Words: Aaron Crowder
Images: Carlos Diaz and Ali Goulet
The culture is raw and pure. The locals are humble and loyal. The terrain is everything a modern trail bike is engineered for. In Cusco life is still happening in a very simplistic and raw form. The appreciation for the land here is unmatched and the fact that these beautiful people smile and wave as you pass through their land on two wheels leaves you with no other feeling than the simple acceptance and appreciation for life. These trails have never seen a shovel or a rake. When it comes to landscaping, farming, and road/trail building, earth moving machines don’t exist. These trails see Peruvian foot traffic and the occasional alpaca. They were sculpted by natural water run-off and ancient Inca hands. They have an unmatched, one of a kind natural flow and technical characteristic to them that you won’t find until you arrive in a very special and ancient place like the central mountains of Peru deep within the Sacred Valley.
Within this valley, thousands of trails travel through thousands upon thousands of feet in elevation, multiple climate zones and temps anywhere from desert like to snowy and wet tundra. You want high speed and wide open rocky desert-like downhill, they got it. Craving steep wooded jungle like single-track? Look no further. Wanting to find technical rock gardens or big stone stair step descents? Come here and make sure to thank the Incas. Here, it all starts at 15,000ft where you find trailheads that some of today’s indigenous people still use. They are happy to share the trails. They seem fascinated by the bikes and gear we bring… and they look forward to when you will one day return.
What do you bring to a place like this? What do you not bring to a place like this? Hard to make a master list of gear and bike parts for this trip. Even harder to cross off the list those things that do not add significant value or are in true need. For starters, build the most reliable bike you can. It will need to be relatively light because you will most likely climb/pedal/hike portions of what you ride down. It will need to be strong and reliable because you will be putting it through some of the most challenging terrain you have ridden. You won’t have a bike shop that will have the part you need the entire time you are here so you should most definitely build something that won’t break. Whatever it is that you build and take with you, make it count. Don’t be the guy duct taping his low end carbon wheel set together 1,000ft into his 5,000ft descent 2 days into the trip. Be the guy who builds up some M70’s and only has to stop to give his hands a break and his bros a high-five. The trails are real, the bike and gear you bring should be as well.
Cusco is a great place to start a trip like this. After all, that’s what we did. In fact, no time was wasted. We landed bright and early in Cusco, Peru eager to build bikes and ride. Upon walking out of the airport, locate the statue in the parking lot and let your bags explode. Plenty of room to build bikes and load vehicles. There are even some food carts worth exploring if you happen to be craving local foods. The empanadas were by far a favorite.
Lots of ride options here in Cusco. For the urban Peruvian downhiller in you there are plenty of Inca staircases and natural drops within the city. Show the locals respect. Stop and waive when you cross their land and in return you will get smiles and lots of thumbs up. In the end, they embrace our tourism and support our interests. If you are craving dirt, catch a ride to the top of one of the surrounding mountains. They all have steep descents, drops and jumps which all eventually funnel you right back into the city of Cusco. You can spend several days here riding… but manage your time wisely because there are bigger and better just a few hours away.
If you don’t make it to Ollantaytambo, you fail. It is the home and birthplace of the Inca Avalanche DH race as well as the hub for the Inca Avalanche Trail Festival (most definitely a bucket list item). There is no better base than this place if you want to submerge in the raw Incan culture, ride spectacular trail, eat good food, score a pint of Chicha or Pisco Sour and partake in many of the rooftop views of the surrounding ruins. In fact, there are a few ruins here that some folks travel across the world to see before or after hitting one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Machu Picchu is an easy 1.5hr train ride away, should you care to leave your bike for a day.
From Ollantaytambo you can ride local trails dropping you right back into the town square or catch a shuttle to many of the surrounding mountains for bigger adventures and Inca ruin exploring. I cannot share all the secrets here but the Pumamarca trail was a favorite. You can likely find a local to shuttle you on a scooter of some sort for under $3 or pedal up 2,000ft on the dirt road for 4mi. Again taking advantage of a modern trailbike with top notch lightweight wheels built to climb anything and descend everything, most of us on ENVE M70 wheel sets chose to climb quickly and descend even faster.
The Pumamarca trail can be done as a loop from your room in Ollantaytambo. As I recall, we past 2 exceptional ruins which separated the trail from jungle like root filled single-track and steep high speed babyhead and bigger rocky technical riding. The trail pops out on a dirt road which leaves you with some options to ride in-between residential stone structures through stair steps into town or follow the dirt road to send natural jumps and drops. This place embraces mountain biking and your mind will be blown over the quality of the trails accessible from this town.
Inti Punku, the sun gate that sits at 12,200ft is reachable by bike/foot from Ollantaytambo. It’s not just a must-do ride. For many it is an insurmountable experience with breathtaking views and extraordinary history. Do yourself a favor and read up on the Sacred Valley and what it really is before you go because once you are there you will want to know how those rocks got there, why they are there and who put them there.
By no means is this 4,000ft 6mi climb an easy one. A strong rider can likely ride the first 2-3mi but will eventually be subject to steep stair stepper like terrain and boulder fields that will force you to try both throwing the bike over the shoulder or continue to push. To put it simply, there is no easy way up, or down. That’s not to say the downhill won’t blow your mind. The trail offers high speed sections, slow technical maneuvers and exceptional single-track.
It should be noted that this is an all-day adventure and once you reach the top, you will likely want to stay up there and soak in the views. From the top you get 360 views of the mountain peaks and valleys below.
The trail starts with steep Inca stairs and quickly funnels into exceptional single-track with some exposure to your left and tight steep turns. The it evolves into a slower but steep rock garden which pops you out into one of the most breathtaking mid-mountain valleys I have ever seen. The steep mountain backdrops and glowing Sacred Inca Valley below you is what you become surround by. The locals claim the trail conditions are always perfect, which was our experience. Once you get through the rocky boulder-like sections you will be challenged quickly for about a mile of steep and somewhat loose stair stepper terrain. Roll through that and you find yourself in the lower and much wider section of trail with infinite freeride jumps/lines and the occasional Inca staircase to roll over or send. The lower section is fast and brings right down to the Urubamba river which you will cross and arrive right back to the cobblestone streets of Ollantaytambo. Spend a week in this area find yourself struggling with deciding what day was your favorite. Many said the Inti Punku day was theirs. I think I said that too… about every ride every day.
Abra Malaga!!! The top of Abra Malaga is the start of the Inca Avalanche DH race. It is a mountain peak that sits just below 15,000ft and is home to some indigenous Quetchua families. It is also the home of my chain-guide which I broke off and lost during one of my 5 crashes during my qualifying run for the Inca Avalanche. This mountain peak is mostly rock and tundra and is known to see a plethora of weather conditions. The Inca Avalanche DH race is a mass start adventure where 200 riders, from privileged modern trail-bike owners to 10yr old hardtail mountain bike enthusiasts all gather, rain or shine… or snow to race each other down 5,000ft of the most mixed conditions of terrain that you can imagine.
There is one word that explains this trail from top to bottom. Raw. You likely won’t find a better or more raw trail anywhere else to hold a mass start DH on. It is as if this trail was sculpted by ancient mountain-bikers. There is not a single section of this trail that is not ridable or won’t challenge your skills and confidence. Don’t stop to overthink the many drops, jumps or rock lines for too long because if you do you will likely get passed-up by one of the local Peruvians on a bike you may have been riding 6 years ago. If you want to be stoked, scared, challenged, satisfied, tested and fulfilled, well then get your ass to Peru and venture to the top of this mountain with no ride down but your bike. Better yet, register for the Inca Avalanche Trail Festival and spend a week acclimating and riding a different trail every day, which by the way includes registration for the Inca Avalanche DH race. The experience is mind-blowing. The canyon you traverse and travel down is full of ancient Incan structures, high speed exposed single track, steep wooded sections, and infinite line choices through some of the most raw sections of trail you will ride in Peru.
In the Sacred Valley of the Incas, every day is an adventure. Every day is a new challenge. Preparation is key. Bike choice is key. I