After finding out that making it into Chile from Tacna should be easier, I pulled out my map of Peru and drew a line to Tacna. It was not a perfectly paved line, but rather had a large portion of “passable road” (i.e. dirt). What followed was one of the worst roads I’ve ever ridden on, and I guarantee I have ridden on some of the worst… It was ugly.
Begin: Desaguadero, Peru @ 10:30AM
End: Unknown Location at ~16k feet, Peru @ 6:30PM
Distance: approx. 183km (~114mi) in 8.5 hours (~21KMH / ~13MPH average)
Average Gas Mileage: N/A
Stopped by Police: Never saw any
The road out of Desaguadero started innocuously enough, with a simple sign that read “Tacna, 458km” and an arrow. As I started along it, I noticed some strange vibration noises and pulled over to find that somehow my moto had started to fall apart overnight. The exhaust bolt and the left rear axle holder thingie were both so loose that the exhaust was almost falling off (ironically, happened to me in almost the same place last year) and my drive wheel was wiggly loose. I also found three very loose spokes and tightened everything up.
As I picked up fuel on the way out of town I had a stroke of genius – why not get a full two gallons in my two gallon spare instead of the usual one? I hadn’t been filling it because I didn’t want it to overflow, but maybe I could make it all the way to Tacna without refueling if I did… I say genius because, as I rode into Tacna on reserve, I realized I would have been stranded somewhere in the mountains otherwise, since I never saw a single fuel station!
I also grabbed a small bottle of yogurt, which would be my only sustenance for the next day and a half… though I will admit I had an inkling of this possibility at the time. The road to Tacna started out incredibly boring, these long endless straight perfect pavement roads on the high altiplano, the type of road that makes anyone fall asleep. I amused myself with all sorts of games from counting alpacas to trying to imagine what it must be like to live in those houses in the middle of nowhere. At some point in another, I remember having this long and useless conversation in my head with one of my friends, Jason Cragg, although I cannot for the life of me remember the substance of it (it had something to do with Canadian sweaters, Jesus, and alpacas… I dunno, Kim was probably involved).
My boredom was broken by something most bizarre on the road, a side-road that started off as a perfectly paved pristine road before rapidly dwindling through all the phases of road building, from asphalt to rock to dirt to mud, all inside of maybe fifty feet! It shows my mindset that this totally intrigued me and I pondered it for quite awhile before coming to the conclusion that it must’ve been accidental, built with whatever they had left before running out and going to the next… still, quite strange.
By this time I was fairly checked out, the road amusing me but not quite entertaining me, some left over jitters from the border drama and some personal stuff I got to deal with in Puno. Then, unexpectedly, there it was – a sign that said “Tacna” with an arrow to the left pointing towards a dirt road. I quickly stopped to check my map and confirmed that (according to the map, hahahahaha) this was the “direct” route to Tacna and that the paved road was much longer. So, as we say in the adventuring business, a shortcut!
A shortcut sure to promise something interesting… after all, it is the road less traveled, is it not? At first the road was an amazing dirt and gravel road of surprisingly high quality, with no washboarding at all proof that trucks took the paved route instead. I skimmed along at nearly full speed for an hour or so as the road slowly degraded. Then, like a switch, I crossed to another side of the valley and it turned to rock. Horrible, huge, jagged, ugly rocks. The kind you have to swerve back and forth all over very slowly to avoid… and I have three wheels to worry about!
I no longer had time to ponder the adorable alpacas or the ghosts of girlfriends past, instead focusing completely on my slow meandering through this rock strewn wasteland. I noticed the road was starting to climb, but it was so gradual it wasn’t really visible, simply the fact that I spent most of my time in second gear. As I turned one corner of a mountain, I saw a strange thing on the horizon, what for a moment almost looked like a giant strip mall of some sort.
Altitude mirage? I rode ever closer, seeing it as possibly an airport of some time before realizing it must be a weird sort of school, the kind Patrick Swayze as a kid would have holed up in to fight the Russians. The question was answered as a big sign said “Restricted Military Zone – No Admittance!” with an arrow pointing at the weird buildings – ah hah! A military base high up in the altiplano, I bet it’s miserable in winter but could definitely be strategic.
I carefully rode around, avoiding heading towards the base as the signs indicated, when I hit upon a problem: there appeared to be a river in my road. It looked very wide, but the road clearly went straight up to it and straight out of it, so maybe it was just running a little high? I’ve crossed plenty of these types of crossings and was about to gun it and see what happened when something tweaked my subconscious – not just the fact that this was a very long river crossing, but something didn’t look right about that the nasty way the road fell apart on one side as it entered.
I decided to stop and scout, walking partway out only to realize that I had just saved myself from a certain disastrous ending – the river was at least three or four feet deep over the road! There was a strange vegetation of some kind that from a distance made it look like the river was quite shallow, but the reality was that I was seeing the top of three feet high bushes underwater. I walked up and down the river looking for a shallower ford before coming to the conclusion that I was screwed; there was no way I would make it across this river.
Dejected, I was considering turning around when I noticed a very small bridge up near the military installation. Dare I risk it? Well, the sign didn’t say I’d be shot on sight… so I turned around and headed back to the military base. Along the way, my mind registered the string of rope with flags on it that was strewn across the road – in retrospect, it was obviously hanging at some point to warn people the road was out, but silly me just drove over it.
I snuck up the little road near the military base and rode across it slowly, half expecting to hear alarms at any moment. Oddly, the base appeared completely abandoned – I could see vehicles and things like that, but no sign of movement at all, and the front gate was even open! The signs I could see indicated that this was either a military prison or where some sort of special forces training takes place, there were lots of slogans about “turning boys into men” and “making men tough in mind and body” and stuff like that. There was also a sign that said it was the highest military base in the world at just over 16k feet! Wouldn’t surprise me…
The next three or four hours would quickly degrade into a blur of horror that will live on forever in my memory as a tribute to either my stubbornness or my innate idiocy. The road leading away from the military base was very deep sand with a thick set of ruts, requiring me to maintain a careful pace with my drive wheel in the clear and my front and right wheel typically in mounds of sand. I was impressed at how well my tires were handling this (I guess that upgrade was worth it!) when the road decided to start climbing.
It didn’t look that far, so I figured why not go for it? It would probably go around a hill and level off shortly… so I gunned it and slowly but surely wedged myself deep into sand. At first it wasn’t so bad, the angle of the hill allowing me to mostly power up spinning my tire at around 8000RPM, with me only getting stuck every fifty feet or so. I’d get out, pick up the back of the moto and put it in the center of the “clean” sand, then go again.
Priding myself on how awesome I was, I kept doing this for an hour or so until somehow the road got steeper. I couldn’t make it anywhere, so I went to the bag of tricks and let out a bunch of air from the drive wheel to increase surface area and traction. I found that if I stood next to the moto and gunned the engine, I could barely get it moving uphill. Then I would run next to it, sometimes pushing it, sometimes just keeping pace, until I got up enough speed to jump on side-saddle. I’d ride side-saddle for maybe five or ten seconds until it would slow down again, then jump off and run. At over 16,000 feet…
Needless to say, I was dying. Every few minutes, Red would get stuck again and I would just turn it all off and stand there heaving great gaping breaths, telling myself it was no big deal and I could handle it. After another hour of this, I had made perhaps another kilometer or two when once again the sand deepened and I could not get it to go up. All I could think of was that the end of the sand must be soon and I couldn’t turn around now…
This time I let out almost all the air from my drive wheel until it was practically flat, then I also dumped most of the air from my other two tires in case that would help them ride on top of the sand and also reduce friction. With my finger’s crossed that the tires wouldn’t go flying off, I gunned it and got Red moving again!
Once again, I spent hours running next to Red as I spurred him up the hill, stopping to pick him up and place him in the middle again. Somewhere during this experience he had gone from a moto to being something real, something I had a bond with, something I would use to conquer this mountain.
As the sun began to set, I could see for the first time what looked like an ending to the climb, but what turned out instead to simply be a series of turns… which meant the road would be getting even steeper! I could only hope the sand wouldn’t be as deep as I continued upward only to find that while I was right, I had a new problem…
I was now climbing through a pass at nearly 18,000 feet and my poor little 125cc engine couldn’t put out enough power to climb the hill, sand or not! If it was pavement or rock I could have ridden back and forth, side to side, slowly climbing as I feathered the clutch, but sand required a direct approach. I was convinced the top was ahead so I threw all caution to the wind and resorted to extreme measures: I would slowly rev the engine up to 9000RPM in neutral (a process which took up to five seconds at this altitude), then almost dump the clutch entirely as I jumped up and down on the bike and pushed with my feet.
The drive wheel would dig into the sand and spinning, spinning, spinning, would slowly push Red three or four feet up the hill before the drag of the sand and spinning wheel would bring the engine revs down to 6000RPM, where Red would stall and all forward motion would cease… but it moved me forward! Slowly but surely, dump after dump, I climbed what I hoped would be the final hill in the fading twilight.
With only a small orange band to show me the road, I crested the hill and rode into something completely unexpected. The massive pass before me was at least a hundred feet wide and completely covered in sand, with tracks everywhere throughout it. The road simply disappeared as people struck out for clean patches of sand in every direction, leaving me to wonder where the heck I was going.
I picked a direction as twilight turned to dark and focused on the biggest set of tracks. It was clearly downhill from here, but the sand was now interspersed with rocks, so I decided to quickly put some air in my tires to lower my risk of doing any damage. With the setting sun, the temperature had plummeted and by 5:30PM it was already nearing freezing, so I had to work fast. I hooked up my pump to the front tire and started pumping only to notice after a few minutes that there was no apparent change. A quick check confirmed it – my foot pump was broken!
Somewhere around this time I got hit by the adrenaline craziness, the adventure sickness that comes over someone in situations like this. I should have stopped for the night while I could still see, but after conquering that horrible sandy climb I knew I wouldn’t be tired and I kept telling myself the next town couldn’t be that far away; any moment now I would see lights ahead… So I continued on in the pitch pitch black.
Many of us haven’t truly experienced this kind of blackness, a moonless sky on a mountain road hundreds of miles from any significant light source. It’s black. Your world becomes this small cone of light, even a headlamp pointing off to the side barely illuminates anything. You continue on in the cold just hoping to get somewhere, wondering if it will ever happen.. A few times I saw what appeared to be flat sandy spots on the side of the road which would be perfect for stopping, but I kept telling myself I could go on.
By 6:30PM, the temperature had dropped below freezing, the adrenaline had worn off, and I was starting to feel exhausted from lack of food (remember that yogurt?) and all the exertion earlier. I drove past a small cul-de-sac and after some debate, turned around and pulled into it. Some exploration found me a decent spot to set up my tent, and with my only having seen two vehicles in the last six hours and the temperatures sure to drop even more I decided to set up the tent instead of sleeping on the moto.
Soon I was comfortably tucked into my sleeping bag, shut away from that endless night sky of beautiful stars and bands of galaxies, when the boredom started to set in. I read for a couple hours but my e-reader battery died, leaving me with no other options – I needed my phone for the morning (music) and it was too cold to type on my laptop and it wouldn’t fit inside my mummy bag. For a minute I had the genius idea of going outside to take photos, so I opened my tent flap to find it covered in ice as well as the ground in every direction and retreated to the safety of my sleeping bag shivering with pain at the cold within a minute of exposure.
The rest of the night was pretty horrible, considering the increase in altitude from 12k feet to 17k feet is very dangerous, my day was incredibly stressful, I had no idea where I was, and I’d only eaten 1000 calories of yogurt, which had been sitting out in the sun for most of the day and may have gone bad at some point. Unable to breathe, feeling like I would puke at any moment, I broke into my emergency stash and had some bran cookies. I eyed my bag of M&M’s before ixnaying that idea and thankfully the cookies stabilized my stomach.
The rest of the night passed in fits and starts, with me truly regretting not bringing my awesome Big Agnes air mattress (for some reason I figured on sleeping on the moto all the time), leaving me uncomfortable all night as I prefer to sleep on my side (painful on a hard surface). I was able to doze off repeatedly, finally noticing a slight increase in ambient light which I thought heralded the dawn but was actually just the moon. An unknown number of dozes later, I realized the light was definitely getting brighter.
Using a tried and true “sub freezing” camping technique, I waited at least thirty minutes after the sun was fully up before even bothering to get out of my sleeping bag. At this altitude in the desert, the sun warms things up quickly when it comes into direct contact, and I was able to get dressed and start packing up my things without too much discomfort. This was when I noticed that my 2.5 liter water bottle, which had been next to me in my tent, was frozen almost completely solid. I had to knock it around a bit to get pieces loose enough for a drink and was left contemplating the awesomeness of my sleeping bag that I had been toasty warm all night.
I had to almost break my tent flap to open it as it had frozen solid, but with a bunch of breaks for warming my hands I was quickly packed and ready to hit the road, except for one problem: I could not find my key. I still don’t know where it went, though I’m hoping it’s hiding in one of my bags. Thankfully I have one spare, and that is now my main until I can find my original (finger’s crossed).
That day and that night were epic… but at this point, I was ready to find something to eat!
Begin: Unknown, Peru @ 7:30AM
End: Tacna, Peru @ 3:30PM
Distance: approx. 153km (~95mi) in 8 hours (~19KMH / ~12MPH average)
Average Gas Mileage: ~53MPG
Stopped by Police: Never saw any
Waking up in the middle of nowhere is always weird, especially when you don’t know where you are. I decided to cheat before I drove anywhere and using my GPS datalogger paired to my phone and an app to allow this bluetooth GPS to work as a normal GPS, I pulled up Google Maps. Using cached tiles I had grabbed in Puno, it drew a rough map of the area with my little blue triangle in the middle of a giant reserve – and nowhere near any road on the map! This would be why I don’t normally cheat. >_<
After staring around I thought I found a road way off in the distance that might be the road on the map, maybe I missed the turn during the night? I looked carefully and could not convince myself it wasn’t just a river bed (which seemed more likely), and at this point I’m not convinced of the accuracy of any map when it comes to a road like this (Google should pay me to street car them with a mototaxi!), so I decided to put this out of my mind and continue on.
My worst nightmare seemed to occur at this point, as no matter how hard I tried I absolutely could not get the engine to turn over. Kickstart after kickstart and not even the barest glimmer of a turnover. I tried cleaning the plug and even considered taking apart the wiring to figure out why the electric start doesn’t work (never has) when I thought about adjusting the idle screw a bit – it had been set for much lower, maybe it was too rich? I don’t know if it was this or careful manipulation of the gas but finally when I kicked it then engine turned over before immediately stalling. A bit of careful tweaking and many minutes more of kicking later, I had a nicely turning over engine. Damn cold.
Time to go! The morning started off with a bit of climbing, which was one of the reasons I had stopped last night (not wanting to get stuck in the sand in the dark). Yesterday I had seen the alternate paths but they seemed much more common now, though at the time I couldn’t understand what kind of sane person would use them since they cut sharply uphill across the road (it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was to speed descent). The views were surreal, this huge barren desert wasteland spread out before me, not from lack of water but from overnight freezing temperatures that killed everything but this weird moss that grew everywhere.
I drove very slowly and carefully, aware that my low tires could be taken out at any moment by a sharp rock or bad bump. The road remained mostly downhill at a small angle, allowing me to drive carefully without worrying about getting stuck. I noticed the views changing around me from red dust to a brown dust as the walls of the mountains changed – clearly I was driving from one type of rock into another. Sure enough, the road surface changed with this, turning from mostly sand into a vicious sand and rock combination that required an intense amount of careful concentration.
Sand, you see, requires as much speed as possible to navigate safely. Rocks, on the other hand, must be avoided at all costs and hit at slow speeds when unavoidable. Combining the two means this horrible combination of slow slow fastfastfast slow slow fastfast as you slew the moto back and forth across the road… it’s ugly.
Another thing that quickly becomes threatening to one’s sanity is the apparent “peaks” in the road ahead when driving through the mountains – you can often see the road for miles twisting around in front, beneath, and across from you, but there is always a point where it disappears. You find yourself wondering what’s beyond that point, and in spite of the fact that it’s nearly always just another section of road, you get your hopes up every time.
After many false alarms, I finally came around a corner and saw a massive valley spread out before me, and way down in the valley I could clearly see not only two small towns but signs of cultivation all up the valley! The ecstatic joy was only tempered very slightly by the sure knowledge that I was still many hours away, and it turned out to be so… the first fifty kilometers of my day took nearly five hours of driving, the last section on some of the most torn rocky roads I have ever seen. I smashed the bottom of my engine casing multiple times and would have cut my head bloody on the overhead bars if I hadn’t installed padding.
The final bit of the descent was incredible, though. With all the mountains in Peru, they have brought terraced cultivation to a high art form. It is beautiful to descent from a barren desert into a valley lush with crops and flowers. All carefully separated from the road by hand built rock walls, the greenery nonetheless surrounds you.
There was only a moments warning, a glimpse of a paved road below me, when suddenly my dirt road simply emptied out onto the highway as if this were it’s natural ending. Conscious of my low tires, I could not quite tear up the road, but there was certainly an element of jubilation to my fifth gear cavorting into the nearby town. At the very first main corner I saw what I thought was a restaurant and stopped to put some food into my poor belly.
Upon entering the darkened exterior, I realized it was a ferrereteria (hardware store), not a restaurant… but they did sell bike pumps! s/15 later I was running out to pump up my tires, much to the amusement of all the people in the town square. With a quick question for directions, I now truly tore off towards Tacna, keeping a careful eye out for a gas station to top off my fuel.
I never found a gas station, but I did quickly climb up out of town and into the mountains on the other side. It was frightening to look across this valley and realize that I had come across the far mountains only this morning… as slow and ponderous as it was, a journey that would have surely taken weeks without roads or motors. Every time people tell me how slow I am, this is the well I go to – the realization that making 150 miles in a day was once something completely unattainable.
Tacna, I believe, is at nearly sea level. The remaining one hundred kilometers to it started out fun, a quick and heavy descent through the mountains, but before long turned into a simple endless road at a slight downward angle. I wasn’t sure at all how far away it was, so I kept a careful eye out for a gas station when I noticed that the road markers were counting down from 30km. Could this mean Tacna was only 30km away?
As the road markers hit 20, the desert went completely flat and I started to notice weird plots of land alongside the road, almost as if people had been given the land but didn’t know what to do with the sandy desert. Every few plots there would be a tire with a bush in it and a tent, but mostly they were empty. As time passed, they seemed to get more civilized, with a brick shed every once in awhile coming in by the 16km marker.
This same marker is where I ran out of fuel and had to switch to reserve – telling myself that all would be fine, in 16km there had to be something. By the 10km marker, the plots on the side had full fences, every single one had a brick shed, and there were often two or three bushes in a plot. I saw some signs saying something about revitalization and all I could think was that these people were so desperate for land that they were building these teeny plots in the desert… then a strange thought hit me – could this be the suburbs?
With absolutely no warning, I crested a dune and the road turned sharply to the left. In front of me, nestled in a massive desert valley, was what could only be Tacna. It was huge. I had been expecting a smallish town, but there’s no doubt it was one of the biggest. From above, I scouted out the terrain and compared it to my map and decided my best bet would be to head for the border and find a customs agent and hostel there.
I immediately started riding down into town, turning onto roads with big signs saying NO MOTOTAXI (the first I’ve seen on this trip, though I had seen them before). I ignored these as much as the locals do and cruised towards the airport. I noticed a ton of mechanic stuff around me and after awhile, sure enough, there was a Honda motorcyle dealer! I had been thinking about a final checkup before going into Chile, so I made a note of it and continued on.
As I closed on the airport I saw a sign that said the border was 32km away – that was much further than it looked on the map! Screw it, I can worry about that tomorrow (and hopefully make it through before Sunday), so I turned around and went back to the Honda dealer. A block away was a hotel where I quickly checked in (it’s cheap and nasty) before returning to Honda to drop off Red for service.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the girl running the service counter was studying English and spoke it very well – probably as good as my Spanish. This was the first time I’d spoken English to someone else since Cusco, though I mostly stuck to Spanish and she to English, we had a good time speaking each other’s language – it was so nice to have that fallback when I didn’t know a word.
With Red stuck at the Honda place until tomorrow sometime for a full tuneup, I went to scrounge up some food before heading back to the hotel to catch up on all my photos and blog. Now I need to find an internet place to upload it, then tomorrow we’ll see what happens at the border!