When I used to sit in my hotel room in Alaska and dream about this trip I always imagined high revs on mountain roads under a snowcapped backdrop with clouds forming in the distance. I envisioned myself climbing as high as the bike would go into the unknown and then ditching it in the bushes to push even further on foot. As it turns out, I was dreaming of Peru. Finally outside of the desert coast, this place is starting to show its true colors and they’re like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Charlie and I tore out of Lima early Tuesday morning. Ivan’s route had us backtracking about 200 miles north and we wanted to get that over with as soon as possible. We only got pulled over once on the way back up and this time we had some fun with it. The best strategy is to make their job as hard as possible. Step one, pull over about 500 yards past where they flag you. Step two, don’t shut off the engines or take off helmets. Step three, take a picture of them. Step four, ask directions. Perform these without one word of Spanish and you’re free within minutes. We made it to the Huaraz turnoff just after noon, filled up our tanks, and said goodbye to the Pacific.
The rest of the afternoon we meandered into the foothills across endless fields of red rock and eventually up into the thin air. The ascent really picked up just as we entered a thirty mile construction zone. Construction zones are great in South America because motorcycles are treated like royalty. We always ride to the front of the line, and usually the flaggers let us pass through even with oncoming traffic in the open lane. We made pretty short work of it, although the entire time battling a layer of peat gravel that was recently laid down without any tar underneath. Peat gravel is the worst; it scatters like regular gravel, but like sand it never bites solid ground. It feels like riding on flat tires. Our TKC-80’s ate it up.
After a couple hours we had gained some serious altitude and the weather was starting to turn. Sprinkles were starting to come down on every other switchback and the air was getting painfully cold. Finally, at well over 4,000 meters we crested the pass. The next horizon came into view and it was what I’ve been waiting for since those sunless days in Fairbanks. In the valley below was Huaraz and rising up into a long stretch of jagged glaciated sawtooth peaks behind it was the Cordillera Blanca Range. The Cordillera is the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas and we had a course set for dead center.
Charlie and headed down into Huaraz which sits at 3,500 meters and eventually found a hotel with parking after a very tedious struggle. We had only planned one night in Huaraz, but the looming peaks overhead were swaying our ideas. That night I went to bed at 8:30pm; I was exhausted from the ride, the cold, and most of all the altitude. I woke up at 7:00am Wednesday morning refreshed and excited. Charlie and I both agreed that we were finally getting into some real adventure so we went to a local gringo breakfast shop to figure out how we could sink our teeth into it. Inside it became apparent that Huaraz is Peru’s gateway to the Andes. Everyone was there to camp, trek, or climb. My kind of people. Charlie struck up a conversation with a climber named Kevin who had been living in Seattle for the last several years attending UW. We had a good chat and Kevin recommended us to a mountain lodge called The Way Inn.
After nearly six months of hostels I’m getting really tired of their unending corny names, but The Way Inn sounded like an ideal place to use as a base to explore the Andes. We rode up that afternoon via a dirt road that I swore was leading to nowhere. It was fifteen kilometers up into the base of the mountain range past countless Peruvian farm fields and stone huts. Kevin’s advice delivered; The Way Inn is built on a rolling highland prairie overlooking Huaraz with the big peaks just an hour’s hike away. We settled into a nice room with a fireplace and two beds; Charlie was kind enough to cover the brunt of the cost because he loved the convenience versus the dorms and he knew the private room was outside my budget.
After soaking in the atmosphere for a while, I went straight to the one constant of this entire trip: bike maintenance. Tuesday afternoon I noticed my fifth gear was becoming less and less applicable as we climbed higher. I could get up to 70mph in fourth gear, switch to fifth, and then inevitably I’d lose the speed and end up back in fourth gear even on the flat sections. The thin air wasn’t giving enough power to keep fifth going. Wednesday on the dirt road I was forced to ride my clutch way too much getting off the line every time. The weight of the spare tire wasn’t helping. The solution was easy and for once I was prepared. I put the bike up on blocks, loosened the rear wheel, and swapped out my fifteen tooth front sprocket for my spare fourteen tooth. A test drive up and down the driveway left me satisfied; way more low-end torque. I won’t be able to go 80mph at sea level anymore, but I don’t plan to make it back down there for quite a while.
This morning, Thursday, Charlie and I pulled the side boxes off our bikes and got ready to go exploring. We packed up a sack lunch, water, some warm clothes, and a tool kit for the excursion. We had no plan nor directions, we just wanted to go as deep as possible into the mountains. With a smaller front sprocket, dirt tires, and a lightened load, my bike ripped like a monster the whole day. We cruised on gravel for ten or fifteen kilometers before coming to a turnoff that peeled off between two peaks. Although the path was considerably worse than the last stretch of gravel, it was what we were looking for. We set off on the steep incline full of loose baseball-sized rocks.
For ten minutes we climbed in first gear slowly but surely carving forward. A ways up a Peruvian on a Honda dirt bike flagged us down and said we were entering Huascaran National Park. There was nothing official about him, except that he was asking for the park entrance fee ($1.50 each). Neither Charlie nor I had much change so we ended up giving him about $2 and a couple cigarettes. He was happy and so were we. He gave us some information about the park and said we’d find a lake at the top.
The rest of the ride could never have been accomplished with the gear payload I usually carry. It was an obstacle course for the next twenty kilometers. Dodge the rocks that you have to, pop over the rest. I went through most of it standing on my foot pegs leaning slightly over the handlebars. It’s the best way to keep track of the bike’s weight and it lets your knees take the blows instead of your ass. The trail met up with a bright blue stream and we started following that up the valley through a series of switchbacks. On either side of us were towering cliffs and at the other end we could see a massive snow-covered peak.
Finally at the mouth of the stream the path ended near some camping spots. Charlie and I parked, cabled our bikes and helmets together, and continued on foot. We scrambled up the valley on goat tracks for another half hour before finally reaching the top the ridge between us and the lake. We were in the middle of nowhere, finally. On top of the ridge we ate lunch and took in the view. There were two peaks overhead with a ridge between them that had a glacier advancing into the lake in front of us. The lake was turquoise and full of little icebergs. Every few minutes the ice would shift and crackle through the valley. After the hubbub of Lima, this was a welcomed change. We took a lot of pictures and hung out in the high-altitude sun until the clouds started to get darker in the distance.
Around 2:00pm we were back at the bikes, exhausted from the lack of oxygen. We took off just as the hail started falling on us. Although it didn’t get us wet initially, the hail was striking down like needles even though my riding gear. We followed the stream back down and soon dropped down into rain. Slippery rocks, mud, and poor visibility the entire way back; still no clue why I loved it so much, but it was a blast. We pulled into The Way Inn soaked and exhilarated. It wouldn’t have taken much to get my blood pumping after the last 1,000 miles on the Panamerican, but today was a rush.