In the hot, sticky humidity of the Amazon, it doesn’t take long to be longing for the cooler, drier climates of the high Andes—especially while wearing full riding gear. My starting point, Quince Mil, a small jungle town in southeastern Peru, is within an area notorious for being the wettest in the country. No surprise then that I was greeted by a downpour the morning I was to set out for my ride to ascend the mountains toward Cusco.

Setting out from Quince Mil, a small town within the wettest area of Peru.
Setting out from Quince Mil, a small town within the wettest area of Peru.Janelle Kaz

There are a few different ways to arrive in the Cusco area, but perhaps the most visually striking is by climbing up and out of the Amazon jungle.

Peru is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet, largely due to the elevation differences of the Andes in contrast to the neighboring Pacific Ocean and the Amazon basin to the west and east, respectively. “Biodiversity” is the variety of living organisms on Earth, in all of its forms and all its interactions. This vast variety of life exists here in Peru due to the tremendous diversity of landscapes and ecosystems—often right next to each other.

A Roland Sands Design-modified Indian Scout Sixty in Peru.
A Roland Sands Design-modified Indian Scout Sixty in Peru, one of the most biodiverse nations on the planet.Janelle Kaz

This is certainly true for the ride from Quince Mil, which makes for a starting elevation of 619 meters (2,031 feet) up to the mountain crossing of Abra Pirhuayani, at 4,725 meters (15,502 feet). This means you’re making a 4,106-meter (13,471 feet) ascent, from jungle to snowcapped peaks, in just a couple of hours.

It’s hard to describe just how mind-blowing this is until you ride through the hot, sticky humidity, rain, and lush vegetation, then you seem to instantly climb out of it, leaving a blanket of dense, thick green behind you. The contrast is immense, stirring my imagination to consider what it must be like to ride a rocket from within the protective atmosphere of our planet, leaving a world of vibrancy and entering relatively empty, lifeless (as far as we know) space.

The ride west out of the Amazon jungle.
The ride west out of the Amazon jungle quickly becomes dry as you climb in elevation.Janelle Kaz

However, there is life high in the Andes of Peru, albeit very different from that of the Amazon. Nearing the peaks rising more than 6,000 meters, such as Mount Auzangate, you’ll see communities of llama and alpaca herders. The roaming camelids themselves are often in the road, with their overwatching, shaggy shepherding dogs not far away. There is a small alpine lagoon in the midst of the glacial peaks, and when I rode by, there must have been hundreds of alpacas on the landscape, their visions reflected in the mirror-like water.

Rather than seeing oropendolas, the yellow-tailed jungle birds, swooping across the road—often right in front of my face—views of large raptors, such as the orange-faced mountain caracaras and the enormous black-chested buzzard eagle take their place.

Indian Scout Sixty in front of Incan mountains.
Ascending out of the clouds and precipitation, the landscape and climate change drastically as you ride with dense jungle behind you.Janelle Kaz

There are a few river crossings on the way up, one in particular that I was warned about by the owner of the guesthouse. I found that during the dry months, those of the South American winter, these river crossings were nothing to worry about. Depending on levels of precipitation, however, things could be a bit tricky in the wetter months—especially on a lower bike like my Indian Scout Sixty.

I still had my rain gear on at this point, without my warmer layers underneath. It is here near the pass of Abra Pirhuayani that I had to change everything about what I was wearing, putting on my warmest layers and removing my now dry rain gear. This particular mountain pass is higher than any mountain in the lower 48 states of the US. Apparently this section of the road can potentially be closed at any point in the year due to snowfall and is not advised to travel in severe weather conditions.

The road continues to wind up and over mountains, passing through small mountain towns. I love seeing the women walking on the sides of the road, with their knee-high alpaca socks and colorful hats, often embellished with light-reflecting sequins, shading their faces from the harsh, high-altitude sun.

There are many little restaurants along the way, offering dishes like fried trout and oven-baked guinea pig.

As I neared the organized streets and increased frequency of speed bumps and traffic in Cusco, I saw something strange occurring with the sun. I use a tinted face shield on my helmet, and it seemed whenever I caught a periphery glance of the sun, it was shaped like a crescent moon. I realized I was witnessing a partial eclipse of the sun! I then remembered learning of the coming total solar eclipse in the more southerly locations in Chile I rode through just a month before. Once again along this route, I was reminded of our planetary existence, with our satellite moon blocking out a portion of our star. This seemed like an auspicious time to arrive in Cusco, a location known for its sacred sites.

The narrow streets of the old part of Cusco.
The narrow streets of the old part of Cusco, once the capital of the Inca civilization.Janelle Kaz

Cusco was once the capital of the Incas and the city itself was designed in the shape of a puma, a symbolic guardian, with important sites located at the predator’s head and heart. The old part of Cusco has incredibly narrow streets, built before the existence of cars. Fascinatingly, the conquering Spaniards built their colony on top of the existing Inca foundations. Observing the masterful stonework of the Incas left me with more questions. How on earth could this be done by humans? The massive stones were assembled without mortar and cut so precisely that not even a sheet of paper could fit between them. There is one particularly impressive stone, famous for the twelve perfect angles it has expertly cut into it.

The 12-angled stone Incan stone.
The 12-angled stone is testament of the mastery of Inca stone masons.Janelle Kaz

There is plenty to see in Cusco, especially the breathtaking ruins of the Incas, but a motorcycle trip into the city is not complete without a stop at Norton’s Rat Tavern. This motorcycle enthusiast’s pub is located right on the main square, the Plaza de Armas, diagonal to the main church. I can’t say I’d recommend the food, but this second floor bar is excellent for a drink on the balcony overlooking the square, watching all the action. The Plaza de Armas is situated at the heart of the puma— the central lifeblood of both the past and present.

The view of the main square, the Plaza de Armas, from Norton’s pub in the heart of Cusco.
The view of the main square, the Plaza de Armas, from Norton’s pub in the heart of Cusco.Janelle Kaz

If you'd like to take some guided off-road trips in the Cusco area, there is an incredible company called MotoMission, which gives back to help the children in poverty-stricken communities. They are passionate about two things: dirt bikes and helping others. They've therefore created a business model to raise capital via off-road motorcycle tours as a way to give aid to the surrounding communities.

Decal paying homage to the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
In homage to an American Motorcycle brand and the summer home for Inca royalty, declared one of the “wonders of the world.”Janelle Kaz

Peru is famous for Machu Picchu and more than a million visitors go every year. Tickets are not cheap, but you don’t see evidence of this money being filtered back to the people. MotoMission is therefore a wonderful, heart-driven endeavor to make a positive difference through motorcycling. They’ll take you on epic trails through stunning scenery on your choice of bike with everything lined up so all you have to do is enjoy. Additionally, if you or someone you’re traveling with is new to riding, they also have have riding lessons and beginner routes available.

Motorcycles off-road in the mountains in the Cusco area.
On a MotoMission off-road tour in the Cusco area.Jamie Rankin

In all of your traveling, stay conscious of your impact and respectful of the indigenous communities, who still live challenging lives even in areas where tourism flourishes. A few things you can do is to purchase local, handcrafted items, sleep in homestays with families or in environmentally conscious lodges (often called “eco-lodges,” but this term is frequently abused), and take part in community-based tourism projects, such as wildlife watching and nature tours with local guides. The more that tourists vote with their money to see nature at its best, the more it will be protected and the more the community that looks after it will benefit financially. It is a win-win scenario for tourism and those who call this land home.

Author riding her Indian Scout on rural roads just outside of the city of Cusco.
Author riding her Indian Scout on rural roads just outside of the city of Cusco.Janelle Kaz