Chaki: foot. Nani: trail, Foot trail – or single track. If there’s one word you should learn as a mountain biker in Peru, Chakinani should be it. It’s Quechuan, the language of the Incas, whose vast, pre-Hispanic empire erupted from the Peruvian highlands in the 13th Century, before engulfing the South American continent all the way from Southern Colombia to North West Argentina. Despite pre-dating mountain bikes by several hundred years, the Incas certainly had their single track network nailed. Ancient trading routes zigzag their way from the Pacific coastline to the loft valleys of the Andes Mountains, and back down into the steam cauldron of the Amazon basin.
Similarly, Incan trail building skills remain legendary; a million man hours spent positioning great slabs of time-smoothed rock, linking one settlement to the next. One of the most famous is the majestic metropolis of Machu Picchu, a magnet all tourists visiting the country. Yet, for the adventure-seeking mountain biker, the more northerly Cordillera Blanca holds even more appeal. Home to one of the most impressive folds of the Andes, the ‘White Range’ boast no less than 260 glaciers along its 180km length, and 17 peaks over 6000m – including Huascaran, the country’s highest, prodding the atmosphere at 700m above that. Peru’s Cordillera Blanca has long been known as one of the most beautiful hiking and climbing areas in the western hemisphere used local guide Julio Olaza of the appropriately-named web page Chakinaniperu.com, when I met up with him during my two wheeled traverse of the continent.
What’s less well known is that this snowcapped range is also one of the world’s great mountain biking regions Julio should know; the godfather of mountain biking in these mountains, he’s been riding and guiding since the early 1980s. With an encyclopedic knowledge of local trails, he went on to lead me on a series of single track forays in both the Cordillera Blanca and its alter ego, the Cordillera Negra, both of which fulfilled the promise of his earlier words. Set at an altitude of 3000m, these were demanding trails that whipped both muscles and lungs into shape 15km dirt road climbs answered by endless chutes of technical single track. Terrain that had us descending Incan stairwells, hopping drainage streams and scuttling down babyhead-bouldered alleyways. In fast pursuit, I chased Julio dodged round the edges of quinoa fields, squeezing past donkeys loaded high and wide with eucalyptus, and manic packs of village dogs.
I also met up with fellow Brit, Charlie Good, an avid mountain biker, amongst other rides; Charlie talked me into shouldering my bike for a three hour hike to a turquoise, glacially-fed lake, set at an oxygen-depleted 4600m. ‘The descent’s worth it,’ he promised, as we hike ‘n biked our way up deep into the Huascaran National Park, to the bemusement of local and foreign hikers alike. Again, promised words rang true; the descent ranked as one of the most thrilling, scenic and technical bouts of downhill riding I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy, a relentless barrage of steps and slabs set to towering glacial walls and saw-toothed, white capped peaks. Punctuating the 10 km plummet, grassy pampas offered a rest for both breaking fingers and brain, with slivers of beautifully flowy, smile-inducing single track.
Within mountain biking circles, my travels have so often provided me a ticket straight to the inner sanctum. Little beats being privy to local trails, wisps of single-track that have taken years to unearth and polish. I rounded off my time single track search with a series of solo overnight bike packing trips into the national park. The paths I followed wended their way through the magical quenual forests of the high Andes, reddish tree whose flaky bark that aside from reminding me of a mille-feuilles in a Parisian French bakery serves to trap heat at such extremes in altitude. At other times, I hauled my bike up ferociously steep piles of rock or dragged it across thigh-high rivers in search of the prize. Shepherds tending their livestock would gaze upon my struggles and quiz me over my reasons for being in the Cordillera Blanca. ‘I’m looking for Chakinani, I’d say in broken Spanish, watching as their eyes lit up at the word. ‘Chakinani’, they’d repeat with a broad smile, adding yet more creases to their dark, leathery faces. Then they’d tip their hats, bid me safe travels… and point me on towards distant trails.
By: Cass Gilbert