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Huaraz, Peru
August 26, 2004

The Road to Caraz

Chef at the Delbus Hostal.  I'm happier than he is - I won't have to eat his food anymore!You come to the City of Huaraz for the mountains, plain and simple. At 3,091 meters (just over 10,000í) the city is high, so break out the Tylenol, and very dry, so the vegetation is not a draw, and neither Huaraz nor the small towns nearby are very pleasant architecturally; most having been destroyed recently by massive earthquakes (1941, 1962 and 1970) or the resulting mud slides.

So, you come to Huaraz because the Cordillera Blanca has the largest concentration of high peaks in the World, outside of Central Asia. To put this in perspective, according to the guidebook Lonely Planet, there are fifty peaks over 5,700m (18,600í) in this relatively small area, while there are none in all of Europe and only three in North America (Denali in Alaska, Mt. Logan in Canadaís Yukon Territory and Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.) At least thatís why Iím here Ė I love to look at big mountains. But more about that in a minute.

I leave Loja, Ecuador Monday morning, and cross into Peru just after lunch and on to Piura by early afternoon. The surface is generally good in Ecuador, but as the road winds through the southern mountains, itís tough to average more than 40mph Ė sometimes much less.

Mototaxi drivers in Sullana, PeruBut as I cross into Peru and am headed for itís coastal (Pacific Ocean) plain, as the terrain levels and the road straightens and since the surface is excellent, my speed increases dramatically. I make Piura (200 miles) by 4pm and decide to cross the Desierto de Suchura (another 140 miles) to Chiclayo in the late afternoon. Luckily the temperatures are moderate, the pueblos few (these are all two-lane roads that go through the small towns, so my speed is greatly reduced,) and Peruís National Police are scarcer than normal, so I let the Beemer rip and pull into Chiclayo by 6pm. Iíve done 340 miles Ė a long day of riding down here.

My troubles on the way to Huaraz begin in 2003 when Ricardo marks up my map of Peru and says ďthereís a great private road here, with gates at each end. Just ask and theyíll let you through.Ē Our conversation on that particular point ended, but it was obvious from the map that it cut off as much as fifty miles on my way to Huaraz; my next destination.

On Tuesday morning troubles on the way to Huaraz continue, while loading the bike, I notice that my tail rack is badly cracked. The GS1150 (the BMW model I own) tail rack essentially has two purposes: first, it provides mounting points for the rear passenger seat, and second, it allows a way to hold the taillight and rear fender assemblies in place; up and off the back tire if you will. In addition the after-market manufacturers have one more use for it, a convenient place to mount storage accessories; in my case, a Jesse top box. Now space is extremely limited on a motorcycle, so adding a few more liters of storage space is very attractive. Because itís located high and far back on the bike, I generally use it to store light weight items like clothing, although on this trip I also have a cable lock and my computer there. However, in total I surely have no more than ten pounds in it.

Dunes in Sechuro Desert, on way to Chiclayo, PeruUnfortunately, the top box mounting is poorly designed (a point that I will pass on to Jesse Mfg when I return.) By necessity the box is at the very far end of the tail rack to allow room for the passenger, but the real problem is that the rack is made of cast aluminum. In short, light weight, but brittle. When visiting us in 2002, I believe that Grant Johnson (HorizonsUnlimited; he and his wife ten-year veterans of their own around-the-world motorcycle trip) told me the rack was prone to cracking. Unfortunately, I didnít act on the fix.

Well as I pack the bike in Chiclayo, I notice the tail rack is cracked, virtually in half. Iíll skip all the details for now, but close to the hotel is a garage and the owner welds two metal plates to the underside of the rack, which along with three bolts on each side down through the rack and the metal braces, bridges the cracks. He also welds and grinds the aluminum to hide the cracks. His repairs might hold, I think, although Iím certain that even if they do, the tail rack will eventually break in another spot. The constant bouncing, even on good roads, just puts too much stress on the rack, with the top box cantilevered so far back. But by 1pm Iím on my way to Trujillo, just 120 miles south on the Pan Americana.

I hope to spend Tuesday night in Huaraz, which will allow me three consecutive days in one place (a rare luxury on these trips,) so the repair has cost me a day.

Itís Wednesday morning and Iím on the road early, and with only about 180 miles to go, visions of arriving just after noon dance in my head, so Iíll still enjoy the bulk of two days to view the Cordillera Blanca, which Iíve read described as ďawe-inspiring.Ē

Forty-two miles south of Chiclayo I find the gates to Ricardoís cut-off, and while Iím just a little surprised to find a gravel road, Iím not concerned. Many motorcyclists wonít ride gravel, since it both makes the bike harder to control, and the pounding is hard on the bike and itís equipment, but although Iím no dirt rider Iím technically proficient and have many, many miles on rough gravel roads both in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In short Ė no fear.

A medical clinic in Chiclayo, PeruTwo big trucks follow me through the gates, and Iím happy for the company in case of a breakdown, but they pass when I stop to take pictures, and after ten miles Iím alone. The road surface is quite good and standing on the pegs I make 40 Ė 50 mph. [For you non-riders, standing on the foot pegs accomplishes two things: first it lowers the center of gravity of the bike, as it moves the riderís weight from the seat down to the pegs, making the bike much easier to handle in loose gravel, and second, it gives the suspension a break, as the riderís legs absorb some of the jolts from the bumps in the road. The downside, of course, is that itís hard on the knees and after awhile, can get uncomfortable.]

By the way, this route is essentially Death Valley. There is not so much as a drop of moisture, a blade of vegetation, or other than the road, even a single sign of human existence for the first fifteen miles. Iím unconcerned, though, and other than taking some pictures, keep moving. Of course, Iíll be happy to reach pavement again, at what I surmise will be seventy kilometers (42 miles.)

At forty-two miles I arrive at Chuquicara, a scab of a village, though really just a construction camp from all the heavy equipment in sight, that appears to be the staging point for a large road construction job. Perhaps that should have been my first clue, but I stop to buy water, take some pictures and head for the pavement. It will be a good day.

Tom on Ricardoīs cut-offTwo miles past Chuquicara the road deteriorates from bad to abysmal, and I come to a fork without signs; a bridge to the left that looks more likely, and a road that goes straight. There is no sensible option but to turn the bike around to go back to camp and ask directions, and as I do so, I notice that the top box is sitting a bit lower. Closer inspection reveals that the tail rack has failed again. With no other choice, now, I return to Chuquicara, stop, point out the crack to a young worker and ask if anyone in the camp can weld aluminum. The answer is ďnoĒ but he obviously understands the gravity of the situation and motions that I should sit tight. Without another agenda, I do as Iím told, and quickly the young worker returns with Miharo, a slightly built, short and compact Peruvian with a quick smile and dark, intelligent eyes.

Together the three of us unload the rear of the bike and drop the top box so Miharo can determine the extent of the damage. He quickly mentions that he doesnít have tools to weld aluminum, but might be able to fabricate a metal brace. In the meantime, a crowd has gathered. Perhaps ten men talk to me excitedly in Spanish about my trip, my size, the cost of the bike and helmet, and of course, the repair. I do my best to converse, but only understand about every twentieth word.

Workers in the village/camp at Chiquicara, PeruMiharo goes to work with a welding machine and rebar. Now this is a highly refined motorcycle, a fine example of German engineering at itís best, and while the thought of an unsightly piece of steel rebar attached is offensive, Iím low on options. For two hours Miharo and his Peruvian friend work, bending and shaping the rebar so it will support the tail rack, and thus the top box, without interfering with its other functions that I noted earlier.

In the middle of the repair, the gaggle of on-lookers who are adding little to the process except local color, watch the rebar fashioned into its final shape, and one offers a comment that I clearly understand and makes the assembled group roar with laughter. ďThe Inca solucion,Ē he says. Well it turns out that Miharo is an Indigena from Cusco, Peru, and his cosmetically crude solution has the group in stitches, if not partly in awe from their approving nods. I concur. It may not be pretty, but it sure looks functional. Together we re-assemble the bike and load it.

The BMW under repair, awaiting the Inca solutionIím ready to push the loaded motorcycle from the primitive shop area when I ask the Inca the cost of the repairs, and Iím not surprised when Iím met with ďceroĒ and sideways shake of the head. I offer again, but he wonít take money. As I suspected, these are just honest, hard-working men earning their daily bread and helping a traveler in need. So, I hit upon the only other thing that I can part with that might also be of use to him Ė a 3-ton capacity scissor jack that is in my left hard bag. (Used to facilitate removal of the front tire during crating.) While clearly very embarrassed, he accepts my token of appreciation with dignity. The assembled men murmur their appreciation and respect, and Iím off to Caraz.

While my destination for the night is Huaraz, still over eighty miles distant, the intermediate point is Caraz, and the point at which Iíve now been told to expect pavement. One of the group says itís forty kilometers (24 miles) to Caraz and will take four hours by auto but only three hours by motorcycle. Three hours for forty kilometers works out to eight miles per hour, and Iím a bit perplexed by the pronouncement, but the forty-two mile gravel backtrack is equally unappealing.

Crossing a stream on the road to CarazThree buses have passed through Chuquicara in the time itís taken to affect the repair, so at least Iíll have some company. I press on, although I realize that Iím in serious trouble after about five miles, when it takes a half hour. I can only describe this road as Death Valley, Danteís Inferno and the Gates of Hell all rolled together into one ribbon of rock I must pass to attain pavement at Caraz.

The gravel, angular and varying in size from peas to cantaloupes, only hides sharp rocks below it. My concern has moved from whether the Inca Solution will hold, to whether I can cross this particular patch of Hell without blowing a tire, or may two. And to forestall that painful inevitability I keep the bike in first gear and rarely hit ten miles per hour. Road moguls of eight to ten inches high are continuous. There are no settlements or people; save two of the buses I pass, now under repair at the roadside with varying ailments. But Iíve spent a good deal of my adult life on motorcycles, and in some respect preparing for this situation, and I continue forward on the road to perdition.

One of the many tunnels on the road to CarazAt seventeen miles, close to one and one-half hours after leaving Chuquicara I stop to ask a trucker who is repairing his eighteen-wheeler. ďHow far to Caraz,Ē I ask. ďTres horas,Ē he replies. Three hours, I think, it was three hours from the construction camp, well over an hour ago. But I continue on this hideous highway Ė Peru Ruta 12 Ė carved into the narrow canyon of the Rio Santa. At many points the canyon is so narrow that the Peruvians have resorted to tunneling through the adjoining mountain. I lose count after twenty tunnels; each a precarious passage in its own right. Twice I ford streams seeking the Rio Santa, and often cross rickety bridges over its raging waters Ė arriving fresh and fast from the glaciers of the nearby Cordillera Blanca. Not to overly dramatize the situation, if that is at all possible, but this makes the Dalton Highway Ė to Alaskaís North Slope Ė look like a walk in the park.

A tough bridge on the road to Caraz.  The river was about 50ībelow.At twenty-two miles, and by my calculations close to the end of Ricardoís shortcut, I come across two young men leading donkeys. ďCuatro horas to Caraz,Ē they affirm. Hmm. Four hours. This is not good. I quickly understand that the time necessary to arrive at Caraz is based both on your sense of time and your mode of transportation. Donkeys, trucks, buses and motorcycles all travel at different speeds, so the varying answers shouldnít be all that surprising. Clearly, though, Iím nowhere near Caraz.

Although moving slowly, Iím up on the pegs during most of this, hoping to absorb the jolts of the road, and both save the tires and the now fathomable scenario of the frame breaking. Ruta 12 is also exacting a psychological toll. Itís close to 4pm with only two hours of daylight left in this confined canyon, and not only am I seeing a comfortable hotel in Huaraz declining with the diminishing afternoon, but the possibly of pitching a tent is entering my mind.

My low point hits as I ride much of the next two miles through long, very dark tunnels. These are one-way, of course, but the biggest problem is that I canít see the road. As I bounce from rock to rock I try to avoid the thick, high gravel piled between the tracks, and several times nearly put the Beemer on its side.

I donít want to leave the impression that Iím scared to death, because I clearly am not, but by now a hundred thoughts are going through my mind and not many of them are good. The tension is clearly rising. Mentally Iím beginning to compute how long my water will last. Secretly I hope that this is not the point where Iíve finally bitten off more than I can chew.

Then up ahead I see a spot in the road, which appears to be moving in my same direction. It might be a person leading a mule, Iíve now seen three or four, and since Iím moving very slowly, perhaps a minute passes before I conclude that itís a bicycle.

Well, in another minute I catch Sjoue, a young Frenchman pedaling for four years around the world. For a moment we simply stare at each other in amazement, then break out in laughter at the absurdity of the situation.

Sjosue, the bicycling FrenchmanSjoue speaks no English, I no French, and so we communicate in rudimentary Spanish. He is very calm and is not in the least concerned either for his safety or his arrival date in Huaraz, my anticipated destination for the night. ďCaraz,Ē he says, responding to my inquiries about the resumption of pavement, ďmaybe tomorrow, maybe not.Ē I finally comprehend that he is completely at ease with unrolling his sleeping bag on the smoothest gravel he can find once the lack of light curtails further travel.

His complete lack of concern transforms me. I have some water, a river fifty feet away and a water purifier in my panniers, a little food, tent and sleeping bag. A few vehicles a day will pass by. This is not life threatening; merely a bad road in the middle of a wonderful trip. We exchange e-mail addresses, toast our respective countries with bottled water and each move on.

In the end it takes four and a half hours to travel what turns out to be almost sixty miles from Chuquicara to Caraz, as at some point the road improves and the last ten miles are paved. Itís another hour to reach Huaraz in the fading light. And at the end of the day, the Inca Solution holds.

My rewards? Two, actually. First, in a very real way, I gain a much better understanding of fear, and what it means to truly step outside my personal level of comfort. And the second? Well as I ride the smooth asphalt on the final thirty miles from Caraz to Huaraz I get a real treat Ė the sun setting on the six thousand meter peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. Most exquisite.