The Peru adventure: challenging, inspiring and exhausting at every point along the way. Moments of revelation – such as when riding into the crystalline horizon of a sharp blue sky, peppered with brilliant white cumulus clouds; or when viewing a distant 20,000-foot, snow-capped volcano from a 14,000-foot-high perch, while high from lack of oxygen – will stay with me forever. And sharing this experience with friends was the icing on a cake few will ever taste.
- Neale Bayly
At times, it was tough. Poor fuel issues on day one forced a friend and me to return to base. This left us riding up a difficult mountain pass after dark in hail, snow and below-freezing temperatures. It was also the first time in two years my body had attempted to function on the meager amount of oxygen to be found around 14,500 feet above sea level. Add in the stresses of being responsible for 15 people’s enjoyment and safety, and it was a hard day at the office.
Out there in the dark, the flurrying snow burned my eyes. My visor was iced on the inside from my breath, my lungs burned and my fingers were past the point of simple pain. I have ridden through conditions like these before – in Yosemite, in below-freezing conditions, with the searing pain of a broken collarbone. Incredible winds have threatened me in Spain. Rocks and ruts have tried to break me, from Ecuador to the Arctic Circle and beyond. But the motorcycle gods have always smiled on this earthly fool, circling the globe in search of adventure and knowing I will always make it through. And I did, riding into Chivay, where a meal, a hot shower and a warm bed awaited.
There is a joy in watching a group of strangers become friends. The camaraderie, the support, and the shared adventure add to the magnitude of the experience, as each day brings new highs, sights, sounds and smells. Peru is never easy; it demands your full attention. It punishes the weak. But it also rewards the strong and attentive with incredibly rare, precious moments like holding a baby llama, taking pictures of an indigenous Indian in local dress, or sharing the excitement of the previous stretch of dirt road with a dozen dusty comrades at the next coffee stop.
“The road to Chivay immediately throws our riders into an intense pressure cooker of overcrowded streets with maniacal buses, taxis, and the occasional private car fighting for every last square inch of real estate.”
We start this journey in Arequipa in the usual way: a group of adventurers assembled from the far corners of North America with a mission to ride and explore Peru. At the end of the ride, we plan to visit Hogar Belen, an orphanage in the small desert town of Moquegua I’ve been visiting and supporting with my foundation, Wellspring International Outreach, since 2008. The plan is to film the whole adventure for a new episode of my travel series, Neale Bayly Rides.
The 16 of us rent eight BMW motorcycles from Peru Motors and two support trucks. We travel under the guidance of Flavio Salvetti, my good friend and owner of Inca Moto – the company we’d worked with since I started bringing people to Peru in 2009. It’s an eclectic group that gathers in the Plaza de Armas as we get set to spend the next 10 days together.
The road to Chivay immediately throws our riders into a pressure cooker of overcrowded streets with maniacal buses, taxis, and the occasional private car fighting for every last square inch of real estate. Ducking, diving and dodging through the melee, I hear Flavio’s words of advice about city riding: “Do not use your turn signals, amigo. It is a sign of weakness.”
After an hour we are on the outskirts of Arequipa and start to breathe some clean air from the snow-capped volcanic mountains that ring the horizon. The traffic thins and all we can see is unspoiled landscape.
There is a delicious chill in the air, enough to make it cool and keep you alert, and the group is excited and animated. But then, trouble begins. Garrett Garcia, owner of Garcia Moto, starts to have an intermittent electrical issue with his bike. We swap rides but the same thing happens to me. It’s time to formulate a plan.
There is a spare motorcycle back at Peru Motors, so I decide to retrieve it with one of my most trusted comrades, Ray McKenzie, a tough-as-nails Canadian. Ray hops on the back of my F800GS, and we head back down the mountain. It’s not going to be easy; Ray and I will have to ride alone and after dark.
Two hours later though, Ray is on a shiny new Yamaha, and we are on the back streets of Arequipa headed to the edge of town as quickly as possible. The bright city lights, departing in our mirrors, signal dusk as we start the long climb into the night. The road is fairly empty, and twists and winds its way up and up and...
With dark visors, our progress slows as we climb, and the temperature gauge starts to fail. By the time the warning light is flashing, hail and sleet are falling, the road is disappearing into a white blanket, and Ray and I are riding side by side to get the benefit of both headlights. We ride in first and second gear at times. As the wind howls, the snow slams into our faces through cracked visors and we fight to stay on the road. Occasionally semi trucks barrel out of the dark and roar by. We are alone.
It seems like we’re climbing forever. We stop to shoot some video – and listening to that clip now, I hear how oxygen deprived I am in the thin, cold air. The frost bites through fingers, toes and extremities, but we keep going. Eventually we crest the peak, and within a few thousand feet there is some moon, no clouds and the warning lights go out. We’ve made it! We enjoy a pleasant ride into Chivay where our group awaits, having spent anxious hours waiting for our arrival in the dark.
The early morning light reveals the small town of Chivay, located upstream from the Colca Canyon. At 12,000 feet, the air is thin but it feels like a relief after the pass last night. We enjoy a quick stroll through the ancient streets. With a population of around 5,000, it’s very laid back and many of the residents are dressed in traditional clothing. There is a lively fresh market, a beautiful church, and a town square to enjoy.
Flavio is soon beating the drum, as there is a lot of riding this day. Within minutes, we are on a nearly deserted dirt road climbing ever higher into the mountains. For the next 80 miles we climb, descend, or pause to gaze at the pristine mountainous scenery. It’s like being in a fish-eye lens as the 360-degree horizon bends around us. At times, we stop to photograph llama farms, or wait for a passing herd to cross the road. We wave at local Indians, dodge the occasional turbo tour bus, and stop often just to take it all in. Flavio is always mindful of the time and, like a sheep dog herding an errant flock, he keeps things moving.
No one is in a hurry. Occasionally, the rain comes. Then snow. Soon we are splashing through thick mud and, before we know it, gazing across a mirror-glass lake reflecting the mountains thousands of feet above us. We’re so high up, we’re all a little giddy. By lunch, we are just outside of the town of Sequoni and ready to pick up the paved road to Cusco.
Time is becoming quickly irrelevant as we gas, snack and move on toward the city that was once the capital of the Inca Empire. The road is now fast, carving through majestic valleys alive with fresh vegetation and topped with deep blue skies. Small villages provide punctuation marks to the story as we slow, observe, wave and ride on. We make it safely to Cusco and soon find ourselves around a communal table sharing food and experiences from our day.
The next morning, we ride through light rain, pass ancient Inca ruins, dodge horses and dogs, and in beautiful sunshine roll into the sacred valley. Gazing down at the Urubamba River below, our group is happy and relaxed.
There is one more highlight on the agenda, however. Flavio leads us into the small town of Pisak for a coffee break. Narrow cobblestone streets, a small town square with a bustling market, and a restaurant with a second story balcony that can seat us all – it’s perfect. We are as interesting to the locals as they are to us. After souvenirs are loaded into backpacks, and brightly colored Quechan Indians are committed to pixels, we finally break away and ride to Ollantaytambo.
Having spent two days in conversation here with Father Giovanni back in 1995, this is a special place for me. Although the structure of the town remains the same, 20 years ago we would’ve been the only foreigners. Tour buses and their brightly colored passengers are now in the majority – the modern world has finally arrived. We explore the ancient Inca streets, and watch aqueducts channel water to the locals the way they have done for four or five centuries.
The following morning, we get an early start for Machu Pichu and, as the modern train we take rolls along next to the teaming Urabamba River, I have the chance to drift back to my past travels and my time previously spent here. It’s so strange to think of the person I was then – before cell phones and the Internet, and without the bodily limitations of now being on the north side of 50.
Aguas Calientes is a thriving modern town of gift shops, restaurants and market stalls filled with tourists heading to the buses that take them up the winding road to Machu Picchu. The bus ride is breathtaking – and nerve-wracking. Thankfully, we arrive at the electronic ticket booth in one piece. It’s as if we are entering an American theme park, and it’s hard for my mind not to drift back to when there was a wooden gate and barely a tourist around.
For the next few hours, we climb and hike our way around one of the most incredible historical sites on earth. Believed to have been built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1450, we learn that the site served as an experimental agricultural facility because of the many different climates that exist from the Urabamba River up to the top of Huayan Picchu. The Spanish never found Machu Picchu. It wasn’t until American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled across it in 1911 that the outside world learned of its existence. Even with the throngs of tourists and guides swarming over the old Inca terraces, you can still feel the magic. The beauty, the majesty, and the sheer amount of human effort needed to create the terracing and carry the stones that make up the what is now one of the new seven wonders of the world, is beyond comprehension.
Heading out of Ollantaytambo as the sun sinks low in the sky, the climb up into the mountains of the sacred valley gets more spectacular with every degree the temperature drops. It reaches a crescendo at the freezing point. As the sky burns deep orange across the horizon, the excitement I feel is as intense as any travel moment from my nearly 40 years on the road.
There’s a super-early call to get on the road for Lake Titicaca. After the frenetic Peruvian traffic exiting Cusco, we’re soon spinning along. The clear blue skies and abundant vegetation make for a perfect combination of sightseeing and riding. Smooth, twisty roads beg for the throttle to be pinned as we speed south at 13,000 feet on the Peruvian Altiplano.
It is not easy to wrap your head around the fact that you are that high up on a mountain range, riding on a massive, nearly flat valley with mountains framing your view on both sides. Lunch is taken in a small village, where we line up the bikes beside the sidewalk, like horses outside the saloon in a western town. Afterward, we motor on for the town of Puno and the highest navigable lake in the world.
By mid-afternoon we are taking a break and gazing out over Lake Titicaca. Our group is in good spirits as we take lots of photos of the official sign. Our ride into town is smooth and we are soon checked into our hotel and enjoy a group meal on-site.
The next day we make our way to the boat dock. Teaming with tourists and tour boats, we quickly board and take off across the lake, learning the history from our wonderful host. The first stop is Taquile Island. Snow and ice still line some of the small hand-carved walking trails, and neatly tended farm plots dot the landscape. After an hour or so of climbing, we’re afforded the most incredible views across Lake Titicaca. I rack my brain, trying to remember other places in the world that look similar. It looks like northern Norway in one direction, and Sicily in the other. I give up and just enjoy the view.
Making our way back to our waiting boat, I can’t resist jumping in the ice-cold water for a refreshing swim and am soon joined by other members of our group. It’s not every day you get to swim in Lake Titicaca, where it’s cold enough for your teeth to be chattering within seconds.
Our guide has more in store for us as we motor for Santa Maria – Licachon, on the tip of the Capachia Peninsula for lunch. This is no ordinary experience, as the local people perform an ancient ceremony before introducing us to “Pachamanca,” a traditional cooking method where the food is cooked underground. The views from the rustic restaurant are as delightful as the food and, after a delicious meal, we spend time wandering the tranquil countryside in the warm afternoon sun.
While this might have topped off the day, our guide still has one more surprise on his agenda and we motor off to explore the last authentic floating islands – the Uros Ccapi – and learn about one of the oldest cultures in South America. We take a ride in a reed boat, and watch singing and dancing shows performed by the local Uros Indians. We marvel at a lifestyle so vastly different from ours.
Leaving Puno the following morning, Flavio hires a taxi to lead us to the highway and we’re soon riding along the near-deserted road, before turning at Juliaca. Now we really seem to leave civilization behind, as hours pass without seeing houses, cars or other people. The scenery is possibly the most spectacular yet. Vast desert dunes rise out of the sand to our sides and snow-capped volcanoes tower above. We stop to play and a few of us blast across the desert floor and climb a massive dune. Thousands of feet above the road, our fellow travelers seem like ants. Awestruck, we take in a view that seems as if we were on top of the world. It’s another amazing high. Dropping off the dune to rejoin the group turns into one of the most exhilarating rides of my life.
And then it’s time to take off into a clear blue sky day at 13,000 feet, en route to Moquegua. It’s time to visit Sister Loretta and the orphanage at Hogar Belen that has driven me to raise funds and keep returning since 2008. Once there, each of my travel companions has their own unique experience. Some peel potatoes and onions for the kitchen staff; some play with kids; some take photos, give out gifts, or walk the property. We have lunch, engage in an impromptu soccer match with the younger boys and, for a time, visit the old orphanage that was damaged in the earthquake of 2001.
I am fortunate to be able to spend time alone with Sister Loretta. Hundreds, if not thousands of souls have simply called her “Madre.” At 83, there’s not much time left as she fights age, failing health, and mourns loss of Sister Rosa. She has a tough task – the water is out, the bridge we had built has been swept away, and there are the daily needs of 53 people who rely on Hogar for food and shelter. The dirty, dusty, rundown old farm is home to her and to all those unwanted souls who have lived here since 2001. I ask about the first children who were dropped off over 46 years ago. There are long pauses between her answers, as if she’s reaching back into her long life, looking for the right one to give me. I tell her again: I will build a home for the children and to honor her life’s work.
It’s over too soon. We must pack, sleep, rise early and haul tail for Arequipa. Flights to catch, businesses to run, time cards to clock, families to hug and kiss, and lives to be attended to. The friendships we have formed, the things we have seen, and the experiences we have shared will start to fade once we are back to our regular lives. However, the file folders of these memories won’t. They will take us back, the memories of our time in Peru still there. As real as it is today.