From the Amazon to the Atacama

Featured image Andes

What’s the best way to cross the formidable Andes? On cheap Chinese adventure bikes of course! Words: Tibet Fonteyne Photography: Didier Smith and Tibet Fonteyne

You can’t see it on the map, but there’s a little gravel road that splits off the tarmac right here,” Toby says as he adds yet another pencil mark to our heavily annotated map. “Follow that and then just keep turning right when you can. Oh, and this road here doesn’t go there, it does this.” He crosses out one of the main roads and draws it going in a different direction.

Alex, Didier and I look at each other. All three of us have quit our jobs to ride cheap Chinese dirt bikes across Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, and Toby, the man who assured us that navigation would be straight forward, clearly only thinks so because he has some kind of photographic memory for trails. It dawns on us that in a few days we’re going to be very, very lost.

“Are you sure it isn’t just better to follow the roads that exist on the map in case we lose our way?”

Toby smiles. “Sure, but this road here, this is the most beautiful road in Peru. Besides, the road you’re talking about doesn’t actually do this, it does that.”

Looks like we’re going to be taking Toby’s word for it.

Dunes of Ica
The Desert Dunes of Ica

Four days later, and I had a problem. No matter what I did with the camera on the route Toby had pencilled out from Satipo to Concepción, I just couldn’t capture the scale of my surroundings.

So, if pictures are worth 1,000 words, I am probably wasting my time adding text to this article. The most beautiful road in Peru? Toby wasn’t wrong.

I’ve been around the block a bit and I’ve never come close to seeing so many different flavours of stunning scenery in the same day; this could well be the most beautiful road in the world.

We got one of the earliest starts to date, having fixed up the bikes the night before. We were on the road by 8:30 and straight onto the dirt ‘highway’ that winds itself through the Amazon just east of the Andes.

Just as we were getting into a rhythm, trusting our knobbly tyres more and more, Didier spotted a man on the side of the road pumping up the tyres on his 125cc by hand. In the first few days of the trip we had averaged more than one visit to the mechanic per day.

It looked, though, like it would only take us 12 miles without mechanical troubles before thinking we could afford to burden ourselves with someone else’s. But then we thought if karma is a thing, we should probably gather up as much as we can.

Antonio was an Amazonian beekeeper whose inner tubes looked more like something used to catch fish rather than hold air.

After patching the various holes in his tube, getting him a new one as a backup, and ditching his bicycle pump for our compressor, he invited us back to his place to taste some honey.

The Three Amigos
The Three Amigos

A proposition like this is always a bit of a hard decision on a trip because we’d just got our act together, our bikes were ok and we were on the road early, yet here was another potential time sink that today could cost us getting to Concepción before dark.

Except it’s not a time sink. It’s what this kind of adventure is about. If someone local offers to show you something (and it isn’t a body part), go for it because this is the stuff memories are made of.

He took us down the tiniest, muddiest of trails across a narrow wooden bridge dangling over quite a large river to a small shack that he shares with his wife and child. He made it look easy on his little 125cc but it was a bit of a challenge for us given the bigger bikes, the luggage, and our distinct lack of riding talent.

The last bit to their home was a rocky path on foot that led to a small clearing amongst the banana trees. They brought us some fresh honey (still in the honeycomb) and the next thing I know is that I will never be satisfied with European honey again.

It’s almost like the stuff you get in Tesco’s hasn’t just come out of an Amazonian bee.

Andes scenery
Andes Scenery

When riding a motorcycle through somewhere like the Amazon, it’s very easy to get distracted by your lines through corners, the next slide or surprise river crossing and you forget that tucked away behind each of these corners is someone’s life, and in this case, their mini honey farm. Spirits were high as we pulled away; we knew we’d just experienced something a bit special.

The gravel road started to wind its way up out of the rainforest, crossing bridges, passing waterfalls and eventually piercing through the clouds. The combination of jungle and the start of a mountain range delivers some truly spectacular scenery.

Shortly after our visit to Antonio’s we climbed about 3,000m. The riding was rough because we never knew what would be behind the next bend, and the grip changed constantly.

Eventually we passed through the clouds just after stopping to admire a waterfall stringing its way to the bottom of the valley.

Less than 20 minutes later we were spat out from the Amazon onto the Andean highlands. It felt like we had changed continents in the time it takes to watch an episode of EastEnders. Not that I do.

A shrubby valley, with livestock dotted around, massive peaks either side and a harsh blue sky up above, is the home to a pristine ribbon of tarmac just wide enough to have just a bit too much fun on a motorcycle.

It makes its way through the top of the Andes, all the way to 4,500m, and then down to the town of Concepción at 3,300m. Every corner brings with it a great challenge on the bike, but also a view that’s even better than the last.

Which, by the third time, I was convinced was not possible. But then there were hundreds more times.

It’s probably a good thing that there was always a threat of a car coming the other way on this narrow road, because otherwise one of us would have gone into the valley 2,000m below.

The confidence tarmac gives you is bad news when there is a sheer drop just inches to the side. We are lucky that the only casualty was a curious chicken who wondered what it would feel like to put its neck through Didier’s spokes.

Getting Karma Points
Getting Karma points with Antonio

After the obligatory breakdown, which this time featured three engineers unable to recognize a blown fuse, we were wondering whether we would get to Concepción before dark.

As the sun started to sink, we coasted down the Pacific side of the Andes, all a bit miffed by the scale and beauty of what we could see through our visors. We rolled into Concepción as the sun set.

I am quite keen on my photography, but what we saw that day reminded me that there are certain bits of the world where the spectacle is reserved for the few that make the effort to go in person.

When you stumble upon a place like that, you just have to drop that camera and take it in. And hope they don’t plonk a ski lift down in the future.

Over the next two days, we raced down to sea level via a canyon whose cliffs loomed over the tiny villages along the way. Even though we had been in the Amazon two days ago, and the Andes the day before, we were now headed for the desert dunes of Ica. In order to get there quickly, we pulled onto the Pan-American Highway for the first time.

As adults we struggle to feel the same intensity of excitement about things as we did when we were children. Luckily, though, some of those things that meant the world to you as a child can still rekindle that excitement when you come across them as an adult. As we battled the wind on the Pan-American, I looked up and suddenly the 10-year-old inside me leaped up.

When I was young I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Western Desert of Egypt, and when we left the country twelve years ago, I said goodbye to a formative chapter of my childhood. I thought I would be back soon, but recently it started feeling like it would never happen.

But right in front of me was the start of the Peruvian dune field near Ica. It’s wasn’t the Sahara, but it would do just fine. I tried to sound nonchalant on the intercom to Alex and Didier. “Huh, check it out, I think there’s some dunes there…” I don’t think they bought it.

Before setting foot on the dunes, though, we would spend the night in Huacachina, a small oasis commandeered by the tourist industry. That evening, I found a way to tie my old GPS to the backpack on the front of my bike.

I’d planned out a route through the dunes from satellite imagery and was about to lead the others there. Alex and Didier instead spent the evening talking about how sand would get everywhere, and how all the legs were going to break, and why did we have to go into the dunes.

So, there was a bit of pressure on me to make things work out. I was sure that once out there, they would understand.

Easier said than done, however. In the morning, we needed to get Alex’s clutch looked at, which ended up taking most of the day. When we finally rode out to the place I had marked for entering the dunes, there was a big area of privately owned farmland between us and the majestic dunes, which were so tantalisingly close.

Floating on the sand
Floating on the Sand

In between every farm, there were fences, dogs, and lots of little roads, none of which lead to the desert. We spent about an hour lost in the agricultural spaghetti, with dogs in pursuit most of the time.

The sun was going to set soon, and even the locals had no idea how to get to the sand. I could sense that Didier and Alex had had enough, but I knew how good the next twelve hours could be if we just got across the farmland in the next 30 minutes.

However, as four dogs snapped away at my boots while I headed into a dead-end for the third time, I was just about ready to give up as well.

This dead-end, though, was a gate, manned by a security guard. Why they paid a man to guard what looked like an asparagus field we will never know, but it was our only chance to get to the sand.

Didier got off his bike, took off his helmet and put on an Oscar-worthy performance.

“Hola, amigo! Cómo estás? (Hello friend! How are you?)”

He walked towards the guard with a big smile on his face, arm outstretched to shake the guard’s hand.

“Cómo ir al desierto? (How do we get to the desert?)”

“Al desierto? Por qué quieren ir al desierto? (The desert? Why do you want to go to the desert?)”

“Para la aventura, amigo! (For the adventure, my friend!)”

The security guard was a bit confused by the friendliness and it seemed almost like Didier had managed to trick him into thinking they knew each other.

But after a local farmer turned up and started pointing to the dunes saying you can get there easily, the guard seemed to relax and started to talk about how the Dakar passed through here in 2013.

I’m quite pleased that I found the same entrance to the same dune field in Peru as the Dakar organisers, completely by chance. Or perhaps it was mutual skill.

Surveying the route ahead
Surveying the route ahead

We were waved through the gate and after crossing one last field, our wheels floated onto the fine dune sand.

It was exactly as I remembered. All sensation of speed disappears and you’re left drifting over the smooth ‘whale backs’ that form the corridors between rows of dunes.

All you have to go on is the engine note and the odd wobble caused by a patch of softer sand. It’s like a stationary ocean and you’re sailing across it. The sand tricks your eyes and you can never quite tell if you’ll be going up or down next.

I navigated into the corridor I had found on the satellite imagery months before and we had an amazing half an hour of cruising into the sunset from crest to crest. It didn’t take long for Alex and Didier to understand why I won’t shut up about my time in the Sahara.

Before long the corridor started to dissolve into little crescent dunes and as I tried to find a way out, I got very stuck at the bottom of a little valley. I took that as a sign that it was time to set up camp.

The wind soon died down and we were left in a desert theatre; the night sky filled with bright stars dancing to the deafening sound of silence.

We had a perfect sleep; soft sand to lie on and not too cold. In the morning, Didier and I went for a scout up the dunes to find a way out of our pickle and into the neighbouring dune corridor. We found a workable pass and started packing up camp.

I was the first to tackle the narrow pass we’d found. I kept up a reasonable momentum that quite easily got me to the top. Didier was next, and was so determined not to bog down on the way up that he kept up a slightly more than a reasonable momentum.

So instead of crossing the pass, he had the biggest crash of his life. The bike started wobbling in the soft sand and then sent him flying for about three metres. But it’s OK, because I filmed it (and you can see it in all of its glory here: www.goo.gl/43G3a4).

After checking that Didier and the bike were fine, we tried to line up his handlebars the best we could and decided that this little incident was probably a sign that we shouldn’t push our luck. So we turned back the way we came instead of pushing on, grateful that we’d been allowed to have the experience we’d had without a more serious accident.

We found the field with Didier’s best friend still manning the gate, who by this point didn’t even stop us and just waved us through with a big smile.

As we pulled back onto the Pan-American, looking for a mechanic to straighten up Didier’s bike, I looked back at the dunes. It’d been short, but it meant a huge amount to me to be back in the desert for a night. There’s nothing like it, and I’ll be back soon. It won’t take twelve years this time.

In the space of just four days we had ridden our £1,700 bikes through the world’s biggest rainforest, used them to cross the world’s longest mountain range, and dragged them through dunes in the world’s driest desert. We were pretty excited about what the next month and a half would bring.

The Trip

Not the Obvious choice
It’s Not the obvious choice of bike, but it did the job

This article was just a snippet from an incredible journey. Starting from Huanuco in Peru, we crossed the Andes several times until we made our way through the desert and into Chile.

There we hit trouble in a very remote part of the Altiplano and had to leave and then rescue Didier’s bike from the desert.

We crossed into Bolivia, explored its majestic salt flats and the incredible Eduardo Avaroa nature reserve, before getting a taste of the infamous Ruta 40 in the north of Argentina.

We then headed back north through the sweltering Bolivian plains before our bikes started giving up the ghost.

We crossed the back into Peru with huge difficulty, and partially on the back of a truck, before having to bribe our way across the border.

The big arrival in Cusco happened under police escort with all three bikes sounding awful and two of us incapacitated by food poisoning. Read our whole story on www.medium.com/the-long-way-out.

The Bikes

Sunset on the Dunes
Sunset on the Dunes

The Cross Triton is not something Ewan McGregor would want to be seen on. It is, however, a very cheap Chinese dirt bike used by many in Peru to get from village to village.

Toby Shannon from Around the Block Moto Adventures (www.aroundtheblockmotoadventures.com) runs a scheme where he buys the bikes for you, bores them out from 200cc to 250cc and preps them for adventure riding.

You then buy them from him, and he sorts all the paperwork and red tape (of which there is a lot). Two months later, he will buy them back for about £15 a day depreciation.

This incredible deal (on bikes that only cost £1,700 in the first place) allowed us to do this trip in the first place.

While the bikes struggled mechanically for the entire trip, in doing so they provided the adventure we craved.

If we were to do something in a similar spirit now, though, we reckon we’d take a Suzuki DR650 or a Honda XR650 both for power and reliability reasons.

Ride your own bike across the Andes

If you’d rather ride your own bike across the Andes, then you’ll have to be prepared to ship or fly it into the country. Motofreight can transport your pride and joy safely and securely to South America for a reasonable cost. Contact them on info@motofreight.com to discuss your specific requirements.