Text: Florian Neuhauser • Photography: Christa Neuhauser, Florian Neuhauser

…At 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), we stop to add liners for warmth and sip hot Coca tea. The world that is The Andes transforms before us: the flora and fauna, the native peoples, the texture of the landscape that defines this magnificent mountain range – everything looks majestic here, even with the onslaught of rain and snow. The dunes of the desert, only 37 miles away, seem lifetimes behind us. And we’re only two days into our South American adventure!

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December in North Carolina finds me itching for a change in scenery, not just to leave the cold, wintery weather behind, but to welcome a new adventure. A short, six-hour flight from Miami takes my mom (Christa) and me to the first leg of our destination: the Machu Picchu Express Tour in Peru, where we’ll spend the next 13 days, along with six other motorcycle enthusiasts from as far away as Belgium and Germany, to as close to home as Seattle. We arrive in Lima at the Mami Panchita Hostal, where we spend our first night before catching a bus to Paracas the following morning.

Paracas, Huacachina, and the Nazca Lines

In Paracas, our adventure begins. We meet Lars, our tour guide, and his assistant Eduardo. We also catch our first glimpse of the bikes that we’ll call “ours” for just short of a forte night: a KLR™650s and a Honda NX-4 Falcon 400s (with both Christa and I riding KLRs). But before the start our two-wheel expedition, we first enjoy a two-hour boat ride to Islas Ballestas, dubbed “the poor man’s Galapagos.”  This small cluster of islands just off the coast of Paracas is a sea lion, bird, and other marine-life paradise. The cold Humboldt Current, one of the major upwelling systems of the world, supports an extraordinary abundance of seabirds and marine mamals. Thousands of birds flock to these islands for shelter in the rocky caves and arches. And as you can imagine, the more than 150 species of birds produce a lot of bird droppings. So much so, in fact, that these droppings, or guano as they’re called, were collected and shipped to Europe as fertilizer during the mid-19th century, allowing for a lucrative industry that became one of Peru’s most important sources of revenue for several decades.

Back on the mainland, we’re quick to load our luggage onto the support pickup that will travel with us and swing our legs over the KLRs. Paracas abutts a large desert, which Lars decides is a great way for us to become familiarized with the motorcycles and the loose surface. We ride into an open area with sand and dunes extending into forever. Lars cuts us loose to ride — our only restriction to stay within view.

The desert landscape follows us to our destination: Huacachina, South America’s most beautiful oasis. The activities don’t stop, although we trade in our two wheels to travel on a massive 8-cylinder dune buggy. We push through endless, giant sand dunes, crossing  the oasis. Everywhere, it seems, we pass by clusters of people “riding” huge dunes on sandboards. Huacachina is a mecca of sorts for sandboarding enthusiasts, which is much like snowboarding but without snow. Our exhaustion on the first day combats any jetlag – even on those who live in the same time zone.

The next day we ride through desert, then farmland, finally getting a taste of Peruvian curves. We stay in Nazca, home of the world-famous and mysterious Nazca Lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs believed to have originated between 500 BC to AD 500. The lines comprise thousands of huge figures carved in the ground of desert plains, ranging from simple lines to complex creatures, some up to 660 feet (200 meters) across. An optional flight on a tiny Cessna affords several of us a spectacular view of this unexplained phenomenon and the surrounding landscape. From the sky we can see clearly the figures of birds and animals, as well as many geographic shapes. Although no one knows the exact meaning of the Nazca Lines and scholars hold various beliefs, most everyone agrees they represent something of great importance to the people who created them.

The Andes

Today the curves start, and they won’t stop! At 1,640 feet (500 meters) above sea level, Nazca was comfortably warm, but 37 miles (60 km) of countless curves later, it’s more than just the altitude that’s changed.  At 15,091 feet (4,600 meters), we encounter rain and snow. If the weather’s not enough to slow us down, the carbureted motorcycles are – they perform at only about 50 percent of their original horsepower.

Our group convenes at the top. It’s the highest that I, and most of the other riders, have ever been. The thin air has an adverse effect on one participant, so we load his Falcon onto the pickup. Too late I realize that over-exerting myself at this altitude is a bad idea. In exchange for a few seconds of pushing the bike, my head begins to pound, my vision goes dark, and my stomach takes a hit as well. Several minutes later, I start to feel somewhat normal again, but I can’t stop shivering and the effects linger for the next few days.

The mountains are literally awe-inspiring. We’re surrounded by dark forest green on all sides as we descend into the Charluanca Valley. Debris from several mudslides and fallen rocks cover the road, but somehow they just add an element of excitement to our ride through The Andes. Steep slopes surround us.

Once in the valley, our day concludes when we land at the only hotel within miles. We wake to sunshine the next morning and leave with a stomach full of Peruvian breakfast: bread with butter, marmalade, ham, and cheese. The long sweepers through the Charluanca Valley will surely satisfy any motorcyclist. Since there’s only one road, everyone travels at their own pace – it’s not a group ride, per se.

After finally cresting a mountain range that seems to have no top, we quickly descend into yet another valley. The trip down delivers temperatures that rise drastically. We  scramble to remove rain gear and layers, and then strap the gear onto the back of the bikes. It’s not long before Christa realizes one of her straps has broken and her rain pants have been put to the ultimate test: they’ve become completely entangled in the chain and sprocket and the rear wheel. Two of our tour cohorts riding not far behind stop to help, and our joint effort, combined with a sharp knife do the trick – but the pants fail the test miserably. We hope for sunshine the remainder of the trip – a naïve request, perhaps, at the start of Peru’s rainy season.

Cusco – the Tourism Capital

The ride toward Cusco cuts through an open valley with farms and green trees surrounded by high mountains. Cusco, which means navel of the earth, is Peru’s tourism center and was once the capital of the Incas. We spend two days taking in the sights and taking advantage of the vibrant nightlife.

The Plaza de Armas features a beautiful fountain and is rimmed by shops and two grand Spanish churches. It’s also home to the Stone of Twelve Angles. When the Spanish conquered Cusco in 1533, they destroyed much of the old Inca kingdom; however, they couldn’t bring down the famous 12-sided stone, which was built like a puzzle without any mortar and still stands tall today.  Architectural styles abound throughout Cusco, ranging from Incan, to Spanish, to Peruvian. But sightseeing is not easy in a city at an altitude of 10,800 feet (3,300 meters), so with small steps, we take things slowly. The view, after all, is breathtaking.

Sacred Valley

We visit the Inca site at Moray, the renouned crator-like, agricultural terraces built in concentric circles with a sophisticated irrigation system. Moray is located 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) above sea level, where it’s difficult to grow crops. But the Incas were extremely innovative and they experimented with different altitudes and light intensities. Temperature differences between the lowest and the highest levels (which is about 328 feet (100 meters)) can be up to 59 ºF (15 ºC). The Incas realized that they could grow crops at the bottom and with each new seed could grow at the next higher terrace. They worked their way up until crops were strong enough to grow at an altitude of 10,800 feet!

Nearby, Peruvians still use salt pods to collect salt. A complex system of channels and streams directs the water from a mountain spring rich in salt through hundreds of mini pools. The water evaporates and leaves the salt behind. It’s intense physical labor, yet the people still carry the 175-lb (80 kg) bags on their backs.

Condors at Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon is one of the only places to see condors in their natural habitat so we ride on a dead-end gravel road to a lookout point. Condors are the largest flying bird in the world, with a wingspan close to 10 feet (3 meters), and they use thermals to reach higher skies and high speeds. This canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but it’s not as easy to see in its entirety. The road to get there is challenging when you mix in gravel, sand, large rocks, and a quarter-of-a-mile tunnel (400 meters) with no lights and a right curve.

A bus passes by, but we don’t want to follow it because dust whirls up in its path. We pull over and gaze upon more terraces and farmland. In the tunnel, I quickly realize that it’s still too dusty and with nobody in front of me to follow, I can’t see anything. My little low-beam light shines on the ground, a weak foe against the total darkness.  Somehow I manage to make out tire tracks in the gravel. I put my trust in that tread and hope not to discover that the driver smacked a wall.  When we finally reach the lookout, our efforts are rewarded after an hour-and-a-half wait: we see two condors in flight, although they are still very far away.

Parting Thoughts

Visiting so many archeological sites and histories and vast differences in terrain isn’t easy to do in just 13 days, but the Machu Picchu Express Tour accomplishes it. The many UNESCO World Heritage sites, seemingly endless desert dunes, and the steep slopes of the Andes Mountains were the initial draw – but what we discovered was such an amazing experience of people, place, and culture, made all the more magical by traveling on bikes. RoadRUNNER would like to share this experience with you through an organized tour to Peru! For more information, email us.

Machu Picchu

The City in the Clouds and The Lost City of the Incas, as Machu Picchu is known, can be reached only by train to Ollantaytambo and then either by bus or trekking. The well-hidden locale ensured that the Spanish conquistadors missed it completely. In fact, it wasn’t until 1911 that Hiram Bingham, with the help of a local farmer, discovered this lost Inca city.
We stay the night in Ollantaytambo and take the first train at 6 a.m., which snakes its way through a narrow, picturesque valley to Aguas Calientes. From there, a bus takes us up many switchbacks to Machu Picchu. For a well-spent , we hire a guide who not only leads us to the outskirts of the city, but she also tells us about the Incas and their advancements in science and technology. When we arrive at Machu Picchu, all is enshrouded by morning fog that lends itself to a mystical feeling. Only occasionally does the fog lift, revealing small areas of the city. As we walk, it eventually burns off and exposes one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  

Machu Picchu is set between two mountains, one from which it takes its name, and the other, known as Huayna Picchu (or Wayna Picchu). The climb to the top is limited to only 400 people a day. It’s a tough 45-minute ascent. But the payoff is worth it and the views extraordinary.