Holiday Time...

Peru, September 2013

Been wanting to see Machu Picchu for a while so the advert for the Machu Picchu Express tour was attractive: some 2,000kms over 14 days, nice mixture of riding and sight-seeing, 90% of the riding on paved (aka tarmac) roads. So I signed up and ended up in a group of nine: six assorted Canadians, an American a Puerto Rican and me, plus local guide Eduardo and Lars in his 4x4 for support and luggage. And a wonderful fortnight we had as we rode round southern Peru, taking in the sights and the mostly superb roads.

We had a choice of bikes and I'd picked a BMW F650 GS (actually an 800), on the grounds it was light and low(ish), great for the terrain. We covered the famous places, Nasca lines, Machu Picchu, Cusco, Paracas National Park, Lake Titicaca and Arequipa – spectacular volcano country. And we got lucky with Machu Picchu as the train there (and it's only accessible by train) was on strike the day we were meant to go, but Lars, the organiser, managed a great in-flight correction that got us there the night before – well, actually, two in the morning on the day of the strike – so when we took the bus to the site the next day there was hardly anyone there - great result.

Overall Peru is a magic place to ride and drink in the views (and the beer, oh yes - Cusquena is excellent). Spanish is the lingua franca and the huge mountains, amazing architecture and food that varied from deep fried guinea pig to sublime ceviche make the place like Spain on steroids. About the only irritating thing was the service in the restaurants - in Spain you'd not expect to see a waiter break a sweat, but here they take lackadaisical to a whole new level - order the food and drink, then wait 30 minutes for a couple of drinks and one dish, wait another 20 minutes and a couple more dishes arrive, and so on, for hours. And I never want to hear a pan-pipe ever again...

Riding highlight was the 'Tail of the Dragon' – the road from Nasca to Cusco, 650km of brilliant tarmac twisties with very little traffic. Best road I've ever ridden and I was wringing the BM's neck, mostly third gear and below on the wiggly bits, fifth gear and above on the altiplanos – basically the deserts on the top of the mountains where I discovered 66 would do an indicated 189kph. We took a couple of days to do this stint, just as well as Cusco is high enough to tire you out after walking 100 yards up a gentle hill – acclimatisation time really helped, as did chewing coca leaves, though nothing really prepared us for the highest point of the trip – the 4990m Patapampa Pass (the peak of Mt Blanc is a mere 4,800m), where even just getting getting off the bike had me panting. We had to do a little city riding too, notably in Cusco, Arequipa and mad, mad Juliaca - enter that town to be confronted by a gravel main road infested with hundreds of huge trucks all in a hurry. A massive contrast to the virtually empty roads outside the towns, but good drivers mostly, though no quarter given - you're either very assertive or cut to ribbons. Great fun (off the gravel) once you get used to it

The wildlife highlight was the Colca Canyon condors. This canyon is the deepest in the world, and the condors kip in caves in the sides. You (and a few hundred others) arrive at the top around 8:00am and wait for the thermals to develop, into which these huge birds throw themselves, deep below, gradually soaring to your height and beyond, eyeballing the tourists all the way. Well impressive, unlike the ride in which is about 30kms each way on gravel. I'd done a bit on unsurfaced roads earlier in the trip, and really didn't like it. Having to concentrate on exactly where to put the front wheel, while getting choked with the dust from the bikes, cars, and buses flying along in both directions really isn't my idea of fun, so, to the amusement of the rest of the group (who never stopped failing to sell me the benefits of riding off-road!) I settled for riding shotgun in the 4x4 support vehicle. Marvellous – enjoyed spectacular views and chilling with Lars and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers all with no fear of an imminent prang. Loved it!