…At 13,123 feet (4,000 meters), we stop to add liners for warmth and sip hot Coca tea. The world that is The Andes transforms before us: the flora and fauna, the native peoples, the texture of the landscape that defines this magnificent mountain range – everything looks majestic here, even with the onslaught of rain and snow. The dunes of the desert, only 37 miles away, seem lifetimes behind us. And we’re only two days into our South American adventure!

December in North Carolina finds me itching for a change in scenery, not just to leave the cold, wintery weather behind, but to welcome a new adventure. A short, six-hour flight from Miami takes my mom (Christa) and me to the first leg of our destination: the Machu Picchu Express Tour in Peru, where we’ll spend the next 13 days, along with six other motorcycle enthusiasts from as far away as Belgium and Germany, to as close to home as Seattle. We arrive in Lima at the Mami Panchita Hostal, where we spend our first night before catching a bus to Paracas the following morning.

The Islas Ballestas, or Poor Man's Galapagos, is home to millions of birds. The smell can be overwhelming, but so is the money generated from the birds' droppings.

Paracas, Huacachina, and the Nazca Lines

In Paracas, our adventure begins. We meet Lars, our tour guide, and his assistant Eduardo. We also catch our first glimpse of the bikes that we’ll call “ours” for just short of a forte night: a KLR™650s and a Honda NX-4 Falcon 400s (with both Christa and I riding KLRs). But before the start our two-wheel expedition, we first enjoy a two-hour boat ride to Islas Ballestas, dubbed “the poor man’s Galapagos.”  This small cluster of islands just off the coast of Paracas is a sea lion, bird, and other marine-life paradise. The cold Humboldt Current, one of the major upwelling systems of the world, supports an extraordinary abundance of seabirds and marine mamals. Thousands of birds flock to these islands for shelter in the rocky caves and arches. And as you can imagine, the more than 150 species of birds produce a lot of bird droppings. So much so, in fact, that these droppings, or guano as they’re called, were collected and shipped to Europe as fertilizer during the mid-19th century, allowing for a lucrative industry that became one of Peru’s most important sources of revenue for several decades.

Back on the mainland, we’re quick to load our luggage onto the support pickup that will travel with us and swing our legs over the KLRs. Paracas abutts a large desert, which Lars decides is a great way for us to become familiarized with the motorcycles and the loose surface. We ride into an open area with sand and dunes extending into forever. Lars cuts us loose to ride — our only restriction to stay within view.

Leaving the salt pods behind. The dark, green Andes are one of the most recognizable mountain ranges in the world.

The desert landscape follows us to our destination: Huacachina, South America’s most beautiful oasis. The activities don’t stop, although we trade in our two wheels to travel on a massive 8-cylinder dune buggy. We push through endless, giant sand dunes, crossing  the oasis. Everywhere, it seems, we pass by clusters of people “riding” huge dunes on sandboards. Huacachina is a mecca of sorts for sandboarding enthusiasts, which is much like snowboarding but without snow. Our exhaustion on the first day combats any jetlag – even on those who live in the same time zone.

The next day we ride through desert, then farmland, finally getting a taste of Peruvian curves. We stay in Nazca, home of the world-famous and mysterious Nazca Lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs believed to have originated between 500 BC to AD 500. The lines comprise thousands of huge figures carved in the ground of desert plains, ranging from simple lines to complex creatures, some up to 660 feet (200 meters) across. An optional flight on a tiny Cessna affords several of us a spectacular view of this unexplained phenomenon and the surrounding landscape. From the sky we can see clearly the figures of birds and animals, as well as many geographic shapes. Although no one knows the exact meaning of the Nazca Lines and scholars hold various beliefs, most everyone agrees they represent something of great importance to the people who created them.