Rainbow over Cuzco Airport

The Pilgrimage: A few more days mountain biking in Peru

Loving (the cold) life at 14,000+
Loving (the cold) life at 14,000+

For those who don’t know me I’m from Perú. I was born and raised in the coastal city of Lima before making my way to the United States and setting up residence in the east coast in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and Baltimore, MD.

Every year I make the pilgrimage back to the home land; and every year I manage to rent a bike and head out to ride the local trails around the capital city with one or two local guides I’ve come to know over the years. But every couple of years I venture out explicitly with the intent of just riding, and as such, I plan and venture out further than the ribbons Lima has to offer.

Several years ago I put together a trip for a group of friends, and given its success I decided to do it again, albeit slightly different. This time around I didn’t have 10 days to ride in Peru, instead I only had a meager 6 to put wheels to dirt. So I had to maximize the experience, not just for myself, but for the group of friends who would be following my lead. The time constraint was a limit I placed on myself. Even though I was going to be in Peru for a little over 12 days, I had other things I needed to attend to, so that left me with a limited riding schedule. Still, 6 days of riding, 1 in Lima, and 5 in Cuzco was all I would need to get my juices flowing.

I basically coordinated the trip so that my friends would maximize their stay. Even though I would arrive to Lima before they did, and left Cuzco before they would, they would get an extra day of riding and a trip to visit the Inca Sanctuary, Macchu Picchu on their own. The day after I left our band of 12 split up in two with one group taking the train to the Sanctuary while another group hiked the mighty Inca Trail to the ruins. What follows is a brief account of the riding we did while on the trip, hopefully give you a taste of what is available. I plan on returning with more group in the coming years, so if you are interested ping me so I add you to my distribution list…

Day 1 – Pachacamac, The Classic Lima Ride

La sanja, Pachacamac
La Sanja – fall to the left into the murky water, or roll to the right down to the valley below. Note: this photo was shot just as you enter the trail and does not adequately represent the sheer drop that is to my right…

Pachacamac, just south of Lima is known for various things, the ancient temple ruins along the entrance to the old city, the fertile Lurin river valley and most recently the vast number of trails available for cross country mountain biking, downhill cycling and off road vehicles (much less now). The trails of Pachacamac offer little elevation change, but don’t let that fool you – THERE IS climbing, in the form of short snappy hills that will keep your heart rate pounding. This time around I ventured on a route I had not done in at least a decade. My guide, Jimmy, minimized the initial climbing by crafting  a route around all the “chacras” surrounding the base of the Pachacamac hills. My goals was to ride at least 15 miles, and the route Jimmy chose was perfect. We rode the famous “sanja trail,” a trail that follows the path of an irrigation ditch along a ridge line (photo above). Fall to the left and you’ll get soaked in murky water; fall to the right and you’ll roll down to the Lurin River along a not so pleasant incline. After the ride we had a couple of beers at El Mexicano, a local kiosk where virtually all rides begin. All in all it was a great day in the Peruvian desert. I had wanted to schedule a second ride to explore other places I have not visited yet but the logistics of getting everyone in the group situated didn’t quite work out…

Day 3 – Singletrack Heaven! Cuzco Eucalyptus forests

Norbert negotiating the Eucalyptus forest singletrack.
Norbert negotiating the Eucalyptus forest singletrack.

Notice I skipped day 2? well, I had to pack the bike, get on a plane, and try to acclimate to the altitude in Cuzco. For future reference do these rides at the end of the trip! When the altitude is in your system. Start instead in the Sacred Valley and then finish up with the Cuzco rides. Heading out to ride the trails above Cuzco city only a day after arriving was tough – and it showed on the group’s physique. Everyone did rather well considering the circumstances, but I firmly believe we would have enjoyed these trails much more had we ridden them at the end of the trip, like we did on the previous trip. The weather did not quite cooperate with us either. Although we were treated into Cuzco with a phenomenal rainbow (image below), it was also an indication that rain was in the air. During both outings on this day we got dumped on, the second time with hail. Needless to say the trails were slick and muddy and hard to negotiate. A mechanical on my bike forced me to bypass the last couple of miles of single track, but I was treated to a screaming road descent past Sacsayhuman and into the city below. Everyone enjoyed the rides and finished the day with very big grins – little did they know what lay ahead…

Cuzco welcomed us with a phenomenal double rainbow and a hint that rain would be in our future...
Cuzco welcomed us with a phenomenal double rainbow and a hint that rain would be in our future…

Day 4 – Maras Moray and the Slat Pans

This is one of my favorite rides in the valley, the video above highlights only a very short section, the tight switchbacks at the end that deliver you to the river. The bus dropped us off high along kilometer marker 42 along the highway that connects Chincheros and Maras. After a short dirt road descent we took a break to soak in the views of the Huaypo Lagoon before continuing on (along dirt roads) to the ancient Moray ruins. From there we rode a few miles (mostly downhill) to an outdoor lunch spot before hitting the 5 mile downhill from Maras to the Salt Pans. These 5 miles are quite possibly some of the funnest I’ve ever ridden. The trail descends gradually before getting considerably steeper shortly before the salt pans. A section of tight steep switch backs delivered us to the pans. We took a short break at the Pans to get the scoop on the place – after all we are tourists – and then soldiered on on what I think is one of the best sections of trails on the trip (see video above). The last section of trail from the salt pans is narrow, steep, and rocky. It is not overly technical, so you can go somewhat fast, and the views are phenomenal. The last set of switchbacks that deliver you to the Urubamba river are by far some of the tightest, rockiest, steepest and funnest switchbacks you’ll ever ride, hopefully the attached video above does them justice…

Day 5 – Abra Lares – The downhill from Heaven

So good that we rode it twice. These rides were epic! Our guides drove us up to 4,400 meters to Abra de Lares. From there, amidst a freezing rain storm, we descended through very difficult to navigate fields before joining an old Inca Trail. Once we hit the trail we were treated to some phenomenal technical riding. After a couple of miles of  riding, the trail made a sharp drop into the Laras Canyon, a narrow gorge that followed the path of rushing water down to the Urubamba River (video above). This gorge was absolutely phenomenal, and the trail everyone enjoyed the most. The attached video snippet (first time down) simply does not do this section of ribbon justice. It is absolutely gorgeous. The second time around we bypassed the fields and split up into two groups, a faster bunch and a more measured set of riders. The speedier group followed the trail to the first spot where we descended the first time. This time around with no hail storm, which made for a much faster (and safer – maybe) descent. After regrouping, the same two groups descended to the town of Calca, with the faster bunch following the last sections of single track before switching gears and flying down a perfect gravel road. Our speed allowed us to break out the chilled “chelas” for the rest of the riders. Our day of riding culminated with our fearless guide, Miguel Lozano, cooking dinner for us (below). The group enjoyed a phenomenal meal prepared by a skilled chef with incredibly fresh ingredients – we washed dishes afterwards BTW…

Miki preps a fine meal
Miki preps a fine meal

Day 6 – One Trail to Rule Them All – Huchy Qosqo

The Duchy Qosqo downhill will make you do some strange things...
The Huchy Qosqo downhill will make you do some strange things…

If you only have time for one ride in Cuzco (and you’ll need all the time you can get), ride this one. You will not be disappointed. This trail has a little bit for everyone. Smooth Inca Trails, with the occasional steps, drops and irrigation ditches (that must be hopped). Views that are out of this world. Gorge trails with rushing waters racing beside you, steep drops that surely have cost someone their life, and ancient Inca ruins seldom visited by other tourists. The last time we rode this, our guides shuttled us to a little over 14,000′. This time around, the sadists made us climb from 12,600 (give or take) to the top. Those 1,000′ were quite possibly the toughest I’ve ever walked. We did ride a l lot of the climb, but as the air thinned, and the terrain got steeper, one by one our band of riders fell until no one was able to keep wheels rolling. All of us (except Leslie…) succumbed to the altitude and walked the last few hundred feet. If there is one thing to take away from this ride is to be prepared. The weather at 12,600′ was balmy, a comfortable 70 or so degrees. But by the time we reached 14,000’+ the temperatures had dropped nearly 30 degrees, and ALL of us were looking for layers to add to our skin (see picture at the top of the page). Once we began moving, however, we shed a couple of layers and soldiered on on one of the best downhills I’ve ever ridden. I simply cannot wait to get back and do this ride again.

Day 7 – Rafting the Vilcanota (Lower Urubamaba)

Negotiating some of the rapids along the Vilcanota.
Negotiating some of the rapids along the Vilcanota.

I found out from my last trip, that after 5 days of riding, most everyone was a little beat up; especially riding the technical trails of Cuzco and the Sacred Valley. So this time around I asked my outfitter to throw in an alternate activity to work a different set of muscles. So rafting was added to the itinerary. The morning of, and after four days of intermittent cold and wet weather, the group (including myself) was somewhat hesitant to head out early in the morning with the promise of a dip in the chili waters of the Vilcanota. So hesitant, that three of our band of brothers (and sisters) opted to stay behind. We did gain an extra traveler though, in the form of a friend who happened upon us in Cuzco. With no preparation, we dragged her into the bus and had her join us in what would eventually be a phenomenal day on the river. Our guides, Eduardo, Jimmy and Henry, were superb. After a quick safety brief we all suited up and set out for a 2 hour ride along the Urubamba. Along the way we negotiated several sets of rapids, up to 3.5 in degree of difficulty. We finished the rafting trip with a phenomenal riverside lunch, capping off an excellent adventure.

Day 8 and Beyond…
I unfortunately had to bail on this day, but my group stayed behind and rode an additional trail (Milkyway) which I’ve yet to visit. After that the group split up into three, 6 headed back home to Lima and the US, 3 headed to Macchu Picchu along the “conventional” train route, and 3 along the epic Inca Trail hike. All in all the trip was a phenomenal experience and everyone left the land of the Incas with an incredible sense of accomplishment and awe.

Every day, after miles of riding, they would meet us at the hotel and then venture with us into Cuzco to sample some great Andean Cuisine. Their local knowledge played a huge role in our nightly feasts and entertainment selections. The best night, by far was after our Abra Lares rides, when our guid Miguel Lozano showed us his other passion, cooking (photo above). A renowned chef in the city, Miguel fixed up no less than 6 dishes for our band of riders. Miguel marshaled the kitchen like a pro, and put several of the gringo visitors to work chopping, washing and prepping sauces and dishes for the succulent meal that followed.

If I’ve peeked your interest, stay tuned, plans are already on the board for a third installment of this trip…

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