Sunday, December 1, 2013

Heading Out

It’s Thanksgiving weekend and the recent snowfall has melted. I’m sitting in bed here in Michigan, remembering details from my trip with Peru Motors last year.

The day before we set out to ride, we all gathered outside in La Gruta’s garden to discuss logistics of our trip.  Lars prepped us about what to expect while traveling. We would awaken early each day to eat, pack up our gear and be on the road by 7:00AM. We’d ride for about 4 hours, stop for lunch and ride again until we reached our hotel around 4:30. Lars explained he’d be leading us on his bike while our second guide, Eduardo, (who proved invaluable for many reasons I’ll get to eventually) followed us in a truck that hauled a trailer, tools, spare tires and our luggage.

Our bikes and back-up vehicle lined up in front of La Gruta the morning of our departure.

Lars finished up our meeting by helping us sort out who would ride which bike. We were able to chose between Honda Falcon 400’s, Kawasaki KLR 650’s and an old Honda XR650 while one person upgraded to a BMW.  After our meeting we took some time to properly outfit our bikes with gadgets and such. I brought along an Airhawk seat cushion and heated jacket for comfort so I hooked up the battery harness and attached the cushion while others secured Go-Pros and rigged up tank bags and secured straps for daypacks.

The remainder of the day was spent exploring Arequipa (pronounced ah-ray-keep-ah).  The hotel was walking distance from town so we gathered up our cameras and and walked into town.  This city, like many of the others we visited, has a “Plaza de Armas”-  a park-like area at the center of town. This one was filled with lush foliage including palm trees, pruned shrubs and specimen trees that surrounded a central fountain. The fountain was bordered by wide walk-ways paved with tiles and lined with park benches.

La Plaza de Armas in the center of Arequipa

The plaza was surrounded by Spanish inspired architecture on three sides and a cathedral on the fourth side. The Basillica Cathedral of Arequipa was so large, it spanned one block, was fitted with three towers and massive arches on either side. (So big, in fact, I couldn't fit the whole thing in one picture!)

The Basillica Cathedra of Arequipa- a cathedral museum.

It, like many of the buildings in the city were made of sillar, a white stone quarried from volcanoes that surround it.  Joe, Lars H. (not our guide, but a fellow rider) and I took a tour of it our first day, the day before everyone else arrived. The cathedral is a museum that showcases stunning artistry inside: larger than life statues of the apostles along the aisles, cavernous domed ceilings, detailed moldings and an ornately carved pulpit. On the wall opposite the altar was an enormous pipe organ that filled the entire wall.

Inside the Basillica Cathedral

Before this, I’d never been in a church as old and elaborate. We toured interior rooms showcasing solid gold scepters and crowns accented with precious gems as well as intricately detailed vestments. We also went to the top of the building where we were able to touch and photograph the bell in the main tower. This gave us a birds eye view of the Plaza de Armas (photo above) and the buildings alongside it.

This building ran alongside La Plaza de Armas and housed many small stores and restaurants. Photo credit: Lars Helgeson
For lunch we had many options to choose from in restaurants along the narrow streets or in the wide, tiled alleys between buildings. There was traditional Peruvian food, wood-fired pizzas and even Chinese food. For ordering, I was glad to have practiced my second language by listening to tapes in the months leading up to the trip. Both Lars and Eduardo spoke English and Spanish so while I was glad for the opportunity to use Spanish, it wasn’t necessary once we left town. Our guides served as translators for details such as menu options and finding bathrooms. But more than that, they were our cultural insiders. They were friendly and knowledgeable about all sorts of interesting tidbits and they enjoyed answering questions and telling us all about what we were seeing.

I’d talked with several folks about the tour before going. One person was insistent that he could get a better and cheaper trip by just loading his bike in a trailer and heading down to Mexico. Here’s the thing- Peru Motors costs are well below the going rate for other tours in South America. They provide the motorcycles, assist in route planning, book the lodging, know the best restaurants and are familiar with the must-see places. They even know where to stop to get the best pictures along the way.  I particularly liked having the back-up vehicle following us so we could stop and for photos without fear of being left behind. But most importantly, they could make small repairs, were equipped to change tires, refill gas tanks or haul a bike to the nearest shop for repair. So for me, the guided tour was a blessing.  At the most basic level, having everything planned out allowed me to really focus on the riding and the experience of being in Peru.

The morning we left La Gruta on our bikes, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. Lars warned us that we’d have to stay close together while riding through the city so we wouldn’t lose each other. All but one of us who went on the trip were accustomed to group riding through our motorcycle club where there were very clear guidelines about how to ride: remaining side-by-side in a staggered formation, moving through stops as one unit, communicating with hand gestures – all to help us ride safely and keep us together. Lars assured us that those skills would not be useful to us in Peru. And he was right. From our first turn onto city streets, we were on our own. Our leader wove in and out of traffic, split lanes and raced through lights. It was clear within minutes that we needed pay attention or we’d get lost in a sea of vehicles - without GPS, cell phone reception or maps. Of course when there was a turn, he’d stop and wait until those in the rear could catch up, then he’d move on through the city. We road like this from light to light, turn by turn, surrounded by vehicles of all types- small cars, motorcycles, bicycle taxi’s and buses.  Our first destination was a gas station. As attendants fueled up our bikes, we took pictures of each other and the volcano sitting at the edge of town overlooking the city.  

Grinning ear to ear while fueling up after our first ride through town.

Those first fifteen minutes on the bike were exhilarating; they pointed to all the wondrous things to come! Next Sunday, I'll tell you all about that first day of riding...