I just got home from my first solo motorcycle trip around Peru and I’m sore, but enamored with the whole thing. I only started learning to ride within the last year (at age 37), but this wasn’t some midlife crisis thing. Here in Peru, a motorcycle is the king of cheap economical transportation. It’s not considered a toy like in many first world countries around the world.. I saw it as a good way to find freedom and search for photographic opportunities.
For the last two years or so I’ve put my pursuits on hold a bit as my wife and I prepared for the birth of our first baby. Since my Spanish speaking skills are pretty minimal my wife would have to attend to the business more while I would watch our newborn daughter… For nearly two years I haven’t been able to get out and do my favorite type of photography and to be fair I was desperate for an adventure, desperate to get out making images again and following my dream! This desperation may have clouded my judgment a bit in all honesty!
Last week I finally saw a chance to sneak away from my responsibilities and try to create something new… I had to travel light and I knew this would limit what I was able to do.. I decided to take only one lens and make the best of it… This would make many images impossible during my trip, but to carry any more would have been problematic as well!
There were a few people interested in going with me on such a trip, but as you know coordinating schedules as adults in the modern world can be quite difficult. On top of that, the opportunity to ride at my own pace, stop whenever I wanted, and focus on my photography was too enticing to let go, so I decided to go it alone!
In hindsight, there were many hazards and dangers that I tried to minimize or to ignore completely and in many ways I’m very lucky that I avoided most of them. Luckily my ignorance didn’t get me hurt any worse than I ended up getting or even getting me killed! There were many ways that I underestimated the obstacles I would encounter. A few of the roads I would have to take would be much more difficult than I expected. Many roads that look like a decent cross country route will devolve into utter chaos in the insanely high altitude Andes Mountain Range.
It was possible for someone to target me just due to the color of my skin, whether it be a common thief or one of the groups of narco-terrorists who operate in those areas. As you probably know, the coca plant is grown here and is one of the main supplies for cartels who eventually synthesize cocaine for export into the US and other first-world countries around the globe. These groups have sometimes been known to kidnap foreigners for ransom money, however such cases are rare despite the movies that have portrayed it.
Unfortunately, information about the roads are very hard to find online and you often need to know someone who has attempted it before. Of course, conditions are changing all the time and you can often find delays when trees fall across roads, mudslides happen, rocks fall and block the road, etc.… Taking my chances against such a scenario and doing it alone and without many supplies would be my first mistake and in all reality I’m probably lucky things ended up fairly well for me..
For those of you who have never ridden a motorcycle before or maybe don’t know too much about it, it can be very easy to misjudge a turn and you can run out of traction very easily. Too late into a turn, using your brakes can unsettle the bike or throw you from it. Your rear end can push out sideways like any rear drive vehicle and often you can end up going straight when you didn’t intend to.. This often causes accidents where riders end up going into oncoming traffic or off the road… The problem on these roads is that the cliff side is often double or even triple any cliff you may have encountered in the mountain ranges you’ve seen before. You basically have to watch your life flash before your eyes two or three times before you’d hit the bottom and often your body would likely never be found!
I don’t have all the images I need to try to convey some of these concepts, so I’ll have to describe them instead. In the deepest parts of these roads the houses become fewer and further between. There are no more supplies available and it becomes you against the elements.. Rivers flow over the road. Roads become small single car pathways.. Rock-falls cover the road. Roads fall away over the insanely high cliffs… These are not the same miles most are used to in highly developed countries like the US, but extreme off-road adventure… Unfortunately I wasn’t expecting such a scenario and the basic fuel efficient commuter bike I bought wasn’t meant for such conditions… The tires were meant for streets and as soon as you hit gravel or mud your chances of slipping sideways or going down go up drastically… This would prove to extend the time needed to complete any given section and increase my chances of injury…
There are some areas in Peru where they install a guardrail, but in many cases especially on extreme mountain roads there’s nothing there. When the road breaks or falls away, they often don’t fix it, but instead set up a few rocks or use some spray paint to designate where the new edge of the road is.
The first day I took off pretty early in the morning from Pucallpa Peru. This is the last city accessible by road before you board a boat up into the Amazon jungle. The first half of the day was pretty smooth until I left Constitucion heading into the mountains. The roads got much worse as soon as I left the city and became a lot more gravel and slower speeds. This was just the beginning and an indicator of things to come… After an hour or two, I hit the edge of the mountain range where the road became much worse. As on most mountain roads, they use a series of switchbacks to tackle the elevation problem. After an hour or so, I hit an overlook that showed the road I used to get there. The last flat land I would see for a few days!
I continued up into the mountains hopeful I could get through them and sleep in the city on the other side, all the while hoping for some nice photos along the way. As I went along the way, I realized that the sun was about to start setting. I kept going through the switchbacks looking for an opening in the trees to try to shoot from.
My photography brain trained over many years to look for the light and look for photographic opportunities was about to cause me a small accident. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the road and hit a deeper section of gravel. My backpack went over my head and pulled me over the handlebars. I landed chest first with a thud. The adrenaline kicked in as I hurried to pick my bike up and keep going. I found a spot to take a few pictures and knowing that it was more dangerous to travel alone at night I set up my hammock to sleep a couple hours as well. I managed a few of the best shots of the trip that evening before trying to go to sleep.
Unfortunately, before I could go to sleep, I received a sting on my hand by what I can only assume was an inch long black ant that hurt like... I can’t recall another sting by anything that ever hurt so badly. I decided that I would be getting out of there no matter what. I had already ridden nearly 11 hours or so that day, but I’d take my chances moving along. After nearly 3 1/2 more hours, I finally exited the grueling roads and made it to the small town of San Juan de Cacazu. I needed gasoline and there was a station still open at 11pm or so when I made it in. I talked a bit with the attendant and he told me he could show me to a hotel for the night. I was exhausted and in a fair bit of pain. My hand still stung from the bite on top of it all.. I fell asleep hard that night and woke up very sore! The mountain pass the night before had taken an intense 5 hours or more to go a mere twenty miles distance! I had learned some hard lessons, but I left town eager to face the new day.
From here on out, I had to pay less attention to photography and more attention to the road (as it should be). I also had to deal with the pain of mounting and dismounting the bike every time I decided to stop. I became more hesitant to stop for photos and decided to ride an easier ride that day. The first day I had ridden a very intense 200 miles and today was destined to be only about 115. I also had to stop to get my first service on my motorcycle in a town along the way called Villa Rica. The roads were much better on the second day, however, and I was very happy for that. There was, although, a very intense section of highway that saw a pretty crazy rise in altitude.
I started the day at about 2,800ft. and hit 10,000ft. when I got to the city of Tarma (where I decided to call it an early night). I tried to rest, but the pain from accident mixed with effects of the elevation, multiplied by some lingering damage to my lungs from Covid-19, plus some anxiety, left me wondering if I hadn’t damaged something during the accident. I felt like I may need to see a doctor, but doing so in a foreign city by myself with a minimal amount of Spanish is quite difficult. I studied the route I was considering taking. I wanted to visit Junin and considered returning via the larger main road through Huanaco to Pucallpa where I started. I don’t enjoy the idea of sharing the main highway with all the large trucks and such, and I was concerned about the routes being worse than what I had endured to get to where I was. The weather in the places I was trying to go is much colder and I would need to buy a hat, some better socks, and possibly a scarf first. I was also concerned at the prospect of riding a motorcycle on what could turn into ice/snow. It was also possible that my 4 day journey would be extended much longer and so I debated returning home via the jungle routes. I had heard talking with the mechanic the day before, that the road through the mountains that I had taken was worse than a different route through the city of Oxapampa. I had heard really good things about the city as well as another city called Puzuzo that I would pass through as well if I went back via that route. I decided that it was the best thing to do and that I would save Junin for another time.
So I woke up fairly early in Tarma and went to grab some breakfast. The colonial architecture mixed with the early morning light prompted me to do something that I don’t normally do. I took some street photos that included strangers in the images.
After taking a few photos, I left town to drive back the way I came. I already knew it was a fairly nice and beautiful ride. When I got almost got back to the town Villa Rica (where I had my oil changed the day before), I cut off onto the road toward Oxapampa. This was a pretty nice road but fairly high in elevation and lots of curves and such.
After quite a few hours of this, I was about to arrive in the city of Oxapampa and came across a roadblock. Peru is no longer on quarantine but certain areas or cities can still have their own restrictions… This city required you to pass a Covid test to get in.. If I would have been rejected, I would have had a multi-day detour to try to get back home. I paid the fee and waited for the staff to get back from lunch.. This turned into a multiple hour ordeal and by the time I got my acceptable result, it had become apparent I should probably stay there for the evening before moving along!
When I got into Oxapampa, I started to see some of the unique style that foreign settlers had brought to the area. I also got the sense that there was an affluence that many Peruvian cities don’t have. The architecture was noticeably better than average. The roads were better, things were cleaner, etc. I started noticing nicer vehicles like newer Jeeps, and as I got into the city I started seeing vintage American trucks and the like. There were a few Italian food places, as well as at least one Mexican food place (which are not generally found in traditional Peruvian cities, but instead in places where tourists visit and gringos settle). I knew I would be less than a full day in town so I had to take advantage while I was there. The Mexican place was closed for the pandemic, but I found an Italian place and settled in for another early night…
The best times to photograph for landscape photography are generally at the beginning and at the end of the day, but require you to travel in the dark to take full advantage. This can be quite dangerous depending on where you are, but since I felt the area safer than the average I planned to get up about 5 AM to try to find something to shoot.
Instead, I was woken up at about 4:30 AM by an earthquake. I was a pretty long one and I normally don’t even feel them (much less get waken up by them). It originated about 20 miles away from me and so I felt some of the greatest effects of it. Turns out an earthquake can be a great alarm clock and so I went out in the city to properly check it out as well as start looking for things to shoot when the sky starts to light up. I didn’t find any great spots to shoot for landscapes, but they had a nice wooden church in the main square that I decided to shoot with the blue light that comes at the very beginning of the dawn….
As you can see, there was some really nice fog and the lighting that came when the sun came out was really nice, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any good spots to shoot from and that’s the way it goes sometimes. Landscape photography often requires much better planning to get good shots and you can’t always just wing it the way I had that morning. So I found some breakfast and took off early toward the next town along the route.
I figured out very quickly that the road to Puzuzo is much less used and is much much worse. After a long morning of riding, I arrived there in the early afternoon. As I arrived, I see another checkpoint and talk to the people working there. They basically told me that everything was closed and told me I could pass as long as I bypassed the town. As I drove past on the other side of the river, I could tell that everything was not closed but my opportunity for a proper lunch was. I was just going to have to endure the entire trip across the mountains in one long pass (once again). The roads were even worse on the eastern side of the city.
There were lots of creeks washing across the road and as I approached one such section, I noticed a few cars and trucks had stopped along the road… Not too many vehicles cross this section of road and so I knew immediately that they had probably been stopping for a few hours. Upon investigation, I found that there was a road crew installing a bridge to bypass a particularly bad section of road. They claimed it was only going to be a couple of hours but I couldn’t see how that was going to be true. Usually, when people here make such claims, you should probably at least double it. I found a way to barely get past the bridge structure and managed to get past the bad section of road. It was a tad dicey but I could have possibly been waiting for many hours or even days and I didn’t have enough resources for that..
As I got to the other side of the river crossing, I started past the vehicles waiting on that side and a woman waved me down. She realized that I was riding solo and she asked for a ride.. Understanding that she may have been unprepared for waiting (as I was) I relented. She had to hold the bag I previously had strapped to the back of the bike as I flipped my backpack around to the front to make room for her to sit behind me. She said that it was only about 20 minutes down the road and it was definitely going to be along my way. I figured that she wouldn’t ask a random stranger on a motorcycle for a ride if the route was too bad, however that was not the case. The roads were horrible. Mud pits and rock slides aplenty. I explained that my tires were meant for city riding and that they slip a lot. A few times Guadalupe (found out her name later) had to get off the bike and meet me on the other side of some obstacle. One river crossing was particularly bad. It looked to be about 10 inches deep but it was not. It nearly engulfed my 18 inch tire. I had to put my feet down to keep from dropping the bike. I kept the bike running and got to the other side (I think Guadalupe even jumped in to help). My boots and jeans were soaked from more than the knees down. After (at least) two hours we made it to the other side of the mountains. As we exited the mountains we came to a town called Codo de Puzuzo and that was her stop. The officials at the checkpoint gave us a police escort to drop her off and I said goodbye and went about my way.
I didn’t expect it to be three more hours to get back to the highway but that’s what it turned out to be. Once again, I was lucky that my bike gets amazing gas mileage and I had no problem except wet shoes and lack of food. It got dark as I got back to the highway and got close to the town I planned to stop for gas/stay the night in. I got stopped by the police and when I told him I was going to stay the night he asked me why I didn’t just drive home that night instead. I hadn’t wanted to drive at night, but the thought of making it home and taking off my wet boots and eating some good food was too strong. I decided to make the extra three hours on the highway to get back home. The encounter with the police made me forget to get gasoline, but luckily I was able to find somewhere along the way and didn’t run out thanks to the AMAZING gas mileage I get on my bike. It may not be some crazy sports bike, but I definitely put it through its paces and made it out the other side… TWICE!
So while the trip was an amazing adventure that I look forward to attempting again in the future, I learned a little more about what kind of preparation would be needed for such an endeavor. There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity and I’m definitely a lot closer to stupid than to brave! I definitely hope to do it again soon. As soon as I heal up again! I had pretty well assumed I had a few broken ribs, but I was able to see the doctor when I got home and he says I’m clear. A few bruised ribs and so few more sore days and I should be just fine… Unfortunately only a few keeper images from this trip, but hopefully next time I'll do better!