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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

Nazca to Chalhuanca

Updated: Dec 12, 2020


We left the heat of Nazca after getting an opportunity to speak with the DR650 rider, who was doing an oil change in front of the hostel. He was a Romanian guy living in California and had ridden to Canada with a friend to begin his journey to Ushuaia. He’d gotten sick in Lima and his friend had gone ahead to Cusco to make a pre-booked Inca Trail hike. He was leaving the next day for Cusco and would be a day behind us.

Ed toyed with the idea of trying to make up a license plate that morning, but I didn't want to wait. Google showed almost 7 hrs to the halfway point to Cusco and one thing I've learned on this trip is most things take longer than expected. He decided to wait for Cusco.

In no time, the road climbed in switchbacks from almost sea level to near 14,000 feet, twisting up barren stone and desert sand. Several times we waited for road crews to clear rockfall on the well maintained tarmac.

As the elevation increased, so did the dark clouds and soon the rain started. Pulling off to don rain gear, Ed produced his latest creation, a purple plastic poncho and the orange construction pants, as well as a couple of grocery store bags and a roll of clear shipping tape. Finally dressed, he lifted his leg to get on the bike and the crotch of the brand new pants exploded open. He clambered off to repair them, but I went on ahead.

Ed had had opportunities to buy real rain gear, but I made the decision I was not going to keep getting delayed and arriving late at night on any more long rides with bad weather. Our first day traveling back in Ecuador had put me in dangerous circumstances riding very late at night in a state of exhaustion due to ill prepared riding partners. Ed's choices were his and though I'm never the type to abandon someone, his choices affected me. I'd spent months of research and lots of money preparing for the various conditions one would face, not the least of which was knowing I'd be at 15,000 feet in the Andes and needed to be dry and warm. Though my original riding jacket had failed and leaked, I'd also brought a motorcycle rain shell as a backup in case of jacket failure. I knew he'd be fine and a few miles behind me, but I'd had enough of delays...

Soon after, the heavens opened for a brief bit then swapped back to alternating between bursts of rain and sprinkles. Spotting some guanacos in the pampas, I pulled off briefly and grabbed a shot before the rain came again. Ed rolled up and we rode together a while until the sun came out and it was time to get out of the rain gear.

A couple of his bags got away and were blowing off into the National Guanaco Reserve but he managed to snag them just before they sailed off the cliff, sparing certain death to baby guanacos everywhere. I asked him what had happened to the blue suit and he said he’d finally tossed it in Lima. :(

Since some reading this blog will not be familiar with riding, I feel I should mention the occasions where I've talked about riding on ahead of other riders, and will likely address that in further posts. Each rider and especially each motorcycle differ in their travel speeds. For example, my 1200 hits its stride at about 75, where the engine and transmission were designed for optimum performance and smoothness. Ed's 800 for example, is a completely different engine size and design, which has far more vibration and fuel consumption, with much higher engine revs at the same speed, so his best niche is running slower than I. All riders can of course adjust speed to match, but rider skills differ as well, and in long travels you have to find the proper "groove". In my case, it was faster than Ed and his bike, but all riders are aware of this, so as distance progresses, riders often separate when traveling. In my limited travels with riding partners, only my friend MotoHank and I seem to be compatible and usually run about the same speeds, however being individualists, we often choose different routes and meet at destinations. Just wanted to clear that up for those who aren't familiar with traveling.

It had been a long ride so far, the goal being Chalhuanca since it was roughly half way between Nazca and Cusco. Google Maps time estimation has been fairly accurate, showing almost 7 hours to Chalhuanca vs 3 hours proposed by my alternate GPS apps Sygic and

The pampas in a break between rains

We’d only gone 60 miles in 2 hours and still had 120 left to go. At the first sign of a place to eat we pulled in and I spotted a couple of guys slaughtering a calf across the road from the restaurant. It was certainly a good sign that the restaurant was serving fresh meat.

I walked back across to the café, and Ed told me that his top case had popped open and he’d lost one of his tennis shoes somewhere along the way. There's probably a dead baby guanaco with its head stuck in Ed's sneaker somewhere.

Inside the little restaurant, we and two truck drivers were the only folks. The restaurant owner, one of the three men slaughtering the calf, said the menu of the day was "trucha frita", fried trout! The owner then popped in a VHS movie dubbed in Spanish for the two truck drivers to watch. It was an old World War II movie called "The Enemy Below" starring Robert Mitchum and Kurt Jürgens. Despite being dubbed in Spanish, we all were mesmerized by the film while downing the excellent fresh trout and listening to the cold rain falling outside.

Outside the rain came heavily, and it was hard to make myself head out into it. Ed’s plastic outfit had completely shredded and he began searching the restaurant and trash cans for a plastic bag or something to patch and repair the outfit. There was still a very long ways to go through bad weather. I’d already spent too many times getting delayed and having to ride after dark - a cardinal rule I never normally do. As self centered as it felt, I told Ed I couldn't keep waiting for him and wished him well in his repackaging. I got going on the bike in pouring rain since I knew making the Chalhuanca by dark was now going to be iffy and my LED lights had begun developing issues. They had begun flickering then failing completely in the last hour and it was yet another $1000 aftermarket product that was failing. I felt for Ed, but as mentioned, he'd refused to buy real rain gear, something I couldn't comprehend in the Andes. My aftermarket LED floodlights had become a trusted partner in the high, slick roads on the mountains but they now failed me and I really hated the idea of riding with only a headlight after dark.

As I started the bike, my Clearwater lights were flickering and dancing, then went completely off, and far worse, my headlight would not come on at all. With as much rain as I’d been in for the last weeks, I figured some water finally made its way into some connections.

The road began climbing even higher to 14,000 feet, topping out on a huge plateau with nothing to break the wind. The rain continued sideways as the temperature dropped from 50 down to 40 and strong side winds began. The elevation climbed to 15,000 feet as the temperature fell to 33° and the rain became stinging sleet. My face shield was so wet and foggy I had to leave it open to see the road through squinted eyes. I had a fogproof insert in my helmet, however as I'd learned over years of travel, everything will eventually fail if in rain long enough. It wasn't long before my face was frozen, but I motored as fast as I could at 65 to 70 miles an hour, dreading the idea of getting caught after dark in these conditions. The side winds were probably 30 to 40 miles an hour and despite my layers of gear, I was shivering hard.

Barely through the visor could I see herds of alpacas or guanacos or llamas - I never know which. I would have loved to have been able to stop and look at them, but it was miserable and I had a long ways to go. I couldn't help but think how much it would suck to be broken down there with no shelter to stop the winds. My only comfort was the knowledge that in a worst case scenario, I did have a tent with me. The skies had gotten darker and as uncomfortable as it was for me, I knew Ed would really be suffering much worse somewhere behind me.

The next couple of hours seemed like forever, but eventually the weather slacked off just as the road began to work its way downhill.

After an area of dense fog indicating the road was dropping lower to the cloud level, I glimpsed a deep, green valley ahead. Seeing the road switchbacking its way down towards a river through the narrow canyon felt great, knowing I was coming off the bitter and wet highlands.

Chalhuanca showed to be another 30 or 40 miles away, so I knew there was about an hour left before night fell and I figured I would get into town about dark. I could feel my wet crotch where my rain pants had leaked from hours in the rain.

The canyon was beautiful and the rain finally stopped as I entered it. For a short period of time I was able to enjoy the twists following the river but ahead I could see a black cloud in the canyon and about 20 miles from town the rain began again. For some reason it always seems I arrive the last 20 miles in rain and today would be no different. Here and there the road was covered by little rivers of red muddy water and assortments of rocks and gravel from the mountainsides.

Chalhuanca finally rolled under my wheels and I was wet, cold and tired. Luckily I had programmed into my GPS the coordinates of a hotel and arrived just at dark. Water was pouring off me as I walked into the lobby. There were no other guests and the place was nice. He opened the main gate to allow me to park in the secure area and I carried my gear in from the rain.

The beautiful room was soon covered in dripping wet gear as I tried to lay out everything I could, including the cameras that had been trapped in my tank bag. Darkness fell and I couldn't help but wonder how Ed was doing. Despite being the only guest, they opened the restaurant for me and delivered hot soup along with coffee, and I ordered a complete meal. As I sat eating and began to feel my fatigue, I got a message from Ed that he had arrived and was in a hotel downtown. He said it had been a rough ride and was going straight to bed. I was glad to know he was safe, but trying to ride through the Andes in a plastic poncho is not my idea of fun.

The rain hadn’t quit since I’d arrived and never stopped throughout the night. I couldn't help but think about my bike sitting in the pouring rain and the potential for more water in the electrical connectors. Reaching the halfway point to Cusco had been a very long day.

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