We go up and over (literally) the Andes on our way to the Cusco
We’ve spent the last five days getting from Arequipa to Cusco, gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. To think that after literally decades of dreaming about going to Machu Picchu, we’re on our way there for real. It’s now become just another point on our virtual map of things we want to visit on this trip. Strange how things move from “dream” to “plan” so innocuously.
We didn’t have a clue about what lay ahead during these five days. We’ve never really been up and over the Andes this far north before and this looked like it was going to be a long crossing. The road was relatively new, so there was little knowledge of its condition available. Weather? Cold and rain we guessed. Terrain? Would be alpine and tundra or something else? We left at 7:00AM on Monday and here”s what we found…
- We left Arequipa about a week ago and road 350 miles north along the Peruvian coast to Nazca. Nazca is famous for the Nazca Lines, which are huge hieroglyphs made from rock formations that can only be seen from the air. No one knows their exact purpose or how they were made, so they remain one of the world’s semi-great mysteries. I’ve always been intrigued by them, but became quickly less so when sight of the aircraft brought visions of the penguin-chasing boat to mind. That, coupled with a couple of recent plane crashes meant that this Adventure Man wasn’t getting in no Piper Cub to see the Lines. I’ll look at the video on Youtube. KR was less intimidated by the planes and their safety record and intended to see the Lines, but she got sick and we ended up in a hotel for a day of semi recuperation instead. Nazca is a bustling, hustling little place that is part 20th century (I’m not sure any part of Peru is in the 21st Century yet) and part traditional ancient Peru. Most of the town’s streets are dirt, yet there are a couple of tourist-aimed streets that are downright stylish. We rode into town on Saturday night to be greeted by a full-on town party with parades circling the town plaza, bands in the street and people riding m/c’s spraying shaving lotion at everyone. Considering all the places we’ve been, not a bad two nights.
- South American motorcyclists get a pen out: Highway 26A from Nazca to Cusco is a spectacular motorcycle road that should be put on your list of must-rides. We rode 285 miles of it on Monday and there was not one straight worthy of the name. 99% of the surface is pristine. True to form, the other 1% got us, but more on that in a minute. The road has the full range of curves for every taste, from fast sweepers to switchback after switchback after switchback. It rises almost immediately into the mountains surrounding Nazca, which is only 2000 feet up. The terrain changes pretty quickly as we gain height, going from desert to Alpine-like. As we first reach about 13000 feet, we arrive in a huge Colca-like valley of spectacular green mountain sides with cut-out terraces. Very small villages (a dozen huts) occasionally pop up, but there are no big towns once you get a couple hours outside of Nazca.
- We spend the entire day traversing the Andes, never going below 13,000 feet until the end. We reach a new Now Voyager record of 15,000 feet just before it starts to rain. Temperatures drop to 43 degrees. Heated hand grips are one of the few things that BMW has made right on NV. Scenery is both wonderous and scary. Ominous clouds surround us as we wonder whether we’re headed for rain, sleet or hail. Maybe all three given this is Peru. Occasionally the rain steams off the pavement ahead (its still 43%) making one think of the tropics. Riding through clouds at 15,000 feet is a whole new feeling . Since we left early and this is a relatively new road, there isn’t much traffic other than a few trucks and buses. Once the word gets out, I’m sure this will become crowded like all the others.
- We then drop into a gorge the mighty Chalhuanca River has carved through a valley that winds toward Abancay. The Chalhuanca would give the Colorado River a run for its money on this day as the river is fierce. Rains have made it literally crashing over its sides and upturning boulders. Tributaries are pouring in from all sides. It’s scary just looking at it. The road now runs between the gushing river and the carved mountain side, with predictable results. Mud, rocks, and water come crashing across the road every so often, necessitating a mini river crossing or rock crawling expedition. We do this a dozen times before coming to something a little different.
- The last thing I hear before plunging into the water is, “I knew this was going to happen!” The wash-out that we approach has the entire line of traffic stopped. A combination of big rocks, gravel, and lots of water has washed away the road at this juncture and a bulldozer is trying to move the stuff out of the way. It’s wide enough, and far enough away, that I can’t see how bad/good it is. From my seat, the water is much faster than the others and there appears to be mounds of rock/gravel, but it’s difficult to say. Then the unfortunate happens, the dozer moves off and trafiic (that be us) are urged to power through the newly created gap. Being a dumb ass, I power up as ordered and we semi-charge into the muck. I venture, “It might look worse than it is,” followed milliseconds later by “No it isn’t,” followed by KR’s statement above. There’s just too much really soft gravel piled in berms combined with rushing water and we’re down in the middle. After scrambling off, righting NV somewhat, and turning all switches off, I look to make sure KR is OK. The road workers make her get on the dozer, which reverses direction and takes her across the wash out. She looks like I feel: WIRED. We get NV fully righted, I turn him on, and the worker yells in Spanish I don’t understand, but know what he wants: get on the bike and gas it out of the wash! It’s not pretty, but somehow I get NV across the wash out. Ten minutes later we’re back on our way up the gorge, just another “incident” in a trip of incidents:). This incident has spurned a new gaggle of procedures that we will use in future crossings.
- Despite the above KR and I have reached new heights in being in sync with each other on Now Voyager. Nothing like 400 miles of solid curves to make one at home on corners of all speeds. We both remark that we’re much smoother, less anxious with more acute lean angles, and at one with the rhythm of the road. I even scrape my boot in a corner or two 🙂
- We have a long list of items on our to-do list in Cusco. We need to get our cameras repaired or replaced, I need to fix the intercom system as it sustained some damage on our latest fall, we need to see if we can get the Garmin to actually help in the navigation process, need to sign up for the train to Machu Picchu, and figure out a full-tilt-bogey exploration of the Sacred Valley.
The Situation as of 7:00AM on Thursday, February 24 2011
We’ve been in Cusco for a couple of days now. We’re both basically recuperated from our sicknesses. We’re staying in a great hostel, Casa Grande, that costs $35/night and Now Voyager sits right out our door in the courtyard. (BTW, I received applause from KR in getting NV up and over the curb and through the very narrow glass doors without shattering them. Considering the dunk I gave her the other day, my reputation is on the mend). We replaced both of our cameras as they were not repairable. We’ve found a wonderful biker’s bar, Norton’s Rats, that we’ve hung out in. Next up is figuring out our plans to get to MP and explore the Sacred Valley. KR is determined to really explore Cusco in between the constant rain.
More as it happens.