Our border crossing from Ecuador to Peru did not go as planned - to say the least. We had woken up early to beat the rush, only to miss the Immigration Office tucked away to the side of the highway as we left Ecuador. After doubling back and waiting in every possible line before finding the correct office, we were stuck behind at least two full tour-bus loads of travellers also travelling south. The entire process took about six hours. Our longest crossing yet. But, on the bright side, we were finally in Peru and only a few long days away from Cusco where the Kubickis would link up with their third brother Olek and good friend Josh, and Ben would get a chance to see his girlfriend Steph.
We rode through the town of Tumbes, which welcomed us with possibly the craziest tuctucs drivers we've seen yet. Speeding three abreast down two dust-covered lanes, the three wheeled taxis honked, weaved, and bounced their way through us and around us, doing their best to disrupt our Canadian convoy which, by now, has abandoned all stereotypical politeness and honks, weaves and bounces right back.
Due to the lengthy immigration and customs process, we had a short day of riding along the North Western Peruvian coast. The weather was surprisingly mild, and the riding was easy along the mostly truckless single lane highway. The only excitement on the roads that day was the first military checkpoint that asked for papers. Of course our documents checked out, and we were soon gliding into Mancora for the night. After many dreary coastal towns comprised of low-lying tin-roofed shabby-looking buildings either clumped together or scattered apart, Mancora offered a much more lively atmosphere. We shared the bustling beach with tourists and locals alike, and got a good night's sleep in preparation for a few long days down the Peruvian West Coast. What we didn't know was how long and boring those days would be...
The next day started with a beautiful ride through some desert hills, the baron slopes framing the bulging twists and turns that crawled up and down land with the early morning sun casting long desert shadows across the sand as if to indicate the long day that still lay ahead. Unfortunately, we soon left the beauty and excitement behind, entering what we now know to be the Sechura Desert, a rare coastal desert and one of the driest on the planet. We passed oil fields and pumpjacks, as well as wind farms. Evidently there is energy to be harnessed here, though the landscape does not lend itself to a very friendly work environment. In the distance to the east, our left, lay the mighty Andes. Ever-present, the grey misty ridges void of contours or detail at such a distance, gave some relief to the flat desert landscape and to our tired eyes straining for something to look at.
We passed many awfully sad towns where crooked and unfinished buildings stood alone in the sea of sand, often without a human to be seen for miles and miles. At times, fences built of long branches and flimsy sticks provided some shelter from the wind for the poor animals that call this place home. Unfed horses pulled carriages comprised of large metal drums built into a shaky wooden frame between two wobbly wheels. Some towns were built on the wide, almost dry riverbeds of the mountain streams flowing off the Andes. This scarce water supply provided drinking water for the animals, and bathing water for the locals. Many of the inhabited areas felt like recently war-torn villages, leaving us feeling dejected and eager to carry on our way. The road was long, straight and wide, so the miles were easy enough to come by, and in between towns, the vastness and emptiness of the desert carried with it a unique attraction; maybe not beautiful, but certainly powerful, absolutely impressive, and undoubtedly unforgettable. Our first day in the desert came to an end in Trujillo, where we parked our bikes in the cramped auto-shop next-door to our hostel. It had been a long day, and naively we thought that we were nearing the end of the Sechura.
As we packed our bikes in the morning, we received some warnings, a bit late, about the dangers of Trujillo. Ignorance is bliss though, and we had felt no insecurities the night before as we explored our street for dinner. We set out again to conquer the desert, and whether the landscape had grown on us or it had faintly improved, there was a growing appreciation for the infinity that we were crossing. Windswept hills emerged, marbled with a darker sand, as if dusted with cinnamon. Other mounds presented themselves; some smooth, soft, and sandy, others sharp, menacing and rocky. But they all had an alluring quality to them. Maybe the desert was beautiful after all…
We continued battling the uncompromising desert wind, which surprisingly cause very little sand to be swept across in front of our cavalcade of leaned over bikes, fighting to maintain a straight course between the lines. The Pacific Ocean appeared throughout the day, and it was a remarkable experience to be riding on the very boundary upon which the endless sea of blue water crashed relentlessly onto the immovable immensity of gritty sand, neither element giving way to the other.
Of course, the terrible towns continued to interrupt this unprecedented experience, none worse than the slums on the northern extremity of Lima. We had planned to stop for the night on the North side of town, and battle the city traffic in the light of day, but upon stopping in the heart of the devastating slum to assess what turned out to be an hourly ‘love’ hostal, we decided to brave the dark and the traffic, and treat ourselves to a nice hotel in downtown Lima. What had we got ourselves into...?
Navigating the slums meant avoiding the lane-splitting busses that, full to the brim with passengers, rode across curbs and along shoulders. We managed to stay together throughout the ordeal, fighting our way through the bumper-to-bumper of rust and horns. Upon approaching one of the tolls, we decided to follow a few other motorcycles off the main road to beat the long line of traffic. We almost instantly lost our local leads, and were soon unsticking Dom’s bike from the narrow confines of a footpath between two concrete walls. The three bikes once again mobile, we squeezed through some concrete barriers past the tollbooth and continued our nighttime adventure into Lima. Soon unpaved paths of sand had been replaced with divided well-lit cobble stone sidewalks, the incessant noise of honks had been replaced with no-honking signs, and plumes of black smoke had been replaced with esteemed fountains that supervised well-behaved traffic circles: we were downtown Lima!
Our hotel of choice was an unaffordable $230USD per night, but a well-clad gentleman peered above his nosey spectacles to let us know that there was an affordable hostel down the street. After a few laps of the neighbourhood we found the hostel, found parking for our bikes, and were settled into comfy couches with a cold beer and a couple of pizzas in time for the exhilarating second round of Trump V. Clinton. The debate left us feeling foggy headed and proudly Canadian, and we went to sleep in cozy beds far away from the flashing red lights of the love-hostal.
Leaving Lima was much easier than the way in, and we stopped for breakfast at a café on the side of the highway. We were approaching the end of our time in the desert, this confirmed by a glance at our maps, but it wasn’t over yet. More sand, more wind, more sad towns. Ironically, the depressing towns inflicted more of a sense of emptiness in us than the vast emptiness of the desert itself. The thought of living in these areas is totally unbearable – the burning garbage, homeless street dogs, desolate streets, abandoned homes – all surrounded by the lifeless desert.
Our approach into Nazca came with a distinct change – the hills. We wound up and down through the hills that were distant shadows only minutes before, chasing each other around the endless curves. The hills flattened out before reaching Nazca, but we soon found a beautiful hotel for a relatively low cost. The bikes were parked in the locked hotel parking lot, and visible from our first floor bedrooms – absolutely perfect.
The following day we enjoyed the limitless hotel breakfast, and set out on our two-day journey through the Andes to Cusco – almost there! Unfortunately the desert wasn’t finished with us, and the day began with a wrong turn that led us through the stretched sandy landscape for a good hour before it was finally detected! So, we doubled back and filled up with gas, now really ready to attack the pavement and work our way skywards, up through the Andes. More desert hills, more zigzags and U-turns, more S-curves and hairpins. What a feat to build this stunning road, and what an experience to ride it! We passed indigenous areas, some small villages, other settlements comprised of a single wind-battered hut, alone against the elements. We passed some old ruins, and many miles of wobbly stone walls that stretched out of sight into the distance, as if to reach back in time and connect the current indigenous people with their ancestors who certainly built most, if not all, of the walls that are still being used to delineate pastures and crops.
It’s nothing short of incredible that even fighting the hardships of the Andes, the people here seem so much better off than their counterparts living in the impossibly harsh desert. While the mountainous region sees rain to support crops, the isolation from major transportation routes presents in itself a challenge to prosperity. It is certainly safe to say that no life is easy in this part of the world, except for maybe Lima’s elite.
At a stop for gas in Puquio, or timing coincided with that of a busy tour bus, one of the many that has presented a challenge to us on the blind mountain corners. This tour bus was filled with children and adults alike, most of whom were eager to have a picture with us. Ones and twos approached us for pictures, and then little groups and big groups. This is it – our fifteen minutes of fame. And it lasted closer to thirty!
Riding through the Andes was impressive, exciting, daunting, and cold! We would wind up a mountain pass but instead of winding back down again we would cross immense plains floating in the sky with only mountaintops visible around their extremities. Eventually we would weave our way down again, catching glimpses of the resilient road appearing and disappearing in and out of itself like a length of yarn stretched out and released, snapping into a convoluted squiggle.
The day was coming to a close and we had decided to camp out instead of counting on one of the unpredictable towns to appear before the sun went down. We were cold and tired, the elevation affecting our bodies and bikes as we approached 4500m at times throughout the day, and we set up camp hidden behind a knoll on the side of the road as the setting sun put another day of adventures to rest.
Despite our best efforts to sleep well, altitude headaches and cold weather kept us up throughout the night. We emerged from our tents groggy and unrested, and sipped on some coca tea that we found surprisingly helpful. Ahead of us lay a projected seven-hour ride to Cusco. The bikes struggled to start in the cold weather, with Howie requiring a bump start to finally fire up. As fate would have it, five minutes past our impromptu campsite lay a hostel and restaurant. Howie was left running over the course of the breakfast, after which a substantial leak was noticed emerging from the weep hole of the coolant reservoir. With a mechanic already lined up in Cusco to address the oil-burning problem, all Howie needed to do was make it another 400km…
We rode through gorgeous river valleys, more steep switchbacks, and many thriving agricultural communities throughout the day. Howie continued to bleed coolant, requiring water top-ups at regular intervals, and Tym was struck with the team’s first flat tire of the trip. Not to be outdone, Howie’s gear shifter then broke, leaving him stuck in 2nd gear to navigate the busy streets of Cusco. But, after 11 hours, we made it – three boys and three bikes got to Cusco on Wednesday night in various conditions, ready for some rest.
Over the following few days, we all felt under weather at some point. We visited the shelter where Steph had spent the last three months volunteering to help rescue and rehabilitate Cusco’s street dogs, we explored Cusco’s historic city centre, Tym got a luggage rack welded back together again, Dom made some long-overdue improvements to the comfort of his seat, and Ben found a mechanic to work on Howie over the next week.
As Ben said goodbye to Steph after a brief but wonderful two days, Dom and Tym welcomed Olek and Josh to the city for a couple days of exploring before Team Alaskentina Plus embarks on a five-day four-night trek of Machu Picchu – the famous ruins of a 15th century Incan citadel. That adventure begins tomorrow… at 4:30 AM!