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.
Existing now in a foggy dream world, I paddle to the front of the line as engines fire up, signalling it's time to go. The smell of diesel burning without oxygen is threatening to bring my lunch back for a revisit, but I somehow find the energy to kick-start my bike. Hauling my lead carcass into the saddle, I ride off slumped behind the handlebars. Slowly the road begins to fall, and we drop into a tree-lined valley next to a river. Realizing we won't make Abancay with our sluggish pace, Flavio and I find the one-horse town of Chalhuanca on the map. There, a bottle of Pepsi and an anti-nausea tablet fixes everything.
Waking to the sound of chickens and donkeys on the only street in town, we saddle up in a clear, cool morning. The road out follows a vibrant river framed by steep mountainsides lit by the sun's early light. Thumping along at 50 mph, there's a magic in the air that's impossible to describe. Flavio and the rest of the gang are somewhere behind, and our only job is to hold the throttle open and enjoy.
Pilgrimmage to Picchu
Reaching Abancay, we are at around 7,500 feet and running well in the more oxygen-rich environment. There is little I recognize of this now sprawling, modern town, and my memory of the past is as faded as a worn snapshot. But there is one place I need to find. We gas up, and on slick, smooth tarmac start the serpentine climb on the Via de los Libertador heading for Cusco. It was here-somewhere-that I met Father Giovanni, but the exact spot eludes me. What we do know for certain is our final destination: the orphanage in the city of Moquegua that Father Giovanni once tended. We plan to present the funds we raised in the States-much-needed funds-to the impoverished children who live there.
I notice the others have slipped ahead, and that gives me the opportunity to gun the XR. I find the gang at a small guinea pig farm beside the road enjoying an impromptu tour given by the gracious host. The little pig is a local delicacy in these parts, and the farmer, with his wife laboring over an open fire in the dirt-floored kitchen, shows us his guinea pigs, vegetable garden, and fruit trees. He radiates a peace from his simple life in the unspoiled countryside, and it's with a sense of sadness that we ride for the bustle of Cusco.
Dropping out of the mountains with the sun already behind the high walls flanking the west side of the ancient city, we enter a maze of streets jammed with cars, buses and trucks. Like me, Peru has changed much over the years. Most of the main roads are now paved, and the modernization of places that had appeared nearly prehistoric to me back then is shocking. Diving left, merging right, somehow we make the center of town. Catching our breath and high fiving, we check in at the fabulous La Casona Del sol hotel.
Before sunrise the next morning, we eschew the bikes for a ride in a mini bus to the Inca city of Ollantaytambo. It was here I walked the ancient streets with Father Gio, toured the Temple of the Llama, and drank coffee in a dusty bar. These days the temple is walled off, and the old building with dirt floors is a modern restaurant with bright stucco walls. We marvel at the Inca architecture before boarding the train to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
Heading up the tight, narrow road to Machu Picchu, we marvel at glimpses of the Urubamba River far behind as we climb. Situated in the clouds at 7,700 feet, Machu Picchu is known as the "Lost City of the Incas." Abandoned in the 1500s, it was re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. What made the Inca flee Machu Picchu might never be known. But to feel the presence and aura as you walk here, it's clear it was a sacred place.
Cusco's city center: as dense as it gets.
We can bask in the mystical atmosphere of this compound for days, but we have work to do, and the next morning, our small caravan rolls out among the Inca stonework of Cusco along cobblestone streets. Traffic is manageable, but we're filled with an air of urgency; it's over 400 miles to Arequipa, and back in 1995, the road out of Cusco was mostly dirt. Throttles pinned, we speed through farmland before heading back onto the barren Altiplano. It's cold and overcast up here, but by the time we reach Sicuani we find the sun...and the last place I saw Father Gio before he died in 2001.
Hogar or Bust
The direct route remains mostly dirt, with few services along the way, so we decide to hit the paved roads toward Lake Titicaca instead. Alone again on the Altiplano: harsh and beautiful in equal measures, this enigmatic slice of geography reminds me of the Scottish Highlands.
The statue in Ollantaytambo, where you catch the train to Machu Picchu...
Descending off the Altiplano this time, we aren't feeling any ill effects, and while I wouldn't want to drop and do pushups, it feels good to be functioning somewhat normally again. By late afternoon we are positively flying down the helter-skelter road leading to Arequipa. Riding toward the historic city, flanked by two large volcanoes while watching the sun sink, is like being in the middle of a huge 3D postcard.
The chaos and confusion of that first day in Lima is gone from my mind. The traffic moves in a predictable way now, and we have fun blasting down the tight, narrow Arequipa streets, laughing and waving. Three Gringos on large dirt bikes in adventure clothing is something different here, and the townspeople are having fun with us.
Starting the day in a small cafe with the sight of the mountains offering a dramatic backdrop to the city, the mood is perfect. We mount up, and the sun is shining, the temperature is just right, and here at sea level, it's like someone bolted a turbo to the old XRs. We practically fly through the twisting canyons before leveling out on the desert floor.
and Aguas Calientes, where you disembark.
With Moquegua in reach, we settle into a steady 65mph rhythm and make miles across the desert. In the fifteen years since I last visited, somehow this worn and dusty country has been burned into my soul. With its beautiful people, its rich culture, and some of the most stunning scenery in the world, it's no wonder I keep coming back.
After two thousand kilometers of the wildest terrain in Peru, Hogar Belen, in the remote southeastern desert, marks the physical endpoint of our journey (but certainly not the emotional end). A sea of brown eyes and squirming, shrieking, laughing bodies brings our bikes to a halt; it's taken five long days in the saddle of our XR600s to get here, and now we will spend some time with the abandoned children of Moquegua at Hogar. It may not be the Altiplano, but with eyes burning from the tears rolling down my cheeks, I find that it's equally hard to breathe here too.
This orphanage situated on a run-down farm, has been run by 78-year-old Sister Loretta Bonokoski for the last 40 years. It's hard-and humbling-to conceive that this quiet lady has raised over 1200 children, with extremely limited resources. Sr. Loretta invites us in for lunch and gives us a forum to relive our journey. We talk about Father Gio with mixed emotions; it was through him that I learned of the orphanage and its plight. But soon we are laughing and joking as we remember Gio's boisterous behavior and infectious wit. Over the next few days we show the kids photos on our laptops, take a thousand more, and marvel at the beauty and joy in these little urchins' souls.
Leaving the donations we raised Stateside with Sr. Loretta, we ride out chased by a wild, howling dustball of kids. Father Gio might be gone, but his memory lives on at Hogar, and on this trip he rode with me often in my thoughts. Spinning through the unspoiled desert gives me time to think about the events that led me here. A chance meeting in the mountains of Peru, a life changed, and now hundreds of young lives positively impacted.
Wellspring International Outreach
Motojournalist Neale Bayly and Maria Fitzgerald are the founders of a not-for-profit, registered charity to help the children of Belen. For information, to make a donation and see video of the journey, log on to:
Inca Moto Adventures
This long-time tour operator offers dual sport bike tours in the wildly contrasting environment of South America-on dirt, sand, through rainforests, deserts and more. The company offers guided tours as well as bikes for rent. For info, visit:
The Inca Moto Adventures team: David Reid, Flavio Salvetti, Brad Alston, Christie Frick an
Wiped out: Christie takes a breather on the Altiplano at 14,500 feet.
Sr. Loretta converses with Neale about the state of the orphanage