|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(www.sjaaklucassen.nl), 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.
| 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.