Peru head on

I caught up with Remco – a repaired Royal Enfield Himalayan under his butt – in Arica. He lobbed at the hostel where we were staying for a couple of days, to join our little border convoy to Peru. It was great to see him again, and we spent a good while catching each other up on our adventures since Perito Moreno.

The few days in Arica were cruisey, although I did sneak in a little more maintenance on the mighty WR before the rag-tag show hit the road to Peru.

It was very rare for everyone in the group to leave at the same time. Jamie was often an early starter. Frank, Nynke and Lukas and I would often head out together a little later, with the slow-starting French boys usually last on the road.

Remco was keen to hit the border first thing, so I decided to go with him and we were the first of the group away. Despite the early start, the order was super-busy when we arrived, with a huge queue out the door of the main building. We soon found out the computers were down on the Peruvian side, so settled in for a long wait. Jamie rolled in a while later, with the others arriving in dribs and drabs over the course of the morning.

After a 45-minute or so wait in the queue, things started to move a little quicker. They must have got the computers firing again. Once inside and face to face with Chilean immigration to get stamped out, the process went fairly quickly. I have found the immigration process is invariably the easier part of the border crossing process. It’s aduana (Customs) and getting a temporary import permit (TIP) for the bike that takes the most time.

One stumbling block is that I don’t have an ownership document for the bike per se, just the registration certificate. It’s all we get in Australia. A complicating factor is that this certificate is issued by Queensland, where the bike is registered, and not by the Australian government. My European companions, for example, have their bikes and car registered by their national government (not by state or province) and also get an official paper that shows they are the owner of their vehicle.

It’s not a massive deal, but at every border crossing so far I have had to explain the whole palaver to the aduana people when securing the WR’s TIP. They get it – eventually. Same thing happened going into Peru, so really it was situation normal.

Remco had bigger problems. Chile let him and his bike out easily enough (getting out is always simpler…) but Peruvian aduana chucked a wobbly about his Colombian-registered Himalayan and refused entry. The issue was that the bike is not registered in his name, and although he has all the correct legal paperwork to permit him to ride it and take it across borders, they claimed he needed an additional stamp before they would let him in.

So it was back to Arica for the lanky Dutchman, in search of a notary and that precious stamp. He managed to cross in to Peru the next day, and even then with some difficulty.

By the time the rest of the group got through the border and we had moved on to the nearest town, Tacna, for lunch, sim cards and Peruvian cash, it was getting late in the day. Jamie had found a wild camping spot on a beach a bit further up the coast, so we bolted for the pin on the map and found a cool little cove with a grey sandy beach below reddish cliffs. There was also the usual assortment of rubbish – a common theme throughout Peru, especially along the coastal strip.

Litter aside, it wasn’t a bad spot to camp – and free to boot.

Between that first night’s home and our next beach camp further up the coast near Mollendo, we encountered our first roadblock. It was just outside a small town. The protesters had laid rough line of rocks, branches, old tyres and other debris before a roundabout and were milling around chatting and laughing.

The atmosphere was definitely festive with no anger evident at all, at least to us travellers. We chatted amiably with the locals for a bit before they waved us through with cheers and good wishes.

Roadblock party.

By the time we reached Mollendo, I was coming down with a cold and growing tired of the group travel thing. No issues with the people, but the constant discussions about where and when to go, and the unavoidable stop-start nature of moving in a group, was wearing thin.

For me, this journey was always meant to be a solo endeavour. I knew I would meet other overlanders along the way, and potentially travel with them, but only for reasonably short stretches. And travelling with one companion is a different ball game to moving in a herd of six or seven.

Essentially, I’m a bit of a loner and perfectly happy with my own company. Plus, I prefer the freedom of making my own decisions about where to go, when to stop, how long to stay, when to wake up, where to eat and all the rest.

Remco had overtaken the convoy and suggested we meet up in Nazca, site of the famous lines in the desert. I took that as my cue and set off early the next morning, with 500km to cover and keen to be riding solo once more.

With the protests in Peru mainly in the south-west regions, I stuck to the coast to avoid the worst hot spots. One one hand, it meant no hassles. On the other, I was covering a lot of kilometres over a landscape I didn’t really enjoy.

On the coastal strip, Peru is largely sand and nothing too spectacular. Down near the Chilean border there are some dramatic mountains close to the coast, and the Panamericana highway traces a thrilling route. Further north though, things flatten out and the scenery gets a bit monotonous, although the frequent sight of the sea is always refreshing.

It is also dirty, with rubbish strewn along roadsides, blown into drifts by the wind, and scattered on beaches. I lost count of how many times I saw car and truck drivers toss bottles, food wrappers and even disposable nappies out of their windows with no care at all.

The coastal strip is stark, broken only by fertile sections where a river cuts through the sand and rock to the sea and the land can sustain agriculture. Elsewhere, the sea provides. Many coastal villages and towns boast large fleets of colourful wooden fishing boats.

Seaweed is also harvested and I saw lots of trucks – large and small – filled to overflowing with stinky, dried black weed.

I met Remco about 20km south of Nazca, at the Necropolis de Chauchilla – a site of burial tombs in the stony desert surrounded by low hills. It is a resting place of the Nazca people, who lived in the area from about 100BC to 800AD.

In rock or mud-brick-lined pits, bodies are placed in a sitting position, wrapped in textile shawls with just the skull visible. Many of the skulls still have hair attached, and some had long dreadlocks although it was hard to tell if this was the person’s original hair or some sort of wig. Interestingly, the bodies in every tomb all sat facing east.

We were the only ones there and wandered around freely, amazed that such valuable and fragile history seemed almost carelessly managed, with only a sleepy caretaker and the tombs covered by flimsy bamboo awnings. It is very dry there so they don’t have to worry to much about water damage, but the strong wind blew desert dust everywhere.

Next day, Remco and I took a small plane to see the Nazca lines. You can read more about these fascinating geoglyphs here. I love small aircraft and was super excited, but poor old Remco’s stomach rebelled as the pilot banked the eight-seater left and right to give views of the various formations to each side.

He was sitting behind me and I didn’t realise how crook he was until we reached ground again. Poor bugger had to rest for quite a while to regain his equilibrium.

When we boarded the plane I was seated next to a bloke from the USA who introduced himself by describing how he stiff and sore he was from crashing his Suzuki V-Strom motorcycle a few days before. As a fellow motorcyclist, this was something with which I could sympathise. I asked a few questions about his trip, as you do, and shared that Remco and I were also on bikes.

He couldn’t have been less interested. After describing his accident and answering a couple of my questions with monosyllabic responses, he stared blankly at me before turning away to the window. Conversation over. People are strange.

Although short at 35 minutes, the scenic flight was a blast and a brilliant way to see the famous desert figures. With Cusco and Machu Picchu off my itinerary due to the unrest, I was happy to spend the $100 for this little excursion.

After the joyflight (not so joyful for my Dutch amigo), we returned to town and visited the Museo Arqueologico Antonini. It is small but perfectly formed, with a good range of exhibits about the Nazca people. Among the pottery, jewellery and other artefacts, there is a reconstruction of a puquio, or aqueduct, that the Nazca used to channel subterranean water for irrigation and domestic use.

The puquio’s cooling effect was immediately noticeable, too. It was a stinking hot day in Nazca, but felt several degrees cooler standing next to the puquio in the courtyard of the museum.

There was also an interesting relief map of the Nazca lines, cast in concrete, showing their placement in the landscape. Although well worn, it was clear and a great way to get an overall perspective.

Replica puquio at the Museo Aqueologico Antonini.
The Nazca people liked to lop off the bonces of friends and enemies alike, bore a hole in the skull, pop a rope through and carry them around for ritual purposes.

We left Nazca next day for the short run to Ica and the amazing oasis of Huacachina. Emerging between huge sand dunes just a few kilometres out of Ica, the Huacachina oasis is essentially a lake surrounded by trees, restaurants, hostels and hotels.

You can walk around the oasis in about 15 minutes, but the best way to see it is to scale on the of the dunes and take it all in from on high.

Touristy as it is (but not terribly busy due to the unrest), it was definitely worth seeing and staying for a couple of nights. With the heat, the pool at our hotel was very much appreciated.

At Huachachina, there is a fleet of colourful 4WD dune buses that take visitors for tours. When they are crawling over the sandhills with their engines roaring, it is like something out of Mad Max.

It was only for one night. Remco and I lit out for Lima next day. Much as I prefer to dodge big cities, sometimes they can’t be avoided. We both wanted new tyres for our bikes, and I wanted to see about fork seals. One of the WR’s forklegs had started to ooze fluid.

Lima wasn’t too bad, although I didn’t see much of it. Most of my time was spent chasing up leads on fork seals that proved to be unavailable. With the help of a quick email to MPE Suspension on the Sunshine Coast (they had upgraded the bike’s suspension before the trip) and some YouTubing, I ended up fixing the fork leak in the foyer of my hostel.

Fashioning a scraper from a plastic water bottle, I cleaned the leaky seal and was stoked to find the leak had stopped. Very glad I kept the scraper in my toolkit, because I had to repeat the process a week later when the other seal started leaking. So far, as I write this, they are still both fine and leak-free. Result!

Remco got a new rear tyre and an old change for his Himalayan, while I put off the new tyres, somewhat distracted by the seal search.

To clean the WR’s fork seals and stop them leaking, I MacGyvered this seal scraper from a plastic bottle. Amazingly, it worked!

What I did see of Lima was a huge, modern city absolutely teeming with chaotic life. Miraflores, where I stayed, is a nice area near the beach with some excellent cafes and restaurants. The traffic, though, is a nightmare. Riding just three or four kilometres could take 30 minutes, and that was with lane-splitting furiously.

With his time in South America running out (he had to reach Colombia by early March to leave his bike and return to work in Holland), Remco pushed off while I stayed another day and caught up with Frank for dinner.

Remco hot-footed it up the Peruvian coast to Ecuador and Colombia in just a couple of weeks. Not how he originally planned to do it, but the troubles with his bike in Argentina cost him about a month of his three-month trip.

He’s a good guy with an interesting and unique take on the world. It was beaut travelling with him and I hope we will catch up again one day. At any rate, he aims to be back in South America and reunited with his Royal Enfield at the end of the year.

Adios Remco. It’s been beaut.

Jamie moved over to my hostal the day Remco left. I planned to depart next day and he wanted to come along, but wavered when I said I’d be going at 6am to beat the crazy Lima traffic. He suggested 6.30am and I agreed to the comprise, suspecting that I would roll out alone.

Sure enough, there was no sign of him as I packed my bike and readied to ride. I motored away, getting lost and circling the same area three times thanks to a Google Maps freak-out before finally finding the right road out of town.

It took me more than an hour to get out of Lima, and I was very glad to escape. It’s a schmozzle, with crazy traffic and even crazier drivers.

Peruvians are currently my number one worst drivers in South America. They have no patience, no lane discipline, frequently drive while playing with mobile phones, and think nothing of overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic.

I lost count of the number of times I had cars bearing down on me because they had pulled out to overtake a slower vehicle. There was no way they were going to pull back in, so I was usually forced to the far right of my lane to avoid a head-on collision. And don’t get me started about their habit of taking curves on the wrong side of the road. Near misses aplenty.

From Lima I went to Huaraz. It was a pleasant change to be back in the mountains, although I copped plenty of fog and rain on the way up. I stayed just the one night in Huaraz then headed about 80km north to Caraz.

Halfway to Caraz I struck more roadblocks in Ranrahirca, but again the locals were angry at the state and not scruffy motorcyclists, so it was no trouble to get through. At one stoppage, I met Humberto, who was riding a very tasty Ducati Multistrada – not a common sight in South America.

Humberto is Chilean, but has lived in Lima for about 20 years. He’s a civil engineer and uses his bike to get to some of his work projects. We rode together into Caraz and he very generously shouted coffee and cake, and provided a bunch of tips on sights and road conditions, especially the Canon del Pato – which was the main reason I had come to Caraz.

One of many roadblocks in Ranrahirca.
The friendly Humberto and some bloke.

He then headed off to work, and I looked for a hotel. A one-night stay turned into two as Caraz was an interesting and friendly little town. The hotel owners let me park the bike in their chicken restaurant on the ground floor. I ate there the first night and it was amusing seeing people double-take at the dusty WR as they wandered in for their dinner.

When I was checking out, it was market day in the street outside the hotel and the place was packed, with people selling everything from fruit and veg to plasticware to pet fish. One vendor had set up his pots and pans stall right in front of the hotel’s biggest door, which was the exit route for the WR.

I had visions of being stuck there all day, but the hotel owner said not to worry. When I asked the guy if he would mind moving his stuff, he couldn’t have been more agreeable. In just a few minutes he had a path cleared and I had the WR out into the bustling street. Like I said, nice people in Caraz.

The day’s plan was to ride the Canon del Pato (Duck Canyon) back down to the coast. The Canon sits on Peru’s Ruta 3N and is a ride not to be missed. The road was originally cut to provide access to build hydroelectric plants along the Santa River.

Mostly dirt, very narrow and tantalisingly dangerous, the road traces a precipitous path through the canyon, which is barely 12m wide in some sections. The road also passes through more than 30 tunnels, hewn from the rock and mostly unlit. Lots of signs warn you to honk your horn before entering the tunnels and tight curves.

Canon del Pato. Mind the step…

It is way too perilous to ride this route fast, but why would you want to? The surroundings – sheer rock walls around your head and a river rushing below, the sketchy tunnels, and the majesty of the landscape – is best appreciated at a modest clip. Canon del Pato will always be a highlight of this trip.

I missed lunch – saw a few places along the road, but they didn’t appeal – so made do with some water and snacks from my backpack under a shady tree surrounded by cornfields. By this time, I was out of the mountains and not far from the coast, and it was hot.

I pushed on to Trujillo and rewarded myself with a night in a fancy resort hotel – for the cost of a very average motel back home. Lounging by the hotel’s huge pool with a pisco sour after a delicious swim felt like a fitting way to wrap up what had been an epic day of riding.

Sometimes you have to rough it.


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3 responses to “Peru head on”

  1. Ann Avatar

    Oh Pete, it just gets better and better and your writing is so interesting, giving the reader a real feel for the atmosphere and the people in each place you visit. Obviously you and Remco have formed a great friendship from your shared interests and I do hope that you can catch up again some day. Perhaps you can tempt him to Australia and bring him to meet your mother.

    Continue to enjoy and travel safely.

  2. Mick Collins Avatar
    Mick Collins

    Hi Pete,
    I have been following your travels with great interest and always look forward to a new posting from you. As your mum and friends have mentioned your journalistic skills make for first class travelogues and are very entertaining and informative, opening a window to a part of the world and its peoples that have been beyond my reach. The stories and the experiences that you write of, and the friendships you are making, transport us all into your very special world. Just wondering…is there a chance I could join you….could you possibly try to find me a decent 4-wheeler bike with a fold-out 5-star air conditioned bedroom with ensuite, and I’ll be there in a flash! ha ha! Seriously, you are brave to do such a trip and it shows your essential mettle…as they say, fortune favours the brave, so well done to you and keep on keeping on, keep safe (especially in Peru) and keep them coming. From a very jealous Uncle Mick xxx

    1. Pete Callaghan Avatar

      Hey Mick, great to hear from you and thanks! Glad you are enjoying my blatherings. It really is turning out to be quite the adventure, throwing up so many sights and experiences I never could have expected.
      I am in Ecuador at the moment. There are loads of four-wheeler bikes here. I am sure I could speak to a local soldador (welder) about tacking on a rooftop tent for you. Air conditioning and ensuite bathroom? Mmm… How about a battery-powered fan and a porta-potty? 😂
      Hope Lukey and you are both hale and hearty. Best, P.