Shall I Meet You, Machu Picchu?: The Sacred Valley Shuffle

9/19/2016.

Curahuasi, Peru. 

Let the sufferfest begin! Sure, I could elect to take the direct route to Cusco from my current perch in Curahuasi. It would only be a day’s ride, a mere 125km on smooth pavement… But that’s just not my style. Instead I think I’ll take a 600km route there, taking 12 days to drag my bike there over some of the most beautiful mountains in Peru. Perhaps even give a shout out to that old World Wonder Machu Picchu, while I’m in the neighborhood!

I’d started planning out this route a couple months back, after a touring friend Andrew Cheyne told me he’d found a funky trail-based route to Machu Picchu. This would form the first 2 days of the full route, and certainly involved some bike-hiking, a 16,000’+ pass, and a super fun descent. Given its reputation as the biggest tourist trap in South America, Machu Picchu itself held moderate allure for me at best. I don’t tend to resonate as deeply with manmade ruins as with wilderness. In fact, I still may opt out of visiting the ruins and just continue to the next set of mountains, but I’ll decide that in a few days. In the meantime I had the Salktantay Trail to contend with, involving an 8200’ climb over some un-bike-friendly single track.

Absurdly, this would be my first time camping in almost 2 weeks! Excited to return to the simplicity of tent life, I marveled at how consistently I’ve manifested cheap hotel rooms over the last 2 weeks, and really quite a bit here in South America. Of course it’s easy to do: Lots of tiny towns in reasonable proximity, and one can generally find a private room for the equivalent of $3-5 US dollars. So the problem is less financial than energetic. Sure it’s easy to indulge in laziness after a hard day, avoiding all the time and effort to set up my camp, cook, clean, and break it down the following morning. But the feeling of consistently spending my nights locked inside a room, removed from the sounds, smells and sensations of nature… not good for this sensitive soul. 

The greater detriment of repeatedly inhabiting hotel rooms is how it feeds my longest and most shameful addiction (please skip if you’re not interested in the deeper esoteric stuff):

Manifesting Malaise: the Curse of the Silver Screen 

It is quite impressive how this vice has haunted me for about 35 years. I easily remember back to when I was 5 years old, waking up in my childhood home before sunrise to watch cartoons when the TV station was not yet broadcasting for the day. I’d sit there with the TV on, watching the weird mandala-esque station logo image on the screen with the numbing sound of a consistent “beeeeeeeeeeeeeep” until the first cartoons started at 6am. It progressed into afternoon sitcom and movie addictions in elementary and high school with the advent of VHS and movie rentals, and got progressively worse with the increased amount of access to TV and movies online with Netflix, Hulu and other sources. I’m not proud of it nor do I feel like it serves me in any useful way. It’s just a very deep, very old pattern, and a fallback when I’m in a moment of unmindful malaise. Once I cross the threshold into watching again, it’s very very hard to stop. That’s the big problem. Most times I’m not even interested in what I’m watching but it serves as an escape from the anxiety of having to take responsibility for my life. So the programming chosen tends to be of the most mindless variety.

Ironically, living consciously and CHOOSING every moment is a primary motive which I deeply believe in following. I don’t want my precious periods to be filled with “pass-times”, but with consciously selected experiences that add to joy, health and peace for me and those with whom I connect. One thing has become clear: there is no way to heal from this addiction in moderation. I must stop completely. I had done very well for many months, having canceled all online accounts while making rules for myself to limit access to all social media. Unfortunately in a weak moment recently a friend was “generous” enough to share access to his Netflix account, provoking a complete regression. I hold great shame about this, that I keep feeding a television and screen addiction while on a journey to find peace in the wilderness. Some people suggest I “give myself a break”, that a little isn’t that bad. But it’s not a little. It’s hours on end, forsaking everything for “just a few minutes more”. 

I have avoided sharing anything about it thus far on my blog, but I feel a deep need to follow through with my self-pledge of full disclosure. I fear I’ll be judged. That I’ll fall from some imagined status of grace some may hold me in. Perhaps no one wants or cares to read about someone’s deep dark secrets and shame. Maybe this sharing is just for me, to out myself publicly in order to take greater responsibility. One thing is clear, that most of the “entertainment industry” has done little for my life other than distract. 

Regardless it is now the time to step back up to the plate and make a conscious choice to stop. Time to remove the veil and view the mess. Luckily I will be out of internet access until I reach Cusco in 8-10 days, offering a forced break to jump-start the process. Wish me luck.

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Leaving my comfy solace in Curahuasi, I dropped to the valley floor on smooth pavement, enjoying fantastic views on this beautiful morning. I had to soak up the descents while I could as the impending climb was about to kick my ass…

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Highly interesting was quickly dropping low enough in elevation from my most recent high Andean travels such that mango trees might grow around here (Curahuasi was at around 12,000’ and the valley floor dropped to under 7,000’). The stagnant humid air facilitated my sweat-drenched clothes’ adhering to my entire body. Humid heat and I are not friends. Down along the river valley, I noticed a number of signs for mango ice cream. I passed one or two, then the 3rd hooked me.

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No cream involved, just blended mangos frozen into a plastic cup. I hoped my titanium spoon might balance the carbon fingerprint of plastic cup…

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That should be the last pavement I see for the next couple of days. From here it would be a long dirt road climbing up to Mollepata and trail from there. Lovely. 

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I saved stocking up on food for Mollepata. No sense in burning calories to carry food up a long climb when it can be purchased later. At the small grocery store, the owners were so kind. They tried (I stress tried) to teach me Quechua words for all my purchases and some other phrases as I translated to English. They’d never seen a person attempting to bike the Salkantay Trail, and decided to deck me out with a bag of fresh fruit and veggies for the journey. I stayed to talk for a while, inquiring into their lives, how tourism had effected them as Machu Picchu’s fame has grown. This man told me how he couldn’t imagine how strong I must be to ride a bike on these mountains… immediately before turning around to swing that huge bag of onions over his shoulder in one sweeping motion to unload them in back. Hold on… onions are REALLY heavy and dense. And that bag was enormous. I tried to lift it, and barely got it off the ground with all my might. He said the onion bags weighed about 150kg (330lbs!!!). Half my size, moderate in stature, and this fireplug of a man had been hauling bags like this his entire life. Surely, strength comes in many forms. Unfortunately he’s been having some low back problems because of it. Funny how despite not doing bodywork and ergonomic consulting for a few years doesn’t erase deeply engrained knowledge. I was able to offer him a few tips about how to consider altering his lifting, dropping and carrying techniques to protect his back. It felt really good to help a bit. We might even have a follow up bodywork session when he comes to Cusco next week for supplies!

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 Just outside of Mollepata I took the trailhead for Salktantay Trail, carrying with me confused looks by some taxi drivers dropping some backpackers around the corner. 

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 Trail was fantastic. Mostly rideable single track with fantastic views and given my late start I saw no humans the whole afternoon on this normally popular hiking trail. Lovely. One problem I discovered while on trail: the mountains are really steep around here, and full of sharp, prickly plants at this elevation… thus finding flat ground on which to camp might be a bit of a challenge. 

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Luckily as the evening light began to fade I saw an entrance into a small settlement. Announcing my arrival to any would-be owners, I wandered around the small space to realize there were no permanent inhabitants, just a small snack shack for hikers en-route and a couple covered picnic areas.

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 … just about the size of my tent. Perfect. 

First thing’s first: get dinner started. Pull out the food, decide what to cook. Fill a pot with water to boil, and prepare the stove.

SHIT.

One pump of the fuel bottle to pressurize it and I could feel something break loose inside it. I figured it was something simple as most MSR Whisperlite repairs seem to be. After a superficial dissection, the pump stopper had slipped off into the slide cylinder. But damnit… every single time I put it back in and slid it down it would pop off again. I’m so tired and hangry! An hour of cleaning, drying and re-oiling later, I would open the pump, reconnect the seal, get one pump in, it would break loose again. Repeat. About 2 minutes per individual pump with this frustrating situation, but 10 pumps/20 minutes later I had enough pressure in the tank to boil water. Not sure what the future of this pump is going to look like because this technique is not a long-term solution. For now I did get my pasta cooked then crashed instantaneously into deep sleep. 

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Something magically improved with the pump in letting it sit overnight. Seems to work fine this morning for coffee and oatmeal preparations. LOVELY!  I hit the trail after breakfast and a grateful walk around my fortuitous campground. The trail up to the final encampment of Soraypampa on the South side of Salkantay wove and twisted around steep mountains throughout the morning. More rideable single track followed making for a fantastic start to the day, eventually following a mule trail down to the road.  Fast and furious. Yes! 

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Given my plans to summit Salkantay Pass today, the grey skies are not alluding to big expansive views to come. Alas…

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One of the MANY campgrounds at Soraypampa, where most guiding companies start the hike over Salkantay toward Machu Picchu. Similar vibe to that of the Huayhuash Trek, this trail seems like it might be quite busy in high season, with tons of hikers, guides, and mule traffic. 

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What a strange and interesting locale: I’d best call it “Luxurural” — Luxury-rural, 4-5 separate lodges with straw “tambo” style tent platforms in rows for big guided hiking tours to reside for the night. 

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Those willing to fork over the extra cash stay in private geodesic domes.

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Arriving to Soraypampa late morning, most of the day’s hiking parties had already departed. I figured there’d be a place to get second breakfast around there in preparation for a long slow climb, but to no avail. Wandering up to the only tiny store all food/snacks were 3x the normal price. Upon commenting on this and ordering the cheapest little piece of sweet bread available, the woman behind the counter offered me a free cup of coffee. Moments later she appeared with a slice of fresh apple/flan cake that a friend had made. Seriously. So so nice. And YUM!

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A little food in my belly, I pushed out of the campground up the trail toward the pass. While only 9-10km from here, I expected the hike-a-bike to take 3-4 hours given unknown rough terrain and a lot of climbing.

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Up the valley I encountered an indigenous family selling snacks and drinks to hikers along the trail. Luckily this little man pushed me up the steepest part.

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Surprisingly I was faster than all the other hikers walking up the slope, even pushing my huge bike awkwardly through the rock gardens when most of these people had only tiny day packs. Definitely some good ego stroking happening here, reaping the benefits of prior altitude acclimatization. 

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The worst parts were the 250m vertical gain in tight steep, loose rocky switchbacks followed by the final 150m to the summit: so steep. 

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So yeah, there are evidently tarantulas wandering around at 16,000’ in Peru.

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Reaching the Abra (pass) was not particularly rewarding as a thick fog had fully rolled in just before, rending all visibility beyond 15 meters impossible. Sigh. Then there was the cold, misting freezing rain, and wind.

I didn’t stay at the top long…

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 … well, not intentionally at least. I’d gotten in my mind that the descent would be as smooth for the most part as the climb. NOT TRUE. All rocks. All the time. Like absurdly rocky. There was variety: sometimes it was continuous 6-10” wide skull-sized loose rocks wabbling my wheels out from under me. Other times bigger off-camber rock staircases  leading to jagged landings. My descending technique though here was a combination of one-legged skating my bike so as to always have a foot on the ground for catching balance, some walking, and a good amount of crashing. I endo’d at least 4 times up there. This dense rocky terrain went on for quite a while, to the point where my self-talk was a combination of laughing out loud and, “what the HELL?!? SERIOUSLY???” 

Some time later the trail finally transitioned into dirt. And it got really fun. I realized that the other stuff wasn’t actually NOT fun, just slower and harder than I’d planned. Technical riding is generally just fun. But the faster flowier dirt made the occasional rock garden much more enjoyable when in moderation. Unfortunately I didn’t take any other pictures during the descent due to rain and mud. 

Then came the hardest obstable of all during the descent: humans, mules and humans leading mules. Higher up it started with a continuous onslaught of mule herds being led back up and over the pass after carrying guided groups’ gear to the next campground. By and large the men leading these mule trails were warm, respectful and in good humor, so I responded in kind. After stopping to let the 10th group of unloaded horses pass me however (so as not to scare them), I began to wonder where all these people were whose gear had been transported. A kilometer later I got my answer. I must have then passed about 3-400 people during that descent. Plus more groups of horses carrying even more stuff. I tried my best to be a model samaritan and representative of respectful bike culture — always pardoning my way with a gentle voice from a good distance in multiple languages. Always stopping well ahead of approaching horses and letting them pass before resuming my descent. Always greeting everyone with a smile.

Only one person muttered something to the effect of, “bikes don’t belong here,” prompting a 20 minute hypothetical tirade in my mind to prepare a snide response should anyone else complain. ONE person’s negative statement out of hundreds was enough to cause this onslaught of internal negativity and bottled up aggression. I can have a strong anger streak at times. What about the myriad compliments I received on the way down, like “awesome”, “I’m so jealous” and “you’re amazing”?  So interesting how negative and confrontational thoughts get bound in my head much more than positive ones.

Approaching the main campsite where all the tour clients would be stopping for the night, a Peruvian guide asked me how long it took me to get down there from the top, a distance which takes most hikers 4 hours to descend. “Just under an hour, “ I said, knowing it would have been much less without the human obstacle course. He slapped my shoulder with a complimentary smile, with that one interaction my prior negative orientation was erased.

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 At the group camp site, I asked around for a “menu” so I could charge up for the final push into Santa Teresa, still some 30km away. The owner, Goyito, offered a pork dish for 14 soles (about $4USD, pricey for Peru). I reluctantly agreed, realizing the prices were going to start increasing from here on into Machu Picchu (normal would have been 5-7 soles). His wife Noemi showed me to a small table in the kitchen with a big plate of food on it. One by one the table filled with Peruvian guides sitting down for their post-hike eats away from their clients. All fantastic guys, we joked and laughed about tourism, guiding, and eventually massage. I told them my hopes to do some bodywork in Cusco and one of the guides asked me to work on Noemi who’d been having shoulder pain. I confirmed that she actually wanted the work, and had her sit in a backward chair while all the guides watched. Oddly I wasn’t nervous despite not having done any bodywork in a few months. Perhaps it was the really good rapport I felt with all of them. I worked with her for about 10 min. Surprisingly she comp’d my lunch, so it was also the first time I’d been “paid” for anything in… a long while. The guides gave me the info about where to camp in Santa Teresa at the end of another long descent, and I was off. 

 A fast, rocky dirt canyon road descending another 1000m over the next 30km through forest to eventually dense jungle filled with banana plants. As night set in I reached Santa Teresa and the campground owned by a guy named Genaro. 5 soles gets you a plot of dirt and a shower. I was okay with it. Turns out to be quite a party spot though. Once I got back from a meal in town, they’d set up a fire pit and were lighting a bonfire. As I write this the music is pumping around the corner and I can hear all the 20 something tourists dancing around the fire to reggaeton and boomy techno. At first I thought it was pretty cool that I happened to arrive at this random campground on a night where they were throwing a big bonfire dance party. Perhaps I was meant to join in? A short chat with the owner clarified: this bonfire/music thing happens EVERY night here for each new tour group. It felt so different to know this was a scripted experience rather than an organic one. But the irony was not lost on me as I was antisocially crouched in my tent writing about my experiences instead of living them by the fire just a little ways over. I’m not particularly drawn to the music but perhaps will stop in once done writing…

Nope. Rest and sleep won over by a landslide. 

The next morning I peeled myself out of bed, a good 2 hours later than planned due to the late night into early morning dance party outside my tent.

DSC00065To Machu Picchu or Not to Machu Picchu… that was the question.

I wasn’t feeling a deep excitement about seeing one of the “wonders of the world”. Perhaps it’s the expectation so many hold that it is such a spiritually powerful place. Perhaps it’s the thousands of people I expect to be shoveled through this sacred place, each extending their selfie-stick to capture themselves in the exact same spot as the last 1000 people did that very day. Despite a curiosity to see wonderful sights and appreciate the enormous time and effort that Machu Picchu’s construction must have taken, I find it nearly impossible to touch that appreciation and awe when accompanied by so many others, especially when they appear to be consuming the experience by means of “capturing” it on camera. However, it’s freakin’ Machu Picchu and I was less than 10 miles away. Truthfully, the “should” side of this decision prevailed. I decided to go, with open mind and open heart, to take in this world wonder at face value, to let go of expectations of both wonder and frustration, and just… see. 

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 I packed up and headed toward the hydroelectric plant near which I would be leaving my bike at a local restaurant for 1-2 nights, walking along the railway to the ruins. (Bicycles are restricted from travel along the tracks with a vengeance.) Quickly I became aware of just how much I’d rolled onto the gringo trail as countless transport vans packed full of international travelers passed me on the dusty 10km dirt road, all seeming just as confused by my means of transport as theirs was to me, their gaping faces pressed against the windows as they passed.  As the first hikers walked right past me without saying hello in order to take their selfies in front of the Machu Picchu sign, I decided that photographing the crowd behavior of Machu Picchu might be more interesting than the archeological site itself…

Hence my new idea for the experience here: Take photos of people, as THEY take photos of THEMSELVES, at Machu Picchu. It was quite entertaining. 

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Mules aren’t allowed along the train tracks to Machu Picchu, so the guided tour groups hire locals to carry tourists’ packs. Often these folks are carrying 2 full backpacking packs stuffed into those big green bags, just so the tourists don’t have to carry anything more than a disposable bottle of water. Can you tell I’m feeling a bit judgmental? Let’s not get into how little those guiding companies are actually paying the locals for this backbreaking work.

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Last meeting place before setting out on the railway trail.  The restaurant owners were kind enough to take responsibility for my bike. Next stop, Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). The main town serving the archeological site, “Aguas” was to be quite a tourist Disneyland. Prices were to be 2-3x normal for food/drink/lodging, and PACKED with tourists despite how late in the season it was.

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 By stroke of luck, my first few hundred meters along the trail were more or less alone. This did not last.

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A bit further along the route, I saw a variety of fancy restaurants and hotels, and a ton of people walking either towards Machu Picchu or away from it.

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Tons of amazing flowers on route.

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Holy shit were there a lot of people on that trail. For being Machu Picchu’s “backdoor” it certainly seemed like a main entrance to me! I must have passed about 100 people going the same direction and perhaps 300 people returning from the town. It was peculiar how many were plugged into their devices while walking in groups. I tried to maintain a positive attitude, always the good samaritan, saying hello to everyone I came upon accompanied by a smile. But the antisociality of it all got the better of me after a while. 

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No checking out into your electronic distraction machine while hiking along the tracks. The train to Machu Picchu comes often and it comes in fast!

 

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Machu Picchu Pueblo.

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 First stop, take a picture… of people taking a picture… of the welcome sign in town.

I arrived in the early evening just in time to purchase my ticket for the following morning. Waited on line for 30 minutes to purchase the ticket. Had to spend an extra chunk of cash for the privilege of walking up an extra trail to the mountain above the ruins, which I would only be allowed to access from 7am to 8am. Strict and efficient, like any tourism factory.

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Having spent $45USD between the tickets to the ruins and camping, I elected to keep my food and lodging costs to a minimum. Fruits and grains from the small municipal market and the cheapest campground I could find, about 1km outside of town.

 All in all I think I did pretty well: In and out of Machu Picchu for $52US. I think most spend a bit more. The key: don’t buy food in town if you can avoid it. Buy food back in Santa Teresa and carry it in. 

 

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I did make one friend while in town. This behemoth’s head must have been twice the size of mine, and he had at least 4 times the amount of skin needed to cover his body. But so sweet. I headed back to the campground to get an early night’s sleep. The lower gates to the ruins would open at 5am, the main gates 1600’ up the mountain at 6am. I wanted to beat the crowds, so planned to on line down below by 4:30am. OUCH!

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I woke up after my alarm SHOULD have gone off to see it snoozing. I must have hit the snooze completely unconsciously. No big surprise given it’s 3:45am. A quick breakfast and I left to get a jump on the droves of tourists heading to the 6am park opening. I was amazed to hit a line of about 150 people just 500m down the road before the lower entrance. Once it opened I was a bit challenged by the slow pace of all the hikers ahead.  I had 2 advantages here: 1 — I ride a bike all day every day, thus my lungs and heart and legs are pretty strong. 2 — I’ve been at this altitude for a few months and am completely acclimatized by now. It was a fun game trying to respectfully hike up and around all the hikers climbing the steep staircase to the main gate.

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Not bad views as the first morning light cast its hue upon the peaks across valley.

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Reaching the top at around 5:45am, 200 people were ahead of me at the gates. Most whom had arrived by the comfort of an expensive bus transport from Machu Picchu Village. No fair! Hikers should get slight head start due to their hard work to get to the gates! Alas. Entering the park at 6am sharp, I continued the line of sheep up toward the Cerro Machu Picchu hike, which I’d be part of the first group to climb that day. 

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I felt happy. I was enjoying random conversations with travelers and it was refreshing to hear so many different languages in such a small space (Spanish, Quechua, French, English, Hebrew, Croatian, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, and Dutch among others). 

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When the guard let us onto the Cerro MP trail at 7am I quickly sped past the other hikers up the steep stairs (many of the others hadn’t warmed up on the hike from the river valley as I had an hour ago), and chose to push hard for a solo moment at the top. I reached the peak about 15 minutes before next hikers, gaining me my only brief experience of solitude for the day.  

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 Unfortunately the view from the peak was quite limited due to cloud cover. 

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Then the crowds caught up.

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As the clouds parted they revealed the ruins of Machu Picchu, and the droves of people visiting them. Good anthropological photo ops. 

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I found this one particularly interesting: I assume she was controlling the selfie-stick camera with her phone and therefore looking down at it to frame the shot. But then looking back up to face the camera. Lots of technology wandering these ancient grounds…

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The switchback road from Aguas up to the ruins. Only accessible by charter bus, with a pricy ticket. 

 

 

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Beyond my documentation of the tourists, I was quite impressed with the space itself. While I wouldn’t call my experience deeply spiritually moving or “religious” per se as some others have described, I did marvel at the enormous rocks used to build the city and the intricate way in which they were laid.

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I joined the other sheep to be herded through the ruins. Glad I’m not claustrophobic!

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 Random llama wandering around within the city. We had a silent moment together. It was lovely. After 6 solid hours of hiking through the park I dropped back down to the river valley to collect my tent and return for my bike.

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I quickly hiked back out the train tracks, passing hundreds of bright/bushy new tourists entering the site for the first time. This time I had plugged in with my own headphones, given my lack of human connection on the tracks the previous day.  Quite interesting to note the effect it had to be so disconnected audibly to passers by. I was now the disconnected asshole opting for earphones over words in a few rare moments, but didn’t do anything to change this. I guess the shoe’s on the other foot now… 

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I rolled out of Santa Teresa early the next morning, having thought ahead to plug my ears in preparation for the nightly dance party bonfire at Genaro’s campground. Despite the rain and mud along the cliffside road, it was a gorgeous morning watching the fog roll down the canyon, the rain refreshing the verdant slopes, the river raging below. 

About 3 hours after leaving Santa Teresa I had descended to the valley floor a few thousand feet below to the town of Santa Maria. There I reached down for a snack I had stored within a dry bag strapped to my fork… shit. The bag wasn’t there. I remembered strapping it in, but perhaps not tight enough for the rough dirt road. No big deal to lose the food, but my stove fuel and fuel pump were in that bag, which rendered me unable to cook. After flagging down a few passing cars to ask if they’d spotted a bag on the roadside with no success, I gave up and rolled onto the paved highway out of Santa Maria. It would be a 10,000’ climb up to Abra Malaga from here, and given it was already almost noon, unlikely I’d summit that day. I stocked up on some ready-to-eat food for dinner given my stove loss, and started the climb. 

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An hour or two later, I was surprised to see the first cyclists I’d seen in a long while here in Peru speeding down the descent. Oddly he was geared up in full downhill clothing: full faced helmet. Knee pads. Elbow pads. And a big-travel, full suspension mountain bike. Perhaps there were some good trails around here and he was returning to town from riding them? 

Nope. After another 50 cyclists passed with the same exact clothing and gear, I realized it was a guided tour. Turns out it’s a whole package deal where people pay to be shuttled up to the top of the pass from Cusco, ride the 10,000’ descent, then hop back in the shuttle to begin the hike along the tracks to the ruins. Perhaps that sounds cool to many. Perhaps it is… 

But to me, that’s sacrilege! Downhills are earned, not bought. At least that’s how I light to do things. I know I know, it’s super judgmental, and I’m sorry for that. I’ve not reached inner peace just yet. 

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From a mirador about 6000’ up the climb. Sun was setting and my legs were burning. Down the way I saw a tiny little restaurant serving dinner for 5 soles. Perfect given my lack of functioning stove! After a lovely meal and conversation with the owner, she kindly offered some flat ground by her house on which to roost for the night.  

I rolled out early the next morning, hoping to complete the climb by mid-day so I could enjoy a long single track descent into the Northwesternmost Sacred Valley town of Ollantaytambo. About 5km from the summit during a steep climb, a truck slowed down behind me, honking. Annoyed, I rode on against the shoulder and ignored him, assuming he was trying to alert me that he’d be passing. With plenty of room and visibility I didn’t understand why he needed to honk, and continued to do so. He did end up passing, then stopping about 100 yards in front of me. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but felt an ominous premonition that a confrontation was afoot. 

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The driver walked down toward me as I slowly pedaled up the climb. He was carrying something in his hand… a bag… a green bag… MY GREEN BAG from yesterday. That one I’d lost yesterday morning on the dirt road, almost 100km back! Evidently he’d noticed me on the road going the opposite direction, then saw the bag on the roadside. He picked it up assuming he’d see me at that town down valley, but I’d already passed through. He held onto the bag and when he recognized me the next day stopped to return it. Peruvian altruism at it’s finest. A thousand thousand thanks Javier!! Beer is on me!

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With stove parts reunited, I strapped all my bags down with fervor in preparation for a long and technical descent into Ollantaytambo. I’d been given this single track route from the owners of a local Cusco mountain bike company I’d found online called Gravity Peru (AKA Haku Expeditions) after I’d requested suggestions for local single track. This trail is known as the Inca Avalanche, and ridden as an avalanche (group start) downhill race route every May. It was awesome!

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Landing down in Ollantaytambo I was once again in a tourist haven. Most hotel prices were unaffordable for me as was the food. But one can always depend on the Peruvian mercados municipales (municipal markets). There you can always find the cheapest meals and cheapest bulk food for any town. Sitting near me was an indigenous man in full colorful garb. I thought perhaps with this much color he was dressed this way for some work in tourism, but was quickly schooled that these are traditional clothes of the local people. Beautiful textiles! 

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The following morning I awoke early from my cheap spot in Ollantaytambo and arranged to store my bike bags with the owner for the day. I set out thorough town on my feather light, 40lb unloaded rig for the 2nd of 4 major downhill biking trails that drop into the Sacred Valley, shared with me by the kind folks at Haku Expeditions. First was yesterday’s Inca Avalanche. Today would be the Patacancha trail.  

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Just a random roadside ram’s horn. Exact size and shape as my childhood shofar from my Jewish upbringing!  

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While working my way up the loooooooong 5500’ climb to the trailhead, I marveled at the fantastic color contrast of indigenous garb to sun-bleached hillsides awaiting the upcoming rainy season.  

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A bit foggy at the top, but still magical.  

 

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The as the trail descended, the fog cleared, revealing a few bullseye trail markers to keep me on track.  

 

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 Not too shabby indeed.

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The final descent into Ollantaytambo passed through various terraced farms and wiggled by gorgeous ruins, diving between sheer cliffs to return me to my cheap hotel room. A lovely meal in the municipal market rounded out a fantastic day!

I awoke early the next day for phase 3 of my proposed route: A single track climb over Abra Ipsay into the small village of Lares. I packed my bags and … put my bike on a local van to avoid repeating the climb back up to Patacancha where the single track would begin. I know, I know: I NEVER take rides when I can otherwise ride. But I JUST climbed up that 3400’ climb yesterday, and given the 2500’ of climbing still to be done, I opted for a little help. Definitely involved swallowing a little ego though! 

 

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Riding the trail out of Patacancha, I began with the company of a sweet local woman and her son. I was amazed how quickly they’d catch up to me during my various breaks on the relentlessly steep trail!  

 

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Beware of cute Peruvian dogs. You give them one minute of love and they’re yours forever. I met this sweet little lady in town and she stuck with me for hours. Reminded me of long climbs with my pup Sita, how lovely it is to have some canine company. 

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She’d run ahead and I’d eventually encounter her, patiently awaiting my arrival up the trail.  

 

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Nearing Abra Ipsay, my canine friend forged her own path. We’d spent all morning together, but she seemed uninterested in continuing. Perhaps she lived on this small chakra (farm). I was sad to let her go, but she seemed to know her limits and I respected that.  

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Atop Abra Ipsay, the view down into Lares Valley is immense. Time for another 4000’ single track descent. Life is so hard.  

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Upon hitting the road at the valley floor, I saw the sign I’d hoped to encounter: Termales — HOT SPRINGS! The town of Lares built a municipal hot springs center just up the valley. The entrance was about $2USD, and camping was free. Despite it being a bit of a short day, how could I pass this up???

 

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I set up my tent in the terrace above the pools and skipped down to the healing warm waters. The cool breeze of the late afternoon sun was perfect for soaking. 

 

 

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While walking to town for food, I noticed the town cemetery. A very efficient use of space, I’d never seen a “mausoleum motel” before.  

After a quick ‘menu’, I wandered back up to the springs for a late night soak as the nearly full moon shimmered across the steaming pools. How fantastic to end a day staring up at the stars while floating in hot mountain spring water, only to wake up and do the same to early morning light. Blessed. 

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 The 4000’ climb up to Abra de Lares is paved. A lonely winding road through vast pastures and lush valleys. 

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 … And then the next single track descent starts. AWESOME!! Everything from fast and smooth buffed out dirt to Inca staircases to narrow exposed trails along high mountain water canals. Loving Lares!

 

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Back on the floor of the Sacred Valley a second time, I landed in the town of Calca and found a tertiary dirt side road to avoid the busy highway down the valley. I found yet another cheap room outside of Pisac that would let me stow my stuff the following day for another out-and-back trail exploration in the neighboring Lamay valley…

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Another long climb went much faster without all my gear. I reached the trail head in the small village of Sapaccto and began a screaming descent back down to Lamay.  

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How is this possible??? EVERY huge valley in the Urubamba mountains North of the Sacred Valley has a fantastic single track trail to descend on!!! This place is off the chart. Best mountain biking in a LONG time….

 

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Ah this Sacred Valley Shuffle is coming to a close… One more big climb to get to Cusco. And one more single track descent. Of course there were ENDLESS more options for adding on more trails. Truly spectacular opportunities. But I was ready for a rest after all these enormous climbs. Time for a little urban life with all the cheap plentiful food and pastries my stomach has been craving…

I climbed up the paved road out of Pisac to a pass overlooking Cusco. Enormous. Overwhelming.  

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Luckily, my introduction to the city was gentle, on a super fun and swoopy downhill mountain bike trail through Yuncaypata.

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 Approaching the city, I saw the first signage relating specifically to mountain bikes that I could remember for all of Latin America. Odd that it was prohibitive. I found it telling that the sign was translated (albeit poorly) into English. I think the ex-pat community here in Cusco might be formidable.

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 With the help of a lovely and kind female police officer, I was directed to the entrance of Hotel La Estrellita. This place is famous among cyclists and moto riders alike as the definitive cheap lodging option for two-wheeled travelers in Cusco. The moment I rolled through the big doors down the bike-friendly ramp, I was in total agreement: a long bench-table full of other touring cyclists! I was greeted with hugs by my old friends Neil and Vicki the moment I arrived. What a welcoming! 

All in all this route, which I’m now naming the Sacred Valley Shuffle, is a fantastically fun way to take in this magical part of Peru if you’re set up with a good bike and have the lungs for some serious climbing. BIG thanks to Bill and Nicole and Haku Expeditions for their beta on the Inca Avalanche, Patacancha, Lares and Lamay single track descents. I couldn’t have found these routes without them. Big thanks also go out to Andrew Cheyne for beta on biking the Salkantay Trek. I’m hoping to return to ride this route again, hopefully guiding a group of willing sufferers, in 2018… let me know if you’d like to join me for it! 

 

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