Jeremy Kroeker and Elle West are riding down to the tip of South America from their home in Alberta, and they’re telling us about it as they go. When they last checked in, they were almost all the way to Peru; now, they’re crossing the border and continuing south.
I look around and take stock. I’m at a gas station on the gritty outskirts of Lima. My girlfriend has just disappeared into the growing dim of The City that Honks, and she’s carrying my rear wheel on the back of her motorcycle.
I think I live here now.
I sit down with my back against the wall and try to act calm. If something happens to Elle, if she gets a flat or – shudder – she gets knocked off her motorcycle in this malevolent traffic, I won’t know about it. There’s no internet here, and our phones don’t have SIM cards for Peru.
I can only wait. I spot a few anchor points for my tarp. I could sleep here. Maybe, if I’m still stuck after a few weeks, I could get a job at the gas station. It wouldn’t pay much, I’m sure, but you can’t beat the commute.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Come on, Jeremy. You’ve been at this a while now, travelling with your motorcycle. You ought to be self-reliant enough, at least, to fix a flat at a gas station.” Yeah, I thought that too but, these past few days have been … odd.
Elle and I left Vilcabamba, Ecuador, on a sunny day, early December. It was only a short ride to the border with Peru if we took the conventional route. However, we learned of a more interesting track south that would take us to a little-used crossing, a crossing with character.
“The guidebook says to inquire about the condition of the road before you go,” cautioned Elle, flipping through our cumbersome Lonely Planet guide for South America.
“That book is for backpackers who take buses,” I said, smiling. “Even if the road is horrible, that just means more fun for us with these bikes. Let’s just go and see for ourselves.”
And so we went.
Off to the border
In the highlands of Ecuador, the landscape is a patchwork of hand-cultivated fields on steep banks. Sometimes you’ll see guinea pigs roasting on spits beside the road. The pedestrian traffic is, more often than not, women with weathered faces wearing brown fedoras, colourful shawls, and yellow rubber boots. Here, south of Vilcabamba, there were fewer walkers, but still the smattering of banana plantations and sloping fields.
At first it seemed strange that the guidebook would mention road conditions. The pavement, though narrow in spots, provided smooth curves as we shifted up and down through the gears. I stopped to let Elle pass as I snapped a photo. Then, riding to catch up, I heard her over the intercom, “Uh-oh, Jeremy. I don’t like this.”
(Actually, I’m paraphrasing. Elle speaks with the ribald vernacular of a New York City dock worker, making it nearly impossible to quote her directly in print. The point is, in her way, she expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with something.)
I rounded the bend and found her parked at the edge of a wash-out. We had seen these before, but this one was special. It began with a little jump off the pavement into a sloppy track.
I know that Elle is a better rider than she thinks she is, so I figured I’d go first, make it look easy, and put her mind at rest. The step-down was nothing, just a few inches but, technically, both of my wheels were in the air at the same time, so I’m calling it a jump. I landed on a poor line, corrected, and had to squiggle through the mud with a bit more “pizzaz” than I would have liked. Rather than verbally feeding false hope to Elle on the other side of the washout, I remained silent, watching.
After sizing up the obstacles, and possibly considering my inelegant style, Elle chose to avoid the drop altogether. She backtracked a bit and approached the mud in complete control. She had a few stutter starts – stopping, looking, cursing, starting, stopping, etc. – but once she determined to go she handled the track with dogged efficiency.
“‘Let’s not check the condition of the road,’ you said,” chimed Elle. “‘It’ll be fun,’ you said.” As she poked fun at me Elle was visibly pleased with herself, but also visibly shaken.
From that point the pavement transitioned to dirt and gravel, but the conditions were reasonable, no more mud. If there was any hardship along the way the scenery made up for it with mountaintop views, green valleys, ironwork bridges spanning rushing creeks, the odd waterfall, and livestock tethered here and there, cropping the grass.
Arriving at the frontier with Peru, we parked up and went in search of officials. Finding just two men in charge of the entire border on the Ecuador side, we left our passports with them and walked across the gravel to a shop for a snack. There we passed the time watching roosters strut and crow. After an hour or so the officials came over with our paperwork, all done and processed, then they asked us to pose for photos with them before waving us along. Thus marked the most casual border crossing of my life.
Onward into Peru
The next day, we found fewer sloping fields than in Ecuador but, rather, rice fields in terraced and irrigated valley bottoms. The women here still wore colourful garments, but the hats were tall and flat. The hats made me think of the Wicked Witch of the West, if one her flying monkeys had tamped down the point with a skillet. (But that’s just how my mind works. Elle was reminded of the hats worn by the American Pilgrims.) We meandered down and west, out of the Andes, toward the coast to a more established artery, the Pan-American Highway.
Here we discovered that Peruvians play a high stakes game where, seemingly, the goal of every motorist is to kill their opponent; and their opponent is every other motorist. For example, if a truck is behind me, it may try to crush me between it and the rear bumper of the vehicle in front of me. Or it may pull up alongside and try to sideswipe me off a bridge. I’m still learning the rules of this game, but it seems like extra points are awarded for kills with flair.
On the upside, this frees one up to ride like you’re playing Super Mario Kart. If you find yourself stuck behind a column of transport trucks, by all means, pass the string of them on the shoulder. This may seem dangerous – and it’s certainly illegal – but if you stay in line this makes you vulnerable to attack. I find that it’s best to get out front and ride fast, shoulder checking like an impact sprinkler. Every now and then, toss a banana.
With the Andes mountain range on our left and the Pacific Ocean on our right, just out of view, Elle and I raced along the Pan-American. There were sand dunes on either side of us, and everywhere there was garbage. If the garbage was not merely blowing across the road or snagged on barbed wire, then the garbage was burning and blowing across the road, or burning and snagged on barbed wire. In short, Peru was not making a great first impression.
But we landed at a seaside resort to shelter in an apartment behind a vegan-friendly restaurant. There, we took our rest.
Back into the mountains
The next day, eager to abandon the murderous Pan-American traffic, Elle and I splintered off east, back toward the looming Andes – this after another delay.
That morning my bike refused to start for the second time on the journey. The first time happened in Mexico. Back then, after topping up the battery cells with distilled water, the machine came back to life. Here too, after Elle push-started me and my beleaguered machine, we found the solution to be a simple top-up of the battery cells.
So we had a late start, but that was behind us now, just like the highway. Now, virtually alone on a vast expanse, our motorcycles trailed clouds of brown dust on the gravel road as we reeled in the backdrop of blue hills ahead. Freedom afore! Diversity aft! This – the joy of meeting challenges and blowing them out the back – yes, this is what riding motorcycles is all about.
Then came a familiar wiggle from the back of my machine, an unsettling squirm that wiped the smile from my face.
“Elle, I have a flat,” I said.
The puncture came just as the road poked its nose into the mountains, but it left us in what I would still call a desert landscape. There was a bit of pavement here, which would provide us with a slight advantage for the work that lay ahead.
Elle circled around and parked behind me, much like vultures do in those nature shows. Thankfully, the real vultures stayed in the air. And Elle had a better attitude.
I won’t embarrass myself by saying how long I struggled to remove and replace my rear tube. I will say that a filmmaker might have chosen a time-lapse sequence for this bit, one that turns crisp, mid-day light into soft, orange haze and long shadows at the end. Were the vultures circling a bit lower now? I think so.
Let’s chalk up part of the struggle to the notoriously stiff Heidenau rubber on the rear wheel. This is what I say. Elle and I worked long and hard to break the bead using her kickstand and the weight of her motorcycle, while I stood on the rubber, jumping, and wishing.
Somehow our labour paid off and, as I finally replaced the wheel and got ready to roll, one of the very few motorists we had seen during this process stopped to check on us. He rode a 125cc motorcycle. Elle gathered some information while I packed up the tools.
“Hotel?” he said. “No, nothing for many hours.”
“But,” he said, “there is a police station down the way. It’s, maybe, one hour.” Then, looking us over, he said, “maybe two hours.”
With that, he wished us well and puttered out of sight.
Any port in a storm
Earlier in Peru, on our second day in country, Elle and I had ridden into the black of night. From the start we said that’s one thing we would not do, but we had got ourselves into a bind, unable to find shelter or a suitable camp site. That night Elle, with her hazard lights flashing, lead the way through a drizzle, dodging potholes, devil-may-care taxis, and stray dogs, until we found an over-priced hotel, where we collapsed into bed.
On this day, after the flat battery in the morning and the flat tire in the afternoon, it looked as though we could face a similar fate. Only this time, there was no hope of any hotel. We rode on into the fading light on a rough gravel track. The sandy patches, ruts, and large rocks jutting out forced us into first gear, averaging less than 30 km/h. The road squiggled alongside a raging brown river and, to our frustration, a smooth highway.
There, on the other side of the impassable water, we could see cars and trucks rushing along at a good clip. The pavement curved so very close to us that our maps showed the two tracks intersecting at several points. I could almost read the license plates of the trucks on the other side. But no. There was no bridge and so, into the twilight now, we continued bouncing along in first gear.
Actually, although we had ridden out of our comfort zones a long time ago, Elle and I remained calm. I started marking flat spots, just off the road and discretely out of the way, where we might camp for the night. We hadn’t eaten much since breakfast, and we had no food now, but we could draw water from the river and run it through a filter. Sure, I would get cranky without food, but Elle would just laugh at me for that, and she would make me smile.
Then we would laugh together and everything would be okay in the morning.
With that thought, and with our headlights now beginning to fill in the shadows on the road, we spotted a bridge ahead. Would it link us to the highway? It did, and soon we found a community, of sorts. Just a rest stop for buses, really, but there were a few tiendas and, yes, a police station with several officers milling about.
Elle poured on the charm while I watched from a distance. (“I’m just a helpless traveler, and I’m afraid of the dark. My husband, over there, can’t protect me. He’s an idiot,” etc.) The officers, bored with their duties of inconveniencing bus travelers, welcomed the distraction. Yes, you can camp over there, under a tin roof, behind our office. With the cats. And with the passengers who will step off of buses and pee in the corner every half-hour, all night.
That night, after a simple dinner, with the aid of our headlamps, we set up the tent. I hung my hammock, bought some beer, lit my pipe and, together with Elle, looked out at the stars over the raging river down below. A passenger nearly stumbled into our tent, but recovered. Then he discretely moved over a few feet to pee.
We got an early start in the morning. Bread and eggs for breakfast, some coffee, and then the road.
We arrived unexpectedly at the gateway to the Cañon del Pato, a winding ribbon, recently asphalted, that takes one through dozens of narrow tunnels carved into steep cliffs. I say we came to this stretch unexpectedly because, well, I don’t plan ahead. Elle and I both knew of this road, and we both wanted to ride it, but we didn’t plot our way. After the events of the day before, we sort of lost sight of where exactly we were.
To stumble upon this track, as we did, made it seem all the more magical. Elle and I climbed up, switchbacking along, then through tunnel after tunnel, stopping to take photos at this precipice, or by that waterfall, never failing to exclaim our delight to one another over the intercoms.
Elle: (Expletive deleted.)
After that we arrived, breathless, on the other side. Again, failing to plot ahead, we took a boring line to a boring town where we stopped for a late lunch. Looking at our maps, we then discovered that we had missed Highway 107 into the Cordillera Blanca, another of several legendary roads through the highlands of Peru.
Backtracking, we arrived late to the scene, but we took the road anyway. Riding the Cañon del Pato, and then into the Cordillera Blanca on the same day is almost too much motoring bliss. It’s like a kid gorging on Halloween candy. Or like having too many holiday dinners in a row, and then the leftovers.
The 107 through the Cordillera Blanca meanders along a wide alpine valley before binging on hairpin switchbacks. It rises nearly to the snow line of glacier-capped peaks that loom above, then it drops down the other side of the pass in a similar twisting manner. On the descent, the line curves past more waterfalls and alongside cold, clear lakes, all the way to Chacas.
Elle and I had been dropping into bed late, night after night in Peru, after dealing with some kind of problem or, at least, a long day in the saddle. The next few days were no different. To avoid retracing our steps through the Cordillera Blanca, we opted for a winding dirt track, arriving the back way to San Marcos.
On the sidewalk outside our hotel that night, I pounded on my aluminum luggage with an axe. Earlier, I had taken two spills, and now the luggage was bent.
Against our better judgement, Elle and I explored a muddy route up to a waterfall. Elle dropped her bike on a slippery bit and aborted mission, while I chose to grind on to see if the road improved. Ahead, the track got much steeper and rutted. Rather than stopping, I accelerated. Suddenly in a rut, facing a Sophie’s Choice of crashing into a river, or crashing into a mountain, I chose the mountain. The next drop was less dramatic, but it was the one that bent my luggage.
More long days, more alpine roads, more Pan-American madness, and then, finally, a rest – or so we thought.
On the recommendation of a friend, we landed at a beachfront campground on the Pacific, just a short ride to Lima the next day where we planned to get new tires. This being the off-season, we had the campground to ourselves.
Thief in the night
The beach was ours, too. After stepping over the high-water mark of plastic debris, we walked into the cold water up to our knees. Normally I would dive in at this point, but I’m still healing from a punctured eardrum. We could wade in and chase seagulls on the sand, though.
Minor bike maintenance followed that night, and Elle befriended the camp dog. We were alone but, surely, he would be our guardian in the event of any unwanted company. Elle made such good friends with the dog, in fact, that he tried to come into the tent with us when it was time for bed. I pushed him out gently.
“No,” I said with a laugh. “You’re an outside dog, aren’t you?”
In the wee hours of the night, I heard rustling outside. I sat up and listened. It was quiet now, only the wind. Again, rustling, again I sat up. It must be the hammock, rippling like a flag in the ocean breeze. The next time I heard it, it was unmistakable. Footfall, this time. And, with the fat moon throwing off its cold light, there was a shadow on our tent.
My heart pounded now as I sat up. Elle remained sleeping. There was the shadow again but, this time, I could see clearly the outline of a dog. With that I relaxed. Just the dog, I thought. Just the dog.
When rustling startled me awake again, I had to investigate. Yes, it was the dog … the dog had wormed into my vestibule and unpacked my bag, dragging everything out to chew up all over the yard. Elle’s things, on the other hand, he had left completely alone.
Naked, I stepped into the moonlight. I found some paperwork over there, my computer cables here, my sandals (ripped to pieces) I found in several places. My only consolation is that the dog had also chewed into my toiletries bag where I kept some dental cleanser tablets. He stopped there, presumably, when he got a mouthful of fizz.
“I’ve just about had it with Peru,” I said to Elle in the morning, shaking sand out of everything and repacking my luggage from scratch. “I tell you, I just need one easy day. Just one.”
That’s when I discovered my rear tire was flat.
And feeling flat again
I hauled out my compressor. I inflated the tire and it drained again but, for some reason, it held at about 15 psi. It wasn’t much, but it kept the rim off the ground and, with no spare tube, I deemed it good enough to get me to Lima.
Limping along the Pan-American, keeping the speed down in spite of the marauding motorists, Elle and I made it to the outskirts of the capital, my rear tire still smoking its last cigarette.
“We’re doing it!” I said over the intercom. “Let’s just find a place to stay tonight. I’ll take the wheel off tomorrow and taxi it somewhere to get fixed. Perfect timing, really. I need a new tire anyway.”
And then, with a gasp, the rear tire stubbed out its coffin nail and died. I coasted into the gas station where I discovered a fresh bit of steel glinting in the rubber, rim on the ground. Elle left with my wheel, and I considered building a fort.
I believe it was Ted Simon who wrote, “Interruptions are the journey …” Yeah, well, I’m not a zen master like Ted – not yet, anyway. I don’t want any more interruptions in Peru. I just want one easy day.
Perhaps, from his home in France, Mr. Simon felt a ripple in the fabric that connects motorcycle travelers and sent his energy out to us in Peru, because Elle returned in good time with my wheel all patched up. The cheap tube had let the valve rip free from the rubber. That was the problem. At least we were not to blame for doing a poor job in the desert the other day. I took comfort in that.
When I had the wheel back in place, Elle and I were spent. It was light out, but it wouldn’t be for long. We headed into Lima at the height of rush hour seeking shelter, seeking food, and, as far as I was concerned, still seeking one easy day.
CMG is publishing regular, exclusive updates from Jeremy during his South American journey.