With distant snowcapped mountains on the horizon,
I pass lakes with surfaces calm as millponds, so deep and blue it's like they were colored from a mix on an artist's palette. Watching the thin, black tarmac disappear in the endless white distance, I drift into a hypnotic trance, accompanied by the thump of the big single below me. It's been fifteen years since I first came to Peru, but I don't think I've ever left. Overwhelmed by the moment, I realize that the trip that started in Lima and took us up to the Altiplano is merely part of a journey that started nearly two decades ago with a chance meeting with a priest on a lonely dirt road in the Andes. Now, I am hoping to follow through on his mission of mercy.
Into Thin Air
My return to Peru begins in a brilliant Lima morning, with adrenaline coursing through my veins. Cutting and thrusting through the hectic city traffic, my mind is working overtime to process all the stimuli. Buses compete with bicycles, trucks battle with motorcycles, and taxis ambush everybody as all of Lima heads to work with a swirling order my western eyes can't yet comprehend.
Behind the handlebars of a well-worn Honda XR600, i'm alive with the knowledge that months of planning are over. Soon we are catching our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean and the desert that runs along the coast to Chile. Up front, Flavio Salvetti, owner of Inca Moto Adventures, is driving his Toyota Hi Lux laden with our luggage. Our group is comprised of four riders sharing three bikes, so one rider will be in the truck at any given moment. These rides with the colorfully philosophical Flavio become one of the tour highlights.
Modern billboards pass me on the highway as I search for the simple Peru I left behind years ago. A crisp chill in the morning air and a cloudless blue canopy above escorts us out of the town of Nazca (known for its geoglyphs). It's rained a lot since I was last here, so things are greener, and tarmac has replaced much of the rough-hewn rock roads. Soaring like Peruvian condors on desert thermals, we climb into the treeless mountains. As we twist up switchbacks that rival anything the Alps have to offer, we are mostly alone in this wondrous mountain landscape.
The elevation rises, the oxygen level falls, and a euphoric buzz overcomes us. However happy it may make us feel, we realize that we really need to pay attention and be cognizant that we, uh, can't really fly. Suitably self-aware and restrained, we slide past packs of Vicuñas grazing on huge grassy flats. We pause to watch local Quechuan Indians tend their sheep, and Flavio tells us they speak little Spanish and don't use money. They're the ones responsible for the beautiful, colorful fabrics you associate with Peru, yet they live without electricity or running water in some of the most remote places in the country. It's fascinating and humbling to peer back in time at these ancient people; with a hard life lived at altitude, it's not easy to guess their age behind battered skin.
The climb up onto the Altiplano puts us at around 14,0000 feet, though we feel fine. On this flat, unbroken horizon, there are no visual clues as to the altitude. In the saddle of the XR, the sun warms my bones. The big single is less out of breath than I, and she's still pulling strongly with smaller main jets in place. The town of Abancay is our destination for the night and we all think we're making great progress.
Snap-on vest comes complete with emergency tool kit.
Wrong. Minutes later we come to a screeching halt at some road construction. With traffic on both sides lined up waiting to pass, we sit and wait. The lack of oxygen soon starts to tell and as the hours tick slowly by, we lay slumped against the truck, gazing as if with a fisheye at the massive landscape, surreal in its beauty. Short Quechuan women sell stale chips, cookies, and soda from wheelbarrows.