Peru: Land of the Incas

Peru: Land of the Incas
Contrary to what many Peruvians believe, they’re not the best drivers in the world—at least, that was our experience. In oncoming traffic, they drive straight at you, crossing over lanes on hills and blind corners, and swinging way out on the wrong side of the road when taking curves. During the daytime, they love their claxons, during the nighttime, their high beams—that is, if either the horn or the lights are working. Yet despite these challenges, riding in Peru is one of the most amazing experiences due to the diverse conditions. Within a matter of hours, you can go from the Amazon rainforest, to high bare mountains; from winding curves, to endless straightaways; from a remote desert, to the crowded beaches on the coast; from the ancient culture of an authentic village, to the modern art of the big cities. Peru truly offers something for everyone.

In the evening Irene and I take a small ferry across Lake Titicaca, or as the locals call it, Lago Titicaca. We spend the night in a hostel on the Bolivian side, where we have to flush the outside toilet with a bucket of water from a rain barrel. At 12,000 feet above sea level, the night is chilly. These last miles in Bolivia on our way to Copacabana (which looks nothing like its famous namesake in Rio de Janeiro), find us on a Formula 1 track along the lake, where we finally get to use our sixth gear again! Even though there isn’t a line at the border, the formalities of crossing from one country to another take an hour anyway.

Immediately after entering Peru, we notice subtle differences. More cattle. Better houses. More wind. In fact, a strong side wind coming from the lake blows over the straight road with unimaginable deep ruts. For two hours we fight to keep our bikes upright, dealing with the fear of being smacked against the grill of a passing truck. Impressive bolts light the wide horizon. By the time we arrive at Puno, along the lake shore, the streets have become waterways and we look and feel as if we’re nearly drowned.

The Floating Islas Uros

Lake Titicaca, which is the largest lake in South America and an enormous expanse of 3,232 miles, borders both Peru and Bolivia. It’s well known for its floating Islas Uros. Built by the Uros people hundreds of years ago, these islands are made from the buoyant reeds that grow throughout the shallows of the lake. The reeds are used for building everything from boats, houses, schools, churches, and watchtowers, and they are edible as well. Despite the average temperature of 53 degrees, the Urus people chose their floating homes as a way of escaping hostile tribes like the Incas. Nowadays, they escape from the tax system while the popular islands provide a source of income from tourists. The Uros must maintain the islands, which rot from the bottom up and need to continually be replenished. Walking on the islands is like walking on a waterbed, as each step sinks about 2-4 inches into the spongy terrain. The islands range in size, with some fitting up to 10 houses. A family feud or divorce is simply solved: the island is severed in two, along with the relationship.

Arequipa, Colca Canyon, and the Andean Condor

Most South American cities include a main square, or a Plaza de Armas, and the one in Arequipa is famous for its colonial galleries, ancient cathedral, fountain, and park. The restaurants there represent the Peruvian kitchen, and we try a number of local dishes, including ceviche (a seafood dish with chili), cuy (guinea pig), caldo de Gallina (a soup with spaghetti, boiled egg, and chicken toes), and juicy alpaca meat baked on a hot stone.

Just northwest of Arequipa is Colca Canyon, and to get there we cross the Abra Patapampa, a high mountain pass at 16,109 feet. The view is often breathtaking, as the scenery is sprinkled with leafy green trees, soft pink rocks set among violet and deep purple, and sand featuring shades of yellow, orange, and red—all of this imagery is set against the backdrop of the deep blue lake and snowy white Andean peaks in the distance. Every curve offers a view that feels as if we’ve entered an artist’s canvas. Finally, we arrive at Colca Canyon, the deepest cliff in the world where condors soar on the thermals. A large portion of the road was recently asphalted, in stark contrast to the sandy roads with dusky tunnels that led us there. On the whole, this region has an Asian flair with its verdant terraces set against yellow ochre rocks.