Skip to main content

Days 5-6: Misery and Glee

Day 5
Coracora, Peru @ 12PM (noon)
End: Puquio, Peru @ 5:30PM
Distance: approx. 102km (~64mi) in 5.5 hours (~18KMH / ~11MPH average)
Average Gas Mileage: ~45MPG
Stopped by Police: Never saw any

Misery! Or awesomeness, depending on how crazy you are… Every tried to drive 30km down a mountain through 2+ inches of mud? With horrid ruts torn into the road by trucks and buses that are barely wide enough for your vehicle? This was the end to my day – it was exhilarating and exhausting, endless fun combined with constant fear, and perhaps a bit of doubt.

IMG_4955I woke up early in Coracora to pack my stuff and show up at Ponte Honda by 8AM as agreed to have my first service done. It was supposed to be at 500km, but it had taken me 821km to get to Coracora (Google had indicated 600km but did not know about twisty roads). In retrospect the decision to go to Coracora instead of Abancay was… ill inspired, to say the least – but the good thing is that it helped shake out a lot of problems with the moto on crap roads.

When I knocked on the door at Ponte Honda the mechanic came out and started to work. First up was my bent front fork, which I was shocked to find could be easily straightened by loosening two bolts and banging on them with a hammer for awhile! I suppose I’ve never had to do this so how could I know, but I was disappointed to see how easy it was – I half expected to need to replace the front end or something.

P1010597As he set about the rest of the checkup, changing all the fluids, checking the chain, etc. I begged off to find the one internet place in town and upload the prior days info and catch up on my e-mail. When I got back around 11:30AM he was all set and I was ready to go! I made the coin-flip decision at this time to head BACK towards Puquio then north towards Abancay and Cusco. I initially avoided this route because I did it before, but I was really sick of getting hassled by all the policia on the Panamerican… so I’ll cross my fingers with the crossing at Desaguardero.

As I was all set to go I thought maybe I could get some extra stuff done really quick – why not put a plastic enduro style fender on the front and get some handguards in case of rain and cold? Some quick brainstorming and some action with zipties and a hacked up set of bolts, I was all kitted out like some sort of Mad Max offroad moto – for a whole $10! Excellent!

The first thing I noticed as I set off to retrace my previous day’s travels was that I was much more confident on the bad stuff, I think a direct result of knowing my chain had been re-tensioned and figuring that anything that was going to fall off already had. I tore across the valley much faster than yesterday, then ascended high into the mountains. The views today were initially much nicer as there were less clouds and I could more clearly see everything in the bright sunshine. I had a quick snack of some yogurt overlooking the valley before crossing back deep into the mountains.

As I wound across the mountain tops between Coracora and Puquio, I kept my eye on a very evil set of black clouds over to my right, smashing themselves against a nearby mountain. The speed at which these clouds moved was unreal, watching them slide across the sky reminded me of a timelapse video sequence. Then I noticed something very very bad: as I crested a hill, I saw my road turn straight towards the evil clouds.

I stopped to put on my rain boot covers just in time, the POCK POCK POCK of hail hitting the canvas of my moto warning me that this was not just a rainstorm coming to drown me. Darkness settled in, so deep that I could not see with my sunglasses and had to take them off. The hail battered me as I ascended deeper into the storm system, then slowly lightened to a constant medium force rain. Most of the road in this area was still rocky so traction wasn’t a problem, but all I could think of was yesterday’s ascent in dried mud… dreading it, knowing it would be a horror show.

As water began to puddle and run down the road in small rivers, I battled my way up towards the final pass, sometimes sliding sideways through patches of mud but mostly hammering up the road as fast as possible and trying to skip across the puddles and potholes, throwing water everywhere. I came around the hill I recognized as the final pass because of all the little statues, torn between a fear of the unknown mud and elation that everything would be downhill from here…

The pass as clear and I stopped to gather myself for the road ahead, noting a mile marker (one of the few on this road) that indicated km33 – if that started in Puquio, only 33km to go! I psyched myself up, switched on some Red Hot Chili Peppers and began my descent at full speed, skipping across the stones at nearly 50kmh, sliding around corners and back and forth across the road as I fought to avoid the deepest potholes.

P1010607I rounded the corner where the top of the mountain ended and the descent began and slammed on the brakes, slowing to barely 15km as I passed into an intense, deep fog. The world reduced itself to an arc perhaps thirty feet in front of me as I puttered down the road, corners sneaking up at the last second.

Then the mud began, as I knew it would. It was worse than I anticipated, the ruts ground down to perhaps two inches of mud, often with standing water – navigable with care downhill, but only because the momentum kept me skipping through the top of the mud. The side and middle of the road were typically a solid eight or more inches of mud, however, a sure death trap for my teeny tired and one wheel drive moto. The ruts themselves, smashed down by the dual tires of a few trucks or buses, were just barely big enough to fit both of my rear wheels.

P1010609At a near constant press in second gear, I spun my way down the mountain, literally sliding more than driving. With only one wheel putting down power and no traction for the others, I had to hold the moto at a constant slight angle in order to prevent it from sliding out of the rut. Every ten or twenty seconds a change in the shape of the rut, a weakening of my arms, or some other random twitch would cause a slight change in the angle of the moto and suddenly it would attempt to careen full speed into the mud on the side of the road, off a cliff, or into the middle to get stuck. My attention would snap back completely and I’d fight the front wheel, sometimes pushing the moto with my front wheel at a solid 45 degree angle to my direction of travel, slip sliding through the mud…

Twice I lost control badly enough to smash heavily into the mud on the side, once bouncing out and the other time saving myself with an instinctive (and dangerous!) push with my right leg against a convenient rock. For what felt like hours (and was), I slid down the side of the mountain, the only relief being a lessening of the horrible fog until finally I got beneath it – and realized it was a cloud, not fog.

P1010608As I neared the end of the horrible mud, a new problem began to scare me even more… my chain began to skip! The chains on a mototaxi are usually a bit loose because they need a lot of play due to the three wheel independent suspension and large area covered by the chains. As such, they do not handle rapid changes in speed well – such changes in speed that happen when a wheel loses traction and begins to spin extremely fast, then catches and slows down. Combine this with the amount of mud now wedged into my undercarriage and all over the chain and skipping was inevitable… but the last thing I wanted to deal with was trying to re-seat the chain in the mud if it came off!

P1010610I started modulating the throttle much more carefully and made it the final few kilometers to the bottom, where the road began to ascend the final hill towards Puquio. I knew this section was rock, so I wasn’t worried too much, but it turned out I had remembered wrong! The first section, at least, was a thin but very slippery mud! UGH! I closed my eyes and gunned the throttle, spinning my drive wheel the entire way up with the moto sideways and barely moving…  occasionally kicking off the ground with one or both feet to help a change of direction or just move the moto upward a few inches…  and finally made it to the rocky bit!

Home free from there, I whipped into town shortly before dark and decided to take the honorable way out. I drove up into the downtown area and looked for a hostal with a garage, pulling into the first one I found for the night and enjoying a clean and slightly upscale (compared to where I’ve been before) room for 40 soles. After another quick meal of pollo a la brasa it was time to crash.

Tomorrow I need to find a SOAT so I stop getting bothered by the cops! I’m going to sleep in a bit so I leave around 8AM, hopefully something will be open and I can get this out of the way… then it’s off towards Abancay, 300km or so distant.

Day 6
Puquio, Peru @ 8:45AM
End: Abancay, Peru @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 320km (~200mi) in 9.25 hours (~34KMH / ~21MPH average)
Average Gas Mileage: ~57MPG
Stopped by Police: 1x

Ah, Abancay. This I know. As I approached and saw the road coming down from Chincherros I was almost overcome with emotion at the memory of being here a year and a half ago, the horrible descent into Abancay in the dark with Rob & Will’s chain constantly coming loose as I illuminated the road for them, their headlight on the fritz as well. Seeing this road in the daylight from below was a shocking reminder of that moment, as well as the realization that for the next few days I would be retracting my steps from that previous journey.

IMG_4962The day started poorly, with me sleeping through all four (!) of my alarms… thankfully I woke up on my own around 7AM and was packed and out the door by just past 8AM (I am slow in the mornings). I started asking around for a place to buy SOAT (Peruvian insurance, required by law, and a huge hassle to keep talking my way out of not having it) and was told that I couldn’t get a SOAT for a moto here! Augh?! Fine, I’ll find one in Abancay, hopefully I won’t get hassled too much on the way…

On the way out of town I fueled up (SOP) and bought a wrench set, since it turns out the set included with the bike was not at all sufficient (and somewhere I lost my adjustable wrench). Then I cranked my tunes and prepared myself for the long ride to Abancay, reveling in the simple brainlessness of driving on beautiful high class pavement!

My joy was short lived, however, as I quickly find myself yet again ascending, ascending, ascending. It’s mind numbing at times – starting at 10k feet up in the mountains, you wouldn’t expect to ascend for hours… short bursts of road followed by a sharp turn and another short burst, going on and on. Every time it looks like you’re going straight for a bit you slowly curve around the “top” of the mountain only to see a higher one to climb. Hours later you’re at 15k feet up, little moto barely chugging along, wondering if it’s ever going to end…

IMG_4973Thankfully, it did. After quite awhile at over 14,000 feet, I came around a corner to find one of the world’s coolest roads laid out before me – a three thousand foot drop nearly straight down a hill, looping back and forth (of course). If only I had a sports car… alas, my moto will have to do! Finally giving it free reign in 5th gear, I coasted down into the valley at 60kmh, braking hard for turns and trying not to overbalance onto two wheels with the downward and outward force.

A small ascent turned me around another mountain and into a long, seemingly endless valley… could this be it? Could I dare to believe it would be downhill from here? I knew Abancay was at a “mere” 7500 feet, so a descent would be in order…  well, here we go!

IMG_4968Then, a surprise – my fuel ran out! It should have easily lasted me to the next main town, around 200km from Puquio, but all that ascending was destroying my mileage. With two liters left in reserve, I flipped the switch to reserve and crossed my fingers that it would be all down hill from here. I rolled into the medium size town looking for a gas station and drove past a small store that had a bunch of gas cans out front for sale! Oooh, I need one of those…  hah! I turned around to pick one up, pondering the irony of running out of fuel after buying a spare gas can… Luckily the shop owner told me the next gas station was close by down the road.

At the gas station I filled up and started taking off layers – it was hot! At 14k+ feet, where I had been for most of the day, the temperature was in the high 40’s when the sun was behind the clouds (according to my watch thermometer). With wind chill, I was near or slightly below freezing and thus had thrown on many of my layers. Now, down at around 9k feet, it was a bit toasty and time to take some off.

I asked the lady at the gas station if Abancay was uphill or downhill and was happy to here that it was slightly downhill! The next few hours and 120km passed in a blur of fifth gear 55-60kmh cruising, with a few trips up to near redline at 65-70kmh just for kicks. It was an interesting drive down the valley with a river on one side and huge rock walls on both sides for most of the ride. Unlike every place I’ve ever seen in the US, when a sign here says watch out for falling rock they mean like, really, rock ACTUALLY falls… every few miles there would be a huge pile of rocks in one lane, closing off half the road, every once in awhile with people and equipment working to clear it.

At one point I saw two dudes dusting the road off post-clearing, using tree branches. Seriously. That small, simple thing seemed like such a glaring “this is not home” difference – heck, it’s probably against the law to use a tree like that in the States, heh.

P1010633The final push into Abancay was mostly uphill, but timed perfectly with the setting sun and fading light. As I cruised up the hill, a local commuter van would keep passing me then stop to pick someone up, allowing me to pass them. This repeated itself maybe eight times, each time with everyone in the van cheering and waving as they passed me again. Soon I was recognizing areas, even though I had driven through before in the night, then my nemesis struck again!

This time there was a huge police checkpoint coming into town with the police stopping everyone. It’s amazing how much this bums me out – I’m trying to do things right but man it’s hard to find this freaking SOAT! As with last time, the officer that stops me quickly passes me off to the head guy sitting in a truck who takes all my documents and tells me that a SOAT is more important than my driver’s license or passport and that I’m in a lot of trouble for not having it. After fifteen minutes of conversation, my play works again and he lets me go with the promise to buy a SOAT in Abancay.

Any time I encounter an unfriendly police officer, my Spanish instantly gets incredibly worse and I think this ends up frustrating them to the point where they just let me go rather than trying to communicate with me. Some of this is calculated on my part, but honestly a huge portion of it is just that any time someone is unfriendly to me my brain gets scrambled and it becomes much harder to figure out how to say what I want to say. Usually this sticks with me for a good twenty or thirty minutes afterwards, making things pretty frustrating for a bit.

Regardless, he let me go and I rolled into town. Abancay is very confusing and like many towns in Peru is full of one way streets that are barely marked, so I just sort of followed traffic around in the fading light until I saw a big HOTEL sign with GARAJE underneath it. This is my new rule – stop at the first place with a garage! I’m sure I’ll break it in the future, but this one turned out to be a pretty nice tourist hotel with a nice secure garage. The price was a bit steep at 75 soles but it’s in the middle of a big town and I didn’t want to drive around at night looking.

See, here is a problem with traveling alone: if I want to go into a place, I leave my stuff unattended. My stuff that is strapped to my moto with one or two bungee cords. I generally feel okay leaving it for a few moments in the daylight, but I am not comfortable leaving it all out on a busy street in the dark for even five minutes while I find out what the deal is with a hotel. Hence my desire to get into a hotel before dark and not worry about my stuff (I have some ideas for building a cage or box to put my stuff in and may put this into effect in Cusco as an excuse to stay there a couple days).

Once I got to my room and showered (oh man, such a nice shower, tons of water pressure!) I found a very pleasant and unexpected surprise – there’s wifi! I don’t have to go looking for internet! That’s worth 75 soles to me right now, haha.

I went out to eat at a nearby Chifa, found a small grocery store that had Coke Zero (score! that’s another discussion for another time, but let’s just say for now that there’s no diet/light stuff outside big cities down here), then headed back to the hotel to write this and catch up.

You know, every time I reconnect I’m always surprised at how little has changed in the world. It feels like the last two days have been months and everything should be different…  but it’s not. Hrm.

Cusco tomorrow maybe?

Bonus comment: If you wonder, most of the photos here are taken with my crappy rugged point and shoot camera. Every once in awhile I stop and get out the DSLR though – that’s why some photos are prettier than others. Also, I don’t really proof-read what I write, sorry. :/


Popular posts from this blog

Patagonia Beckons

Today I begin what may become one of the most difficult tests of long term mental and physical endurance and strength I have ever undertaken: for most of its remaining 2500km through Patagonia, Ruta 40 is considered one of the most desolate highways in the world. Over half of the remaining road is gravel, sand, and dirt. The number of towns listed on a map once I pass Perito Moreno can be counted on one hand, and there are many stretches of hundreds of miles without provisions, fuel, or places to stay.

Gear Review: Sea to Summit Big River Dry Sacks

In the past couple months on the road I think I’ve spent more time riding my scooter through rain than I have in the dry – this is clearly reflected in the fact that as time has gone by I’ve invested more and more money in things to keep my stuff dry, since wet gear sucks. One of my favorite purchases for this trip is the pair of Sea to Summit Big River Dry Sacks I picked up just before leaving, in 13L and 20L sizes. They cost me around $20 each and are one of the best pieces of gear I’ve purchased in years – extremely durable, effective, and simple to use.

5 Things that Suck about Traveling Solo

I find it telling that it seems a majority of the interesting travel blogs I run across are written by solo travelers, most often women. I think there’s a reason why we write more than people who travel with friends or in groups and that it’s pretty self evident: it’s an outlet for our loneliness. In the last year and a half, the vast majority of my time has been spent away from home, alone. As I write this, it’s been over a month since I’ve conversed with anyone in my native language, and I can remember every single conversation in English for the month before that. The truth is, I don’t think I could have done this without the internet – without a blog to share my thoughts, without Facebook to see what my friends are up to, without the occasional e-mail to provide a fa├žade of normalcy… without these things I’d likely have driven myself insane with my internal dialogue. Now, I grant, there’s a reason I travel alone and I do love it, but lately it seems all I run across in the blogosp