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A mountain-bike expedition to Machu Picchu

Crossing the upstream Amazon hanging on a rope

Peru - Crossing upstream Amazon

Except for the well-known Inca Trail, there also is a mountain-bike route to Machu Picchu. Or is there? Climbing endless hairpin turns to 4,300 m, just below the white peak of Nevado Verónica, descending 80 km to an old Inca sign post and through valleys to Santa Teresa. Crossing rivers by rickety suspension bridges and hanging in a little container... and then it's only a little farther over former train tracks... until the police inquires where we think we're going.

Travelogue & photos: Pieter Parmentier

Peru - Op weg naar Machu Picchu langs ongebaande paden

In most cases, when you book a trip, it goes without saying that you'll arrive at your destination. In Peru it's not that clear cut and even less so if you decide to leave the beaten track.

From Arequipa, the White City between three volcanoes in the south of Peru at an altitude of over 2,000 meters , we bicycled a little under a thousand kilometers. We are now in the valley of the Urubamba, the Sacred Valley of the Incas between Aguas Calientes and Pisac, where in the ancient Inca town of Ollantaytambo an impressive fortress used to guard the access road to Machu Picchu. Here, at an altitude of 2,500 meters in the Andes mountains, there was a fierce battle with the Spanish conquerors.

Peru - Climbing the Abra Malaga

Ollantaytambo nowadays is a nice town where thousands of tourists arrive every year to take the train to the starting point of the Inca Trail or to go straight to Machu Picchu. Our group splits here.

One half is going to hike to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail and the other half, to which I belong, will go by bicycle and prove that there is another way to reach Machu Picchu than the two well-known routes.

Peru - Lunch on Abra Malaga

But the plan has a few loose ends. For starters, we don't have a decent map of the route, only a general map which leads us to believe that this route can't be longer than a hundred kilometers. We also need a back-up plan, because it looks like there won't be any places to spend the night on the way.

Fortunately we find an American who says: "No problem for you guys" and then makes sure we have camping gear. He doesn't seem to have any knowledge of or experience with this route, though.

A not-unimportant detail is that everyone assures us that this route is never and has never been taken.

Peru - Snowy peak of Nevado Verónica

Still, there are sufficient indications that there is a route. And because many people here think it's impossible to bicycle up a mountain anyway, we don't take their comments too seriously. The only thing that people here do, is take the bus up the mountain and then go downhill by bicycle.

We think we can do our planned ride easily in two days, so we merrily start on the first leg, a 40 km climb to the Abra Malaga, from 2,800 to 4,300 m. It's the most beautiful climb I've ever done. At first, you look up to the snowy peak of Nevado Verónica (5,682 m) and four hours later that same peak is almost close enough to touch. What follows is a descent in to a vast and beautiful, 80 km long valley!

Peru - Inca signpost and our camping site

Everything that was still fixed, shakes loose. We rode on the worst roads in the world in the last two weeks and this one is no exception. Our camping site, on a fivehundred-year-old Inca sign post, with a stunning view of the valley, is a completely new experience.

Santa Teresa

A beautiful river, but very, very far below us

Peru - Valley of the Vilcabamba

I got sick tonight and now I try to keep up with the others, while David and Josine take care of me. Henk is scouting the route. We descend from 4,300 to 1,300 meters. From freezing cold to banana plantations, crickets, thousands of birds and especially mosquitos.

We are covered with mosquito bites, which itch terribly (after a few days the itching is over, but then your legs are swollen to twice their size).

Peru - Where is Santa Teresa?

Finding the right turn is hard, because there are no signs or directions anywhere. It's beginning to look like our route really doesn't exist, or that Santa Teresa, our stop over on the way to Machu Picchu, is a leper colony. This isn't good, because we sent our only back up, the American, home this morning.

We find the bridge and again we think it can't be that far anymore. Against our better judgement, because up until now we have seen that most hairpin turns are not on the map, which means that a 100 km leg is in reality 200 km. The next part of the route has an even worse ratio in that respect. It is certainly beautiful, but the road ascends steeply from 1,300 to 2,100 meters, with an average increase of ten per cent.

Peru - An encounter with the population

We arrive in Santa Teresa at 3 PM: corrugated iron roofs, mud roads, houses without windows, shops and restaurants that are not recognizable as such, children in school uniforms, small live stock and dogs everywhere. Animals are slaughtered along the road. We've gotten used to it by now.

We rest a little and try to eat. I feel sicker by the minute. Time is running out and where do we go?

Peru - Suspension bridge in Santa Teresa

A helpful kid is willing to show us the way. We descend stairs with thousands of steps, at least that is what it feels like. A kilometer through the river bed and then we cross a suspension bridge: one of those with loose planks hanging from a few ropes. It's a beautiful river, but very, very far below us.

The "best" is yet to come: the cable lift. It's a container the size of a coffee table (and as comfortable), which moves on two wheels over a cable.

We discuss if it's wise to continue: can we reach Machu Picchu before dark? We decide to return to Santa Teresa and spend the night there.

Peru - 1.75 euro a night

I see the hotel of my (feverish) dreams in Machu Picchu, with unlimited warm showering, clean clothes and - most important - without mosquitos, disappear from the horizon like a mirage. I am completely sure they don't have that here.

Our search doesn't result in anything useful, except: "No, not here, maybe in Machu Picchu." They don't understand that we have just bicycled over a thousand kilometers to get there, and that we won't be able to make it today because of the missing bridge.

Eventually we find something, ironically called "Machu Picchu"! This accomodation boasts "warm water". That turns out to be reasonably accurate. There are loose electrical wires attached to the shower and if you put the switch in the right position, the water gets tepid. And if you do something wrong, you probably get fried.

But hey, if you're looking for excitement and adventure, you shouldn't whine when you find it. Cockroaches and other creepy crawlers provide lively distraction.

Aguas Calientes

Where do we think we're going?

After twelf hours of sleep I feel like a human being again. We can't complain about the price of the room: 7 Sol a night (= 1.75 euro).

Peru - Crossing the river in a container

At breakfast we decide to take the cable lift. It is a spectacular experience. It's simple, really: you sit on it with your bike and pull yourself to the other side with a rope.

Still not knowing what is awaiting us, we bicycle through another beautiful canyon to the hydro-electric power station and from there we'll take old rail tracks for the last few kilometers. The power station is there, and so are the tracks, but they turn out to be still in use. There is a little train station with all kinds of merchants. Maybe this is where all those hikers we saw on the way get their food stocks?

Peru - Dead end

In a good mood we begin our last eight kilometers along the train tracks. But, unfortunately, after two kilometers we are stopped by the local police. Where do we think we're going? We patiently explain that we have bicycled 1,100 km through their wonderful country and that we are almost at our destination. They explain, equally patient, that we can't continue and that there will be a train shortly.

After some discussion it becomes clear that we may not have reached our own limits - even though at times we got close - but definitely those of the Peruvian government. We have to accept that.

If we had known that we'd have to wait for five hourse in the middle of nowhere, we might have been less compliant. But the train ride to Aguas Calientes that follows is wonderful and we can take our bikes with us without any problem. Aguas Calientes is no more than Machu Picchu's train station and apart from that not interesting. We arrive a day later than planned, tired but very satisfied. I will remember the shower in a clean hotel for a very long time.

Janneke, our travel manager in South Peru, has organized transport for our bikes, a speed visit to the Inca city tomorrow at 5:30 AM and a train back to Ollantaytambo three hours later. She clearly has made a dedicated effort.

Machu Picchu

When the sun rises, the effect is overwhelming

It actually is a shame that we have to hurry during our visit to the Inca sanctuary. Of course, we made every effort to be here sooner, so we could experience this World Heritage landmark with the appropriate attention.

Peru - Machu Picchu

We take the first bus to Machu Picchu, hairpin after hairpin to an altitude of 2,500 meters. When we leave it's still dark, but during the ride it gets lighter and we see more and more of the surrounding landscape with its typical pointed mountains.

On one of those pointy peaks the Incas built a city 500 years ago, which remained hidden for the Spanish conquerors and their ruthless hunger for gold. Only in 1911 the American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered the remains of the city, following directions of a local inn-keeper. There was no gold, but it was an important archeological find. Around five hundred people are supposed to have fled here for a short while, when there was danger from all directions.

It's getting light and fortunately the sky is clear. We are the first visitors and so we enjoy the quiet. Over 300,000 people visit Machu Picchu annually. The Peruvian government does its best to regulate that stream and limit the damage to the landmark and its surroundings.

Peru - Machu Picchu

When the sun rises, the effect is impressive, even overwhelming. It's a monument of efficiency, collaboration and craftmanship. Those Incas had time on their hands. Which explains the enigma only partly. If you can spend years to cut and polish stones until they fit perfectly, it helps.

But there is a vision behind it, organizational talent, passion and an unprecedented bent for perfection. It permeated their whole culture and explains for a large part the unprecedented success of the Inca dynasty to incorporate other tribes and rule their empire efficiently.

We don't have enough time and miss a knowledgeable guide. We really don't know what we are seeing. And we have to hurry back, because the train isn't going to wait for us. With pain in our hearts we leave this unearthly spot, but are grateful to have experienced at least a little of its magic.

De train takes us back to Ollantaytambo, where we left a few days ago in blissful ignorance of what would follow. It's a wonderful train ride, and after a short stop in Ollantaytambo we continue on to Cusco. Two months later part of the train tracks are wiped out by a landslide and 1400 tourists are trapped in Aguas Calientes.

Our return to The Netherlands has started. We relish our memories in Cusco, where we feel at home by now, and say goodbye to Peru with a cozy dinner. Only two days ago we slept in a guesthouse between the cockroaches and I had to pass on dinner.

The last few weeks were an unforgettable mix of enjoyment and roughing it. The trip had many extremes: in temperatures, cultures, eco-systems, quality of life, hardship and coddling, roughing it and relaxing. It has left a deep impression.

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