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Adventures in Peru - High Altitude Mountain Biking
By Vic Hanson

One day, James, a friend of mine here in Cotahuasi, Peru, approached me and asked a favor. He said he was putting on a large mountain bike tour the beginning of May. He had asked for my help in checking out a potential route across the high plain to Charcana, as I was familiar with part of the route. I had done a 16 hour hike across that area with Max, another friend who is a government official working on many projects here. That time he was researching an area on the high plain to use for a vicuņa preserve. Vicuņa are an endangered wild animal, related to the llama, whose wool is VERY valuable, and hence poaching is a big problem.

Back to the bike trip, at 3:15 Saturday morning, a horn honked outside my house and I joined Julio and Daniel in a truck for the three hour ride up to our starting place at 14,000 feet elevation. On the way we stopped three times, each time picking up a horse and numerous people who were going that was as well. Fortunately we got to ride in the cab instead of in the back of truck in the cold with the horses. There is no public transportation that goes up to the high plain in spite of the fact that many people live up there. The villages are small and far apart so it would probably not be economically feasible for combi (minivan bus) service. After what seemed like ages, we were finally dropped off in the middle of nowhere at a sign for the school in "Laxa" with an arrow pointing to the left, there was nothing in sight except a small trail.

It was light by the time we started to ride at 6:15, following the very rocky trail Max and I had hiked previously. Of course, riding a bike is much different than hiking. The trail dropped down into a deep gully and climbed steeply back up the other side. It was too steep to ride so we had to push our bikes. Julio soon had a flat tire from the thorns on the trail. We passed by the one room school that was near a few houses, but otherwise out in the middle of a large empty plain. We were on the trail to Lacsa but reached a point where I was pretty sure that we needed to head in a different direction to go to Charcana, as we had hiked to Andamarca on the previous trip. Fortunately, we saw a woman walking off in the distance so were able to get general directions from her. She had pointed off to the right of the trail we were on and we could see the trail climbing up a ridge on the other side of the plain. Thinking that cutting cross-country would be as good as the poor trail we were on, we headed in that direction.

That wasn't a great decision but we had almost arrived at the trail when the strap on my daypack broke. Here we are at about 14,000 feet with no needle and thread, how do we fix a broken strap? The brake cable on my bike was longer than needed but I had not cut off the extra length, I just left it sticking out the end. We broke a few strands off of that and Julio used the wire to sew the strap back on the pack! Crisis averted and we were on our way again.

Now we were finally on the main trail to Charcana, which was an old Inca trail. We went through the ruins of the old village of Lacsa, bypassing the current village. We followed the trail across the high plain for miles, going down into and climbing out of numerous deep gullies on the way. At one point there were a few stone towers, about six feet high, near the trail. Of course we had to stop and take pictures with our bikes on top of one of the towers.

In typical local fashion, my fellow bikers had a bag of bread rolls and about a quart of water between them, and I'm sure were laughing at my full pack. However at lunchtime, after sharing my water, trail mix, cheese, an apple and cookies with them, they probably were glad I had brought more than they did.

We were on a trail that was new to me, and I was the guide; all we knew was that we were going in the right direction for Charcana. We passed a few houses and buildings, all made out of stones as that was the only building material up on the plain. Also lots of llamas and sheep, which somehow survive eating the very rough and sharp grass that grows up there. We couldn't actually see Charcana because it was down in a canyon somewhere ahead of us. After many false sightings of what I hoped was the correct canyon, we finally reached the far rim of the high plateau and I could see Charcana on the other side of the canyon. It seemed so close that we weren't worried about the time and spent too long taking pictures on top of a couple of large boulders that were on the edge of the rim.

Finally realizing that is was getting late; we started down the trail that led down the canyon towards Charcana. However the trail soon turned off and headed up that canyon instead of continuing down to the bottom in the direction of Charcana. It also became a very poor trail, overgrown and in bad condition, nothing like the main trail that we had been on. After awhile we decided that we must be on the wrong trail. But there had been no obvious junction and by that time we decided it was better to continue than to go back and try to find the correct trail, especially as we had no idea where to look for it. We could see a trail heading towards Charcana on the other side of the canyon, so we agreed to continue going up the canyon to intercept that trail as the river looked too deep to cross if we were to go straight down to it.

After over an hour the trail arrived at the river and there was a suitable place to cross it, for which we were very thankful. We were even more thankful to discover that the trail we had seen on the other side was a beautiful trail for biking, with gentle ups and downs and lots of fun curves. We had a great ride but we were hungry, thirsty and very tired when we finally arrived in Charcana at about 4:15 in the afternoon. We were the local heroes when they heard we had ridden our bikes across the high plain but then confirmed that we were "loco" when we said we were going to continue on to Cotahuasi instead of staying there. The locals tried to convince us to spend the night there but we all had plans for things to do in the morning and said that we needed to get back to Cotahuasi that evening. There is a phone in Charcana so we called Max in Cotahuasi to see if he could come in his pickup and meet us part way and give us a ride back. We weren't able to talk to him directly but did leave a message for him. We bought a large bottle of soda and some cookies and after a short rest headed down the trail towards Andamarca and Cotahuasi.

This was a trail I was familiar with and it was a fairly good trail so we were able to make good time for a couple of hours, until it started to get dark. I have a good set of bike lights but before we left in the morning I realized that the batteries were not charged so hadn't brought them with me. All I had was my small LED headlamp, and the batteries in that were not fully charged, and I didn't have any spare batteries. Daniel had a small bike light but his batteries weren't fresh either. By the time it got dark, we had reached a new dirt road. It had just been built and wasn't firmly packed yet so wasn't the greatest for biking. So here we were, three bikers with two lights going as fast as we dared down a very winding mountain road, trying to get as far as possible before our lights went out.

We had been riding at night for about two hours with our dimming lights, and had passed through Andamarca to a better and safer road, when we saw some lights coming towards us. We soon realized that it was the Cotahuasi police but figured that they must be going to some emergency, as they had their light flashing. By this time our lights were worthless so we were walking, pushing our bikes. We met the police at 8:15, 14 hours after we started riding, and found out that Max had sent them to rescue us because he didn't have any gas for his truck. We gladly put our bikes in the back of their pickup and rode back to Cotahuasi with them, saving us a couple more hours of "hike a bike" in the dark.

Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.

http://www.adventurecotahuasi.com

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