Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Mountain biking on Peru's altiplano

Cusco, Peru, mountain biking, Planet Backpacker
Biking through a village in the hills beyond Cusco.
By Robert Downes

   Watching my wife go flying over the handlebars of a mountain bike and into a cow pasture on the altiplano of Peru wasn't exactly what I had in mind as the high point of our trip to Cusco.
   Fortunately, nothing was broken, and although Jeannette was scraped up a bit -- with wounds possibly infected with Peruvian cowshit -- I had brought a first aid kit along for just such an occasion and a good scrubbing with Neosporin.  Soon enough, we were back on our bikes and rambling on.
    There are fabulous sights to be found all around Cusco and along the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River.  You're at the heart of the old Inca empire -- or more accurately -- at the 'navel of the world' as these empire builders believed.

   Particularly impressive is the market town of Pisac, whose high terraces range to dizzy heights above the valley. An even greater spectacle is Ollantaytambo, site of one of the Inca's last stands in 1536. The face of an Incan god is carved into the slope of a mountain opposite the town, brooding over a fortress which was once "so well fortified that it was a thing of horror" to the Spanish soldiers under Hernando Pizzaro, who were repelled here by an army of Indians howling from its heights.  

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Cusco, Peru, mountain biking, Planet Backpacker
A stop at the Maras salt mines.

   Then there is the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, ringed with restaurants, tour shops and crafts; the fortress of Sacsayhuaman above town, where a llama photo op is sure to show up at any moment; and the train trip out to Macchu Picchu and back -- all very pleasant.
   But one of the top attractions on our list was a simple bike ride through the country -- taking a break from sightseeing in order to savor the pace of life up on the altiplano.  Beautiful, but bleak.
   There are a number of bike tour shops along the Calle Plateros offering good quality Treks along with helmets and gloves.  We thought we'd pile into a van to head for the departure point, but our guide, Luis, led us through Cusco's bumpy cobblestone streets and heavy traffic to a local bus station where our bikes were tossed up on the roof.
   A popular ride is across the farmlands and pastures of Chincero, where you veer around bulls and nod to farmers plowing their fields with oxen or herding sheep.  

   We rode through a couple of gloomy villages -- as poor as dirt -- and I could only imagine what a dismal life it must be for the peasants living up here with little or no heat to get through the winter, guzzling their homemade corn beer as a respite against despair.  The feet of many of the Indians are black with frostbite.
   Lunch was out of a brown bag at the Moray Rings -- an ancient agricultural lab where the Inca's would test various crops for suitability to the  11,000-foot elevation of Cusco.  Then we were off down a series of mule paths and craggy trails to the Maras salt mines.  When Luis stopped to put on his helmet on prior to one particularly steep trail, I knew we were in over our heads; Jeannette and I walked down...   
   Oh, but above and before you rise the dazzling white peaks of the Cordillera Vilcabamba, marching north and south in the continent-long spine of the Andes.  You savor the intensity of the sun, whose radiance is magnified by your journey on the roof of the world.  You wrap it up at the village of Pichingoto-Urubamba to catch the local bus back to Cusco where, perhaps a dinner of la trucha or lomo saltado awaits you at a plaza restaurant. It's a good ride.
   For the more daring, there's a 5-day, 250-km ride from Pisac all the way down the slope of the Andes to the Manu Biosphere Reserve and the beginning of the Amazon jungle.  The route runs along either single-track lanes or a narrow road, shared with trucks.  Price is around $600-$700 U.S.

   DETAILS:  There are half a dozen adventure sport venues in the vicinity of the Plaza des Armas in Cusco, most of which offer variations on mountain biking, whitewater rafting and day trips through the Sacred Valley.  Our guide assured us that business was lousy from too much competition, and this was well before the world economy crashed in 2008, so you probably won't need to worry about reservations.
  But if you're compulsive about planning ahead, check out some of these providers:,,, Costs run around $90 for a full day trip with guide and bike rental.

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