Riding the Roof of the Americas
A ten day riding trip to Peru gives Strahan Loken a chance to see a hidden culture, lost lands and to ride some ripping descents.
Pictures by Dan Barham.
The Andes. The name carries a heaviness that conjures images of remote ridgelines overlaid on surreal vistas, desolate arid mountains, and the hardened faces of unfamiliar cultures. When I mention to photographer Dan Barham that it might be possible to travel to Peru to ride bikes and experience what remains of the ancient cultures that once thrived there, he jumps at the chance.
The trip begins much like any other: last minute bike box packing, setting ‘out-of-office’ email replies, checking and double checking passports, and crowding helmet and riding shoes into congested luggage. After ferrying from Vancouver Island to the mainland of Canada, I join Dan in North Vancouver, the departure port for our long journey across the equator into the southern hemisphere.
We arrive in Lima, Peru bleary eyed and exhausted as ‘gringos’ at 4:30am local time. Meandering through the airport on autopilot with remnants of the aisleway television still pulsing in my right eye during the overnight flight, we spot luggage rounding the carousel, locate bike boxes from oversize baggage, and meet our driver at the doorway. “Taxi, senor?” blurts out a mid-aged man. “No, gracias”, I respond. “Taxi, Senor?”, says another. “No, I’m sorry”, I utter impatiently. I soon give up answering and just stare through the throngs of drivers trying to hustle a fare. Our driver squeezes us inside the truck and leaves to pay the parking fees. I set off the alarm when I open the door to get some air. We are definitely not in Canada anymore.
Peru lies central to Andean range, geographically the longest continental mountain range in the world, where the coastline carves a narrow swath between the ocean and thousands of vertical feet of highlands. In the 15th century this was the social and political center of the Inca Empire that dominated western South America. It’s said the Incan empire created over 50,000 kilometres of singletrack for generations of porters, migrants, and Incan Kings. These trails were the conduit that connected regions, transferred food supplies, and provided access to religious temples and sacred places in the high mountains. The Inca Empire has long since fallen, conquered in part by invading Spanish conquistadors and the influx of European diseases such as smallpox, but the trails remain. Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Adventures, a small company centered in Nelson, British Columbia, operates a cross-country tour here which promises long downhills, challenging climbs, and cultural immersion, while experiencing the best singletrack that Peru has to offer.
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There will be no climbing today.
On the morning of day nine I’m determined to ride. I have to ride. My stomach is tender and my mind weary on the uncomfortable van ride up the narrow mountain road. We gain thousands of feet and the driver blasts the horn around each blind turn, advising oncoming traffic of an impending disaster along the serpentine route, finally reaching a saddle between two peaks at 4,500m. Wind blasts up the opposite face from where we’ve approached. There will be no climbing today. The Lares Inca Trail begins as a barely discernable singletrack weaving down a sub-alpine slope, but within minutes if funnels into a rocky valley concealing a rushing river and the thicker vegetation supported by it. It’s the best pure downhill of the trip where speed and aggression in the roughest sections reward with momentum through the slower ones. We shuttle this run one more time, then load up bikes and gear for one last transport to the hills above Cusco. The golden afternoon sun dips lazily between bands of clouds, at some points illuminating the countryside with golden hues while only a minute later becoming bland and flat. We pile out of the van and rush the descent which, only few days previous, had been part of an insufferable climb. The light drops over a distant ridge as we make our final drop into Cusco, negotiating the stair sets, pedestrians, neighbourhood dogs, and treacherous cobblestones in much the same way as before.
Packing up bikes into boxes in the hotel courtyard the next morning is bittersweet. On one hand we’re all wanting for the comforts and conveniences of home. On the other hand, we’ve barely exposed the layers of adventure concealed in the Peruvian mountains. Regardless, bikes are packed along with the scratches, souvenirs, smiles, and sunburns earned along the way. After the requisite flight to escape Cusco back to sea-level Lima, the group dissipates to accommodate various lengthy travel itineraries, left with only the reflection of the extraordinary combination of culture, riding, travel, adversity, and adaptation.
As I ponder my own experience I can reach only one conclusion, I would start it all over again tomorrow.