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Nazca, Peru
August 30, 2004

Cordillera Blanca and Huaraz

Cordillera BlancaThree nights in a 3-star hotel (Hotel Andino) in Huaraz is just the medicine I need after the rigors of the road to Caraz. In my $15 hostals Iíve made do with showers lacking pressure and tepid water. At Hotel Andino (not $15) the water is hot, plentiful and under steady and appropriate pressure. The Swiss-run management took me in filthy and tired; they put me back on the street clean and with renewed confidence.

In one quick day I change from traveler to tourist and join a bus trip to Lago de Llanganuco, a jewel of a mountain lake at 3,800m (12,000í); surrounded by 6,000m peaks. The bus ride up the steep mountain road is the type that generates the infrequent news in the US, about Peru. ďTourist bus rolls into ravine and kills 40.Ē We survived intact. The daylong trip ended at the cemetery at Yungay. On May 31, 1970, 18,000 villagers were buried in a massive landslide and mudflow as a 7.7 earthquake shook the nearby Cordillera Blanca. That natural disaster, the worst ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, killed 70,000 people in central Peru.

Even with my Thesaurus I have run out of words to describe the magnificent Cordillera Blanca. Iíll let my pictures do the talking.

Huaraz to Nazca

Lake LlanganncoFrom Huaraz, already at 10,000í, the road back to the Panamericana Norte (as the Pan American Highway is properly called north of Lima) crosses an ever-broadening valley between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra, and continues itís gradual ascent to a pass south of the village of Pachacho, marked on my map as 4,080m (13,341í.) Itís a beautiful and lonely ride for the first hour as grasslands roll away to the nearby mountains. I see an occasional sheepherder tending his flock and two llamas graze by the roadside. As I pass through small villages that appear to just cling to survival in what must surely be an inhospitable environment, children, in full uniform, play in their schoolyards.

Cordillera BlancaAt this high elevation, even in the late morning, I stop to pull on a warm trekking jacket and then flip on my handlebar warmers (one of the most important accessories on a touring motorcycle, I think.) Helge Pederson (a Norwegian now living in Seattle and author of a book which explains his own motorcycle journey Ė 10 Years on Two Wheels) was once quoted as saying that the most important thing on a touring motorcycle was a heated seat. Iím with you Helge, and I could use one now!

But as I crest the pass, the road simply falls out from under me and I descend 13,000í to sea level at Paramonga in seventy-five miles. At times switchbacks are stacked a dozen deep on this dizzying drop. The road surface, however, is excellent; and with the great handling characteristics of this BMW, I hardly break stride. In a little over an hour Iím watching workers cut sugar cane just a few miles from the coast, as I shed my jacket and kill the hand warmers. I hit the Pan-Americana Norte (north) and head south toward Lima.

The southern part of the Cordillera Blanca range, near the passFor well over a thousand miles (and extending another thousand miles or more deep into neighboring Chile) coastal Peru is sand dunes and more sand dunes, interspersed with the occasional oasis that supports large-scale agriculture as rivers run from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. Corn and sugar appear to be the main crops, but vegetables of every type are evident. An oasis might last for a mile or ten, but then the land changes again to desert, where there isnít enough water to support even a blade of grass.

This is not sightseeing country, rather land that just needs to be crossed, and I keep my speed up. Seventy-five miles north of Lima the Panamerican Norte turns into a full-fledged four-lane superhighway with a 90kph (54mph) speed limit. As an aside, this road is so good that in Germany there would be no limit, and I want to go faster to put the dunes behind me. However, Iíve been warned several times that the Peruvian National Police love to write tickets on this road, and I engage my Caterpillar cruise control (a small, yellow Cat o-ring that squeezes between the throttle and handlebar) and cool my heels at about 55mph. In fifth gear Iím barely pulling 3,500rpm. But the miles pass quickly as there are neither villages nor speed bumps Ė just miles of dunes and open roads.

Iíve also been warned repeatedly about Lima and crime against vehicles on the Panamericana. It is reputedly so bad, that in a call on Thursday night to my friend Ivan in Lima, he offers to meet me north of Lima and escort me through Lima on surface streets. Twice I try to call him from an hour north of the city, but without success. Itís almost 3pm and decision time. I can keep trying and maybe end up staying in Ancon, or with three hours of daylight left, push ahead. I decide to move on.

The suburbs are bad; they clearly look dangerous. On a bike Iím obviously very exposed. Iíve heard and read several stories of carjacking and robbery. While the Panamericana continues in four lanes and the traffic keeps moving, Iím fine. However, at one point weíre diverted onto city streets due to construction. With the traffic stopped, young men walk among the cars selling everything from CDs to water. Iím concerned, and decide to stop at the first hostal I see, if concern turns to real fear. But forty-five minutes later the Panamericana Norte turns into the Panamericana Sur (south) and Iím on my way to Chincha Alto where I spend the night. Iíve done 369 miles Ė my longest day so far.