Riding High

My husband and I are keen mountain bikers and recently when we started planning our honeymoon, we aimed to tick one item off our bucket list as well as get some epic riding in. We agreed on Machu Picchu in Peru and we booked the Inca Trail ride, operated by Sacred Rides, a Canadian company. It is an eight-day adventure that takes a one-day break from biking to visit the Machu Picchu ruins. Perfect.

Fast forward a few months and two long-haul flights and we find ourselves in Lima, the bustling capital of Peru overlooking the Pacific Ocean _ the starting point for our bike trip. We acquaint ourselves with the delicious local cuisine (ceviche) and the national drink (Pisco Sour cocktail), while counting down to our bike ride. There is, as with most group activities, a moment of nervous anticipation. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Will I be able to keep up with the group? Will everyone else be a demon on the bike? I'll find out soon.

Day one sees us shaking hands with our eight fellow riders and our two Peruvian guides, Wayo and Miguel. After the bike assembly and a briefing, we take the van to Pachacamac outside Lima for an afternoon ride. My fears are quickly laid to rest _ as with most groups, there are various abilities and everyone's pretty laidback about waiting for each other. The ride is technical, but fun _ it follows a dry riverbed with small ups and downs and jumps. The area we ride is very different from what we're used to in Thailand. There is almost no vegetation on the upper parts and it resembles a moonscape. We're still out there when the sun sets and it results in some spectacular photos. A great day.

For months, I've had a big red circle around April 2 (day two) _ a 54km downhill ride starting at 3,450m above sea level all the way down to San Bartolo beach. With a four-hour drive ahead of us, it does mean we all have to get out of bed at 4am, but the drive up to the top _ our first glimpse of the Andes mountain range _ is nothing short of spectacular. The skies are clear and we can see snow-capped mountains in every direction, while on the ground we're surrounded by unfamiliar looking flowers, cactuses and donkeys. Soon we are descending through lush green fields on our bikes. Once again, this is unlike anywhere I've ridden before. It is so remote _ hours away from civilisation _ and yet here and there we come across local people going about their daily business.

Beyond the village of Olleros, we are back in arid territory. The sun beats down on us and the terrain steepens considerably. The group gets introduced to a new mountain biking concept _ exposure. On one side, a near vertical mountain, on the other, nothing. The trails aren't particularly narrow, but it's still very unnerving at first. However, we all settle into our rhythms and get used to it. The terrain levels out and we reach a dry riverbed that we follow for 30km all the way to the beach. The hard sand is very grippy and there are hundreds of little jumps _ everyone's grinning from ear to ear and criss-crossing each other's lines in search of that perfect little kicker that will get us some air. The riverbed narrows down to a mini canyon strewn with big boulder fields that often span the width of the canyon _ it is challenging to get over these rocks without dabbing a foot and I'm convinced I exit the canyon a better rider. The sun is already setting when we hit the ocean, high-fiving each other over ice-cold beers. It will take something special to beat this day.

The next morning we're up early again to catch a flight to the city of Cusco, gateway to the Sacred Valley, home of the Quechua people, inca trails and Machu Picchu. In the afternoon, a lung-busting road climb _ the altitude in Cusco is 3,400m _ takes us past Inca ruins and we find ourselves looking down on the city. The ride back into Cusco is exhilarating, part single-track, and part urban, down flights of stairs. While the sun is setting _ there is definitely a pattern here _ we roll into the central Plaza de Armas under bemused stares from locals and tourists.

Day four is a tough one. The van drives us and our bikes high up outside of Cusco and we start with a hike-and-bike to even higher ground. Whatever breath we have left at the top _ we're now at 4,150m _ is taken away by the 360-degree view that awaits us: mountain peaks as far as we can see and flocks of sheep dotted around the landscape. With a last word of advice from Wayo ("Try not to puncture on the cactuses."), we ride off down the track on the side of the mountain. First stop is a cave, but it doesn't get the attention it no doubt deserves because a llama appears on the trail! Over the course of the next few days we will see dozens of them (and alpacas, too), but this is the first one so the cameras come out and we all get to pose for a photo with Martin (or so the owner tells us the llama's name is). The rest of the morning ride is a roller coaster _ fast downhill runs followed by long technical climbs on rocky tracks and a well-deserved rest at the summit. We repeat this a few more times in the afternoon and then finally descend all the way into the valley on a dirt road that takes us through several villages. After that it's an early night.

Everyone in the group is an experienced rider (you don't fly thousands of miles to learn to ride a bike) and therefore have access to good trails back home. The reason we're all here is to ride some different trails, meet and ride with like-minded people, and see some of the country we're in. In that respect, day five is textbook. Not only do we get to ride some of the best trails around Cusco, we also stop and visit Moray (a bizarre archaeological complex where the Incas experimented with crops) and the intriguing salt mines of Maras. To top it off, the downhill ride to complete the day is wicked fun and the run will be used for a race the next day. During the course of the day, we've exchanged hellos with several downhillers doing practice runs. The bus picks us up at the trail's end and a short drive takes us to Ollantaytambo, our home for the next few days.

Day six is considered a day off _ at least from mountain biking. As part of our trip to Machu Picchu, we embark on the tricky and arduous climb all the way up Huayna Picchu, the mountain at the back of the site. Visitor numbers are limited to 400 per day and it takes over an hour to get up to the very top, but it is worth it. We are rewarded with a spectacular birds-eye view of the ruins. The inclusion of Machu Picchu in the list of New Seven Wonders of the World is no coincidence. Not only is the site so well preserved (the Spanish conquistadors never found it), its setting in between several mountain peaks makes it a surreal sight to behold. The day trip to Machu Picchu really is something special and on the train back to Ollantaytambo we are left to reflect on what we've seen. The Incas were outstanding builders and some people even believe that Machu Picchu was built by aliens!

The next morning is another ride at very high altitude _ a few hours in the van through beautiful Andean scenery under clear blue skies takes us up to more than 4,000m and the trail head. Then the weather turns. At the top it is simply cold _ not too cold for the colourfully attired locals to hold their weekly market though. But as we descend through the meadows, it starts raining and a little later we are being pelted with hail stones. Hands and feet quickly become freezing cold and the group unanimously decides to call it a day. We climb up to a dirt road and speed down to the village where the van is waiting, but before we get in, our guide Wayo manages to get us an invite to the house of a friendly villager so we can take turns warming our hands and feet by the fire. It's a disappointing day from a biking point of view, but seeing how the local Quechua people live high in the Andes makes up for it. Plus, we have some more time to spend walking around the picturesque town of Ollantaytambo.

For the last day of riding, we are once again shuttled to the top of a mountain and descend on the trails the Incas built and used a few hundred years ago to travel between their cities. The group whizzes past sheep, llamas and alpacas grazing peacefully in the fields just below the trail. It is fairly technical and rocky, but by now we are all used to this terrain and arrive at the van ahead of schedule, so we get to go up again for another run, this one shorter but much more technical. It ends with a series of extremely tight switchbacks that quite a few of the riders end up walking. Following lunch we take a short transfer to the mountains overlooking Cusco and ride part of the trail from day four in reverse _ the toughest climb of that day now turns into a treacherous but adrenaline-rushing downhill run. We follow up with the ride into Cusco centre we did on day three, except this time we take a slightly different way down a long steep flight of stairs where an over-enthusiastic dog awaits me at the bottom. A loud piercing scream is heard _ that's me _ but I manage to avoid crashing down the stairs and a few minutes later we're cracking open cans of Cusquena beer on the Plaza de Armas. A fitting finale to a incredible week of mountain biking.

We wish we could stay longer but alas, all good things must come to an end and so does our adventure. There has been no shortage of highlights _ the riding and the friends we made, the scenery of the Andes, Machu Picchu, the delicious Peruvian food, the friendly waves of the villagers and the often stunned looks on their fluffy pets' faces. It's been the trip of a lifetime. A conventional honeymoon it may not have been, but my husband couldn't have been more right when he said, "This is going to be so much better than the Maldives."

About the author

Writer: Wanchalerm Sabuhom