The sun is barely up as our train departs Ollantaytambo for Aquas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.  To a never-ending soundtrack of pan flute music, the train zigzags through lush valleys hugging the Rio Urubamba. Entertainment is also provided by the other 50 tourists in the train car diving from side to side while snapping tremendous numbers of photos with their mobile phones.  We are feeling very spoiled to have been immersed in spectacular scenery for months.  I must admit that the view from the train seems quite pale by comparison.

After transferring from the train to a bus for a final steep climb, we arrive at Machu Picchu and the exploration begins. The site more than lives up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular archeological discoveries on earth.  The ruins of the legendary “lost city of the Incas” sits majestically amid the highland jungle surrounded by the massive Andes.

We head straight up the hill to a spot above the ruins that affords us the classic postcard view of the site. We are overlooking rows and rows of steep agricultural terraces being visited by a few grazing llamas. In the opposite direction, we look down on the Inca Bridge, built of stacked stones and overlooking a sheer drop of nearly 2000 feet.

As we sit admiring the view, a thoughtful man named Tim approaches and asks if we would like him to take a photo of the two us with this spectacular backdrop.  After some discussion, we discover that Tim and his wife, Sandy, are fellow Calgarians and are also friends with our traveling compatriots, Janet and Tom (www.adventurouspirits.com). All of us have been trying to plan our travels to meet up with Janet and Tom in Chile. Sandy also comes over to speak with us and we enjoy the opportunity to chat and put together the pieces that reveal that we have actually met before.  We would certainly never have expected our second meeting to be thousands of miles from home at the top of Machu Picchu. Yet again we are amazed by the realization of how small our world is. We eventually accept that we need to get moving if we are going to see all of Machu Picchu today, so we part company and Miles and I trek down into the main section of the ruins, hiking and exploring for several more hours. 

The next day, Stefan takes us to do some further exploring of the ruins he has  discovered – right across the street from our hotel.  We pass through an unassuming doorway and climb to the ruins of Pikuylluna.  The climb is very steep but provides spectacular views of Ollantaytambo, the ruins across the gorge, and much of the valley.  We take a different route down, ending up at a set of stairs that lead us back to Ollayntaytambo’s old town. I’m still amazed at the wonders of archaeology that lie around every corner in this fascinating country.


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We are once again on steep dirt roads – steep dirt roads for as far as we can see. When we stop for a snack, the locals seem to think that we are more than a bit crazy to be continuing.  They seem to be debating whether or not to turn back themselves. We continue, undaunted, dodging rocks and slimy puddles for hours. At one point we come across a muddy crossing that can’t be dodged.  Recognizing that we are likely to be stuck without a lot of power to get us through, Miles opens up the throttle and we power into the water with an enormous splash. We come out the other side covered in red mud from head to toe but grinning from ear to ear.  “That was a blast!  Can we do it again?”  We are truly a sight to be seen. As we make our way through a construction zone, all of the road workers can’t help stopping at the sight of us.  One worker sees us coming from a distance, lifts his arms in the air as if he is about to cheer us on, but when we get close enough that he can see the state of us, his arms go down for the biggest knee-slapping laugh I have ever seen.  We are definitely providing the entertainment for the afternoon.

The next afternoon, Miles spots an interesting looking road that takes off from the side of the highway.  On our map, it looks like it may be part of the fabled back-route to Machu Picchu. In an effort to avoid the busy tourist route that lies ahead of us, we give it a try.  It provides some spectacular drives through remote farming villages where ladies young and old are herding their cows, sheep and pigs up and down the roads. I can quickly see why this wasn’t the recommended route.  We are constantly dodging livestock and at one point are chased down the road by a lady with a big stick, apparently trying to herd us along with her animals. “Yikes.  Is it time to turn back yet?” We continue and reach some spectacular views of the high Andes.  It is amazing to look up at these mountains and know that the mysterious and beautiful Machu Picchu lays just on the other side. Unfortunately, though, the road ends at a glacier-filled rock wall and we have no option but to turn around and return the same way that we came, our destination so close and yet still very far away.

The next day, as we are approaching Urubamba, we see a tiny shack with a red flag, the local way of advertising that there’s home-brewed chicha available inside. We stop to try our first taste of this ancient Andean tradition we have heard much about, a beer made from fermented maize.  It is served warm, in a well-used monstrous glass for just a few pennies.  One glass is more than enough for all three of us, in fact one tiny glass of this fizzy, mouldy corn would have been more than enough for all three of us.  We made it through but won’t be going out of our way to search for a waving red flag again.

We are now heading into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The empire built several of their greatest temples, estates, and royal palaces nestled among these rugged mountains between Cusco and Machu Picchu. It is now a beautiful stretch of small villages and ancient ruins.

The villages of this valley remain starkly traditional. Quechua-speaking residents work the fields with primitive tools and harvest salt with methods unchanged since the days of the Incas. We first pass through the village of Urubamba before stopping in Ollantaytambo, a tongue twister of a town that has clearly received a lot of space in the Lonely Planet travel guide. After weeks of being off the beaten path, we suddenly find ourselves deep in the land of tourists.

It is easy to see why so many are attracted to visiting here. The surrounding scenery is stunning:  the snowcapped mountains that embrace the town frame a narrow valley where both sides lined are lined with Inca stone agricultural terraces.  Searching for a hotel, Stefan and I wander through Ollantaytambo’s old town, a perfect grid of streets dating to Inca times.  The streets are lined with stone walls, bougainvillea, and tiny canals carrying rushing water down from the mountains.

After checking into a hotel, we take a walk through the main plaza and across the Rio Patancha.  Munching on a skewer of alpaca meat while wondering through the market stalls I can’t help stopping to admire some tapestries, hand-woven in brilliant colour. The ancient drop spindle, a stick and spinning wooden wheel used for weaving, is still used and for the past week we have seen women in colourful native dress pacing up and down roads absent-mindedly spinning the ancient spools or sitting chatting with friends with baskets of colourful wool at their feet. It’s great to now see some of their end-products.

Further along the road we look up to see the ruins of a fortress built into the hillside. The ruins represent one of the Inca Empire’s most amazing feats of architecture, each stone perfectly fit. We thought we were just stopping on our way to Machu Picchu and now here we are standing in another unexpected archaeological wonder.

On our way back through the plaza, we join with the locals in the centuries-old tradition of chewing coca leaves to ease the effects of altitude.  They taste… well… green.  And they make my mouth kind of numb.  Other than that, I don’t seem to notice any impact.  Miles is liking them.  Still, I won’t be adding coca chewing to my daily Andean routine.

We stop for a late lunch and a long-awaited opportunity to try Peru’s national drink – the pisco sour. This is a delicious concoction from the white-grape brandy called pisco made frothy when mixed with egg whites, lemon juice and sugar. Miles had raved about this drink after an earlier trip to South America but wasn’t quite able to replicate it at home. It’s cold and complex – the closest thing to a Peruvian margarita.  I think I will add this to my daily Andean routine, until I realize that after one pisco sour I’m having a hard time navigating my way down the street. I now understand the need for bordering the roads with high rock walls – they keep me from going too far astray.


After Note:  A huge thank you to Stefan Gardt for the tremendous photo of Smiles and Miles covered in Peruvian mud.  This photo has now been used by Schuberth Helmets and featured in the December 2013 issue of Motorcycle Mojo magazine.

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Getting out of Lima proves to be no easier than getting in. We spend two hours on the city’s freeways trying to find our way.  After passing the highway exit a couple of times, we finally spot the tiny road sign that we have been searching for and are once again on our way into the Andes. We are headed for Ticlio Pass and Morococha, the highest passenger train station in the world at 4758m.  At the top of the pass, we stop for lunch and Miles finally gets his chance to try cuy (guinea pig).  Given that this is considered a delicacy throughout the Andes, he isn’t that impressed – lots of bones and not much meat to fill a hungry belly.

As we gain altitude, the scenery in the mountains is quite stark.  We are often in deep canyons with rock on both sides and lots of tunnels.  Our intended destination for the day is La Oroya, a bleak, cold mining town.  It would not be worthy of a stop but for its ideal location at the end of our day’s travel and the fact that its streets are lined with hotels to house the mine workers.  As we get closer to the town, we are constantly climbing in altitude.  The higher we get, the colder we get and just minutes before we reach the town the skies open and we are soaked, making sure that if we aren’t already feeling well chilled, we are now.  Stefan and I begin the task of finding a hotel, splitting up and then re-connecting to compare our findings.  I am soaking wet, bulked up with six layers of clothing, and feeling very short of breath and a bit dizzy after an increase in altitude from sea level to over 4800m in under six hours.  To make it more challenging, the reception for every hotel is on the second floor at the top of a steep flight of stairs.  I climb a dozen of these staircases only to find that all of the hotels I check are either full or have no parking.  Stefan’s luck isn’t any better and we are beginning to think that we’ll be continuing our chilly drive to the next town.  Fortunately, there is one hotel left and it has a room for three and secure parking.  The room is not great, but it is amazing what becomes acceptable accommodation when you are frozen, exhausted, light-headed and now starving.

The next day is sunny and much warmer.  Following an early afternoon fuel stop in Huancayo, we travel a beautiful route that ascends on mountain contours then loops down to a narrow river valley and Izcuchaca before opening out again into lush alpine meadowland with artfully painted thatched-roof homes and wandering herds of llamas. It then spirals down into the valley and Huancavelica, our home for the night.

From here we head onto dirt roads. This is our opportunity for some real back-country adventure. We are headed to what is marked on our 30-year-old mining map as the highest road in the world at 5059m.  It looks like the road never goes below 4700m for almost 200km. After many skinny twists and turns, we arrive at the pass and pose for the requisite photos.  We have some sense of accomplishment, having potentially taken our Ural to the highest altitude that one of these Russian beasts has ever reached.

We are now in the midst of Peru’s Central Highlands, immersed in uninterrupted wilderness.  It is rocky, remote and feels like Peru at its most Peruvian. For hours at a time, the only signs of life are the passing herds of llama, alpaca, and vicuna.  With each new turn we are faced with a new and starkly beautiful view.

On a particularly narrow stretch of road, balanced on the edge of a cliff, we come across a truck – a big, wide truck. We maneuver the bike against the rock wall on one side of the road to provide space, but this doesn’t give the truck enough space and now the bike is sinking into the soft roadside soil. Once we get unstuck we try the other side of the road. With one tire off the road and beginning to slide downward, Miles and Stefan are both clinging to the bike to keep it from sliding completely off of the road and down the steep slope.  As the back-end of the truck passes, its rear wheels scrape the side of the Ural.  There is no room to spare.  Finally the truck makes it past us and it takes some careful footing and super-human strength to push the Ural back to safety on the road.  Whew!  Disaster averted.

The next morning the roads become steeper and less road-like with every kilometre. The altitude is taking its toll on our horsepower and finally the lack of speed and difficulty of the terrain causes us to stall to a halt. We try to continue but smoke pours from the clutch and the reality is that I will need to tackle the next couple of steep corners on foot as it is the only way to reduce our weight enough to complete the climb.

A short while later, we face a repeat situation.  This time we decide to do some load-swapping, moving one of Stefan’s bags into the sidecar while I move to the back of Stefan’s bike.  It is a nice change of pace riding on the back of the bike but I quickly remember how tiring it can be – holding on, balancing, feeling every bump. I’m missing my cushy sidecar.


Update:   Thank you to Walter Colebatch and the Husaberg Adventure Team for featuring our altitude achievement on your website (http://www.andesmotoextreme.com/p/altitude-review.html) and congratulations to each of you as well as to Sherri Jo Wilkins http://sherrijosbecauseicanworldtour.blogspot.ca/) on your own new altitude records.

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On one of our earlier nights in Peru we spend the night at what we have come to refer to as a “Luuuuuv” hotel.  This type of accommodation is common everywhere we have been in Latin America and in many of the communities we have visited, it is the only type of accommodation.  In communities where it is common for a dozen family members to share close quarters, these hotels are designed to provide a very private getaway for couples. Each hotel is designed to allow a couple to check in and enjoy their stay without ever needing to see or speak to the staff.  We drive our Ural through a curtain or around a tight corner where it is instantly hidden from view for the duration of our stay, then proceed to an available room where we can communicate with the staff by telephone and leave our payment on a carousel which the staff can access from outside our room without ever seeing us.  All of these hotels have been immaculately clean and most are very tastefully decorated.  This one is quite nice, with plenty of mirrors and beautiful hand-painted murals covering the walls, although the subjects are quite suggestive.  Each hotel has also had satellite television with access to stations unlike anything I have seen at home.  In this particular location, each room faces an open area and the walls are thin, meaning that sounds carry very well.  This allows our fellow guests to provide us with some pretty interesting audio entertainment over the course of the evening.  In keeping with the theme of discretion, I’ll say no more.

The next morning, we are making our way through the town of Chimbote, Miles is in his element. As a race car driver back home, he’s enjoying being surrounded by thousands of mototaxis, engines blasting, each competing for their desired space on the busy roads. The Ural zigs, then zags, speeds up, then slows down.  At one point, road space is particularly tight and we end up hooking fenders with one of the mototaxis. I reach out of the sidecar and give a hard slap to the side of his cab and he now realizes what has happened.  He speeds up, we slow down and disaster is averted.  We are left with a white paint smudge and a subtle dent that leaves the sidecar looking a little more “lived in”.

Once we’re out of town, our scenery becomes truly spectacular. This can’t be real. I feel like I am driving through a water-colour painting.  Mountain, desert, and ocean, seamlessly combine.  The sand dunes, covered in repetitive swirling patterns, are large enough to be mountains. The mountains are covered in sand, making them almost indistinguishable from the massive dunes.

Eventually we leave the scenery behind and head into the sooty, loud, chaotic capital of Lima.  We quickly discover that this is an exceedingly complicated city to get around. When we finally find what looks like a suitable hotel, the Ural is once again swarmed – this time by all of the neighborhood kids.  They climb all over the bike, having a blast.  We give them all Smiles and Miles stickers and try to send them on their way so that we can get the bike into the garage and get settled in our room, but there are a few stragglers who can’t tear themselves away, following us into the garage and excitedly watching us unpack.  One of the girls asks if I will autograph the back of her sticker. It is always nice to feel like a minor celebrity so I oblige and this quickly turns into a major autograph session, particularly when I turn the tables and ask the kids to autograph my journal for me.  They are thrilled and each one takes their turn carefully writing their name in their neatest handwriting, the youngest boy tackling the challenge with such intensity that his name is now embossed through several pages of my journal.  There couldn’t be a more treasured keepsake.


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“Welcome to Peru! I am the professor of trees. Here, have a glass of purple corn drink”. As I examine the business card that has been handed to me, it states exactly that – “professor of trees”. My introduction to chicha morada is just as bizarre. It is a frothy bright pink juice made from purple corn. Hard to describe the flavour, dry yet sweet, corny but fruity. I am not sure I understand it but I like it.

After a lunch of fresh local fish we start heading toward the Northern Desert of Peru. This is the first border we have crossed to find the land looking instantly different. The colours are different, the geology is different, the first river crossing is different.

There is no bridge, just a river flowing across the road. Reason number 846,000 to buy an Ural. Our three wheels let us giggle through a slipping and sliding route across the river with no drama . . . until I look in the rearview mirror. Whump! Stefan is suddenly face-down in the river as his bike drops hard onto the rocks. We stop and run back to help. The river bottom is covered in a layer of slippery goop. Thankfully Stefan is fine, but green algae and scum cover his suit and we are reminded of ‘The Swamp Thing’. The ground is so slick that it takes all three of us to lift the bike. Tracey plants her feet at the downstream side of the tires to keep them from sliding away as Stefan and I lift. As Stefan removes the wet gear from his newly dented pannier to inspect the damage, we are watching a local bike approach.  Suddenly, Zing!  The bike heads towards us and executes a perfect pirouette, tossing a girl off the back to land standing up on dry ground with her school books still in hand. Her boyfriend practices the new ‘Stefan Shuffle’ to climb out from under his motorcycle and join our crowd. Once we help replace the chain on the young man’s bike, we continue on our way to the next town.

A man on the street recommends a hotel on the edge of town where we unload then hop in a tuk-tuk (otherwise known as a mototaxi) for a new form of adventure.  We have seen these zipping around filled with what appears to be entire families but apparently these machines were not built to carry the three of us.  As we make our way to the centre of town with the fenders scraping and smoke streaming from the tires, we are once again providing the evening’s entertainment. Our destination . . . Street Food! We find a market bustling with various bits and pieces. We decide to stick to the staple of fried chicken as it looks great and the woman in charge has decided that Stefan is to be her new boyfriend. It feels a bit voyeuristic to be watching her attempts to put the moves on him, but we are entertained none the less.

 As we sit enjoying our meal, it is as if somebody has just changed the channel and a new show is on. An odd-looking man has arrived, wearing rubber boots, a long overcoat and talking to his friend. Doesn’t sound very interesting until you realize that his friend is actually a dead fish. Somewhere in the discussion the fish has angered him and the man proceeds to slap it a couple of times, then they make up and carry on the talk. This show must be a repeat as several shopkeepers begin throwing handfuls of water on the man and shooing him away. This particular show is now over.

While riding our tuk-tuk back to the hotel, we once again see the fish slapping man. He is sitting on the curb, still talking to his fish. Welcome to Peru.


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And beyond…..

”Oops, forgot to watch the GPS and drove right by the equator 10 miles ago”.

After an hour trying to get to the park at the equator, we arrive just as the day is winding down. We take some obligatory photos wobbling on the line painted on the ground and decline the offer to spend 10 bucks to go up a couple of stories to see the line from above.

“Hey, let’s go flush the toilet and see which way the water goes.”  So we do. “Hmmm… I don’t remember which way it goes at home.” Our big experiment in gravity, physics and snake oil is a bust. Stefan furthers the bust by saying “Well it depends how the toilet is made anyway so it’s not the right experiment”.

It’s getting dark so it’s time to find a place to stay. The place to stay ends up being a wonderful little hotel 30 feet from the equator and staffed with a great collection of little old ladies who are so friendly they can’t stop hugging us and getting lipstick all over the place.

Ecuador has been an interesting place so far. We visited Otavalo – a town made famous by its handicraft market. It must be in every guidebook. Tourists outnumber locals and all of the locals magically know enough English to try to sell us something. We emerged unscathed and wandered into the local food market.

The food market was just preparing to open. The stall keepers were having breakfast. After some charades I convinced a lady to make me some breakfast. She returns with what turns out to be the best meal of the trip so far. I received a plate filled with potatoes blended with a collection of roasted vegetables, beans and topped with roasted ‘corn nuts’.  The flavours were fresh and vibrant and the combination was a perfect way to start the day. Oh, and Stefan (the disbeliever) goes and orders up some horrific deep fried gristle, perfect for teasing dogs, not so good for eating. Good thing they have roast chicken next door to the inn where we are staying.

As we leave Otavalo and Quito behind, Ecuador continues to be a treat to drive through. The roads are good and the terrain is constantly changing. We wind along country lanes and minutes later find ourselves at the bottom of rocky valleys. The high mountain passes are as dramatic as any we have seen.

When we pull over for lunch in Ambato, a passenger in a truck hops out and waves us down.  He starts waving a cell phone at us and saying “Here, you must speak to my friend”. Soon we are in a conversation with his English-speaking friend, Julio, who is on the other end of the line.  Julio Velastegui (www.juliovelastegui.com) is another motorbike traveler and when his friend saw us, he knew that we had to meet. After getting our location, Julio quickly heads down to join us.  We once again learn how small our world is when Julio shares the story of meeting another fellow motorbike traveler, Sherri Jo Wilkins (www.sherrijowilkins.com ), while he was on the road in Canada earlier in the year.  Coincidentally, we also spent time with Sherri Jo earlier in the year, both in Canada and in England.   

South of Cuenca we arrive in a small mountain-top village named Catacocha, where every road is being worked on at the same time. After navigating what looks like a war zone, we find a hotel that turns out to be a very clean and very affordable home. We like it enough to stay an extra day.

Tracey’s birthday happens while we are here and we enjoy a night out on the town. Literally, a night out on the town.  While a woman is making us a one-pot dinner, we sit on lawn chairs in the middle of the street with a bare light bulb swinging precariously overhead, the bare wires threatening to electrocute any one of us at any moment.

We use our time in Catacocha to do some maintenance and take care of our trusty steeds. It is during this time that I become part of a scene which will occupy my thoughts forever. An old man is trying to move along the street. He is missing one eye, has a club foot and is barely able to move. He can only shuffle sideways and it takes him a full ten minutes to make a step. After four hours the man has progressed about 100 feet. I don’t know where he is going, but it will clearly take a long time.

The man is proud.

He does not ask for money.

He does not beg.

He does not look for help.

The rest of the people pass by him and go about the day, seemingly unaware of his presence. The sidecar would be a perfect way to get him where he is going but our ability to communicate the desire to help him fails. We leave him to his lonely shuffle and I can’t help but think of how excessive our own world is in comparison. We drive 15,000km with less effort than a stroll in the sun for this man.

I have learned another lesson today.

The image of this man’s trek will stay with me forever.

I use the word trek. For him, simply getting to the end of the block would be an all-day task.


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