No matter which roads you're taking to arrive in Arequipa, awe-inspiring scenery awaits. You'll wind your way up and over mountains, eventually descending into the metropolis valley situated right at the foot of three monumental volcanoes.

There’s something special about a locale situated so precariously close to an active volcano. Perhaps it is the awareness of the pure geophysical power that lays beneath the Earth’s crust, or the reminder that someday (spoiler alert) we will all meet our end. Arequipa is the capital city of the region by the same name, and the second most populous city in Peru. The heart of this metropolis is located a mere 17 kilometers away from the iconic volcano Misti, and its pyroclastic flow will be directed in exactly that direction. Until that point, the ambience and weather of Arequipa is totally worth an early demise, as its cool nights and sunny, warm days last from March to December.

Sunset at Misti Volcano in Arequipa, Peru.
Sunset on Misti Volcano, the iconic guardian and simultaneous looming threat standing over the city of Arequipa, Peru.Janelle Kaz

If, like me, you have an affinity for volcanoes despite their impending doom, this is the place for you. Roads around the volcanoes will take you through the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve, where a number of enigmatic animals reside. Initially created to protect the two wild species of camelids, guanacos, and vicuñas, as well as flamingos, pumas, foxes, and viscacha, it has since become protected as the most valuable water source for the entire population of Arequipa.

Motorcycle and sign at the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National reserve.
Entering the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National reserve, home to some enigmatic and rare species of wildlife.Janelle Kaz

I explored this area to see the project site for the highly endangered Andean cat, run by the conservation organization, Pró-Carnívoros, and the Andean Cat Alliance. The Andean cat is the most threatened cat in the Americas, with fewer than 2,500 thought to exist in the wild.

Dirt roads will take you around the backside of El Misti, the prominent isolated volcano with its peak at 5,822 meters (19,101 feet), and conically shaped guardian of Arequipa. The volcano-lined landscape features what is known as a “puna” ecosystem, high Andean plateaus (altiplano) dotted by lakes and meadows.

Inactive volcanoes on the north side of the Misti Volcano.
Back roads viewing a ridgeline of extinct volcanoes on the north side of the prominent Misti Volcano.Janelle Kaz

While on the dirt road around the north side of Misti, I hardly saw anyone else at all. This is a fantastic road to explore, with incredible views of the volcanoes the whole way. Originally I took the wrong route, staying on pavement rather than venturing on to the dirt (wishful thinking on my bike), and ended up at a heavily guarded barrier on the road, with at least 30 young men with rifles. Apparently some sort of military training school, they were friendly and told me I had traveled the wrong direction.

Plaza de Armas, in Arequipa, Peru.
The elegant and historic main square, known as the Plaza de Armas, in Arequipa, Peru.Janelle Kaz

Heading back into town, the old part of Arequipa is not to be missed. Perhaps one of the most beautiful main squares (Plaza de Armas) in all of Peru, the cultural heritage of antiquity is revealed in the architecture, constructed with white volcanic stone known as “sillar.” The oldest neighborhood is known as San Lázaro, and truly feels like stepping back in time. These narrow alleyways and residential relics were built by Peruvians of the altiplano before the city was officially founded by Spaniards in 1540.

The city of Arequipa is known for its amazing food, and there is plenty of delicious Peruvian cuisine in these fertile lands. A family-run restaurant in old town, Zingaro is established in a historic building that belonged to the grandparents of the family. It offers local and traditional cuisine, such as alpaca steaks, guinea pig, and trout from high mountain lakes. It has even set up the one and only wine bar in town. Here, one of the daughters, a sommelier, leads wine-tasting classes to a club of locals who want to develop their palate and knowledge of wine. This is an incredibly fun outing for novice wine drinkers and connoisseurs alike. Not only do you get to hang out in a picturesque antique hall with locals, testing your sensory abilities and learning more about wines, but you get to enjoy them as well, along with some perfectly paired appetizers.

The author in the hall used for wine-tasting classes in Zingaro, a restaurant and wine bar in old town Arequipa.
The hall used for wine-tasting classes in Zingaro, a family-run, traditional restaurant and wine bar in old town Arequipa.Janelle Kaz

There is a nearby garage for you to park your motorcycle, or if you let the kind people at Zingaro know you’re coming in advance, they’ll allow you park your bike inside their small, Spanish-style courtyard.

Once you’re ready to leave the comforts of the city, Colca Canyon awaits. You’ll climb up out of Arequipa, reaching higher into the cold air until you have a completely different perspective of the volcanoes and can spot wild vicuñas roaming the altiplano. Here at approximately 4,300 meters (14,200 feet) is an ideal time to add some more layers as it is only going to get colder from here. Excited to see the wild vicuñas, I nearly missed an unmarked, homemade speed bump in the middle of the highway. I’m fairly certain I caught some air and thoroughly tested the Progressive suspension I have on my bike (it functions fantastically); be warned that these obstacles are present.

Ruta 34 will lead you to Carretera al Colca, passing herds of alpaca, llama, and vicuña, as well as the unique giant coots and Andean ducks which frequent the high altiplano lakes. The road soon climbs to 4,910 meters (16,108 feet), one of the highest elevated passes in the world, nearly 3 miles above sea level. Here you’ll pass frozen waterfalls and the Patapampa volcano lookout point, where active volcanoes spewing clouds of heated earth as fumaroles into the air are visible.

Volcanic views from Patapampa Pass, one of the highest elevated passes in the world.
Volcanic views from Patapampa Pass, one of the highest elevated passes in the world, at 16,108 feet.Janelle Kaz

You may notice what looks like a multitude of rock stacks, or cairns, in the high mountains of Peru. Not to guide the way, as they often can be in North America, but instead, these are "apachetas," homages made to the gods of the mountain. This exact path has been used by ancient pre-Colombian civilizations of Peru for centuries. Stones were carried along the trail, then placed on an apacheta at the high point as a sacrifice to the mountain gods. They balance their stone and leave their tiredness behind, connecting through prayer to bring good luck and protection along the trail.

If you’re shivering and doing your best to warm your left hand on your engine as I was (the right hand is completely numb), you’ll be glad to know the descent into Chivay is coming soon. Tight switchbacks will snake you back down the mountain, often with alpacas and vicuñas right off the cliff edge of the road, and their shepherding guardian, a shaggy mountain dog, laying confidently on the pavement nearby.

Chivay has the only gas station in the area (Arequipa and Imata are the nearest), and is the largest town within the Colca Canyon. If you’re having problems with altitude, this small town is where you’ll find the only pharmacy. There you can find Oxishot (little canisters of oxygen) and ibuprofen for your headache. The best natural remedy is from the leaves of coca, chewed and/or taken as a hot tea. Chivay is situated at 3,635 meters (11,926 feet), so you’re considerably lower than the Patapampa volcanic pass, however, an acclimation process will likely be necessary.

A fully packed Indian Scout Sixty with views of Chivay in the Colca Canyon valley.
A fully packed and loaded Indian Scout Sixty with views of Chivay, the first and largest small town of the Colca Canyon valley.Janelle Kaz

Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US, the Colca Canyon is one of the deepest on Earth. There is a stunningly gorgeous road that runs along the canyon, and therefore the Colca River, with epic views, raw tunnels, and a lookout point (mirador) known as Cruz del Cóndor. It is here that, in the morning, the massive Andean condor rises on the thermals, soaring at eye level and putting on a spectacular show. At this mirador, the canyon floor is 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) below the rim of the canyon.

Endangered Andean condors in flight in the canyon.
Endangered Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) in flight, rising on the warming thermals as the morning sun heats the canyon walls.Janelle Kaz

There are many other places to see the condors, but this location seems to have the highest concentration. I saw at least 12 at eye level from the lookout and another 15 flying above. These birds are huge; the largest flying bird by measure of wingspan and weight. It is truly a special moment to see them flying so close, sometimes even hearing the wind rustle through their flight feathers.

The canyon road continues on through the small town of Cabanaconde, and will even continue on toward one of the birthplaces of the Amazon River, a spring feeding the Apurímac River, which exists as its most distant source with an uninterrupted flow of water.

Cliffside canyon roads and raw tunnels on the road at the Colca Canyon.
Cliffside canyon roads and raw tunnels make the road along the Colca Canyon incredibly fun to ride.Janelle Kaz

Before leaving the beauty of the Colca Canyon, it’s a good idea to soak in the geothermal hot springs of La Calera, especially if your next stop is Lake Titicaca. The roads stay elevated and cold, and the steaming waters of the hottest pool in La Calera will do your road-weary body good.

A word of caution: If these cliffside roads are your first foray into the chaotic world of Peruvian driving, be careful—the drivers show no respect for motorcyclists and will drive right next to you, on either side, while seeming like they have their own personal death wish. I advise you to allow the crazies to pass you as soon as you can, otherwise they will stay haphazardly close behind or next to you. If they’re on the inside of the road (next to you, on your left), they won’t hesitate to push you off the road when moving out of the way for an oncoming vehicle.

Bikes for rent in Arequipa.
Adventure awaits with a plethora of bikes for rent in Arequipa, an ideal starting point for Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, and the Sacred Valley of Machu Picchu.Janelle Kaz

If you're looking to explore Peru via motorcycle, your best bet is to connect with PeruMotors. The folks there rent the full range of adventure bikes and lead fantastic tours. Even if your plan is to ride in the Sacred Valley, near Machu Picchu, PeruMotors has the perfect, unconventional route to arrive there, leaving from Arequipa, passing through Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca, the jungle, and arriving in Cusco. They know all the best stops along the way and can guide you on a truly wonderful excursion. They are excellent human beings and gave me some great tips for the road.