On the trail of the Incas Back to News List

Words and Images by Craig Jackson

It was apparent from our first dinner together that this group was going to get along just fine!

This is what happens when you have the good fortune to be able to take a motorcycle tour of Peru, Northern Chile and Bolivia with a bunch of riders and pillion passengers who all share a passion for travel, fun, good food, libations and of course riding motorcycles. Riders who are not afraid to love life and live it to its full.

Even before the entre was delivered to the table the die had been cast with a welcome round of Pisco Sours. None declined, which is a great sign of simpatico and this cocktail of Pisco (a type of brandy), lemon juice, sugar syrup and egg white became the team’s “Gatorade” for the remainder of the tour.

Both Chile and Peru claim ownership as the originators of this delicious aperitif, with Bolivia having its own variant as well, but since the city of Pisco is in Peru, we had to give the Peruvians the credit.

Our first ride day took us along the spectacular Pacific coast of Northern Chile and then, what felt like, straight up onto the Atacama plateau and into the desert.

Riding along the coastal road was wonderful with the ocean directly on our right and the bare dunes and rugged mountains right beside us on the left, we cruised along kilometer after kilometer of sweeping bends that followed the coast. After lunch (I will get to our lunches later) and a fuel stop we made a left turn and started to climb. The perfectly made road wound its way via switchbacks and meandering ascents up into a landscape that simply awed us. I had never witnessed such a lack of observable life in a landscape before.

Usually when you are in a desert you will see hardy bushes or drought tolerant grasses perhaps even some gnarled trees along a dry watercourse. Here there was nothing. Nothing but dirt and rock and an unrelenting sun. It is said that there are parts of the Atacama Desert that have not seen precipitation for the past 400 years, or at least as long as history has been recording such things in this part of the world.

As terrifying and remarkable as the landscape was, we were safe in the knowledge that our bikes, BMW GSs and Triumph Tigers, were reliable and we had our Compass Expeditions support crew as backup if anything went wrong. We also knew that there was a very comfortable hotel at the end of our amazing days ride, in San Pedro de Atacama.

A day of sight-seeing in and around San Pedro saw us soaking in natural hot springs flowing from deep under the desert to form an oasis of cascading pools, exploring the hippy town, its markets and fine restaurants. In the evening, we ventured out to watch the sunset over an incredible otherworldly, landscape and sip Pisco Sours.

From San Pedro we headed further across the Atacama towards Bolivia. The roads were well made, sometimes winding through dry valleys, over passes through rugged ranges or later in the day across featureless plains surrounded by snow-capped peaks and distant volcanoes. There was no shortage of photo stops to try to absorb the sensory overload. Our overnight stop was the remote border village of Ollague at the base of the Ollague Volcano.

We had been warned that tonight’s accommodation would be “rustic” and yes it was a basic homestay with bunkrooms and shared facilities but the spectacular location, picturesque “wild west” looking village and excellent home cooked dinner more than made up for the lack of “star rating”.

In fact, the simple chicken soup served for starters that evening was hailed as the dish of the tour so far….and we had been eating very well indeed.  

We did not even lack for Pisco Sours as emergency supplies of Pisco and Pisco Sour pre-mix were produced from bags and top boxes to see us late into the evening.

As we had been climbing most of the day, we had reached a height where altitude sickness started to affect some of our jolly crew. The next morning, we were up early to cross the Chile / Bolivia border and there were a few green faces in the customs que. Luckily the support van was carrying oxygen bottles for just this situation and a few minutes of oxygen boost to the system made all the difference and allowed us all to proceed towards one of the many highlights of the tour, the impressive, Uyuni Salt Lake.

While we were at altitude for quite a number of days throughout the tour, this was the only point where the oxygen was required. Although we all felt the effect of the altitude with shortness of breath, lethargy and the occasional headache, we mostly managed to keep things rolling along by staying well hydrated, laying off the Pisco Sours (to some extent) and with either modern medical means or the local equivalent of a cheek full of coca leaves. 

Once we entered Bolivia the roads immediately became dirt. Bolivia is a much poorer country than its neighbours Chile and Peru and as such the infrastructure, including major roads, are not well maintained and the local drivers also seem to less well maintained along with the roads.

In saying that, if you don’t mind a well packed dirt road and can learn quickly to adjust your riding style to “defensive mode” then you will soon begin to enjoy the ride in Bolivia as the scenery just kept getting better. There was only one section of road works that saw us diverted onto a temporary track. Deep sand is always a concern on a large adventure bike and doubly so when you have not had much off-road experience or are carrying a pillion. A bruise here and a scrape there, a little cosmetic damage to a couple of bikes and an adventure to discuss over Pisco Sours that evening was the worst of it.

The off-bike day in Uyuni was another gob-smacking overload to the senses with a 4×4 tour onto the largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni.  We visited a hotel made completely of salt, including the rooms and the bar, the giant Dakar Rally monument (also made completely of salt) and had one of the most surreal lunch stops that could be imagined.

The salt flat is 11,000 sq. km so it did not take long for us to be out of sight of all other people and even the shore of the lake. With a 360-degree view that showed almost no visible horizon, due to the reflection from the salt.  We sat in a row on small plastic stools and ate local fried Chicken while staring into a most disquieting void. The light and the reflections of sky, salt and water play tricks on your eyes and I am amazed that our local drivers did not get disorientated while barrelling across the expanse.

Onwards through more salt plains and desert wasteland weaving through mountain ranges and around smoking volcanoes, the next day we headed towards Potosi, which was once one of the world’s wealthiest cities. On the way however, we had a chance to visit with and help some of Bolivia’s most needful children. Compass Expeditions has been supporting the local school at Chaquilla for many years and guests on their tours to the region are encouraged to help out with gifts of school supplies, sports equipment and fresh fruit and vegetables etc.

A quick lunch, a bit of street soccer and amusing the kids with the motorcycles and we were back on the road. The landscape became progressively greener as we moved out of the desert and into the mountains.

JC, our ever cheerful, helpful and hard-working support van driver was also the designated chef for the tour and how happy we were for that!

It never ceased to amaze us that JC could whip up a fresh, healthy and supremely tasty lunch from the kitchen in the back of the van. It was like magic when fresh salads, guacamole, pasta and a selection of cold meats would be produced from what seemed like nowhere by the time we had set up some shade and arranged the trestle tables and chairs. Each ride day his menu was fresh, varied and wholesome. 

The people of Potosi have mined silver, tin and other metals from the surrounding hills for over 500 years and in the days of the Conquistadors it was at its height. The silver that was shipped back to Spain helped make that nation rich, it also made Potosi one of the wealthiest cities in the world and this can be seen today in the beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture of the city. Our “rest day” in Potosi was anything but, with an exciting visit into a silver mine that still functioned in a very traditional way with miners moving much of the rock and soil by hand with basic tools. It is dangerous work, with no consideration to modern safety standards. A miner’s life in these parts is generally not a long one.

After the mine tour we then took a city tour which showed us around many of the city’s beautiful churches and other colonial era buildings. The finale of the day was witnessing a very solemn Easter procession including a number of brass bands and different community groups marching with statues of their saints and religious icons mounted on the shoulders of dark suited and elaborately brocaded officials. 

Another unexpected taste of the local culture.

Continuing to climb into the Andes on the way to La Paz we wind and weave upwards across high passes, one at over 5,200 meters and through small villages. The roads are sealed but the prevalence of pot holes makes need for concentration paramount. A brief lapse of concentration could end in a very dinted rim if not a spill.

La Paz is a large, busy and slightly crazy city that is nestled in the cradle and climbs up the steep sides of a ring of mountains. The city centre is low in the valley, but the outer suburbs are high above on the rim of a plateau. In between the city looks stacked on top of itself as it climbs up the steep sides of the surrounding slopes. 

Out of La Paz we had the chance to take on the “Death Road” day excursion. Having watched a number of You Tube videos of this intimidating road I was keen to match my skill and wits to it. I was not disappointed. I could write a separate story about the experience so in this tale it will suffice to say that I had one of the best days riding I have had for many years on a well-used Suzuki DR650 belting through the streets of La Paz, into the hills and down (and then back up) the epic and nerve-wracking Death Road.

It turns out the scariest part was the traffic chaos, at breakneck speed, to get out of the city!

From La Paz we headed towards famous Lake Titicaca. Depending on your preference, this was perhaps our best days riding so far with good sealed roads tightly twisting and winding through the mountains further into the Andes. Lake Titicaca spans the border between Bolivia and Peru, so today we ticked off another border crossing and took a ferry across the world’s highest (or perhaps second highest) navigable lake, then rode around its shore to another colonial gem, the city of Puno.

Our hotel on the central plaza of Puno was just a pedicab ride to the lakeside dock where we took a morning tour out on the lake to the visit the floating Uros islands and experience something of the Uru culture. These 120 or so islands are constructed from many layers of reeds and require constant maintenance to remain afloat. They support houses, schools and a community that has traditionally lived on the lake for around 500 years.

Interestingly the Uru retreated onto the lake in an attempt to avoid being colonised not by the Spanish but by the Inca who conquered the land and taxed the people.

Another unbelievable day of mountain riding through the heart of the Peruvian Andes, more high passes and views that made it hard to concentrate on the incredible road in front of us led us to the ancient heart of the Incan empire, Cusco.

Cusco is an old city built on an even older city and this can be seen as you navigate the maze of tight roads and alleys that spread out from the wonderful central plaza. Colonial style buildings are built on the massive Incan stone foundations of the earlier civilisation. The city has so much history that you could spend a week just scratching the surface of all that is there to see. Our day tour of pre-Incan sites around the outskirts of the city gave us an insight into the scale and complexity of each successive era of human habitation of the region.

After16 days of mind and eye-opening experiences and fantastic riding our tour was nearing its conclusion, or rather building up to its Grand Finale!

The mysterious and majestic lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu had been on my hit list for many years and on my three previous trips to South America I had never managed to fit it into my itinerary. The anticipation was almost unbearable but our ride from Cusco through the Sacred Valley of the Incas did a lot to take my mind off what I could expect from the following day.

The view down the sacred valley from the balcony of an unexpectedly lovely coffee stop, that was literally hanging off the valley wall, set the scene for our ride as we dropped steeply down to the valley floor and followed the fast-flowing Urubamba river to Ollantaytambo. This is where we boarded the train for Aguas Calientes and our last night before our visit to Machu Picchu.

I almost wished that I had not had that last Pisco Sour as my alarm sounded the next morning at 4.30am. The constant roar of the raging river, a couple of meters below my hotel room balcony, had sent me to sleep, deep and peaceful, instead of keeping me awake as I had anticipated it might (perhaps the Pisco Sours helped there too). 

A head-torch, camera, snacks and a jacket for the cool misty morning were stuffed into my pack as I headed out the door to join the group who had decided that an hour and a half trek up the Incan stone steps was a better idea to joining the rest of the group in a que for a crowded bus ride to the entrance to the world famous site.

We made it to the entrance, hot and breathless, but just in time to witness the cloud misting away and the early morning light illuminating the splendour of the mountain top ruins.

Machu Picchu, the ruins of a long-lost citadel, reclaimed from the jungle on this remote and spectacular mountain top are awe inspiring enough. The mystery of why and how it was constructed and even the tale of Hiram Bingham who “re-discovered” the site in 1911 adds wonder and romance to the place. 

Our private guide, Ruben, was encyclopaedic in his in-depth knowledge of the site as he led us around all of the major features, filled us in on what is known, suspected and rumoured about the legendary place.

My anticipation of visiting Machu Picchu was not misplaced as the experience proved just as wonderous as I had hoped it would be. How often can you say that of an often longed for and finally realised adventure?

No anticlimax here!

And I can say the same about the Atacama to Machu Picchu (now “On the trail of the Incas”) tour as well. It over-delivered on many fronts with the amazing riding, the seemingly endless highlights, great food and accommodation, professional and ever-helpful crew and of course the genial and amusing company of like-minded friends.

My heart-felt thanks to all involved.

For more information visit the Compass Expeditions “Trail of the Incas” tour.

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