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It was not the best birthday I have had. Although the blizzard had stopped and there were clear patches in the sky, our bikes had disappeared. We cooked chocolate porridge, loaded ourselves with the panniers and tramped slowly back to Tinqui.

The loss of a bike is not just the loss of a possession; without a bike, you are not a cyclist. As a cyclist you soar and dive, you engage with the mountains; you suffer picturesquely and earn your place in the landscape; you take yourself to your limits, you are fully alive. Bikeless, you are reduced to frustrated passivity.

But much of the thrill of adventurous travel (if we can put our disasters down to adventure rather than fecklessness) is the unexpected. We didn’t know how cycle-camping in Peru’s mountains would work out; we didn’t know what the landscape would look like. One can look at maps, and pictures in guidebooks, and form fragments of a mental picture but the whole three-dimensional feel of the place is unimaginable.

We flew to Cusco via Lima. At 3400m, Cusco was higher than we had ever cycled before, and it’s certainly high enough for the altitude to be noticeable. At our hotel we were made to fill in endless forms as some sort of acclimatisation procedure, and advised to rest for a few hours. And you’re not opening your presents until after breakfast. We gave ourselves a generous acclimatisation rest of 1.5 seconds, reassembled the bikes with frenzied glee and hurtled into town, scattering a hail of allen bolts.

Cusco was the Inca capital, and the Spanish colonial buildings are built over the massive Inca walls. It is heaving with gringos and there are lots of interesting restaurants. It’s in a high landscape of red scrubby mountains. To the northeast there is a plateau, then the deep Urubamba valley, then a range of mountains, and then the land drops infinitely slowly into the jungle. Our first excursion would be over these mountains and back again.

We climbed slowly onto the plateau on a good paved road; the landscape was big in a rolling sort of way, and generally given over to farming. Then, suddenly, there were the mountains: an extravagant snowy range right across the horizon.

We stayed a couple of nights in the Sacred Valley, partly for acclimatisation, more perhaps to maintain at least on average a comfortable living. Well-heeled tourists come here to “do” Machu Picchu so there are luxury hotels here and there aren’t any beyond the mountains.

We stocked up on food in Calca, where the mountain road leaves the valley. High above the town, rocky tops of the mountains pull scary faces in an attempt to intimidate the traveller. The road is unsurfaced, as it will be all the way back to Ollantaytambo, and climbs steeply at first; the valley is narrow, part forested, part terraced. Not long after Calca are the Machacanca thermal baths. Colin swam; I didn’t (I swim with the grace and elegance of a cat) and instead guarded the bikes from the local inquisitive boys. I asked them what “hola” was in Quechua, and apparently it is “allillienku kashenku”. Ha, that’s nothing, I said, and responded with “Pan welwch olau coch, sefwch yma”. (We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides).

The road continued up through forests, and then the valley began to open out into a bowl surrounded by rocky peaks. We made good progress, and the cycling was no problem, but some time we would have to find somewhere to camp and we had no idea how successful we would be. I have wild camped before, but only in Europe, where it is safe. We had very little information about the logistics of the trip we were doing. Most accounts of this circuit are by tour groups, who use motor transport to do all the climbing and have local guides to negotiate camps in football fields. But Omar Zarzar, a mountainbike guide from Cusco, had done this circuit as far as Quillabamba, and we had his account. He had camped hereabouts. We set up the tent in the most secluded spot we could find, though, given the vast openness of the terrain, it was visible from 90% of the road. Indeed it wasn’t soon before one of the locals appeared. He said that it wasn’t safe here as there were robbers and dogs, but we could come to his house. We weren’t sure what to make of this, but we didn’t think we had much option but to follow. Simeon turned out to be a good sort, though his house was hard to get to with laden bikes.

We had most of the afternoon to try to work out how to use our stove. We suggest that it is a good idea to learn how to use a stove before trying it out at 4000m in near freezing temperatures. Despite its worrying tubercular cough, we cooked dinner. Simeon took pity on us and gave us some potatoes – a delicious knobbly variety as yet undiscovered by Waitrose. At breakfast time the stove gave us its opinion of early starts, and we could only persuade it to provide us with a candle-like flame. Very romantic, but we would get breakfast quicker by going back to Yucay.

Simeon and Margarita helped us with the bikes back to the road; Simeon had a bike and came with us to the junction with the Amparaes road. It was a stunning day. Once we were past the junction, the landscape was utterly empty of other people and the sense of remoteness was overwhelming. The road swings over to the other side of the valley and climbs in big loops. There were llamas on the road, and evidently they owned it. Colin said that farmers in the Pyrenees have imported llamas to protect their sheep from wolves. They trample on the wolves. So we tried looking unlike wolves. This worked, because the llamas didn’t trample on us. We reached the snowline at 4200m, and the pass wasn’t much further at 4300m. There were beautiful snowy peaks around, and far off in the south we could see Nevado Ausangate.

The road zigzagged down the other valley and gradually the sights of the mountains were fewer, and then no more; the grasses gave over to trees, and there were villages and people. Lares turned up in time for lunch, a two-shop town. We had planned to go further down, but given our difficulties with camping, we stopped here, because up a pretty side valley are a set of open-air thermal baths, where you can camp safely.

The road continues on the shady side of the trench-like valley. For a couple of hours, with nothing to do but freewheel, we were perishingly cold. There were frequent fords through side streams, and the fords are signposted “baden”, which must amuse German visitors no end. It got rapidly hotter, and the vegetation more jungly. By early afternoon we were in Quebrada Honda, a largeish concretey town with a hostal. Omar had stayed here, and, as before, given we had no idea of the camping prospects lower down, we stopped. The hotel was basic and grubby, and what was worse, when checking our schedule later, we found that we were getting behind rapidly. We now had to get to Quillabamba in one day; 100km is straightforward enough on tarmac, but who knew what state the road would be in, and how much climbing it had? And if the looming killer day tomorrow wasn’t enough, we had to endure the killer night. There was a party with loud and horrible music about a block away. We left at dawn.

At first it was easy; despite the sleepless night, we were relatively fresh, the air was cool, and it was downhill. The valley widens, the river sashays about the valley floor, and the road rises around a bluff to give you a lovely view. There are lush plantations of banana and papaya, and fabulous red flower trees. At Quello Uno, the Lares meets the Urubamba, and we now had to go up. The road and the sun conspired, and threw us a stiff climb in midday heat; and so it continued. In compensation, the scenery was fabulous: the mountains near vertical and wooded, like you see in the pictures of Machu Picchu, which is hardly surprising. Cruelly, the only restaurants anywhere near lunchtime were in Echarate, up a climb like a mini Alpe d’Huez (in fact, only 200m) where we talked to a young man who spoke excellent English, and who gave us some bananas. So Echarate is forgiven, but only just.

We were truly into the spirit of cycle touring. The scenery was doing its best, but efforts at appreciation of our surroudings had long been sacrificed in favour of getting the miles in. We were only interested in the road surface and our handlebars. “Are you looking at the scenery? Because I’m not”. “No, I’m looking at my mileometer”.

Thankfully Quillabamba has a decent hotel, and given that the 100km had somehow crammed in 1700m of climbing, we deserved it. It also has a fabulous market where we bought the best avocado of our lives; we deserved that too.

Tour companies love to offer “bike adventures” that involve being bussed to the top of a 3000m climb and freewheeling down. The Abra de Malaga is such a descent, but we were going up it. I had been fantasising about it for months. The map shows a road slinking in seductive curls up mysterious mountains. The more mountains I climb, the more pictures embed in my memory, stealing more and more brain cells in order to build a picture of a Platonic ideal of mountain passes, hairpin after gorgeous hairpin, the dizzying stack of the Stelvio, the surreal rockscapes of the Dolomites, the exuberant impatient steepness of Alpe d’Huez, breathtaking Galibier, scorching Ventoux. The Abra de Malaga climbs to 4400m; it must be like ascending to heaven.

From Quillabamba there is a thrilling sight of the top of Nevado Salcantay. Not our mountain – that was Veronica – but it could just as well have been. It was intensely hot, and the road climbs steadily but relentlessly up the valley. Fortunately, the road is well used and there are plenty of shops where we could buy food and water. We were dreading the imminent camping challenge, for not only were the valley sides not at all flat, they were thickly covered in trees and things. Luckily we found the ruin of a shed or small house, just before the road started zigzagging up a very slopy part of mountain. It was inhabited by a rich selection of insect life. For dinner we had risotto ai funghi and the mosquitos had me. Although the road had been quiet during the day, it was inexplicably busy at night.

The weather pattern favoured early starts. Generally it would be sparkling clear at dawn, but clouds would form during the morning and park themselves over the mountains. Besides, this close to the equator, you only get 12 hours of daylight and if you’re camping, you want it all. This morning, we were tantalisingly closer to the mountains, but there were clouds already loitering down the valley. And whereas the clouds could motor directly up the valley, the road now embarked on a long perambulation in and out of all the side valleys. We could see the point at which it would emerge with a brilliant view, but we had to get there before the clouds. It was a dead heat: we rounded the point just as the mountains began to vanish. Fortunately we had the consolation of several restaurants at Carrizales, the first one, a cosy wood cabin, steeped in woodsmoke from the log fire.

The trees began to thin out and the road climbed up a grassy flank high above the deep valley. There was very little habitation up here. We found a reasonably sheltered hollow for our camp; I remember it as being idyllic, for there were crocuses all around, but it was bitterly cold overnight.

Before dawn, we had a stunning moonlit view of Nevado Veronica, so close, it felt almost within touching distance. By dawn though, a mist had formed. As we mackled about cooking breakfast, the mist would clear for a minute, and give the mountain through a veil. Finally, amazingly, it cleared. It wasn’t far to the pass now, and the thrill of a new view. Here we also found the reason for the nocturnal trucks – there were roadworks and the road was closed during the day. We swept down on a grand tour of the valley top, past the beautiful meadows of Pena. Down to the Sacred Valley, this valley narrowed between two massive flanking cliffs, a gateway for gods.

I’m afraid I couldn’t get the descent over fast enough. I was getting edgy about the looming business of trying to buy the train tickets for Machu Picchu. So far we had had nothing but failed attempts to buy these tickets. You couldn’t buy them in Cusco and you couldn’t get them from an agent. Apparently you could get them from the station itself in Urubamba, but after an afternoon spent searching for the station, which was eventually cornered in the grounds of an hotel, there was nobody there. Although the manageress of the hotel in Ollantaytambo assured us we could buy tickets the day before, the station master would only sell them in the morning.

Somehow we got the last two tickets; wonderfully, our seats were right at the front. The train follows the river down through a deepening valley; a mysterious landscape, the near-vertical mountains cloaked in forest, here and there a glimpse of an Inca site on a crag. The tour group in the train discussed their pet dogs. “My ‘Princess’, she just loves, I mean really loves, foie gras.” “That’s so cute!” “Well, d’ye know – Mr Pookie – the boss! – he likes his steak medium rare – a bit more, a bit less, he won’t touch it.” Outside, the mountains reared up in a crescendo, and vertically above us, on a dizzy knife-edge ridge, was Machu Picchu.

After slumming it for ages, a whole week!, we were in need of some luxury and the hotel Pakaritampu was good, despite having to share it with a group of wretched birdwatchers who got up in the middle of the night and banged doors. We made our way up the Sacred Valley as slowly as possible, staying in all the nice hotels. At Pisac, although we stayed at the Royal Inka, the Hotel Pisac in the town was a better prospect for dinner, as it served family-sized pizzas. Where there are family-sized pizzas you will find cyclists. We crossed paths with a “biking adventure” and were interested to know where they were going. In contrast, they had no curiosity whatsoever about what we were doing; nothing existed for them beyond doing groupy things together such as ordering beers in a blokey way, counting the number of beers they’d had yesterday, and sitting with their knees as far apart as possible. I rather get the impression that such people don’t go to Peru to see or experience Peru, but rather to “do some mountainbike rides”. So they would be ferried to the start of a ‘ride’, never mind where, so long as it was a good ride. Indeed when we asked them where they’d been, they didn’t know. I suppose it is fair enough for people to want this sort of holiday, for after all, we had no pretensions as to be doing anything more than entertaining ourselves here, but it does seem to miss out a lot.

The tour operators have a lovely picture in their brochure and we’d worked out it was on the Uchuy Cusco trail. We needed a shopping trip to Cusco, and we imagined we’d return by this route. The group leader told us it was very exposed and scary and in any case was a two day trip. We thought we’d save it for another time. Mind you, we suspected their concept of ‘day’ differed from ours, as they were negotiating a 9am breakfast. We were over the 4000m pass before they’d finished their coffee; this makes up for all points lost by failing to do the Uchuy Cusco trail.

Having restocked on food goodies and replete with luxury, we were off south for the second part of the adventure. There is a mountain south of Cusco, Nevado Ausangate, and a very attractive 5-day trekking route around it. We’d had the idea to take bikes over part of the route, return down the Pitumarca valley and back along the road. We had found the web page for an agency in Cusco offering the whole circuit as a mountain bike tour, with mules to carry the luggage. We had considered mules, but we didn’t think we would have the time nor the language skills to hire them, and in any case preferred the flexibility of doing our own thing. We rode along a newly-paved road from Pisac to meet the main road, and so to Urcos, which was a boring ride, and Urcos an unattractive town. The weather hadn’t been so good the last few days: it was overcast and spitting threats of rain. From Urcos the road to Ausangate (and ultimately, Puerto Maldonado) was piste, and took an age to climb in long zigzags up the same hill. Oh, how I can still recall those views now. We camped near the top of the pass, somehow, as is our unique skill, finding the spot which would hide from the morning sun until about 11am. Another long day of mountains and several more 4000m passes took us to Tinqui, at the base of our mountain. We couldn’t see Ausangate – it was covered in cloud.

There is a ‘road’ part of the way to Upis, a dirt road, but rideable and with beautifully professional kilometre marks. Then just footpath. Then, a bog with a river through it. The trekking route comes a more direct way from Tinqui but both routes have to cross the bog and the river. There was no mention of crossing the river in the Bradt guide or in any account we’d read. We did see a plank ‘bridge’, but with bikes, we had to ford the freezing water. Our shoes were wet through and we were cold. It started to snow. We put up the tent, locked the bikes together and hoped for a better day tomorrow, as it ought to be on my birthday.

TCM. 2003

index | intro | general info | route notes | narrative | links