A month of high mountain passes and Pacific beaches. Cold rainy afternoons and warm desert evenings. Hostels for 20 soles (7+ USD) a night and AirBnBs for 120 soles. And way too many french fries (papas fritas).
The journey started exactly a month ago. Leaving Cuenca and everything that did not fit on the motorcycle was in storage. To be honest, there wasn’t that much going into storage.
Heading south, up and over the mountains that surround Cuecna (cuenca translates to basin). Southern Ecuador is mountainous, but more like very high rolling hills than the jagged Peruvian peaks to come.
Passing through the hills of southern Ecuador you start to get a feel for life in the Andes Mountains. Narrow winding roads, sometimes paved, but often not. Roads that pass through tiny villages where electricity, if they even have any, is provided by a single wire bringing juice from hundreds of miles away. Some of the villages are no more than a few houses and a church, but usually those churches are beautiful and overlook the central square that is the center of life for the local inhabitants. People work hard in these small villages and sometimes it is difficult to see how they survive. Yes, but raise cows, pigs, chickens and sheep, but not much else. And yet, if they have electricity you will always see a few satellite TV dishes. Where do they get money for such things? You can’t help but wonder how a village, hanging on the side of a mountain, came into existence and how a country like Ecuador can afford to build and maintain roads to these remote villages. And, as you approach the border with Peru the road seems to be in better condition than the small amount of traffic would justify. But, when you take the local history into account, it is easier to understand. As recently as 1981, there was armed conflict between the two countries and I suspect the high quality of the roads on the Ecuadorian side of the border is the result of national security concerns and the need to move men and supplies to the border more than an attempt to make travel for the locals any easier. Ecuador and Peru recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the peace treaty that ended 50 years of conflict.
Crossing over into Peru at the town of La Balsa you find a small but apparently thriving town powered by the constant but light stream of traffic moving north and south between Ecuador and Peru. Customs and immigration on the Ecuadorian side is a two-person operation and when I arrived I had to wait for the customs officer to finish his lunch before I could cross the bridge spanning the river which forms the national boundary between the two halves of the town.
Ecuadorian Customs in La Balsa
The high rolling hills of southern Ecuador continue in northern Peru. The roads are not very good, but as you move down toward the coast they get better. The coast is a stark contrast to the hills. Warm and dry, everything seems to be brown and reminds me very much of the northern part of Kuwait and southern Iraq. Just miles and miles of flat barren land. The coastal lowlands of Peru have a significant advantage over Kuwait/Iraq and that is the nearby mountains. Large rivers flow out of the mountains and even though little rain falls on the coast, the rivers provide water and create a greenway that stretches from the foothills to the ocean. Usually less than a kilometer wide, the contrast between the land next to the river and that further away is dramatic. Near the river, agriculture is evident with long stretches of the river being bordered by rice paddies and sugarcane fields. As you ride behind the trucks carrying the harvested sugarcane away to be processed, the smell of molasses is sometimes overwhelming.
The coast is not pretty by most measures. Garbage lines the major roads, sometimes stacked a few feet high and going on for miles. Homes and buildings appear unfinished and supposedly this is intentional as unfinished buildings are apparently subject to lower property taxes. Hungry dogs are everywhere and present a risk to motorcyclists as the appearance or sound of a bike seems to agitate them into chasing. Just in the past month, Ttwo riders I have met since leaving Ecuador have been bitten. Going south from Chiclayo all the way to Chimbote is just more of the same. However, there is very little that man can do to ruin a good sunset.
Leaving Chimbote and heading back into the mountains is where the natural beauty of Peru is turned up a couple of notches. There are two long climbs. The first is only to about 12k feet and become truly dramatic as you approach Huallanca.
The 30+ km of road east of Huallanca is downright treacherous. Rockslides (derrumbes) are a constant danger and you can identify the really dangerous spots by the damage that falling rock has done to the road. Potholes on these roads will eat a motorcycle. The fact that the road is often no more than 3-4 meters wide and heavily trafficked by trucks supporting the constant road repair work is probably an even bigger threat. When two vehicles meet on this road, the larger of the two typically has the right-of-way. On a motorcycle, you always give way and turning around to allow a truck to pass through one of the 30+ single-lane tunnels on this stretch of road is a common occurrence.
Between the towns of Carhuaz and Chacas on Peru 107 is some of the most spectacular scenery thus far. The road climbs to 4550m before passing through the Punta Olimpica tunnel, which itself passes directly through a glacier covered peak. The northwest entrance to this tunnel is flanked on either side by glaciers.
Chacas is clearly the jewel of this area. Founded by Italian immigrants, the architecture around the central square is European and is reminiscent of Germany and Austria. The weather in Chacas is typical for these mountains…sunny until about noon or 1PM and then cloudy and often rainy.
The next couple hundred miles of riding is southbound on the eastern slopes of the mountains and is just one jaw dropping view after another. Traveling in the morning gives the best chance of great views and photos.
Every little town that you pass through in Peru has at least 1 or 2 hostels and most have more hostels than any other business. It is amazing that so many of them manage to stay in business. Small mom and pop restaurants are the same way. There isn’t a great variety of food in the mountains, but there is plenty of it. Be prepared for lots of potatoes and french fries with just about every meal.
Dropping down again into the Rio Santo valley, the main road back to the coast starts at Recuay, travels down the Rio Huarmey valley in a long constant drop. It is literally 80 km of constant downhill…no flat, no up…constant downhill. Take away the traffic and you would have the world’s greatest skateboard run. This is a motorcycle rider’s dream road. It is well maintained and with light traffic you can easily average 80km/h, but you really want to be proficient at tight turns before driving this road.
As you approach the coastal town of Huarmey you again see the rice paddies and seemingly endless sugarcane fields. You also again find the endless piles of garbage along the road. A very odd dichotomy. Turning south toward Lima the autopista (think North American Interstate) that is the PanAmerican Highway is not exactly the most exciting stretch of road. Barren hills, more garbage, and sand dunes. The Pacific Ocean is just to the west, but you don’t see it all that often.
As you approach the outskirts of Lima there are kilometers of unfinished houses and the garbage piles higher. Entering the city is an absolute traffic nightmare. Entering the city at any time except early Sunday morning could cause those of weak constitutions to suffer various cardiac related symptoms or anxiety attacks that Valium won’t touch. There are stories here of tourists renting cars only to find they are unable to to drive them. Words and photos don’t come close to conveying the level of craziness that is driving in Lima. According to Uber drivers, the rates for an Uber ride are necessarily inflated to account for the heavy traffic and its impact on ride time. Uber or taxi is going to be the preferred method of travel for most tourists.
And there are plenty of tourists here. Cruise boats drop off thousands and they travel in pacts around the Plaza de Armas in the historical center of the city. After three weeks of seeing almost no tourists it was a strange experience to see so many. The architecture of the city center is impressive and unique but makes up a very tiny part of the city overall which spralls over 2,672 sq km (1,032 sq mi). It is a BIG city.
The ride thus far has been amazing for both the beauty and in some cases the ugliness of Peru. The verticalness and pristine beauty of the Peruvian Andes stand in sharp contrast to the bleak, flat and often garbage strewn plains along the coast. In order to understand Peru and the Peruvians you have to see both.
Tomorrow, the second month of the adventure begins. Next stop…Pisco, the oasis of Huacachina, then on to Cusco and Machu Picchu.