This motorcycle journey has taken three separate attempts. First from Chicago to southern Colombia. Second, from Colombia to Lake Titicaca. Third, from Peru to the End. We started in 2012. I’m writing this now, over a year and half after leaving Iquitos, which was the second attempt, trying to remember all the things that happened on the ride from northern Amazonian Peru to Lima.
The very first thing that happened: I was pulled over by police about three blocks away from the People of Peru Project building. There was a group of officers sitting next to the road at a traffic light. We’d spent way longer than expected in Iquitos and when we packed our bikes up completely and hit the road, the last thing we wanted was to get stopped before we’d even left city limits.
So, Aaron sped off when one of the police started motioning towards us. The general rule we had was to not make eye contact and continue not disobeying any laws in these situations and usually nothing came of them.
This time, however, the police officer jumped on his motorcycle and rode me off the road. I would have been right behind Aaron, just a few blocks ahead and away from the traffic stop, but, due to a recent accident, my friction plates were worn smooth and my clutch was on the fritz, leaving me with almost no acceleration.
So there I was, about a block away from the intersection with the other police, with an officer who appeared fairly upset that I didn’t stop as soon as he had expressed interest in me. I told him that I couldn’t speak Spanish and that I thought he was motioning to the person behind me. This was plausible, but he was unconvinced.
As an aside here, I don’t condone being difficult with police in general. In these specific situations, however, my actions seemed appropriate. Usually Aaron and I just smile and talk to police for a while and we take pictures together and we all shake hands and go our separate ways. Most of the time, they don’t even have a reason to stop us; they just see something strange and want to ask questions out of genuine interest. This officer, however, did not appear to be in any kind of mood to engage in that kind of interaction.
I asked what he wanted and he told me he wanted to see my paperwork. This was aggravating to me because I had literally just packed all the bags on the bike and the paperwork was inside an inner bag and it took completely undoing the packing to get to it. I obliged him, but he was not satisfied.
After about five minutes of not getting anywhere in the interaction, he used his radio to ask for the police a block away to come help. I’m not 100% sure, but I think I heard them respond that they weren’t interested in doing that and that he was on his own on this one . So then we talked, him in Spanish and me in English, for another five minutes about how I needed papers. Then he made it clear that I was to follow him to the police station. I told him that this was ridiculous because I had done nothing wrong.
Additionally, Aaron and I were meant to ride the hour south from Iquitos to get to Nauta and get on a boat down the river to Yurimaguas. An extra stop at the police station would definitely make that impossible that night. On top of that, I wasn’t even sure where Aaron had ridden off to. I assumed he wasn’t too far away, though.
The officer then tried to take my driver’s license, but by expressing myself clearly and directly enough, I was able to keep it in my possession. This ‘conversation’ continued for an awkward amount of time; 20 minutes, I think. Eventually, I asked angrily and slowly, “What do you want?”
Again, he said he wanted my paperwork.
So I, again, showed him all the papers that I was given at the border when we entered Peru. Then, seeing that he still didn’t seem satisfied, I went on an extended rant through which I used our trusty binder filled with every bit of legal paper we received for our bikes while entering and leaving every single country and park we’d been in between the USA and Peru: insurance from Mexico, customs from Guatemala, some Panamanian papers that looked legal, etc. At the end of this rant, I picked up the same papers that I originally offered him and presented them, pointing at the make and color and how it matched the thing I was standing next to.
Somehow, this time, he was satisfied and he left. Maybe it was the people who had noticed something going on and had left their houses to watch this spectacle. Maybe it was because he was looking for some kind of ‘fine’ to be paid and I was making it clear that I was not in the mindset of doing that. Maybe, like me, he realized that 30 minutes of standing near motorcycles next to the road and saying the same things over and over again isn’t a great use of time.
Whatever the case, I was allowed to leave. I repacked the bike and rode a block ahead and found Aaron. A shop owner there had noticed our situation and, as Aaron was passing, she offered him a place to stow the bike for a while. He was sitting at a picnic table with a Powerade.
I remember thinking, “What a great way to start this ride to Lima.”
In an unexpected turn, finding passage for us and our bikes went incredibly well. We were able to book passage and leave in the morning. Things couldn’t have worked out better.
We found a cheap place to stay and got ready for the 17-hour boat ride back down the river. Pushing the motorcycles into the boats was difficult, but we were used to it.
The boat ride had a few highlights. Early on, at one of the stops where locals of the riverside town wade out in to the water to sell people on board snacks, I was asked to get out of the boat and present paperwork, again, to the authorities. I jumped off the boat, fully cognizant of the fact that this process was stalling the progress of the boat and everyone on it, went up the hill and spoke to the officers in the hut. It looked like a jungle cabin clubhouse. They even had a monkey mascot. They told me that bad men were illegally transporting large bikes up and down the river and they needed to see my paperwork to make sure I wasn’t one of them. So I showed them papers and we talked for a bit and I left. This was more like the police interactions I had become accustomed to.
As it got dark, the boat docked and we were informed that we were stopping for the night. This was news to us. We didn’t want to leave the boat, because it had our motorcycles and gear on it. Also, we didn’t want to pay for a hotel, if that was even an option at this tiny riverside settlement.
An elderly woman, who seemed to not know exactly what was going on around her, fought her family for trying to get her off the boat. By doing so, she chose to stay on the boat with us for the night. She muttered a lot, groped Aaron (accidentally?), and was generally difficult. It was an interesting night.
The boat left before daybreak. Looking up from the boat as it sped along the river; I could see one of the clearest night skies of my life.
We made it back to Yurimaguas. We got the bikes off the boat and realized that one of the heroes of our trip, Tarpy the tarp, had been stolen. This tarp had been with us since the beginning. It protected our gear in the rain and provided a dry place for setting the campsite. Tarpy was sorely missed and we could only hope that his new home loved him as much as we did.
We rode most of a day and made a turn when we saw a sign advertising what looked like a vacation lake spot. The sign was incredibly misleading, because we thought the lake was right around the corner, but, in fact, it was a 15 minute ride down a muddy road to a ferry that took you across the river and then a spiraling dirt road that climbed up and down a mountain for about 40 minutes. After waiting for, paying, and riding the ferry, we felt so invested that turning back seemed like heresy.
Right about this time, Aaron started complaining about a pain in his butt earlier and the long ride on the dirt road hadn’t helped much.
It got dark fairly soon after we set up the tent and the hotel provided us with a great dinner. Aaron couldn’t really enjoy it, though, because he said his butt was hurting too much.
That night got kind of weird. Aaron, convinced that he was in need of serious medical assistance, demanded that I take multiple pictures of his butt so that he could properly inspect the bump himself.
I’ll admit, the cyst looked bad.
We inquired about hospitals and were directed to a pharmacy nearby. The town was tiny, but the one lit building I remember was that pharmacy. There, they told us that there was a private practice nearby that would see him.
We walked a couple blocks and found the building they were talking about. The doctor there was from the Dominican Republic (I think), but had been practicing medicine in Peru for a while. He spoke English and told us he was happy to have people to practice speaking with. He intended on moving to the USA soon, so he was interested in talking about American cities.
The doctor agreed that Aaron’s butt didn’t look good. He took a very large needle and gave Aaron a shot directly at the location of the cyst. It looked like it hurt. He then sent us away with prescriptions to be filled back at the pharmacy and didn’t ask for money for his time.
Looking through the folders of photos we have from this time, just by the sheer number of close up pictures of Aaron’s butt, I know that he was very, very worried about it.
In the morning, we met a couple children that asked us if we’d like to take pictures with their monkeys. They’d set up a system of photos for money and were convinced we wanted their product. We said “No, thanks,” but then, out of curiosity, I asked how much it would cost to purchase the monkeys from them. It was less than $16 per monkey (technically, one was a tamarin). To this day, I still kind of wish we’d spent the day at that lake with those monkeys. Instead, we hung out with the kids playing some of the games that were around and decided to hit the road.
As if Aaron’s infected butt wasn’t hardship enough, things got way worse from there. When we asked for directions to Lima from Yurimaguas, everyone told us to go back the way we came and head down the Pan-American highway, which follows the coast. We don’t like doubling back and seeing things we’ve already seen. Also, people told us that we wouldn’t want to ride the road that goes along the east side of Peru because it was too rough. That was enough to entice us.
This road was beyond rough, though. At one point, many areas looked like they had been perfectly paved. However, years of weather and being ignored had left countless deep potholes all along the road. It looked like what happens when you give a 4 year-old a piece of paper and a hole puncher. We made the best time we could, but the jarring motion wasn’t doing Aaron’s butt any favors.
This brings us to the machete that has been referenced several times in my writings. Aaron had a large, hooked machete that slipped neatly into the frame of his saddlebags like a sort of sheath. It reminded me of the swords the Uruk-hai carry in Lord of the Rings. It was useful for camping purposes and looked fairly menacing, just in case that was ever necessary.
Aaron had also carried a tire all the way from California that was put onto the DR by a friend. This was an Avon Distanzia tire that he was looking forward to being the last change of tires he would need for this ride. The whole way down to Colombia this tire had been knocking into his back and he was finally getting use out of it.
Back in Iquitos, when we’d just arrived and were getting our bearings on the city and traffic, a tuk-tuk sort of motorcycle-cart crashed hard into Aaron as he was pulled off to the shoulder of the road. The driver was very apologetic and, we’re pretty sure, drunk. The accident left Aaron’s saddlebag frame bent.
As the previous paragraphs clearly foreshadow, the tire got slashed hard when the choppy road knocked the saddlebag’s frame open and then released the machete to get caught in the wheel.
I was able to locate us on the giant foldout map of Peru a friend had lent us and we realized we were in between the smallest population dots there were. We were in the middle of nowhere.
Aaron was justifiably angry about the situation and was running through worst-case scenarios and ‘if onlys’ – You see, if only the new tire hadn’t been placed on to his bike by our friends earlier (without Aaron’s knowledge or approval) he still would have been carrying a spare tire and we would have been able to sort this out ourselves. There’s always a myriad of these kinds of thoughts that poke at you when something like this leaves you without the means of fixing the situation yourself so you’re left with just being able to think about things.
I offered that all we could really do now was wait for a vehicle capable of carrying his bike to come along so we could ask for help. Luckily enough, a motorcycle-pickup hybrid came riding by and he let us lift Aaron’s bike into the bed. He took us to a mechanic in the nearest… I’ll call it a town.
We jokingly refer to this mechanic as “The Butcher”, because immediately after we explained the problem and took the wheel off the bike, went inside, came back with a pickaxe, and started trying to remove the tire with said pickaxe.
The Butcher, it turns out, worked mostly with big rigs and trucks and vehicles that are comfortable with more aggressive techniques than Aaron and I are happy to see enacted on our bikes.
We offered to take the tire off instead, but, honestly, we did a pretty bad job of it.
Aaron made peace with The Butcher’s techniques after having a chat and left him to fix the problem, however he was going to do that, and we went the couple hundred yards back to the “town” to check in to a hotel. It was a wooden structure with no windows or screens. Mosquito nets hung over the two beds in our room and there was barely enough room around the beds to place our bags. It was cheap, though, and given the other possible worst-case post-machete-attack scenarios, I felt we were doing alright.
We walked up and down the “main strip” and found a place to eat and were invited to sit down with some of the locals. We noticed that, despite the simple structures and dirt floors, most of the buildings had 60-inch flat screen TVs. There was a documentary or something on, but it wasn’t really our thing.
The next morning, things went well. The Butcher had glued some rubber to the inside of the tire and Aaron had an extra tube. We were back on the road after a quick breakfast.
We spent the next night in a middle of nowhere town as well. The previous night I realized that something was going seriously wrong with the electric on the KLR and my headlights weren’t turning on. I rode it, briefly, using the turn signal to navigate back to the hotel in the dark. A flashing yellow light worked well enough to ride a short distance through a town, but much more than that was probably a bad idea. So, even though we were trying to make as much distance as possible, I made sure that we weren’t going to ride into the night.
While passing through another tiny town, we stopped at a hotel and decided that, if we could fix the electrical problem, we would ride out and camp. If we couldn’t fix it, we’d stay at the hotel.
We couldn’t fix it.
This tiny town sticks out in my mind as one of the strangest small town experiences of the whole trip. For one thing, what I’m calling a town was really just a stretch of buildings alongside the road. The left side of most of the strip was walled off for construction. The right side is where the hotel was. Aaron went looking for an internet café and found it closed for the day, despite it being only 7pm. We found a store that was open, but there wasn’t really anything to eat in it, so we just wandered around for a while.
During our wandering, we started to hear some music. “Music is often made by places that serve food,” we figured, so we followed the sound. The source of the music was a small shack heavily covered in blue lighting. There was a curtain that served as the door. A waitress was there to greet us when we walked in and she put us at a small table in the corner. There were two people at another table in the other corner and there were maybe one or two people at what was functioning as the bar. Talking to Aaron right now, he refers to this as the strangest place of the trip. “Dirt floor, loud music, cinder block walls, black lights, long curtains, everywhere.” It really was surreal. The waitress assured us that she could get us food. We got a couple drinks and asked for whatever food they had.
What was then served was something like ceviche, in that there was fish and it was covered in something that tasted like citrus. I’m pretty sure the fish was canned tuna, though. It had some kind of green vegetation, too. Aaron chose the safe option and only ate the bread that came with it, but I was hungry enough to eat just about whatever they served us. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but think that they don’t actually serve food, but were just being accommodating… which I guess is nice. After finding out how much they were charging for the food, I realized they were being opportunistic.
The next morning, we got back on the road and made it to Tocache. On the way in, we noticed a man in orange walking out of a store that, for some reason, stood out to us. Later, we saw him again while we were getting oil changes and looking into fixing my electrical problems. As it turns out, he was an electrical wizard. One of the big issues we were having with my wiring was that someone who owned the KLR before me had clearly rewired a lot of it. This was done haphazardly and the colors on the wires that indicate function were all mixed up from one end of the bike to the other. What was brown on one end might be yellow and white striped on the other. So, for us, fixing this was all guess work and trial and error. I even bought a fair amount of replacement wiring in Iquitos, as I saw this becoming a problem back then. I was just about clueless as to exactly how to install what I’d bought, though, and I wasn’t excited about adding even more new colors to the mess.
Our new electrical magician friend was able to sort the whole thing out by just tapping a little light bulb here and there and replacing the majority of the wiring. In about an hour, he had fixed the problem completely.
The next couple of days had us riding through the Andes to get to Lima. I got sick during this time. We found some of the best camping locations of the whole trip during these nights, but I was throwing up in the bushes near the tent, so I didn’t really appreciate them as much as I wish I had. They do look nice in the photos.
The second day of riding through the mountains we saw lots of alpacas. We’d seen them in pens or on leashes when we visited Cusco, but this was the first time we’d seen them wandering around on their own.
We arrived at Cerro de Pasco and took some time to wander around the rock formations that are there. Nearby, we found some hot springs. I was still sick and the hot springs were nice, but I couldn’t get warm. I wanted to stay at the hot springs that night, as they had a nice big hotel and the place was a kind of resort. Aaron wanted to make more miles that night and thought camping was the way to go, as another day in a hotel meant spending more money. I’d run out of money at this point and was borrowing his money. Because of that, Aaron got his way and we were off.
We only got about 20 miles away when it started getting dark. We found a secluded place and began setting up camp. Just then, the clouds started rolling in and we watched as lightning flashed constantly an uncomfortably close distance from us. Our campsite was fairly high up and completely unprotected. I was still feeling sick and, seeing the situation we were in, was thinking I definitely did not want to deal with what I thought was coming.
But, happily, it was just a lightning storm. I didn’t sleep too well, but that wasn’t because of heavy rain or being struck by lightning. It was mostly because of feeling ill and the sharp drop in temperature.
Also, a guy came and scratched at our tent in the middle of the night and that put us on edge.
A dog sniffing at our tent woke us up in the morning and we greeted a man we assume was some kind of shepherd. When we looked outside, we saw that everything, including our bikes, was covered in a sheet of ice. We checked the GPS and learned that we had camped at about 15,300ft that night.
After we packed up and started our bikes, which required push starting Aaron’s bike and then using jumper cables to get mine running, we were off.
We stopped occasionally to stare at the amazing scenery or grab something to eat, but we tried to keep moving.
And then we made it to Lima.