Carretera Central

January 10, 2016

Highway 3S from Huancayo to Ayacucho is mostly a one-and-a-half lane wide paved road following the Rio Mantaro. It’s a fun ride, and the scenery changes considerably from one end to the other, beginning with pampas and plains at 11,000 feet and slowly descending to around 7,000 feet elevation and more of a desert look, with cactus and scrub. 

It’s not a particularly busy road, but there is the occasional car, bus, or truck. 

Yes, this is considered a major highway. In addition to PE-3S, it’s also known as the Carretera Central, or Central Highway. This is THE route south in this part of Peru, and between Huancayo and Andalhuaylas (about 300 miles), it is mostly narrow, often one lane, full of blind turns and switchbacks. Not exactly Interstate 5 in California, or I-35 in Texas. Although people try to drive like it is.

Many of the corners have this sign as you enter them, and most people abide by the sign and honk as they enter the blind turn or switchback. That’s about all they do is honk; they don’t slow down at all. As if somehow honking deploys the anti-collision shields. Judging by the number of memorials on the side of this road, I’d say honking while entering a blind corner at 40mph doesn’t work that well.


Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The blue truck was in a bad position, angled and blocking the road. As I came around in the opposite direction, I was able to squeeze between the mountainside and the rear wheels of the truck and get through. No one else was going anywhere. There were a number of vehicles parked both ahead and behind the truck and people standing around the truck, and it looked as though the truck had either been in an accident, or tried to avoid one and ended up skewed across the road. As I got further down the road, I looked back and took this photo. Not sure, but I think that may be a crumpled vehicle in the water just to the left of the gravel slide.


There are several bridges across the river. This one had a nice look, steel plates covering wood rails for traction, and no guard rails.

Past Ayacucho the road (now PE-3SL) continues to be a lane and a half wide, but the pavement improves as does the scenery. Overall, I’d have to put this road in my top 5 of the trip. It’s fun, but gets tiring between the nearly constant curves for hundreds of miles — which means an average speed of around 28 mph — and the need to  be very vigilant for oncoming traffic. 

I pushed myself too far today. I had originally planned to stop in Ayacucho, but as it was only 2pm, I decided to keep going and try to make it all the way to Andahuaylas. And of course I was reminded of another important GPS lesson: when you enter the location in Garmin, it tells you how far it is to that location, as the crow flies. Example: after leaving Ayacucho, I entered the waypoint for Andahuaylas. Garmin said 68 miles. which is about 150 road miles. All those switchbacks add a lot of miles when you’re not a crow. 

So just before dark I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to make my destination, and began looking for a place to camp. As I rode into Chincheros, I spotted what looked like an off-road truck race track a few hundred feet below me near the river. Nobody there, and the green grass looked like the perfect place to pitch my tent. But just as I was going to turn off the highway to head down there, I spotted a hotel on the left with a large gated parking area. So I took it. Which was yet another mistake for today. The tent would have been much more comfortable. Oh well, if all goes as planned I’ll be in the tent tomorrow night. 

Cusco, and the “Back Way” to Machu Picchu

January 13, 2015

I had read a lot of others’ blogs about going the “back way” to Machu Picchu. This required a bit of logistical work, but was considerably cheaper than the typical tourist method of taking the train from Cusco. It would involve a bus, a collectivo, a taxi, a hike, and another bus before arriving at the gates to Machu Picchu. Not exactly the way Hiram Bingham arrived ca. 1911, but I only had a day or two.

Some people ride their bike to Santa Teresa, and leave it there and hike the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes — also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, which is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Not for me this time. For 15 Soles (five dollars), you can take a bus to Santa Maria, where you then take a collectivo to Santa Teresa, then a taxi the last 20 minutes to the hydroelectric plant, where you can hike along the railroad tracks (for free) for a little over six miles. It’s possible to do all of this in a day, see Machu Picchu the next morning and return to Cusco. A bit hectic, but possible.

The bus ride from Cusco to Santa Maria was not like the luxury bus I took from Huanuco to Lima last month. I was seated in the last row of the bus, and the woman next to me (besides not bathing in a month or two) apparently was able to buy one seat for her, her ten year old son, and her 2 year old son. Which meant the ten year old sat mostly in my seat, and the two year old sprawled across her lap and mine. For six hours. Hey, I wanted to experience the local culture. I was getting what I asked for.

Next up after the bus: collectivo to Santa Maria. That’s enough for one day. How about spending the night here and going on in the morning?

Treehouse Penthouse. Eco-Quechua Lodge.


No actual windows, so mosquito netting is a must.

The morning taxi ride to the Hidroelectrica plant is about 20 minutes, and then the hike to Aguas Calientes begins. This is well worth it. Along the railroad tracks, mostly level. Despite the elevation, it’s an easy hike.



I didn’t know it at the time, and it’s hard to see in this photo from the bridge, but between those two peaks on the mountain is a terraced area. I could see that much. What I didn’t realize is I was looking at Machu Picchu from below.

Machu Picchu is pretty spectacular, but as I’ve said many times before, I’m not fond of tourists, so this place and the town below it feels a bit like a South American Disneyland. Hordes of tourists (mostly North American and European) whining because they aren’t in their homeland’s “give me everything” culture, demanding that they be catered to, thrusting “selfie sticks” with abandon in every direction like light sabers in Star Wars.

I have to admit that while Machu Picchu is pretty impressive, I found the surrounding scenery to be the true stand-out.

I really expected more people on this hike. I was pleasantly surprised.


Machu Picchu as seen from the Sun Gate. It’s a 45 minute hike up to here from the park entrance. I was not so pleasantly surprised to find about 60 to 80 people there, all taking group selfies. These people had all hiked four days on the Inca Trail to get there, so I guess they deserved it. The switchback road is the bus route up to Machu Picchu.




Gratuitous selfie, sans selfie stick.


Spectacular surroundings.


More Incan lawnmowers.


This one even smiled for me.

A few hours here is enough for me. Besides, I was secretly focused on a different, much less-known attraction nearby. Behind Aguas Calientes and across the valley from Machu Picchu is a mountain known as Putucusi. There is an unmarked trail that leads to the top of this mountain, where you can look across to Machu Picchu. The catch: there are seven “ladders” going nearly vertically up the granite face of the mountain, some over 100 feet long. It is not an easy trail, especially if you are afraid of heights. Between and above the ladders are stone steps, steep dirt path, and eventually, at the top, a narrow ridge about three feet wide that you have to cross to get to the “summit”. I had been excited to do this since I got to Peru.

I found the unmarked entrance to the trail and began the climb up. The first twenty minutes or so is up stone steps, very steep and overgrown. At one point, the steps were gone and it was necessary to “shimmy” across a couple of large poles, then climb to the continuation of the steps.

“Hidden” trail into the jungle.


Not much use.

Had to cross these poles to climb to the next section.


Looking back down at the steps.

Eventually I arrived at the first, and longest ladder. I was shocked. The first sixty feet or so was missing. You could see where the rungs had been in the rock, but someone had torn them out. The large steel cable alongside the ladder was still there, and for a moment I considered using it to climb the rock to the remaining ladder rungs, but I decided that without a climbing partner and/or climbing gear, it was too dangerous.

Hard to tell how steep this is, but it’s probably about 60 degrees or so. You can see the holes where the rungs of the ladder used to be, and further up you can see the actual remaining ladder.


Close up of remaining ladder rungs further up the rock.

Disappointed, I turned around and headed back down.

After my experience with my fellow bus passengers on the ride up, I decided to speed things up and take the train back. Out of my budget, but comfortable and quick.

This photo is hard to figure out without explanation. See those three “pod” looking things on the side of this giant cliff? Those are “Skypod” hotel rooms. Yup. You have to climb up to them. They are complete with a nice bed, couch, bathroom (no shower or bathtub), and believe it or not, they serve dinner and breakfast to you. This is definitely on my to-do list next time in Peru. I took this photo from the skylight of the train as we passed by. Then I happened to meet a British couple at my campground in Cusco that just spent last night there.

It’s been nice to camp in my tent again, even though it was raining in Cusco. The campground was small, and there were about four other overlanders there when I arrived, all in one form of motorhome or another.

Fifteen years on the road so far…and still getting this behemoth stuck in wet campgrounds…

I was lucky enough to pitch my tent under a protected spot, and let the barking of a thousand dogs in Cusco lull me to sleep.

Nice campsite, with wifi, a bench and table, electricity, and protection from the rain.


And these guys for neighbors. They didn’t really care about the camera. They expected me to feed them. They followed me around like puppies.


The campground is on top of a mountain overlooking Cusco. Just below is an archaeological park. Gotta love Quechua words. The park is called Saqsaywaman. And yes, it is pronounced “Sexy Woman”.


I walked down into town to Norton Rat’s Pub, a very famous motorcycle destination in Cusco. The walls are covered with old British bike posters and t-shirts from other bike destinations. Oddly, for a “motorcycle destination”, there is no place to park. I ordered a hamburger…


And an Inca Kola. Despite how it looks, and the fact that it tastes like 99% sugar, it really isn’t bad once you get used to it. I even found these for sale in Peruvian restaurants in the States over Christmas. Very popular.


Tinajani Canyon

January 14, 2016

The rain held off just long enough to allow me to pack up my camping gear in Cusco and get on the bike. Before I could leave town the rain began again and it continued on and off most of the day. 

In between showers I met several people on bicycles heading north, and a pair of Korean guys on bicycles heading south. 

The scenery was mostly altiplano: few trees, lots of open plains, with mountains surrounding. At one point there was quite a bit of snow on one of the mountain peaks. I don’t think I gained or lost much altitude. It turns out my campsite in Tinjani Canyon was at 12,800 feet elevation.

Looks kind of like a toy train set, only with bigger mountains. The Peru Rail Andean Explorer, between Cusco and Puno. At the next train crossing, I watched the passengers, both inside the train, and on the back deck of the last car. Most with their puffy down North Face jackets.

I stopped several times in search of oil, without success. 

In case you ever get lost, it’s easy to find your way again on the Gringo Trail…just look for the stickers plastered all over the gas station windows. Now including mine at the top, at this Repsol station.

Like many other things outside of the United States, you don’t go to one store for everything; Repsol gas stations don’t carry oil. You have to go to the lubricant store. I also stopped at several motorcycle repair shops, but they only carried 30 weight mineral oil. Eventually I found a lubricant store in Sicuani and was able to buy some synthetic oil, and while I was strapping it onto the bike, a guy three doors down whistled at me, calling me over. We struck a deal, and he changed my oil for me for ten soles, or $2.91 (okay, I mostly changed it, but he took my old oil away. I prefer it this way). 

A little south of Sicuani I passed the town of Marangani, which is famous for raising Cuy, that tasty treat known to most of us as Guinea Pig. 

CuyTown. Too cute to eat. “Buenas noches, me nombre is Chuck E. Cuy, voy a ser su cena.”

I made a short day of it, as I had planned to stop and camp in Tinajani Canyon, just outside of the small village of Tinajani. I stopped in town at a small tienda to buy some supplies for dinner and future meals. I bought a large bag of pancito (bread), two bananas, a can of tuna, a bottle of water and a bottle of coke for $2.33. The road bypasses this town, and it looked and felt like most of the people weren’t used to seeing Gringos in riding gear on fully loaded motorcycles, even if it is just a 250. I drew a bit of a crowd just packing my groceries away. This probably happens every day to all of those BMW riders.

Friendly locals smiling while watching me load the bike with dinner. They seemed surprised when I asked them to pose for a photo with my bike. Or it could be just I’m a crazy Gringo far from home.

Tinajani Canyon is beautiful. The rock formations remind me of Utah, but the ground is all green around them. I stopped at a small house and asked the woman there (dressed in traditional clothing and hat) if I could camp there. She said yes, and pointed across a small bridge to a green spot above the river. Just as I pulled up, it began to rain again. I quickly pitched my tent and crawled inside. The sound of the rain put me to sleep, and I awoke about an hour later to the sound of hooves. As I looked out of the tent, there were cattle and sheep being driven around my tent and up the canyon. The rain had stopped and there was a cold breeze blowing, but it was comfortable in the tent. 

Cool house, great location


The husband of the woman I met earlier came by and offered me hot cafe con leche and pancito bread. Just genuine people.

Once it got dark, the sounds got interesting. It is incredibly dark and incredibly quiet out here, since there is no electricity and few people. The first sound I noticed was a huge june bug flying around outside my tent. I am not exaggerating when I say at first I thought it was a motorcycle going by on the dirt road. It wasn’t until it hit my tent (and startled me) that I realized what it was. After a while, there were several of these huge bugs around. One of them was under the rain fly of my tent and I watched from inside the tent as he munched on the grass. It sounded like eating crisp lettuce.

Next came two bullfrogs. The first one sounded like “I’m Adam. I’m Adam. I’m adamant” (or it could have been “I’m Adam Ant”, but he seemed a bit young to be a fan of early 80’s post-punk music). The second would answer with “Sam-Sung, Sam-Sung, Sam-Sung”. This went on for over an hour. It was entertaining for the first five minutes or so. Not so much after that.

Cozy in my tent, with my new alpaca hat (wow, that thing is warm!), eating pancito and reading on my iPad.

In the morning, I awoke to frost on my tent and bike cover, and ended up having to wait a while for it to melt off and dry before packing up. It gets light here about 5:30am, but the sun didn’t make it over the mountain and into the canyon until after 7am. 

Leaving the canyon the next morning.



Next stop: Bolivia!