Jeff Powers and his Motorcycle Diaries

   First off, I want to say a bit about why I'm driving a 1974 Norton in South America, and sometimes on bad dirt roads. I've been a Norton rider and lover since I bought my first bike, a '71 Commando, in 1981, at twenty-one. About a year ago a Dutchman, Sjaak Lucassen(, passed through Cusco on his Yamaha R-1. He writes for a Dutch bike mag. and may be published now in Rider in the U.S.. He traveled some 300,000km. on a Honda Fireblade around the world including the African Congo. He now has over 200,000km. on his R-1, the fastest production b. He believes that you can do anything, go anywhere on any bike, and he's out proving it. He thinks a rider should own the kind of bike that best suits him personally, and that's the best bike for him/her. Sjaak likes production racers; So, that's what he uses. I was riding a '95 Triumph Tiger at the time, which seemed like the ideal bike for use here in Peru. But then, so did the BMW R100GS back in 1988 when I bought a new one and set out touring Latin America. I sold my three Britbikes to make the trip and have regretted it ever since. I didn't feel that the BMW did any better than my Norton would have. The suspension was terribly inadequate, and, as I learned later, should have been modified before the trip. Well, we could do that to a Norton too, couldn't we? The Tiger is so tall and heavy that it really isn't good on paved or dirt roads. Even though it is smooth and fast, it just isn't as fun to ride as a Norton, in my opinion. So, Sjaak inspired me to ride what I want to be riding, not what I think I ought to be riding.

   In November 2003 I bought a very sad basket case in Lima which hadn't even been stored indoors. After looking it over, I saw a lot of good bits of Norton there, and I new I was the only person in Peru who would ever breathe life back into this disaster. I couldn't stand the thought of it just rotting away into oblivion; so I gave the guy $400, a lot for what it was. This was one of only about six Commandos ever imported to Peru, and the only one on the road now. After bringing three suitcases full of parts back with me from the States, and several other small shipments, and lots of blood sweat and tears, not to mention $, I got the bike in very nice running condition in only about six months. Not surprisingly, I had some bugs to sort out; but, within a year of the time I bought it, I had the beast tested and broken in . I now needed to take what was to be a preliminary trip tough enough to test me and my bike to see if we are capable of making it from Cusco to Tierra del Fuego and back in a month, my next aspiration. It turned out to be the most spectacular MC trip I've done to now.

   Now, a bit about the roads in Peru. When I first came here in April of 1989, The only paved road was the coastal highway, the Pan-American; and it wasn't all paved. There was and is a system of dirt roads that run through most of the inhabited parts of Peru (Iquitos, 3rd largest city, accessable only by air or river) that were constructed by convicts. They were used only by trucks and some buses and actually maintained by the truck drivers. I had traveled by cargo truck and saw that when the road becomes impassable (and not until then), due to boulders or mud, the drivers and passengers get out their ropes or shovels and make it passable. It wasn't so many years ago that the only way around this part of the world was walking with pack animals. They've used llamas as pack animals here for thousands of years. Now, since president Fujimori, they've been undertaking enormous engineering challenges to build many gorgeous two lane highways that commonly run along at over 15000ft. above sea level. Colorado, eat your heart out! I would be among the first motorcyclists to enjoy these modern trails through ancient lands.

    So, I set out to prove to myself that not only was my Norton road worthy; but that a Commando in general can go where all these "dual purpose" tourers that I see pass through Cusco go too! I meet many bike travelers in my bar. They come on all kinds of bikes, mostly BMW 1100-1200 GS's (very heavy), KLR's, Trans Alps, Africa Twins, KTM's, Yamaha's, Suzuki DR800's, or the recently popular BMW F650, another bike designed specifically for 3rd world bad roads, but riddled with weaknesses as I've witnessed. I've also seen pass through a 1951 BMW, a 1947 Harley and many other types of bikes. Of course, the Norton is much more maintenance than the modern bikes; but it is a lifestyle we Nortonistas choose. The trick is to maintain it satisfactorily so that it doesn't leave you stranded, and know which tools and spares to take with you. Another thing I've seen is the enormous amount of things the average biker takes, in huge aluminum boxes posing as panniers. I knew that part of the key to my success would be to travel very light, taking advantage of the Norton's lightweight design. I made a tool box to put between the battery and the air filter that holds quite a bit. I had small panniers made for $20 from water proof nylon, and carried one small rubberized bag on the seat. I left with about 40lbs., mostly tools and spare parts. I planned a route that would take me across the Andes to the coast at Nazca, up the coast to Lima, then back over the mountains to the edge of the Amazon and over to the small town Oxapampa, from where I'd heard a rumor of a Norton. Then I would head back up into the mountains and attempt to travel lengthwise through the mountains, on 350 mi. of dirt roads from Izcuchaca to Abancay, and then back to Cusco. Amazingly, I realized only after the fact that my route from Lima to Oxapmapa, then Oxapmapa to Cusco, was the exact same route, in reverse, that Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had taken on their travels, hitching rides on trucks.

   I live in Cusco, Peru, at 11,150 ft. above sea level, near Machu Picchu, where I run a pub called Norton Rat’s Tavern. My bike has had a few of the typical mods (Boyer, much stainless, oil seals) but is basically a stock Roadster with an Interstate tank. I run 240 main jets which serve well at altitude and get me great economy (over 50 mpg). The first leg of the trip would take me 120 mi. to Abancay. I didn't get a very early start due to my nocturnal lifestyle as a bar owner. At 11:00am, 15 Oct., I was on the road out of Cusco that takes you first up a steep hill, up 500 meters more, to the level of the Altiplano, about 12,500ft.. For the next 25 mi. the road winds gently between the sparse adobe farmhouses, pastures and eucalyptus trees. 30 mi. from Cusco, at the first toll booth (MC's don't pay) the high plain runs out and I head down 20 miles of winding descent into the Apurimac River valley. I was thinking, "If you don't like riding windy roads, don't ever bring a bike to Peru"! We were in Norton heaven my bike and I, on this 2nd/3rd gear road. Arriving at the bottom and a warmer climate, the road follows along the turquoise colored river. At one point the road was cut into the cliff that passes close to the river, forming a sort of half a tunnel, then I crossed a bridge, and shortly thereafter was heading up the other side.

   The river must be at about 6000 ft. or more; but I was burning up when I stopped for a photo, with many layers of clothes; but I knew the climate would soon change. I wound up the steep canyon side on the great road surface until it crested. Then the road winds around between the mountaintops until you finally start the descent down to the small city of Abancay, at about 10,000 ft.. It rained for the descent; and the road got very slippery. The rain turned the three hour trip into a four hour trip.

    I had my sights on the town of Puquio for the first night, past Chalhuanca. These are the only two towns of any significance for the 300mi. between Abancay and Nazca (the coast). Between them there are some sparsely scattered Quechua speaking farmers and a lot of isolation. As I was buying gas I asked about the dirt road I hoped to return on in order to complete my circle tour here in Abancay. I looked out in that general direction and saw the mountains covered with heavy clouds and rain. I thought it would probably be too hard that way. I had a couple safety valves which were two paved roads over to the coast from the central mountains. If the going got unbearable I could always cut back to the coast to take the paved roads back, the long way around. It is next to impossible to get good info on road conditions. Not even the highway patrol can give you more than local information. You just have to go and see for yourself! When asking for directions or information, my rule is to ask at least at least three people. If you don't get coinciding info, then reassess who your asking (ie: look for someone more reliable) and keep asking more people. I really haven't seen a road map worth taking seriously, and made this trip without even taking a map.

    I wasted no more time and got moving. The nearly brand new road was impeccable. There is very little traffic in interurban Peru, and this was exceptionally quiet. From Abancay I wound down a gentle slope that followed a large river in a dry, rocky landscape for the next couple hours. At one point Something caught my eye above. Hovering along a clifftop hundreds of feet above was the biggest bird I'd ever seen. I knew it was a condor. I pulled over to have a look and saw two more. It was the first time I'd ever seen wild condors. This is why motorcycle is the best way to travel. You have a total panoramic view. One may be exposed to the elements; but you see much more, many things you'd miss if traveling any other way. Once the road pulls away from the river it climbs up again with more curves, crossing through more mountains like there is no end to them. When I see some of the farms, precariously perched on mountainsides across the valley from me, I have to stop and ponder how the inhabitants manage to get to and from home. I think of what physical condition they must be in, and also wonder what they do in a medical emergency. Some of the crop fields look too steep to walk across. I was really pleased with the performance of my bike, and quite happy carving up the Andes all alone on this beautiful sunny day.

   When I got to the town of Chalhuanca it was late; but I didn't like the town, no more than a half mile of two story buildings lining the road. I'd passed through once before on my Triumph, before it was paved. The bad road wasn't enough. They had to create more obstacles. I had dropped the bike when I struck a ditch running across the road, dug on purpose as a sort of "speed bump", a not too uncommon practice here. I learned later that my friend had broke the shock on his R80GS on the same ditch back in 1989. I had a bad feeling about the place; and, although it was late, I had an hour of daylight left; so, I pressed on determined to make Puquio before stopping for the night. Although I didn't want to travel at night, for safety, comfort and not to miss the scenery, I reckoned I could make it before too late.

    The road was windy but good, and it went up and down, maintaining high altitude as indicated by the stunted vegetation and the cold. By nightfall dark clouds loomed up in front of me. It began to rain lightly, so I got on the rain suit. About the time it started sleeting, I realized that I had miscalculated converting km. to mi., and mi. to km., etc.. Puquio wasn't 160km away, but 160 mi.. That was a disheartening realization. I had heavy lined gloves, but not waterproof. When the sleet turned to snow, it actually wasn't as bad, because the snow just bounced off and didn't get me wet. Luckily, it didn't stick to the road; so I still was getting good traction. This was the first time I had ever ridden in snow. I was really in the middle of nowhere! There was not a building for miles. I finally got to a tiny town and hoped to ask someone for shelter, until I realized that it was abandoned, but still well locked up. It must have been inhabited by miners at one time. So I could only continue as best I could, stopping a couple of times to warm up my hands. At moments the snow came down heavy and I envisioned myself stuck on a slippery, impassable road trying to sleep in my rain suit; but the snow subsided quickly; and I did come off the high plain some and it warmed up and dried out before I finally arrived in Puquio. Normally the mountains are very dry from May through October; but this year has been unusual, raining frequently since August. But Puquio was getting near the desert coast. I could count on dry weather for the next couple days of travel. It had been a long first day!

    Puquio is a boring little town without much in the way of services. I tried to find the best hotel in town, where I paid about $6.00 for an adequate room with a TV and the bathroom across the hall. I ventured out into town and had a beer in a basic cantina with a live band. The owner had the band offer me the town’s salutations, which embarrassed me; but the people were friendly enough. I should mention that a lot of this trip is in the heart of the old Shining Path territory. Only three months after I passed through this area on my BMW in 1989, three German motorcyclists were killed in Puquio just for being German.

    In the morning I wasn't happy with the amount of oil leaking from my valve covers, so I pulled them off and found one exhaust and one intake tappet loose. I adjusted and slapped the covers back on with some hi-temp silicone. I also had to adjust and lube the chain; and I put in the 260 main jets since I expected to be at sea level in a few hours.

    I didn't get a very early start, but had only about 100 miles to the coast, then 280 more up a relatively straight highway to Lima. From Puquio I had forgotten that I go up in elevation again before I go down. I still had to cross the Pampa Galera, which is a national reserve for vicuñas and huanácos, two cousins of the llama and alpaca. The vicuña, which was almost extinct, produces the finest natural fiber in the world. Thanks in part to this preserve the animals have made a successful comeback. I saw many of these two cameloids in the wild for the first time. There were so many huanácos running across the road (they are the size of llamas) I had to watch out. After the Pampa the scenery started changing once more, as I entered the coastal desert. The road down to the coast was steep and full of hairpins. The drop-off at the edge of the road did have me uneasy. Even though I had been constantly riding on cliffs' edge, this road was extreme and slowed me down. The scenery changed from sparse cactus to nothing but rock and sand. I could see dunes that are hundreds, if not thousands of feet high, off in the distance. The long strip of desert stretching from Northern Peru almost to Santiago is supposed to be one of the driest deserts in the world.

    For those of you familiar with the Rockies, imagine mountains 50% again as tall, and then imagine driving back and forth across them about 4 times. That is what the crossing from Cusco to Nazca felt like.

    When I arrived in Nazca it was hot and sunny. I quickly found a ceviche restaurant where I had a pile of mixed seafood and shrimp ceviche. As I ate, a gang of eight or ten BMW F650's rolled passed. They stopped across the road briefly, so I ran out just to catch the last guy and hand him my card and invite him to my pub in Cusco. After I ate I went to get gas, and there they all were, a bunch of English guys on BMW's. I made jokes that they ought to be on Norton's. A couple of them said they had had Norton’s, but they like to ride on dirt roads. You see, people think you have to have these big heavy "dirt" bikes to go down a dirt road. I found out later that they did go to my pub and had a great time. I didn't mention to them about my English friend Dan, fully sponsored to ride and write for a British bike mag, who at that moment was stuck in La Paz Bolivia waiting for trans parts for his BMW F650. I rode on through the desert at night to Lima without event. It was nice riding on a fairly straight road for a change. Only my Boyer acted up and was missing at 4000 to 4200rpm. But I just avoided the miss and was happy to get a comfortable room with cable TV for $10.00 in Lima.

    In Lima I had to buy a tire and change my fork oil from 20w to 30w; and I wanted to look up the mechanic with whom I'd only spoken. I had sent him my newly wired up wheels to set the spokes and offsets some months back. Since I arrived Saturday night I would have to wait until Monday. There are worse things than to be stuck in Lima on Saturday night. On Sunday I adjusted the chains, and discovered that the threads for my left-hand mirror were loose; so, I had to take it off. On Monday I saw Carlos' shop. He is restoring a '52 Norton for a client. He also has a '72 Harley with a side car, an Indian Scout, a '51 triumph and a 60's Triumph amongst the jap stuff. I changed my tire and fork oil in his shop while his guy adjusted the spokes on my rear wheel, for $3.00. That day was about shot; so, by 9:00am on Tuesday I was headed east.

    Although it hardly rains in Lima, it often gets foggy. A short distance from the coast I cleared the fog; but I heard too much valve clatter. I checked the tappet clearances and found two of them loose. Not long after I was back on my way, I was stopped by a policeman. He probably needed money to buy his wife an anniversary present or something; because he was threatening me with a ticket for no insurance, a legitimate but convenient (for him) charge. He got a $15 bribe from me and I went on.

    More beautiful mountain road ascended before me; but with a bit more traffic than the crossing from Cusco. I was following along the railroad line that is the highest in the world. Well into the mountains, after passing a mining town or two, I stopped to change my main jets back over to 240's. I had several sizes with me to choose from, but found that the bike ran fine and the plugs clean at altitude with the standard 260’s. I could be tempted to leave the 260’s in if not for the greatly increased economy. Gas here is $3.50 a gallon; and it’s so easy! It took all day on my ’95 Triumph Tiger; and it ran like crap in the mountains with standard jets.

    I arrived at a small mining community called Ticlio, where I was right at the base of several permanent ice caps, at about what must be close to 5000 meters, about 16000ft.; although the ice caps are diminishing due to global warming. I went on passed La Oroya and more before the road descended much. I got to a major town called Tarma, where they raise flowers, a very pleasant backdrop. Then I was surprised by how quickly it warmed up and the sparse vegetation changed over to lush tropical vegetation. I was following a rushing river that was fed by thin but high waterfalls. I was wondering if I could still make it to Oxapampa today.

    One reason I chose Oxapampa as a destination was because someone had told me they saw a 1960 Norton running on the streets there. I had also met people from there, who have a reputation for being very nice. The history is also very interesting, having been colonized by Germans about 150 yrs. ago. This town of a few thousand is accessible by a dirt road; but I had yet to know how far from the turn off at La Merced, which is already the edge of the Amazon basin at about 500m above sea level. In La Merced I was informed that it is 3-4 hours more (here everyone measures distance in time, not km.). It was 4:00pm. It gets dark at about 6:00. I went for it any way. The scenery was spectacular, but watered by at least 2 meters of rain per year. It wasn't raining now, so I got while the getting' was good. From here I would go up to 1800m (about 6000ft.) above sea level to arrive in Oxapampa.

   The scenery was lush as I again followed a river, brown this time. I stopped for a photo, when I went to start the bike my kick start pawl went, not the best thing on a dirt road, but I bump started it and went on. I arrived In Oxapampa at about 7:30pm, after 40mi. of dirt road. No sooner had I stopped on Main Street, looking at a crummy hotel front, wondering if they had a sheltered place for me to replace the pawl, when someone shouted, "a Norton!". It was Augusto Duarte Tabori, the proud owner of a 1958 model 7. He bought it in 1960 when he was 20 yrs. old. It turned out he also has a 1960 model 7 for parts, and a 1971 BSA B50 dirt bike. He's been riding this '58 model 7 all these years around Oxapampa on dirt roads. The Highway to La Merced was only built a couple of years ago. Augusto was my instant pal and proudly accompanied me all over town. It was as though he knew a Norton would show up, because he knows they're the best bikes, even though he must not have seen a Norton pass by here for many years, if ever. That night we saw his bikes. The next day he took me to see another running Norton. The guy rides what is an early Dominator frame with a 650 motor to work at the sawmill every day. It's all Norton except for the Honda dirt bike front end. Then Augusto took me to see a 1951 BSA basket case. It was time for me to go. Unfortunately, I was on a mission and didn't have enough time for visiting.

    It had rained hard all night so the river crossings would be up. By the time I changed the K.S.pawl, had lunch, and visited the local Brit-iron with Augusto, it was 3:00pm. But it was sunny; and in this part of the country you best get while the gettin' is good, or you may get rained in. The deepest crossing on the way back was above my mufflers; but I made it through without stalling. It was great to hit pavement, and I flew up the canyon, arriving at Tarma not long after dark, and got a room in the best hotel in town, quite mediocre, but with cable TV, for $10.00. I felt very fulfilled and content that my mission was a big success, having come this far, and finding the old Norton’s. From here my route was unsure. I was going to head back to La Oroya, but then head south across the mountains until the pavement ran out, and see if I could get back to Abancay and Cusco the "short" way.

    I was on the road by 8:30 and made haste to La Oroya. There I was held up by construction, waiting for heavy machinery to move out of the way. Just when I got through the bottleneck of vehicles, it started to rain hard. I was worried because I knew I didn't have a lot of good road left. But I pushed through the rain and it got beautifully sunny before I got to the next town, Huancayo. There was still one more stretch of pavement ahead; but I repeatedly got bad directions that led me to a dirt road heading also in the same direction. I went 10 mi. out of the way, a 20 mi. detour, before I was back on track, for what turned out to be the worst such mistake of the trip.

    Here they use roads that are still being built. I arrived at pavements end in Izcuchaca, after being one of the first to roll down that gorgeous feat of engineering. The workers were still painting the lines as I passed. I couldn't buy gas at Izcuchaca because they were paving the only bridge that crossed in to town. I was assured I could get 84 octane, a bit further down the road; but I was lucky and got the good 90 octane from a vendor who sells it from 55 gal. drums. I did some maintenance on the bike while chatting with the very nice people who attended me. I was now in a dry climate, a valley running between the snow caps for many miles.

    I headed down this narrow bumpy dirt road, winding around some very intimidating drop-offs. By dark I crossed paths with a couple in a 4x4 who recommended a hostel in Anco, the first town of any size. It was 40mi. into the dirt road when I arrived at Anco, population 600. As it turned out, Che and his companion Alberto had also stayed the night in this small town. They had been held up by boulders in the road towards Huancayo, possibly at the same point I found the road partially blocked. They describe more traffic than I encountered, probably due to the new paved roads that cut into the mountains providing other supply routes. In The Motorcycle Diaries, Che mistakenly describes the road as going up and down to Huancayo. It actually climbs steadily all the way to Huancayo. The recommended hostel was full. I got a sort of a room, with plywood partitions, for $1.50; and they helped me put the bike inside what appeared to be a classroom, downstairs from my "room". I went to the bathroom to wash up only to find a simple latrine with a 300lb hog asleep inside. The patron got me a pan of water for washing and I went to eat. There were several meager restaurants to choose from. I ate for a dollar. I got an early start the next morning.

    The next day was more narrow, hair raising canyon road. There were some fallen boulders in the road as big as cars. The scenery became lush with cactus and palo verde trees which resembled incredibly my beloved Arizona. I was told of 30 mi. of pavement, from huanta to Ayacucho, but half of that stretch turned out to be worse than the dirt. I made it to Ayacucho unscathed. My suspension felt sacked, but I had done 120 mi. of the 350 mi. of dirt. From here I could take the newly paved road over to the coast, only to return by the route I came on. I chose instead to press on towards Andahuaylas, about 180 mi. away. I road 65 mi. without passing so much as a building, only a very few animals sometimes accompanied by their Shepard’s. I was back up on the Pampa, the high plain. The road was horrible at first and very discouraging. I did run into two Germans heading the opposite way on dirt bikes they'd rented from someone I know in Cusco. They lifted my spirits when they told me the road got better. It did, and wasn't unpleasant passing over and between large rolling mountains, until I got to a breathtaking descent to a town.

    Halfway down the switchbacks I felt something go. I stopped to find that the bottom nut and rubber grommet were gone off one shock. After unsuccessfully searching the road for the nut &/or grommet, I got out the tools and took a strip of inner tube I had and wrapped it around the bolt in place of the grommet. Then I took another 5/16 fine nut from one of the exhaust mounts and a lipped seat washer and used that to press the rubber into place. While I was working, a melon sized boulder came falling down and bounced off the road about 5 yds. from me before it continued its fall out of sight. I got back on the road and went right past the town.

    Now the valleys were more populated, luckily, because I had another catastrophe. The U part of the frame that runs under the seat could no longer take the bouncing under the weight of my bags. Possibly it was cracked when the shock came loose; but it was broke clean off just as I arrived to another town, which I never did catch the name of. I found a welder and he did a sketchy job. It was getting late and supposedly I was an hour away from the sizable town of Chincheros. An hour later it was quite dark and starting to rain, with lightning about. The frame broke again at the welds. I was distraught at the thought of passing the night in the rain in this creepy place, and could see no sign of civilization. I managed to strap my rubber bag to the tank and put the panniers over my shoulders. I strapped up the broken frame with a suitcase strap and a bungee cord. Luckily I was better prepared than Che and Alberto had been. It was bouncing a bit, but I was moving. I made it to Chincheros in about 30 min. and found a nice little room for $6.00; but no cable TV out here.

    I managed to get a half decent welder to weld up the frame, with pipe inside, running through from the shock to the bend in the back this time. He charged me three dollars. I also needed to get my panniers repaired. That cost 25 cents. I was on my way by 10:30am. It had rained all night; but I was lucky; it was sunny when I left. I made it to the somewhat large town of Andahuaylas in three hrs. without problems. From there I had about 3-4 hrs. more to Abancay and pavement. The weather was nice and the countryside gorgeous. The road varied between very bumpy and passable. I had maintained an average of about 20mph on the dirt. The road was good for the moment, and I was anxious to get home now and was doing about 30mph. The 19 tooth sprocket had served me well on this trip in the mountains, and is the maximum I would want on dirt roads. I was within sight of Abancay long before arriving. I passed one Montero 4x4 and a pick-up along the way, two of the very few vehicles I saw that day. I could see the paved road in the distance, and thought I could see where the dirt road met it. When I finally got to pavement I turned in the wrong direction. I should have known by the flow of the river; but it felt so good to ride on that perfect road, I rode 6mi. before I noticed, another mistake that cost me 12 mi.; but really not to serious. I had forgotten how smooth a road could feel. I was very happy that my bike was running excellently! I made Abancay by 5:00 and got gassed up and grabbed a quick bite from a street vendor. I was on the way by 5:30. It was dark before I made it very far up the mountains towards the Apurimac valley that would take me home; but it was an unusually warm night. I rode on without complications, only some light rain for a few miles. I took a risk that it wouldn't get worse and pressed on without putting on the rain suit. The gamble paid off and it got nice and dry and warm. I was home by 8:30pm after 8 days and 1721miles. It had been a hell of a trip; but my Norton did me proud! It didn’t go as smoothly as I had dreamed; but having gone through the trials and tribulations along with my mount, I couldn’t complain. I drove it into the patio, not limping, just bouncing a bit. I never dropped the bike; and the only real damage that resulted was the worn out suspension which would need rebuild/replacement. Now I'm getting some custom shocks made. After I go through the bike, I hope to leave for Tierra del Fuego in just over two months.