Crossing Borders with Motolombia Part 2: A Brief Guide to Motorcycle Touring in Peru
Welcome to Part 2 of our blog series on motorcycle touring in the South America just beyond Colombia’s borders. This time, we’ll be giving you an introduction to riding in Colombia’s other southern neighbour, Peru.
Motolombia run several guided tours throughout South America, including the 14 Day South American Express, which starts in Cali and takes you overland through Ecuador and on to Peru, ending on a high in the beautiful and fascinating Andean town of Cusco, one of the oldest cities in the Americas.
Peru has of course been a bucket list travel destination for decades, thanks to world-class natural and historical wonders like Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines. But what does Peru have in store for adventurers setting out to explore the country on two wheels?
What is Motorcycle Touring in Peru Like?
The high Peruvian Andes are home to the densest concentration of snow-capped summits and glaciers in the entire mountain range. With roads that wind their way along the ridges of towering cliffs, descend steeply into valleys and climbing breathtakingly high passes, Peru is criss-crossed with some of the most exciting mountain routes on earth.
Many of the major highways in the Peruvian Andes are paved and surprisingly well maintained, including some of the remote high altitude passes. Ticlio Pass (4,818m), between Lima and Oroya, and Abra Oquepuño (4,873m) in Peru’s southern Puno region, are among the world’s highest paved roads.
Sweeping bend after bend, the visual backdrop of the Andes is as wild and majestic as it gets, with endless chains of snow-covered peaks, distant glacial mountains and sheer cliffs tumbling into valleys carpeted by lush forest and ancient farmlands.
And yet, there’s more to riding in Peru than mountains. This is a country of intricate geography and astoundingly varied terrain. Peru’s patchwork of high peaks and plateaus, tropical rainforest, dry forest and coastal desert contain 28 of the world’s 32 individual climates. Witnessing the landscape change before your eyes every few hundred kilometres is one of the greatest rewards of riding in Peru.
Peru’s close proximity to the equator, as well as its diverse climatic zones, make it a year-round riding destination. However, be prepared for temperatures on ranging anywhere between 40 and 12 degrees Celsius, dropping colder still on the high mountains passes.
Why Every Adventure Motorcycle Rider Should Visit Peru
1. Peru’s paved roads make most famous attractions easily accessible
Smooth, sealed roads climbing to 4,000 metres altitude and beyond are a rarity almost anywhere in the world, but in Peru, you can conquer some of the country’s highest mountain passes while barely ever leaving the asphalt.
Even with only a couple of weeks up your sleeve, it’s possible to hit up just about all of Peru’s best-known sights and destinations. Ancient Andean towns like Cusco and Puno and breathtaking natural wonders like Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca are all totally doable on a leisurely-paced, week-and-a-half jaunt through to country, while sticking to almost 100% paved roads.
2. You can ride the 500 year old remnants of the ancient Inca Road System
Beginning in the mid-15th century, the Incas began the construction of the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Colombian South America. The Incas built networks of roads, bridges and tunnels stretching for almost 40,000km over six modern-day countries – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This extraordinary feat of engineering helped transform a tiny kingdom into the most powerful empire in the western hemisphere.
These roads, all built by hand, were so well constructed that substantial parts of them still exist – and are in use – today, with some of the most spectacular stretches of the Incan road system snaking their way through the highlands of Peru.
Riding Peru’s Inca Roads combines extraordinary history with some of the most fun and challenging off-road riding in the Andean region.
Taking the old roads out of Cusco through the Sacred Valley of the Incas means tackling days’ worth of steep, narrowing and winding dirt tracks, with the breathtaking backdrop of the Andes ranges as your constant companion.
You’ll truly appreciate the legacy of the mighty Incan civilization, as you travel across expansive landscapes, dotted with atmospheric ruins, colourful villages and open air markets, where Peru’s indigenous communities have plied their trades for countless generations.
3. The desert landscapes of Peru’s Andean plateau are out of this world
The 250km odd route between Chivay and Arequipa (the second deepest canyon in the world) is one of the most thrilling and dramatic rides on the vast Andean Plateau.
The ride through the Colca region is pure Peru – a breathtaking journey through the beautiful Colca Valley, dotted with farming terraces that pre-date even the Incas and which are still used by the local farmers today.
Be on the lookout for the wheeling shadows of Andean condors as they soar above the towering red cliffs that mark the steep uphill climb to the top of Colca Canyon.
The last stretch of the day-long journey takes you over the 4,850m high Patapampa Pass, which commands panoramic views over a magnificent chain of extinct volcanoes, the largest of them, Nevado Hualca Hualca, rising to 6,025m.
4. You can add on a side-trip to Macchu Pichu
The remarkable monuments and ruined citadels of Peru’s ancient civilizations are undoubtedly the country’s biggest tourist drawcards.
Travelling on two wheels, you can make your way to legendary destinations like the mysterious mud city of Chan Chan in the northern highlands, and the enigmatic geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines in Peru’s southern coastal plain.
The most famous historical site of all, the mist-shrouded icon of the Inca civilization, Macchu Pichu, while inaccessible by road, is an easy side trip from Cusco. From Cusco, it can be reached in a single day via a scenic train ride, or for the full experience, a tough but rewarding multi-day hike.
A guided tour of Macchu Pichu is offered as an optional extra on Motolombia’s South American Express Tour.
5. Peruvian culture is both modern and ancient, diverse and endlessly fascinating
Peru’s warm, friendly, multi-ethnic people are themselves one of the country’s real cultural treasures. Peruvians in general are polite, hospitable and warmly welcoming towards visitors to their country.
The capital, Lima, is a truly diverse city. With an impressive historic centre defined by grand Spanish colonial architecture, Lima showcases a vibrant mix of native Peruvian, European and Asian culture in the make-up of its people, its music, celebrations, festivals and food.
Peruvian cuisine is a unique and increasingly sophisticated melange of indigenous, Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese and West African influences, with Lima being widely recognised as one of the great food cities of the world.
Outside of the cities, many Peruvians still live remarkably traditional lives. Many Peruvians connect strongly with their Incan and pre-Incan roots and have held on to age-old customs and ceremonial practices.
Riding through the countryside, you’ll pass through patchwork farms where many people still dress in traditional clothing, speak the old languages and make handicrafts in the same way their ancestors have for countless generations.
Reaching Peru from Colombia by Bike
Although Colombia shares a 1,494km border with Peru, the dividing line where the two countries meet straddles a wild and remote expanse of the Amazon rainforest. Because of this, there’s no official overland crossing between Colombia and Peru.
The only way to cross directly between Colombia and Peru is to cross by boat from Leticia, a Colombian port town. This is easy enough if you’re crossing on foot, but with a motorcycle in tow, this option is a serious logistical feat and not something we would recommend.
Most riders first cross from Colombia into Ecuador, and then cross into Peru. There are two official crossings from Ecuador. The Macará-Sullana crossing is located in Peru’s northern western plains, while the more popular Huaquillas-Tumbes crossing enters north western Peru closer to the Pacific Coast.
Rental bikes from Colombia can generally only obtain permits to cross into Ecuador – not Peru. So, you’ll need to own your own bike or be part of a guided tour who can arrange the necessary paperwork for you.
Tips and Advice for Riding in Peru
Check out our tips and advice for riding in Ecuador, as well as our original guide to Motorcycle Safety in Colombia, as much of the advice regarding urban and rural roads in these countries is also applicable to riding in Peru.
- Dealing with Altitude Sickness: Altitude sickness can be quite a serious issue in Peru, since quite a few popular touring routes can take you to well above 4,000m altitude. The infamous Ticloo Pass (4,818m), between Lima and Oroya, and Abra Oquepuño (4,873m) in Peru’s southern Puno region, are among the highest paved roads in the world.
A number of villages in Peru are also situated between 3,000m and 5,000m, which is the elevation range where most people start to feel symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
Without proper acclimatisation, exposure to these low-oxygen environments can trigger mild to severe symptoms of AMS including headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue.
If you feel the symptoms of AMS coming on, get yourself to the nearest town or village and rest up. Don’t go any higher until you’ve fully recovered – this often takes a day or two.
To help with acclimatising on a road trip, plan overnight stops in towns at around 2,500m altitude for the first few days, before moving up to another stop at around the 3,000m mark. Ideally, you’ll want to acclimatise at altitudes between 2,500m and 3,500m for at least five days before attempting to go any higher.
Altitudes of Peruvian Cities and Attractions
|Arequipa||2,335m / 2,661 ft|
|Ollantaytambo (Sacred Valley)||2,792m / 9,160 ft|
|Machu Pichu||2,430 m / 7,972 ft|
|Cusco||3,339m / 11,150 ft|
|Chivay (Colca Valley)||3,658m / 12,000 ft|
|Puno||3,827m / 12,556 ft|
If your route has a quite a rapid elevation gain, take frequent rest stops and most importantly stay hydrated! Dehydration will compound the effects of mountain sickness and can lead to more severe symptoms.
How high altitudes affect your motorcycle: Modern fuel injected bikes don’t suffer like older carburetted bikes from lack of oxygen at altitude causing an overly rich fuel mix due. However, you can still expect the thin air to be a slight drain on performance – a loss of about 10% power for every 1000m gained.
So – keen to get high on a wild mountain adventure through Peru?
Check out Motolombia’s guided, multi-country South America motorcycle tours here:
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)