Canyons, Mountains and Desert Oases in Peru

Peru is a country of contrasts; from dirty coastal towns to cute and honest fishing villages.  Unrelenting hot, sandy, and flat desert riding to exciting and chilly mountain passes – some of the highest in the world!  So, after the barren desert-scape we had been riding for days, we were so much looking forward to the Canon del Pato!

OK, maybe barren is a strong word

The Canon del Pato is a dry, rocky canon in the Santa Valley renowned for motorcycle travellers and cyclists.  It is often cited as one of the 10 best rides in South America due to the incredible scenery on low-traffic roads, not to mention the fact that you get to ride through no less than 30 tunnels during the 140km trip.  In some places the canyon is just a few meters across, in others it is massive.  The canyon proved to be a real adventure, the rough gravel road provided its fair share of challenges, the views were stunning, and we had a surprise reunion with some fellow Canadian motor-bikers. Gas was purchased from 40 gallon drums and we even got to camp outside a police station in the middle of nowhere.  It definitely qualifies as one of the best rides of the entire trip, without question.

We posted a detailed ride report for our friends at eatsleepRIDE.com.  You can read it and check out the photos & videos by clicking here (a new tab will open).

Teaser photo - check out the above link for more

After riding the canyon with fellow Calgarians Jay, Merecedes and their pillion/son, Eric we searched for a big meal in the small mountain town of Caraz.  Because of the large number of Chinese Peruvians which make up ~ 3-4% of population – (the largest Chinese population in South America), Chinese food is extremely popular in Peru and every village & town has numerous restaurants that serve excellent sopa wonton & arroz chaufa (fried rice).  So, it was Peruvian beer & Chinese food on our menu that night.

While the other Calgarians left the following day, we spent a sunny afternoon doing some much-needed motorcycle maintenance and fixing the GPS, whose internal wiring came loose after bumping along the gravel roads.  So, while Jordan worked on the bikes, I took apart the GPS and got it working again.  Then it was off for some more, outstanding Peruvian scenery – this time at over 3,000m – a far cry from the hot coastal roads we have come to know.

Shortly after leaving Caraz (2,250m) the road climbs steadily to the outdoor-adventure hub of Huaraz, at 3,052m.  Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, but we didn’t love Huaraz as much as the guidebooks do, so we just continued on (and up) enjoying the great roads and scenery through the Callejón de Huaylas Valley.  This alpine valley runs between the mountain ranges Cordilleras Blanca & Negra and on clear days the scenery is reminiscent of Canada’s Icefields Parkway, with snow-capped mountains everywhere you look.  Of course, in Peru, the mountains are over 6,500m high – the highest in the western hemisphere.

stunning views!

Not long after stopping to put on our rain gear, we approached the most incredible series of switchbacks that would take us from about 4,500m  to 2,300m in just 65 kms and finally back down to just 49m after another hour or so.  The road was newly paved and completely empty, winding it’s way down and around the mountains.  It was, essentially, the PERFECT sports bike road.  Unfortunately we were on our old, overladen workhorses, but we still had a go and really enjoyed it.   This part of Peru is our favorite – clean, fresh air, little traffic, few tourists, and mind-blowing scenery.  We like hot weather as much as the next person, but you can have the coast of Peru.  We’ll stick to the altiplano.

Clean, fresh and empty!

You say road, I say racetrack

To further make that point, the second we landed back at sea level, I started to suffer from a nasty head cold.  Once we entered the hell-hole of a town called Barranca, I could no longer see or breath… every facial orifice was leaking.  We grabbed some food from a gigantic and super modern grocery store (even hell-holes like fresh produce!), and tucked in to a cheap, no-frills joint that provided some very cramped parking for the bikes.

I was still suffering when we entered Lima the following day, however I did have enough wits about me to recognize the first bribery attempt about to hit us.  Since entering Latin America everyone has warned us about corruption of every kind.  We’ve heard lots of stories however, we had yet to experience even the slightest inclination of unscrupulous behaviour first hand.

Throughout Peru, if you have to ride on the main highways you will pass through toll stations.  However, in the southbound lane, most were simply used as police check points.  We passed through this one… then were flagged to pull over.

The police officer smiled at us as he shook Jordan’s hand and pulled out a booklet which detailed a list of infractions and their associated fines.  We listened to him tell us how ‘we sped through a school zone’ and watched his finger as he pointed out the fine of 450 soles (about $170).  He went on to explain that if we were willing to pay him directly on the spot, we could settle the matter for a mere 50 soles ($20)…  The interesting thing about this situation is that this check point is located at the entrance to the city of Lima.  There were no school zones on the highway… and even if they were, and even if we had sped through them, how could he possibly know?  Joker.

We deployed our ‘confused foreigner’ strategy; we smiled back and made like we thought he was telling us not to speed through school zones in the city else there would be some hefty fines to pay.  We agreed a lot, nodded and explained how, like in Canada, speeding through school zones is very bad.  We went on like this for a few minutes until, out of luck and out of patience, he waved us ahead.

We feel it is really important to never pay a bribe, if at all possible.  If you pay a bribe because you are tired or because you have more money than time, then everyone behind you will have to pay as well – it reinforces nasty behaviour. Don’t do it!

Because I was still not feeling well, I slept all of day 1 in Lima while Jordan walked around and soaked up the Miraflores area we stayed in.  Day 2 was my turn to walk around… that produce in Barranca?  Not so fresh, after all!  We’ve singled out an unwashed apple as the cause of a hellish, 2-day gastro-nightmare for Jordan.  On a positive note, the aforementioned gastro-nightmare did wonders for his figure, losing  something like 6 kg in less than 48 hours is an impressive result anyway you look at it.

predictable thermals make parasailing very popular in Lima

Some good messages, here.

Our back-to-back illnesses were seriously ill-timed.  The Dakar Rally (The famous 2-week desert race from Argentina to Peru) was finishing up in Lima and our plans were to meet our Dutch riding buddies, Daan and Mirjam in a town just south of Lima to camp at one of the desert bivouac stations on the race route – the area designated for night-time repairs and maintenance for the racers’ vehicles.  However, all we got were reports of great fun camping out in the desert, attending drivers briefings and meeting international racing teams from our friends.  In the end we got to see a bit of the finale parade in Lima’s Plaza de Armas, but it was just not the same.

The Dakar entering Lima

But, in the spirit of the Dakar, after Lima we found the little desert oasis town of Huacachina.  This is a local and international tourist town – no doubt about it, but what a cool little place!  In the middle of sand dunes so high they look like mountains, a small, natural spring has created a lagoon and supports trees and vegetation in the middle of no where.  It looks like something out of a Bugs Bunny episode.

The oasis town of Huacachina

Jordan walking in the dunes

Jordan and dunes as far as the eye can see

When we pulled into town on our big overland bikes and dusty riding gear, everyone seemed generally impressed – they just assumed we had completed the Dakar and were in town to unwind.  There were a lot of photo requests and some pats on the back.  One hotel owner asked Jordan if he was interested in a desert tour, then took it back, saying “But of course after the Dakar, you must already know the desert” to which Jordan responded, “Yes, I know the desert”.  I guess having a dirty, sand encrusted face gives you a lot of desert racing credibility, regardless of whether you’ve actually earned it.

So, what does one do in a town surrounded by Sand Dunes?  Dune Buggy tours and sand boarding, of course!

Dune Buggies!

Jordan was the braver one here… trying to sand board standing up (most of us tobogganed).  This is where he learned that, although falling at Lake Louise on your snow board can smart a little, snow is much more forgiving than sand – which stops you dead if you take a fall.  Having a bruised tailbone is not ideal when you spend most afternoons in the saddle.  No one was allowed to stand for the big dunes and, while I only watched from the biggest of them, he zoomed down like a kid on a crazy carpet.

We continued further south the town of Nazca, famous for the Nazca Lines, but we didn’t stick around.  We have stopped at a number of world famous cultural, architectural and natural wonders on this trip, and this is (hands down) the least impressive.  Underwhelming (it’s not a word, I looked it up – that’s for all you Sloan fans… you know who you are) best describes the experience.  The lines themselves are impressive, but looking at them is far less exciting.  Granted, we did not opt for the over-priced Cessna flight to view the lines, but we did pay 2 soles ($0.75) each to climb the observation tower.  We walked away feeling we almost got our money’s worth, but it was an opportunity to pose for more Dakar-related photos for our fellow tourists, so it was not a complete bust.

Nazca Lines - this is an upside down tree

Although we did not necessarily start off on the right foot with Peru, the situation had dramatically improved and we were loving it.  The riding was fantastic, the scenery was gorgeous, and the company was excellent, what more could you want?

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