Crossing the Andes, the hard way

Three friends, three bikes, high altitudes, and mechanical issues.

A new day, a new bike. New company, and a new leg of the adventure. Home is where the road is, and I’m glad to be back.

My months-long Southbound journey on my entirely unsuitable, weathered, battered, yet still incredibly beautiful RC390 has come to a pause, and I find myself on a brand new $1,800 Chinese dirt bike. In my ear, the eternal sound of wind and engine revs has been joined by the jolly banter of my old friend Tibet and my new friend Alex, who have flown down to join me on our tour of every mechanic’s shop in South America. The first major site was last night, when my gear shifter stopped working with less than 200km on the bike, and Tibet had to tow me into the nearest town. Only teething problems, I’m sure!

All bikes once again in running condition, we hit the road. It’s only a handful of kilometers until the unremarkable hairpin in a small village where our man on the ground Toby has instructed us to take a left down a narrow dusty unmapped dirt path. The plan is executed, and our gravelly Andean adventure opens up in front of us.

“Toby said to turn left at Pariamarca, and then take all the rights”.

“All of them? Some of these rights look pretty sketchy.”

“All the reasonable rights, then.”

“When do we stop turning right?”

And so it continues. Dirt turns to gravel, then gravelly dirt, then a small river crossing, then a signposted fork. Neither town appears on our maps, so we ask someone, fail to understand his Spanish, and take the right. The scenery is beautiful.

After a couple hours of this, the scenery hasn’t stopped improving, and our confidence in the route has grown along with our confidence in the bikes. I, then Alex, then Tibet enter a single-lane tunnel blasted through a mountain, rough walls, no safety exits, and a soft dirt floor.

Tibet’s voice crackles over the intercom. “Guys, stay off the dirt crest in the middle of the tunnel! It’s really really unstable!”

Thanks, Tibet.

“Guys, my glasses are fogging up and I can’t see shit!”

Come on, Tibet.

“Guys, are you having this much trouble keeping the bike straight? It’s wobbling everywhere!”

Knock it off and ride, Tibet.

Upon exiting the tunnel, it quickly becomes apparent what happened in the tunnel — Tibet’s rear inner tube had chosen to separate from its valve, at the precise moment that his glasses had chosen to fog up (possibly due to panicked heavy breathing). We get out the tire irons and prepare for our first tire change, at an altitude of 4,100 meters. At least the view is nice!

Tibet is the one on his knees, Alex is the one with the beard.

The other two struggle with the altitude and take frequent breathing breaks, but having had longer to acclimatize, I’m less affected. Nevertheless, Alex and I choose to chew coca leaves that we bought from an entrepreneur named Nancy in San Rafael the previous night. They are not particularly tasty, but the faint buzz is pleasant. Eventually, two local chaps, David and Jilmer, show up and help us finish swapping out the tube. We’re back on the road in short order.

Jilmer is the one balancing the tire, and David is standing around offering advice. Note what the bike is resting on.

The Andes are stunning. I repeatedly try and fail to capture the sheer scale of the mountains. It’s a hard job, as is the ride itself. Traction is low, gradients are high, switchbacks abound, and we repeatedly climb over a thousand meters to get over a pass, drop another thousand into a valley, and then climb another thousand up the other side. Crossing one of the valleys, we have to ford a river, into which I slowly, painfully, accidentally, drop my bike. No damage done other than a wet pair of boots — not a big deal, the burning shame keeps my feet warm.

Later in the day, the cold Andean rain begins. On the approach to our stop for the night — Paucartambo — the dirt road turns to extremely smooth, polished concrete. The steepness of the dirt remains, and the rain turns the glossy road into a luge track. Alex, leading, attempts to brake for a speed bump and locks both wheels, going down instantly. I touch the brakes in an attempt to not run Alex over, and also immediately lock both wheels, also going down. Both myself and my bike manage to avoid Alex, so the maneuver happily ends up having its intended effect. My bike is unharmed, but Alex’s footpeg is snapped and he has to ride with his foot on the crankcase.

Remedying this is our top priority the next morning, but no shop in town sells new footpegs that will fit, and no soldadors are willing to risk their reputation on an attempt to weld the Chinese cast steel. Eventually, we find a couple of bolts long enough to fit Alex’s foot, screw them into place, and head off to Oxapampa.

The ride is harder today. More gravel, more switchbacks. Alex’s confidence grows, and he takes the lead, backing into corners and hammering the throttle on the exit. Keeping up is hard work, but we all arrive unscathed, no one having crashed their bike. A large, late lunch is well earned — we’ve just crossed the Eastern Andes, and reached the Amazon basin!

The top priority of the evening remains to be getting Alex’s footpeg fixed. The two of us leave Tibet to spend his second hour of the day on the phone with his girlfriend, go two-up on Alex’s bike, and begin a tour of every motorcycle shop in Oxapampa. Despite an infuriatingly high number of Cross Tritons in the city, footpegs are impossible to come by. Eventually, we get a guy called Edwin to fabricate one out of spare parts lying about in his shop. He does an impressive job!

Edwin takes safety seriously.

The next day is tarmac to Satipo. The highlight is when we discover that my luggage rack has broken in two places (hardly a surprise — I’ve destroyed every luggage rack I’ve owned) and we need to get it repaired. Eventually, we find a welder who, once awoken from his Sunday afternoon nap, spends two hours reinforcing all the failure points and charges us $3 for his labour. I love mechanics in developing countries — they all take immense pride in their work, and I’ve never had one try to rip me off.

As the sun sets over our hotel outside of Satipo, we perform some preventative maintenance on the bikes, and I reflect over the trip so far. Over the past six months, I’d ridden all sorts of roads from San Francisco to Peru, alone, with no greater accident than a drop in a parking lot, and no visit to a mechanic save for scheduled maintenence. This new adventure is shaping up to be very, very different. I’m looking forward to it.

Let’s do it!