An alternative way to see visit the valleys around Machu Picchu
Mountain biking around the Sacred Valley in Peru
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are well known for hiking adventure trips, attracting thousands of people to these iconic sites and mountains, but a little known fact is that this part of Peru has a burgeoning mountain bike scene, with some truly epic mountain bike trails and it’s also home to a mass start Mountain bike race known as the Inca Avalanche.
I turned 40 last year and wasn’t really looking forward to yet another decade of my life passing by without marking it in some kind of special way. At that point I had never travelled outside of Europe with my bike, let alone flown with it anywhere and never, ever considered doing a solo trip, so to mark my 40th year of existence, I started planning a big mountain bike adventure.
I’ve loved mountain biking for over 20 years and moved to the Alps around 8 years ago to broaden my horizons and as a result my bike skills grew too. In the course of these last few years I’ve taken part in the Mega Avalanche in Alpe d’Huez and the Mountain of Hell in Les Deux Alpes, both of which are mass start format races which see hundreds (if not 1000’s) of mountain bikers setting off at once, on snow (both races start on glaciers) in an attempt to be the fastest ones down the mountain.
I signed up for these two events mostly for the experience – I’m no racer – I just like the challenge and I also like to represent women, to make up the numbers a bit. (I was one of around 50 women in the Mega with 1500+ men and one of around 16 in the Mountain of Hell with 700 men taking part). So to add to my ‘avalanche’ race collection I started looking around for other events like this a bit further afield. The Inca Avalanche used to be known, until a few years ago, as the Inca Downhill and if the organisers hadn’t changed the name I can safely say that I would never have discovered it. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did.
A local tour company (KB Peru) were offering a week long package of guided riding, culminating with entry into the race. I was in, booked my flights, got my vaccinations done, picked up a rather large bag of drugs from the French pharmacy (they do like to stock you up over here) and headed off to Peru. The tour company picked up me and the enormously heavy bike bag that I borrowed, in Cusco and then we headed to Ollantaytambo where I was going to be based for the week.
I had no idea on the night I arrived what to expect the next day, the first day of riding. The man at the hotel reception didn’t seem to know much either, only that I would be picked up at around 9am by a guide and that we would be going mountain biking… Thankfully when I awoke the next morning and started building my bike on the lawn outside, I saw two other mountain bikers were also getting ready, a lovely German couple (Kristen and Stefan) who it turned out had booked the same trip as me. They were already 10 months into an overland trip through the Americas and had booked onto the race and the preceding week’s riding only a few months before.
Our local guide Irvin arrived in a minibus and we were quickly packed up, with bikes on the roof, ready to get our first day under way. I quickly found out that we were headed straight up to recce the start of the Inca Avalanche trail, in a place called Abra Malaga at around 4200m above sea level. Nothing like getting stuck straight in! On the drive up the winding valley road which seemed to go on forever, we seemed to be the only vehicle there. Hairpin after hairpin we looked back down below to see the valley strecthing out below us – we were getting really high. We stopped and unloaded on the road just below a grass verge that would lead us, later in the week, to the start grid of the race but for now we were just going to start riding the trail from here.
A small farmstead on the opposite side of the road marked our way onto the trail, but for the first 10 minutes or so, our small biker gang just stared down the route we were going to take, absorbing the incredible views and the three condors that suddenly flew into view above us. Our guide explained that these giant birds are endangered and that we should feel incredibly lucky to have seen three at once – a sign that we all took as a good omen for the week ahead.
We took our time on the trail, stopping to check out small jumps and thinking about how this relatively narrow Inca trail would feel with hundreds of people funneled into it, trying to overtake eachother. It was a leisurely first descent, changing from marshy bog grass at the trail head to hard packed earth, a shallow river crossing lower down and section where we had to join and cross over the road we’d just come up. Drainage ditches suddenly appeared as we met these road sections and with often flimsy looking planks or worn pieces of paving slabs covering them – you had to get your angle onto them dialled or else you and your bike would be in trouble.
Around almost every corner we could see Inca terraces and ruins and one particularly large ruin set back from the corner of the road, made a good place to stop for a drink, to rest and take photos. Our guide was really relaxed and let us take our time looking around and cooling off – even though we had started our ride at around 4200m it was nearing midday and was getting pretty warm.
Our second trail of the day started at a tiny place called Misminay not far from Maras, the highlight of which was riding down into some salt pans (the Salineras de Maras). We paid something like 10 Peruvian soles (3 euros) entry and had plenty of time to explore, leaving our bikes at the top on the road and were free to step down onto the little mud walls between the salt pans to see the various stages of salt production. Locals were carrying huge, heavy sacks of salt back up to the top, often just on their shoulders, or occasionally with the help of a donkey. By the end of the day we’d done 28 km of trails and I was feeling pretty elated.
Our second day started with a hearty breakfast at the Lodge and another hour or two in the minibus to get to a new location – the trails at Patacancha. The first trail of the day was a bit of a disappointment compared to what we’d ridden the day before, with far too many sections of road linking up with far too short sections of singletrack for any of our likings. We did see a trout farm on the way down though, which was quite unexpected, given our location and altitude. Thankfully the second trail of the day made up for the first, setting out a lot higher up on the other side of the same valley. A woman at the trail head looked a little bemused (possibly slightly peeved?) as she herded her flock of sheep past the four of us unloading our bikes from the roof of the van. The child strapped onto her back with a brighly coloured blanket looked pretty comfortable and secure as she diverted up and over the rocky hillside to get past us, throwing stones at her flock to keep them in check.
We set off, past more ruined Inca buildings and at one point came around a corner to be met with an impressive sight – vast Inca terraces that were still being used for farming by the people of this valley. In comparison to the dusty road we’d ridden earlier in the day, this section was lush and vivid green, a complete contrast set against a backdrop of large mountains. The trail was only challenging in a few places, but mostly great fun to ride. We didn’t need to get back in the van again at the end of the day as this trail took us all the way back to Ollantaytambo and a nice cold beer.
The following day was my biggest and best trail day of the week, but also the day I got altitude sickness. We set off on a 2 hour minibus ride from the lodge to the head of a pass called Abra de Lares. Not only was this the highest I’ve ever set foot in my life, but also the highest point I’ve ever ridden a bike from – 4461 metres (that’s around 300 metres shy of the top of Mont Blanc!) Before this point I’d not felt the effects of being at altitude. I live at 1000m in Chamonix and had made sure to do a little acclimiatisation on the higher mountains before I flew over, I flew into Cusco at 3310 m and had been staying in Ollantaytambo at 2792 m, so had started to think that I was immune to being up so high – not so. On the long and windy road up to the top of the pass I started feeling a little nauseous but managed to keep it under control. The others wanted to push up and onto a scree slope near the top to take some pictures, but I was happy to watch from around the corner – At this height above sea level it’s tough enough to get a good breath, let alone push your bike up and over a few hundres metres of loose rock.
As soon as we started descending I began to feel OK again and got into a good flow. The trail was a really mixed bag of technical riding over rocks, inca steps and single track. The rocks were pretty unforgiving and I got two punctures within ten minutes which was pretty frustrating. Not only that but pumping up tyres at altitude is really hard work! Thankfully our guide Irvin came back up the trail on the second occasion to help me and got me back up and running in half the time it had taken me.
The 12km trail winded its way down from the scree to an almost jungle like sub-tropical section near a river towards the bottom. We met local children as we crossed a bridge, looked up at the birds nesting in little holes in the cliff-side and finished the trail with enormous grins on our faces. The second run of the day was a repeat of the first, but on the way back up I felt even more nauseous than the first time and sadly didn’t feel up to making the descent again. I sat it out with the driver, feeling really sick, as we slowly followed the others back down to meet them at the bottom in a small town called Calca, half way between Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
The following day we went back up to recce the race track again and put two more laps in, trying to remember the 14km course and where to turn left or right at the intersections – which was going to be hard under race conditions, but it was good to get more familiar with it. A long steep dirt chute with a narrow entry past a big boulder was proving difficult for me to get right in one go – I finally mananged to nail it on qualifying day.
We rode one more trail in a different valley again, a 10km trail ending in a town called Lamay. This day will forever be etched in my memory not for the great singletrack and spectacular mountain views, but as the guinea pig day.. As we got to the bottom of the trail in the early afternoon, our guide pointed us in the direction of a little roadside hut where a woman was roasting a batch of Guniea pigs in a small dirt oven. The little critters were spit roasted and stuffed with herbs and although they didn’t look particularly appealing and the ‘kitchen’ looked like something you’d catch a nasty tummy upset from, it actually didn’t taste too bad. When in Peru…
The end of the week and race day was fast approaching at this point. Ollantaytambo was rapidly filling up with trailer load after trailer load of mountain bikes and riders. We picked up our race plates from the office in the centre of town and signed our lives away on a disclaimer. At the time we signed up there were only 4 other women on the list, but come qualifications and race day there were a total of 12 women and 210 people in total. Qualifications take place on exactly the same trail as the race, so I was glad that we’d already ridden it a few times. I came down, puncture and crash free in 47 minutes and was happy to cross the line. You can opt to ride it again a second time to try and get a faster time and therefore a better position on the race grid, but 14km in one go was enough for me for one day, plus I wanted to save some energy for the main event the next day.
On the way up to start the race, the nerves of all of us in the van were tangible. The race start was then delayed by an hour which only added to the trepidation. All 210 of us lined up to start together – men, women, children, locals, expats and holidaymakers like me, Kristen & Stefan. There were people riding full downhill bikes, one woman on a fatbike in hotpants (!) quite a lot of enduro bikes, but the main bulk of people were on hardtails, which I was surprised to see.
Standing on the start grid there was an atmosphere of nervous anticipation but also a lot of camaradery and fun. Everyone was pulled forwards to the front line insead of being spaced out as we were on qualifiers, so we were elbow by elbow, handle bar by handle bar… Then we set off and it was carnage, people tumbling over in the mud, jostling for places and the best lines to get out of the marshy grass. My adrenaline levels went through the roof and pedalling on the top section was tough, but then the fastest riders peeled away and the hordes in the main field started to thin out, making it easier to stay on line without fear of crashing into someone else.
Sadly not too far into the race I saw Stephan had a puncture and then about half way down the trail Kristin was on the side of the trail looking in a bad way. She’d come off on the rocks and thought that she’d broken her leg. It turned out later that she was ahead of all the pro women and was in with a great chance of getting a podium. I guess that’s racing for you though. Towards the bottom crowds had gathered to cheer us on, which was for me, just the boost I needed to keep going to get over the line. I even managed a bit of a sprint on super tired legs. I was so glad to have made it to the bottom and ended up (after a crash on the steep chute and stopping to check on Kristen) with a time of 46 minutes. I didn’t podium, I never expected to, but I came 6th out of 12 women and placed 151st overall (the same number as my race plate!)
A whole week of mountain biking can be a whole lot of fun and riding at high altitude definitely adds a whole other dimension to it. You don’t have to be an experienced mountain biker to enjoy these mountains though – KB Peru (who I booked with) and another company Haku Expeditions https://www.facebook.com/hakuexpeditions/ can tailor trips to your biking ability and how long you want to ride for, so it’s accessible to a wider range of people.
You also don’t need to bring a bike with you as I did – these companies can organise bikes, helmets and body armour, although if you’re already an accomplished mountain biker, I’d strongly recommend it and it only costs an extra 100 euros each way (from France) to BYO.
Trip & Race fact file
Dates of the next Inca Avalanche: 29th & 30th April 2017.
The race is 14km long and takes you from around 4300 metres down to 2800 metres.
Trails we rode during the week were anywhere from 6-18 km long each.
I booked with KB Peru http://kbperu.com/tours/mountain-biking/inca-avalanche/ and stayed with them for the week at the Tunupa Lodge http://tunupa-lodge.com/en/index.php in Ollantaytambo, 500m up the road from the train station for Machu Picchu. I had a twin room to myself overlooking the gardens with a private bathroom. The lodge has two resident alpacas who may be happy to get a selfie with or they may spit up at you!
Cost for the week was €1300 (or €1000 if you bring your own bike which I’d strongly recommend). The price included pick up from the airport in Cusco, accommodation, daily minibus shuttles, MTB guide, breakfast, lunches, race jersey & race entry.