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Mountain Biking In Peru: Getting Lost (and Found) in the Sacred Valley

August 14, 2019

A rider biking coming down a mountain trail in Peru.

When it comes to birth­day cel­e­bra­tions, we don’t think it can get much bet­ter than moun­tain bik­ing in Peru. Read on and get inspired—what will YOU do for your next trip around the sun?

(The fol­low­ing post was writ­ten by Randy Barcena.)

I was 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). I’m not the type of per­son who throws a big par­ty, but 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 bik­ing trip in Peru 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.

Sacred Rides’ “Inca All-Moun­tain bik­ing trip” through the Sacred Val­ley in Peru

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.

From moun­tain to moun­tain, the bik­ing in Peru is, in a word, extraordinary.

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).

Moun­tain bik­ing and alpaca spot­ting in Peru

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.”

Stop­ping to make new friends in Peru, after a long day of moun­tain biking

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.

Moun­tain bik­ing, laugh­ter, and good con­ver­sa­tion over a few beers in Peru

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.

Birth­day cel­e­bra­tions in Peru: moun­tain bik­ing, hik­ing, and incred­i­ble views

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 hand­made 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.