Motorcycling in the Sacred Valley, Peru

Cusco was the spiritual and administrative centre of the Inca Empire, which at its height before the Spanish Conquest included territories in modern day Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

The remains of this ancient empire are spread widely around Cusco, and along the Urubamba River, also known as the Sacred Valley. The largest and most well known of these, Machu Picchu, can only be accessed via train; but the other sites are all easily within a day´s drive from Cusco.

Although there are many car hire companies in the city, I had decided that the most exciting and stylish way to visit these sites would be on motorbike. There are a few motorcycle outfitters in Cusco, who arrange both guided rides and the rental of individual bikes for the day.

I was initially sceptical when the representative of the hire agency arrived to pick me up from the hostel carrying a pair of crutches. The traffic around Cusco was busy and the driving erratic, but I had not thought it particularly dangerous.

The route through the Sacred Valley takes in some fairly steep mountain roads, and had not relished the prospect of tackling these on a 125cc machine – I had already pinged the camchain mechanisms of two 125 bikes back in England by riding them hard and fast, and was not particularly keen on the idea of doing the same thing in Peru. Having passed my DAS 9 months previously in England, I therefore decided that a beefy, all terrain Honda 650 would be the best choice of bike from those on offer.

Having picked the largest machine in the shop, I was rather expecting the owner to satisfy himself beyond any reasonable doubt that I could actually ride this machine. I had made sure that I had brought both my UK driving license and an international driving license endorsed for motorcycle use to prevent any problems.

But Peruvians are clearly more cavalier than their English counterparts when it comes to motorcycles. I was required to produce neither a UK license or an international license. I paid the rental fee in cash, and the bike owner took my passport to ensure that I brought the bike back. He had no wish to see either license, but just informed me that I should have one if I was stopped by the police. In theory someone with no biking experience could have taken that bike out on a whim, seeking a thrilling ride around the Peruvian countryside.

The only concessions to safety were to provide me with a helmet and gloves, and the reassurance that my rental fee included the right to $3000 worth of private health treatment in hospital in the event of an accident. If I were to damage the bike I would have to pay for it, and each separate component was marked with an agreed damage value. I was also informed that in the event that the bike got a puncture I would have to find a repair shop myself somewhere.

My first stop was just a few miles up the hill from Cusco at a site called Saqsayhuaman. This actually means Satisfied Falcon in the indigenous language, but most easily it is remembered as Sexy Woman. The site commands a position at the back of the hills over Cusco, from which it is possible to see the whole city spread out in the valley beneath. The words “Love Live Glorious Peru” had also been cut into the grass on the far mountainside in letters several metres high, together with various cultural symbols. The is also a short walk down to a giant white Christ the Redeemer statue looking out across the city with its arms spread out to encompass the people.

The site itself comprises a fortress made of granite blocks, a wide spacious central area and a hill supporting the remains of an amphitheatre. The stones here are precisely carved. Each one has a perfectly smooth face, curved down towards the corners. Although each block often extends over a metre in each direction, it fits perfectly in alignment with those around it without the need for mortar or adobe of any kind.

Since the fortress extends several hundred metres along the valley, each wall several metres high, rising of three or four levels from the ground, this is a fairly extraordinary engineering and technical achievement, requiring both great skill in carving and also the means to manoeuvre all the rocks into position.

This fortress also served as the site of the last battle between the Inca civilization and the European settlers in 1536.

Some have speculated, somewhat wildly, that the technology to do this was in fact way beyond the capabilities and knowledge of peoples in the area at this time. For them, the only explanation to account for the achievements, is that alien life forms must have come down from the skies to assist them. The Swiss science fiction writer, Erich von Daniken, has written several books on this subject. Most of these have, however, been largely discredited – with the more likely explanation that these pre Colombian societies did in fact possess a great deal more knowledge than they were given credit for.

In fact most of the decay to this building had been due to the fact that the European settlers had raided the stone walls for material to build their own churches and houses. The masonry and workmanship that had not been pillaged in this way had withstood almost 500 years of weathering unharmed.

I spent just under an hour walking around the site, around the fortress, through the distinctive Inca trapezoidal gateways, and around the amphitheatre. Although one of the major remains in the area it was fairly deserted. This is low tourist season in Peru anyway, but the recent mud slides and floods in the area which cut off access to Machu Picchu have severely reduced the number of visitors still further. Although this is now open again, it will be some time before the crowds return.

There were a few guides touting for business around the area, and the fact that I had arrived on motorcycle seemed to attract even greater attention. I had several queries regarding the engine size of the bike, where I had got it, how much it cost, and where else I had riden. One guide, who tried to convince me that he had ridden motorcycles in Manchester, seemed quite keen on accompanying me for the whole day riding on the back and giving me an entire tour of the valley. He did not consider the absence of a helmet any problem at all in this endeavour. I preferred, however, to continue to journey in my own time and at my own pace.

The second site was a small Incan temple called Q Enqo. It was only a few miles from Saqsayhuaman and Cusco, but already the road was deteriorating, with several potholes and a flooding stream across the road. The last section of road to the site was along a dirt and gravel track, with several deep indentations in the road. I had only ever ridden on tarmac before, so as well as a tour of the Sacred Valley, I was also getting a fast track lesson in rough road riding.

I parked the bike up by the side of the road, making sure that I was in a position to turn easily when I left. The Honda 650 was a much heavier machine than I was used to riding, and I quite difficult to manoeuvre in tight positions. There were several guides at Q Enqo, including one dressed in full Inca priest regalia inviting me to take his photo for the price of 5 soles.

The word Q Enqo means labyrinth, and the main feature of this site was a passageway carved through several large rocks into a chamber which served as a place for religious ceremonies. There was what looked like a large altar here, hewn from the rock and worn smooth by the water. There was also a platform outside the cave, which from its position is thought to have been used for making astronomical observations.

The site also comprises a small area around the outside of the temple, as well as a larger amphitheatre surrounding the whole complex. This division of the site into three parts mirrors the Inca religious conception of the word – the lower regions of the earth (symbolised by a serpent), the surface of the earth (symbolised by the puma), and the heavens or the skies (symbolised by the condor). Figures representing each of these 3 animals are also found in the inside of the temple.

Upon returning to the Honda, I discovered that my plans to make a swift and smooth exit had been thwarted. The parking area was entirely deserted apart from one tour minibus which had chosen from all available spaces to position itself as close to the bike as was humanly possible without actually knocking it over. Since the driver had disappeared, I had no option but to try and paddle the bike backwards up a short hill without tipping it over. I was sorely tempted to inflict some “accidental” damage on this awkward tour bus, but decided I would probably end up doing just as much damage to my own machine in the process.

I continued riding uphill for several kilometres towards the site of Puka Pukara, or the Red Fortress. Looking out across the valley to my right I could see the characteristic Incan terracing along the hillsides, as well as small modern day farms and a few villages. Steep mountains rose up in front of me, a forbidding dark green colour, even in the bright sun of an April morning.

I pulled in to the gravel layby at the side of the road. As well as the various tour buses, which I made a further point of avoiding, there were also numerous Peruvian men and women selling their wares by the side of the road: alpaca wool sweaters, hats and scarves (all very soft and well made but not entirely practical in the baking heat), carved figures in stone and wood representing the Pachamama (earth mother), the 3 layered Inca Cross, or various mythological birds and beasts.

Puka Pukara was a military outpost on the road from Cusco towards Pisaq, and occupies the highest and flatest ground in the area, providing an extensive view across the whole valley. It also served as a storage site and quartermasters lodge for providing food for the nearby soldiers. Although largely ruined, the walls often no more than a metre high, it was still possible to see the layout of the various rooms, and appreciate the impregnability of the position, as numerous defence walls streched up the almost vertical mountainside.

Across the road from Puka Pukara is the site of Tambomachay. This was the equivalent of an Inca tour retreat, and is known as The Baths of the Princess. There are two aqueducts on site which provide water all year round. It has a ritual fountain and three terraces built of the same type of stones and in the same style as those found in Saqsayhuaman. Water was important for the Incan religion and worhsipped as the water of life.

The place almost has the atmosphere of a modern spa town. Waters and streams run from the rock and beside the pathways, providing nourishment for the lush green vegetation and plants which grow alongside. The water runs clear from the natural springs into the stream. Authorities on the site have put a string fence around the monument itself to prevent damage as visitors try to drink the water. This serves little purpose as several people climb over the string and fill their water bottles with the pure spring water.

I climbed onto the bike again and headed further into the mountains towards the small town of Pisaq some 15 miles away. The landscape here became wilder with dark peaks reaching higher into the sky, and wide rivers far below in the valley beneath.

Not that there was a great deal of opportunity to sit and admire the view while riding, as the road conditions became more and more challenging. In addition to the familiar potholes, there were now several large rock falls from the slopes above, reminders of the recent flooding and landslides. Many a time I would round a sharp corner on the mountain roads to be met with a small cluster of boulders on my side of the carriageway. On one occasion a whole bank had slid down into the road, blocking my side with a mixture of mud and rock.

Veering out towards to left hand carriageway had to be done with caution. There were few other drivers on the road, but there were no crash barriers on the outside sections of bends, while there was a fairly steep and sharp fall through the grass and trees towards the bottom of the valley. In several places the outside section of the road had also collapsed, meaning that any oncoming vehicles would swing into my carriageway. It is a fairly strange experience to look at the road ahead, wonder why it appears to be narrowing, and then realising that it because the road is simply no longer there, but a few hundred feet down a slope.

In Pisaq I discovered that the main bridge taking traffic across the river was closed. There were large barricades across the road, several workmen and the bridge, and a sign saying “Dangerous Bridge”. There was no other vehicle crossing in town, and no other bridge at the next town towards the east. I had been advised however that there was an alternative bridge for pedestrians, cycles and motorcycles a few hundred metres further along the river bank.

I bounced the bike along a rough road that was falling into disrepair, vainly trying to avoid as many potholes as I could. Dust blew up high from the wheels as I made my way past simple concrete buildings that were both houses and small workshops.

There was a crowd of great confusion around the bridge. Several tour buses had stopped there, together with a large number of taxis and small minivans. In order to ensure that travel around the region could continue, travel operators had buses located on either side of the temporary bridge, and several dozen passengers were making the crossing over the river to continue their journey.

There was a solitary policeman overseeing proceedings so I asked him for confirmation that I could take my motorbike across. He told me that I could, but that I had to push it rather than ride it across. It was somewhat unnecessary for him to tell me this, since the bridge could only be reached by descending a steep, winding path which it would have been almost impossible to negotiate while riding.

And so I climbed off and proceeded to manhandle the bike down this path, together with women carrying fruit and clothes in shopping bags, and men pushing carts of vegetables. The bridge itself was narrow, wooden and swayed over the frothing brown waters in the wind. Looking at the other bicycles and small 125cc bikes on the bridge, it was clear that the Honda was by far the heaviest thing that was making the crossing, and was probably the heaviest thing that had ever been on it.

Still there was no other way to proceed, so I lugged the bike onto the bridge, putting my thigh firmly into the rear side panels to provide support and power to get it moving. I tried to imagine that the bridge did not move noticeably downwards when the weight of the machine moved onto it. I also tried to pretend that the bridge did not slope upwards towards the centre – for this would mean greater effort to get to the top, and also the risk of the bike running out from under me as I made my way downwards. I put all thought from my mind how I would possibly begin to explain to the agency in Cusco that the bike had been washed away in some torrent after the bridge collapsed.

I made my way slowly across the bridge – surely it was not really swaying from side to side with every step I took forward. Clearly too slowly for one annoyed local man on his bicycle who had the misfortune to be behind me. Every time I stopped to take a breather from pushing the bike he would ring his bell furiously to encourage me to move the thing faster.

Once on the other side I paused for breath, surrounded by more taxis, motorised tricycles and vegetable carts. The town of Pisaq itself was a busy, dusty place, spread out along the side of the river. I headed eastwards and westwards in search of the Inca site at the top of the mountains.

Most of the Peruvian towns (in ancient times and to some extent in modern times too) rely for their water supply on the streams and rivers which flow down from the tops of the mountains. Pisaq was no exception, and I encountered several of these rivers running across the road as I headed upwards. Since my route snaked up the mountain in a switchback fashion, I rode through the same river about five times at various stages on my way.

The bike engine and gear units did not seem to be enjoying this regular soaking, and I could feel the frame and tank heating up too as the bike went round and round the steep hairpin bends in first and second gear.

I was in for a further surprise when I reached the top of the road and the ancient Pisaq ruins which were there. The road was surfaced almost entirely of gravel, about one normal carriageway wide, and at a slope of around 25%. And it just came to a complete stop. This meant that I had to find some way of turning the machine round without tipping myself off.

I had done many turns in the road as part of the bike training, but none had combined all these three unfavourable elements. A group of Peruvian women sat silently by the side of the road, quietly weaving their woolen goods. They seemed unaware of my presence. I wondered if they would remain just as inscrutable and unmoved were I to collapse the bike in a heap trying to turn it round, and decided that they might.

Rather than wheel the bike round I decided the best thing was to ride it round, hanging my feet off either side for stability. Unfortunately, just as I aligned myself parallel to the road, the bike tipped downhill. Putting my downhill foot out for balance, I discovered that the road was so steep that there was no ground there, and the full weight of the bike started to fall downhill, while the wheels slid downwards in the gravel.

Just in time I remembered to counter balance the bike and threw all of my weight up hill. For a moment the bike seemed to balance motionless on the steep slope, and finally righted itself with my weight on the uphill foot. From here I was able to paddle it round beside the road ready for a descent. Looking around, the Peruvian women continued their work, oblivious to the destruction I had nearly wrought on myself and the bike. As a climbed off however, I noticed that some unidentified liquid seemed to be dripping from the base of the bike. I thought that this was probably water from the various rivers I had ridden through.

The ruins at Pisaq themselves are striking. Not quite on the same scale as Machu Picchu, this is still a fair sized town stretching around the side of the mountains, looking down upon rows and rows of Inca terracing, surrounded my several tall and dark peaks on either side.

High stone walls can clearly be seen, showing how normal houses were constructed. Some large scale restoration had also been done on the roofs, showing the shape and style of the buildings when they were occupied. Defensive walls surrounded the town, and these were punctuated with windows and slits from where weapons could be thrown.

On the hillside opposite, further residential areas could be seen, stretching high up the steep slopes. Most of these were still intact and several storeys high. These were light red in colour, blending in with the colour of the rocks all around.

The site itself contains a wide range of different features: a citadel, a temple of the sun and ancient baths. The town therefore had religious, military and agricultural purposes combined in the one settlement, making it one of the most important in the area.

On returning to the bike, it still seemed to be dripping water and hot. I decided that it would probably cool off on the run down the mountain and that the flat roads on towards Ollantaytambo would not be such a strain on the engine.

As I swept back down towards the bottom of the valley, crossing the rivers in the road again, I also encountered some more hazards on the Peruvian roads. This was farming country and it seemed that at every small village I would meet the full range of domestic animals wandering across my path. I frequently had to sound my horn at donkeys, horses, pigs or chickens which strayed into the road, and seemed oblivious of the vehicle heading towards them.

The worst were the dogs. While they would happily sit lazily and watch whenever a car passed by, they suddenly became highly excited by the sound of the bike engine, and would bound into the road, running as close to the wheels for as long as they could keep up.

The route along the valley took me through many small towns beside the river. Each one of these comprised of a main street and little more. The roads were almost deserted apart from a few trucks and motorised tricycles which served as taxis for the local communities.

Every so often there would be someone walking along the road in one direction or the other. The women often walked with babies on their backs wrapped up in woolen sacks. The men carried produce from the farms (maize, barley or straw), usually in some kind of oversized hod. It was unclear where they were going, or where they had come from.

There also seemed to be a large number of children walking in the road, either on their way to school or on their way back home again. No one seemed to think anything of having children as young as 5 or 6 walking unaccompanied by the side of a busy highway. These children clearly had a walk of several hours each day in order to reach their schools and attend lessons. All them were impeccably smartly turned out in their uniforms. Many of the became very excited by the sight of a motorcycle and would shout and wave as I went past, smiling broadly as they did so.

The bike was holding up well: the strange dripping from the engine seemed to have stopped, and the tank seemed to have cooled a little. There was still the occasional blast of hot air around my ankles, and there now appeared to be a previously unnoticed whirring noise from around the front wheel. None of these seemed to hinder the performance of the bike, so I made my way onwards without too much concern.

The last place I planned to visit was Ollantaytambo, located almost at the end of the Sacred Valley. The road became more windy and mountainous, and I could see the small white and ochre houses nestling up amongst the trees just ahead.

I rounded a corner to make the last climb towards the town when the road suddenly and unexpectedly turned to cobblestones. Fortunately the broad tyres of the bike bounced over these quite easily without unbalancing me too much. There was one nasty stretch where the cobbles had been worn down into some kind of groove, effectively trapping the wheels in a narrow and wobbly channel, but this soon passed.

I emerged from the narrow streets into a kind of main square, half-closed by roadworks. There seemed no way to go but onwards, when the road sudden dived steeply down a slope made damp and slippery by an overflowing drain. To make matters worse the paving had completely cracked and slipped down the hill. There was no way to proceed other than to inch the bike forward around the cracks and holes in the road.

Crossing over a narrow wooden bridge between the numerous local minibuses and taxis, I emerged into the market square. Dozens and dozens of stalls were laid out here, selling the typical local produce of woolen goods, carved figures and other craftwork. I parked the bike up beside a stone wall and made my way into the Inca site overlooking the square.

Ollantaytambo was an Incan stronghold which resisted the Spanish invaders for many years. The first sight to strike me were the dozens of rows of terraces leading steeply up the mountainside overlooking the town, accessible by long stone stairways towering rapidly upwards. These occupied the whole of one side of the mountain and stretched some distance further round the hillside. There were also further examples of terracing and what looked like defensive fortifications on the hillside directly opposite.

On ground level were the remains of numerous houses and storerooms. The walls of some of these were almost at full height, and some had been restored with thatched roofs to show how they would originally have looked at the time of the Incas. There were also a couple of temples on the site, and a few watercouses leading from the river to provide the settlement with irrigation.

I spent some time exploring the ruins here, looking at the stonework of the buildings, climbing the steep terraced slopes and investigating some of the more remote buildings on the site.

It was now becoming late in the afternoon and I had almost 2 hours to drive back to Cusco. I returned to the bike and made my way through the market square, sweeping past the craftware, stray dogs and stall awnings. I opened the throttle to roar the bike up the steep decayed section of road, scattering a few tourist on either side as I did so.

Going back along the valley, there were two further places I would like to have stopped at, but the darkness was catching up with me. These were the sites at Maras and Chinchero. Maras is thought to have been an experimental Incan agricultural development, notably for its numerous concentric stone rings in the earth, somewhat similar to corn circles. The town of Chinchero is a surviving example of some Incan buildings which were occupied and rebuilt at the time of the Spanish conquest, thus showing stricking examples of the architecture of both civilizations.

I crossed the river at the town of Urubamba, and proceeded swiftly up a long switchback section of road all the way up the steep mountainside along the valley. Most of the other traffic was trucks and minivans, and the bike rapidly overtook these on the narrow winding roads. Though almost all my concentration was taken up by the riding, I was aware of the striking sunset on the mountains behind me. The bright evening sunlight illuminated the dark greens, yellows and reds of the surrounding countryside, and despite the urgency of the journey, I still found time to stop and take a few photographs.

It was dark by the time the outskirts of Cusco and the lights of the city came into view. The last descent into the centre seemed to drag on for ages – not helped by the numerous speed humps in the road, and the small minivan taxis which would stop in front of you without a moment´s notice.

I had to turn sharply at the end of one road across a double line of traffic. The bike suddenly lurched from one side and then the other before straightening itself up into the turn once again. I had only an instant to realise that I had probably bounced the forks against the side of the tank (much wider than on the machines I had ridden in England), before a policeman stepped out into the road and called me to a halt.

For a moment I thought that he had pulled me over to reprimand me for the swerve in the middle of the road: but he was only part of a routine traffic patrol, wanting to see only my driver´s license and the relevant documentation for the bike.

I finally emerged back onto the familiar main street of Cusco, Avenida El Sol, from where I was quickly able to make my way to the rental agency offices and return the bike. It was almost 10 hours since I had first ridden away that morning, and I was tired, and not a little chilled from the cold night air and the wind from the bike. But as I relaxed for a drink and food in the main Plaza de Armas, I thought that all the fatigue was well worth while.