We dirt biked the Sacred Valley last week. When we set out from Cusco the day was warm, the sun hot and beating as we slathered sunblock onto shoulders, only a tiny hint of morning chill in the air. We topped the bike up with gas at a tiny petrol pump on one of the old streets, the Peruvian men watching dubiously as we pulled our helmets on. We flung our legs over the Honda and with a quick check back from Oli we were off, winding up and away from the city towards Saksaywaman, me feeling nostalgic at the familiar rumble and vibration beneath the balls of my feet.
Our hips moved in synchronisation as the bike shifted below us on the
rutted tarmac, left and then right as we twisted up and down the winding hills. The Sacred Valley showed herself slowly, shyly, first only a glimpse of mountains between hills, then rounding corners to amazing views of green and orange terraced hillsides.
We stopped to take a photo at a lookout, not noticing the women with lambs and llamas that paraded that particular roadside stop, who quickly gathered their steeds and wares to come and show us, ‘a photo miss, una foto!’ We tried to explain apologetically exactly why we didn’t want a photo with the lambs, but I couldn´t quite convey the apathy gained through years of feeding five lambs at seven in the morning when I was a teenager. After a few moments of futile broken Spanish we backed away, speeding further down into the valley.
We passed the buses and trucks only on the straights at first, then corners as Oli got a little more Peruvian with his passing. We hit what we thought was about a hundred and ten kilometres an hour – the dirt bike had no speedo – and I outstretched my arms on the straight, both of us whooping in delight at the speed and the view laid out before us, green terraces lapping at rocky mountains laced with snow.
We stopped to see a few ruins, walking around the old stones and walls quietly, touching the rock here and there to try somehow to connect with the ancient people who once walked the same ground. After a few minutes Oli raised an eyebrow, ‘back on the bike?’ One ruin – done. Speed sightseeing. My father would be proud.
We flew through village after village as the bike whined below us in the warm day. Women were cooking guinea pigs skewered on thin sticks over smoking fires, their tiny meatless bodies splayed out degradingly. A man sat in an unfinished top floor window eating from a bowl, his eyes lifted from the road, distracted from the blaring horns and engine noise below him. Countless women in traditional dress – the cholitas – wearing puffy skirts and undersized bowler hats, their long black plaits trailing down their backs, connected at the end by
a thin piece of black string.
And dogs. Dogs everywhere, of all sizes, barking from rooftops, sleeping in doorways and running in packs, or just standing and staring into space, like they forgot what they were doing. We met an English girl in Cusco who had been attacked by three little dogs, her long slender leg shaking as she extended it to show us three small bites and a broken sandal.
We stopped to buy water from a small adobe village, a woman with a club foot and a sullen child ahead of me in line, arguing about the price with the shopkeeper and tugging at the little boy´s hand.
As the day rolled by the brilliant blue sky began to be slightly marred by clouds, some white and fluffy, some with an ominous dark streak, gathering together like children for a fight. We rode on, oblivious, shouting to each other about the sights, reminding me forcefully of The Castle. ‘Look at that!’ ‘What?’ ‘Back there!’
At one point a bus stopped suddenly in front of us for a speed bump and we almost hit it, the back wheel of the bike lifting beneath us as the brakes locked and we were engulfed in a cloud of thick black exhaust fumes.
We continued on, following the small red lines of our not-to-scale map, surprised every time we hit a village much earlier than expected, and confused when it took longer to appear around the bend. We were headed to Ollantaytambo, a ruin town from the time of the Incas, full of adobe houses and traditional markets. We were halfway along the road there when the first drops fell.
We kept going, trying to ignore the rain falling faster, the drops landing on our glasses and blurring the road ahead. Before us the clouds were dark and full, behind us they were light, only a few littered across the blue of the afternoon sky. After a few minutes Oli yelled, ‘do you want to turn back?’ I muffled a yes.
We pulled into a gravel shoulder, shivering as cars and trucks passed us in a huge loud line of noise and fumes. We swooped back after they passed, the gravel crunching beneath the thick treaded tyres.
As soon as we had turned back the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, icy cold raindrops hitting exposed skin and the wind whipping through our windproof jackets, up sleeves and down necks, biting through the denim of my jeans.
We passed people watching their cattle plough the fields, huge wooden yokes astride their thick necks, the type usually reserved for museums and historical fairs.
The bike rose easily up and out of the valley, turning back on itself as we twisted up the switchbacks, so that one moment we were facing the storm, the blue black of the sky threatening ahead, then the next moment we were racing towards the blue, a circle of the storm only visible in our rear view mirrors. The clouds behind were so dark and black that it became hard to tell which was mountain and which was storm.
The rain was moving towards us then, we could see twists of it high up in the sky, smudged like dirty fingerprints of grey against the white overcast sky. Then it was sweeping across the plains, great sheets of water falling in blurred lines. We were freezing.
The urgency picked up and suddenly we were racing to beat the weather,
running from the darkening sky and the snow clouds that were circling the jagged peaks of the mountains. We rose above a blue lake and I yelled ´photo Oli, photo!´ ´No time!’ was all I got back. And he was right, there wasn´t time.
Ahead the skies were blue, patchy with white, innocent clouds, so we raced to Cusco, the land changing as we sped past. I marvelled at the crazy contrast of the dry red earth and the ominous, almost purple sky behind it, the men still working the fields, either oblivious or uncaring about the imminent deluge. I tucked my head behind Oli’s back, watching the road.
I couldn´t take a photo, so let me paint you a picture, a snapshot pulled from a single moment of my vision. The road snatching past us below, smeared into lines of different coloured stone and tarmac. The blue denim of my jeans, stretched tight across my thigh, blue and white lines of fabric. The centre line rushing past like yellow bullets, hair flipping in the breeze. The black of my jacket buffeting in the wind, though in a photo this would be snapped into place, perhaps frozen with the wrist pulled into a sharp triangle of movement. It was strangely beautiful.
By the time the outskirts of Cusco appeared we were shivering, our asses numb from the bike, unused to such a long ride. We navigated through the busy streets, honking and pushing in like locals, the iron grey sky chilly above us.
We drank hot chocolate and shared a brownie in the Choco Museo, feeling the sweet dark cocoa heating us up from the bones out, uncurling fingers and relaxing shoulders with every mouthful, smiling and dry as we listened to the rain begin outside.