I am finally venturing into new territory. Pisac is behind us now as we look to the north-westerly horizon, plotting a course through Peru’s central highlands.
From the start of this journey, the landscapes through which I have travelled have been constantly changing around me. In Patagonia the change was gradual, even when I rode several hundred kilometres day after day. Between Cusco and Ayacucho, it occurred almost hourly. The Andes have once again taken on a new character, and for the last three days we have been riding westward across the grain of the land, perpendicular to the deep, steep-sided valleys that flow north into the Amazon Basin. From the hot, languid riverbanks, dense in vegetation and alive with the sound of cicadas, to the cold, barren passes enclosed in thick cloud over two thousand metres above, we have switch-backed our way through several mountain ranges – sometimes making the climb from valley to summit twice in a day.
Every valley has its own character. In one, the hillsides were cloaked in patchwork quilts of small fields. In another, the valley sides were covered in thick forest. The crops in the fields were constantly changing – oil seed rape, maize, quinoa, and various root vegetables. You crest a summit and expect more of the same, but every time you are greeted with something new. The weather also adds to the variety. The morning sun can be rapidly engulfed by a thunderstorm, and temperatures can drop suddenly on the high ground as cloud closes in.
Some things, however, feel constant. The rainy season has turned the whole land a vibrant green. Everywhere feels so alive. And the people too; they all share the same openness, spirit of community and quiet determination. There is something different about the folk in this region, in both village and town alike. Barely a car or truck passes without sounding its horn in greeting. And it’s not just to us, the foreigners on overladen motorbikes – they do it to each other too. Kids run across to the side of the road when they hear the motos approaching to wave and smile at us. A greeting to a old farmer as we pass is usually returned with a broad, and sometimes toothless, grin.
Since leaving Cusco, I have felt an increased sense of elation as we have ridden slowly through these beautiful valleys. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it is simply because I know I am riding through new lands, but I think it is something more. These mountains and valleys are special places. Yesterday I rode past an old lady accompanied by a young girl, who were gently ushering two cows, two sheep and two pigs along the road. Such a simple scene, but it made my heart open. Later in the day, as we approached a village high up in the valley, we were stopped by a lone five-year old boy blocking the road with a rope made of plastic bags tied together. We turned our engines off, removed our helmets and started to talk with him, but he fell silent, perhaps overwhelmed by the site of two gringos on big motos. Again, such an uncomplicated encounter, yet so touching. The children here, so young, cheerful and industrious, are particularly endearing.
We arrived in Ayacucho yesterday evening, literally minutes ahead of a very heavy thunderstorm. As we walked into a restaurant later in the evening, we were greeted by the owner, Mario, who had seen us on our motos earlier as we passed through the plaza. A motoquero himself, and the organiser of a local motorbike club, he immediately took us under his wing. We need a new mirror for the Suzuki and he has promised to help. “We motoqueros are a family, we must look after each other,” he told us.
So we have decided to stay here a couple of days. Within an hour of exploring the old colonial city centre this morning, taking breakfast amongst the locals in the market, I had fallen for the charms of this place. And as with the valleys and villages we have driven through since leaving Cusco, Ayacucho is also different to every other city I’ve visited during my wanderings. Little known to the tourist crowd, it is a hidden gem.