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Peru: A Mountain Biker’s Paradise

Elevation is just part of Peru's mountain bike equation. It's how quickly the country's mountains rise — and fall — that makes the former Inca Empire epicenter a life-list must for any self-respecting fat-tire enthusiast.

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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared when we launched last summer. Due to technical issues, the story, video and photo gallery have been unavailable until now. We have corrected the problem. Enjoy.

Peru: A mountain biker's paradise
In between the diversity of trail in Peru is the stuff of fantasy. CHECK OUT VIDEO AND MORE PHOTOS IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW. Photo by Jason Sumner

Peru, in the most literal sense, is a mountain biker’s paradise. The former Spanish colony sits in the heart of the Andes along South America’s northwest flank, and is home to the sixth highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, 22,205-foot Huascaran. In fact, a dozen Peruvian peaks eclipse the mythical 20,000-foot mark, and 70 exceed 18,000 feet. By contrast, North America boasts only four peaks that tall.

But elevation is just part of Peru’s mountain bike equation. It’s how quickly the country’s mountains rise — and fall — that makes the former Inca Empire epicenter a life-list must for any self-respecting fat-tire enthusiast. It’s possible to start riding singletrack at 12,000 feet and finish at the beach. More amazingly, skilled riders can complete the trip in about five hours and spend only the last 20 minutes on paved road.

In between the diversity of trail is the stuff of fantasy. In one spectacular day, buckle up for slickrock, fast and flowy, steep, loose and technical, and a new entrant to trail lexicon: huayco, an expansive, completely parched river bed with a surface so smooth and tacky you’ll be leaning over your bike like Valentino Rossi. Throw in thousands of lips, jumps, bumps and berms, and the result is an endless playground of possibilities.

But route finding isn’t easy, so before attempting that ride, or any other in Peru, best to first track down Eduardo “Wayo” Stein. Wayo, the Spanish nickname for Eduardo, and Stein’s preferred moniker, has been riding bikes since he could walk. At varying times has been crowned his country’s cross-country and downhill national champion. He’s also one of Peru’s preeminent mountain bike guides, and the lead sherpa for British Columbia-based outfitter Big Mountain Adventures, which operates expert-level fat-tire tours all over the globe.

My first encounter with Wayo came at a Spartan lobby-terminal bar inside Lima’s bustling international airport. It was just after midnight, and my head was spinning from an 18-hour travel day. The long trek from my Colorado home to Peru marked day one of a week-long mountain biking adventure. I was one among an eclectic group of eleven foreign riders that included former Canadian cross-country Olympian Andreas Hestler, 61-year-old adventure-athlete-extraordinaire Bob Faulkner, and Big Mountain Adventures owner Chris Winter, who decided after hearing so much about Peru from gushing guides and blown-away clients that he needed to go see for himself.

Now, Hestler, Faulkner, Winter, myself and the rest (two doctors, a teacher, a professional photographer, an engineer, a business man and another adventure athlete) were at the airport, sipping cold Cusqueña beers and listening intently as Wayo outlined the adventure ahead.

The basic gist: Get ready for the time of your lives, but never forget where you are. This is Peru, he reminded us. When we’re out on the trails, it won’t be on the highways and byways of some manicured National Park where medical rescue is just a cell phone call away.

Screw up here and your modes of evacuation will likely be limited to helicopter — or donkey. And the nearest hospital, well, let’s just say it probably not around the corner. Oh, and if you don’t like heights, too bad. Exposure — some of it counted in the thousands of feet — is non-negotiable. Best to not blow out any blind turns, lest you make an unscheduled base jump.

Out of Town

Peru: A mountain biker's paradise
The basic gist of Peru? Get ready for the time of your lives. Photo by Jason Sumner

After building up bikes on the morning of our first full day, we boarded a shuttle bus and headed out of town. The contrast between city and trailhead was stunning. Behind us was Peru’s sprawling capital, population seven million plus another four million on the outskirts. In front of us was a barely-inhabited, parched, treeless and barren landscape. Indeed, rural Peru yields a trip back in time. Life there hasn’t changed much since the days of the Incas. Many inhabitants still live hand to mouth, carving out a subsistence-level existence from the land, relying on small crops and farm animals to keep their families fed.

At its height, the Inca Empire numbered 20 million and stretched nearly 800,000 square miles, including more than half of South America’s vast western coast. All those people needed a way to get around, and that meant trails, lots and lots of trails.

That first ride started in an expansive dry riverbed, before giving way to swoopy smooth single track that rolled up and down like an amusement park rollercoaster. You’d have expected riding this good to be packed with people, but outside a few commuting villagers, the trail was ours alone. In fact, during seven days of riding, we encountered exactly three other mountain bikers.

The ensuing days yielded more epic riding, with exhilaration and exhaustion parceled out in equal doses. On day two, we started at just above 12,000 feet, and in just 35 miles, ended up at the Pacific Ocean, riding almost exclusively on singletrack. Day three included what our group dubbed the “pucker ride,” a six-hour shuttle bus trip that started in Lima and ended in the small town of San Pedro de Casta. In between was extended time on a one-lane dirt road guarded by a rock wall on one side and a 3000-foot drop-off on the other.

But the bus ride scare was quickly forgotten, replaced by new adventures. Day three’s ride started atop horses. While we rode, a group of local — and well-acclimatized — teens pushed our bikes a mile uphill to the trailhead at 14,000 feet. Next it was another amazing downhill that began in the magical Marcahuasi Stone forest where glaciers dragged then dropped giant polished rocks, yielding a trail that hop-scotched between dirt singletrack and smooth stone faces. Imagine riding through a Salvador Dali painting, and you’re on you’re on the right track.

A day later, we flew to the former Inca Empire capital and now bustling tourist hub of Cusco. Just like near Lima, the trails around Cusco were a diverse mix of fast, flowy, steep, loose, rocky, technical, and occasionally outright scary. Unlike the mountains in North America, which ascend at a gentle pace, the Andes rise abruptly, leaping from the ground straight into the clouds.

Inspiring vistas, epic moments, adrenaline shots and general awe came flying so fast and continuous that even just days after the trip it was difficult to keep track of what was what and when was when. But this I do know: Read this account with the caveat that it represents only a fraction’s fraction of this life-changing experience that must be seen, felt, tasted and smelled to be truly understood and accurately appreciated.

Yes, Peru, in the most literal sense, is a mountain biker’s paradise.

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