Rajesh Bhartiya writes about riding in Machu Picchu in Peru, the crown jewel of South America.
Antarctica, Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Machu Picchu – all these words have some kind of mystic charm in them that pulls you to them. You hear these words and you want to visit them. And before you realize, they are on your bucket list.
Machu Picchu (meaning “Old Mountain” in Quechua language) was built in 15th century by the Incas in Peru in South America. It is believed that this was the Inca nerve center for about a century and later abandoned and completely forgotten. It was later discovered by an American archeologist in 1911. It is located at the height of 2,430 meters above the sea level.
Well, all this information I researched later – after I had booked my bike ride from Lake Titicaca to Machu Picchu through KE Adventure. I had to go to Machu Picchu, and I didn’t care if it was in Peru or Timbuktu.
Manish Mehta, a friend of mine from Pune, would also be joining. After all the excitement of the trip booking subsided we realized that we had bitten more than we could chew.
585 kms of mountain biking in about 7 days reaching a peak altitude of 4500 meters. I have been a weekend rider who just started biking a year back. In my first ride, I turned back after about 6 kms and had to rest two full days to walk straight again. Riding 585 kms in the thin air of Peruvian Andes with chilling temperatures and averaging 75 kms a day was definitely going to be a pain in ‘you know where’.
With about 6 months to go, we began training seriously. We started riding twice or thrice to Oxford Golf Club hill (about 30 kms) on weekdays and long rides to Lavasa and other places around Pune (about 75 to 100 kms) on weekend.
That was good but not good enough. Pune sits on a comfortable altitude while we needed to prepare for a higher uncomfortable one. One option was to wear a mask to simulate depleted oxygen levels. We were already attracting too much attention riding our fancy MTBs. We didn’t want to make matter worse by adding a fancy mask to it.
We simply decided to compensate for by going longer distances and hoped it would work.
I arrived in Puno a day in advance to acclimatize. Note, it’s Puno and not Pune. Puno is small town near the shores of Lake Titicaca from where our ride would start. Puno and Lake Titicaca are situated at a height of 3,810 meters (Leh is 3500 meters).
All the folks grouped here in Puno, me and Manish from India, two from UK, two from Netherlands, two from Germany. We had two support vehicles – one which rode ahead to prepare for our lunch and night camps, other one followed up just in case we needed to hop on. The support staff was of 8 people including two fantastic guides Carlos and Miguel. We enjoyed a day strolling around the town and visiting floating islands of Uros. These islands are completely man made, built using a reed that grows in the lake. It is impossible to fathom how the pre-Inca tribes built this hundreds of years ago without the help of modern technology.
We had our first scare even before we touched our bikes when one of the riders from Netherlands suffered from altitude sickness and had to quit. Here was someone used to colder conditions of Europe and who had trained in the Alps losing to the conditions. How could I coming from the tropical region expect to survive?
The first day was a 72 km ride to the colonial town of Lampa. Crossing the dusty roads of Juliaca, which looked very familiar a small Indian city, we arrived at Lampa. Barring myself and Manish, most of our other fellows from the group were seasoned cyclists. They averaged22 kms per hour which, in the thin altiplano air, was quite an effort.
At night, we camped in tents. We were tired, but sleep was hard to come by. High altitude reduces appetite, but the hunger pangs make you restless. By the time you are tired of tossing and turning in your attempts to find that comfortable position in your sleeping bag, the night is over. The guide gave a loud wake up call and kept a warm water bowl to freshen up. But I barely felt like taking off my gloves to touch it, let alone splashing it on the face. A bucket left outside the kitchen tent had ice in it indicating the temperature had dropped below zero that night.
Next day, we had to ride 57 km and reach an altitude of 4000 meters. We had our second casualty. One of the German cyclists, young and seasoned, dropped out due to altitude sickness.
The mind is your weakest link in such situations and mine was not to be left behind. It started giving me hundreds of reasons why it’s best for me to give up and hop in to the van. My constant retort to the mind was, one more kilometer and then let’s see.
Thanks to my slower pace, I was always trailing the group by a kilometer or two. I would find myself alone in the vast Andean mountain range with the crystal clear imposing blue sky peppered with cotton white clumps of cloud. I felt like a small ant crawling in this vast expanse. The infinite, magnificent creation was humbling. I took a deep breath, as if to merge myself into surroundings. With this surrender, a sense of peace settled in and I continued pedaling away.
Cycling teaches us many life lessons. Life has it’s ups and downs – a cyclist knows this best. The whole motion of cycle wheels and the pedaling teaches you the universal law that the stars and planets follow. Life goes on in circles.
Steep and Steeper
On the third day we had a mountain to climb. 15km ride to reach an altitude of 4580 meters. The goal wasn’t anymore in kilometers, the battle was for the next meter. As the climb began, I restricted my gaze to just a few meters ahead to watch the trail. I didn’t want to gaze longer to avoid getting any sense of the ascent that lay ahead. I would fixate my eyes on to the tyre tread and my mind on breathing as I watched every inch of the trail pass by. After what seemed like eternity, my sight caught a few helmets shouting out and cheering. I had made it. The joy was as high as the peak itself. We had an immediate reward that followed. A long hour and half long descent passing through one of the largest remaining forests of Puya Raimondii – an amazing cactus which can grow up to 12 metres high and only flowers once every 60-80 years. We had a nice lunch among these geriatric trees.
The weather at this altitude is as moody as a rabid dog. By the time you are starting to enjoy the warm sun rays, you are pummeled by icy winds and hails. I learnt this the hard way. The hails came down so fast as if someone just switched on a hail shower up there. I barely had time to slip into my jacket and had to ditch my bike and run for cover near a boulder. On other occasions, we had to apply sunscreen every 10 minutes because of the scorching sun.
I prefer hot conditions over cold. That is why, I was the odd man out in the pack who rode with full length pants while everyone else wore shorts.
Our stay at Grupo Inca’s alpaca breeding station at Pacomarca was amazing. After 3 days of staying in cramped tents in sub-zero conditions, rooms with hot water felt like a 5-star resort. The cute Alpacas – these are wooly animals slight larger than sheep, but with longer necks and cute faces. I had never heard or seen these animals, but to Incas, these are their cattle. They provide meat, wool and leather and their bones are used to make various things. We saw how the wool is sheared from them.
Another challenge was dealing with dogs. There were areas high up on the Andes with few settlements and cattle herders. Not much farming either in the cold desert. The natives keep dogs to guard themselves and their cattle (sheep, llamas, alpacas) and these dogs aren’t used to tourist with helmets riding on bikes. For them, we were aliens and threats. They can be vicious beasts when they chase you. It is difficult to stay on the bike. We were advised not to ride faster when the dogs chase. We would stop, stare the dog right back in it’s eye, raise our hand to appear big and the dog would stop in it’s tracks. Easier said than done. Being a laggard in the group, I had the first opportunity to test this when a big dog was chasing me. My initial instinct was to pedal faster, but when I saw the size and speed of this dog, I quickly decided to trust my guide’s experience with this. I braked hard, with my heart popping out of my chest, turned around and raised my raised. A shout automatically came out of my mouth. But to my relief, the dog came to halt as if someone pulled the rein on it. After a few barks, it scampered back to the safety of it’s own territory. Since then, I grew confident about this and used it often.
After coming back to Pune, I had an opportunity to test this technique here and I am glad to to tell you that it works on Indian dogs too.
After a good rest and shower, we felt better prepared for the second toughest day – crossing upto the Layo pass at 4500 meters. We witnessed some amazing rock formations en route followed by an awesome descent towards Lake Langui, one of Peru’s major inland lakes. Here I had an opportunity to ride what is called ‘single track’. This is a very adventurous cycling where one rides at a high speed down a mountain trail which is steep and narrow enough for a single bicycle to pass. The adrenalin rush and the high is simply indescribable. Here’s a video from a GoPro camera mounted on one of our bikes for you to get a sense of it – Single Track Video
The last but one day was very thrilling indeed. After all these days of hard work and accumulating height, we were in for a great treat. A 20 kms long descent into Urubamba valley descending down almost by 1500 meters in one fell swoop. It was a surreal experience to sit on your bike and witness the world pass by. I felt like a kid peeping into a bio-scope. I saw the topography change from cold desert, to pine forests, to terrace farms, till we finally reached the fertile Sacred Valley. The long free ride from the top of the mountain down to the valley with the magnetic pull of gravity felt like a free fall, felt like coming home to mother earth’s bosom. The landscape changed, the climate changed, the air changed, the color changed from white barren to fertile green and the mood did too. With more oxygen in the blood, I felt excited, I wanted to eat more. The pulsating headache vanished. The lethargy was gone and the limbs felt nimble again. I had to come out of the transcendental downward traverse and apply the brakes to join the mates who had camped for lunch.
Our bike guides and the experienced folks touched 55+ kms per hour during the descent. They performed like Olympic gymnasts. My pace hovered around 40-45 kms/hr at best. To bike down a mountain slope at 55 km/hr requires lightning fast reflexes, amazing hand-eye-leg coordination and beyond all, a solid gut. And yes, good bums too. I haven’t mentioned much about that, have I? After riding rough terrain for 75 kms a day for 5-6 days, sitting anywhere other than the cycle saddle feels heavenly. For that matter, even standing becomes a heavenly posture. We wore special bicycling shorts which are padded in the ‘right areas’. Above that, we applied special cream which moisturises and to certain extent desensitizes those zones which tend to get chaffed during pedaling movements.
The Last Ride
The last day was from Urubamba to Ollantyatambo. This ride was in quite contrast to the last few days – completely on tarmac (paved tar road). My initial happiness of riding a smooth ride on a tarmac quickly waned away when I realized that we were on a major highway. The traffic and monotony of highway ride was quite boring in contrast with the time we had spent close to nature. So far we always saw the mountain as a challenge, but the tarmac showed us another formidable and worthy force of nature, that is wind. The winds in the Sacred Valley were so powerful that we had to pedal hard even on downhills to move our bikes. Living in the cities cocooned by four walls I had never felt such strong force exerted by winds.
But it was all over soon. We reached our final destination as far as biking was concerned. After this it was going to be a train ride to Cuzco and then a bus ride up to Machu Picchu. No vehicles except for the government buses are allowed to go to Machu Picchu. Not even bicycles. Peruvian Government is very serious about protecting the last relics of one of the most ancient and advanced Inca civilization. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed at the top and passes have to be booked months in advance.
The thoughts that come to the mind when you are standing in front of Machu Picchu can never be described. I was mesmerized, hypnotized, enchanted by the surreal beauty of Machu Picchu. I felt connected. Was I ever a part of this place sometime in my past birth? Who must have conceived this beautiful habitat? Whose creation is this architectural marvel? How could have they built it? How bustling, vibrant this place might have been in its days of glory? All these questions and thoughts passed by until it all melted into a captivating awe. I stood transfixed onto the sight that lay in front of me. In that trance, I could only thank our forefathers for their brilliance and what they did and passed on to us.
In the evening, we rode the bus back to our hotel in Cuzco. All the chatter had stopped. Everyone lost in their own world, own thoughts as if touched by some mysterious spirit. The spirit of the ‘old mountain’, the spirit of Machu Picchu.
Rajesh Bhartiya is a Pune-based IT Entrepreneur and an adventurer
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