Going remote with a motorbike in the region of Cusco.
This is how Izabela and I like to spend our spare time in Peru. We love exploring on our own. Besides, we find the moto an excellent way of transportation as it coveys an incredible sense of freedom and amazing sensations. The region of Cusco is vast and extremely diversified. One can never be bored with exploring this region. It goes from the jungle to the highest mountains in the Andes. Moreover, the roads are in a relatively good shape – it all depends of course on how remote you drive… As for the people, I have never seen in the world such diversity and cultures in such a small perimeter.
In this article, I’ll share with you three different adventures and places that we’ve seen along these roads. They have been memorable as we’ve met amazing people and passed by astonishing sceneries! The idea is to give you a glimpse of what this area of the world is like, and how amazing this way of traveling is. I hope I’ll manage to inspire some of you to explore Cusco much deeper when it’ll be possible again…
Few years ago, back in 2017 exactly, I trekked in autonomy with a friend from the Sacred Valley to the region of Lares. I had no big expectations about it because I thought that these mountains were not inhabited. It is relatively remote… But on the way up, we met a few people and all of them were extremely friendly and nice to us. They were all relaxed, and they always took some time to rest and talk with us.
Their traditional costumes are, above all, aesthetically beautiful. I particularly love their hats and the range of colors of their clothes. They fit wonderfully well with the environment that surrounds them I think. But what surprised me the most was to see that young kids were also still dressed in this traditional way! That is something that is kind of disappearing nowadays. At the end of the trek, we had reached a remote community. Not many people were outside, but there were at least few kids. Everything around was also really impacting me visually. I was loving the low clouds in the sky, and the overall atmosphere of the place. The green and red color palette was also very pleasing, and there were few dogs walking around…
I knew that, photographically, there was potential here. A little boy joined this girl, so I tried many different compositions and suddenly, I managed to capture a particular moment. A moment where all the elements perfectly aligned together. Both the boy and the dogs were intensely staring at me at the same time. This image has always been so far one of my favorites!
This trip has marked me a lot, and I’ve always wanted to come back. So in 2019, while we had free time in Cuzco, I proposed my wife to go and explore this region together. I remembered the name of this village/community and I found it on the map. There was apparently a new dirt road that was going straight to the village. So we decided that we would rent a motorbike to get there on our own. Just after the first 20 kilometers, we were already happy about this decision!
The road is indeed amazing. The landscape is changing valleys after valleys. One of my favorite part of this trip is the way to the Sacred Valley. I love the design and the colors of the cultivated fields surrounded by the huge peaks of the Urubamba mountain range. The weather was, as I love it usually, cloudy and moody…
The altitude changes a lot from one valley to another, as well as the weather and the environment. Once you get higher and above 4000 meters, it is very common to see lamas or alpacas alongside the road.
There is above all one breathtaking pass on the way to Lares, which stands at about 4500m above the sea level. The curves are just perfect, and it feels always great to evolve on your own on such incredible roads!
And I could not resist to take photos of my wife in this environment, because she was also dressed with these amazing moto protections that we rented!
Lares is a small town at 3150 meters above the sea level. It has a few cosy hostels and natural hot springs. It is worth to relax and stay one night in my opinion. That’s what we did. But we were above all interested to go higher with the motos in order to find this remote village. I was really curious to see if or how things have had changed in a two years period over there. We made it to the community after a tough ascent on a rocky dirt road, the new one that I saw on the map, and we’ve been nicely welcomed by few kids who seemed to be really curious about us I think…
They were actually super funny. They made my day! However, I was a little bit disappointed at the beginning to see them dressed like kids from the cities. I was afraid that “modernity” has had already arrived there, so quickly…
But the more time we spent walking around, the more traditional people we met. One man came to us. He had a lot of questions but he did not look in a very good shape… Then we saw his eyes. We thought that he was sad or something. But the reality was way different. In fact, he was already drunk in the morning. And this is unfortunately pretty common now in the Andes.
I’ve personally been to some villages in Peru where alcohol has been totally forbidden because of the damages it does on people. It often destroys families and the well-being of the communities. Life must not always be easy in these remote mountains…
It was still early in the morning and a lot of kids were playing football in a playground, but suddenly, they all left to go to school.
Iza and I were actually very curious to see what a local school looks like so high in the Andes. How are the classrooms? How many kids are there in a class? What are the topics that they learn? And what is their level of education for their ages? We had an occasion to discover all that so we dared following the kids and entering the school courtyard.
There was a P.E teacher inside. A dozen of kids were playing football again. The teacher was really nice and open to talk. We had an interesting discussion. Then he told us that we could go everywhere in the school if we wanted to see more. So we got closer to an open classroom where there was no teacher but 8 kids inside. We came in and started to talk…
The kids were amazing. They had thousands of questions, so had we. They were carefully listening to our answers and to what we had to share with them. They also had an excellent occasion to practice for real their English. They had actually good basics, we were quite surprised! We asked them a lot about the school and what subject they prefer. We talked about their dreams too and what they’d like to do in the future. Their answers were somehow classical, as all the kids in the world mostly dream about the same things : “doctor, teacher…”. But most of them were dreaming to go to the city, to Cusco, where they would have more opportunities to study and find a job.
I don’t know why, but the teacher never came back. We had spent a long time with them already, and all the kids suddenly went out of the class. A last occasion for me to record the nice moment that we’d spent together. There was a beautiful bi-color wall and the same two kids were standing against it. The photo was here… I really like the symmetry, their look, and their attitude which, in my opinion, shows explicitly their opposite personality and character…
We were thinking to come back to Cusco by the same road but we saw that there was a new dirt road going way further and higher in the Andes. We asked the locals where it leads and if it is in a relatively good shape. It turned out to be absolutely amazing and very practical since it ends in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, a wonderful archeological little town where the trains leave for Machu Picchu…
MACHU PICCHU ON MOTORBIKE
Ollantaytambo is one hour and a half away from Cusco and this is where most of the tourists start their journey to Machu Picchu by train. But Ollantaytambo is also the starting point of an incredible asphalted road that also leads to Machu Picchu. And this is usually something that tourists have no clue about. For bikers, this road is absolutely stunning and it would be a shame to miss it…
Ollantaytambo is located at 2,900 meters above the sea level – which is relatively low in the region of Cusco – and the road leads to an amazing pass, the Abra Malaga, standing at 4330 meters precisely!
The asphalt is great, because this portion of the road is almost new. So it’s a real pleasure in every curve for the riders that we are. And the higher, the better the scenery !
However, this pass stands between the dry Andes on one side, and the Amazon forest on the other side. So it’s pretty common to have bad weather here, or at least a thick fog. I’ve taken this road a dozen of times, and I’ve almost never seen the sun. So one has to be well equipped against the rain, just in case. But photographically, as I always say in my articles, I love these kinds of weathers and skies. It also gives another dimension to the trip. It feels more like we’re having a real adventure…
Last but not least, this pass is at the foot of a wonderful Andean peak called Veronica, which stands at 5,900 meters. I’ve been lucky to see it a few times from this pass and it’s always an amazing reward!
The other side of the Abra Malaga is incredible too, and very different. The vegetation changes drastically on the way down. It becomes more and more tropical. From 4300m above sea level, one has to descend almost 3000 meters in elevation to reach Santa Maria at 1200m. The thermal shock is huge! From there begins a dirt-road in an impressive canyon. On some portions, there is at least 200 meters of void on the left-side. One has to be very careful there with the crazy bus or truck drivers who drive in the opposite direction. They know the road perfectly so they just use the honk and never use the brake. But the scenery is absolutely stunning. The villages and its inhabitants are also very different from everywhere else in Peru. Many people sell on this dirt-road their tropical fruits and vegetables. It is worth stopping by… Then, one arrives in Santa Teresa, a relatively touristic town where many trekkers stop for a night. Hidroelectrica is only 15 minutes away and is the end of the road. There, one has to park the motorbike and start a 11km flat hike along the railway to reach Aguas Calientes, the town situated on the foot of Machu Picchu.
I prefer by the way not to show any photo of this portion because I don’t want to spoil you if you plan to come in the region…
WAQRA PUKARA IN THE APURIMAC CANYON
The last place that I’d like to share with you is a remote and unknown canyon which has a little archeological wonder inside… The Apurimac Canyon is situated at about 3 hours and a half away from Cusco. It is usually known for the ruins of Choquequirao, an Incan site that has been discovered quite recently. But I won’t talk about this one here because it’s not reachable by motorbike. In fact, the trek that leads to this Choquequirao site is extremely hard for a non-hiker or a beginner, and this place is definitely not for those who suffer from vertigo…
But in another part of this canyon is hidden a pre-incan fortress that is called Waqra Pukara. A trail leads to it but it’s not too difficult and every person in a good health and well acclimatized is capable of doing this 3 hour walk to reach it. Its location is above all surprising and you’ll see what I mean a bit further in this article. But first of all, the road from Cusco to this canyon is once again, worth the trip!
The asphalt ends after about an hour and a half drive, but the dirt-road is in excellent condition. It is of course very scenic since there are lagoons and snowy peaks along the way, but the nicest thing is that there are very few people on it. There are different ways to reach this fortress, but I recommend the easiest one which is also the most beautiful one. The “easy” path to Waqra Pukara starts from Santa Lucia village. It is relatively flat for about 2 hours and the last 100 meters only are tough because of the steepness and the lack of oxygen (we are on 4000 meters high there…). It offers amazing views on the canyon along the way, it feels very remote in it, and above all, it feels really small…
What’s even more surprising is to see how isolated some people have decided to build their village and live. I’ve been very impressed to see a village perched in the middle of this giant hole!
I’ve been to this canyon three times, and once, the weather turned incredibly dramatic. I had rarely seen something as beautiful but at the same time as scary as that. The sky turned extremely dark but some rays could pass through the clouds. That scene was absolutely unbelievable!
I had to take my telephoto lense to capture those sunbeams from closer, and I’ve loved the result!
Finally, at the end of this 2 to 3 hour hike, this fortress appears from nowhere, perched on an incredible rock formation overlooking the canyon from 4,200 meters above the sea level. It’s incredible to see how Incas and their ancestors have built cities or spiritual places like this one, so remote, and so high in the Andes…
End of the article.
I hope you enjoyed it and the entire story. Every photo has been carefully chosen to tell as well as possible how I experience these journeys… I try to improve my story-telling as I find photography the best tool for me to express my feelings on how I live these travels. I’d be curious and grateful to have some feedbacks from you if you took the time to read the full article!
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IG : @nicolascastermans
IG : @iza_handerek
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super ze skomentowałas Judi! Dziękuję bardzo jeszcze raz 😉
I’ll like to join you sometime for South America photography tour… it might be biking. I need to convince my wife for the bike tour.
Thank you so much! That would be amazing to be able to travel like that again. I hope it’s gonna be as soon as possible… Thanks for your comment Gianfranco.