Graham Shee at October 30, 2008 03:09 AM GMT
 



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