Heading north from Lake Titicaca and the city of Juliaca, Peru, the road leads you to golden canyons and the knife-edge of the Andes topped with snowcapped peaks, with jungle just beyond.

The transit-hub city, Juliaca, in the south of Peru.
The transit-hub city, Juliaca, in the south of Peru. Likely the highest Burger Hot in the world.Janelle Kaz

Juliaca is the world's fourth-highest city, situated at 3,825 meters (12,549 feet), but the way north will take you to even greater heights. As I rode toward Macusani, the road wound past elevated rural agricultural land, quaint villages marked by speed bumps, and free-ranging camelids. Views of Mount Chichicapac and its 5,614-meter (18,419 feet) peak drew nearer while air temperatures fell.

The gorgeous snowy peaks on the road near the town of Macusani.
The gorgeous snowy peaks on the road near the town of Macusani.Janelle Kaz

Macusani is the final town before reality takes a drastic turn—in the form of hairpin switchbacks. Here, the Interoceanic Highway begins laying turns down thousands of meters in elevation in a very dramatic way.

The ride into this canyon is one of those ultimate glorious moments on a motorcycle, the kind that stirs pure joy inside your helmet. Rolling along with a light heart and persistent smile, this ride reminds you what it feels like to be truly alive. After freezing near snowy peaks and cold mountain towns, I could finally see the drop in elevation: a mist-covered crevasse with lush, green, rugged cliffs.

The view of this canyon and the forthcoming switchbacks is immense, like peering down into the entrance of a Jurassic world. Taking in this scene, I noticed a quickly moving shadow above me and looked up to realize it was a huge male Andean condor, just 20 feet above my head. I then noticed there were two more in the distance, circling around a peak in the rising canyon mist.

The stunning view from the steep switchbacks of the Interoceanic Highway where you see the first glimpses of the jungle.
The stunning view from the steep switchbacks of the Interoceanic Highway where you see the first glimpses of the jungle, just beyond.Janelle Kaz

At this point in my South American motorcycle journey, for many weeks I had been immersed in the intensity of the Atacama desert, hypnotized by the relentlessly long, monotonous desert roads. I had traveled through elevation extremes of the high Andes, known as the Altiplano and Puno plateau, and became sick from altitude. Through all of this, the effects of the dry, cold air and lack of oxygen were really taking their toll on me.

Now, feeling the jungle humidity creep up the valley walls as I switched back and forth down the Andes, descending into the jungle was pure elation. It felt so good to breathe! The warm, wet air was hydrating my soft tissues, and, oh, the abundance of oxygen! It could have been the increase in O2 in my system alone that was causing me to feel so ecstatic.

Indian Scout Sixty on the road from the high Andes down into the Amazonian jungle.
Indian Scout Sixty on the road from the high Andes down into the Amazonian jungle.Janelle Kaz

Truly, though, this is one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever experienced. Such dramatic landscape and change in environment, a shift in earthly perspective, and a visual deep dive into the variety that exists on our planet. The pavement is good and the switchbacks are steep. There are a few construction spots along the road, but nothing unmanageable, and it appears that they’re putting some quality bridges in place.

While still descending, you’ll pass through a small town which seems to be an interesting mix of people of the mountains and the beginning of the jungle. This was a unique settlement, one like I haven’t really seen before, perhaps because of its location in a transition zone—a buffer zone not quite Andes, not quite Amazon.

It’s funny how the temperament of people change with the climate—people are more animated and generally outside in warmer places. Little kids began excitedly waving and yelling at me as I passed and, of course, there was no shortage of strange looks from adults.

The road descends, with a total elevation change of more than 3,000 meters, curving through jungle scenes with yellow-tailed oropendolas zipping by, right in front of my face. These birds are incredibly conspicuous, living and foraging in colonies. Their woven, pendulum-like nests which dangle over clearings from the tops of tall trees are a common sight in Amazonia.

The pendulum-like nests woven by the conspicuous oropendola birds.
The pendulum-like nests woven by the conspicuous oropendola birds.Janelle Kaz

Into the valley, the winding Interoceanic Highway begins to meander alongside the Inambari River. It is here, in the Inambari Valley, that you may begin to see illegal crops of coca growing just a few meters from the road. This highway passes directly through San Gabán district, which happens to be the main illegal coca producing area in the entire department of Puno.

A dozen clandestine cocaine laboratories have been found in the area, many of them within 200 meters (660 feet) from the highway. Here the leaves are “macerated”—dusted by lime or carbonate salt, steeped in pools of fuel (usually kerosene), smashed and stomped on by rubber boots, and then made into a cocaine base paste. The paste is thereby an extraction of the potent cocaine alkaloid. The paste then travels down the same highway to arrive at the borders of Brazil and Bolivia.

Interoceanic Highway with motorcycle in jungle.
Smooth pavement on the Interoceanic Highway while riding into lush jungle, not without patches of illicit coca crops.Janelle Kaz

Coca is a sacred plant to the people of the Andes. As coffee is for many of us, chewing or making tea from the leaves of coca stimulates the mind, enhancing alertness, focus, and energy. The leaves themselves have a plethora of nutritional benefits (including a high quantity of protein) and act as a food source for those making the arduous treks through the mountains on foot, often carrying their goods to market and back home. Coca leaves are very different from cocaine. Wade Davis, a renowned ethnobotanist, compares consuming the extracted alkaloid of cocaine from coca to the act of, rather than enjoying a cup of coffee, simply snorting caffeine powder. Cocaine is toxic, whereas coca is nutritive.

That is why legal coca crops exist in South America whereas there have been extensive efforts to eradicate the illegal ones. The last time the illegal crops were eradicated along this portion of the Interoceanic Highway was in 2016. Clearly though, as you can see from the road, re-seeding has taken place and now those efforts are just a memory for the farmers.

A government-run commission to support farmers with alternative livelihoods by providing substitute crops exists so that they do not simply resort back to coca. However, despite the $2.42 million this commission claims to have invested into this over the past four years, there is little evidence of this on the ground, says news outlet Mongabay Latam.

This particular area is the only area of Peru where both illicit coca cultivation and illegal gold mining take place at such a large scale.

All this is to say, be very aware of your surroundings should you venture down this road and into this territory. I did not stop to take photos of the coca crops.

The bridge taking you toward Quince Mil, crossing the Inambari River.
The bridge taking you toward Quince Mil, crossing the Inambari River.Janelle Kaz

A bridge over the river Inambari forks the road toward Quince Mil or Mazuko/Puerto Maldonado. I made a left turn to cross the bridge, keen to visit a small, family-run guesthouse in Quince Mil I had been tipped off about by motorcycle tour company PeruMotors. After the bridge, the road seemed to go on and on, winding curves around rivers and their dendritic tributaries.

Indian Scout Motorcycle on road.
Thankful for the good pavement with the occasional river crossing.Janelle Kaz

I was following a set of coordinates to arrive at the guesthouse, but making the turn into the very small, roadside town, I saw nothing. There was a hospital being built, thankfully with a worker inside who told me I needed to follow along the fence, down the rutted, muddy path. I rode my bike along the fence, only to come to a shut door, edged in by rough cement. I shut my bike off, not sure if knocking would do any good. Not a moment sooner, a man opened the door and asked if he could help me. I told him some friends at PeruMotors had told me this was a guesthouse.

“Oh, no one called us. Unfortunately we are fumigating the house so we don’t have any rooms available.” I was silent for a bit, my hopes of rest coming to a crashing halt. Quince Mil is a very small town; I didn’t see any appealing accommodations, let alone safe. Looking for a secure place for my motorcycle and me to spend the night can sometimes be stressful, drawing more attention to myself and my rare Indian motorcycle than I’d like.

“Where did you ride from?” the man asked.

“Juliaca” I told him.

“That’s a long trip!”

“Yes. I’m very tired.”

“Well, let me go talk to my wife. We have another room in the house… Everything is disorganized but maybe you can stay there.”

He left me outside the gate, sitting on my bike with my feet sinking into the wet earth. Staring off into nothing, I realized I had ridden more than eight hours through the cold, descended the steep canyon, and made my way through the jungle without eating or drinking a single thing.

Indian Scout in jungle.
After months in the desert, the warm wet air of the jungle is blissful to my respiratory system.Janelle Kaz

The man re-emerged from the gate, telling me they could accommodate me but they’d need a little time to put the room together.

He then opened both doors, making room for me to ride inside the property. A feeling of relief lifted a weight from my chest.

I rode along the grass pathway, which opened up past the gate to a beautiful garden. The ground was so soft from all the rain that a rock was needed beneath my kickstand. The accommodations were rustic but cozy, with tall ceilings and walls made of just screen. Sounds of the jungle filled the space.

There’s something about being so exhausted from the road that makes relaxation at the end of the day exponentially more blissful. I chugged all the water I had and then inhaled the avocado and can of smoked trout that was stashed away in my bag.

I felt more happy than I had felt in quite a while. The lushness of the jungle, the immensity of life that thrives there, and how much everywhere I had been until now—the Atacama desert and high elevated Andean plateaus—differed from this. Also… I made it, and I was safe.

Breakfast in my guesthouse surrounded by jungle in Quince Mil.
Breakfast in my guesthouse surrounded by jungle in Quince Mil.Janelle Kaz

The next morning, I woke up to a downpour. My hosts had graciously covered my motorcycle and prepared breakfast. The architecture of the main house was unlike anything I had seen in Peru thus far, and while looking on the mantle, I noticed old, black and white photographs of a young female pilot. When my host noticed me looking at the photos, she told me this woman, an Italian pilot, was the original owner of the house. I felt a moment of “kindred spirits” of this woman navigating the skies alone, when it was far from a “normal” thing for a female to do.

The female Italian pilot and original owner of this house.
Tenacity in a jumpsuit: the female Italian pilot and original owner of this house.Janelle Kaz
Female pilot.
I have much respect for this woman and her desire to roam the skies.Janelle Kaz

The guesthouse was more expensive than I expected and they only accepted cash, so without an ATM in Quince Mil, I couldn’t stay more than one night. I had fuel in my spare gas can and enough money for one more filled tank, which should be sufficient to get me to Cusco.

Gassing up before heading out of the jungle back up into the Andes Mountains.
Gassing up before heading out of the jungle back up into the Andes Mountains.Janelle Kaz

Preparing to leave, the man commented that it was very dangerous for me to be traveling alone, and that I shouldn’t talk to anyone. I simply agreed and nodded with a smile. At this point, I’ve grown used to the fears that others express of my motorcycle travels—regardless of the country I’m in. I know they mean well and are concerned.

Then, the man told me that there were three river crossings where I’m going and one of them was very dangerous. My attention perked. He said this river can be so strong that it once wiped his motorcycle right out from under him.

And with that, I began my next day on the roads of Peru.

Indian Scout in front of mountain in Peru.
Bound for Cusco—It wasn’t long before I left the rain, with quickly changing climates as you gain elevation.Janelle Kaz