Ecuador and Colombia (part 1)

The Ecuadorian border consisted of one police man handling immigration and a single customs guy who didn’t know how to use his printer. To be fair, even I couldn’t get it to print properly and in the end we had to get the Peruvian customs to print it off which was particularly annoying as I had been back across the border once already to photocopy my documents for the Ecuadorian customs guy. He was nice about it though, friendly and gave me lots of cold drinks, which I really needed messing around in the tropical heat.

The road from the border continued up a dirt road through green hills passing through loads of little villages, which looked pretty much like their counterparts on the Peruvian side except there were many more African descended inhabitants, kinda like Yungas in Bolivia. I arrived at Zumba and got a nice surprise when I filled up my tank. The fuel is super cheap at $1.50 for a gallon (4 litres). The road to the border is under construction on both sides but was in pretty bad condition on the Ecuadorian side and it was an hour or two till I hit the paved part, afterwards it was a fun ride through the hills and little villages until I decided to stay in Vilcabamba.

I knew nothing about Vilcabamba. I’d only heard it mentioned by Jayne Lizzybus so I was surprised to see that it was quite a tourist destination. What I didn’t know was that its a Mecca for new age thinkers, spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, artists, hippies in general and quite a few people who just don’t seem to fit into the normal world. At first this was quite amusing and it was nice to chat to some different people but by the end of the night I had had quite enough of listening to what I can only describe as the utter bollocks some of these people believe in, and believe its their job to share it with you, whether you’re interested or not. I was in desperate need for a normal conversation when I bumped into another Brit, Mike and his Ecuadorian lady Alva. They live in the capitol, Quito and through way too many mojitos (it was Mike’s birthday) they invited me to come and stay at a hostel owned by Alva’s family.

The night was a heavy one. I had ripped my tent trying to get in to it or perhaps getting out of it without opening the door and I also freaked out a mentally unstable guest when I wandered into his room while trying to locate the bathroom. I didn’t want to go anywhere the next day and had I noticed that I had somehow buckled both the wheels on the bike. The front one was so bad that it was touch and go to ride on but Vilcabamba is only a small village and the rims really needs to be seen to by a specialist.

I rode on the nearest big town Loja where I luckily found a wheel workshop in no time and I spent the rest of the day in the road opposite, taking the wheels off, unmounting the tyres and then guarding my stuff until they were fixed. The workshop owner is a true craftsman and did a great job but since it was a workshop for car wheels, he didn’t true the wheel up afterwards and the bike was wobbling all over the place as I went to find a hotel. I spent the rest of the night tightening spokes trying to sort it out. Most had seized and I broke quite a few trying. I replaced the broken ones the next day, stopping back by the workshop to save time in remounting the tyres. The people of Loja are all very friendly and one old guy invited me into his house for soup and gave me fruit for the journey. I was headed to Cuenca, a big city that is famous for its architecture and for having loads of American expats. I rode around for ages trying to find a place to stay that wasn’t super-expensive before ending up in a hostel. The next day I went to get the bike cleaned and to find a place to further fix the wheels. I found a lavadero, which had a shiny Suzuki V-Strom that had just been cleaned. The owner came back and said he could show me the way to a good workshop. Unbeknown to be, the guy who cleaned my bike had for some reason decided that its a good idea to spray diesel all over the place, including the brakes and as we set off I narrowly avoided crashing into a car when squeezing my brake levers resulted in no braking at all. Unfortunately, I could not tell my guide about my brakes and he was smashing up the streets with his 1000cc bike, so I still had to keep up, but couldn’t brake. Its a bloody miracle that I didn’t crash. Later at the workshop I was told that they spray diesel on cars to make them shine. We took the wheels off and dropped them off with another maestro who would keep them for a few days.

Back at the hostel I met a Swede, Thomas and a German couple who had been traveling South from USA in a car. Their stories of central America made me wish I would have more time to be exploring than I had planned. The wheels were repaired and I treated the bike to new, higher handlebars, something I should had done before leaving UK and had been waiting to do in the states but couldn’t wait any longer. What a difference it makes. Now I am way more comfortable riding seated or standing.

I left to spend a day or two hiking in the Las Cajas national park. Cuenca is nice and warm even at night time but at way over 4000m, Cajas is cold. I parked up at the visitors centre intent on camping the night so that I could make an early start in the morning. The rangers suggested a walk that would take me about 8 hours, covering a loop that would bring me back to my bike. The maps that they give on paying the park entrance fee are really detailed and I was looking forward to the hike. The ranger invited me to stay in a little cabin, where I chatted to two students who were mapping the flora and fauna of the area. They told me that although the maps are good, the trails are impossible to follow and they had to use GPS always. I though it best to take mine with me along with a compass for good measure. Its a shame that I still didn’t really know how to use either as I lost the trail within 30 minutes of walking and then spent the next 4 hours having no idea where I was until I gave up looking and turned west to bring me back to the main road. I went back to Cuenca, a little disappointed with the shambles of a hike, but happy to be in a city for the weekend and as I waited at a traffic lights, the owner of a hotel pulled up in his car and offered me a discount at his hotel. I gave Thomas a shout and we went out to see what the town had to offer, which was mostly shit music, but fun crowds and lots of hot ladies to chat to.

The discounted hotel room was pretty luxurious and it took me another couple of days to motivate myself to leave Cuenca, but eventually I left. I didn’t really know where I was going, but the road that passed through Las Cajas looked promising so I headed back the same way for a fun mountain pass that had me riding above the clouds. On the other side I had planned to stay the night somewhere on the coast but after one hour of dead straight roads, featureless flat vistas, humidity and lots of trucks I turned back to the mountains at the first junction and was rewarded by more mountain views twisty roads and a cooler climate. The road rose up through another high +4000m pass before descending down into the city of Riobamba. On the way down I caught views of Chimborazu, the highest point in Ecuador and due to the earth not being completely spherical, the furthest point from the centre of the earth. There are roads that ride around the volcano, both dirt and sealed and I settled into a cheap hotel so that I could ride them the next day. Unfortunately it rained for the next two days and I decided that it was time to just ride straight to Quito.

I went straight to Alva’s hostel and met up with her and Mike. The hostel is in the La Mariscal district which is also known as ‘Gringolandia’ as it is full of foreigners. Its full of locals too and is pretty much one big party that only stops for Sundays. The hostel used to be Alva’s family home when the area was purely residential but over the years the area has filled up with bars and clubs and hostels. Ecuador is really popular for tourism and has even more young travelers than Bolivia or Peru. Some volunteering, others learning Spanish, all getting drunk. Besides the gringos and backpackers, I met Alejandro, a Venezuelan actor who was visiting his son in Quito. We hung out a lot with Mike and Alva and I got invited to come visit in Caracas should I ever head that way.

The bike needed an oil change and I found a workshop. The mechanic, Diego was happy for me to use his facilities and he even took me on his scooter to look for oil when I couldn’t find the brand I wanted. While we were out, the throttle cable snapped and we had an adventure trying to ride back with him operating the brakes and the steering and me the throttle. At one point the cable got stuck under the seat, forcing us into the middle of a junction, with Diego’s skilful swerving only just saving us from collision. Diego is a very experienced mechanic and although he never did anything on my bike I saw enough happy customers in his shop (most from USA and Canada). I later sent other riders to his workshop and they were all happy with his work too. You can find him opposite the Freedom Bike rental on Juan León Mera.

After a week of rum, wine, salsa and all the fun that La Mariscal has to offer, the time had come to start the Colombian page of my adventure. I said goodbye to Mike and Alva and headed north out of the city. I was expecting to see some sort of sign marking the equator but I saw nothing. Its not likely that I rode past without seeing it, much more likely that I took a wrong turn and went along a less celebrated route. I arrived in the border town of Tulcán late and in the rain and took a place to stay near the bus station. The weather had cleared up by the morning and I rode over to the border after taking by last opportunity to fill the tank with cheap fuel. The border looked ordered and relatively efficient but it still took me hours to get out of Ecuador because immigration had none of my records on their system as it takes them three weeks to get the details from the little border that I had crossed to enter the country. Of course it was nothing that a shit load of photocopies couldn’t fix. The Colombian side was straight forward, friendly and helpful. The customs clearance was more thorough than anywhere else, with people taking impressions of the chassis and engine numbers off the bike but the charming (and pretty) customs lady let me use her internet to kill the time. I rode into Ipiales to buy insurance, get money and a sim card and then rode on to Pasto. My delays at the border meant that I arrived much later than I would have liked so I chose the first hotel I could find. The owner told me that I was in a pretty shit area, dangerous at night but it would be fine as long as I took a taxi and at 6 quid for a comfy room with bathroom and double bed I wasn’t going to complain. My hosts called me a cab and I ventured out at night to find some food and some beers. After all it was a Friday night, and my first night in Colombia so I needed to do something to celebrate. Pasto was not what I expected Colombia to be like. Its cold and instead of latin vibes playing out in the street, I found loads of rock bars. Still, I like rock too and being British there was a large chance that I’d be welcomed into any group of rockers. The first group I approached were huge fans of Liverpool death metal band Carcass. A band I’d actually seen in concert in my youth and it wasn’t long before I had a group of new friends. Everyone was super friendly, offered me to come and stay with them to see more of the local sights. We drank loads of a local drink that I cant remember its name but was basically like hot orange cordial mixed with some spirit, possibly aguardiente, although it could have been vodka. Combined with the shots of brandy that were being passed around clandestinely under the table I had one hell of a thick head the next day and really didn’t want to ride anywhere but I had to leave because I’d made an arrangement to stay with a contact in the next city.

I met Sebastian on Couchsurfing and he had invited me to come to Popayan for a party on the Saturday. The ride up from Pasto was awesome with really amazing scenery, but it rained a couple of times making progress slow, but I had left Pasto too late anyway and it was dark when I arrived in Popayan but Sebastian came and found me. Sebastian, his step-brother Pedro and all their friends are into electronic music in a big way (as am I) and it was a great contrast to the previous evenings rock fest. It was another heavy night lasting way until morning but I was happy to chill in Popayan for a while. Sebastian’s house is right next to the historical centre which has loads of colonial buildings and is very pretty when lit up at night time. We went to a hot springs in nearby Coconuco. As we drove up, Sebastian’s dad, Diego was pointing out the hills telling me that some of them had guerrillas operating in them. The south of Colombia is know as a ‘zona roja’ (red zone) for activity by the FARC and it had initially been my plan to only travel on major roads. Later I’d relaxed into it a bit more, but always consulted the locals before embarking on a journey, although while I was in Cali, the FARC did bomb a police station not too far away from Cali and Popayan.

I ended up staying in Popayan a whole week. I had become good friends with Sebastian, Pedro and all their mates and I was enjoying the good music and hospitality, although the rain every day was also putting me off moving. Eventually I got myself together to ride the short journey to Cali. All the parceros (colombian slang for ‘the guys’) had told me what a nice place Cali is and I knew I was going to stick around for a while (but I didn’t think I’d be there for 2 months!).

Riding in, I was trying to navigate to San Antonio, a district recommended to me by Sebastian where there are loads of good cheap places to stay. The road system takes a bit of getting used to and as I had left Popayan too late again, it was dark and I ended up riding in circles until some friendly people took me to a cheap hotel owned by a friend. It took me a while to learn my way around Cali but in reality all streets in Colombia (and Venezuela) are named systematically and are in a grid orientation so its really easy to find your way once you know which calle and carrera you want. The hotel was nice and well within my price range (Colombia is good value for money) but the owner wanted to lock the doors at ten so it wasn’t going to be an option for longer than one night and I set off again to find San Antonio in the morning. I hadn’t been that far away and I quickly found a cheap hotel that was a bit of a dump really but was central to everything, had a private room and bathroom and secure parking for the bike for £7 a night. Most of the other guests were chilled latino backpackers but there was a couple of riders too. José from Australia was traveling south on a BMWF650 he had bought in México and Gal from Israel had recently bought a Suzuki Freewind 650 in Cali and was waiting for his ownership papers to arrive so he could start his trip. We all hit it off immediately. José and Gal had already been in Cali for a few weeks and knew loads of locals and it wasn’t long before I too couldn’t walk the streets of San Antonio without bumping into someone I knew. Sebastian also lives in Cali from time to time and we got to hang out together loads and I got my first taste for Caleña salsa when we went out drinking with his lady friends. It was becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to be leaving Cali quickly and I decided to make the most of my stay in one place with a week of Spanish lessons to master the complicated subjunctive tense (that all students of Spanish have problems with) and some dance lessons. Salsa is everywhere in Cali and you can feel pretty inept if you cant dance any of it. I genuinely like the music too and salsatecas like El Rincón de Don Herbet are nice relaxed places to practice your moves (and get hammered) with loads of friendly people of all ages sat outside drinking brandy or rum bought for one of the booze shops that are everywhere (called estancos). I particularly liked the friendliness of the place. There are always plenty foreigners about but its definitely locals that make up the majority of the crowd. You can ask any girl to dance and they generally will for at least a song, no matter how shit you are, or drunk. One guy even invited me to his wedding.

I also got invited to go to Sebastian’s uncle’s wedding in Ibagué, or rather I invited myself, but Jorge, the groom was more than happy to have me there. The wedding was great fun and we were all a compete mess by the end of ‘the show’. Me and Sebastian stuck around for the rest of the weekend to see what else Ibagué had to offer, namely, another kicking for my liver. Riding back from Ibagué was one of the worst trips I’d ever had. The mountain road between Ibagué and Armenia is known as ‘La Linea’ and everyone says its the worst road in Colombia. At first it looked okay to me, sealed, two lanes, twisties, what are they moaning about? until I hit the endless lines of trucks (known locally as mulas ) that weren’t moving at all on either side of the road. Apparently this is the norm for la linea and its one of the reasons that convinced me to to start to take the roads less traveled (I didn’t need much convincing to be honest). The road network in Colombia is great, but there is a always lot of heavy traffic, still at least the tolls are free to bikes. Riding back the situation was awful. My hangover from two days on the lash aside, it was raining and about 30 km from Armenia I came across a huge queue of traffic on one side. Riding up on the other side I passed many kilometers of stationary vehicles until I found the problem. A Landslide had blocked the road (a common occurrence in the Andes) and it was obvious to me that no one would be getting through any time soon. Other people were waiting around but I decided to ride back to the last town and find somewhere to stay. Doubling back wasn’t easy as everyone wanted to know what the problem was. After shouting ‘Derrumbes!’(landslides) back at a few people I just kept my eyes on the road carried on, but I came to a stop again when other motorists who had gotten fed up of waiting had started to come up the other side of the road blocking both lanes. It took my ages to get to off the road and it wasn’t until the next day that I passed through and got back to Cali. Still, it least I hadn’t been stuck in a bus with no food like poor Sebastian had.

Back in Cali, I was expecting José and Gal to have gone. Gal had gotten his papers and they were ready to ride south, but problems with their bikes meant they were still in town when I got back and were going to be around until the new year. Christmas is a really big thing in Cali with the Fería de Cali, a big street party that starts on the 25th and I’d been having salsa lessons twice a day to get myself ready to join in the fun. We’d been hanging out with some girls from our street and for Christmas night we were all the street with all the neighborhood. The fería itself was bonkers. The first day was the salsadromo, a big carnival procession of salsa dancers but most of the revelers were just getting drunk and spraying each other with foam. Nobody was spared. I saw police on motorbikes getting their visors covered in foam and someone sprayed foam through the open sunroof of a passing car! For the evenings there was always some live music with the most memorable being the music from the Pacific coast with its African influences.

All in all Christmas in Cali was one of the best I’ve ever had and I’d certainly consider going back to spend Christmas there again. I’d had so much fun that I wasn’t even that phased when I crashed into the side of a taxi on New Years Day. It was completely my fault. I was looking the wrong direction at a junction and then didn’t have time to stop when I finally did see him. New Years Day is the one day of the year were there are hardly any taxis about and its really unlucky that I managed to find one to crash into. The police turned up to mediate between me and the driver. They were more concerned with if I had any injuries or not and offered to take me to hospital (on the back of their bike). The owner of the taxi turned up and looked at the damage. Dents and scratches to both side doors, a cracked bumper and a smashed light consol. He asked for 1000,000 pesos (about £360) to repair everything. I didn’t argue and just paid him. The adrenaline was still pumping and I just wanted out of the situation. I later found out that I had paid over the odds, but not enough to lose any sleep. I was more relieved than anything. My first accident in the trip and I had walked away from it unscathed, with only minor damage to the bike. I got the bike repaired over the next week and got to meet more San Antonio locals in doing so. I now knew everyone from the owners of corner shops, shoe repairers, welders, mechanics….. The list was endless.

Gal left shortly after new year. José had more bike problems and Gal just couldn’t wait any longer. Eventually José left too and it was at this point that I started to think about moving on myself. I’d been in Cali for almost 2 months, way longer than I’d planned on staying in the whole of Colombia and I had to get a move on. My parents wanted to come and see me and I needed to start to think about my journey through Central America, but Colombia is a very diverse country and there was still loads of places left to see. I admit that I didn’t want to leave Cali. I was having too much fun with all my new friends, but I really had to go and after a final heavy night out with the girls from our street, I packed up the bike and hit the road again.

Peru

The first impression I got of Peru was that it is very like Bolivia. The locals look exactly the same and they live very much the same in the same red brick houses with bars of steel reinforcement sticking out of the top of concrete pillars that hope of one day being turned into another floor. Peru is more developed though and passing through the towns along the southern shores of Lake Titicaca on a perfectly condition sealed road I noticed all the cars are about ten years younger than in Bolivia, all the public buildings are shiny and new, and I knew where I was thanks to the road signs at the limits of each village.

I arrived in Puno, a big city on the lake that most of the tourists I had met in Copacobana had passed through on their way to Bolivia. I spent a little while riding around trying to find a place to stay, finally getting my own room for 20 soles (4 quid). The owners of the hostal where really friendly and helped me squeeze the bike through a tight corridor to the garden at the back. I was on my way out to see the city when one of them asked my to help her daughter who had gotten a sweet stuck in her throat. I tried the Heimlich maneuver several times without success. I guess doing it on the count of three wasn’t a good idea. Next time I’ll just surprise my patient on the count of two. It absolutely pissed it down after dark and when the rain finally stopped I went out to get food and saw people bailing out water from their houses after the downpour. Apparently, it always rains like this. Its a micro-climate caused by the lake.

I set off for Cusco the next day. There are loads of interesting things to see on the way, like historical sites from cultures before the Incas but I had elected to pass them by this time. I felt bad about missing them out but my 3 months in Bolivia had kind of dictated that I really needed to start to get a move on and I had decided that I would need to be riding almost everyday to cross Peru in about a month. The road was fantastic, more altiplano scenery reaching 4400m then descending into colourful valleys. I could see the popularity of Peru before I had gotten anywhere near Cusco as I passed about twenty other bikers in a matter of hours compared to the three I saw in 3 months in Bolivia.

Cusco is a much bigger city than I had expected, and I seemed to be navigating for ages before I finally got to the historical centre where I had seen a hostel with parking for bikes. The historical centre had the most tourists I’d seen since arriving in South America. Many of the colonial buildings are hostels, hotels and tour companies, but I didn’t have to wander far to be a solo gringo surrounded by locals. The weather had been good so I decided to leave the very next day to go to Machu Picchu. As I as getting the bike ready, the hostel staff were debating about whether or not today would be a good day to go anywhere as the whole of Cusco province was having a general strike. One guy told me to stay away from the Avenida de la Cultura but that I could leave the city by the road that passes by Sacsayhuaman and it would be fine after that. I refueled and set off. I wasn’t far out of the city when I came across a junction with rocks scattered across the road. I dodged around them as did a following car but at the next rock pile the car was turned back by the people who were making the road block. I asked if I could pass and was told I could cos I was on a bike, although I got the impression he meant ‘because we cant stop you’. Further on at Urubamba an old women through a rock at me as I passed. She was angry at my crossing their line but the throw was so pathetic that I’m pretty sure she didn’t aim to hit me. I felt a little bad about passing their road blocks. They were protesting for better living conditions and generally I’m happy to see people protest for what they want, however I was also getting excited, because seeing all the stranded tourists gave me the idea that I could possibly have Machu Picchu all to myself as the only one bold or stupid enough to try to get there that day. The road its self was breathtaking and after I’d passed the first villages near Cusco and a 4600m pass I descended down into a valley where the friendly people didn’t seem to be protesting at all. The tarmac road took me to Santa Maria, where I got some supplies and then took the dirt road to Santa Teresa. No roads go to Aguas Calientes (the town next to Machu Picchu), only train tracks and the closest place I could ride to was the work site of a Hydroelectric plant being constructed. The local police convinced me to park up in Santa Teresa and take a mini bus to Hydroelectrica where there were no trains running because of the strike, but I could walk along the tracks and get there before dark. I’d only been walking ten minutes when I bumped into two Peruvian women who were sitting eating. They kindly offered me some fruit and after chatting to them for a few minutes it seemed stupid not to walk together. The women work and live in Aguas Calientes and by the look of things had not counted on there not being a train as they struggled along carrying way too much stuff. Chivalry took over and I offered a hand, both hands in fact to carry their stuff. One of the women was from Aguas Calientes and it was funny listening to her as she told us stories about the evil spirits that live in the jungle. Even with me carrying their heavy loads, the ladies didn’t walk too quickly and it was darkness before we got anywhere near the village. Not surprisingly, Aguas Calientes is a huge tourist trap with 5 star hotels and numerous bars and restaurants. I’m not sure how I could have expected it to be any different, but it was a shock to see its bright lights emerge from the darkness of the sacred valley. I said goodbye to the ladies, ate, found a hostel and passed out on my bunk. I was still under the impression that the general strike had been to my benefit and if I could get out bed early enough I could get to Machu Picchu before the crowds, but unfortunately the walk had taken far more out of me and I totally missed my planned 4 am start the next day. It takes about an hour and a half to walk up to the ruins from the village and the tourist buses don’t start until after the site is open, so many eager tourists get to see the ruins before the major crowds start arriving. I on the other hand got to watch loads of buses pass me as I struggled up the steep steps and it was already rammed by the time I got to the top.

It has to be said that Machu Picchu is amazing and I’m totally glad I went. The weather was great and I got to fully appreciate what a fantastic place it is to build anything, let alone an Inca village. The massive crowds did do my head in though and after only a couple of hours I went back down into the valley and fell asleep in a park for 3 hours.

The train was running next day and I headed back to Santa Teresa early, had a soak in a hot springs and went to go back to Cusco. The weather had turned bad with light rain. I was convinced that the weather would be better on the other side of the mountain pass and lazily opted not to don my waterproofs. I was right, but I was soaked and cold by the time I got over the pass and I completed the journey on autopilot. Back in Cusco, I was going to take part in the backpacker nightlife. Like La Paz, Cusco has several big ‘party hostels’, next to each other. I usually avoid them, cos I don’t need more excuses to drink and I find other places a more rewarding traveling experience. Still, they are good fun, usually have cheap drinks and loads of young female travelers. This particular night I got hammered in the bar and never made it on to the club. Overall I have been good in Peru, with the weekend in Cusco being the only bender in 6 weeks of travel there.

The tourism at Machu Picchu had got me super-keen on visiting Choquequirao , another Inca ruin site documented by Hiram Bingham. The site is only accessible on foot or horse and most tourists pass it by because of the 4-5 day trek needed to get there and back (Most backpackers I spoke to hadn’t even heard of it). The prospect of having a Machu Picchu-type ruin all to myself to explore got me excited to the point that I even went out in Cusco and bought an “Indiana Jones’ type Fedora hat and safari shirt, both practical choices for the trek but I bought them to get into character! I scoured Cusco’s supermarkets for supplies as I would have to carry all my food for the trek with me. With Salami, biscuits and mars bars, it wasn’t the most balanced diet, but it was all I could find that didn’t need cooking and it was only for a few days.

Choquequirao is located in the Anpurmac valley, near the sleepy village of Cachora where I met Dayne, a local guide who had all the info on the trek and convinced me to rent a donkey to carry my backpack to make the trek a bit easier. I stored my bike a Dayne’s house and set off early the next day. I was quite looking forward to have an animal companion for the trek but after half an hour with ‘Dulce’ (Spanish for sweet) I knew I’d be much quicker on my own, carrying my own backpack. Dayne came and took the donkey back and I set off again, alone, although I bummed a lift from a passing truck and made back the time I lost on my way to the start of the trail. The track is very easy to follow and it is impossible to get lost but its a brutal trek that descends about 1500m into the valley, then climbs back up 1800m to the site. The descent to the river was okay, although I fell over on the loose gravel a few times. The river is crossed by a little cable car that you pull yourself across on. It used to have a walk bridge but it was washed away by high waters earlier in the year. I passed a German family who were getting ready to ride their donkeys up the valley on the other side of the river. I walked on ahead but they overtook me when I ran out of energy. I stumbled into the Santa Rosa campsite completely knackered, set up my tent, had a cold shower and fell fast asleep. The ascent was much easier the next day and I made it all the way to the ruins by lunchtime. There were a few people there but the ruins are so extensive that there could be 50 people or so and you would still be on your own most of the time. The site is at over 3000m above sea level and was a complete white-out when I woke the next day and I stayed in my tent for the clouds to clear before seeing the rest of the site and heading back to Cachora. All in all, it took me four days to get there and back, including a whole day at the ruins.

I chilled in Cachora for the evening and had dinner with Dayne’s family, who gave me back the money for the donkey and I started my ride across Peru the next day. I had bought a road map of Peru in Argentina but had lost it somewhere in Bolivia. I wasn’t too annoyed, but the map had places marked on it by a couple of riders and I was annoyed to be missing out on their recommendations. Still, there was loads of info on the internet, and the ‘middle route’ of Peru came highly recommended for its fantastic roads, colonial cities and low crime. I passed through Abancay, stopping for lunch at a ‘Chifa’, a Peruvian Chinese restaurant, where I chatted to the chef a little in Mandarin and got some free soup. Outside Abancay I stopped at a workshop to get my chain and lock cut off. The padlock had seized from 2 years of road dust and I couldn’t be bothered with the extra weight if it was of no use to me. A guy with an angle grinder cut it off in 5 seconds.

After Abancay, I turned onto a dirt road for Andahuaylas. Up until this point I had been seeing other riders, generally in groups on BMWs every now and then, but from this junction onwards I hardly saw anyone. I guess for all its popularity, the ‘middle route’ is normally overshadowed by the panamericana coastal route. The dirt road, which was under construction, was only as far as the next town and it was all asphalt after, but as I passed through the small villages I saw kids filling in potholes and looking for a donation from the road users, something that I hadn’t seen since Africa. The weather was very cloudy and it looked like it would rain at any time. Being October, I had arrived in the start of the rainy season. July and August are the driest times to visit Peru and I had intended to arrive earlier but I was having too much fun in Bolivia. Other than reducing visibility, the rain wouldn’t be a big problem, especially on asphalt but I was a bit concerned about what state the dirt roads further north would be in. I arrived in Andahuaylas about 3pm, treated myself to a nice hotel and chilled in my room as the rain finally came and pissed it down all until evening.

The road to Ayacucho the next day was equally brilliant. Twisty tarmac perfection that passed through different altitudes. I had to change my gloves and jumper twice to deal with the changing climates. The road was not 100% completed and there was still some dirt and construction to ride through. At Ayacucho, I found a cheap hospedaje out of town and took a taxi in to see the beautiful colonial town centre. Like Bolivia, Peru is a very economical place to travel and I was very happy to be spending only half my budget per day, with 70 soles (about 14 quid) being enough to eat well, sleep very well and buy fuel for about 250 km. Also like Bolivia, Peruvians are very friendly people and I was starting to think that the major differences between the two countries were mostly just due to the the different size and population. Peru had 30 million people, three times the population of Bolivia, with most people living in the mountainous areas or the coast. I’d been waking up super-early everyday since the Choquequirao trek and the next day was no exception. I read in bed until it was a sensible hour to get up and hit the road however I wasn’t going to leave Ayacucho without trying one of the local specialties. Puca Picante is a spicy-curry type dish and being curry-mad I had to try it, but I couldn’t find it in any of the comedors around town. A women at a juice bar told me that I there was a feria (festival) in town that would have all kinds of food on offer and I went to investigate. The feria was a pretty big event with a huge food court and live music. I was getting a load of curious looks being one of the only gringos there and the only gringo in full riding clothing and I would have liked to stay to enjoy the feria more but I had to get a move on. At least a caught a hilarious moment where a gust of wind caused 10-15 parasols to be launched into the air with everyone running for cover!

I found my way out of Ayacucho pretty easily, but then got lost trying to navigate my way through the town of Huanta. I’d managed to download a map but hadn’t been able to put it onto the GPS yet. I’d have to sort it out sooner or later. Peruvians cant give directions either! The dirt road leaving Huanta passed through familiar scenery of multi-coloured rocks and river basins and then turned into a super-fun sealed road that went all the way to Huancayo. The road was very narrow at only 2.5 meters in places and passed through a valley that looked like it would never end. The curves were great fun but you have to ride with a lot of caution as I saw a near head-on collision between a truck and a car at a one of the many blind corners. It was late in the afternoon and it had started to rain. I had realised that I wouldn’t make the city before dark and had been looking out for a place to stay when I found a dirt road leading to a secluded area where I set up camp for the night and get out of the rain.

It was a sunny start the next day and I set off to ride the rest of the road to Huancayo. I stopped a few km down the road to take advantage of a hot springs on the other side of the river. The water wasn’t actually that hot, but it was still good to have a dip after a night in my tent. There were loads of cheap places to stay outside Huancayo, and I opted for a luxurious hotel which was still only 40 soles (£9). The city itself was very easy to navigate and I took the bike into the centre to get something to eat and see the sites. I managed to get a lie-in the next day and I didn’t hit the road until after lunch. I rode through some heavy rain that had me going very slow as I couldn’t see anything. The other road users weren’t fazed by it though and where still driving like idiots. The rain stopped and I passed through the town of La Oroya, which is very industrial and reminded me of my home town of Widnes with loads of factories smelting ore and the skyline being dominated by one great big chimney. The lack of vegetation told me that I must have been pretty high again and shortly after la Oroya I passed a 4800m pass surrounded by mines. The road goes down from the pass to Lima on the coast and would have been great fun but it has a lot of traffic, mostly trucks and coaches driven without care and I was glad to get off it at the end. Although motorbikes are not the safest form of transport, I’ll take my chances any day over a trip in a Peruvian coach. I’ve seen them overtaking on blind corners, in the rain, while descending so many times that I’m glad my life isn’t in their hands. You have to be very careful overtaking them too as I’ve had trucks and coaches pull out on me while I’m passing them, even when they don’t have any room to overtake themselves.

The engine started to splutter as the bike descended towards sea level. The carbs were still adjusted for altitude and were running lean with the increased air pressure. I’d been able to balance it out a bit with the choke but at below 1000m, the engine revs erratically, stalls a lot and is a bastard to start again when it does. I was also concerned about riding into Lima, which is a huge city of about 10 million inhabitants and I was only 30 km from the city when I decided to leave it till the next day. It was becoming dark and I really didn’t want to have to navigate so I stopped at the pretty town of Chosica which is constantly gridlocked with coaches and trucks but has a beautiful plaza. I stayed the night in a sex hotel out of town (alone).

Staying in Chosica was a good call and I navigated into Lima the next day by memory and found the hostel without problem. Unfortunately the space they had for my bike was too impractical so I went to find somewhere else. On the way into Lima I had met Franco, an airline pilot who was out out riding on a Ducati. Franco took me to a shop where I was surprised to see that they had the exact tyre I wanted and for cheaper than UK prices. We changed the tyre and then found another hostel with parking (Hitchiker). All of the hostel and hotels are in the barrio (area) of Miraflores, which is absolutely nothing like the rest of Peru that I had seen so far. Its a very affluent area and loads of restaurants and bars and is home to several embassies. I spent the day chilling out at the Malecón, the long promenade next to the Pacific Ocean where you can see people surfing and paragliding. For the evening, I met up with Juan Carlos and Roman, two friends I had met in Salta months ago and we went to have my first beers in 12 days. Juan Carlos is from Lima and after we wandered around the bars of Miraflores and downtown we went to the barrio of Barranco, which has super-classy bars that wouldn’t look out of place in London. Juan Carlos wasn’t the only person I knew in Lima and for Saturday I met up with Sandro, a Peruvian musician I knew from Bristol. Sandro works teaching percussion at a local university and he took me and Roman to a free party downtown with some live music that although wasn’t exactly my cup of tea it wasn’t cumbia or reggaeton either so I enjoyed the change. Sandro is also a film maker and is making a documentary about how bad the traffic is in Lima. I went to stay with him for a few days while he interviewed me about my riding experiences. To be honest, I didn’t think that the traffic was that bad, although its true that I’m kind of used to bad traffic now after so long abroad. I explained how shocked I was by Buenos Aires, where the people drive incredibly aggressively but the road system is in good condition and of course I mentioned the utter chaos that is driving in Lagos in the last hour before moto-curfew. Sandro and his producer friends, the Flores Brothers wanted to film me riding around Lima, but when the traffic would be at its worst. We went out one morning but unfortunately (or fortunately) the traffic wasn’t that bad. They would have been better off filming me when I was leaving Lima as I took a wrong turn and had a hell of a time getting back on track, even getting boxed in by collectivos (mini-van buses) under a bridge at one junction.

I was heading north towards Huaral following a route that Franco had recommended to me. Lima is a city built on a desert although its not obvious when you’re in barrios like Miraflores. Its a lot more obvious in Molina, the affluent district that Sandro lives in and very obvious on the northern limits of the city where houses are built on sand dunes. Turning inland the dunes give way to rock and vegetation and the landscapes were all green again by Huaral. The route that Franco told me about was a dirt road that passes through beautiful scenery ascending through valleys to the high altitude mining town of Cerro de Pasco. On the way there are hot springs and I stopped for the night to have a soak and avoid the rain (started at about 3 pm again). The road was badly corrugated and muddy in places but the clear skies were drying it out the next day. I passed through a village where the locals were telling me that I had to wait, something to do with wild animals that I didn’t understand but after a few minutes I went on anyway without dramas. The road passed through a 4800m pass and then a mine where the roads were very muddy where mining trucks had churned up the earth. The mine was quite big and I had trouble navigating out of the complex before I was back on the road. Cerro de Pasco claims to be the highest town in the world even though La Rinconada, another Peruvian Mining town is over 5000m. I stopped at a metal workshop to get one of my luggage bars welded. I was going to ride into the town, possibly even stay the night but I got a little frustrated trying to find my way around and rode back out the way I had come in. There was a sign leading to Huánuco, the next town on my route and I thought I could make it there before dark, but as I passed a few more mines the condition of the road deteriorated and I started to wish I had stayed in Cerro de Pasco. I found a nice cheap hotel to stay the night and dined with some of the miners.

It was cold and overcast in the morning, but the skies cleared and it warmed up as I descended into Huánuco, which was very easy to navigate and has loads of friendly people. I refueled and headed west towards Huaraz. The sealed road was twisty and very narrow like the road to Huancayo but more populated. Great fun to ride but requiring a lot of caution. The people still driving like nutters, and truck drivers refusing to get over and make room. I had to stop to replace the clutch cable which snapped just outside of La Union and I had guinea pig for lunch, which is eaten all over Peru but I hadn’t got around to trying yet (tastes OK, not much meat though!). I arrived at La Union early in the afternoon, and some people at the petrol station recommended me to stay to see some nearby Inca ruins. I’d wanted to make more progress towards Huaraz but I was a bit tired and I wasn’t too confident that I would find anywhere good to camp along the narrow road. I found a place to stay and felt better about my decision when the rains came again and it poured it down for over an hour. I went to soak myself in another hot springs down the road. Although I hadn’t been riding huge distances, I’d really started to like this rhythm of travel. I’d had plenty of time to relax and see stuff while still riding every day. The Inca ruins were well worth a look and I was accompanied by a free guide who was very knowledgeable but also had loads of questions about my bike.

The road out of La Union was much wider and I thought I’d be able to make it very close to Huaraz by the end of the day. The road rose up again to higher altitudes and the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca came into view. There was a junction signposted for Huaraz that I hadn’t seen on my map. It was a dirt road and looked like it went straight towards the mountains. It turned out to be not only one of the most beautiful dirt roads I’ve ridden but also a short cut to Huaraz and I arrived early afternoon, just in time to avoid the 3pm rain.

I’d planned to relax in Huaraz for a day or two and do some maintenance. I got the bike cleaned, changed the oil, adjusted the rear shock and got some repairs done to my clothes. Huaraz is a very popular town with tourists who come to hike in the cordilleras and I met an American guy in a bar who had been traveling Latin America with a piano in his van and had managed to get himself sponsored by Goodyear. I wasn’t up for doing any hiking myself but I definitely wanted to ride around the mountains some more. The owner of a Peruvian/British curry house gave me some ideas and I set off for Carhuaz to cross the mountains to Chacas. I was late leaving Huaraz as I had lost my bank card and had to phone to cancel it. I’d probably either left it it Sandro’s place or in the bank near his house. Either way, I wasn’t worried that I’d lost any money, but I was pissed off that I’d been so negligent, and very pissed off when I realised I’d be getting charged for doing cash advances on my credit card until I could get a replacement, possibly not until the new year.

The road to from Carhuaz to Chacas is famous as ‘La Punta Olimpica’, a 4900m dirt road mountain pass. The road had recently been sealed but I was told that there was a tunnel at about 4700m so that the pass is still there to be enjoyed. I was looking for the turn off but didn’t see anything, in fact I had started to think that the pass must be somewhere else when the people in Chacas told me that I had passed it. I was gutted, but there were more mountain passes to by done to get back to the other side of the mountains and I reckoned I’d be content with these. A local guide, Cristian told me that the new road was months old. He had trained to be a guide in readiness for all the tourists that would now be passing through Chacas. I followed a scenic route he gave me to get to Yanama and then passed over a 4600m pass to Llanganuco on the other side. All the roads were dirt but I was still thinking about the Punta Olimpica and I was going to go back but it started raining so I went to Caraz for the night. In Caraz I found a magazine about the development of the road, including pictures of the days when the snow-covered pass was the only way of getting to the village. It reminded me of reading a book about the Sani Pass in Lesotho and faced with all this history there was no way I wasn’t going to go back and ride it. I was up early the next day and had arrived back at the tunnel by 10 am, where I found the turn-off easily now that I knew what I was looking for. Shortly after the first turn the road was blocked by rocks from a landslide. I stopped and tried to shift one of them before deciding to ride around it very close to a dodgy precipice. It was snowing and I couldn’t see a thing with the visor down or with my sunglasses on so I had no option but to ride with the snow going into my eyes. Since the tunnel is only 200m below, the pass isn’t very long, only 2-3 km I reckon but now that it isn’t being used its in probably worse condition that it used to be. The landslides on the other side were even worse and there were a few very dodgy bits that I had to gas the bike and hope for the best. This was made worse by the fact that the back brake had stopped working so I had very little time to line the bike up to pass the obstacles (an problem caused by overheating due to having no pad springs, its okay when cold). I made it over to the other side and came back through the tunnel. It was a very relaxed ride back to Carhuaz after all the adrenaline.

Moving north, I passed back through Caraz. I’d wanted to refuel after Caraz but I hadn’t given it much though to where exactly. Google maps showed that I was riding along a major road and little else. The road turned into a dirt road that passes down the side of a canyon and through lots of tunnels. Some of the tunnels made me uneasy. They were narrow, long and unlit and focusing on the light at the end had me riding dead centre, right were the dirt was deepest. The scenery was completely different to the cordilleras and was back to multi-coloured rock that would have been an almost arid terrain if it wasn’t for the river at the bottom of the canyon. The villages I was passing were tiny and there were no obvious fuel stations. I came to a crossing with no signs and asked some road workers for directions. Through a misunderstanding on my part of where I was heading to, I was given advice to ride towards Chimboté, which is on the coast and was not were I wanted to go. I rode on through more dry canyon scenery. As the day drew on it became very windy with gusts knocking the bike about and blowing dust into my eyes. I was worried about fuel. I had picked up 4 litres in a little village but I still had no idea how much I had since the tank hadn’t been full since going to la Punta Olimpica in the morning. I came across the middle-of-nowhere type village of Chuquicara, which basically consists of a few shops and a police station. There was a petrol station too but the owner told me that he didn’t have any fuel until Monday. I was still confused about where I was and it was getting late so I opted to camp by the police station. I had asked about the road north but now I was only concerned with where the nearest petrol station was. I dined in a comedor and watched the TV.

I slept okay but got woken up a few times by trucks stopping at the police checkpoint and I was up, packed and ready to ride by before 7 am. I rode along the now paved road towards the next town that I had guessed from the road markings to be 60km away. The canyon had spread out and between the rock was now a wide river full of vegetation that reminded me of some places I’d seen in Morocco. The village turned out to not be that far and I was shocked to see a sign saying that I was 30km from the panamericana and the coast. While I refueled, my phone had signal and was able to show me where I was. I had taken the wrong turn but I could just double back to Chuquicara and turn north from there. I stopped back in Chuquicara to have a coffee and say goodbye to my new friends of the evening and I turned left over a bridge onto another sealed road. I had expected to pass through a few villages but I saw a sign indicating a village much further north and I took this road instead. The road was another amazing narrow twisty sealed road following the river before rising above the canyon and arriving at the pretty village of Pallasca. From Pallasca the road dropped down a valley where I got confused with directions again. There was supposed to be a main road but the locals insisted that I should take the dirt road not the sealed road. A few km later I met some engineers who confirmed I was on the main road. I told them that I’d expected it to be sealed and they said sorry but they are working on it! I laughed and said it didn’t mater. The roads of Peru, sealed or not, are all fantastic in my view!

The dirt road rose up out of the valley and passed through the villages of Mollepata, El Alto, and Mollepampa. I had trouble finding fuel, but bought some out of someone’s house in a village. Even though I hadn’t seen any other riders, I got the impression that I was on a popular route as the locals told me they keep seeing people pass through on bikes and cycles, probably the only gringos they ever see. It started to rain and I had to slow right down on the dirt roads which where becoming slippy. I took a wrong turn into Cachicadan and dropped the bike turning around in very slippy mud in a some construction near the plaza. The rain had stopped my the time I arrived at the town of Santago de Chuco, where I got a room in an old colonial building. There was a feria going on outside and I had a wander and went to bed early.

I woke up early for to try to make the long ride to Cajamarca in one day. The roads were still wet but it had stopped raining and I rode from Santiago de Chuco to Shorey on a mixture of dirt and very poor condition asphalt. In Shorey, I bought fuel and after taking a wrong turn due to a completely wrong signpost I found the great condition sealed road to Huamachuco. I was riding at high altitude again and it was pretty cold. Its amazing the difference that altitude makes. It this point I was so far north that I was probably at the same latitude as Angola or DRC in Africa where I had been sweating to death. I stopped for an early lunch in Huamachuco, which was another pretty colonial town. It started raining as I left, but the road was twisty tarmac through villages and the majority of the traffic was heading in another direction. I still had be careful though as people were till driving like idiots. I was almost run of the road by an overtaking truck and I saw a dirt bike with 3 passengers narrowly escape a head-on collision at a blind corner. I past through Cajabamba, a town so pretty that I would have loved to have stayed for a while. After Cajabamba the scenery spread out into a wide valley and then rose again as I neared Cajamarca. Being the weekend, I had planned to stay in Cajamarca for a day, do my laundry and sample the night life. The city is beautifully lit up at night but I couldn’t found any bars that I wanted to go to. I chatted to the bouncers at the biggest club in town who told me it was the best place to be, but as I heard Shania Twain being played inside I decided that an early night would be less annoying. The next day I went to meet up with Jose, a couchsurfing contact I’d sent a message to while I was sat in a bar on my own debating what to do. We went for a wander around the town and met up with more friends for the evening. Its a shame I hadn’t had the foresight to message him sooner!

I’d been recommended to ride some roads by friends who are traveling in a Land Rover (Lizzybus). The road from Cajamarca to Chacapoyas being one of them. It had been raining a lot and I was quite worried about what state the road was in but it turned out to be largely sealed. On the section between Cajamarca and Celendín I bumped into a British couple and a guide riding Honda Transalps. The guide, Franco invited me to stay with them as he knew a good cheap hotel in Celendín. Paul and Kay had traveled a lot on motorbikes usually as part of organised tours and had lived in Pakistan and India. We were going the same direction so it seemed stupid not to ride out together the next day, although I rode way ahead, doing my own thing as usual. After Balsa, we all met up again at a road works were a bridge was being constructed and we were told we would have to wait till 6pm to cross. I took the opportunity to have a nap on the side of the road but a few hours later Franco had managed to get a bike across. The bridge wasn’t completed, but with a lot of help the bikes could be crossed. I walked the bike from the side, with Franco guiding the front wheel along a plank.

The weather turned bad for the rest of the ride to Chachapoyas. The kind of conditions that would normally have me looking for a place to camp, but with Franco taking the lead and the roads in super condition asphalt I was happy to ride in the rain and dark to the city where Franco already knew a great place to stay. The trio had almost the exact same itinerary as me and we ended up riding together again
to go and visit the pre-Inca ruins of Kuelap. It had been raining through the night and the road up to the ruins was pretty muddy and I went on ahead while the others struggled carrying a pillion. I had left most of my equipment in town and was glad to had an unloaded bike to deal with the conditions. We were lucky that it was completely dry while we were visiting the ruins but it rained again as I went to go back to the city and I left the other behind to get out of the rain. Paul, Kay and Franco went off to see more ruins the next day and I went my own way towards the border. I was still expecting to see some bad condition roads but it was all tarmac to Jaén, a city close to the border with Ecuador. Jaén is much lower and I thought it was a good time to adjust the carbs back to sea level. I stayed the night and went to cross the border the next day, but for some reason I left late and stayed my last night in San Ignacio where I was truly the only gringo in the village.

Peru has been amazing. I feel like I have done so much in such a short time. A lot of that could be attributed to not nursing hangovers as often as I have done in other countries, but its a good consequence of traveling faster. My planned month was actually a month and a week, so I’m pretty happy with the time I’ve made. The ‘middle route’ is a bikers dream, and the roads sealed or not are all fantastic adventures. I was worried that Peru would be too touristy for me, and although Lima and Cusco are, the rest of the country is exactly like Bolivia with just a little more infrastructure and many cities that hardly have any gringos at all. I’ve had a great time here, and I’m sad to have left but its good to be making progress. I’ll be in Colombia and the northern hemisphere soon. watch this space!