Zona De Curvas - World Travels

Iguau Falls To Machu Picchu, The Long Way

If it weren't for the roll of Charmin wedged in the pocket of my riding suit, I might think I'm blasting through the Alps. The switchbacks are that relentless, the mountainsides that steep, and should I skate off a pebbly bend, the only thing keeping my BMW R1200GS from an awkward show of aerobatics is a scattering of jagged boulders painted white to resemble great, bike-noshing teeth. The travel books had all warned to carry a personal supply of T.P. when traveling through these parts of South America. I didn't realize it was for the corners.

But then I'd been surprised by several components of this 16-day ride from Brazil's Iguau Falls to Machu Picchu, Peru, with Ayres Adventures (www.ayresadventures.com), a kind of purchasable fantasy I was sharing with 10 other corner-humping, throttle-happy North Americans. My typical attitude on a ride like this is at best blas, a condition caused by an unshakable aversion to routine, to group riding with strangers and especially to enduring pass-the-time-conversation over prearranged hotel food. But the Ayres' philosophy is all about anti-routine and open menus, a shift-on-the-fly approach that tailors the details of each excursion to match the group's collective and individual wants.

Mauricio Fernandes, world-class enduro rider and Ayres' managing partner, explained it like this: "It should feel like you're out with a bunch of friends on an amazing ride. If you find something on the map you want to see, we'll go to see it. If you're hungry, we'll stop and eat. We are really just here to facilitate your good time."

Those good times commenced straight off the plane with a powerboat romp up the throat of Iguau Falls, a savagely beautiful waterworks taller than Niagara and wider than Victoria Falls in Africa. We hardly knew each other's names before that extreme ride, but we knew each other's favored saints by the time we got off the boat. Toucans and monkeys in the trees, kookaburras on shore ... it was the Brazil you'd imagine: hot, lush and seductive. Our hotel on the rim of the falls was all cush, too; another nicety of these upscale Ayres trips. By day you're embedded in the exotic culture you're visiting, breathing in that freshly belched diesel, dodging potholes, pedicabs and packs of dogs straight out of Pet Sematary. But by night ... ah, by night you are always tucked in the crisp white cotton.

The Original Red RiderOur first two riding days, spent flogging our bikes across the flatlands of Northern Argentina, gave us plenty of time to contemplate the red roadside shrines honoring Gaucho Gil, a mythical 19th century cowboy who pulled off enough Robin Hood heists to turn himself into a legend. The Argentineans still pray to him, and we do, too. I ask for winding mountain roads and a river of wine. My prayers are answered the next day in Cafayate.

Fernandes and fellow tour guide Joo Sorbello seem to have all the right connections no matter where we go. In the Salta wine region it is as if they were the long-lost sons of the Cordova-Murgo family-which owns Vasija Secreta, the oldest winery in the northwest province-and we are all invited to a home-cooked meal at the familial residence. We are told that as friends we must drink the wine, not taste it, and we're all happy for the taxis to take us back to the hotel. The next day is slated for rest, but in the morning most of us opt to re-ride the roads we came in on, racing up and down the Sierra Aconquija, laughing like fiends at our good fortune. Then a surprise for lunch: Fernandes has arranged a country barbecue with the wine pushers from Vasija Secreta, a veritable feast of gorgeous scenery and succulent food.

By now we know the Spanish word for every kind of meat on the planet. In fact, by the sixth day, we've all eaten so much meat we no longer need the toilet paper. Thank God for the vegetable-laced empanadas and tamale-like humita, which we eat by the handful and wash down with wine.

Getting HighWith each day's ride the scenery becomes more surreal. We trade green spring-fed canyons and stunning red-rock mesas for the multi-hued, pastel moonscapes in Purmamarca. Here we breech the World Heritage Site, Quebrada de Humahuaca, which is riddled with archaeological treasures. We've been bouncing along the Andean foothills for days now, but finally dive in-or up-as we leave Argentina for Chile and its vast Atacama Desert, the highest, driest desert in the world.

The implausible emptiness of this lofty, arid region is profound, the earth so naked you almost feel shy. We stop for an extra day in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, to soak it all in. Most opt for the pre-dawn bus excursion to the highest geyser field in the world (elevation: 16,000 feet), then spend the afternoon shopping the local handicrafts before riding out to the Valley of the Moon to view more mind-tweaking desertscapes.

The big GS has proven itself sublime for this sort of travel: comfy for covering ground, amiable in the trickest of corners, compliant when the road turns to crap, which it does, often. Riding in South America is always a dual-sport affair, no matter what the map says. There were only a couple of instances where I was jealous of the guys who'd rented single-cylinder F650GSs, and those situations usually involved brief-yet-hairball encounters with the kind of sand or gravel that brings out the 1200's biggie factor.

It's a bitch of a long ride from San Pedro to the Chilean Coast, but we get so caught up in the drama of the great dunes crashing into the roiling Pacific, we ask to extend the route. That night we sleep on the edge of the noisy sea before toiling our way through one last border crossing. Well, we don't toil, but the guides do. We just stand around and eat more empanadas while they wade through the waist-deep paperwork. We're headed for the city of Arequipa, then Lake Titicaca, a name I say over and over just to hear aloud its potty-talk lilt. Four days later we'll arrive at the former Incan capital of Cuzco, where we'll spend our last afternoon wandering around South America's most famous World Heritage Site, the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu.

Peru is immediately more gripping than Argentina or Chile, more true to its unique character and cultures. It's a land with a pulse you feel like an ache, and we find ourselves as drawn by its welcoming smiles and wind-burned cheeks as we are repelled by its rotting carcasses and Uzi-clad parking attendants. It's this vibrant, Mad Max world and its eye-opening grit that turns our bike trip into a true adventure and puts everything into perspective: our insignificance, our obligation to help others on the planet and, finally, the reason we're carrying around all this toilet paper.

The Sacred RuleHaving my boots polished while I eat a fabulous lunch at an outdoor caf is another thing I find surprisingly enjoyable about riding in South America, but only because it costs 50 cents. An hour-long massage in Argentina? Fifteen bucks, including the tip. In fact, if you don't count fuel, everything is so ridiculously affordable one might wonder why a 16-day Escape to Machu Picchu package starts at $6750. The guests on my tour felt the hand-holding at each border crossing alone was worth the asking price, but the biggest hit is for the bike. An R1200GS costs the equivalent of $40 grand in Brazil, and all our bikes are new and in perfect condition. You're not going to find anything of the sort with another guide service in South America, and if you do manage to rent something larger than a moped, it will be a hopeless beater.

Certainly you get what you pay for on this tour, and then a little more. We are all surprised at how many unique experiences-outside of the expected guide service, lodging, vehicle support and dinners-are thrown in. Every time we turn around there are boats or buses or cabs waiting to take us on an interesting excursion or to some amazing open-menu meal. These adventure tours, which Ayres also runs in Southern Africa, New Zealand and Europe, are unlike any other kind of motorcycle experience you can buy. I'm not surprised to learn the outfit was recently named an official BMW Travel Partner. As one guest put it, "Why would you want to eat at McDonald's when you can have Fuddruckers?"

As you'd expect, climbing around the sprawling ancient ruins of the Lost City of Machu Picchu was a climax of deep, mind-shuttering proportion. There is little fact attached to the place, an elaborate Incan empire, unearthed haphazardly when American history professor Hiram Bingham was poking around the region 100 years ago.

Bingham had to trudge through this forbidding landscape where the Andes meet Peru's Amazon rain forest with no indemnity, just a heavy pack on his back and a farm boy as his guide. I like our way so much better: throttling up and down South America's curvas, bellies tight with empanadas and a truck hauling our gear. The only thing we need to cover our asses? A little extra toilet paper.