Getting a Hand in the Desert

With the difficult decision of by-passing Bolivia made, we routed our bikes through more gorgeous, high-altitude vistas, aiming for the colonial town of Arequipa, and closer to the Peru-Chile border where, hopefully, our parts will be waiting for us.

Arequipa may only be the second largest city in Peru, but it is definitely the most charming (sorry, Cusco…)  The old town still maintains most of its colonial-era architecture, built with silla – a pearly-white volcanic rock mined in the area around Arequipa.  Most notably, the city is overlooked by the (now dormant) snow-capped volcano, El Misti and is surrounded by 80 others!

As you might imagine, with volcanoes come earthquakes and, Arequipa has had its fair share.  The most recent being a huge quake in 2001 that rattled the area for over a minute, killing scores and toppling one of the cathedral’s steeples – which has been nicely repaired, as you can see.

Centre Square Cathedral

It’s huge!

We visited a few historical sites while in the city – the Santa Calina Monastery, one of the most important religious historical sites in all of Peru. Because the Monastery for nuns is so extensive (20,000 sq. meters) we spent over 2 hours poking in and out of the simple or extravagant living quarters, apartments and dormitories of nuns of the Domincan Second Order.  Approximately 20 nuns still live in the monastery founded in 1580.

It was inspiring to be there.

Some of the streets inside the convent

simple and lovely

We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos which is dedicated to ancient Andean culture, but it’s most impressive display is Juanita – the 600-year old ice-preserved, mummified girl 11-14 years old.  She was selected to be a sacrifice as a child and, as such, lived a life of royalty.  In her final weeks, she walked (in leather sandals) over 300kms from an area near Cusco to the top of Ampato Volcano at 6,300m (21,000 feet) where she was ritually sacrificed to the volcano Gods.

Juanita (taken from the internet)

She was discovered in 1995 and now resides in the Santuarios Andinos museum, stored in a display freezer at -20C (no photos allowed).  There are up to 14 other such finds, but Juanita was the first and best preserved.  Truly amazing!


El Misti Volcano

Snowy Andes overlooking Arequipa

After a few days enjoying really great food and sight seeing in Arequipa, we made our way towards Arica, excited to see if our sprockets would be waiting for us.

The ride was uneventful and provided little excitement except for when Jordan’s loose chain came off the rear sprocket and mangled a link, creating a 90 degree angle in the middle of the chain. Of course, this happened on a lonely road in the middle of the desert, probably at high noon.  We didn’t have the tool to break the chain in order to remove it and replace it with the new chain which was sitting in his panniers.

We worked roadside for over an hour in order to get the bike back on the road but the mild concern we had with our situation soon changed to vindication – going directly to Chile was probably a good idea.  We rode easy for the rest of the day as we made our way towards Chile.

The border was modern, all the buildings had proper plumbing, but the process was still a bit whack, gently reminding us we were still in South America.

Desert border crossing – Chile

Fresh fruit and vegetables (and plants, seeds, animal products…etc!) are not allowed to cross the Chilean border, you must open all luggage to show border officials that you don’t have any on board.  This included an x-ray of our duffle bags which are strapped on to the back of our bikes.

What a hassle, especially for Jordan who had to unstrap the tires he was carrying for me in order to get at his bag.  The x-ray procedure was completely unsupervised and though we complied, we later listened to stories of those who ‘tricked’ the system and didn’t scan their bags full of (literally) forbidden fruit.

A short ride from the border brought us to the seaside town of Arica where we were met by our Kiwi-Chileno hosts and, yes…. our parts.  Again – a big thank you to TJ & MJ in PA, USA!

We still needed a garage to help us with the removal of the old chains and linking of the new ones.  This was the garage:

The parking lot -slash- workspace

…and his workshop storage area

Even our mechanic seemed to have a hard time breaking the links… but after a few hours, our bikes were road ready again, and we left the little town looking forward to more sea and more desert.  Our target was San Pedro de Atacama – 2 days away.

Chileans love to camp.  We knew this going in and we were very much looking forward to a lot of free camping.  While near the coast, we would take small roads to beach side areas where many other families were set up.  It was usually very primitive, and sometimes quite busy with locals but we liked the security of having others around and it gave us more opportunities to practice our Spanish.

beach camping

Jordan enjoying a sand road

Back inland we road more desert roads to San Pedro de Atacama – that is, San Pedro of the Atacama Desert – the driest desert in the world‘ according to folks like NASA and National Geographic.  So, why did it rain every day at 4pm in San Pedro?  Well, the Chileans, in typical Chilie-vs-Bolivia fashion, blamed Bolivia.  Specifically, the Invierno Boliviano (Bolivian winter).

Trying (without success) to keep dry in San Pedro with DirtProof & Florian and Beata

And, I suppose it was better than raining shit – which is what it did the first night as we had placed our tent under the tree the doves used as their toilet – we promptly moved our tent the next morning and washed the crap out of it (again, literally).  It must also have been better than the brutal floods that sacked the area a few weeks later, too!

Each day (before 4pm) we would explore the town or the area.  Touristy?  Yes.  But there’s a reason for that.

Valley of the Moon (Valle de Luna), Chile

Riding on moonscape – Valle de la Luna

mud streets and clay buildings – San Pedro de Atacama

Since we were in San Pedro for a few days, Jodan put my TKC80s on my bike (remember?  These were bought in Colombia!  The Metzler tires would just not wear out!).  We attended to email and hung out with some fun people – Silke & Ryan known as Dirt Proof – they travel for the purpose of trail running around the world!  Crazy, I know.  They have a great blog – check it out:

Man at work

Here’s a fact: the Atacama Desert runs for 1,000kms north to south.  And, we rode the entire length while heading inland and back to the coast several times.  Though it might sound boring – and it certainly felt boring at times, there is something about being inside your helmet for hours on end in unchanging, scorched scenery that really gives you time to think.  Though we’ve yet to think of a way to make this trip last longer than budgeted.

Stretch break

Then, about 75 km south of the town of Antofagasta, the monotony is dramatically interrupted by an 11 meter (36 ft) hand rising up out of the desert floor.  Mano del Desierto (hand of the desert) was sculpted by Mario Irarrázabal in the early 90s.  Some say the sculpture is intended to express emotions of injustice, loneliness and torture – others say Irarrázabal put it there to encourage drivers to get out of their cars to appreciate the desert.

Mano del Desierto y motos de Hasselmann


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…

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  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?

So, This is Peru?

It’s a new year and we’re off to a new country.  Even though we had quite a bit of fun on New Year’s Eve, we didn’t have so much fun that we couldn’t leave before noon. Since we had promised ourselves some coastal sunshine, we chose a route south to the little town of Loja where we would stay for night before heading west to the border crossing into Peru.

Loja is a bit of a quite town to begin with, but even more so when you arrive on a holiday Sunday. It was like a ghost town.  We parked to find a place to stay for the night, but quickly became dejected when it looked like we had to choose between expensive hotels (as defined by our budget) or something that was beneath even our low standards.  Just as we came out of Hotel Mexico ($8 for a room with rotting floors, visible bed springs and a shared bathroom in worse condition than even we could imagine – and we can imagine a lot), a woman in a van called out to us and asked if we were looking for a hotel with parking. If so, she could offer a room at her hotel for $16 with great parking, hot water and rooms as tidy as a pin.  Deal!

Loja, this ‘quite little ghost town’, also delivered one of the best hamburgers we’ve ever  had.  The CHESS burger (no, we did not spell this incorrectly, though maybe they did… no one was playing chess) comes with a delicious picante sauce on it (aji) and, in an effort to combine space efficiency and burger ergonomics with a flavour thrill, they actually put french fries IN the burger!  And, this turned out to be a regional speciality…happily, it would not be our last burger or with fries piled inside

The following morning, while Jordan adjusted the chains, I went in search of coffee-to-go and some buns for a simple breakfast.  The buns were easy to find – panaderias are everywhere, but take-away coffee was more of a challenge and it finally came in a re-used, 500ml coke bottle.  I’m sure they wondered why I wouldn’t want to sit and enjoy my instant coffee there, in their restaurant and walking back with cooling coffee, I started to wonder the same thing.  As odd as it was, though, I liked the used coke bottle idea.  We recycle more than we throw out, and we refuse to buy bottled water back home, but I think we are terrible at re-using perfectly good ‘garbage’.  Something to think about.

As we departed Loja, we received a stern warning from the hotel owner’s mother… “Be careful in Peru.  They are all robbers.  They are poor and will be grabbing for your things… it is not like Ecuador… be especially careful at the border you are going to… it is terrible.”  This coincided with Lonely Planet’s description of the Tumbes border: “…the worst in South America” rife with corruption. As we zipped through the mountains on good, twisty roads, this was always in the back of our minds.

Roadside Lunch spot

A few hours later we took the turn-off for the border.  Then, we were on the bridge to Peru passing a sign that said ‘Welcome to Peru’.  Then, we were in Peru.  What?  We hadn’t officially left Ecuador yet!  The normal border crossing process includes cancelling the temporary importation papers and exporting the motorcycles at the Aduana (Customs) and then getting an exit stamp for ourselves at Migracion (Immigration) before actually leaving the country, but somehow we had bypassed this entire process. We approached the Peruvian border guards who asked to see our exit stamp – which of course we didn’t have.  Isn’t this how you get into those bribery situations you hear about?  The nice man told us to go back over the bridge to the big blue building on the right and check out.

Entering Peru before leaving Ecuador

In that big, obvious blue border control building clearly marked Migracion that we rode by 5 minutes earlier, we learned that the Ecuadorian Aduana was actually 6 kms back up the road and that we had passed it as well in our haste to get to Peru.  We’d have to go back.  They were happy to stamp our passports out of the country at that point, even though we still had to ride a further 6km back into Ecuador to process our bikes.  So we rode back into the country illegally… but this was Ecuador and everyone is friendly so it wasn’t a problem.

We were not the only ones confused – a car and 2 other bikes were in the same boat.  We rode back to the Aduana together, which is a small, nondescript building in a dusty parking lot on the northbound side of the road.  No wonder the nice Peruvian guard knew to ask about our documents before letting us proceed to Peru customs… he has clearly seen this before.

The Peruvian  border was friendly and free of any corruption, and we met up with 5 other bikes – our second meeting with this crew, the first being in Quito.  They were finishing up so it was only us, a van and 2 other bikes to be processed, yet, it still took a full 3.5 hours to get through.  It wasn’t bad compared to the border crossings in Central America, but it was not the bedlam that we were expecting and no one grabbed at us or tried to take our stuff. Actually, there was no around and it was very quite and calm.  The warning we received was just more of that ‘watch out for the people in the other country’ phenomenon that we’ve encountered numerous times before –  everyone seems to say the next country is the one to watch out for.

Peru border - not crazy and overrun

But if we weren’t disappointed by the border, we were quickly disappointed by the condition of north-western Peru.  The scenery was stark and beautiful, it is a coastal desert after all, with nothing around but water and dunes.  But the roadside was dirty, littered with thousands of plastic bags.  Piles of rotting garbage sitting in the hot sun ensured this was an olfactory experience as well as visual.  Our extended time at the border meant we had to find a place to stay in close-by Tumbes, Peru.  Circus-like and dirty –  just like you’d expect from a border town.

The town of Tumbes. Looks quieter than in reality

But again we found a nice clean place to stay and enjoyed a street version of the ‘chess burger’ from Loja – this one made with a fried egg, spicy sauce and yes… french fries.  We each ordered two and watched kiddies enjoy some unstructured play in the town square. While they decided what to play and sorted out their own differences, their parents cuddled and kissed on park benches – not too concerned about hovering.  One of our favorite parts of Latin America life is the importance of public squares and the ways families interact down here, it is really something that should be embraced back home.

The rest of Northern Peru was much the same.  Impressive deserts, great looking surf, dirty beaches and incredible winds.  We spent a couple of nights in Mancora – a beach town located right on the Pan Americana.  Everyone in Tumbes raved about it and directed us to it, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  ‘Town’ is an overstatement, there aren’t any roads or residential areas…really, it is just a series of restaurants, bars and hotels lined up on either side of the highway over the course of a few kilometers. There are a couple of ATMs, possibly a grocery store – although we couldn’t find one – and many of the hotels were in various states of disrepair, despite their high prices.  There were a couple of nicer hotels as well, but they were well out of our price range.  It is basically a small, dusty and very loud party town with a great surf scene.

party girl passed out in Mancora - she was there most of the day

Gorgeous desert

Irrigation projects green the desert - this is rice growing

"zona de dunas"

We were looking forward to a great ride through some canyons a few hundred kilometers inland, but had to continue south before heading east. We stopped at the Chan Chan Ruins for a look… we had heard that you can pitch a tent in the parking lot and we thought it would be cool to stroll around the ruins in the evening.  Though we could have pitched a tent, it was very hot and dusty and it didn’t seem as promising as we had imagined.  On our way out, a few locals advised us of a place to stay in the historical fishing village of Huanchaco – 10 minutes away.

Road to Chan Chan ruins

Then Jordan’s chain fell off its sprocket.  A quick road-side fix, but the beginning of a series of events that would later shape our route.

Chain off its sprocket

The area of Huanchaco was settled centuries ago by fishermen who supplied  fish to the pre-Hispanic city of Chan Chan.  Not only is fishing still economically & culturally important to the region, the fishermen paddle out on the same reed boats as their ancestors.  The boats are called caballitos de totora (small horses of reeds) because the fishermen straddle the boats in the same way one would straddle a horse.  The reeds grow in the desert thanks to underground springs that produce reed marshes.  However, in the area of Huanchaco, only 40 reed marshes still exist due to construction & expansion which is taking its toll on underground water levels.  At the end of each day, the boats are planted in the sand on the beach for the night – an iconic picture of Huanchaco.

Huanchaco reed boats

We walked along the beach and through the town looking for the hostel that was recommended to us.  There seemed to be a lot going on and the streets were lined with restaurants serving delicious looking seafood.. always a good sign!  When we finally walked through the Hostel Ny-Lam (see Accomodations) to check out the camping area, we bumped into our Calgary friends, Jerome, Mercedes & their son, Erick again.  It was a fun reunion and we all camped in the gorgeous garden for a few days, lounging in the hammocks, reading and enjoying great weather.

first camp since Colombia

The Humbolt current is created by an upwelling of deep ocean water and it flows north along Chile and Peru.  A whopping 20% of the world’s fish catch occurs in this region due to the current, and it is responsible for making beaches in Peru & Chile very cold, despite the tropical temperatures in this area.  So, when Jordan & Jerome tried their hand at surfing without bothering to rent a wetsuit, the locals thought them completely crazy.  It was way too cold for me… Mercedes & I sat on the beach in the warm sun and watched.

Every night, the sunset is the evening’s entertainment.

People gathering to watch the sunset - Huanchaco

Sunset & waves - Huanchaco