I had never travelled outside of Europe and the US, so when Fraser and I decided to take a foreign cycle trip, we had a lot of the world yet to explore. Our basic agenda was to travel for about a month in an area unlike any we had experienced before. We wanted somewhere with a unique culture, probably in the third world, somewhere where there was spectacular scenery and challenging cycling. Our mothers wanted somewhere safe. Southern Peru and Karakorum were the areas that most appealed to us, however whereas the political situation in Kashmir was worsening, Peru was fairly stable under the newly elected President Fujimori, and this was therefore our chosen destination.
Culturally, its roots lie in the Inca dynasty and the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. In his Chronicle of Peru, written at that time, Pedro de Cieza de Leon wrote:
‘Where have men ever seen the things that they have seen here? Where was it known that so much wealth could come from one land? And a land so extensive, so rich, so abundant that it cannot be bettered. And to think that God should have permitted something so great to remain hidden from the world for so long in history, unknown to men and then to let it be found, discovered and won all in our time!’
This was clearly somewhere worth visiting.
Fraser’s plan was to roughly follow a route that an adventure travel company runs from Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, to Cusco, the centre of the Inca world. To carry our luggage, we invested in a BOB Yak trailer which we would take turns to tow.
We arrived in Arequipa to a purity and, at 2325 m, a paucity of air that was a direct and most welcome contrast to London. The area is a high desert with hot sunny days and freezing nights. The classically conical El Misti and the marginally higher Chachani volcanos rise straight out of the plains and dominate the horizon at 6000 m above sea level.
Whilst researching a possible route to cusco, we encountered a problem that would be with us throughout the trip, our maps bore little relation to reality. Distances were utterly unreliable. On one of our better maps, El Misti lay on the wrong side of the city and they had entirely neglected to include the great hulk of Chachani.
Having spent a couple of days acclimatising and seeing the tourist spots, such as the fascinating Monasterio de Santa Catalina, we set off up the mountain. This was undoubtedly the most gruelling bike ride I had ever attempted. We had been advised to ride continuously for about two hours in order to avoid stopping in a dangerous district on the outskirts of the city. In the event, we passed through without incident and out into the wilderness beyond. The experience was unforgettable; the scenery was extraordinary – barren and dusty. Arequipa was soon a toy town behind us and the hill was relentless. I began to suffer from the effects of the altitude at around lunchtime and worse, we began to realise that the distances on our map were far from accurate.
At three o’clock we realised that if we could not make it over the crest soon, we would be stranded as night fell. Therefore, after over six hours of solid climbing, we reluctantly turned around for the downhill back to Arequipa. Two hours later we were in the hotel, ravenously hungry and with some serious re-thinking to do.
Canon del Colca
The Colca Canyon has been claimed, at 3400 meters, to be the deepest in the world. We had intended to see this impressive gorge on our way to cusco, but following our setback we decided to use the popular tourist buses to get to the far end of the canyon and then to ride back along it for three days. We therefore found ourselves at the Arequipa coach station at two in the morning, bikes and trailer in tow.
We left at this ungodly hour in order to arrive by dawn, the best time to view the canyon’s most famous resident, the Andean Condor. With a three metre wingspan and weighing in at 10 kg, this is arguably the largest flying bird in the world and is a truly spectacular sight. Several of them seemed to enjoy the attention they were getting and soared within meters of us. After a couple of hours of condor-watching we set off by bike and received nearly as much attention as the birds.
A guide we chatted to remembered some cyclists making the trip once before, but he had not seen anyone do so for several years. As the tourist buses don’t stop at the towns they pass, the places we visited were untouched by tourism, and were that much more interesting because of it. For the next week on our convoluted route to cusco, this was a persistent theme. We stayed with locals, most of whom were happy to put us up and feed us for a couple of dollars.
After a week of frugal living, it was a relief to check into our hotel on the main square in cusco. We spent a day resting our legs in the city, an extraordinary mix of colonial buildings on Inca foundations, and began to plan our week in the area. The most rewarding day of the whole trip was spent riding to Inca Pisac, a deserted Inca settlement high above the River Urubamba, a distant tributary of the Amazon. En route, we visited a series of Inca ruins and the modern village of Pisac. The whole ride was about 90 km and it is fair to say that none of it was flat. This was what we had come for; impressive scenery, great riding and fascinating ruins. Better still, no other mode of transport could have allowed a similar trip; we didn’t have to share the sights with fifty other coach-borne tourists and when we finally arrived at Inca Pisac, we appreciated it all the more for having climbed there ourselves.
I had realised before we left England that we would be pretty close to the edge of the Amazon Rainforest, but couldn’t think of a practical way of getting a glimpse of it. In cusco however, we happened upon small advert for a company running mountain bike trips in the area so we followed it up. For a modest sum, a German ex-pat named George took us on a three day ride down into the cloud forest on the Eastern edge of the Andes.
George was an enthusiastic and interesting guide, and as we had a support vehicle, we had the luxury of riding without luggage. The area itself is surely one of the most staggering places to ride on the planet. In a single day, you can descend from over 4000 m to around 1000 m altitude and pass from the barren, dusty climate of the high Andes to the lush green of the cloud forest, the most bio-diverse area on earth. This ride was a fitting end to our travels in Southern Peru. It combined all elements that make the area so special – a fascinating mix of stunning natural location, charming villages and friendly locals.