San Luis to Barranca
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
The next morning I awoke in the cold, a single shaft of orange sunlight streaming through the hole in the wall, a bright orange spot on the faded green paint. Outside a rooster crowed, one of the only roosters on this entire trip to properly crow at sunrise and not 3 in the morning.
I slowly got moving and grimaced as I slid into my still wet and now freezing BMW motorcycle pants, slipped on my gritty and muddy boots, then creaked open the door and stepped out to see a blue sky. Fatigue had made me sleep deeply and the color of the sky was like a big smile after the solid rain the day before. I stared at the bike some, thinking of how it had tried to fling me off thousand foot cliffs the day before, until I began to wonder if Ed had gone out early to find coffee. I said his name semi-loudly as I looked up at his room, and a moment later he opened the door. It was apparent I had woken him and said I was going to find coffee.
The sun in the morning was a nice, if not brief, change. I thought back about the previous day and smiled. It was what I came here for, challenge, incredible sights and scenes I'll never forget. The failed rear shock had added immense pressure to the day, and it would have been nice to have been freer physically and mentally, but I wouldn't have traded a moment of the experience for anything.
I stepped through the tiny door in the metal hostel gate, seeing the town for the first time in the light of day. Around me were mist-covered mountainsides, with rough, dirt filled streets pointing their direction.
Only a few souls were out, and I headed for the corner where the night before many men had stood watching us arrive in the dark. At the corner I stood for a moment, watching the brightly dressed indigenous ladies here and there, wearing their tall hats and carrying bundles. Normally shy, they had no problem looking me in the eye with a bit of suspicion.
A block away and desperate for coffee, I saw a lone street vendor and wandered over. She was cooking a fritter of egg and something green on her little cart, yammering off words to me in a high pitched squeaky voice. I said “café?” but she rambled on without answering. Seeing no other open restaurants at the early hour, I simply stood and watched her. She was eating her freshly fried fritter, then broke it in half and handed a piece to me. It was warm and delicious so I indicated two with my fingers. She hopped up and uncovered a basket filled with very cold ones, handing me two in exchange for two Peruvian soles, about thirty cents each. I'd hoped for hot fritters, but I got what I got.
She smiled and chatted away, very friendly. I smiled and nodded my head, feigning understanding. At one point, she looked directly at me and said “Eres bueno o malo?”
I knew she meant "Was I good or bad?", but I thought she might be asking if I was feeling good or feeling bad, but she stopped smiling and held her knife towards me. I responded “bueno” and she smiled again. It was an interesting moment.
I sat on the end of the bench behind her and watched as she made small plates for the locals, mainly peeled potatoes mixed with aji, an addictive blend of crushed coriander and hot peppers and poured green breakfast drinks heavily laden with a liquor, a twinkle and smile in her eye. Above and across the street, a woman called from a window and the old woman twittered something to me to watch her cart as she carried a mug of booze and a plate of potatoes drenched in the hot aji sauce into the building.
A couple of old men came and stood while she was gone, eyeing me courteously from the side of their vision. She returned to mix up more drinks and peel more potatoes, serving them and then sitting down next to me on the bench. It was an interesting time of observing life. Such remote and small village suddenly hosting a big gringo was likely to cause much suspicion, as I had already witnessed on the street that morning.
Ed showed up and we sat with her, buying a couple more cold fritters and a drink of tea not to mention the green juice with lots of booze in it. She laughed and feigned falling asleep after a swig of the juice before handing it to us. She continued chatting away as she peeled potatoes and smiled, but then taking her knife and drawing it across her throat as she talked to us. I wasn't sure exactly what to think, except that she truly had suspicions of the two gringos? We never figured out what was up, but the scene certainly beat McDonald’s for breakfast.
We found some instant coffee in a local restaurant around the corner who'd opened, and chilled in the cold air of the place. We discussed how no one had heat or fires in their shops or abodes or even the hostel. Despite the forests around, there were no fireplaces or stoves for warmth. The only smoke seen was from wood fired cooking. I'm sure they've adapted to the cold temps after many epochs of time...
Our options for leaving were limited, as I needed to avoid another difficult road since my suspension was gone. Neither of us relished the idea of another 8 hour day in the rain and mud and we certainly weren't taking the road we'd spent almost 13 hours on the previous day. My GPS apps showed the name of the village to be San Luis, and from there there were only two real options. One was a road going almost due west back over the mountain range we'd traversed, and the other a longer road going southward before bending back to the west.
We assumed the more direct western route would be dirt like the one we'd been on and made the decision to head the long way south, assuming it too would be dirt, but possibly less tricky since it looked to travel through a valley much of the way.
Back at the hostel, the old man had come out to look at the bikes and Ed asked about the roads. He said the road west was “concreto”, hard to believe, but it made our ears perk up. The thought of a paved road was too much so we headed back for the road entrance we’d seen the night before in the dark, passing women, chased by dogs and dodging as much mud as possible on the quickly drying roads.
Reaching the western road entrance, it was a relief to see tarmac but neither of us held much enthusiasm for it lasting. Sure enough, a mile or two in we hit construction and dirt, but after another couple of miles, pavement began again.
The road wound its way up and up, through switchbacks and drizzle, but we couldn’t deny the joy of being on pavement. As the drizzle became rain, my bike wallowed through the turns and felt at times as if it would slide away, but I was thrilled to be on a smooth surface. When the rear suspension collapsed, it significantly changed the steering geometry of the motorcycle which makes it hard to keep on track. So handling becomes much more dangerous, especially when carrying a lot of weight, as bumps in the road cause the geometry to vary in the middle of turns.
The climb continued as the rain stayed strong, until finally nearing the top of the pass at 15,600 feet, we entered a very long tunnel. I have no idea of the length but it took a while and being out of the rain felt good. The temperature had dropped to 37º F and the chill was strong. As we neared the end of the tunnel, the exit loomed ahead, very bright and glowing white. It was a strange sensation seeing a wall of white, until we popped out into a sky filled with snow which explained the bright white we'd been seeing. It was a bit surreal.
The change from one side of the mountain to the other was a dramatic one. In the distance and far above me I could see shafts of light illuminating snowcapped peaks in gaps of cloud and I was stunned. There were massive peaks above me, a good three thousand feet or so I guessed. What a sight to see despite the stinging sleet and snow mixture pelting my face in the open shield. I finally pulled over to take in the brief, humbling glimpse of the massive power above. The wind and precipitation drove me back to the bike to catch Ed ahead of me on the descending switchbacks.
Though blanketed in clouds and fog, it was easy to tell this road was another Stelvio Pass type of transit and I really wished I could ride it in good weather, not to mention a functioning suspension. Nonetheless it was a stunning ride.
It felt good to be heading down and back to familiar areas where gas and food would be a little easier to find, but I suggest you ride this road if ever in the region. Amazing road.
At the stop to reenter the national park, we dismounted to rest and warm up, talking to a couple of Colombianos on their motos returning from observing the Dakar race.
Across the road stood a little stone building with wisps of smoke coming from a tiny chimney, and in front were a couple of handmade tables. I wandered over, a little hungry as it appeared to be a kitchen, but as much out of curiosity as anything else. A lone indigenous woman was serving some food to two workmen seated at another table that had not been visible. I sat down, thinking maybe I could get some coffee or something warm, however she purposely ignored me. The tiny stone building sat high in the mountains, miles and miles from any form of civilization next to the road and a running stream.
I watched as smoke flowed out the front window and I could see her in the dark doing things with her ubiquitous hat and sweater. I wanted a picture of her, as trying to capture pictures of Peruvian people, especially women, was about as difficult as catching a unicorn. Each time she had come out of the building she'd immediately turned away from me.
Standing up with the realization I was not going to be waited on, I wandered over to the window with my camera in hand, then boldly stepped into her old stone kitchen. I surprised her, not to mention myself, and she turned, briefly smiling I guess in shock, and I caught the image I hoped for.
She didn't object, surprisingly, as I snooped in her pot on the fire, filled with cooked whole trout. Beside the fire sat a young woman with her child, I'm guessing her daughter and grandson, who smiled shyly as I pointed to her son with a smile. I figured I had worn my welcome in the lady's kitchen and smiled at her again as I stepped back out the door. She was back to her stern self and I knew my time to leave had arrived.
From there we eventually made the town of Carhuaz at the main road and assessed our energy level for the day. We were both still tired from the previous day, but decided to go ahead push on for the town of Barranca on the sandy coast. Barranca lay anywhere from an one to four hours away, depending on which GPS app you believe. I went with Google’s 2:34 based on accuracy from the past and found out it was "optimistic"at best.
It had been cold and wet and I was feeling some excitement that soon we'd be out of the high mountains and heading for the coast and hopefully some warmth. To my chagrin, I was surprised to find the temperatures dropping and rains continuing. The road entered a high plateau at 13,500' and continued at such for a very long period, the winds blasting across the barren high plains. It was raining heavily as the bikes leaned into the wind and pushed southwest. It had become bitter, with the temps about 39-40, mixed with the gusting wind and much water. I lost sight of blue Smurf Ed behind me in the rains as I settled into my groove and shrugged my helmet down into my shoulders to stop the cold water trickles running down my back.
It seemed as if the plateau would never end and the Barranca would never arrive, until finally I spotted a lonely Repsol station on the edge of a small community of buildings. I pulled in and waited for the blue man, my gloves soaked and my fingers stinging. I was getting a real chill. I left the bike out along the roadside as a signal for Ed and went in where the lone attendant disappeared to make me a coffee.
The other lone stranger inside was a cop, sitting on a couch absorbed in watching Kung Fu Panda on the television. After a while, I heard the buzz of Ed’s aftermarket exhaust and he came in, soaked to the bone and shivering. I suggested he change clothes and get warmed up to avoid hypothermia. He did and after a while had stopped shivering. We briefly debated trying to find a place for the night in the nearby community, but there was nothing listed. After he got warmed up a bit, another rider came in to get warm. His name was Luis, and he was heading from Santiago, Chile to Alaska on a KLR650. After a bit of time, a bit of warmth, a bag of Peanut M&M’s and some coffee, riding the rest of the way to Barranca didn’t seem so bad. Ward reconfigured his plastic bag and shipping tape rain suit a bit and we were on the way.
It was dark soon after and hit just about the time we entered heavy fog and rain on the downhill switchbacks for the valley below. Straining in the rain and fog, it seemed like hours and hours before feeling some relief from the chill and fog. Slowly the temps warmed, a sign we were going coastal. I’d stop and wait on the roadside in the night for a sign of Ed's headlight and take off when he pulled near. At a small village, we took a butt break and peeled out of the rain gear for our last hour into the coastal town.
It was about nine when we rolled into Barranca and spotted a bright lit sign for a hospedaje. We’d passed it in our stupor, then made a decision to ride back since it had gated parking. Ed did a u-turn in the street and sped off while I waited for some cabs to pass. Making the easy turn, I have no memory of how, but I dropped the big Beemer in the street, something I've never done, laying it over across both lanes and blocking traffic. I hadn't realized how tired I was until then. In the headlights and dust cloud, I was suddenly engulfed by many hands, lifting the bike up for me. It was a surprise and I realized people had jumped out of cars and off the sidewalks to help. It was then when I went to thank people that I realized just how much of a stupor I truly was in. I had no memory of even dropping the bike, only realizing it because of the people walking away from me.
A couple of blocks down, the gate was opening and I pulled inside behind Ed, to see several motos parked in front of their rooms. Again, Colombianos headed north from the Dakar Rally. The room was decent and the owner, a bit liquored up, told us he wanted to give us a beer by the pool for free.
After dumping the gear in the room, we sat by the pool amidst the blasting thump of music speakers and were treated like mini-celebrities by the owner and his father and brother who were celebrating a birthday. Ed was asked to star in a video with the brother giving a thumbs up to the place for a FaceBook promo. They were very excited to have to international motorcycle travelers staying there and it was good for social media I guess.
As I lay in bed and retraced our path, I realized we’d ridden for 6 days straight, averaging about 9 or 10 hours a day with some heavy lifting involved. I didn’t realize the fatigue that had finally caught up. I barely remember dropping the bike and I guess the constant concentration for days in rain, cold and darkness had caught up. I went to sleep to the thoughts of yet another motorcycle issue and the ambiguities that lay still ahead.