Bicycle Network: Ride On magazine
South American dream
Katy Shorthouse spent 12 days in Peru and discovered many and varied mountain bike tracks - all in a beautiful setting
The plane breaches a narrow gap in the Andes and the city of Cusco suddenly appears below us - a jumble of third world tin roofs and mud brick. But we’re focused on the hills that surround the town and are happy to see they’re high, steep, and riddled with dirt tracks visible even from here. We’re here to check out the rumours that this area is the mountain bike Mecca of the southern hemisphere.
Cusco is best known as the gateway to Peru’s Machu Picchu, one of the biggest tourist attractions in South America. Machu Picchu is one of countless constructions left by the Incas, mighty empire builders who arose here in Cusco and conquered the entire Andes. They got around their empire on foot, and left a network of thousands of kilometres of packed dirt tracks and stone stairways riddling the mountains. As a local enthusiast told us, ‘the Incas never invented the wheel, but they did invent single track.’
These days, roads wend up and down the mountains and passes, faithfully shadowing Inca walkways as well as more recent human and animal tracks that charge straight down through the guts, providing us with alternatives for every range of ability. We were in a good position to try out the various options as the ability level within our group ranged from a hard-out downhill racer (Susan Todd), through competent hobbyists (Honor Mathieson and myself), to a total beginner who started riding six weeks before the trip (Rachel Rose).
A 20-minute drive uphill into Cusco’s rural outskirts brought us to the beginning of our first ride, Yuncaypata. Popular with Cusco’s growing band of bikers, the start is recognisable by its large sign begging ‘Señores Bicicleteros’ to slow down when they go through villages so as not to run over the chickens pecking the dirt streets.
Cart tracks and cow trails took us through farmland, steep-sided gullies and forest, a series of roller-coaster gullies and a jump park built by a local club. After an hour or so of constant downhill we popped out into colonial, cobbled Cusco itself. This ride finishes by hurtling you down a flight of stairs and suddenly out into a populated plaza - to the wonderment of little old ladies selling ponchos and the tourists buying them.
We went straight back up to the top and came down by a completely different route. You could spend weeks alone biking down this hill.
With riding that good only minutes from home, why bother going anywhere else? We found out in the Lares Valley. Just a couple of hours' drive from well-touristed Cusco, it’s a whole different world, where locals scratch out a living raising crops and animals at a rocky, arid, 3,800 metres plus.
The scenery (not to mention the altitude) was breathtaking – endless blue sky, distant snow-capped peaks, slopes dotted with stone farm walls, thatch-roofed houses, and groups of free-range llamas. The biking was even better. Section followed section with incredible variety – tussocky hillside, sinuous cliff-hugging dirt, fast-flowing cart tracks, loose gravel and slick rock riverbeds, and miles and miles of winding forest trails. As always the bus followed on a dirt road that provided the perfect chicken route for when the going got tough.
As the sun went down we rolled into the tiny town of Lares - a rural outpost where the Inca language, Quechua, is more widely spoken than Spanish, and everyone goes to bed when the sun goes down. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we hit the local hot springs, where we were to camp for the night. Perched on a cliff above a raging river, naturally occurring thermal hot springs have been tamed and landscaped into a complex that’s about as close to heaven as a tired, hungry, biker can come. We soaked our aches away in the steaming pools, looking up at the stars and keeping hydrated with plenty of beer. It truly doesn’t get any better than this.
After two days in bike heaven we headed back to the Sacred Valley and some more traditional attractions, starting with the massive terraced Inca amphitheatres of Moray. Moray is the start of one of the sweetest rides in Peru: an hour or so of flowing, easy drop through scenery that’s distractingly spectacular – range after range of razor-backed mountains towering over the green and fertile Sacred Valley.
At the bottom, an amazing sight awaited us. Salineras, a still-working Inca salt factory, is a patchwork of pools, walls and dams carved into a mountainside to trap a naturally occurring saltwater spring. The process was fascinating, and the colour contrast of the white embankments, still pools, and endlessly-blue sky was surreal and beautiful.
As we set off towards Machu Picchu, we got to see Peru’s other side – literally. Cusco is located only kilometres from the dividing ridge of the Andes. This side is characterised by the dry, rocky terrain we’d learned to love. But on the other side of the ridge is a different world – a sudden plummet into the lush Amazon jungle.
We started riding at Abra Malaga, a 4350-metre pass where we eyed the snow on the surrounding hills and shivered in layers of thermals as we got ready to ride. Then we jumped on our bikes and simply dropped off the western side of the Andes, shedding clothes all the way as we swooped and whooped our way down 71 kilometres of fast, easy downhill on road that brought out the speed freak in us all. Just as well the riding was easy, because it was hard to take our eyes off the scenery, changing from moment to moment as we descended from icy alpine desolation to steamy, lush high jungle.
A relaxing day soaking in natural hot springs in sleepy Santa Teresa set us up perfectly for the trip’s main non-wheeled attraction: Machu Picchu, just around a bend in the river. We caught an early bus up to watch the sunrise from Inti Punku, the aptly-named Sun Gate. Pre-dawn, Machu Picchu slumbered quietly below a fluffy white blanket of cloud. As the sun rose and gradually burned off the mist, the massive complex emerged from its dreamland and took solid form below us. Magic. We spent the day exploring its nooks and crannies with a local guide and climbing up Huayna Picchu, the precipitous mini-mountain that rises straight up out of the ruin.
With just one more day to go, we caught the train to Ollantaytambo – a tiny, cobbled maze of alleys, patios and plazas nestled between two Inca fortresses, with still-working Inca irrigation canals bubbling through the streets. It was charming and fascinating, but we couldn’t wait to get to the next ride: the course of the biggest fixture in the Peruvian mountain bike calendar, the annual Mega Avalanche race, which attracts top international competitors.
We were promised that this would be best ride of the whole trip, and we were prepared to believe it –how can you go wrong with 20 kilometres of non-stop single track?
The top section was do-able for all of us – bitten-out llama tracks through open grass, cropland, and bumpy fields where farmers and their oxen pulled wooden ploughs. Lower down it got steeper with some scary vertical and river crossings. Our guides knew our ability levels by now and told each of us which sections we should do on the paved road that zigzags down the valley, crossing the track with every turn. Three hours later we reached the bottom, in awe of competitors who do it in minutes. It was indeed the best day’s biking of the trip, if not our lives, and left us begging to do it all again. But it was time to head home.
In 12 days, we’d seen all the sights and ridden some of the best trails imaginable. All of us were happy with the amount and difficulty level of the riding we had done. It’s as if the whole area was somehow designed for riding. We came away convinced: there is no better way to see the sights of Peru than from the saddle.
KATY SHORTHOUSE led this exploratory trip in June 2010 and now runs 12-day mountain bike tours around Cusco regularly for ASPIRING ADVENTURES (www.AspiringAdventures.com)