I arrived in Cusco a week after leaving Uyuni, having made my way via La Paz and the infamous Death Road, crossing the border on the shores of Lake Titicaca. As well as myself and Mich, the group that we formed there consisted of Martin, an Italian from South Tyrol on a big BMW 1200GS, and Meg and Matthew, riding their BMW F800s from Ushuaia, headed north to Alaska.
It was with this group, in a curry-house in the back streets of Cusco, that our self-styled ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was born.
We hit it off straight away. It felt good to be around people who not only clicked together easily as a group but had shared the same risks and frustrations of travelling by motorbike in South America. The inevitable piss-taking soon followed; we all had stories to tell, close-run things to brag about and ridiculous situations to laugh at. There was an instant degree of respect between each other that flowed over dinner that first evening, as Matthew decided to take on the challenge of ‘Peru’s hottest curry’.
Mich had brought the group together. When I met him in Sucre, we’d got on well, though I disagreed with him when he tried to caution me against riding my Bonneville off the tarmac. Martin was the most chilled but cheery of us all. His desire for the quiet life led to frequent expressions of disbelief about certain ridiculous ideas put forward by the rest of us – which were almost invariably followed by him accepting them. Meg and Matthew were a South African couple in their mid-twenties who were both doctors. Proud of their heritage, they were never short of a good laugh or a story from life back home. As for me, I quickly established myself as the sightly hap-hazard, eccentric English guy who faffed a lot. I might not have brought Martin’s language skills, Mich’s mechanical ability or the South Africans’ medical skills to the table, but I had brought entertainment instead, I told myself.
We soon hatched a plan to strike out north of Cusco to ride our bikes to the foot of Machu Picchu and then from there into the lesser travelled areas around Ayacucho and the western fringes of the Amazon, which had once been the stronghold of the notorious Shining Path guerrillas.
After three days of preparation, we rode out of town past the grand colonial architecture of the Plaza de Armas and headed north-east to the intriguingly entitled ‘Sexy Woman’, a ruined citadel just outside the city whose name was a highly dubious English translation of Saqsaywaman, it’s original Inca name.
As we changed direction to head north-west, we entered the lush, green countryside of the Sacred Valley, making our way towards Machu Picchu past huge statues of guinea pigs, following the Urubamba River. We quickly settled into a rhythm and a natural order amongst our group, with Martin, Mich and myself up front, and Meg and Matthew bringing up the rear.
As the Valley finally ran out after Ollyttayambo, the road began to enter a series a switch-backs, climbing high into the mountains past the terraced walls of the valley. The riding between Mich, myself and Martin became increasingly competitive.
We threw our bikes around the hairpins, pushing them as hard and fast we dared, gaping at the scenery below us as climbed up and away, trying to overtake each other. Engines roared as we opened the throttles and hammered up to the pass at full tilt, struggling to keep the bikes on the road and avoid plummeting into the valley below as our metal panniers scraped the tarmac, leaning over as low as we dared to shoot the apexes. The towns and villages in the valley below grew smaller, as though we were taking off in an aeroplane.
The temperature dropped as we ascended and a thick fog surrounded us as we approached the pass. The light gradually ran out, and so did the last of the good weather as a storm beckoned. The rain set in and as we began to descend we found ourselves in darkness, fording a series of streams with boulders underneath. Martin went over, struggling with the weight of the 1200GS. Thunder and lightning followed, as our group huddled underneath a wooden shack in the freezing cold by the side of the road as we waited for the storm to pass.
I awoke the next morning in a small room with bunk beds crammed to the ceiling. A bizarre mix of Ramstein and then Bob Marley blared out from Mich’s beatbox Bluetooth speaker, as we stowed our gear on our bikes in the covered area adjourning our room, where we’d somehow managed to wedge them in the night before when we arrived in the darkness in the tipping rain.
As we continued north that day, we saw the effect of the full force of the early autumn weather in this part of the world, with a rich mountainous landscape of bright green vegetation and dirt roads that had turned to thick grey mud. Rickety wooden bridges took us over swollen rivers where, when we stopped, we struggled to hear ourselves speak due the sound of the water rushing past us.
Two days later we found ourselves at the foot of Machu Picchu, our first major stop. We had ditched the bikes the day before at a hotel in Santa Maria to the west. The bridge to the main tourist hub at Agues Calientes had been washed out due to the rains, and we walked the remaining distance via railway tracks that led from a hydroelectric plant. We chewed on coca leaves to pass the time and played chicken as walked over railway bridges where only the tracks’ sleepers stood between us and the full force of the water rushing below.
Our day at Machu Picchu came and went, with us rising early in the morning to get the coach with the other tourists to the ancient citadel, 2500m up and wrapped in thick fog until mid-morning. We decided to take the horrifically overpriced train back to the hydroelectric plant and then hitch a lift back to Santa Maria. For my part, I was itching to get back on the bike again. Machu Picchu was good, but for me our visit was as much about ticking a box rather than anything else. That and having a rather embarrassing attack of bellyache whilst up there, which left me committing some kind of ancient Inca sacrilege by squatting behind a large rock with a loo-roll in hand, which I’d been lucky enough to scrounge off Meg.
We’d reached the northern most point of our loop and were soon headed south west towards Ayacucho, the major town that would signal our return from the bush. As the number of narco-police checkpoints increased so did, to some degree at least, our caution. Road conditions continued as they had been before, with us all slip-sliding in the mud, but the police urged caution against riding a night. We were in a sensitive part of Peru, where the mountainous territory meant roads weren’t just a convenient form of transportation but the very arteries of existence for any one who lived there. And whilst the hey-day of the Shining Path had been and gone, this had been their heartland in the 1980s and 90s, with them controlling large swatches of the countryside. The poverty that had helped support them still very much existed. A bunch of gringos on expensive looking motorbikes with digital cameras, iPhones and laptops were an easy target.
Sporadic attacks by the Path still took place from time to time against local security forces and what was left of the organisation was now involved in drug smuggling in this part of the world. The strong police presence meant that most smuggling activity took place after nightfall, when the police couldn’t exercise the same degree of control and security over the roads as they could in daytime.
Heeding that advice, that night we pitched our tents in a derelict school off the main road, after wrestling our bikes down an overgrown, steep track. Local kids joined us, distracted from their game of football, intrigued to see who were and what we were doing there. “Do you know who David Beckham is?” We joked, taking the piss out the cringeworthy documentary the football star had released the year before about his own motorbike adventure with some friends in the Amazon, where the same question had been self-indulgently asked of local kids in some village in the depths of the jungle.
The town of San Francisco beckoned. There was nothing remarkable about our plans to visit here, other than we needed petrol and oil. My Bonneville in particular needed both – with a smaller tank than the others, my range was more limited. What was more, the oil filter on the bike was located on its underside, with the sump-guard – which was designed more for hipsters wanting to ride a Steve McQueen style scrambler around the streets of Shoreditch than for trips through the dirt roads of the Peruvian Amazon – finishing just short of it. The filter had a large gash in it and despite our best efforts to patch the hole with gaffer tape, I was leaving a steady stream of oil behind me as I rode. Either we found some more oil or my engine was going to seize up.
Arriving in the mid-afternoon, we pulled up in a cafe in the main square. Before long, we were swamped by hoards of children, just out of school for the day. A barrage of questions in Spanish gave way to selfies, which then gave way to requests for rides on the motorbikes around the square. Mich took the lead, followed by the rest of us, the kids taking turns to sit precariously on the petrol tanks in front of us as we obliged. Most were under the age of 5 or 6, a local cafe owner explained – and given where we were and the lack of tourists in recent years, they hadn’t had the chance to meet a real life gringo before.
It was at this point, the slightly enigmatic character of Guillermo appeared. In his mid to late forties, he had fairly recently returned from a life in the United States and spoke fluent English. He was some kind of local dignitary and involved in politics, having run in the elections to be provincial governor. He had a farm nearby that we could stay at, he explained, if we so wished. We politely declined his offer, however, and decided to head out of town on the main route towards Ayacucho. Given the police’s advice, we felt a little unsure about the risks involved of staying with a random stranger in the middle of nowhere.
Our progress, however, was halted before too long.
“The road is blocked” said Mich, as he returned from walking up to the head of the traffic jam that now occupied the dirty red-brown mountain road whilst the rest of us waited in-line. “There’s a big truck with a long flat trailer, and it’s got stuck where the rain has caused the ground to give way. It’s literally wedged into the ground because the trailer is so long and the angle of the hole in the road. It’s not moving any time soon.”
We were primarily worried about light due to it already being early evening as we gathered round Matthew’s bike to discuss our options. Mich had Guillermo’s number and had spoken with him. He set out what riding to his farm would entail.
“We can go to his farm. It is about 35 to 50 minutes, and then we would ride until 7 more or less, and we’d have maybe half an hour riding in the dirt. But he does not guarantee it – he says there is maybe a 99% chance we can get through, and a 1% chance we’d need to get back to San Francisco.”
“The farm is risky, man” said Meg, who seemed the most cautious out of all of us.
There was one other thing, however.
“Oh and they’re making food for us”, added Mich.
We looked at each other, tired, hungry and aware that all too often that finding somewhere to sleep when you’re on the road might be one challenge – but finding some decent food as well is another.
“Ah alright, fuck it – let’s go” we agreed.
We re-traced our route back to the town, and soon rendezvoused with Guillermo in his large white pick-up. What was meant to be a relatively short ride to the farm soon stretched out as the darkness and rain set in. As we navigated the traffic on the small muddy roads, Matthew lost the tail end of his bike rounding a corner, taking a spill. No harm was done, but it was enough to heighten our awareness of how slippy and difficult road conditions were.
We pulled off the main ‘road’ on to a farm track and we found ourselves fording swollen streams that had become rivers with the fast flowing water coming up to our saddles. As I held the throttle open at 5000 rpm with the clutch half in to keep the water going down the low slung exhaust pipes, I nervously looked across to the pitch darkness to my left that signalled the sheer drop from the side of the mountain into the valley below.
A couple of days before, Martin had gone over on his BMW on a far easier crossing than this. If I lost my balance now for any reason, whether it be due being pushed over by the weight of the water coming from my right or due to the wheel hitting a submerged rock and throwing the weight of the bike over, then that was where I was headed. I made it across unscathed, ranting at Mich about the danger we had found ourselves in.
“This is fucking stupid”, I raged. “The water is too high and too fast, and one fuck up then we’ll go straight off the side of a cliff. I’m not doing another one of those again, end of. I’d sooner turn back.”
Despite my anger, we pressed on – we had no choice. We arrived at the farm in the dark with our headlights picking out the thick vegetation around us, and it soon became clear that with Guillermo’s farm we’d landed on our feet.
Deep in the countryside, it sat on the banks of the brown waters of the Apurimac River that marked the border between the Ayacucho and Cusco regions. Guillermo told us how it had been part of his family’s estate until about 30 years before, when Shining Path guerrillas had burnt it down. He was restoring it to be an exclusive eco-resort, however the presence of an airstrip adjoining the site, guarded by soldiers with sub-machine guns, led to us (perhaps somewhat unfairly) to our own imaginative theories about what his real business was. For my part, and possibly due to my frustration about the ride to the farm in the first place, I couldn’t help but feel there was some kind of catch involved.
I was wrong, and we were grateful Guillermo’s hospitality. We pitched our tents in the dry of one of the farm buildings and the staff at the farm made sure we were well looked after, feeding us guinea pig.
We spent the next 3 days relaxing and vegging out, occasionally venturing down to the banks of the river to mess around in the mud and watch the occasional peki-peki boat plough up and down. Martin and Matthew went to the nearby village, where they bought machetes to fasten to our bikes true adventurer style.
Out of the group, I was the one who wanted to leave the soonest, feeling the itch to be back on the bike again after just a day or two. My mind soon turned to the next stage of the trip. We were in the last few days of March and I had planned to be in Bogota in Colombia by the end of April. I still had more than enough time to cover the 2000 miles if I took the fastest route, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. It felt like my freedom to go where and when I pleased was starting to slip away with every day we weren’t riding, as the pressure of time grew.
Nonetheless, I didn’t want to leave the group straightaway. And by the fourth day, Martin, Matthew and Meg were ready to leave too, though Mich decided to stay a bit longer. We loaded up the bikes and said our goodbyes, with one last final shot of us as a group with our bikes outside the farm.
We headed out south-west, back to the chaos and the mud of the mountain roads and melee of traffic. Conditions had continued to worsen whilst we’d been at rest, finding ourselves queuing at the head of a line of vehicles with the road overlaid by a bed of scree ahead of us.
Rocks tumbled down from the mountain to our left, and horns blared behind as each one of us waited our turn to shoot through as quickly as possible, hoping to avoid being hit in the process. Covered in gray dust and mud from the road, we arrived at Ayacucho late at night on a Saturday in the dark, filtering through the bright headlights and lines of traffic to a hotel just off the Plaza de Armes.
Ayacucho marked the end of our ride as a group, as I decided to press on to Lima whilst Martin, Matthew and Meg decided to take their time on the journey to the coast, arriving at sunset on the last day March and seeing the Pacific for the first time.
Over the course of the next eleven days, our group gradually reunited at the same hostel in the affluent suburb of Miraflores. I was stuck in Lima over the Easter weekend as I waited for the Triumph workshop to re-open and give the bike a good check over, which was looking distantly worse for wear after it’s shenanigans in the jungle. We relaxed, swopped stories with the other overlanders also staying there, and indulged in our favourite western junk food after a couple of weeks of eating whatever we could find on the road.
I was now entering the final stages of the trip, with all roads for me heading to Bogota to the north. I plotted a route to take me up through the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, some 400km to the north, and then on to Ecuador beyond. Despite losing a week in Lima, I still felt I could fit in all I wanted to see en-route, even if it did mean I was under more time-pressure than before. I would just have to ride quickly and for long-hours to make sure that happened.
Eleven days after first arriving in the capital, I found myself pulling off the Pan Americana Highway some 120 miles to the north, headed once again in to the mountains. I’d found a recommended wild camping spot online, where I planned to stay the night before heading north through Huarez, the main town in the region.
The road rose out of the desert and traced a river along a valley, before the two separated. The scenery grew greener, the air damper and the switchbacks started. After 60 miles or so on a left hand hairpin, over a bridge, I approached the bend on the right hand side of the road. I shifted down to third gear, ready to shift down again to second to bleed off speed, gave the rear brake a gentle push and then a slight squeeze on the front, prepared to move across to the left of my lane to touch the apex, before opening up the throttle and giving it the horses.
Then I saw the dark grey, Toyota ‘combi’ minibus coming the other direction….on my side of the road. There was time for a cry of ‘shit’ and a big bang.
I found myself on my feet, unclear how I’d got there, looking down at the Bonneville lying on its right hand-side, perpendicular to the side of the road with the the front left of the crank case smashed open. Bits of cogs and metal were hanging out, and a pool of oil gathered on the ground.
There was simply no reason why the combi should have been on the wrong side of the road other than plain stupidity. As far as difficult hairpins go, it was 3 out of 5. But if I was going to be honest, I had been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. The driving in Peru was bad on a scale that I’d never experienced before, to the point that it scared me more than any security concerns I might have had.
I had the driver by his lapels, shouting at him. I soon let him go, and he started walking back to the cab.
The driver opened the left-hand door, getting in the cab as the passengers crammed in the back looked on.
My mind whirled. My things were strewn all over the road and in the gutter, including my passport, $1,000 in cash, laptop, my phone and camera.
“Do I stay with my bike and my stuff? Or do I try and go with him to ensure he doesn’t drive off?”
I opened the right-hand door, and started to get in on the passenger side of the cab.
“There’s no way I’m going to let this f**ker get away” I thought to myself.
I thought again.
“This isn’t safe. It’s getting dark. And you can’t just leave your stuff – it’ll be gone by the time you get back.”
I got out of the bus, the passengers gawping through the windows.
I was high in the mountains, in a remote location with the daylight closing in.
“Policía!” he said, pointing down the road, indicating that was where he was headed. I didn’t believe him, but what could I do? Drag him out of the cab? I didn’t fancy my chances as a sole gringo versus a driver plus (potentially) his passengers.
I walked to the rear of the minibus and tried to commit his number plate to memory as he drove off, repeating it out loud over and over until I found my phone to write it down, but as I rooted around by the side of the road to find it, I forgot the second part of it, then the first and then all of it.
Over the next twenty minutes, a small group of locals began to gather. Finally, the police arrived.
My Spanish was limited at best and their English was non-existent. I did, however, have decent phone reception.
“Felipe, it’s Ed”, I said after dialling a contact back in Lima.
I’d met Felipe a few weeks before, when I’d sped ahead from the Rumble group to get to Lima. Triumph isn’t a big motorbike brand in South America but there was a local dealer on the Peruvian capital. And it was run by Felipe.
Felipe spoke good English and was a larger than life character. Thick-set and in his late forties, with slicked back dark blonde hair and gold jewellery, he was an effervescent bloke who had helped me find a workshop to do some much needed work on the Bonnie, after it emerged in a somewhat battered state from the jungle. Before running the Triumph shop, he’d been an air steward for a Peruvian airline, very much enjoying the finer things of life in his beach ‘party house’ on the Pacific coast. He also, somewhat randomly, ran a blueberry import business on the side, sourcing the fruit for Peruvian buyers from the United States.
I had to deal with getting to somewhere safe, ideally with the bike, as night-time was begging to set it.
“Ed, this is not a good situation to be in”, Felipe said, after I’d explained what had happened.
“Yes, can I see how that’s the case Felipe. It’s not great…” I quipped, with more than a hint of sarcasm in my voice.
“No, no, no – you don’t understand. This is not safe place to be after the dark, in the mountains, on your own. Can I speak to the police?”
I passed my mobile over to the policeman, and a conversation in fast-flowing Spanish followed. After a couple of minutes, the phone was handed back to me.
“You have two options”, Felipe said. “You can go with the police to the police station, maybe 50km away, do all the paperwork for your insurance. But if you want to do that you’re gonna have to leave your stuff there, including the bike.
“Also, they will want to you to do an alcohol test. And they will want to keep you in the cells overnight.
“Trust me, this is not a good place to be, in the cells overnight”, he added.
“And the other option?” I queried.
“These are traffic police. You pay them 200 soles, and they will flag down trucks until they find one that will take you and all your gear back to Lima.”
I chewed over the two options. I didn’t want to lose the chance of an insurance payment by not getting any paperwork from the police. But who knew how long that might take and indeed whether I might get that at all, given that I was riding on temporary local insurance only with third party cover – and I hadn’t managed to remember the minibus’s number plate.
Two hours and several battered farm trucks later, me, the two policemen and a pick-up driver managed to lift the Bonneville and my gear into the back of a rather flash, new black double-cab Toyota Hilux. I paid my 200 soles to the policemen, and jumped into the cab – after taking up Felipe’s suggestion of sending him a photo message of the truck’s numberplate.
In the early hours of the next morning we navigated the late-night rush hour in Lima and, after dropping the bike back at the workshop, I was welcomed back to the hostel I’d left some 12 hours before by Martin, Meg and Matt, who kindly supplied beers, Valium and, most importantly, Pizza Hut takeway.