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Peru: Land of the Incas

From RoadRUNNER Magazine - March/April 2017 Issue

Text: Danielle Boelens

Photography: Irene Wouters

In the evening Irene and I take a small ferry across Lake Titicaca, or as the locals call it, Lago Titicaca. We spend the night in a hostel on the Bolivian side, where we have to flush the outside toilet with a bucket of water from a rain barrel. At 12,000 feet above sea level, the night is chilly. These last miles in Bolivia on our way to Copacabana (which looks nothing like its famous namesake in Rio de Janeiro), find us on a Formula 1 track along the lake, where we finally get to use our sixth gear again! Even though there isn’t a line at the border, the formalities of crossing from one country to another take an hour anyway.

Immediately after entering Peru, we notice subtle differences. More cattle. Better houses. More wind. In fact, a strong side wind coming from the lake blows over the straight road with unimaginable deep ruts. For two hours we fight to keep our bikes upright, dealing with the fear of being smacked against the grill of a passing truck. Impressive bolts light the wide horizon. By the time we arrive at Puno, along the lake shore, the streets have become waterways and we look and feel as if we’re nearly drowned.

The Floating Islas Uros

Lake Titicaca, which is the largest lake in South America and an enormous expanse of 3,232 miles, borders both Peru and Bolivia. It’s well known for its floating Islas Uros. Built by the Uros people hundreds of years ago, these islands are made from the buoyant reeds that grow throughout the shallows of the lake. The reeds are used for building everything from boats, houses, schools, churches, and watchtowers, and they are edible as well. Despite the average temperature of 53 degrees, the Urus people chose their floating homes as a way of escaping hostile tribes like the Incas. Nowadays, they escape from the tax system while the popular islands provide a source of income from tourists. The Uros must maintain the islands, which rot from the bottom up and need to continually be replenished. Walking on the islands is like walking on a waterbed, as each step sinks about 2-4 inches into the spongy terrain. The islands range in size, with some fitting up to 10 houses. A family feud or divorce is simply solved: the island is severed in two, along with the relationship.

Arequipa, Colca Canyon, and the Andean Condor

Most South American cities include a main square, or a Plaza de Armas, and the one in Arequipa is famous for its colonial galleries, ancient cathedral, fountain, and park. The restaurants there represent the Peruvian kitchen, and we try a number of local dishes, including ceviche (a seafood dish with chili), cuy (guinea pig), caldo de Gallina (a soup with spaghetti, boiled egg, and chicken toes), and juicy alpaca meat baked on a hot stone.

Just northwest of Arequipa is Colca Canyon, and to get there we cross the Abra Patapampa, a high mountain pass at 16,109 feet. The view is often breathtaking, as the scenery is sprinkled with leafy green trees, soft pink rocks set among violet and deep purple, and sand featuring shades of yellow, orange, and red—all of this imagery is set against the backdrop of the deep blue lake and snowy white Andean peaks in the distance. Every curve offers a view that feels as if we’ve entered an artist’s canvas. Finally, we arrive at Colca Canyon, the deepest cliff in the world where condors soar on the thermals. A large portion of the road was recently asphalted, in stark contrast to the sandy roads with dusky tunnels that led us there. On the whole, this region has an Asian flair with its verdant terraces set against yellow ochre rocks.

The lookout over the 10,440-foot gorge provides an incredible view, but we have yet to see any condors. On our way back, Irene takes the lead and then it happens. Above the abyss floats a giant bird. While braking, I almost fall into the grit. I remove my helmet and it’s there, soaring right in front of me: a gigantic black condor with white feathers circling its neck, a sharp hooked beak, red comb, and an enormous 10-foot wingspan. For one moment, I am eye to eye with the Andean condor, the largest flying bird on earth.

Inclement Weather and Cusco

Before the 16th century, Cusco was the capital of the immense Inca empire that stretched over 2,500 miles from the south of Colombia to the northwest of Argentina and Chile. Known by the Incas as “home of the gods,” Cusco, had a population of up to 150,000 at its peak and was dominated by fine buildings and palaces. Today, Cusco is a city with many modern influences mixed with its Inca heritage.

To get there, we struggle with the challenges of numerous potholes, steep hairpins, and slippery mud, all on the main thoroughfare. On the way, we encounter snowfall so severe that I lose my license plate as a result of the continuous bouncing of the bikes. We also travel through a hailstorm that leaves our hands aching from the cold, making it difficult just to shift gears. At night we enter a town that isn’t even mentioned on our map, but we find a place to sleep with a priceless hot shower. Nevertheless the water isn’t hot enough to warm our frozen feet. When we finally make it to Cusco, we find a store that is willing to create a fake Dutch license plate, since ordering a replacement from Holland appears to be an impossible feat. I had little choice in the matter.

Inca Treasures

Typically when one mentions being impressed by the Inca legacy in Peru, people immediately think of Machu Picchu. And while Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating world wonders, there are so many other mysteries to discover. A turnoff to a dirt road leads to the Sacred Valley in Moray, about 31 miles northwest of Cusco. This valley contains the visually stunning Inca ruins that look much like an ancient Greek amphitheater. In a large bowl-like depression, the Incas constructed a series of concentric agricultural terraces that protected plants from the cold and acclimated them to the environment.

We continue along the dirt road until we arrive at another phenomenon: Salineras de Maras, or the salt pans of Maras. This salt mine was also built by the Inca and is still in use. They carved numerous ponds out of a mountain, underneath a saltwater source. Ducts transport the saltwater which they close when the pond is full. The sun evaporates the water, leaving the salt behind. We discover locals collecting bags of salt and manually carrying them out, as there is no room for a transport system, much less for people to walk. Impressed, we watch this process that hasn’t changed for more than 500 years.

A day before we take the spectacular train ride to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu, we enter the cobblestone streets of Ollantaytambo. Before settling down for a wood fired pizza, we ride up and down the Abra Malaga (14,242 feet), just for the curves.

Although Machu Picchu was built around 1440, it’s still a well-preserved city that teaches us about the living conditions and incredible knowledge of the Inca concerning construction, archeology, road systems, water transportation, agriculture, and vegetation. The city is located at an altitude of 7,972 feet above sea level and is entirely self-sufficient. Huayna Picchu, the peak that looms over the archeological site, rises to a height of 8,920 feet. And despite the many tourists, it is impossible to escape the mystical aura that flows almost palpably through the ancient streets.

Crossing the Andes

To reach the coast coming from Cusco, we cross the Andes once again. Our route includes 450 miles of curves, draped over mountains varying between 12 and 14,400 feet. For two days we only use the left and right sides of our tires, riding more curves than the average Dutch rider does in a lifetime. All the natural beauty of Peru is thrown in front of our wheels. Behind every corner awaits a new surprise. An old bridge over a gorge. Birds in the air, searching for prey. Chasms without guardrails. The smell of the cattle, the sounds of the crickets in the verge. Ruminating alpacas stare at us, while frightened sheep run ahead. Women who herd their cattle in the pasture. We enjoy it all immensely, inside the bubble of our helmets.

The sun sets and illuminates the rugged highlands in a warm purple glow, then darkness descends. The heat of the nearby desert blows toward us. We share the winding road with oncoming semi-trailers that invariably twist their backends onto the wrong side of the road. With my heart in my throat, I am grateful that our bikes are so much smaller than a car and easier to maneuver out of the way.

Along the Coast

We exchange the curvy roads for the straight Pan American Highway along the Pacific Ocean. The wind is so severe we struggle to stay within our own lane. The sand gushes and flows together with the salty smell of the ocean, mingled with the heat of the desert. No longer will we sleep beneath thick woolen blankets; in the coming weeks, it’s a bed sheet only with the nearby roar of the ocean.

In Paracas, we take a morning boat trip to the Islas Ballestas, known for their rich marine life. Although uninhabited by people, these islands are home to many seabirds, penguins, and sea lions. After lunch we leave the ocean behind us to enjoy the trails in the Paracas desert to the town Huacachina, where we change our KTM for dune buggies. We ride straight onto steep sand dunes, sliding our way down on surfboards! As the last rays of sun color the gentle undulations, we find ourselves in a perfect oasis—the only thing missing is the camels.

Both north and south from Lima there is a lot of heritage to admire, built by pre-Inca cultures like the Chavín, Moche, Nazca, Tiwanaku, Wari, Sicán, Chimú, Chancay, Uros, and Ica. Peru has 20,000 years of history and over 5,000 archeological sites to visit!

We alternate long riding days with visiting several settlements, like the well-preserved Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) built by the Moche (0-750 A.C). We walk in Caral, the oldest city in the Americas, with pyramids built in 2,627 B.C. And we visit a museum with a realistic reconstruction of a tomb that contains the burial treasures of Señor de Sipán (100 A.D.).

We fly over the Nazca Lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert that were created 1,500 years ago. Composed of over 10,000 lines, these drawings measure up to 32 yards wide and stretch almost six miles. We viewed these extraordinary lines from a Cessna. The monkey has a curly tail that seems endless, while the spider has thin, crooked legs. The hummingbird has such a slender beak and so many feathers. It’s mind-boggling to think that these geoglyphs were made around 500 A.D. And they remain as mysterious as ever. For 40 minutes our plane flies above the 13 geoglyphs. Left wing. Right wing. With everything Nazca, it strikes me that the lines are even printed on the barf bags.

According to Discovery Channel, the Cañón del Pato (Duck Canyon) is one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The unpaved path is mentioned on a dangerous roads list as well because of the tremendous deep gorges and 35 single-track tunnels, open for two directions. Every time I enter a blackened tunnel, I hold my breath until I’m out. To make matters worse, Irene wants to take pictures of this phenomenon so I end up entering the scary tunnels much more often than my nerves can handle!

After our travels to Argentina and Bolivia, we visit our third location in Relave, close to Chala. Here we witness women working under dangerous circumstances close to gold mines. We are deeply moved and feel fortunate that we are able to help them, even if it’s just for a little sparkling moment in their heavy lives.

Las Pallaqueras: the Female Gold Miners of Peru

After visiting Argentina and Bolivia for our first two projects, we’re now heading to Chala, a Peruvian coastal town two hours south from the famous Nazca Lines. We’ve made arrangements to meet up with Solidaridad, an agency that will put us in contact with Oro Justo (Fair Gold). Both agencies collaborate on legalization and legal assistance for miners in Peru and Colombia.

We reach the mining town of Relave after more than an hour’s ride over a bad sandy track along a dry river. Located at the foot of the Cerro Negro volcano, this village lies within the parched desert of Peru and features sun-bleached gables, hidden under a yellow-brown layer of dust. Here we meet Anastacia, one of the leaders of the pallaqueras—the female miners who scavenge for gold flakes in the sand—and we accompany her up the volcano.

Anastacia explains that women aren’t allowed into the mines for fear of offending Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Yet their work is no less difficult or dangerous than that of the men who work deeply in the dark corridors with pickaxes, hammers, crowbars, drills, and dynamite loosening the quartz to bring outside. The pallaqueras sift through the bump of unwanted rocks with little rakes, looking for pieces with a possible gold vein. They collect these rocks in large jute sacks, which they carry down the mountain at day’s end and hand off to a truck that takes the sacks to the mills for grinding.

The gold price that they eventually receive for their labor is low. Without access to computers, they have no way of knowing the current price of gold, or whether their findings are even as impure as the middleman claims. But with the few Soles they earn, they can buy food for their families—which is reason enough for them to climb back onto the mountain the next day.

The women work this way for years—Anastacia has been doing it for eight, but some of the other women exceed 20. Most do so without helmets, or dust masks, or even protective shoes. As Irene moves between the women to take photos, loose stones begin sliding down the mountain precipitously. Only when the dust settles, it appears that no one is injured. The women look at each other with relief. I wonder what their lungs must look like.

In the Netherlands, we established the foundation “Projects of The Riding Reporters” to which Facebook followers have generously donated money. We’ve divided the money equally among the five groups that we visit. The next day we return to Relave with the gifts from our donors. We’re able to give 200 Soles to each of the 12 women who participated in our report. That’s about , enough for a helmet, dust mask, and shoes. The teary eyes that fill with gratitude are priceless. When we walk back to our bikes, we hear the sounds of laughter echoing over the mountain. Today life is a little less heavy for the pallaqueras. Next project: a childcare center for children of teenage moms in Ecuador, who work and study in order to improve their future.

Facts & Information

Total Mileage

Approximately 5,000 miles

In General

Peru is the third-largest country in South America, about twice the size of Texas. It’s divided into three regions: La Costa, the coast, with deserts, beaches, valleys and pre-Inca heritage; La Sierra, the Andean highlands, a mountainous region separating the coastline from the rest of the country; and La Selva, the Peruvian Amazon, which comprises 60 percent of Peru, from east of the Andes to the borders with Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia. Best time to travel is May through October, and this is the dry season. During the wettest months of January through April, mountain areas can become impassable. Peru’s climate varies among its three regions. The coast is predominantly arid and mild; the Andean region is temperate to cold; the eastern lowlands are warm and humid. Mind your gear, as you can travel from 80 degrees to icy rain on a 15,000-foot mountain in one day.

How to Get There

Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, or overland via one of its bordering countries (except for the Brazilian Amazon).

Food & Lodging

Food and lodging is always easy to find, except for in the highlands region where it can take several hours to locate a village. In general, if there’s a settlement, you’ll find a place to stay.

In remote areas, food can have little distinction with plain rice and chicken being a staple. Likewise with lodging, the cities have an abundance, but when traveling to more remote areas, you’ll need the flexibility to sleep in less comfortable shelters.

Roads & Biking

You can choose paved roads only, but there plenty of options to enjoy sand, gravel, mud and washboard tracks, mainly in the north and highlands region. Note that there are fewer gas stations in those areas too.

Level of difficulty on a scale from 1 (easy) to 5 (challenging): all available.

All paved roads have tolls, but motorcycles are free. Pass the toll gates on the far right.

Books & Maps
  • The Rough Guide to Peru by Dilwyn Jenkins and Kiki Deere, ISBN 978-0241181683, $ 24.99

  • Reise Know-How map of Peru, ISBN 978-3831772803, available new and used online

  • Peru Tourism,

  • Machu Picchu,

  • Motorcycle Tours, PeruMotors,

  • Blue Rim Tours,

Motorcycles & Gear
  • 2014 KTM 690 E (both)

  • Helmets: Schuberth S2,Schuberth C3 Lady Pro

  • Jackets: Lindstrands Qurizo (both)

  • Pants: Lindstrands Q-Pants (both)

  • Boots: DIFI Enduro Ventura, Lindstrands Champ

  • Gloves: Lindstrands Dolomit, Lindstrands Origo

  • Luggage: Ortlieb Rack Pack 89L (waterproof)

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