Words and Images by Tony Collins
Both of these words are guaranteed to strike fear into the most seasoned tour operator because all carefully made plans go out the window.
- Countrywide strikes blocking roads to major tourist destinations, and your guests’ accommodation
- Having a Government change the rules at the last minute so you cannot take bikes across the border
My South American bucket list included Lake Titikakka, Machu Pichu, Colca Canyon, Valley of the Condors, Uyuni Salt Lake and the Atacama Desert – this tour covered everywhere I wanted to go, and more, including incredible mountain roads to ride.
Booked more than a year ago, paid in full in March, contacted in June/ July about the drastic route changes that may have to be made due to government rule changes, was offered a full refund but I declined.
In the end it turned out that a work around meant the tour was able to be run. How many riding mates would I have? – ONE because the rest had withdrawn!
The company refused to cancel as long as one person wanted to go – they said their reputation was more important to them than money.
So it was that I arrived in Arequipa Peru late at night to find no luggage – no problem South American manager Sayda was on the job and my bag was collected from airport just after breakfast next morning.
Met Bruce my fellow rider, Juan the ride leader and Eddy the mechanic / backup vehicle driver. We became the four musketeers and had an absolute ball of a trip with it being more like four best friends travelling together, rather than two clients and two tour staff.
Arequipa to Chivay and the Valley of the Condors. Due to the strike we had to take a 60km off road diversion through the mountains and over a pass at 4,900 metres. In the Valley of Volcanoes where one of them put on a display of power by erupting just as we reached the viewpoint. Glad that the volcano was quite a few kilometres away from us.
Onto a magnificent piece of bitumen twisting through the mountains and down into Chivay.
Just outside town we came upon a long line of tour coaches – The Strike. After about 90 minutes they took a break and gave everyone 10 minutes to get past before blocking the road again. Very civilised – they made their point but did not interrupt business.
Next morning we rode out to the Condors but they decided to soar away from the usual view-point so Juan quickly moved us to a new location and we had these incredible birds flying just above our heads.
The trip back to Arequipa was terrible as the dirt road had been badly chewed up by trucks, buses and cars all dodging the strikers.
My bike decided to have a rest and then so did Bruce’s – fortunately no injuries and no damage, just wounded pride.
Due to the strike we had to fly to Ilo to get the essential permits from the Bolivian Consulate to permit us take bikes into Bolivia – heavy stuff – photographs of owner and us, plus fingerprints and seals on some very official looking documents. Juan and Eddy took their vehicles by road and arrived late in the afternoon after a long dirt road diversion.
Because there were only two of us the paperwork was done in a trice so we skipped the hotel at Ilo and drove by van to Tacna for the night. This helped to put us back on schedule
We crossed into Chile next morning, collected two bikes and set out for Iquique through a desolate moonscape. Not a single sign of greenery, not even a weed.
We had to pass through a duty-free zone which entailed lots and lots of pieces of paper to which were applied lots and lots of stamps, initials and signatures. Glad Juan was managing it all because. I think Bruce and I would still be there trying to work who to go to next.
The ride down the Pacific Coast was awesome on good roads and we discovered that road speed signs make good decorations because everyone ignores them – so did we and ended up travelling at 130kph in a 70 kph zone – still being passed by cars.
Overnight at a top class hotel on the beach front.
Morning saw us heading for San Pedro de Atacama and after a fuel stop at Calama the scenery changed and a bit of vegetation appeared
Unfortunately, on that leg of the trip one of the fuel cans leaked over my bag so everything had to be washed and the bag scrubbed in the shower to reduce the smell.
The Atacama Desert is an amazing sight – strange to be able to see beauty in such a desolate landscape.
SP Atacama to Ollague
Returned to Calama for fuel next morning only to have a headcase create a problem by persistently trying to get on my bike so, because the fellow’s mood was extremely volatile, I rode away and waited for the others to catch up with me down the road.
Reached Ollague for the night – in the middle of nowhere with very little to see. The “hotel” cost $250 per room per night because it is so remote. The owners live 200km away in Calama and only open up when they have a booking. They did give us a good feed for dinner and breakfast. Bitterly cold at night and the bikes were parked in a room with a heater running all night to prevent the coolant freezing and damaging the engine.
Why overnight in Ollague? – because 500 metres away is the Bolivian border post we had to pass through early next morning.
Ollague to Uyuni
The next day was a 200km dirt road ride to Uyuni, unfortunately I woke with a “visual migraine” – bright lights, stars, aura etc in my eye – no pain but not safe to ride off-road, so it was into the van with my bike.
About 50 km into the trip we came across an old VW Combi van that had broken down – lots of attempts to get it going but to no avail – appeared to be a valve problem as there was no compression. The couple had been stuck there for 36 hours and we were the first people to stop.
We towed them 150km to Uyuni over dusty dirt roads. The dust was so bad at times that I could not see the Combi 10 feet behind our van.
In the morning we went by 4WD out to a steam train graveyard. The locos were in use from 1905 to the mid 1960’s transporting copper ore from the mine. When the mine closed the engines were shunted into a siding and abandoned. They are still locos but a lot of boiler piping and metal has been cut away for use elsewhere.
A 50km drive out onto the Uyuni salt flats brought us to a hotel built out of blocks of salt, and a monument to Dakar – both specially erected for the Bolivian Dakar in 2016.
Further out we reached Isla Incahuasi a coral encrusted island standing about 150metres out of the salt flats – very hard to imagine there was that much water there thousands of years ago.
Uyuni is 165km wide and 285km long and can be clearly seen from space.
Uyuni to Potosi
Daylight saw us heading to Potosi. On the way we stopped to check on a 4wd lying in a ditch with 5 people standing around. Juan went to check and found out the driver was drunk and had just run off the road. Fortunately, no-one was badly injured.
Passed through the valley of the Llamas where vast herds graze.
One of the things that surprised Bruce and I was the state of the roads – in the country and mountains they were generally good to excellent but as soon as you reach the outskirts of a town, no matter what size, everything turns to crap. Potholes, loose rocks, you name it is there to be avoided along with buses, trucks, cars and everything else that wants your particular piece of road. You have to be a bit aggressive and stand your ground otherwise you will be swept aside in the rush.
Potosi was an example of how the roads deteriorated as you entered most towns, but in this case at least the very centre was not too bad. Just an unbelievable number of people all trying to get everywhere at once using a one-way narrow road system jammed full of vehicles.
The school children were all dressed in spotless clothing and they attend one of three school sessions each day as well as going to work in the family business.
We were taken on a tour of a silver mine and opted for the adventurous route. Down log ladders, through crawl spaces, low tunnels and narrow “squeeze through” passages.
It scared the daylights out of me and, as soon as I saw a glimpse of daylight near the exit, I was out of there in a shot – been there done that and will never do it again.
The miners do that day in and day out. The mountain has been continuously mined for 470years. The shafts are each owned by individual families and are mined by teams of four or more who decide how much and how long they will work each day. The owner takes 40% of the profit and the remainder is divided among the miners.
Back to another top-class hotel and very tasty dinner with cold Austal beer.
Potosi to La Paz
Next morning, we topped up with fuel to move on to La Paz. Being foreigners, we paid four times the price for petrol than the locals do. Non-residents subsidise the cost of fuel for Bolivians who pay around 30cents a litre.
One sight you frequently see is a one or more persons standing on the roadside in the middle of absolutely nowhere – not a sign of civilisation for kilometres in any direction. They are waiting for one of the many 20 seat coaches that travel between towns picking up and dropping off people anywhere they want on the route.
We came across a gruesome sight of about ten alpacas that had been run down by a truck. The police were in attendance along with lots of local onlookers. The driver would have to pay the owners around $US 140 in compensation for each animal he killed. His truck would be impounded until the debt was settled.
On the approach to Oruro we were diverted to the roadside and stopped by armed Federal Police and an Interpol Officer. All of our documents, passports, driver’s licenses etc were very thoroughly checked and photographed. Eventually we were allowed to move on after being told that they were looking for a French National who had entered Bolivia on a motorcycle on 6th June and had not been heard from since.
On the other side of Oruro we were stopped again and went through the same procedure though somewhat quicker this time as one of the officers radioed the first team who had examined our documents – he took pity on us and let us go.
Mountain roads in South America must be treated with respect because if you make a mistake you will go over a vertical drop that may be hundreds of metres. We saw quite a few wrecked vehicles at the bottom of mountain sides.
On the approach to La Paz we experienced traffic speed control the Bolivian way – speed humps 50cm high and 2 metres long that made it necessary for everyone to slow right down or tear the suspension out of their vehicles. They were good spots for a motorcycle to use to pass everyone as we just stood up on the pegs and rode over with ease.
It was interesting to see along the roadside every kind of service that might be required for a vehicle. Car wash, oil changes, brakes, engine rebuilds, tyres, panel beating, spray painting, whatever you needed were all done outdoors out of tiny little buildings.
We left our bikes in a lock up and took one of the many cable cars, that go down and across the valley in which La Paz is located, to get down to our hotel into the central city. Once again, we were put up in a top-class hotel and had an excellent meal.
In the morning Bruce opted for a day ride on the Death Road while I chose a tour of the city.
2 million people live in La Paz which is the unofficial capital of Bolivia with the financial centre, Parliament and presidential palace located there, Sucre is the official capital with another 2 million people. The population of the two cities comprises 40% of the total population of the whole country.
Bolivia was once a much larger country however a couple of wars with Chile and Peru saw significant swathes of land lost, including the corridor that gave the country access to the Pacific coast.
More land was given away by a particularly stupid president who gave away about 10,000sq km of Bolivia to Brazil in exchange for a horse. Needless to say, he did not last long and was found dead from a gunshot to the head.
Now all imports and exports have to go through Chile which country charges a duty on everything that moves in and out of Bolivia. Chile did offer to provide a duty-free corridor to the coast for Bolivia but the then Bolivian President insisted that all land lost in the wars be returned – bad move and now that hubris costs everyone more for goods.
On our ride through Bolivia we saw blue and white banners painted everywhere on rocks, walls, buildings etc “Evo 20-25”. Evo Morales became President in 2010 and set about sorting out the country. We were told that he threatened oil companies with nationalisation unless they gave a better deal to Bolivia, insisted all Government contracts be completed on time and on budget (no cost overruns, kickbacks or delays in completion) and expected his ministers to do a decent days work in return for less pay. He was first elected with 65% of the vote but succeeding elections have seen this drop as people forget what he has done for the country.
La Paz to Arica
Long day today with ambient temperature below zero so the wind chill factor on the bikes was bitterly cold. I had to signal Juan to stop as I had lost feeling in my fingertips despite having the heated grips on maximum setting.
Must have been a funny sight to see three riders hugging exhaust pipes and engines to warm up. Stopped just before the border to pour the remaining spare fuel into our tanks – border officers confiscate any fuel in containers to stop smuggling of cheap fuel into Chile.
Another border crossing back into Chile with lots of paperwork, stamps, more stamps, more windows to visit for more papers and more stamps before all the papers are finally thrown into a box in a corner and we are sent on our way.
One very important document you must not lose and must show at every hotel etc is the DPI card you are given on entry in Bolivia. It is a report card on your time in country so they can monitor if you have misbehaved.
It took 90 minutes for three bikes, and a van, so I do not envy a tour leader trying to cross borders with a full group of 12 or more people.
Arica to Puno
Overnight in Arica and the on to the Peruvian border, and this is where the fun started –
We were riding Peruvian registered motorcycles that had been left in Chile when the Peruvian Government had prohibited non-Peruvians crossing out of Peru on Peruvian registered bikes. Got it so far?
Now we were trying to bring said bikes back INTO Peru and that created chaos with officialdom at the border. What were the bikes doing outside Peru? – well sir they were already there when the rules changed. Not acceptable said the Border Chief.
It eventually came down to a decision that only the owner or his official representative (Eddy our van driver) could take the bikes back into Peru. And they could only remain in no- man’s land between the borders for 24 hours before they would be confiscated.
Fine we said, Eddy can move each vehicle from where they were parked across into Peru
No said the border officials, he could only enter Peru with ONE vehicle at a time.
Juan offered to put us on a bus to Puno but Bruce and I refused to leave the bikes and we considered this drama part of the experience of the trip.
Solution – Eddy to drive the van 50 metres into Peru and park. Walk 1km back to Chilean border post, exit Peru, re-enter Chile, exit Chile, re-enter Peru, walk 1km back to us and move one bike 50 metres to park beside the van. Repeat the process for the second bike. Peruvian honour satisfied
Poor Eddy was buggered by the time this farce was concluded
Seven hours later we mounted up, and to waves and goodbyes from the same officials, we rode on.
This border delay meant we had to ride well into the night to reach Puno on Lake Titikakka.
Not fun on unfamiliar roads, with pathetic headlights, bad roads in Juliacca and Puno and crazy traffic – but we survived to reach our hotel and have a few calming ales.
Lake Titikakka – boat trip out to the floating islands. Quite an amazing sight. Each island is owned by a family group of around 15 to 20 people who must maintain it to keep it afloat.
Islands are created by carving 1m x 5m chunks of reed bed from the shoreline, pegging and roping chunks together until they have an area large for a number of structures. The islands are all anchored to long poles to stop them from drifting from Peru into the Bolivian section of the lake. Every five days they have to harvest and add about 30cm of reeds on top of the island to keep feet dry. The islands last about 20 years and then they have to create another one.
Believe it or not both countries maintain a naval fleet of small gunboats to monitor their share of the lake.
Puno to Cusco – took the bypass road around Juliacca on the way to Cusco. What a nightmare – under construction for sixteen years and still looks like photo of Berlin after the blitz– the worst piece of road on the whole trip.
Cusco was one of the centres of the Incan empire with around 15 palaces being built
We were very surprised to see Eucalyptus trees around Cusco – after the desolation of the volcanic deserts it was a welcome sight to see some familiar greenery.
Cusco to Machu Pichu
90 km ride to Ollantay Tambo leave the bikes and take a train up to the town Agua Callientas (commonly called Machu Pichu).
Overnight in another excellent hotel and then an early morning bus to Machu Pichu ruins.
Bookings for tickets for the bus and entry to the ruins must be made well in advance as they limit the visitor number to 5,000 per day. A steep climb up several hundred metres and then you look down over the site.
The sight from above Machu Pichu is just awesome – another tick on my bucket list.
Once you enter the ruins you have to follow a one-way route as it is too busy and dangerous to try and back track. You are allowed three hours on site and then you have to exit.
We were told that Machu Pichu only accommodated about 600 people due to a limited water supply, and the site only was used for about 30 years in spite of taking many years more than that to build. It was amazing to see how precisely the stones fitted together after being carved with just a hammer and chisel.
Back to town by train, and then a bike ride back to Cusco for the final dinner and night of the trip.
This was an awesome trip that far exceeded my expectations and was made more so by the fact that the company would not cancel and ran the whole tour for two people.
I can highly recommend it.
Bruce and I cannot give enough praise to Mick and Jerry of Compass Expeditions. and to his South American team of Sayda, Juan and Eddy for giving Bruce and I an experience of a lifetime. We both now regard Juan and Eddy as the best of friends and look forward to hosting them in Australia and New Zealand sometime soon.
One piece of advice I would give anyone looking at a tour is to look far beyond the price because you really do get what you pay for. To Bruce and I this trip was worth every cent.
In this case we had a tour for two with top class meals and top-class accommodation wherever it was possible.
It must have cost Compass money but for us it cemented their reputation at the top of the tour market.
Bruce is going on their Road of Bones tour next year and I have already asked for my name to be put down for several more Compass tours from 2022 onwards
In loving memory of my wife Kirsten Collins who died suddenly in her sleep on 25th August while I was waiting at Santiago airport to come home to her
To find out more about the Trail Of The Incas Motorcycle Tour please visit: http://www.compassexpeditions.com/tours/on-the-trail-of-the-incas/