The diversity of landscapes and climate in South America is challenging to traverse at times, especially on a small 125cc moto. But South America keeps giving up the gold as does the moto that only seems to scream and splutter and skip a heart beat to tease me when I’m on top of a 4000 metre pass in the freezing cold, or 200 kms away from the next Llama town.
From Cusco I was seeking a route into the Amazon jungle that I hadn’t yet visited simply because this vast tract of tropical rain forest, larger than Western Europe, isn’t easily accessible. And I wasn’t completely sure what one does in a jungle anyhow; does one take a steam ship up one of its many muddy rivers whilst smoking a cigar, or climb up the trees to look at the monkey varieties, or play pool with a banditos in a jungle bar? The options from Cusco, Peru, were a bit limiting for a man and a moto as one proximate area of the jungle was a hot bed of narco-trafficing and the other, National Park Manu, is one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of rhe Amazon, so much so that 80 per cent of it is off limits to Modernists as it is home to a number of “uncontacted tribes” that don’t want to be disturbed by our dim-witted ways of doing things.
So I decided on Puerto Maldonado, a jungle town about 500 Kms away from Cusco, on the new Interocianic highway that is the first sealed road through the Amazon and the first major road from coast to coast of this vast continent (opened in 2011). The road is controversial because it cuts a destructive path through the middle of the Amazon and accelerates short-sighted clearing of the forest for kilometers either side for low-level agriculture and mining (some of it illegal).
San Paulo, only 4600 kms away
I woke at 515AM in Cusco, packed some Puruvian coffee, Llama cheese, and stir-fried vegetables in the boot of the moto, polished my gun, and set off along the Interocianic into the jungle. The Interocianic is surprisingly underutilised for a road that was touted as the equivalent of the Panama Canal for Peru and Brasil. There is almost no traffic on the road, especially the trucks that one would expect to see on an investment of this size.
After a couple of hours of riding out of Cusco I started the long assent up the Andes past Salcantay, one of the highest peaks in the Puruvian Andes. The temprature dropped to an uncomfortable zero celcius and no amount of clothing seems to protects one from the cold at this altitude. Still the shear beauty of Salcantay overpowered any physical discomfort and I knew that the 4800 metre pass wouldn’t last long and the temprature would change dramatically on the other side of the mountain.
Riding over the pass at Salcantay
The decent down Salcantay went on an on, a thrilling down-hill ride of about 100 Kms through a deep river valley of shear cliffs, tight turns, and occasional rock slides, again almost totally free of traffic. Then it got hotter and the vegetation got denser. It felt as though I had ridden from mountainous Switzerland to tropical Thailand in a few, short hours.
Jungle road to Infierno
The Amazon is a flat, vast forest, that is very, very hot, in stark contrast to the Andes where I had spent the past couple of month. I arrived in Puerto Maldonado late in the day, just in time to fix a rapidly deflating tire due to bouncing over the invisible speed humps too fast. Puerto Maldonado is a ugly, Modern town next to a wide, muddy river set within scuffy, dense jungle. I checked into my hotel but was hammered by the heat and could hardly move nor venture outside for the first day or so.
I decided to explore the near-by jungle independently on the moto as the organised tours in the town seemed far too prescriptive and pedestrian. I rode to a near by native town aptly called Infierno, along a narrow jungle track through the thick forest. Infierno is a laconic, lifeless town spread out over a few dirt roads with a shed next to the river posing as a shop. I bought two cans of beer, checked my map for nearby lakes, then rode to a jungle lake about 40 KMS away. The lake was pretty damn special, teaming with birds and other creatures making raucous, indistinguishable sounds.
Jungle lake near Puerto Maldonado, Amazon, Peru
After a few days exploring Puerto Maldonado and the surrounding jungle, I decided to continue on my journey south towards Bolivia. Riding out of the jungle towards Puno along another branch of the Interocianic took forever and I stopped to rest at a few sketchy jungle towns along the way. Far from being a vast, impenetrable wilderness, the Amazon is full of much human activity, some of it legal, some of it illegal. Puru, along with many nations, experienced a mining boom and many legal and illegal mining towns sprung up to take advantage of the high price of minerals.
Jungle town, Puruvian Amazon
The mining towns have a lawless, wild-west feel, complete with saloon bars, wooden houses, and large red light districts. Many of my NGO friends tell me that there is much underage prostitution in the mining and other jungle towns and the police on occasions raid the bars to free the girls into the jungle. One town I visited, Tahuantinusyo, on a wide muddy river about 10 kms off the Interocianic had dozens of bars and also a roguish, unwelcome feel; a people hiding out on the edge of Modernity in a vast, sweaty, vicey wilderness.
Tahuantinusyo, red light district
I left the Amazon unsatisfied, not really feeling as though I had penetrated nor fully experienced this vast and vital part of South America and the world. The Amazon is uncomfortable, incomprehensible and overwhelming, difficult to narrate and photograph. It is likewise being destroyed at an alarming rate by mining and agriculture, by greed and dated Modernist impulses to ‘civilise’ and thus undermine one of the world’s most environmentally productive regions that is vital for the survival of all of us.
Clearing the Amazon near Puerto Maldonado