After riding a 15 minute, spectacular technical downhill, I stopped at a clearing to look back at the 8 to 10 foot high steep and rock laden steps that I just finished riding over. My heart was pounding, my adrenaline flowing, my legs were tired, and I was dripping sweat from my brow. My brother-in-law was just about half way down the rocky stairs with his weight over his back tire, index fingers on his brakes, and travelling fast enough to carry his momentum over the rocks, but not too fast that his safety was in jeopardy should he crash. He followed his ‘line’ beautifully and in control. Each rocky step his bike travelled over was absorbed by his front and rear shock and his arms and legs. When he reached me at the bottom I high fived him and said, “that was f****** awesome!” We were ready for the next technical section Julio, our guide, would take us on. I was in Huaraz, Peru with my family, and it was an unforgettable day.
I love traveling and mountain biking. Even more, I love travelling on a mountain bike. It allows me to see a foreign land unlike any other method and I get to challenge myself. For starters, I’ve ridden the Camino de Santiago from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain. I’ve also raced in Costa Rica from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. To me, there are different types of riding…Santiago was an endurance ride (400+ miles over 11 days), Costa Rica was an uphill battle (6,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation gain everyday), and then there are technical rides. I’ve only ridden technical rides in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California where I live. So when I saw the July, 2011 Bike magazine cover of two mountain bikers in a rock filled canyon with the caption, “PERU: Possibly the Best Ride in the World.” I thought to myself, “Machu Picchu and technical mountain biking…I’m there.”
Doing a little web surfing gave me some companies and rides close to Machu Picchu that I could utilize. However, after more thorough research, I always found that the best mountain biking was in the middle and northern part of Peru. Additionally, there was always one person who came up in my search for a guide. He was the most famous guide not only in the northern region, but in all of Peru. His name was Julio Olaza and his territory is the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra mountains skirting Huaraz, Peru.
Of course when you hear of Peru, you think of Machu Picchu. And I’ve always wanted to see it…but given my time constraints of 8 days, and the distance between Huaraz and Machu Picchu, there was no way I could do both. It was one or the other. After some deliberation, I concluded that I could see Machu Picchu when I’m older…I couldn’t possibly pass up the ‘best’ biking in Peru with the guide who knows it best. So…Huaraz, here I come.
After packing up Tapatio (yes, the hot sauce), clothes, supplies and bikes, my wife, brother-in-law and I hopped on a plane from San Francisco to Houston, then from Houston to Lima, Peru. Julio reserved us a bus from Lima to Huaraz and after an 8 hour ride, we were in Huaraz at around 8 in the morning.
Julio also reserved us a couple of rooms at his brother’s hotel, Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast. A nice cozy retreat we could relax in after our physically demanding rides. Not getting much sleep on the bus, we decided to take a nap. We woke around 2:00 pm and met up with Julio for the first time. From my conversation with him, he and his son love Tapatio, so I pulled out the 3 quarts of the hot sauce I brought with me and handed it to him. He was happy I remembered to bring it, and I was anxious to get to some mountain biking. I thought we would start the next day, but he insisted we acclimate to the altitude (~10,000 feet) and start the day after. The next day we decided to put our bikes together, tour the city of Huaraz, and check out its gastronomy. The city was warm and friendly and the food was great!
Come the morning of the first ride, and I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t worried. In fact, I was completely terrified that my wife would be seriously injured on her bike. She was a novice, we were in a foreign country, and she has never been on a ride like this. I mentioned this many times to Julio prior to arriving and each time he assured me she would be fine. That morning I was relieved to find that Julio brought a second guide named Jesus. One guide would stay with me and my brother-in-law, while the other with my wife.
A taxi showed up and Solano, the driver, secured our bikes in the bike rack atop his car. Meanwhile we would check our camelbacks for water, food, first aid, tools, and spare parts, and ensure everyone had a helmet, gloves, bike shoes, sunglasses, and any additional arm/leg protection. After an hour taxi ride and a roughly 3500 foot climb, we were at the trailhead. We were surrounded by mountain peaks, some covered with snow, and you could see Huaraz below us and off in the distance. The sights were spectacular. We would be riding from the trailhead back to our hotel room at Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast. After unloading the bikes and putting on our gear, we were ready to for some adventure. This would be our morning ritual for the next 5 days.
Of all the trails we rode, most had an easy dirt road that snaked along while there was a technically advanced trail system that crossed the dirt road every 300-400 feet down or so. These trails completely surrounded Huaraz and Julio knew them all. He was able to place us on the trails appropriate for our level while finding an alternate trail close by suitable for my wife. My brother-in-law and I rode the advanced downhill sections. Though my wife did ride some of the trails with us, she mostly stuck to the dirt road. This was ideal as we met up with my wife quite often. I’m sure my wife could see the excitement on our faces each time we met up with her – we were like kids in a candy store.
The advanced trail system (for lack of a better term) was nothing I’ve experienced in the 15 years I’ve been mountain biking. Though Huaraz was down in the valley below, there were these small villages and houses along the sides of the mountains. Prior to roads, the method of transportation between the villages was to build a trail with rocks and walk. Some of the trail systems we encountered were Incan and even pre-Incan. They consisted of endless rock gardens, continuous steep rock steps, scattered and loose baseball to bowling ball sized rocks. Out of nowhere you could hit a 2 to 3 foot drop. Water was diverted across the trail using trenches made of rock (with and without flowing water). Occasionally a small rock bridge was used as a way to cross the trenches. There would also be pinpoint switchbacks on the side of the mountain hoping to swallow you up should your turn be too wide.
These old trails made for an extremely fun and technically challenging ride. There would often be times I couldn’t believe I rode a section and didn’t wreck. I would stop and look back at the trail in disbelief and excitement. Now I believe I am a good mountain biker, capable of riding some trails the average biker would walk, but there was no way you could ride these trails without wrecking (I rode 5 days and had a wreck 4 of those days). I would be riding and the next thing I knew, tasting some of the Cordillera Blanca’s finest. My bike has some battle wounds that I display proudly.
Each day the taxi would drive us up and we would ride back to Huaraz on our bikes. However, on our fourth day I asked Julio for a small uphill – about a 600 foot climb. That was a bad move at 13,000 feet. I believe I suffered more riding the uphill than I did on any bike wreck I encountered. It wasn’t because I’m out of shape; rather, it was the altitude. I just could not suck enough air into my lungs. The air was so thin and the hills so steep (I also live at sea level) that I had to stop every 100 feet just to catch my breath. If I were you, I would take the taxi that Julio provides unless you are up for the punishment.
Biking took between 3 to 4 hours and at the end of each day I was tired and sore, but also happy, content, and ready for the next day. This adventure/vacation rates with those of The Camino and Costa Rica – the best I’ve ever done. I saw a beautiful country, met excellent people, rode the best trails in Huaraz (and according to Bike magazine, the best in the World) with Julio, an excellent guide and now friend, and had an overall fantastic time. I will be back to Peru and maybe one day I will get to Machu Picchu, though I highly doubt it knowing the adventure waiting in the mountains surrounding Huaraz. Should you have the opportunity to ride such an adventure with Julio, I highly recommend it.
By: Abe Valdez, Lathrop Veterinary Center (Owner)