This was the ‘Adventure Machu Picchu’ tour by Edelweiss.bike.com. It starts in northern Chile because no decent bikes are available to rent in Peru. Their next bookings for this tour are May 09 -May 23 & Aug 07 - Aug 21 2015, but they offer tours in many other destinations. The maximum distance in any one day is 550 km, and the maximum altitude reached is 16,000 feet. I took travel insurance with “Insure And Go” for £64 and my flights were arranged by Dial A Flight – Manchester / Arica, Chile – Air France / KLM £1,389 . Money ; Chilean Peso is around 870 cents to £1.00 – Peruvian Nuevo Sol is around 4.3 to £1.00. You will need around £20 per day for a decent evening meal, and fuel in Peru is around £3.50 per gallon. I wore decent bike leather trousers with a Gore-Tex jacket. Climate varies between 4 and 40 degrees. A support truck with mechanic follows the group and carries luggage in waterproof bags.
So. It had come to this. A classic stand-off between two hard protagonists under the merciless white sun. The vicious-looking lizard had chosen to block the path back to my bike after I had stopped for a ‘rest-room’ break and picked his prime sun-bathing spot, but I needed to slot in the ignition key, and get riding. “You feeling lucky, punk?” Which of us would blink first? Me, as it turned out. Because, as I later discovered, geckos cannot move their eyelids. He scuttled off as my shadow fell over him, and I road off alone across the Altiplano.
The trip had started a few days earlier with a hop from Manchester to Paris CDG. As we took off into the night air, the lights of the main boulevards of Paris and the Eifel tower were clearly visible. The fourteen hour flight to Santiago was enlivened by some bad turbulence along the way, then, sensing that dawn must be close, I opened the window blinds to reveal the tangerine crack of the new day splitting the midnight blue sky from the dense black of South America below, then changing to lemon and turquoise. Our pilot did a tight turn for the final approach to Santiago, giving me my first real view of the Andes; the bare rock a deep chocolate brown with the last of the winters snow clinging atop, like ice cream melting over a huge chocolate pudding.
Here I was hoping to write – “I was lucky to have booked ‘business class’ - this meant I at least got to travel inside the aircraft, unlike the poor saps in economy sitting on the wings and strapped to the roof. Our pilot, a failed kamikaze, did his best to land smoothly in Arica, but it still felt more as if we’d been shot down” - but cannot. The domestic South American airlines used to get to and from Santiago to the tour’s starting point of Arica were both excellent, well run and with very new aircraft. As we approached Arica I thought “That’s one hell of a beach” before realising that I was in fact looking at a desert.
The El Paso Park hotel had a certain faded charm, but there’s not much point in making the toilet roll taper to a point and shaping the towels into swan sculptures when there’s no hot water. I had thought that the initial briefing was at 3pm, but later became aware that it was going on in a room off the lobby. I walked in and was met by two serious-looking dudes with shaven heads, addressing a roomful of earnest faces in German, and using a flip-chart. I gave my name and one of the guides found my name on his list and said "Ah, English - we will deal with you later.” Gulp.
We five Anglophiles (two couples from the USA, although Christian was originally from Melbourne) were indeed briefed later, and learned about the traffic signs and road conditions in Peru, and also about the company’s policy on group riding, with one guide leading and one behind with the support truck. If we lost sight of the bike behind, we were to stop - this mechanism would eventually feed through to the leading guide who would then investigate. Later, on the road, this worked fine in general, but broke down when we were offered "free ride" sessions where we would meet say at a river crossing 40km down the road. Then the group became spread out as each rider chose his own pace and stopped to take photos randomly.
Early the next day, we signed up for our motorcycles. As a late-comer to the trip, I was allocated the runt of the litter, the GS650 Sertao. What a bike. A front wheel and tyre combination that belong on a bicycle, a spongy clutch, a gearbox with more neutrals than Switzerland, a front brake that simply makes the forks dive and an engine that was surely designed for a cement mixer - don’t make for a great ride. The side-stand leaves the bike canted over at an alarming angle, meaning that once straddled, you need thighs like Arnold Schwarzenegger to get the thing vertical. Within a mile of starting out, I wanted to chuck the thing in a skip and saddle up the nearest llama. We were to spend the rest of the trip sneering at each other.
That first day’s ride was good, marred only by the many hours spent at the border crossing from Chile into Peru; it seems that the main reason that South American rain forests are under threat is due to the authorities’ obsession with paperwork. Dusk saw our group of around eighteen bikes riding up into the desert dunes under a silver moon, and reach our first stop, Moquegua, and the first sign of a snag. Due to a booking error, a splinter group of four or five of us had to forget the rather swish hotel Colonial, and spend the night downtown in less salubrious accommodation, which did include an interesting taxi ride across numerous crossroads, where the right of way is decided only after an accident takes place.
Sunday started well, with a desert ride and pelicans at Ilo, but that soon changed. I had so been looking forward to seeing the Pacific Ocean for the very first time, but what I hadn’t bargained on was fog. Lots of fog. Fog so dense you could barely see the bike ahead. The worst fog that Florian, our experienced lead guide, had ever seen here. And this on the world’s longest road, the Pan-American Highway, inhabited by monster trucks whose drivers simply don’t acknowledge anything smaller than them – approaching one tight left bend, with a cliff face to my right, and fog condensing on my visor, one oncoming truck actually had his front left wheel on the white line on my nearside: I simply rode into the gutter. This was the 550 km day, and it was a real ordeal. For me, alone amongst experienced off-roaders, the last 3 km was very tricky as it was on wet sand, down to our hotel on the beach at Puerto Inca.
Next day saw the first real tour highlight – the Nasca lines. Back in the day, I wondered, were they ever regarded as graffiti vandalism, ruining the floor of a perfectly good desert; now they form a stunning cacophony of shapes - many must have been inspired by a menagerie of various animals, some highly stylised, alongside tree and plant motifs and simple geometric designs, but on a huge scale. Quite how the shapes were mapped out with such accuracy, and why this was done at all, remain subjects for academic debate, but the lines were created by simply moving aside the shallow layer of red pebbles to reveal the paler rock below, by a people now long lost in the intervening centuries. The effect and the scale of the work, taken together, are quite staggering once you get used to spotting them from the light aircraft we used as a vantage point, the pilot throwing the plane into tight left and then right hand turns to show the lines to passengers at all windows.
The hotel at Nasca was a treat, and the first opportunity to try the legendary Pisco Sour. I’m not surprised to find that both Chile and Peru claim the Pisco Sour cocktail as their own; a cold brew of grape brandy, syrup, lime juice and egg white (?) is, strangely, just what the adventurous motorcyclist needs to wash the dusty remnants of a hard day’s riding from his parched mouth – I guess the lime juice must dissolve the oily residue on his tongue from following that knackered tractor up the morning’s climb, whilst the grape brandy soothes away the grit from the Andean dust kicked up by the hard-riding 1200GS rider upfront. It does work, although one isn’t quite enough, whilst two or more can mean the hotel staircase becomes an escalator, and the hotel bed, a carousel.
Tuesday saw our first huge climb, up to around 13,000 feet in just over an hour. Mirko, the other mounted guide, and I found ourselves alone and ahead of the rest up here, and it was only when this big, tough, shaven-headed German had to stop because of tunnel vision that I realised how odd I felt. A little bit sick and light headed, but not so bad that I’d have stopped if alone. Up at this altitude, the sky is a strange inky blue, yet the white light hitting the Altiplano is very intense. We rode through desolate villages, spotting the occasional local woman, square in silhouette with spindly legs poking out of her dress, a shawl across the shoulders, the traditional hat, skin that looked a thousand years old, and very few teeth showing as she grinned at our bikes. We dropped down eventually from the high ground, into a beautiful river valley and Chalhuanca. Wednesday saw us take a group picnic, but before that I’d had a real scary moment. I’d pulled up behind the group for a photo-stop, but my boot had slipped on grit and before I knew it, I was pinned under the tall Sertao and a low wall, beyond which was a large drop. The guys pulled the bike off me, but it was a reminder of what might go wrong up here. You may have seen the Alps and Pyrenees, but the Andes are on a different scale. The best technique is to imagine that your side of the road has a brick wall each side – brake in a straight line, stay very wide, and turn to the apex only when you can see the corner’s exit, using mild throttle and not straying over the road’s centre line. All good advice, but all too easy to forget as the next dizzying vista appears at each hairpin. If you did make a serious error here, you’d have plenty of time to review it on the fall to the valley below.
Thursday was our turn to visit Machu Picchu, the isolated Inca citadel. Despite the 3,000 daily visitors, it really was worth the effort, especially as it is reached via a very beautiful 90 minute 27 mile train ride from Ollantaytambo, and a hair-raising bus trip for the final part of the climb. The craftsmanship and sheer effort to build up in the clouds are astounding, but it is all too easy to think of Machu Picchu as truly ‘ancient’ – remember, the great cathedrals of northern Europe were being finished at around the same time (15th century), worlds apart in both senses.
Now it was time to leave the bikes in the Incan capital of Cusco and head for a foray into the jungle. We flew to Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon basin and were introduced to our guide, Frank, before a two hour boat trip up the Tambopata river, a tributary of the Amazon itself. As we made our way down to the long and narrow boat moored by the muddy bank, Frank told us of the various creatures who call the river home. Giant catfish which, although not carnivorous, have been known to accidentally swallow a small child. Sting rays which lie camouflaged on the river bed, and slam their venomous tail spike into anyone who is careless enough to tread on one. Electric eels delivering 600 volts, piranha, cayman, and, my personal favourite, the anaconda which, once offered a limb, tightens its coils and takes you down into the murky depths to become dinner. Swim, anyone? We climbed aboard and swung upstream. TO BE CONTINUED
Sailing up the Tambopata River, we saw turtles and two coypus on the banks, as well as a small cayman. More of a cayboy, I told Frank – “Back home we have bigger newts than that” – he pretended not to understand. The accommodation at Cayman Lodge was very basic, but after hearing about the bushmaster snake, I was grateful for anything more substantial than a tent. The Southern night sky, away from all light pollution, was simply stunning, with fire-flies darting between the trees, and the jungle a source of constant animal noise both day and night.
Although the forest here is "secondary", that is, regrowth following logging, there are countless botanical species. The gigantic Ironwood tree can be up to 70 metres tall and take a millennium to reach maturity. Frank showed us how one plant’s leaves exude a purple dye when rolled in the fingers. He showed us plants which can either save your life by giving you an extra hour before snake venom takes hold fully, and very similar looking plants whose toxin can kill. Even a plant for the chap with problems in the "gentleman’s region" - its name translates as "awaken sleepy log plant" - I’m sure no further explanation is necessary.
After a morning hike, we reached a swamp. While the main group set off for a punt in the baking sun, I stayed in the shade with the guides. After around half an hour, and using only some garden twine tied to a stick and a small piece of raw chicken, Frank tried to net a piranha. The age-old technique, with a little less finesse than Scottish fly fishing, seems to be to thrash the bait around in the water to impersonate a chicken in distress - it worked, and soon Frank was holding a yellow-bellied piranha for us to see. Even held out of its native water, and gasping for air, the little devil would still bite at anything which came within six inches of his tiny but razor sharp teeth. In fact Frank had a small hole in his hand from a previous encounter. After the perfunctory photos were taken, the fish was released back into the muddy waters, and I vowed to wait until I got back to the cold but safe North Sea before I’d be swimming again.
After a flight back to Cusco, it was time to head south. One of the group had a spill when another bike had to brake rather sharply in front of him – the GS1200’s oil cooler had split and poor Jurgen spent the rest of the trip on the truck, along with the damaged bike. The group rode on. And then suddenly, without warning – we came face to face with Dante’s Inferno.
If any Hollywood director is looking to set a movie in Hell, he could save a fortune on scenery and film in Juliaca. Juliaca is less a town, more a vision of some dystopian underworld, with scrap metal and trash piled high on the pavements, and an all-pervading stench of rotting organic material. The road surface is very dangerous; broken tarmac, gravel and dried mud, with the roads crossing ungated railway lines with huge pot-holes between the rails, chaotic drivers everywhere, most with their horns blaring for no apparent reason. The group rode tight here, sometimes three abreast, surviving the cross-town journey like a pack of wolves. It was a surprise to find that there are corners of Peru as bad as anywhere in Africa; Christian said that only Luanda, the capital of Angola, compared to what we had just witnessed. The newly-dead corpses of dogs lay beside the road in many places, hit by the traffic - unclaimed, unburied, unloved.
After the horror of Juliaca, I was expecting Lake Titicaca to be a let-down. We found our hotel right on the lakeside in the town of Puno, which nestles on the west bank of the world’s highest navigable lake. The boundary between Peru and Bolivia cuts through the waters. After a very early breakfast, our intrepid group boarded a small motorboat and we set off across the flat water, along a channel between the reed beds. The light up here is superb, a photographer’s dream, with the thin air allowing the early morning sunlight to illuminate the amazing sight of the floating islands of the Uros people, built originally for defence. Around twenty minutes after setting off, we pulled alongside one of them, and stepped ashore onto what felt like a huge soggy mattress. The Uris people made us feel very welcome, and our guide Felice explained how the islands are created by sawing out sections through the thick clumps of reed bed roots, tying them together and then covering them with freshly cut reeds in a criss-cross pattern, before the whole lot is anchored by strong ropes tied to wooden eucalyptus stakes driven into the lake bed. There are around 2,000 of the tribe left, spread across around 80 islands. The floating islands themselves need constant maintenance to build up the dry reed top surface but even so have a finite life, after which they are abandoned to the lake and a new island is cut and prepared for the two dozen or so inhabitants. The Uros men folk took some of the group out on a boat made of reeds, whilst their women entertained the rest with traditional songs. And one tiny little girl in traditional dress would help her mother with the bagging and wrapping as hand-woven goods were traded for Nuevo Sol.
The clothes worn here were beautiful brightly coloured wool, and the women were mainly barefoot, and had an unusual way of walking across the reeds, a long loping cross between strolling and jogging. I had to buy a souvenir, a brightly coloured spread, hoping that my small contribution would help preserve this very unique way of life. And yes, the Uros really do live like this; they don’t fire up the inflatable as soon as the tourists leave and head back to a housing estate in Puno, although the one concession they do make do the modern world is a small solar-panel generator and a television.
Standing on the roof of our boat as we sailed back to the hotel across the mirror-smooth waters of Titicaca, through the crisp morning air, I was trying hard to store all these memories, as I knew I’d seen a very different world from my own.
The following day saw us ride towards the national park around Chivay and stop at a mirador to admire the volcanoes high on the Altiplano. At this point we hit 16,122 feet, according to the gizmo on David’s GS, and the roadside had pockets of snow nestling in recesses. The air was incredibly thin now, and one of the German participants, Kurt, was starting to suffer breathing difficulties. As was my bike.
At sea level, the Sertao's power delivery isn’t much to write home about. At 14,000 feet on the Altiplano, it feels like a one-lunged asthmatic with emphysema. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve crawled past a bus climbing a mountain pass, only to find a 30 ton truck bearing down of me from the other direction, the Sertao on full throttle making a ridiculous "plock plocking " induction noise, with the kids on the bus pointing and laughing at el hombre loco.
From Chivay, we visited the Colca Canyon and were lucky enough to see about half a dozen condors. They really were magnificent, either scouring the river’s banks hundreds of metres below us, or wheeling overhead, using their finger-tip feathers for brilliant control, and no doubt wondering what all the cameras were for. I could see how the Incas believed that the condor carries the souls of the dead to the next world.
The tour ended with an overnight halt in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. A hard and dusty ride through the suburbs was rewarded with our entry to the city’s gorgeous central square, or Plaza de Armas. Our hotel was right on the square and after the bikes were secured safely in a nearby garage, we had an enjoyable stroll round this bustling city, and some hearty local cuisine.
The final day saw us undertake the long ride back to the border, where formalities took a little less time than crossing into Peru had, and we returned to Arica and the El Paso Park for a group dinner and to sign the bikes back. The dinner was fun but tinged with sadness that our great adventure was over. Phone numbers and addresses were exchanged, and I had to face the long journey home via Buenos Aires and Amsterdam.
It was amusing, although obvious, to see how the large group had formed natural cliques over the tour. “Team Austria”, in their matching orange and black KTM jackets, boots, trousers and gloves (and probably underwear too) always had to be out in front. Klaus, with his years of enduro-adventure experience, always chose to ride alone. A bunch of the Swiss guys treated the tour like a Gumball Rally, “fighter piloting” their big GSs at every opportunity. For my part, I was grateful for the friendship and companionship of Christian and Monica from Houston, and of David and Linda from Minneapolis, all very warm, generous and special people; I knew I’d miss them all.
Reviewing their comments on the sheet which was given out, it was felt that the daily ride briefings were too heavily biased towards the German speakers, and that the route instructions could have been better, perhaps defined to the tenth of a kilometre. Some felt that sometimes one of the guides ‘winged it’ when asked something he didn’t know, rather than admitting the shortfall and researching more fully. Perhaps we should each have been equipped with a cheap mobile phone to cope with lost riders, as happened on leaving the chaotic suburbs of Arequipa, causing a two hour delay to the schedule. Other riders, who had taken other Edelweiss tours, felt that there was not quite enough premium content to match the premium price. Small details, such as having to pay the entrance fee for the national park at Chivay, rankled and would not have made much of a dent in the company’s margin if covered in the tour price.
In closing, I guess that, for this sort of price, you could take several lesser holidays. Or score huge Brownie points by treating the missus to a new kitchen. But you won’t remember those when you look back at your life.
For me, it truly was an adventure. Just as it said on the tin. The fog on the Pan-American was close to hell. Riding alone in the Andes was close to heaven. Peru offers huge contrasts – the Amazonas could almost have been the Congo, whilst the Altiplano and Lake Titicaca would not seem out of place in Iceland. Edelweiss did a great job overall, and have given me the most memorable fortnight of my life.
Unforgettable. And who can put a price on that?