Getting High in Peru on our Motorbikes

We’ve been riding back and forth between the coast and the mountains since entering Peru.  After some exciting scenery and serious fun in the giant sand dunes near Huacachino, we decided it was time to get back up high.  Really high.  The Nazca Lines were disappointing, but the road that took us away and inland from them was anything but!  Immediately and without delay, we climbed 3,000 meters in 62 km (9,000 ft in 32 miles) on a perfect, gorgeous road.  The great riding just doesn’t stop in this country!

Peru at 3,500m

On a related note, Peru had the worst drivers we’ve experienced on out trip so far – even worse than Guatemala and their notorious chicken buses.  In Peru, the big trucks and buses expect all motorbikes, regardless of size or speed, to get out of their way (onto the shoulder, if necessary) – even if they happen to be in your lane passing another vehicle in their lane.  We have been run onto the shoulder more than a few times… they just flash their lights at you to indicate they are not moving and so you should – its bloody dangerous.  So, we were relieved that the traffic through the numerous blind hairpins into the mountains was sparse, and that the trucks we did see travelled in convoys with ‘flag cars’ in front and behind.  They also seemed to to have better driving standards in the mountains that on the (brutal) Pan Americana.

For two days we rode at elevations over 3,500 meters (11,000+ ft), making it as high as 4,900 meters (16,000 ft).  We hadn’t ridden through snow since getting caught in a snow storm in Crowsnest Pass in Canada a few years ago but, unlike that time, we had heated jackets and proper winter riding gloves to protect us from the cold, allowing us to really enjoy the stunning views.  Again, Peru provided some of the best riding experiences we’ve seen on our trip so far.  From this perspective, we loved Peru!

..and Peru at 4,900m

They're cute, but they'll be dinner or slippers sometime soon (backyard of our 'hotel')

The reason we were climbing so high was to get to that mecca of Peruvian tourist attractions – Machu Picchu.  We originally thought we would do the traditional hike up to the ruins but the combination of being there in the rainy season and the abhorrant cost associated with the hike changed our minds…. we would ride the well-known motorbike / cyclist back route.  Or, so we thought…

We arrived in Cusco in the rain and headed straight for the hostel well-known to cyclists, motor bikers, the Hostel Estralita.  We have referred to it as “sparse”, but the multiple thick peruvian blankets on the beds, hot breakfasts, and super friendly owners mean we also highly recommend the hostel.  Especially, if you also require motorbike or bicycle parking and are not afraid of riding over a dodgy, homemade ramp.

Rainy days in Cusco

Like Peru itself, Cusco is a love-hate relationship for us.  Hate:  overpriced everything!  You cannot visit anything – (not even cathedrals) without doling out a substantial amount of money.  Love: gorgeous location, we met a number of nice locals and interesting overland travellers who tend to congregate here, and just by walking around the town, you can admire some pretty impressive Incan architecture.

Incan masonry - dry fit, cut stones

red clay roofs in Cusco

Girl in Cusco - watching a birthday party

Colonial on top of Incan

Half this wall is Incan work. The other is not. Which is which?

Most overland motorbike travellers are aware of Norton’s Rats pub in Cusco.  The owner is a motorbike traveller and has, himself completed a ride from Alaska to Ushuaia a number of years ago.  With promises of “the best hamburgers in Peru” of course we had to stop by!  We spent the evening exchanging stories from the road and a couple of pints with 5 fellow bike travellers including Jay & Mercedes, who keep happily appearing wherever we seem to be.  We enjoyed the company a lot, loved looking through the log book at many bikers, famous or otherwise, who have stopped by on their way through for their own pint, but we can’t agree with the claims for great food.  Plus, it is a smoking bar – is this 1989?  If you are on a motorbike, stop by for a drink and great company.  If you are not, go across the street to Paddy’s Irish Pub – now that is great food!

mmmmmm, cottage pie at Paddy's

The BMW F650GS Dakar has a design flaw – even though it is 2 inches taller than the regular F650GS, the side stand was not made longer to compensate for the extra height – which means Jordan’s bike leans over.  A lot.  It’s fallen over on its own a number of times as a result, the extreme lean angle also puts a lot of extra stress on the lower subframe bolts that support the bash plate and the side stand.  After being subjected to the extra weight of overloaded paniers for the last 7 months, this ‘flaw’ finally caused some real consequences.  Namely, the two frame bolts that support the side stand snapped under the extra weight and pressure.

We could not find any replacement bolts, so we made our own.  The only problem was that we couldn’t get the sheered bolt ends out of the frame…  a problem solved by some ingenious guys at a local machine shop.  With that out of the way, Jordan got down to replacing the bolts in their “garage space”, you might refer to it as the middle of the street between the 2 lanes of traffic.  Not sure if Canada’s Workers’ Compensation board would sanction that as a ‘safe work environment’ but, we’re in Peru – so it really doesn’t matter.

Open air garage, complete with 2-way traffic

Since northern Peru, we had also been monitoring the conditions of our chains and sprockets.  They were getting quite worn out – we only had a few centimetres of adjustment left in our chains and the teeth on the sprocket were essentially worn round.  We’d been shopping for new parts, and were able to pick up some fairly good chains in Lima, but had yet to find reasonably priced sprockets.  So, since it is unadvisable to put a new chain on an old, worn sprocket, we made the difficult decision to save the bikes and take a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu instead of riding there via the awesome back roads we’ve read about.  That said, the train turned out to be really enjoyable, despite the horrific cost.

At least it's pretty

Trains coming into Aguas Calientes

Unfortunately for all tourists on their way to Machu Picchu, they must stop in Aguas Calientes, first even if you find a way to get there on your own.  This is the town before the ruins – it can’t be bypassed, and there is no road traffic allowed (aside from tourist buses).  It was one of the worst tourist-traps we’ve ever visited.  Walking through the little town ensures that you will be accosted by numerous restaurant sales agents offering similar menus at similar prices along with promotions of ‘four pisco sours for the price of one!’.  Really?  One pisco sour costs that much?  We found some food, ate quickly and holed up in our pricey accommodations to avoid further molestations.

Despite being there in the rainy season, our day at Machu Picchu was gorgeous, with full sun and perfect blue skies.  We took an early morning bus to the ruins as a means of avoiding the large crowds of people whom we feared would be there, like us, mulling about.  We were warned of the difficulty of climbing up and down over 100 flights of stairs at 2,300m (7,500 ft), but I guess because we’ve been at altitude a lot in the last few months, neither of us were bothered by the conditions.

Vicunas at MP

Machu Picchu - the iconic shot

...and from an different perspective

The old neighbourhood

Amazing masonry

There is a lot that can be found on the web about Machu Picchu, we will add just 3 pieces of advice; i) get there early, it makes a huge difference; ii) make sure you visit “the drawbridge”.  It is not near the iconic image of M.P, but it is a great walk on a narrow path etched into the mountain side, and the area has a spectacular lookout over the Urubamba Valley; iii) hire a guide – even if it is with a group.  We didn’t hire one, choosing instead to randomly eavesdrop, and we wished that we had.  The place is truly amazing, and one of us thinks it is still worth a vist at the inflated prices.  The other thinks that Peru charges way too much for tourism and it isn’t obvious the wealth is shared with the poorer regions (we’ll allow you to guess who’s who).

Jordan near the 'drawbridge'

Unfortunately, by late morning we no longer had the place to ourselves and by 1:30 in the afternoon, it was difficult to walk anywhere without bumping into people or ending up in someone’s photo.  It was time to leave.  We made our way back up to Cusco for one more night and some more great pub food at Paddy’s.

Our final difficult decision was made the following morning before we left.  We could not find sprockets for the bikes and we had been warned about having anything shipped to Peru or Bolivia due to potential corruption within the postal service.  The thought of lengthy delays, heated discussions with customs officials and additional duty costs did not sound very appealing.

To make matters worse, Bolivia was in the middle of a terrible rainy period, and of the 46,000 kilometers of roads in that country, more than 90% are dirt which means mud roads in the rainy season.  A German friend of ours had a bad fall in which his pillion-girlfriend broke her leg (badly) – they had to go home.  And our Dutch friends, avid off road riders, also said they were having one of the most difficult times of their entire trip.  Riding the mud filled roads would push our riding skills to the limit and our stretched chains and worn sprockets were just not up to it.

So, in desperate need of parts and not wanting to break down in a remote, hard-to-get-to location, we decided we had to bypass Bolivia and go directly to Chile instead.  Our good friends, TJ and MJ from Pennsylvania bought the sprockets for us (THANK YOU!) in the USA (at 1/3 price in Peru or Chile) and shipped them to a hostel in Arica for us.  We would meet up with them a week or so later.

And so it is with long-term travel… plans change depending on what is happening in the world and with your equipment.  It was a disappointment because Bolivia is said to have some of the most stunning motorbike rides in the continent and we were excited about seeing the Bolivian altiplano, the notorious ‘death roade’ and of course the Salar de Uyuni the world’s largest salt flat.  We won’t look at it as a complete ‘miss’.. not yet.  Hopefully it means we will be back…


2 thoughts on “Getting High in Peru on our Motorbikes

    • Thanks, Bob! We totally loved reading your blog as well – great info. We have JUST left Ushuaia and are now heading north. Bloody scared of those winds, though! x Sandra.

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