The Journal  

30 January 2006

Nazca to Cuzco

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


The Ride II: Nazca to Cuzco

January 16

Riding through the dark at 12,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, a combination of fog and driving rain reducing visibility to a few feet in front of your motorcycle, is a horrible place to be when you realize that you've made a mistake in judgment. But that's were I found myself on the road to Cuzco, as it began to rain harder and we were still two hours away from our intended destination.

When planning a day's ride, we took several factors into consideration when we decided on how far we could go. The first is good, old fashion distance. We would figure out how many miles it was from where we were to where we wanted to go. But distance only gets you so far. One hundred miles on a Mexican toll road is not the same as 100 miles on a Guatemalan back road. Maps sometimes gave a clue as to travel times, but irregular upkeep and the damage that nature could render on a road surface over night made this information unreliable. Our guide book gave the times it took for buses to get from town to town, saying it was 20 hours to Cuzco , but depending on how many stops a bus would make along the way, we could usually make better time than a bus.

We could usually get the best estimate on how long it would take to get from Point A to Point B by asking the locals. Opinions usually varied, but you could average them for a good estimate. The people we asked about how long it would take to get to Cuzco told us between 12 and 14 hours. We decided to go the distance in one day.

The Cuzco road breaks away from the Pan-American just outside the Nazca town limits, heading up into the dry and barren mountain ridges that had lined our way since we entered Peru . The road was empty except for the occasional tour bus, which would come careening into our lane around corners. The eroded hills that formed the edges of the road looked as if they would collapse into the road at any minute and in several places rock slides blocked our lane.


In about an hour we were cruising above the clouds after leaving the near sea level town of Nazca.

As we crossed the first set of mountains ranges, we rode into a green valley, a welcome sight after nearly two weeks in the desert. We were finally in the Peru that I recognized from the picture books, steep green cliffs and raging mountain streams, locals in indigenous dress and felt “fedora” hats herding sheep along the road. The valley quickly turned back into mountains, the road climbing into a high pampas that passed through open fields of grass filled with feeding vicunas and crystal clear mountain lakes.


Wild vicunas grazed in the pampas at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains.


We left the arid lands for more vegetation and farmlands in the central Andes.


No wire locking the men's door was going to stop Jeremiah from using the bathroom. The hand-washing sink was a trough of stagnant water.

It started to rain as the road ran higher. The GPS showed we had climbed above 15,000 feet before we had to cover the tank bag with a rain cover. At that altitude the air was cool and we chilled in the drizzle.

We stopped in the town of Abancay to refuel before making the final leg of the day's ride into Cuzco . The gas station attendant told us it was four hours to Cuzco . It was already after five o'clock. January is the wet season in the Peruvian Andes. After running through several showers it started to rain steady in Abancay, a combination of fog, rain and darkness greeting us as we headed back into the mountains.

There are many reasons not to ride after dark in South America , good reasons that had limited our night travels to two times before. The first of these reasons is road conditions. The road to Cuzco was paved in its entirety, but several times along the way the pavement would abruptly end where a mountain stream had rushed across the road or we would round a corner to see that a rock slide had filled in our lane. After dark it is nearly impossible to see these changes in the road's surface until you are on top of them.

Another good excuse to call it quits while it's still daylight is animals. On the road from Cuzco the mammals that crossed in front of our path varied from cows to alpacas to sheep to small children. When the sun is out, you can usually see these obstacles well in advance, slow down and beep your horn in warning. After dark, they appear out of nowhere, giving you no time to react, which doesn't matter because on a rain-slick road you don't have many reaction options anyway. As we neared Cuzco , pedestrians in dark clothes would appear out of the fog. Our greatest nemesis was dogs, some darting across our path, others aimlessly wandering down the center of the road apparently oblivious to our approaching light and noise. Several times they disappeared under our headlights and I braced for a bump that luckily never came.


A Peruvian woman herds her sheep out of the road so we could pass.


Kids wave to us as we zip by on the Guzzi.


A partial rainbow peeks through clouds that we were headed for on our way to Cuzco with the last rays of sunlight streaming across the mountains we still had to cross.

With nearly 12 hours at the controls, fatigue mixed with the numb and sogginess of my gloves to give me a detached and drunken feel. I slowed down to overcompensate and we crawled forward at a painfully slow pace. Behind me Holly, who was suffering from a cold, coughed through our helmet communicators. When I asked her how she was doing, she whispered back a “fine.” I looked for a light ahead that would signal a roadside restaurant or hotel where we could stop.

Cuzco appeared as an orange glow against the rain cloud darkened sky as we entered the high valley that holds the city, whose size meant that we could see it when we were still a teasing 45 minutes ride away. We entered the city into a maze of rain slick cobblestone streets. It was on our second stop for directions, I getting more confused by the information I was being given and Holly shivering as she stood on the corner in the rain that I flagged down a taxi that led us to our downtown hostel. We changed into dry clothes and made our way across the street to a restaurant, where we seated ourselves by the fire place while waiting for a meal that would celebrate the successful completion of our 12 hour trip to Cuzco.



All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus