Ah, the Panamericana.
Countless times I’ve heard from other motorcyclists about how indescribably awful the Panamericana is through coastal Peru. Boring they say. Not enough curves they say. The latter part is true as it’s a road through the desert but it’s not boring per se, just straight. This time of year is the Peruvian Coastal winter and it’s marked by mists that roll in off the Pacific casting everything in a perpetual grey. The climate is cool and just moist enough to not be arid and it’s a perfect break from the brutality of the highland summer where a blazing sun turns a body brown during the day and an ice cold moon shocks it with a deep freeze at night; the handover is nearly instantaneous . In the the cool desert air of the Panamaericana while riding the CB on straight, fast roads one can lay back, kick their feet up over the front turn signals and remove their hands from the bars, taking snapshots and receiving thumbs up and squeals of delight from passing motorists. In the eyes of the Sundog the desert will always reign supreme, even if the winter’s garua mists permit few glimpses of that beautiful shining orb and even if the Andes are trying desperately to stake their claim in the heart. Straight roads make for good time and allow one to drink it all in and appreciate the desert’s immense scale and the land where the sand meets the sea. Out there in the seemingly lifeless wastelands civilizations like the ones at Caral, Nazca, and Paracas thrived and flourished in the distant past and then faded away, leaving only grand remnants out on the desert floor to let us know they even existed.
We were growing comfortable in deepest darkest Lima: basking in the perfect climate, sleeping in a bed with a pillow, gorging ourselves on McDonalds and Incan Donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts, and enjoying the fruits of modern man after the Easter Island exodus and return, but a body grows restless and it was time to leave Lima. A farewell was bid to owner Scott at Tambopacaya Hostal and his monkey on the roof that always has a boner which looks like a nail and a course was struck for Cuzco!
Travel Tip: Another place with a bad rap, one can discover the hidden gems of Lima’s dispicable slums if they really want to but in walking, riding the dog, and riding the bike all over the city nothing even approaching the poverty/inbred heroics seen in small towns along the coast and in the mountains was spied or even came close. Lima is a relatively safe, surprisingly clean, quiet, and boring city. Unless one wants to ride the bus, go to museums, eat McDonalds, or walk into a restaurant without the record scratching and everyone staring at you, no one really needs to spend any more time in Lima than they have to to catch the next flight or bus out of it.
Save for quick stops in Huacachina and a cursory glance at the Nazca lines, it was all a straight shot to Puquio, a little Andean town on the road to Cuzco. The first rumblings of the Altiplano are felt as the CB crests a 15,000 foot plain and cruises past an alpaca sanctuary while it gears up for the 300 mile marathon to Cuzco. Leaving Puquio in the cold Andea dawn it was all curves to Cuzco and the CB responded with aplomb, coasting into the ancient Incan capitol cum modern-day touristic navel in thin air and dark night. The greatest motorcycling thus far in over a year on the road. The road from Puquio to Cuzco is a full day’s ride of 300 miles of sinewy Andean tarmac passing trundling trucks on blind corners as you dip up and down and around and around in pursuit of Incan gold.
Yo no soy marinero, soy viajero.
Boleto Turistico: For a scant 130 nuevo soles($50), one might lay their grubby lil’ mitts on the Boleto Turistico, an all-entry pass of sorts to some of Cuzco’s, and even a lil’ bit of the Sacred Valley’s, cultural and archaeological gems.
Sacsayhuaman: Pronounced Sexy-woman, this ancient fortress cum ceremonial site cum whatever it was intended to be is the preeminent archaeological site of the Americas and possibly even the world as it squares off against the pyramids in an all-out grudge match to be the be-all get-out megalithic death rattle of a dead and lost culture. Great big ol’ blocks o’ tha Gods(!), some over 20 feet tall and weighing over 100 tons, are fitted together without mortar and so precisely that not even a blade of grass will slip between them, nor even the infintessimilly thin .002″ feeler guage that one must use to adjust the valves on an equally ancient Honda motorbike. Impressive more so or at the same level is that some of the blocks were quarried 20km away and trundled over the Andes before being fitted together like Duplo blocks in God’s crib, fittingly forming the jaw of the puma on which the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco was laid out upon. Indeed, the ancients are still pulling tricks from their sleeves and out from under their colorful frocks, putting even lil’ Criss Angel and his Vegas buffet to shame. Insert Cris Angel photito here.
Tambomachay and Pucapukara: Get your boleto punched for both at the entrance to Tambomachay (Pucapukara is just down the road within sight of its bigger bro). Tambo was a ceremonial center and sports an Incan fountain which still pumps out the waters of eternal youth. Pucapukara is a hilltop fort or something which provides 360 degree views of the Cuzco countryside and surrounds. In any other place, Ecuador for example, both would be serious attractions unto themselves but are none too exciting after having laid one’s grubby lil’ mitts on the blocks of the Gods at Sacasyhuaman.
Q’enqo: Pretty cool lil’ site chillin’ out in the hills above Cuzco, replete with ceremonial cave housing naturally refrigerated stone slabs on which mummies once reposed. Q’enqo is basically just a huge boulder outcrop which the Incans, or whoever, carved to their liking. Nobles only!
Monumento Pachacutec: Imposing tower built in modern times using ancient techniques in downtown Cuzco with a huge bronze statue of an Incan of some sort perched atop it. Skippable but worth a walk if you’re determined to get every site punched on your Boleto Turistico, and we are.
Museo Sitio de Qoricancha and the Qoricancha: Crappy lil’ museum (save for the trepanned and elongated skulls on display) in front of the Qorichancha, which ain’t included in your boleto. Regardless, the extra 10 soles needed to enter the former temple of the sun are worth every centimo as it will enable a body to catch a glimpse of more rocks and stonework, which are extremely intricate and amazing. My favorite part was the thumbnail sized stone fitted between and surrounded by much larger blocks, the whole thing perfect and without flaw. The entire site is all haphazardly fitted together around or under a church, built by the Spaniards as to superimpose Catholisicm on and discourage the Incan’s black magic.
Pisac: A huge, incredible ruin reachable only by vintage motorbike or plush tourbus, Pisac is compromised of several different ceremonial sites and oodles of Incan terracing. Pisac contains some of the most impressive examples of terracing in the Sacred Valley and the ancient’s ampitheater-like handiwork extends all the way to the valley floor. Temples abound and even the occasional rock etched Incan seat pops up, upon which weary travllers can rest their magical bums. Lots of little shacks selling chicha on the way up, tambien.
Pikillacta: A refreshing break from the constant barage of in-your-face Incandom, the site of Pikillacta showcases an ancient Wari(pre-Inca tribe) settlement. Pikillacta was built entirely from stacked rocks and is huge. I’m sure it must have taken an incredibly long time to construct. The stonework is crude indeed and really can’t hold a candle to the work of the great ones but I was the only one there and had the run of the place, and run amok I did.
Tipon: A short ride from Cuzco, Tipon is another terraced Incan site impressive for its irrigated canals which still flow and stretch for miles. A cool site indeed which receives few visitors compared to its Cuzco brethren. An opportunity to hike up to the head of the canal and witness yet another temple was dashed when I decided that I was all Incan’d out for the day.
Museo de Arte Popular, Museo Historico Regional, Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporaneo, Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo: These are all pretty terrible and clearly designed to pad the Boleto Turistico. Of them all the most hope was held out for the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, which is not a museum or ruin or anything but a show of native dancing and music. It turned out to be really boring and all the dances looked the same just with different outfits and every single song was indiscernible from the last. A lazer light show at the Sacasyhuaman blocks would give much more bang for the buck and I’m sure it is coming. The outfits were cool though.
Chinchero: Ah, Chinchero. Chinchero is sort of half ruin, half functioning modern-day Incan town. More blocks and an impressive cleared plaza overlooking the river below make up the ruins part of Chinchero and Incan Spanish fusion architecture make up the rest with a really cool olden tyme church that is filled to the brim with painting and carvings, nearly every inch of it. Joven, diez soles los guantes, solamente diez solitos, joven.
Moray: Another site that the Cuzco Kid had been wanting to see for some time, Moray is supposedly an old timey agricultural experimentation center, as supposedly the terraced rings that make up the site provide different microclimates for various crops. But no one really knows for sure and it is an impressive site nontheless. Standing all the way at the bottom and in the middle prodces a cool echo effect. Check it off the list.
Ollantaytambo: A real favorite, the ruins of Ollantaytambo are most impressive for their monolithic stonework, which is much more precise than the work at Sacsayhuaman although there’s not as many blocks. Huge perectly carved stones lay scattered about, having fallen sometime in the distant past or having never made it to their final resting place. Six monolithic stones in the guise of rectangles, all separated by thinly carved columns of smaller rocks, stand as the focal point of what was once an important ceremonial site. Below the ruins lies the hamletito of Ollantaytambo, another modern-day Incan town in which people still live in houses built from stone, albeit polished off with modern tops. Narrow cobblestoned alleyways laid down centuries ago lead one to all sorts of fun and an ancient canal still runs through the town with people still using it to pee in and dump their garbage into. Ruins are everywhere in Ollantaytambo and ancient grain silos loom over the Plaza de Armas. The silos are free to explore on foot by any and all wandering souls, and precarious trails lead to treacherous cliffs all the way up high above the town. Rumor has it that this was the favorite site of Nazca Boy.
Sacred Valley Bonus Track:
The Salinas: Leaving Moray a narrow, steep, and precipitous dirt road leads off to some ancient Incan salt pans(the Incans were busy back then). Impressive indeed both for their ingenuity and scale, the pans are fed by a natural spring which culls salt from the earth and are STILL in use today. Not included in the Boleto Turistico but worth a wink and a nod, the Salinas will set you back solamente 7 solitos, joven.
Peruvian Bonus Tracks:
Nazca Lines: A rickety lookout tower (dos solitos, si yo puedo recordarlo) off the side of the Panamaericana (which was built right through the Nazca lines before anyone even knew they existed) yields a relatively unimpressive view of a couple of minor Nazca figures. Nevertheless, the lines themselves do not fail to impress as their scale is immense and they crop up all over the desert floor as you’re riding the Panamerica at a good clip for miles and miles.
Huacachina Oasis: The sand dunes out in the desert near Ica, Peru stretch as far as the eye can see. A truly surreal scene in one of the most arid places on earth. The Huacachina Oasis is a little watering hole surrounded by an overpriced tourist ghetto and is skippable, although one might want to come just for the dunes, and there’s sandboarding and dune buggy rides also.
Coming soon: Macho Pichu: Flex-off on top of the hitching post of the Sun, son.