Getting Lost (and Found) in Peru's Sacred Valley

Mountain Biking in Peru
August 14th, 2019

By Randy Barcena.

 

I remember sitting on my parents’ couch after the clock hit midnight on New Year's Eve. 

 

Though it was still months away, I was already thinking about what I was going to do for my birthday (which coincides with America's big birthday on July 4th). Now, I’m not the type of person who invites friends and throws a big party. I wanted to go somewhere different and experience something special.

 

I got back home after the holidays from visiting my parents, and I immediately started researching where I could go. I remembered my friend Jason had mentioned something about Sacred Rides and Peru before. He wanted to go there at some point but changed his plans. I looked at their website and the many places where they operate their business.

 

The Inca Trail All-Mountain trip checked off all my boxes, plus one of their departures overlapped with my birthday. It’s really all I wanted to do. It was a way of telling myself: “hey, do something for yourself for once, you fool.”

 

By early February, I had signed up for the trip with Sacred Rides, renewed my passport, bought my trip insurance, and purchased my plane ticket. There was no turning back. I had never been this stoked before.

 

As the trip was coming up, my boss would often ask me if I was excited. He and his wife are both from Argentina. Beautiful, good-hearted people. They love Peru. Now, at this point, I still knew very little about Peru, and that was part of the appeal. For me, that's what adventure is all about.

 

Yeah! I just have to pick up a few more items and get packing. And no, I don’t know much about Peru.” “Oh my God. Make sure to drink coca tea. Don’t worry, it’s good for you. The hotels should have it for free." He gave me a bunch of other suggestions, too. “Tomorrow before you get to work, I’ll have something on your desk.”

 

The next morning when I got to work, there’s a Fodor’s Essential Peru book waiting for me on my desk with a nice hand-written note. Seriously, whose boss does that? My boss does! I really appreciated that book. It would come in super handy during my trip.

 

I get paranoid every now and then, especially when it comes to things that I know I would forget easily. Like, sometimes I would drive back home after hitting the road just to make sure for the umpteenth time that I had locked my front door. As I got to McCarran Airport, checked in, boarded, fastened my seatbelt, I wondered: “Crap. Did I bring the rear axle?” My trip would be ruined if I forgot it.

 

During the entire flight from Las Vegas to Lima, I couldn’t sleep. I read the guide book and watched a movie, but I couldn’t help thinking about that damn rear axle. As soon as I got to Lima, I picked up my luggage and rummaged through it. My worst fears evaporated. Luckily, it was there.

 

I arrived after midnight in Lima and had a six-hour layover before flying to Cusco. I was tired, but I still couldn’t sleep. The excitement was getting to me. Instead, I went to a café and hung out, ordered a coffee and a cake with strawberries on top. It tasted so good. Something I had never tasted before. I knew I was in a new place.

 

A driver greeted me at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco at around 9 a.m. I knew a few Spanish words, but could barely put a decent sentence together. “Hola. Como esta?” I greeted the driver. He was an older gentleman with noticeable wrinkles on his face, a very friendly guy.

 

“Bien, bien” he replied, and that was about the extent of what I understood. I told him my Spanish was poor, so he turned on his Spanish-English translator app on his smartphone, and that’s how we communicated for the entire 20-minute ride to the hotel.

 

As he drove into the city, I noticed something very familiar: narrow streets and street vendors, and cars going in every direction only a few inches from hitting each other, with drivers gently honking to let others know who’s passing who. None of the road rage where drivers basically fight each other like in North America. For the first time in a very long time, it felt like I was home again in the Philippines (minus the jeepneys, of course).

 

I arrived at the hotel, and despite being fairly exhausted, I wasted no time. Plaza De Armas, a place that my boss had suggested I check out was only a 10-minute walk from my hotel.

 

I spent a few hours walking around and learned about the history of the area thanks to a guide named Juan I had just met inside the cathedral. His English was very good. He asked me if I wanted to check out the Inca temple located a few blocks away. I got to know him a little - he was a college student getting his degree in Civil Engineering. When I told him that I work for an engineering firm in Las Vegas, his eyes got big with excitement. As my first Peruvian meal, I immediately ordered Ceviche as an appetizer which, again, my boss had suggested, and Lomo Saltado with alpaca meat. It was. So. Damn. Good.

 

 

Though no cameras were allowed, inside the cathedral were the most beautiful pieces of artworks I had ever seen. The construction of the cathedral started in 1559, only 26 years after the Conquistadors took over the place from the Incas, and it took 94 years to finish the construction. Its foundation sits on top of an Inca Palace.

 

The next day, I met the group I was going to be riding with for the week. There were five riders: David, Tom, and Heather from Canada, Mark from California, and me. And we had two guides: Wayo - a 14-time Peruvian National DH and Enduro champ, and his assistant Ruso - a nine-time Peruvian National XC champ. We were group of strangers that would soon form a solid bond over the course of the trip and become good friends.

The riding was beyond extraordinary. The trails combined with the rich history of the area was just unreal. Most of the trails we rode were built by the Inca people some hundreds of years ago. They were not groomed to be mountain bike trails by any means. Just raw, super rowdy, steep, loose, rocky, wet, muddy. Everything. That’s my kind of riding. Some even had a choose-your-own-adventure or find-your-own-line feel to them. Throw in alpacas, llamas, cows, horses, and donkeys all over the place, as well as local people herding their animals in the middle of the trail, and you truly had an epic adventure! David said it best: “It’s like riding in Nat Geo!”

 

For most of the rides, we would get shuttled by van to the top of the mountains. The rides start at over 14,500 feet above sea level and ride down, but there was still a good amount of climbing before getting to the bottom and finishing the ride – between 1,000 to 2,500 feet elevation gain each day. I had a tough time getting acclimated in the first few days, but eventually got used to the higher elevations (in part thanks to coca tea and Acetazolamide pills).

 

We left Cusco and drove into the Sacred Valley the next morning where we would spend the next five nights. We went to Chinchero first, where the villagers greeted us by singing us a song, followed by a demonstration on how they naturally dye the materials they use to weave their products – mostly from baby alpacas and sheep hairs.

 

In my guide book, it mentioned that Peruvians are good at bargaining. Well, guess what? We Filipinos are too! I had my eyes on a blanket and a beanie made of pure baby alpaca wool. Super soft material, much different than sheep.

 

“Cuantos?” I asked the lady.

 

“300 Soles for the blanket, and 120 Soles for the beanie,” she answered me in Spanish.

 

I smiled at her, “How about 400 Soles for both?” She smiled back, “Okay.”

 

The riding in the Sacred Valley brought me back to how I grew up. As a kid, I rode my bike from small village to small village selling bread. In many ways, Peru reminded me a lot of the Philippines. We rode through stunning dirt backcountry roads with the glaciers of the Andes Mountains in the background, passing by many small villages along the way. Get this: when I was a kid, I’d ride my bike in rice fields, and here we were riding through barley fields. It was super memorable.

 

We rode mostly the original Inca trails; tight singletrack, raw, exposed, crossing many creeks and rivers. For me, day four was the toughest. We had been riding for four days straight. There was a 10-minute hike-a-bike steep section to get up to a pre-Inca fortress where the real fun started. Though I had hiked the likes of Yosemite Falls and Angels Landing, this trail felt even tougher.

 

I was several yards ahead of David when I overheard him talking to the cow I just passed.

 

“Hey cow, how are you doing?”

 

I looked back at him and looked at the cow. The cow chewing his grass and gave us the look.

 

“Keep moooooving!”

 

We both had a good laugh, despite being absolutely gassed.

 

Later that night, we celebrated Wayo’s birthday as he invited us to his home. Displayed in his living room, there were his many medals and trophies he won from racing bikes. It was so cool.

 

Ever had fresh meat cooked straight to on a hot grill? Delicious right? That’s what we had. He grilled the steaks with salt and pepper to perfection. And some other delicious Peruvian appetizers. Pisco sours. Beers. Wine. And more Pisco sours that Mark and I helped make. We squeezed the heck out of those fresh limes with our bare hands. Man, it was a great party.

 

I was on the patio with our driver, Fernando, watching over the grill having beers while the others were having partying inside. Fernando barely spoke English, and I spoke but a few words of Spanish. We would try putting together small sentences which we could barely understand. So how did we communicate? Through laughter, that’s what we did. In my mind, that's the beauty of travelling to a foreign country.

 

With only a few hours of sleep after partying the night away, I visited Machu Picchu with Mark and Heather the next day. We took the 2-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes and then hopped onto a bus. That place is unreal. I left impressed and baffled at the same time. Like, how the heck did they cut those gigantic rocks so precisely hundreds of years ago, move them, and stack them to create the masterpiece that it is? On top of a mountain, no less? It’s one of the 7 Wonders of the World for good reason, and I think everyone should go see it at least once in their lifetime.

 

The next day was my big day. We were having breakfast before we would go riding again. Everyone greeted me.

 

“What do you want for your birthday? I want to give you something” David said.

 

“We’re gonna ride bikes, and that’s all I want, my friend.”

 

We rode the rowdy trails in Lares. In the middle of our ride, in the middle of a mountain and on the side of the trail, we came up to a lady who was selling some merchandise. Her baby, just a few months old, was on her back covered by her beautifully hand-made blanket to protect him against the bright sun. She told us her baby’s name was Jose, but I called him “Joselito,” and she smiled.

 

David really wanted to get me something. I think he didn’t want the day to end without getting me something.

 

“Pick whatever you want, it’s on me.”

 

I picked up a scarf. A beautiful piece.

 

 

We finished the ride, and as a bonus, we bathed in hot springs. We had lunch and went for another ride. On our way back to the hotel, we asked Wayo which restaurant he’d recommend and if Fernando could just drop us off. He recommended El Huacatay in Urubamba. Out of all the dining places I’ve been to (Vegas included), this place was the most unique one yet. I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re in the area. We sat outside; it had a garden-like feel to it. It was amazing, and the food was great. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate my birthday.

 

On the last day in our itinerary, we were in for a real treat to finish our trip. Wayo took us to one of the places where they race enduro, the Finay Enduro. Out of all the rides, this was the highest one yet – 14,820 feet above sea level. I was so tired, but the level of stoke was so high, I couldn’t stop smiling.

 

I didn’t want the trip to end, but just like all things, it had to end. This time, I slept like a baby on the flight back to Vegas. I even missed the meal they provided. While waiting for my luggage at McCarran Airport, this tough-looking guy covered in tattoos approached me with a confused look on his face.

 

"Hey, my man, what kind of luggage is that? It’s my first time seeing luggage like that. That’s tight yo”,   pointing at my bike bag.

 

“Oh, that’s my bike, man.”

 

“That’s tight, yo.”

 

It made me smile.

 

I’ve always wanted to travel. After high school, I wanted to join the military with hopes that it would get me to other places. That never happened. My scoliosis did not allow me to join the service. Life happens, and sometimes it hits you from every angle, and sometimes it’s just hard to find a way out. But there’s always a way out. Through hard work, my situation got better, and I got to save a little. My passion for bikes never left my side, and what better way to travel than by bike, and to ride places I’ve never been to before.

 

Want to experience this trip for yourself? Click here for all the details, and experience Peru on your mountain bike!

 

About Randy

When Randy was 10 years old, he'd wake up at 4 a.m., hop on his bicycle and sell freshly baked bread from his aunt’s bakery to neighbours in rural parts of the Philippines. He enjoys solo mountain bike night rides whenever possible after working all day at the office. He thinks the best rides are the unplanned rides; the adventure rides, the ones where you don’t know what to expect. Randy's favourite trail is Gridley in Ojai, CA. You can follow his adventures on Instagram here.