In order to rebegin our earth-bound way northward, gin-ger-ly is the way in which I rode Pearl all 230 miles southbound to Lima. Pearl was sporting a newly welded, temporarily repaired rear suspension linkage—albeit with no dampening in place but despite having cause for complaint, held up beautifully on the Pan American highway’s asphalt. Getting me to a place in which we could get her adequately mended—without issue, what a trooper. Holding her in a new level of regard, I held no qualms in taking my ‘Captain Slow’ status to another notch; delicately descending into drainage dips and negotiating speed bumps with supreme care.
With a rear shock to be shipped and install, on closer inspection there was also: Pearl’s brakes, which were letting out a pair of screams every time I slowed; the plate—protecting my feet from her exhaust—had bore a raucous-racket-of-a-hole in it from all the off road vibration; she was in dire need of an oil change and service; her battery terminals were looking beyond filthy and on top, Pearl was missing a couple of crucial bolts to her sub-frame.
All that coupled with worn out tyres, an oil change and service due on the F800cc, faulty brake discs and a disintegrated plate supporting his Peli case, Jason was going to be one busy boy in Lima. I would of course become the ‘Sparky’s mate’ and pass the spanners, emulate James Bond with his Motion Pro tool and bring cups of tea and slices of keke—cake on the hour, every hour.
In an attempt to escape from one reality only to seek a more beautiful one, I long ago implored the world to teach me a thing or two before the time runs out. I love the stark differences encountered on the travel spectrum in Peru for example, such as walking past mothers breastfeeding their toddlers, yes—three year old toddlers, on a Monday morning inside a national bank. (At least they’d save soles on Inca Kola and other such child-beckoning beverages.) Or surviving a sea of the world’s worst drivers to encountering floods of the same local people with the nicest manners. Especially when disaster strikes and you become dependent on the help of a stranger.
A new acquaintance, ex-pat Brit Johnny Bravo who has journeyed alongside the “loonbags” of Lima’s roads for years, took us to the boho-chic end of Barranca and over a coffee pondered, “I can’t decide if they are the best drivers (with huge reserves of luck), or the worst drivers (with the fastest reflexes!)” From firsthand experience, I’d fervently err on the latter..! Although ruminating on it later over a savoured cup of English tea, thanks to Johnny’s thoughtfulness, when you grasp that users of the roads in Peru haven’t been required to take a driving test, only something akin to Britain’s ‘Compulsory Basic Training’ day, you begin to fathom why the roads are frenetic at best, fatal at worst.
But when and how did Peruvians become so gloriously hospitable, especially noticeable when compared to the British culture of the more reserved, perhaps occasionally guilty of a little cynicism and suspicion? That’s something culturally instilled at a grassroots level, starting with good old fashioned family values and community spirit in helping our neighbour. Some of us in England have barely spoken a word to our next door neighbour. We’ve much and more to learn from the world.
Our accommodation within 24 hours went from ‘Love hotel’ to a Catholic convent, another amusing contrast. Both of which I thought I was getting incredible ‘bang for my buck’; the former for its value in renting a room for the entire night and the latter for the uber low price including internet and hot water. That is, until getting electric shocks from the our shower head. And later an unpleasant buzz from Jason’s arm holding the laptop—a jolting over-charge of which ran through him from the electricity powering the could-now-do-without WiFi. “Ouch! Stop touching your arm against mine Jason— it ruddy hurts!” Turning everything off gave rise only to a rude gush of cold water but at least the shower was welcoming in Lima’s humid heat. After the initial shock…
Sat in a semblance of the convent’s peace and quiet, reading and relaxing, we experienced a minor earthquake. Apparently reaching 3.9 on the Richter Scale, it wasn’t more than a titillating tremor, however, it did simultaneously raise our eyebrows in acknowledgment. Actually, it’s not unusual for Lima to experience seismic activity, being situated between two tectonic plates: the Nazca Plate and South America Plate. Still, as mild as it was, I didn’t expect to find my lips singing away to Carole King’s song, “I feel the Earth move under my feet…”
So now we were to simply sit tight and wait for our parts en route from Motorworks. The parcel itself—the contents of which would be akin to our birthdays, 15 year anniverary together and Christmas in one—took a speedy three days to hit Peruvian soil, one of FedEx’s fortes by far. The battle on our hands commenced the moment it landed; we now had to climb an Everest-sized mountain of bureaucracy via an administration labyrinth along the way. Jason beavered away on preparing Pearl for her major surgery, while I spent a day and night furiously designing, reformatting and translating technical specifications in Spanish for each of the nine components and collating original invoices in keeping with Customs’ preferred layout.
Sounded straightforward enough, however with FedEx answering their switchboard one in every ten calls coupled with my survival Spanish, and unclear instructions around a mandatory set of precise requirements from the import agent Yudit Canta, assembling our paperwork correctly was filled with inaccurate time-wasting exercises and more laptop hours than I’d care to bore you about. Ines, the co-manager at Touratech Peru corrected my paperwork, grossly impinging on her working day and her husband Ivan, the other manager, had pre-empted us on how to best ‘push’ the process. We essentially had a 50:50 chance of ascertaining a ‘green light’ from Customs’ traffic light system; an amber or red simply spelled ‘No package release’.
With a killer 20 mile ride riddled with Lima’s loonbags over to the FedEx office, we were told on arrival that our paperwork wouldn’t be presented to Customs until the following day. My response to which politely relayed the rehearsed, somewhat embellished story of a time-ticking visa past its 11th hour and subsequent impounding of the motos, “Our parcel is full of constituent parts to fix my motorcycle in order to complete a five-day ride to the border with only four days remaining before visa expiry. Please could you help me, I am desperado for FedEx’s assistance under these urgent and accentuating circumstances. If I do not collect the package today, it’s game over for us and our motorcycles on an Argentina to Alaska trip.” An economy of the truth admittedly but desperation really is the mother of invention.
“Sorry madam, this is the procedure we must follow at FedEx and Customs will look to process your documentation tomorrow. You will get a red, amber or green back from them.” Arrr, the parcel-determining colours of their unenlightening traffic light system.
You’re kidding? Any crisis of conscience fully reconciled within the blink of an eye, it was time to trigger a mini-Oscar-nomination-standard-thunderstorm on my face. A deluge of snotting and the onset of tears worked a charm. Fortunately, the FedEx representative was male giving me full leverage to cry him a river in appealing to his ‘Moto-damsel in distress’ sympathy-inducing qualities. (A woman may’ve just told me to “Suck it up princess, your parcel ain’t ready.”)
Alakazam! A day’s worth of mundane hours later and FedEx fast-tracked our parcel from somewhere lost in the ether to ‘Ready for collection’. And joy of joys—believe you me, I never dreamed I’d feel so elated to see the word Verde—green in red ink on our consignment papers. Namely, a box of motorcycle parts but Pearl’s livelihood depended on it. It wasn’t exactly a box of ‘old for new’ but I’d take ‘broken for second hand’ any day. I offered up the rear shock like it was The Lion King’s Simba and bathed in the green victory of glory.
Continuing north from Huascarán National Park took us to the imposingly rugged Canon del Pato (Duck Canon)—a busy narrow asphalt road featuring a perilously sheer drop, where catastrophic landslides after heavy rain are not exactly uncommon. Treacherous as it sometimes is, it’s the main transport route for big trucks, buses by the coach load and a glut of cars. The sporadically tunnelled highway penetrates the Cordillera Negra, descends westward and continues to the Pacific Ocean port city of Chimbote, providing vehicle access to the coast from the Callejón de Huaylas. It made riding Bolivia’s Road of Death feel like a day at the beach. Still, during the brief sections that weren’t choked with whizzing traffic, my neck craned up to the top of the towering canon as Pearl’s tyres sang on the vista-terrific turns.
The ripio—gravel thereafter was a splintered mishmash of sharp, pointed rocks bound haphazardly in the hard compacted dirt. It was no wonder we stopped to greet a pair of teens stranded with a back tyre flat. Having handed over a patch repair kit and harnessed our compressor to send them on their way, we rode through various flyspeck settlements home to makeshift shacks set back in the trees, with chewed-up screen doors revealing the gaping tombs of freezers.
Through one village, a herd of skittish bulls loathed the sound and sight of our motorcycles; body language left little and less to be desired. One bucked up on his hind legs right in front of me in preparation to for fight or flight, I couldn’t discern which. I stopped immediately, held my breath and exhaled hard when the beast and its don’t-mess-with-me horns scarpered. Around the next corner, a brace of Alsatians charged me. The sound of galloping, the earth trembling, and there they were, leaping at my throat—but midair they hit the ends of their chains and were hurled into the dust as though stricken down by lightning. Mutts of serious misdemeanor.
Misdeeds of the mongrel aside, Pearl seemed to be grumbling—having a harder time of it than usual. Her back end was flailing, bouncing around more than normal although I naively kept those feelings to myself so as not to appear ‘mardy’ on the rough stuff. It was only a hunch after all, even if I was careening all over the shop and uncomfortably feeling every jarring lump and bump. Bobbling over the road, I assumed I was still cream crackered after conquering the boisterous Cordillera Blanca.
There’s only so many times you can thwack over terrain before your poor motorcycle is utterly thrashed. Pearl seemed to be waning under the hammer. Why was I thinking such thoughts? She can admirably ride ripio and—Suddenly a terrible crash broke into my reverie. It came from the direction of Pearl’s underside. At 20 miles per hour, I whacked a rock for the umpteenth time and my bike simply couldn’t cope; it was the straw that broke Pearl’s back. After a hard turn, and 20 more ragged yards, she abruptly skidded to a crunching stop. The sound of an irreparable snap and grinding to a holt pierced my ears as my factory-lowered bike dropped to the ground—giving me the ground clearance of a piece of paper.
Ignoring my instincts took me—remarkably—to the outskirts of an in-the-middle-of-nowhere settlement. A mere two miles away. “What the…!” Jason yelled from behind and raced towards me; somehow having stayed upright astride Pearl. He started scrutinising the impairment and damage limitation duly required. “The rear shock linkage has broken, Lise. Snapped clean in half.”
“Whaaat?!” I verbalised fearing the next response.
“Your suspension is to-tal-ly ruined”, he exclaimed rather matter-of-factly. At least a diagnosis to that effect—perhaps not as polite.
“You’re joking!” In a state of grudging acceptance, I couldn’t even wheel Pearl over to the roadside. My happiness soon soured when I dialled into the fact that she was going nowhere; Pearl’s ability to move, let alone ride was cut off like a faucet.
It made sense for Jason to blast into the settlement down the road and seek assistance. A trucky pulled over shortly after, had the best of intentions in trying to help a moto-damsel-in-distress although wasn’t able to transport a motorcycle being a full on freighter.
The heat was insufferable, which settled like a suffocating blanket on my soul. An unquenchable thirst surfaced as my tongue clove to the roof of my parched mouth like a choking root, while the kindly truck driver kept returning from his box of tricks with various tools and parts to attempt a temporary fix. Alas, he was journeying the opposite way, time was ticking in his working day so deferentially shrugged in reluctant acknowledgement; there was little and less he could do to improve my situation. I disagreed with that wholeheartedly when he shared his juicy watermelon. What a chivalrous chap nevertheless for stopping. As Charlie Chaplin once said, “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world—not even our troubles.”
Cars hurtled past, blowing dust in my face. I sat marooned beside the road, overcome by inertia. I opened a book in an effort to damp down my simmering awareness of unknown timescales. Some time had passed with the lorry driver and just as the whiff of worry started to pirouette around my head—at least I could gnaw on a watermelon while deserted—Jason returned. Peruvian police swiftly followed suit and it took all four of the strapping officers plus Jason to lift hefty old Pearl, and edge her onto the back of the police truck. I was utterly indebted to Pearl that we weren’t 200 miles away from help, even if she could have been 100 kilograms lighter in an ideal world.
After a chunk of clock trying to flag down an elusive vehicle capable of carrying Pearl, and one that was travelling in our desired destination 50 miles down the road, we returned from our abortive hunt. I’d eyeballed only a handful of trucks packed to the gunwales with watermelons. Within minutes, Damian, an Argentinean rocked up on a Honda Tornado with his girlfriend on the back. What a fabulous ensemble; ‘two up’ touring for months on a nifty and nimble 250cc bike. It does have to be said, less is always more and size does matter!
After a brief but rapport-building conversation, Damian had convinced Jason to prise the aforementioned faulty parts from Pearl. Was that the solution to an otherwise intractable problem? ‘Surely the nuts and bolts in question would be so tightly screwed on, stubbornly fixed in from years in that position, it’d be nigh on impossible to loosen the bolts and remove the linkage’, Jason surmised. Well you won’t know until we try, will ya?
Post a consensus of the most plausible prognosis, Pearl got stripped of her broken bits and snapped parts. Contrary to initial opinion, it was surprisingly straight forward too. The boys worked tirelessly in an unrelenting heat for the best part of an hour. Smeared in sweat, dirt and oil, Damian insisted on coming with us in sourcing an aluminium welder with translation on tap. What heightened human kindness going the extra mile in our hour of need.
I had no choice but to trade my trusty mode of transportation for the functioning wheels and pillion seat of Jason’s bike. It was my motorcycle’s first unpreventably hindering problem—having pounded the Pearliness out of her for 12 months and nearly 19,000 miles. Hardly surprising she was beyond a little battered having fallen into abeyance and expiring quietly like a campfire at dawn. She screamed out for some emergency first aid although I’d failed to adequately tune into her slow demise. Actively listening to Pearl’s body was something I needed to work on.
I entrusted Pearl in the safety of a local hostel owner, keeping her under lock and key with a promise of a rapid return and short term remedy. Both the Tornado duo alongside Jason and me—also ‘two up’—roared off down the road in convoy. Entering the urban sprawl that was Chimbote was riddled with the usual discombobulating chaos. Hailed to the roadside at random by the local traffic patrol, we soon became acquainted with the big boss man, Igor—and he with our predicament. Namely thanks to Damian’s attentive support.
By police escort complete with flashing lights, we were given the works. Treatment that led us straight to the nearest reputable welders, of whom took one look at the puissant head of our convoy, dropped everything and prioritised my job without delay. My rear shock linkage was fused together to a stronger degree than its original condition, despite my reservations that it’d bear a weak spot after repair. The welder had made a sterling job, charged me £10 pounds and threw in some bits and bobs I’d been needing on top—including making me a bespoke screw I’d lost, which securely attaches my pannier to the bracket. That level of cost my budget could cope with but seemed disproportionately low to the level of service being bestowed.
In the meantime, Damian offered to zip over to another garage a few miles away so as to pick up a specialist nut and bolt for Pearl’s suspension linkage (leagues beyond our survival Spanish). Igor insisted on taking his colleague as pillion beforehand. It’s believed a police officer (wearing no helmet as he’d travelled in the car), is said to bring suerte—good luck wherever you go. On the back he jumped and away they went, rapidly returning with the correctly sized components. All the while, the workshop welders couldn’t do enough for us—and wouldn’t let us leave without a plethora of photos being snapped, delighted at having met us. No seriously guys, the pleasure was all ours! What unprecedented gratitude I had for our entire rescue party in that single moment.
In fading daylight and before wishing us farewell, Igor perceptively determined that we had no real notion of where to get our heads down for the evening. It’d be our usual winging it on spec, which can render a little ‘hit and miss’ sometimes. However, I’d already allowed myself to be governed by the spirit of compassion; I needed zero confirmation that my true faith in humanity still held water. Calling upon his personal friend Jorge, Igor arranged for us to meet him in Chimbote’s bustling plaza. Having an hour to kill before meeting us after work, we sat on a park bench and started processing the random chain of events laced with good fortune post Pearl’s major mishap.
Over walked a couple of local moto-adoring men, full of fondness and praise towards both bikes; particularly Jason’s perhaps because you don’t see bigger motorcycles in Peru that often. We certainly haven’t. One of the Cheshire cat grinning guys asked us, “Would you mind if I treated you all to a coffee? Just over the road there. We would love to welcome you to Peru, or the city of Chimbote at least.” I smiled seraphically—striving for ‘grateful angelic being’ over ‘grubby-rider-with-shabby-chic-helmet-hair’. Wow! Why thank you Sir, that would be quite lovely! “And please, have a sandwich, you must be hungry”, he magnanimously added. We all graciously accepted.
Igor’s friend, Jorge, met and greeted us with a similar welcome—familiarly warm and forthcoming. Being on the receiving end of such a reception is rarely customary with strangers in the UK. It’s practically the norm here in Peru, and most if not parts of all other countries in South America to boot. Jorge unreservedly apologised that he’d be unable to accommodate all four in his home for the night, due to prior arranged family staying, however wouldn’t leave us stranded in a strange town. He accompanied us to another lodging instead, Diamante Hostel.
It wasn’t what you’d call your average hostel. We’re talking sassy red walls, soft red lighting, an unapologetically giant mirror adjacent to the plastic-sheeted bed and a saucy piece of glossy wall art. I’d heard previously that these rooms were good value ‘by the hour’ but incredible bang for your buck when taken for the whole night. Boom! So that’s what we did; slept in our first ‘Love hotel’—well it is a Catholic country after all. Unfortunately, the pair of us zonked before our heads hit the pillow. Doh!
Learning the rather simpler and the most important attributes on the road: patience, confidence and resilience is one thing. However, unquantifiable hospitality and gesture of goodwill to which we’d become acquainted was unexpectedly quite another. Having invested the full emotional spectrum in a place and its people, I think it’s only then you will begin to know that place. On the receiving end of such astute care and proactive concern expressed from strangers, seemed to dislodge an inner emotional logjam in me, and while I didn’t fully understand exactly how to pay it forward—it was good and I’d find a way.
What had I witnessed and absorbed? Something warm, intimate, genuine. That friendships have no linguistic barriers. That’s the fragility of goodness sometimes, which in our case had stemmed from the fellowship of the road: the intertwined, unforeseeable weave of human action. It left me flabbergasted to be a member of such a camaraderie-driven family.
One year, 18,000 miles on moto and five countries into the trip, we are still wending our way up South America—somewhat slowly—loving the two wheeled life more than yesterday but less than tomorrow.
Beneath a cloud-strewn sky, Lima’s bustling Miraflores appeared decent enough and initially I deemed the traffic no more demanding than La Paz or Buenos Aires, feeling thankful to the city angels that my prayers had been answered. Riding in those two cities was hellish enough. Entering Peru’s capital seemed to dispel the dark shadows that had sporadically plagued my soul. I’d been dreading Lima’s loony roads for weeks; fear had waited in the dark recesses of my mind, ready to pounce. Or was I simply adapting to the idiotic drivers of South America’s big cities? In part yes but there, nope, wrong again. The notorious road users of downtown Lima were a notch above moronic leaving the situation nails-in-the-coffin-hopeless. I’d not honked my horn as frequently—for so long—at a given time in my two year riding career; not until venturing eight miles from the BMW Motorrad garage to our accommodation. At night.
A shaft of anger opened up inside me and I started to work myself up into a whirling froth. Anger jostled with fear but both nipped at my belly as people elbowed past me in their two tonne people carriers. ‘Back off buster, I beg you. Just stop trying to sandwich me in the saddle’. My voice shrilled in a voice like sand against stone. I swerved around a dog’s corpse whose grey intestines wormed through the opening and oozed where they’d ruptured. Faltering, I squeezed my eyes closed to bolster my courage. All over my brain, lights were flickering on, doors were creaking open. Some of those doors led directly to our lodging but there was also the voice of Pearl inside me saying, ‘Whoa, keep going—you’ve not escaped the bus butties or four wheel drive focaccias just yet.’
I opened my eyes after half a heartbeat. Clouds had started to gather, crowding the sky like lumbering beasts. Feeling the inner seethe of frustration inside a grinding wheel of terror, a whole city’s worth of boneheadedness came crashing down like a shelf full of shoes, all around my head at once—too overpowering to bear. Pleading gestures and dodging demolishment by the skin of my teeth was one thing in this black-souled and brazen traffic, but glimpsing a badly injured motorcyclist in an ambulance made my soul go cold. It seemed to hover half in my body and half out, as though it hungered to leave, to travel down a different road and find my happy place. The sight splintered my resolve. Breaking out of a thick knot of cars, I rode with the agility and speed of a frightened pack rat, fleeing a rising flood.
Home has definitely become where the hostel is, that day being Hitchhiker’s Backpackers on Bolognesi. When I narrowly dodged a coverless manhole and pulled into our gated sanctuary, worry still lined my forehead. I deflated like a porcupine bladder pricked with a quill and my shoulders sagged with the respite. Having beat the horn like I was playing a pinball machine, I’d have been better off asking every aggressive bus driver, “Excuse me Sir, would you mind terribly not mowing me down? Much obliged, old sport. Tally ho!” Let the world grind in its eternal and ponderous motions.
Steeped in a fog known as gurúa, we woke up one morning to Lima huddled under a smothered mantle of raucous noise. A sullen mist that turned the sky a milky white, leaving it draped in a spiritless pall. This microclimate was described by Moby Dick as the “strangest, saddest city thou can’st see”. Although the metropolis wasn’t supposed to take her white veil until the winter months of April to October, my brows lowered as I squinted into the humid miasma, vainly attempting to penetrate its twisting mask. So why, might you wonder did the Spanish build the capital of their Andean empire at a place regularly cloaked in an opaque ghostly fog? Because in all likelihood, they wouldn’t have realised having established the urban setting in January—smack bang in the summer—when skies are an unending blanket of blue.
Having chance met and spent a few of days with Canadian Patrick and his crazier-than-a-box-of-frogs Aussie wife, Belinda, ‘two-up’ on their Suzuki V-Strom while meeted, greeted, wined and dined by motorcycle-traveller oriented Ivan and Enis, the managers of Touratech Peru, a week had passed and it was time to ‘Vamos’, once again before getting comfortably stuck in a place. Ivan had even recommended staying in a convent, a two minute walk from the Touratech premises and half the price of our backpackers. Barely retaining a grip on Lima’s ludicrous traffic—stronghold on my sanity weakened somewhat—we fled to the Pan Americana’s sand blasted highway. Lima’s wrath will sweep you from the road like a bit of goosedown in the wind if you’re not careful.
Skirting around the headland lapping up the calm coastal views of the Pacific on our left, giant dunes on our right, life became quiet again. Big black and white tipped caracaras punctured the morning stillness; they flirted with the ragged edge of the bluff, diving close, hovering on the updrafts, then canting their wings to soar away. The sun shone intently above the cloud-puffed horizon and a gentle band of blue arced across the world—melting into the spaces between the mountains, outlining the tufts of trees on the crests. Tension trickled from my body, leaving me feeling as light as a dandelion seed. Into that peace I rode into my happy place, which swelled with the rumbling power of Pearl.
Plains collided with indigo peaks so jagged and lofty, they lanced the sky’s long streamers on the green hilly road to Huaraz. We’d kissed goodbye to a straight track of brutal sun, Lima’s rays having penetrated my body in a thousand places. The benign wind had seized my plea and blew it out across perennially glaciered white peaks, which knifed their way through stretching mantles of grass-green valleys. Welcome to the Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain range in the world, second in height only to the Himalayas. Something told me its 18 staggering summits of more than 6,000 metres wouldn’t let me forget this region for a second.
Andean village Huaraz—90 per cent of which was wiped out by an earthquake 45 years ago—would never win any beauty contest but at least we found ourselves tucked away from the sprawl at ‘La Cabaña Hospedaje’, below a rooftop that commanded one of the most embracive panoramas I’d ever laid my eyes on. And our thanks go straight to Paul Pitchfork—a seasoned Tenere rider living in Peru—whom we randomly clocked ambling towards the accommodation within minutes of our arrival to Huaraz. Don’t you just love it when the universe is feeling generous?
Jason and Paul talked unceasingly; I smiled as I listened to the pair of them pick infrequent moments to come up for air. A light kindled in Paul’s eyes as he meticulously pinpointed the ‘must see’ spots on the map for us, deep into Peru’s least disturbed mountains. No tourists, just follow this squiggly line to a gateway into the backwaters of Peruvian life. This guy’s heart was ensconced in Peru as I caught a wistful nostalgia that gleamed in his eyes. When I suggested just that, he raised an eyebrow and grinned, shooting me an agreeable glance from the corner of his eye and made a delicate gesture, the way you’d brush aside a cobweb.
Huascarán National Park, packed full of Andean leviathans, encompasses practically the entire area of Cordillera Blanca above 4,000 metres. We were set to see a place home to 600 glaciers, endangered plant species and the poised Andean condor. Our route to peeking this hard-to-reach enigmatic utopia involved a rocky ride firstly to Yanama, a tiny mountain-enveloped pueblo (village). Paul had advised the track—although I’d correct gnarly tract—was a little rough to begin with. As soon as we started to climb and I turned the first corner, Pearl’s nose facing sharply down, my face went wan, filled with fear. Self-doubt gnawed at my ribs while worry sank knives into my gut, careening precariously down loamy soil. Lordy Lou, I was a hair’s breadth from losing control and we’d only just started out.
My muscles tightened when understanding dawned; there wasn’t going to be a rugged patch solely at the beginning; this was going to be fun all the way to the top. But something overrode and my brain quickly rewired. A passageway seemed to open in the air, allowing my soul to connect with Pearl’s. We must’ve communed because a door opened in my head and out flowed all the anxiety. An influx of adrenaline propelled me along the narrow dirt trail—peppered with potholes, scored with ruts and packed with loose stones and biggish rocks. I started riding with my ‘ripio’ head on. Talk about adventure riding, it was the toughest loose gravel for me to date, and I was loving it!
Jason reassuringly implored, “Lisa, just keep doing what you’re doing”. Okay my darl, I will. “Although I’d be much happier if you stuck to the left”, he deferentially added from behind. Fair enough, those precipices on my right were pretty sheer. It made Bolivia’s ‘Road of Death’ look like a day at the beach. Part way to the top, Jason asked, “Are you enjoying yourself, Lisa?”
“Yep! Sure am”, I blurted in a surge of glee.
“Good because you’re riding like a pro today. I’m impressed.” Jason had said that to me only a handful of times in the last twelve months, I was ecstatic and fed off his complement like a hungry pup. I think I dined out on it for a couple of days because my riding remained consistent.
The sun was in high broiling ascendancy at altitude and the effort from the off roading had sucked the moisture from my body and spread it over my arms and legs in a thick sheen of sweat. Every which way I threw my gaze, ancient mountains rose to scallop the sky with humps of white. Contouring around the steep hillside feeling the size of an ant, we reached Yanama. I was in an incredulous state of pure joy. I’d made it, kept Pearl upright albeit bungled through a few times on a wing and a prayer, but it hit me straight away. No passing gringos. Only local children who shrilled happily in the plaza, while their parents laboured over tending to their herd or tienda (shop); stable doors half open to admit the breeze. Dogs barked in joyous accompaniment and caracaras wheeled on the warm air currents. We’d entered the backdoor to a time-honoured Peruvian life. Images danced on the back of my lids, flickering as sleep numbed my body and blissfully coiled through my thoughts.
Night greyed into early morning, softly illuminating the hilltop villages on rolling swells of land under the lilac canvas of predawn. I awoke just as the first light stole into the world and squirmed to get the kink out of my back. I yawned, a wide, lazy yawn. Chickens pecked at their corn and piglets squealed endearingly in the hospedaje’s (hostel’s) enclosure. I watched a splinter of sun peek over the horizon and the mountains revealed themselves with an unfathomably, icy blue presence. Plants cast off their shadows and stood naked in the splendour, their arms lifted high to receive the sun’s morning blessing.
Up and up we bounced over bobbled terrain. Mid morning, we’d scaled a slender backbone of ridge and rode between two ragged shards of mountain. Rimming the incredible vista, ice capped glaciers thrust up like filed teeth, their spiny points raking the bottom of the clouds. Hundreds of natural drainage channels zigzagged through a white maze of ridges. I sneaked up on cougar-silent feet towards the edge to get a closer look. The route had left me drained of physical vitality, but filled with a silence so profound it felt downy against my soul. “A-maz-ing!” slowly oozed from my lips as I gazed with utter gravity, my head panning the grandeur as hawks effortlessly dove in delight.
Descending the rocky but not quite as gnarly switchbacks on the other side of the ridge, we passed the odd local minibus leaving us in a choking curtain of dust, rattling Pearl and me before it swept out into the landscape and formed into a dust devil that whirled into the sky. I ignored the twisting column spinning across my peripheral and kept my eyes on the stony ruts. I’d still a long way down to go. Dirt had routinely sloughed off the bank and formed pointed mounds, which we vigilantly meandered around. On a magnified scale, records of aluviones—a deadly mix of avalanche, waterfall and landslide—had devastated many sections of the region’s roads in the past, burying whole towns even; including Yungay, having wiped out thousands of lives over the last 300 years. Today, controlling the lake levels by building dams and tunnels helps prevent further onslaught from such horrific catastrophes.
Wheels back on the national park’s bottom, massive faces of rock loomed as an implacable backdrop to a jade green lake and glacial blue ribbon of water running down from above. Reflections of clouds sailed across the water. I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the centre of a cloud, rings distorting the peaceful image. A couple of ducks floated placidly passing a cow—half submerged chewing on the lake’s grasses. Hunger came on like a mini hurricane through my stomach.
My belly whined with gratitude over a late lunch in the rebuilt town of Yungay and begged for more. By the time I’d finished, satisfaction pervaded my body, trickling strength into my limbs. Another mountain-swathed village called Sucre took us in for the night. With a weak-wristed action, I parked Pearl for the evening and stood under a tepid shower. The water soothed like cool salve on an aching burn. I lay down and all the weariness I’d been staving off settled on my shoulders like a leaden cape. Fatigue lay upon Jason like a sodden blanket too. Exertion at a rather hefty altitude and making a school girl error of missing breakfast, had taken its toll on me but that mattered little and less in what felt like a distinctly different part of Peru, culturally and geographically; it was going to be hard to leave this little enclave.
I sat quietly, staring out across the plaza, the very fabric of darkness pulsed with a moonlit calm.
As our wee Cessna soared a dizzy height over the Peruvian desert, just a couple of hundred miles southeast of Lima, the dull pale sameness of the rocks and sand organised and changed form. Distinct white lines gradually evolved from tan and rust-red. Strips of white crisscrossed a desert so dry that it rains less than an inch every year. Banking equally hard to the right and then left, the landscape transformed as lines took shape in simple geometric designs: trapezoids, linear lines, rectangles, triangles and whirls. Some perfectly straight, many running parallel and others intersecting, creating a grand geometric profile spanning a 37-mile long plain sat between the Inca and Nasca Valleys. These are the renowned Nasca lines—subject of mystery for over 80 years. So how were they formed? What purpose did they serve? Was extra terrestrial life involved?
Against a background of cloudy cerulean sky, some of the swirls and zigzags started to develop into an assortment of distinct shapes: a hummingbird, a condor, a whale and a 1,000-foot long pelican. Amongst other beasts and engravings etched on a giant scale, which can really only be appreciated from the sky. The viewing towers do little to ascertain a strong vantage but give an inkling of perspective. Even if I did spend the 30-minute flight in our cigar shaped tube on the cusp of bringing up breakfast, while Jason battled furiously with his irrational fear of flying. Amusingly opposite experiences; I couldn’t have cared less about dropping out of the sky in fear of chundering over four unsuspecting passengers whereas Jason’s stomach gave rise to only butterflies. Titillating his insides as we oscillated through a slightly fractious air space.
Incredibly, there are over an imperceptible 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animal and plant designs, which are called biomorphs. All curiously carved into the Peruvian desert by ancient Nasca people, so scientists have us believe, of whom flourished from around AD 1 to 700. Some of the neat streaks run up to 30 miles, while the biomorphs range up to 1,200 feet in length, as large as the Empire State Building.
The lines are technically known as geoglyphs—drawings on the ground made by removing rocks and earth to create a ‘negative’ image. The rocks that cover the desert have oxidized and weathered to a deep rust colour, and when the top 12-15 inches of rock is removed, a light coloured high contrasting sand is exposed. Certain areas of the pampa look like a well-used chalk board, with lines overlapping other lines, and designs cut through with straight lines of both ancient and more modern origin. Because there’s so little rain, wind and erosion, the exposed designs have stayed largely intact for a couple of millenniums. Mmmn, so what we’re looking at is just 2,000 year old graffiti.
Discovered in the 1930s post the advent of the aeroplane, American professor Paul Kosok investigated the Nasca lines, looked up from his work to catch the sunset in direct alignment with a line and called the 310 square mile stretch of high desert “the largest astronomy book in the world”. Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, adopted a multidisciplinary approach to the analysis of the lines and urged folks to “Look at the large ecological system, what’s around Nasca, where were the Nasca people located.” In a region that receives only about 20 minutes of rain per year, water was clearly an important factor. “It seems likely that most of the lines did not point at anything on the geographical or celestial horizon, but rather led to places where rituals were performed to obtain water and fertility of crops”, Reinhard hypothesised.
And you might also find merit in Anthony Aveni’s concurring theory, a former National Geographic grantee that the trapezoids are big wide spaces where people could come in and out. The rituals were likely involved with the ancient need to propitiate or pay a debt to the gods, probably to plead, pray and dance for water. After all, spiral designs and themes have been discovered at other ancient Peruvian sites. Animal symbolism is common throughout the Andes including those found in the biomorphs drawn upon the Nasca plain: spiders are believed to be a sign of rain, hummingbirds are associated with fertility, and monkeys are found in the Amazon—an area with an abundance of water.
“No single evaluation proves a theory about the lines, but the combination of archaeology, ethno-history, and anthropology builds a solid case,” said Reinhard. Add new technological research to the mix, and there’s no doubt that the world’s understanding of the Nasca lines will continue to evolve. So even they and others with credibility in their field, including one woman, Maria Reiche who devoted 40 years in study of them, still have no conclusive evidence as to how and why the Nasca lines came into existence.
The plain – interweaved by a network of these giant lines with many forming rectangles – has a striking resemblance to a modern airport. Perhaps they had been built for the convenience of ancient visitors from space to land their ships. As quirky as it might be to subscribe to this theory, the desert floor at Nasca is soft earth and loose stone, and wouldn’t support the landing wheels of an aircraft but mayhaps it would a hovering flying saucer.
Regardless of which camp you may sit, to my mind, as fascinating as the figures and lines are, couldn’t have been made without somebody in the air to direct the operations. You simply can’t see anything from ground level! Who would go to that kind of effort without ever being able to see it? For now, an unanswered mystery that’ll have to remain up in the air. Still, touring the desert by air is a, if not thee best way, to hopscotch over Nasca’s relatively big distances and see the scale of these intriguing forces that shape the bleached and thirsting land.
With our rear view mirrors flirting with the Freddy Flintstone hills of Puquio, we tootled towards our next stop: Huacachina, entertainingly pronounced ‘Whacka-cheena’. Built around a small natural lake in the desert, 185 miles south of Lima, it’s known as the ‘oasis of South America’. Legend holds that the lagoon was created when a beautiful native princess was apprehended at her bath by a young hunter. She fled, leaving the pool of water she’d been bathing in to become the lagoon. The folds of her mantle, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. And the woman herself is rumoured to still live in the oasis as a mermaid. How whimsically unromantic.
Why the detour? We fancied a spot of sanding around. And what better diversion to spend 40 Peruvian soles ($13 US) and immerse oneself in the warm, silky stuff than by taking a buggy ride on dunes that stretch up to 150 metres high. Transporting us deep into the desert, Manuel our driver (from Hostel Huacachina Sunset where we lodged), set us in store for a white-knuckle thrill ride and a half.
In a grinding and grizzly low gear, high range and foot firmly on the gas, we unreassuringly climbed our way to the top of the first dune, inching our way towards the sky. Every nerve atingle, emotions were a jumbled bag of fear, excitement, nervousness and heart-in-your-mouth ‘Is this guy for real?’ Mingled with anticipation and the thin-lipped tension of grim purpose. ‘I don’t wanna die!’ every fibre in my body screamed. Pinned in by a life-saving harness barely able to breathe, ‘Don’t stop and don’t turn the wheel’, I prayed, ‘We’ll roll like a melon!’
Tension tightened around my chest like an eagle’s talons. We peaked at the summit of a giant dune. Having floored it all the way up, Manuel stopped abruptly cresting a dune, smiled placidly having long mastered the subtle skill of momentum. We had all somehow avoided a coronary arrest. A sudden silence hung above the buggy as passengers prepared for the stomach-churning descent. Around me stretched miles of golden dunes rolling in waves to every horizon, like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. I was in the heart of a great sand sea.
Before you know it, your stomach is left behind but by no means forgotten. My vision swims but I notice the synchronised sway of us all moving as one. Speed increases by the second, hairdryer wind tousling our hair as we accelerate down the dune in what felt like a vertical plunge. Waves of sand crest over the hood as we plow an avalanche that gains size and momentum, vibrating and growling, as we lick up speed. The wheels are adept at careening over the boisterous bumps, I however, am carted above like a ragdoll being swung in the arms of a six year old.
Twisting, looping, corkscrewing—what feels barely in control—Manuel’s ingenuity is tested at every turn but tackles each manoeuvre with composure. As we wind a snaking course through the dunes, I glance at the terror flashes in everyones’ eyes and grin a nervous smile at Jason. Whooping with a tremor invading my voice, Jason winks encouragingly at me before his head jolts in keeping with the movement of the bouncing buggy. I begin to chuckle, quietly and apprehensively at first but after a couple of snorts, laughter simply starts tumbling out. There’s a backward logic to feeling ecstatic and uneasy at the same time. An occasion that is utterly thrilling to be so unreservedly terrified.
We stop for the tenth time atop a skyscraper tall dune, aiming sharply down. I feel like a 20-pound trout on a five-pound test line. The sand buggies busying around below are the size of Tinker Toys. The downhill screams in unison make this the scariest rollercoaster I’m ever likely to ride. Including those that fly you through space at Gravity force 3, or necessitate 24-hour beacons to forewarn low flying aircraft. Excitement rushes through my body like raging rapids in a river. Head spinning, I climb out of my seat, legs akin to quivering jelly. I love and loathe the experience, my face having assumed dubious and dreadful expressions when in a state of self-induced terror.
Manuel left us caked in sand, sweat and suncream from matted head to toe. We periodically stopped to sand-board increasingly steep dunes on our bellies, braving ourselves and daring each other to keep our feet lifted up so as not to brake and diminish speed when whizzing down. I’d skinned my knee but having capped, cornered, glided and skimmed over the dunes, flew over them air-borne at every given opportunity and teetered on tipping up—roll-cage ready to rock—my whole body wrung with having a complete hoot.
We’d created our own nifty Nasca lines of incised swirls and punctuations in a thin veneer of sand, albeit none were quite so uniform or unique but they—like the ancient shapes and streaks—left us reeling in their wake just the same. With sand castles in my hair, ears, pants, up my nose and goodness knows where else, I became a human sand pit and felt like a four year old again who just didn’t care: intent on fiercely good fun. We were out on our desert tour for two and a half hours when we’d paid for only one. Insides churned up more than the sand, I’d bruised like a peach post the belly boarding but you can’t knock the value-added craic.
Throughout the day, sand-boarders and hikers appeared on the slopes of the dunes, trudging up in staggered lines. Reaching the top, their toil gave way to pure pleasure. Only one appealing option stared blatantly back at me—running downhill with wild abandon, high kicking my way to the bottom in a ‘Zebedee’ sprung-loaded style, laughing hysterically, while others took their pleasure in sand boarding, rolling or slip-sliding, all in their own avalanches of apricot sand.
Deep inside the desert’s folds, it almost felt like uncharted wilderness whose expanse, for all practical purposes, became our personal desert. On our last evening, with every ounce of strength remaining, I forced my feet to plod forward as they shished on an upward sand ridge. I was scowling and didn’t know why. There wasn’t a single thought in my mind that might bring a scowl to my face just then. ‘Being royally unfit for the sandy footslog may’ve played a role’, I mused as my ragged breathing sawed the air.
We stopped and settled on a lofty dune at dusk. And reached an astonishing view—in a tawny light, towering dunes pitched down to the oval oasis of Huacachina. It was an epic landscape with cinematic beauty. By dusk, most of the day-trippers had trundled away leaving footprints dimpled in the sand. It was then we were treated to the sunset of all time whose shafts of fiery orange and intensifying rays deepened over the dunes, so bright they hurt my eyes. We saw the final visitors climbing the ridgelines of the tallest dunes, tiny figures silhouetted against the disappearing russet red sun emblazing the landscape in such improbable colours, even Hollywood couldn’t make them up.
There was no wind that night, no hordes of people, no sounds. Scooping up some sand, I let it trickle through my fingers while I studied the way the grains glimmered and hoped these sun-reddened dunes would dance in my dreams, beckoning me. I rocked back and watched an ocean of ethereal sky turn velvet orange, peach and pink and the silver spray of the Milky Way appear, serene in my own private Peru.
Getting to Machu Picchu under our own steam was a conscious choice that worked fairly well. As opposed to opting for a four-day Jungle Trail package for example, which offered more bang for our buck. $200 US would’ve added in four high-energy activities on top of Machu Picchu but for us, spending our clock and cash riding to and visiting the iconic Inca ruins was paramount. Rushing our way through mountain biking when we bike practically everyday to then trek six hours with the day-trippers, after having hiked some of the best stomping ground in South America, didn’t overly appeal. The river rapids and zip lining would’ve been fun though. Still, this was about Machu Picchu and little else.
Our chosen route towards the great Inca city – so well publicized, documented and captured on film – made me mull over whether actually seeing Machu Picchu for myself might angle towards the anticlimactic, or may be remove some of the mystery surrounding it? I dared to hope that wasn’t going to be the case on the way out of Peru’s Inca capital, Cusco. Admittedly, the price to transport two of us: on two motorcycles, in a taxi, marching our out-of-condition feet on a railway ramble to lodge in a captive-audience area to then catch a bus up to the National Park, cost us several arms and aching legs.
In Peru’s rainy season, my mind soon turned to other matters when the Satnav shaved some mileage off highway 3S, and instead led us down an off road shortcut to Ollantaytambo. Namely, a mess of muddy tracks through a line of lofty hillside alongside River Vilcanota’s milky mocha waters. It wasn’t Dakar-level mud but it was muddy good fun for us. The Garmin saved us a whopping four miles off the journey. Isn’t it always the unexpected interruptions that add colour and texture to your day, or for us brown and wet, soft earth caked all over our bikes and bodies.
High up in the mountains on the way to Santa Maria, we stopped to take five. High in altitude but low in warmth, it was like a little Switzerland in the wintery Welsh Valleys of South America. But steeped in Inca heritage where wild rugged mountains rose to thousands of metres and in between them were hidden innumerable valleys, tiered full with terraces, streamlets, hiking and biking trails, and high elevation meadows overflowing with sprays of wildflowers, sheep and llamas.
I took a cursory glance and flopped in a tired heap next to my bike, zonked instantaneously while Jason surveyed the scene – cloud-mingled mist climbing up the mountainside like rising smoke. A farmer with his four year old daughter, Elena were curious enough to wander over, while shepherding his sheep with a handmade catapult to roam on the grass, not the road. Like so many children in South America, this little girl had a serenity that lay behind her dark brown eyes. Filthy from matted head to hard-skinned toes, she wore a brightly coloured croqueted bonnet tied beneath her chin, bore the odd rip and tear in her grubby clothing yet her hands and feet were warm to the touch.
Smiling brightly each time I made eye contact, I continued to convey interest in her. She stood on one spot, quietly fascinated by a broken, blue sparkly plastic earring, which held her attention as much as she did mine. Namely, I just wanted some interaction with this cute-as-a-button wee Peruvian. When I rifled through my panniers to produce biscuits and peanuts, Elena beamed when I put them in her mucky hands.
Having spent longer than anticipated on a wet, dirt road to Santa Maria, we followed suit the next morning to Santa Teresa. Ditching the bikes and dumping all but our day packs at Hostel Yacumama, we negotiated a ‘Don’t-take-the-biscuit’ bike fee and jumped in a minibus taxi from Santa Teresa to Hidro Eléctrica, the local Hydro electric power plant. Too frugal to pay the $42 US one-way train fare, we traipsed alongside the railway track for seven odd miles into Aquas Calientes. Jason suffered waives of sickness, doubled over now and again with stomach cramps and endured problems with his constitution, caught out from goodness knows what. He walked as though he was wading through treacle every step of the way. I carried the gear, felt royally unfit for the duration and to add laborious insult to unlucky injury, the afternoon unleashed a torrent of rain. The pair of us made a complete meal out of it.
The juxtaposed tiny town of Aquas Calientes – only accessible by train or on foot – is a jarring mix of ancient and modern. So great was the discord upon entering this sub-tropical jungle spot, we were hit first by the general reek of money – a line of plush hotels and fine jewelry stores – in parallel with a raging river running a fierce course of chocolate milk against lush green, monumentally neck-craning mountainside. The place was thriving on the wads of wonga from the purses and wallets of all and sundry that like us, wanted a spellbinding piece of Machu Picchu’s magic.
The jungle town is renowned to adopt a ‘We’ll never see you again’ mentality and vendors do their utmost to overcharge for every conceivable product and service available. When I began bartering for a café con leche, a cuppa coffee, the lady simply smiled and with a discernibly smug air informed me, “Yes but my milk is very, very fresh”. Mmn, I’ll milk Daisy’s udders myself if it’ll save me three quid. I prayed the Morris powers of persuasion would take effect, went in hard and negotiated down with a “Oh come oooon, you look like a very, very lovely lady who’ll be kind enough to offer a much nicer price”. The impulsive shimmy tagged on at the end seemed to put her slightly off kilter and she reluctantly agreed. Job done.
Come the dark, misty light of dawn, our 5.30am bus traversed the sharp switchbacks of the steep Carretera Hiram Bingham, up to Machu Picchu Park. Groggy from the fug of sleep, we alighted the bus and looked upon the gateway to the sacred grounds. Jason raised an eyebrow at me, which would have been pure Spafford had his features not resembled those of a sleep-ruffled ferret.
I stepped beyond the entrance and started on the ancient pathway. A thick belt of clouds and the high morning mist enveloped us, which gave the start of the day a damp, dull cast. Poncho doing its duty in the persisting rain, I tucked into a warm pastry for my 6.10am breakfast on the Inca bridge, while my mind’s eye imagined a totemic vestige of lost civilization – about as dreamlike as my day was likely to get. Reality gave me only Jason’s profile from behind, trundling along in front of me. Poor bloke, he felt as rough as a badger’s backside.
Mid-morning, the mist gave way before us and ragged grey curtains parted by their prow, which bathed the ruins in a soft, flickering light. It didn’t cease to amaze me that our ancestors had built such a triumph. I tried to wrap my comprehension around the number of steps that had been carved out of enormous pieces of rock and carried, piled and tiered to create the wonderment that is Machu Picchu. The sheer size of it filled my soul with a wowed quietness. Fathomlessly unknowable how a few hundred men simply pushed the rocks up inclined planes using stones with knobs on them to lever others into position. For this one still and silent moment of the day, everything in the world was at peace, locked in beauty. Verdant terraces emerged in every shade of green; emerald, olive and thyme. And sage, moss and myrtle. I couldn’t help but let my soul dance, breathing in the miracle of man’s work.
2,453 metres above sea level and nestled on a small hilltop between the Andean Mountain Range, the majestic lost city of the Incas soars above a bow of the rumbling Urubamba river precipitously below. The estate sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. Located in semi-tropical highland, the area is known as the ‘eyebrow of the jungle’.
Part of the Vilcabamba Batolite formation, Machu Picchu is part of a mass of igneous rock, 250 million years old. The most common stone found in the region is a greyish-white granite, and because of its high quantities of quartz, mica and feldspar makes it relatively easy to shape. And so the Andean masons proved, who made light work out of utilising such a magnificent building material. Built in 1450, many archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an Incan retreat for the emperor Pachacuti; an estate for him and his royal court, or panaca, to relax, hunt and whimsically entertain guests. Separated into three areas – agricultural, urban, and religious – the Incan built structures were arranged so that the function of the buildings matched the form of their surroundings.
The city in its heyday had a water supply from natural springs on highly developed irrigation systems that couldn’t be blocked easily and aqueducts that took advantage of the natural slopes. Splashing fountains also abounded in its time. Masterpieces of hydraulic engineering brought fresh water into buildings while other channels removed waste. The surrounding hillsides were cultivated with fertile soil terraces, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. Many believe sufficient to feed the population of a guesstimated 1,200 four times over. The terraces also reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides. A time of exulting in a period of collective brilliance, wouldn’t you agree?
The lower areas contained buildings occupied by farmers and teachers, and the most important religious areas were located at the crest of the hill, overlooking the lush Urubamba Valley a world below. Machu Picchu was utilised by the Inca as a secret ceremonial city with an observatory bound in astronomical and equinoctial importance. The rising and setting of the sun when seen from certain locations within the estate aligns neatly with religiously significant mountains during solstices and equinoxes. All that said, two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu go across the mountains on the 110 kilometre Inca Trail back to Cusco; one through the sun gate, and the other across the Inca bridge. Both could be blocked easily, should invaders approach along them. Regardless of its original purpose, it’s strategically located and readily defended.
Having paid an additional $10 US in advance, we started up Wayna Picchu’s set of rough-hewn stone steps, the site’s sacred and loftiest peak at 2,693 metres. In Quechua, Wayna Pikchu means ‘young or young man’ and ‘pyramid’. Partway up the northern side is the Temple of the Moon inside a cavern, allegedly a goddess’ cave. Lichen spangled stones dotted over the mountainside, they were steep in parts and the resident morning mist left them slippery. The views from the top of Wayna Picchu gave rise to a further acute and amazing moment, well worth the slog of an ascent. Oddly though, the strongest and probably most profound view of the Inca estate was ascertained when we entered the park, not atop its tallest peak.
Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to Machu Picchu’s Intihuatana stone it opens their vision to the spirit world. I wondered if a similar effect transpired when Jason, still feeling dreadful with diarrhea, lost his footing half way down Wayna Picchu and plummeted 25 feet, grating against its sheer face. Oh my giddy ants, “JASON!”, I shouted as I watched him, his forehead and everything else besides descend through an eternity of jungle bush and trees. My heart seemed to sink right through my body and into the muddy earth.
Down a level, there was a chap with his arms outstretched waiting to soften Jason’s landing. It was almost comical when he grabbed a dishevelled Jason on impact, removed his dirtied cap and poured litres of water over his mud smudged head. Drenching him back to a refreshing reality, he enquired with a concerned sincerity, ‘Are you alright?’ More or less but you’ve just washed away his vision into the spirit world. Stunned to the root of my soul, I was in a shaken state of disbelief having witnessed him fall, and consumed with relief that it was onto a lower ledge rather than an abyss over the precipice. Somehow, settling on his jammy feet. Festooned in the mountain’s natural debris but stalwartly in one piece on terra firma, I thanked the Inca deities a thousand times over. Heart hammering at my chest, I cried a cathartic flood but afterwards supposed you should never discount the wonder of your tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes, I guess they’re the best words the heart can speak.
In 1874, by order of the Peruvian Government, a German cartographer Herman Gohring mapped the region, employing the names Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu for the first time in the modern era. Other explorers and locals would in turn find Machu Picchu prior to Hiram Bingham’s famous rediscovery, which brought word of the ruins to the outside world in 1911. Bingham, a North American History professor, came to South America to research the military campaigns of the liberator Simon Bolivar. Having taken an interest in Incan culture, Bingham journeyed to Cusco with a sergeant, his translator.
While travelling through the Sacred Valley of the Incas along the Urubamba River, they stopped at a place in the Hacienda Cutija. There they met a farmer named Melchor Arteaga. Arteaga gave the explorers information about the existence of some ruins at the top of what they cited an ‘Old mountain’ (Machu Picchu) and received a one coin tip for his trouble. When Bingham reached the mountain, he found two families farming its steep sides on the terraces. It was an 11-year old child, the son of one of the families, who led the explorers into the archaeological remains. On 24 July 1911, they glimpsed their first look at the ‘Royal Tomb’, the ‘Principal Temple’, and at last, the ‘Temple of the Three Windows’. Since then, that date is known as the ‘Day of the Scientific Discovery of Machu Picchu’. Interestingly, letters written to Bingham’s son were revealed sometime later by the son divulging how Bingham overdramatised the difficulty of journeying to and the discovery of Machu Picchu, quite sensationally in fact so as to no doubt increase his kudos, heroic status, accredited fame and popularity.
Glancing out from the Funerary Rock Hut on all the temples, patchwork quilt fields, pristine terraces and baths seems to take you to another time. Blending in with the hillside itself, the lost city created a seamless and elegant green paradise, making Machu Picchu a ‘must see’ of Peru for me. Although Jason would urge you to factor in the cost and time to get there as well as the desired duration to experience it. It was one of the most beautiful and enigmatic ancient sites on which I’ve ever locked my eyes. Shrouded in as much legend, myth and sacredness as there was mist and cloud, the site was in a remarkable state of preservation.
The structures, carved from granite of the mountain top are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tonnes or more yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortarless joints will not permit the insertion of a piece of paper. It’s perhaps one of the most petite but most revered and extraordinary cities ever visited, invisible from below and completely self-contained.
Wearily, we walked from Machu Picchu back to Aquas Calientes. A long but easy enough descent although Jason still managed to trip up a couple of times. That evening he took a perfunctory shower and peeled into bed; the sounds of gentle snoring soon filled the air. I was lead-weight exhausted, a myriad of emotions having taken their toll. My eyes had a will of their own, they closed and I slipped into a deep and comforting sleep.
The trail we took back along the railway the following morning started stiffly for our worn-out calves. My legs had all but fallen into abeyance. All that was required was an action, a cold start, instant and brutal as beginnings so often are. The seven miles somehow managed to soar inside two hours, it’d taken nearly double that to walk the same on the way there. The air was filled with butterflies, floating like confetti: oranges, yellows, iridescent blues and some fluttering transparent wings while others spanned Jason’s hand. Mindful to such moments, I was thrilled we’d walked and not trained it back.
The dirt road near our hostel had dried and dew sparkled everywhere, diamond-like tears of the early morning reflecting the sun’s warmth. All looked rosy until encountering a magnitude of hairy moments back to Santa Maria. Imprudent minibus drivers took blind hairpin bends as if they were cornering on rails and turned it into an exercise like a date with the firing squad. One rather reckless driver got a mouthful off Jason while I checked my limbs were intact; good job there was a distinct language barrier, which kept the content ambiguous and tone crystal.
So, was Machu Picchu worth it? As a small but significant part of one of the largest and most sophisticated empires in the entire pre-industrial world, a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary and World Heritage site, Machu Picchu is equal in beauty to any culture of the old world. “An absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”, as UNESCO so aptly put it.
Leaving La Paz wasn’t the cruisey ride I’d pictured. To begin with, we had some heartfelt farewells and heartwarming moto-hugs to dispense. Oscar reluctantly let us go and sent us on our merry way into the bedlam of downtown La Paz. Getting out of the city meant getting well and truly stuck in it first. Busy with barminess, I hovered over and hit my horn like I was signaling Morse code: ‘Get-me-out-of-here!’ A veritable racket and tantamount to ten times the danger of Bolivia’s disreputable Death Road. Sandwiched between Toyota Town-Aces and Hi-Aces, my panniers scraped and scratched like nobody’s business. A fit of fury stuck halfway down my throat, like a sneeze that refused to come. Mind unraveling to become somewhat discombobulated, I gritted my teeth and remained undeterred, at least outwardly.
Two and a quarter hours we trawled through rush hour in air that was oppressive, thick and full of menace. “Che boludo!”, I may’ve mouthed when drivers in their moving metal boxes pressed in; a derogatory term relating to the perpetrator’s derrière. “Breathe in Pearl”, I urged, “The nutters are out!” as sweat matted my riding top and motorcycle trousers to my arms and legs. I fidgeted like a toad leg frying in hot oil. Intermittently crawling through the city’s sprawl at a snail’s pace in between going hell for leather surfaced my inner-anarchist. Pearl was screaming out for idiot-protection bars like a four-wheel drive needs ‘roo bars in Australia’s bush. It was maddening as it was toilsome, I might as well have been treading in a flood of biting ants.
Would I miss the futile sense of urgency from drivers? – pipping in frantic haste whose clanging disorder and toxic fumes billowed around us – feeling the mixture wrap around my face like a hot bandage. The mishmash of concentrated blockhouses, built to look like a bland, Lego city and climbing up the rocky mesas like poison ivy. Or the trash-lined roads patrolled by snarling dogs that raced alongside us like whipped curs. That is, until becoming burnt out and bungled by malevolent forces – its guts slithered out like wet eels, sliding from a slit sack. The answer is probably not, cities are not ordinarily my thing. Sometimes the happiness of one end of a city can soon sour at the other. Jason was getting travel-weary of coursing through city after city; it was high time to leave them alone for a while.
Having finally escaped the brunt of La Paz’s stinging bite of traffic, an unforeseen reward for the morning’s calamity unfolded as we cruised towards Copacabana. Through a smog-blackened face, my eyes darted over rolling swells of green countryside on a stunning road. I smiled every mile past the traditional Aymará villages to the glacier-capped, brilliant white snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real. And then our eyes gravitated like magnets on the singularity of Lake Titicaca, its energy and sheer gravity drawing us in. Crystalline, gemlike water sparkled in a clear, Altiplano light. ‘Pretty special alright’, my radar registered.
No sooner had we kicked the side-stands down at San Pedro de Tiquina and the pair of us dived into the local catch. What felt like eating our head weight in fried white bait and trucha – trout, was a stomach-gratifying, taste sensation. That is, until the signal hit my brain I was more than full on fish. But what a welcomed interruption from meat.
Hopping across the water on a makeshift craft that resembled a rickety raft more than a sturdy boat was a rigmarole in itself, negotiating two heavy bikes aboard. The boat cleaved gently through turquoise waters until we spilled onto the shoreline. There we continued on ruta 2’s snaking ribbon of highway all the way to Copacabana – affording one of the best views of the vast expanse of blue. Biking bliss after the morning’s manic encounter with moronic drivers.
The world’s highest navigable body of water, Lake Titicaca is gar-gantuan. It goes on and on, way beyond the eye can see. A watery world without end. Set between Peru and Bolivia, the 8,400 square kilometre mass of shimmering freshwater is more akin to a sea than a lake. It’s no wonder history reveals how Inca legends and Andean beliefs came to credit Lake Titicaca with the birthplace of their civilization and the sun, connecting it to mystical events. There was a discernibly calm, soothing energy about the place.
Nestled between two hills and perched on the southern shore of the lake, Copacabana was a small, tourist-centric town, apparently still attracting international pilgrims who flock to its fiestas. We took flight after an overnight stay at Hostel Sonia having had our fill of Bolivia and pushed onto Peru.
Through Andean countryside dotted with villages, high-altitude hamlets and ruins all linked by ancient Inca culture, we sailed past terrace-lined foothills and mountainside. How had people once worked the land so industriously, so uniformly in linear lines – so high up? With women wearing petticoats and moccasins made from used tyres, still working the land by hand, it felt Peruvian all at once, rich in its Inca heritage.
Just 7 kilometres east of our accommodation, Hostel Uros in Puno, we took ourselves off to see some floating islands. Utterly unique because they’ve been constructed from nothing; created entirely with the buoyant totora reeds that grow abundantly in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The lives of the Aymará speaking Uros islanders are intertwined with the reeds. Edible in part, they also build their homes, transport, arts and whimsical crafts from the versatile material. Walking on the island was as soft and springy as a freshly baked cake. Their unusual floating existence roots back to an effort to avoid and isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and Incas tribes. A peaceful people.
I was greeted by five families, all of whom displayed boundless personality. Although in tune with a tourist-ready set up, a set of folkloric songs were sung in dulcet tones of Aymará as well as a distant version of English. In such a contemporary age, I enjoyed seeing this time-honoured way of living for myself. Even if I did get further collared to pay for an obligatory reed-boat ride, powered by an engine attached to an adjoining smaller boat, and encouraged to buy handmade goods I was neither inclined to purchase nor wanted to carry on my motorcycle. These good folks needed to stay afloat like anyone else.
Cusco told me in ten minutes it would rank my favourite South American city to date. Rough-hewn cobble stoned, steep narrow streets, lined by meticulously crafted masonry and a bright, feel-safe city ambiance pervaded throughout. It was a superb collision of chaotic and modern with slow and traditional. Estrellita Hostel was an ideal spot for the bikes and us, closely located to the heart of the old-fashioned city. I cared little and less that the place was packed with massage hawkers, a glut of tourist ware-touting locals hunting you like prey amid a minefield of Machupicchu tour operators, the place was throbbing with life. The fare was excellent, especially the fresh cuisine at Jack’s Café and Korma Sutra. It was ‘vista fantastic’ with no shortage of intriguing vantage points. I could’ve sat people watching all day.
Fiestas occur at frequent intervals in Cusco and one night we meandered through a firework-lit celebration in honour of the church. Live festival-inspired music permeated our ears as I squeezed my way in between the carnival market vendors offering supersized pale corn-on-the-cob with cheese alongside chicha morada, which is a sweet Peruvian beverage made from purple corn, roasted guinea pig or alpaca. I soon became an inveterate fan to the cactus flower fruit, which was fuchsia pink and finger-licking good. In fact, Peru’s roads were full of the flowering fruits – bush food ripe for the picking and packed with a sweetened punch. It developed into the perfect roadside snack and our jam-sandwich breakfast substitute. People jostled past coming and going in the teeming streets; the place was alive with a street dancing atmosphere.
Courtesy of social media, we’d become acquainted with Andrew – a loquacious Brit with a passion for night skies, skippering boats and photography – who’d been living in Cusco for the last seven years. After three too many dark beers, we spotted a local singer being filmed half way up a scenic street. Jupiter’s moons were illuminating the sky and the singer’s crescent shape line of groupies were evidently enjoying the show. The situation fostered an odd behaviour. In the heat of a spontaneous second, I found myself shamelessly dancing with this cheesetastic grinning guy; perhaps not one of my classiest moments gatecrashing his gig! Still, the crowd eddied and purled around me, cheering with full encouragement exclaiming that I’d be sure to feature on Peruvian television. I haven’t the slightest inkling why doing that seemed a good idea at the time.
All walks of life can be found in Cusco, not just the holidaymakers, travellers, honorary locals and residents. A Peruvian woman, well into the winter of her days, sat kind of crouched over on the floor. In the middle of a busy backstreet. She may’ve fallen, dropped something or stooped to pick up something she’d found perhaps. “Are you alright lady? Can I help at all?”, I enquired in survival Spanish. Stumbling over the language I kept probing, like a tongue returning to an abscess. She looked at me a little strained and shook her head. I think I was walking on ground uninvited. Curious, I thought. Or not. I looked at a metre radius around the woman and the full force of recognition hit me. My quagmire was her irredeemable, sticky situation. This lady was patently and simply having a nice, big number two! I can’t speak with specificity about this lady’s choice of location but oh my, there’s a memory of Cusco that’ll never fade.