First impressions of Peru…

After a crazy wet ride through the Southern Ecuadorian Amazon, I left Loja for the Peruvian border. It was a damp and foggy morning but appeared to be just a light marine layer so I gambled that it would burn off. I opted not to suit up in my plastics, a dangerous gamble, but for the first time in weeks, the weather didn’t feel threatening. After a cold and damp start, the decision paid off as the clouds lifted and exposed a beautiful landscape. A perfect way to say farewell to Ecuador, a country I should have loved but seemed plagued by bad luck and bad weather. The ride was a breathtaking 4 hours of beautiful mountain roads with everyone I passed smiling and waving. I look forward to revisiting Ecuador in better climate.

Just before crossing the border, I ran into a South African couple riding up from Argentina. We talked shop, I gave them my Ecuador maps, and we exchanged info. They asked if I was heading into Peru via the mountains or the PanAmericana? I quickly answered “the mountains of course” as I didn’t want to sound like a lamo riding the PanAmericana, but honestly, I hadn’t made up my mind yet. I was in search of better weather and had yet to decide where I’d be going first in Peru, but from my response they got excited and said “good, we just came from there. There’s a nice small town about 85km from the border that has a cheap but nice hospedaje with all the amenities including a swimming pool. …but we can’t remember the name…” “the border crossing’s super easy…” “Peru’s beautiful…” “…lot’s of cops…” and a few other tidbits.
The border crossing was super easy. The easiest I’ve had yet. 20 minutes, I was in Peru, Motorcyclemenus sticker on the wall of ADV rider stickers, and a big “Bienvenido a Peru” from all the customs officers. It was actually fun, …crazy I know.

wall of ADV rider blogs

I had heard from numerous riders that Peru has police officers stopping you outside of every town, and not 2 miles into the country, I had my first encounter with the fuzz. Two coppers pulled me over, and though very friendly, were fishing for something. First it was money questions like “how much is the bike worth?”, “how can you afford this trip?”, “you must be loaded?” “…something about giving gifts that I didn’t completely understand all of it, but got the gist.” …I have my whole sob story to a “T” by now so I was well prepared with… “I lost my job…, it’s cheaper to travel than live in the states…, I’m traveling on the cheap…, $5 a day…, only camping…, cook my own meals…, don’t have any money…(and in this case was true as I had yet to make it to a bank machine for Peruvian cash)”… Once it was clear no money would get exchanged, one of the officers started asking what music I listen to and again started suggesting something about a gift. I couldn’t see any device in their camp that we could exchange tunes and I certainly wasn’t giving him my phone so I said I don’t have any, only Spanish lessons. He laughed and said “listo, bienvenido a Peru” and I was on my way.

It was a minor police hassle as the police stops go and all in good fun, however this solidified my decision to get off the PooAmericana and head for the mountains, even though I could see the rain in them thar hills.
According to my paper map, I could make it to Ayacaba in plenty of time before dark, and from there, head south through the highlands. …and so I did. It was further than I thought and took longer but was the only road on my map that headed towards the mountains and the town ending up being 62 miles from the border, over muddy and sometime treacherous dirt roads (not too far off from “about 85 km” so I assumed I had the right place). A thunderstorm and some drizzle from the clouds made the plastics come out after all, but when I got to Ayacaba, it was clear and dry with a beautiful sunset above the clouds (about 11,000’).
Ayacaba was a beautiful town, where I got a very warm welcome but no hotel with any swimming pool, and honestly, way too cold to even contemplate jumping in a pool. Gringos obviously don’t come by this way very often (and I found out the next day why) so I was a bit of an excitement around town. The local street food was meat on a stick, no surprise there, but for a change the meat was chicken feet and chicken livers. I’m not a huge fan of chicken feet (though better than they sound) but if done right, chicken livers can be delicious so I gave ‘em a go. …and then it was an early night as border crossing days, even easy ones, are pretty stressful. …Also I didn’t want to outweigh my welcome as things can get a bit sticky once the basic conversation has worn off and booze kicks in after they’ve finished gnawing on their chicken feet.

I woke up to a beautiful day, sunny and above the clouds with views of mountain peaks in every direction over a bed of white, puffy clouds, and was thinking this is going to be a great day. Pic here So confident in fact that I actually packed my plastics in my duffle instead of easy access in the cargo net. Nothing was open at 6:30am so after a short walk, I decided to saddle up and head out of town. For precautionary reasons, I headed to the gas station I saw coming into town but it was closed. A local motorcyclist, also looking for gas lead me to a person’s house where I bought one gallon out of two 2 liter water bottles that came close to topping me off but would leave me unsure of the exact amount in the tank. Still I figured it would be plenty to get me wherever I needed to. He also asked where I was going and told me that road doesn’t exist. I showed him on my map and he shook his head. He pointed one way and said “this ends in Ecuador”, he pointed another way and said “this way joins with that road and ends in Ecuador”, then he pointed in the direction I came from and said “you need to go to Piura, …that way”. Doh! Not entirely convinced, as I’m heading out of town, I ask another local where the road leads to and get the short answer, “Ecuador”. Still not convinced, I figure I’ll give it a go and see where it takes me. About 5 miles in, I’m clearly heading towards Ecuador and only about 10 miles from the border, so once again, it’s time to swallow my pride and start backtracking before I get too close to Ecuador and run into police looking for smugglers.

Not even 8:00am and still feeling like the day’s going to be great, I wave goodbye to Ayacaba, admiring the scenery with a smile on my face as I retreat towards the coast. And then Bam! Not even a mile out of town, I slide out in a big mud puddle. I’ve crossed hundreds of these, and rode the same exact one, not even 16 hours before, in much worse conditions through a thunder storm, but this time it bit me. After picking up the bike, in the mud,

taken from my phone, sorry

I dumped it again trying to ride out of the puddle, …and this time with an audience. Doh! Embarrassed, I picked it up again and rode off.
After about 50 miles and one police stop/inquiry, and with my confidence back, I come to one of the many water crossings I had passed the previous day. I remembered it being a little deep in once section and a bit slippery but nothing too bad, so I rode straight for it with barely a thought. A meter or two in, the front wheel drops about a foot, hits a rock, bounces up and then suddenly bam, I’m down again, sliding now on the shallow but slick side of the crossing. I’ve dumped Rosita once in Guatemala in a mud slide, during the craziest week of rain than I’ve ever seen in my life, and once in Nicaragua when the ground gave way and I was not at my sharpest after riding 400 miles of dirt road. …And now, 3 times in two hours on fairly average stuff? WTF?
This time it was a little more sketchy getting Rosita upright. Though shallow, the ground under the running water was layered with slick moss and as I made my first attempt to lift her up, she wanted to slide towards and over the edge. Pic here. I decide I better unload all of my stuff to lighten the load and then rig something to stop the bike from sliding. Just as I’d unloaded the last bag and took a picture, a young guy came along and helped me wedge a rock to block the rear wheel and pick up the bike. Gracias, …and it’s still only 9:30am.

...again, phone shot

I reach the PanAmericana and start heading south before shortly coming across a road block. There’s a handful of police officers walking around and checking the scene but they seem unconcerned by my presence, so I ride around the road block and continue south. About 500 meters later I come across another road block. This one un-manned and so again I ride around. At this point it starts to occur to me that I haven’t seen a single car in either direction so the road must be blocked in other places as well. …Then suddenly I see a ton of cars and trucks coming straight at me. A police car pulls out of his lane into mine with his lights flashing and stops as a cop jumps out frantically waving me down. I’m thinking, “oh shit, what this time?” but this was different. He comes running up to me with a huge “Buenos dias, Senor” and then proceeds to ask me…
“Was there a roadblock up ahead?”
Trying to look innocent, I say “yes, two, I didn’t know what they were so I just rode around (still being apprehensive, in particular after ignoring the cops on the first block)”
“What were the roadblocks?”
“big tree branches and rocks”
“people? Were there people too?”
“no, no one”
“good, good, how far back? By the bridge?”
“yes, one on either side of the bridge”
“…A huge thanks. The road’s clear going forward. Welcome to Peru and have a great trip” as he runs back into the police car with 7 other officers in it and quickly drives off.

A km later I pull into Las Lomas to see hundreds of police in riot gear and thousands of people walking around. Whatever’s happened is over and most of the people are cheering me passed, with a few shouting stuff I can’t understand but seems in good humor. I get pulled over by another copper leaving town and once again, checks my papers, lets me go, apologizes for the protest, and welcomes me to Peru. I was tempting to tell him, it’s not the protesters I mind (I’m with the working man, yo’), it’s the fuzz pulling me over every 20 km that I don’t care for, but I bit my tongue (and I probably couldn’t have pulled it off in Spanish anyway). I proceeded to pass hundreds more peeps walking back to town and 4 dismantled roadblocks, some still burning. I later found out that the protest was indeed for the working man. My boys were protesting the loss their jobs to illegal immigrants and outsourcing. Same story all over the world, I guess. You go working men!

Once I’d cleared the riots, I stopped for lunch. A shack on the side of the highway whose specialty was clearly ceviche. I ordered the house special, as it’s what everyone else is eating and looked delicious (even though I’m breaking my own rule of no raw seafood away from the coast) and a cerveza (it’s been a long morning already). It looked great, but when I inquired about the bathroom and was sent through the back yard where chickens, turkeys, pigs, ducks, and dogs were all frolicking around, vying for space over the poop, mud and food scattered around the ground, I started to question my decision. It was only intensified when I come back to find my cold beer and a dirty looking glass on the table. Oh well, I’m thinking, it can’t be that bad as I fill my glass but when I take my first sip it smells super fishy. Yikes, as I ask myself “is it worth it?”. It is, the plate comes and it’s super fresh. So fresh in fact that it’s barely cured. This is more like sushi with a bit of lime sauce on top and one of the best ceviches I’ve had yet. It’s also a new fish for me “corrillon” (I need to do more research to identify it as it’s super tasty). At the time I suspected it a fresh water fish but upon further research, it’s clearly salt water.

20 Km later, and yes I get pulled over again, I’m seeing a pattern here. It’s quick this time. Paper work in order, listo, …on my way. …and it’s barely after noon.
I take a wrong turn and exit the PanAmericana but just as I’m getting ready to turn around, I see a sign for a town that’s on my map. Hey, I’m thinking, this is a “via corta” or “short cut” and an excuse to get off the PanAmericana and see the real Peru through some dirt roads. I’m sure it’ll take longer but why not? …and I can bypass Piura.

As far as I could tell it looked about 30-40 miles. The first 20-25 miles were slow going, as most dirt roads are, but for the most part fairly easy with the occasional deep sand pit. The road took me through some desert slum with house after house boarded off with wooden fences. To be honest, this reminded me more of slum housing in Africa than anything I’ve seen so far in the Americas. Besides the garbage everywhere, it was really cool to see and the road eventually dead ended at a church and school. I made a few loops around some of the houses before turning off what I figured would be the road out of town and back to the PanAmericana, on the other side of Piura. The road was going in the right direction but too my surprise, there were suddenly no more houses and the road started getting progressively worse with deeper and deeper sand and cactus trees on both sides.

The over loaded, loose steering head, off balanced KLR is really, really, really not a friendly bike in the soft, deep sand. As the sand got deeper and more treacherous, I dumped the bike once, twice, three times before thinking I should turn back. I’m stubborn so the idea of turning back when I’m already 3 miles into what appears to be only about 10-12 miles total is a hard decision to make. Just as I’d picked up and reloaded Rosita after the third spill, a mounted cowboy comes by the other way. We chatted and he guessed right that I had just come from Ecuador. I figured there was about 10 miles to go but asked how much further and if the road was like this the whole way. He said “Yes, more of the same and it gets worse before it gets better” …but seeing my scared expression he said “oh but it’s never that bad. …and on a motorcycle it should only take you about 20min” Yup, magic carpet thing again. It’s now 1:00pm, reaching the hottest part of the day with my thermometer reading 104.2 degrees in it’s own shade and no real shade in site. The last three miles have taken me close to an hour and he said it gets worse. Yikes! Still, I feel a bit of optimism from what he said and decide not to turn back.

It gets worse, a lot worse. I proceed to dump the bike another dozen or so times and each time I’m slower to unload, pick it up, reload and start again. The temperature’s rising and the sun keep’s beating down on me but I don’t have much choice but to move on. The more tired I get, the worse I ride, and by now I’m only making it about 100-200 meters before dumping the bike and starting the whole process over. I decide to strip from my protective riding gear as it’s doing nothing but dehydrating me and I figure I’m better off without it. Two whole hours have passed since I’ve met the cowboy and I’ve only made it 2.5 miles and have at least 5 to go. I decide I need to take a break and way my options as I’ve got huge arm pump in both my arms and my back is starting to tense up from all the lifting. I figure, at this rate, I won’t make it out by daylight and camping’s starting to look like my best option. I thought I started the day with plenty of water (5 liters) but in this hot, desert sun I’ve drank all but ½ a liter which I’m now treasuring and isn’t enough to camp. Gas is another issue. Under normal circumstances Rosita does between 55-60 mpg and shouldn’t have been a concern, but spinning the rear wheel in the sand for hours, and dropping the bike every 200 meters, spilling the gas from the carburator, I’d be lucky if I’m getting 5 mpg. So I leave Rosita lying on her side, I eat, I drink, I rest as best as I can under the hot sun, before deciding to give it another go. This time, after a 20 minute break, I’m doing better. I’m starting to get a grove and am kinda walking the bike and moving forward at about 3 miles an hour, yes I could be walking faster than riding, but it’s working. And then once again, bam! This time it’s a flat tire. In the back of my mind I was worried about the cactus’s but tried to push the concern aside. …no point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet.
I flew off the road and this time laid Rosita down on purpose as I went to look for something to put under the center stand. Once upright, with the wheel off, I examined the tire and proceeded to check the tube. The whole tire was riddled with cactus needles and at first glance, I found 4 holes in the tube. (I debate between patching the tube or replacing it with my spare and opted for patching. My spare tube, which I picked up in Nicaragua after all my spare parts got stolen, is a lot less hefty than the current, so I figured patching the better tube would be wiser as there was still 3.5 miles to go through cactus country.) After patching the 4 holes, I blew up the inner tube only to find 2 more, patched those, blew it up again and found another two. In the end, 8 holes, 5 patches. I also checked the tire and with my forceps, patiently removed at least 50 needles and hoped that I’d got them all. Remounted the tire and it’s now 4:45pm. Still 3.5 miles to go and less than two hours of daylight.

cow's checking me out as I change the tire

The flat tire turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The 1.5 hours it took to fix the tire gave me significant rest, and despite my thermometer still reading 103.8 degrees, the lower sun wasn’t anything like as scorcher it’d been so I rode the last 3.5 miles with relative ease (at least compared to before and still at onlyabout 3-5 mph) and didn’t drop the bike once. …Keep it quiet ,but I’ve never been so happy to see the PanAmericana.

With gas, daylight, exhaustion, and dehydration all weighing in on my next decision, I decided to backtrack towards Piura, the city I tried to avoid in the first place. I got stopped on the way of course, …papers in order, …on the way again. Topped off the gas only to find my front tire was almost flat so I pumped it up in hopes it was just a small leak and would get me to a hotel. …it did.

I arrived in Piura during rush hour, just as the sun was going down. Piura’s a big city, and rush hour in any city never gives good first impressions, especially to an exhausted rider just looking for a place to crash for the night. I rode through smog and honking traffic and stopped to inquire at the first hotel I saw. It was uber pricey for what it was, and no secure place to park the bike, so move along. Not feeling in the mood to get myself lost in the city and searching a place to stay, I opted to stay on the highway and look for a motel. I rode all the way through the city making only one other stop at a motel just on the outskirts of town, but before I got off the bike to inquire about price, I saw a drugged up hooker yelling at what I can only guess was her pimp, so again move along.

Just as I was exiting the town and thinking about making a U-turn for another look-see, I saw a sign for Paita, a coastal town on my map 50km away. I’m tired, it’s getting dark and despite my physical exhausted, the idea of a cerveza on the beach and waking up on the pacific outweighed searching for a sleezy motel on the PanAmericana and waking up to trucks and highway so I rode off into the sunset towards Paita.
My spirits lifted as I could taste my cold beer about an hour away, but as I pulled into town, it was nothing like I imagined. Paita is not some hippie surfer town nor is it a beach resort. No, it’s a blue-collar city with a giant shipping industry, an industrial fishing port, 2 canneries and an oil refinery. I loved it immediately.

After finding a place, I went down to the malecon and found myself eating pizza with my cerveza as I was too lazy to search for the specialties or streetfood and the obvious choices were limited. Even tired and grumpy after a tough day, I felt a connection with the city and for the first time in my fourteen months of traveling, was not treated like a tourist but one of them. Everyone who approached that night and the following day were not after money but inquiring which ship I worked on. Super cool experience. I had some beers with a few locals before retiring. The next morning I walked the town and pier with more of the same welcoming. A great ending to a tough couple of days.

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