Perú: Abancay to Cusco – Nevado Salkantay, Machu Picchu and a tale of two trains

Cusco, Machu Picchu, Cusco and Machu Picchu – Pivotal places and destinations for at least a country if not a continent before now.  The classic image of a perched citadel is both a draw and a deterrent, with thoughts of floods of tourists the worst of the latter.  Earlier, below Kuelap, some propose that we shouldn’t go there at all – “the fabric of Machu Picchu is being worn out by too many feet” – there are other places less trodden and maybe as spectacular.  Others say that even so it should not be missed

We can’t resist – it has been a dream for too long.

Joe, our intrepid scout, has already been along this route.  He’s realised a more direct line to Cusco via Machu Picchu – not the other way round.  It is an attractive combination of challenge and the lack of a backward side-trip having already passed by.  We cannot not follow.

Heading down from Curahuasi on the Panamericana - altitude loss brings bities, and a scramble to regain height
The low point - a few more km brings the turn-off to Molepata (the second we've visited in Perú) and up again

Mollepata ends an extremely bitey, insect-ridden 10+km climb from the highway and valley floor.  We almorzar – are spontaneously offered directions to the road upwards in the main square – no-one mentions trekking passes, so we don’t either (US$50 per person, we’ve heard).  A pleasant, steady, upward dirt road winds us to Soraypampa and a gratis tent-spot sheltered from the threatening rain.

The steady rise continues - passing Sayllapata - Nevado Tacarhuay in sight
Nestled beneath - Soraypampa and the beginning of much more...

The ‘fun’ begins – our most recent foray into bike-trekking would have warned off most sane people – we patently don’t fit into that category.  Ponies pass us carrying the packs of people loaded only by their walking poles. Jealousy hints.  A promising switch-back up the lower moraine backfires – lug-a-bike time.

Step by step bridge crossing. Leaving Soraypampa ahead of the trekkers
Don't come this way - a promising, maybe rideable switch-back alternate to the first moraine collides with a large pile of rocks...
Poppies watching my struggles

Above Pampa Salkantay, complete with little man selling local knitwear, we spot real trouble.  There’s not been a lot of riding yet – maybe 20 minutes total.  Looking up the group of hikers are working their way up a daunting series of twist-backs – rocky and steep.  An undetermined while later we’re up – doubling the ‘while’ as we resorted to unloading and carrying bikes and baggage separately.  We have to do this again to make the final haul up to the pass.

Sarah manages to ride a bit! Behind and below us are the Siete Culebras - a boulder laden mutation of the normally benign Peruvian hairpin.
Afternoon sun brings loosening grip - avalanches crackling and booming down from Nevado Salkantay. We're still crawling upwards - bikes and bags are carried apart. Too much together

Life only improves after the pass in that we then begin to manhandle the bikes downwards – still no riding!  I’m cursing myself because I’m doing this on a failing set of front v-brakes, not my usual effective disc brakes – a black grinding paste is developing – I can almost feel my rim melting – not happy.  Cause – lack of foresight – nothing to do about it now – the poor bike stutters and crunches down stone chutes and over drops.  The ongoing rumble of avalanches down the looming face of Nevado Salkantay punctuates my, at best, semi-controlled ‘progress’.   Light-failing we come to a cluster of adobe buildings – checking them all we can’t raise anyone – no choice – the tent goes up inside the open one with the driest floor – time for hot chocolate.  A little while later a couple of porters with loaded pack animals arrive – barely comment on our presence – they are greeted respectfully by us – tacit permission.  They set up some tents and without another word a mobile kitchen in the room next to ‘ours’.  After dark the trekkers arrive – effusive, boisterous Yanks and a silent and retiring group of (maybe) Japanese.

Downward riding - yay!

We’re quicker the next day – riding is better – still mixed with frame-scraping rock-beds.  A dirt road appears further down and suddenly we make yesterdays distance in less than an hour.  Jungle now – hot sun and humidity – Santa Teresa and a right turn towards the train tracks after a ‘chicha-stop’ (home-made, slightly fermented maize drink).

Mostly downward rattling is limited by stretches on unrideable rock gardens - sometimes by pony trains. None betray surprise at our presence - amazingly

We time things very badly indeed – a train is about to leave Hidroelectrica – we can’t sneak in amongst the people setting off to walk along the tracks.  An unjustified sense of failure clouds a stunning train journey – our bikes in the equipaje (goods carriage) – the track we should have been riding looks great.  A non-peak hour approach another time?  We’re not helped – Aguas Calientes cows us – a stunning setting amongst vertical granite with everyone shouting above each other to draw us into their restaurant. Knowledge that up there is something special helps us to endure – maybe.

Amusement in translation

Walking up, entering (passports scanned), and seeing; we know coming was right.  There is child-like wonder as we explore.  A private ledge and some story gives much relaxing while still absorbing.  The Cusco train disgorges – we are enveloped in a tour group, but their leader is interesting and we enjoy learning.  A retreat upwards gives space, more story time, surreptitious bananas and more viewing.  Rain approaches, photos are taken in better light and we move to begin our walk down.  We’ve been there about 9 hours.

Worth it.

A day begins - clouds stir, and the locals munch
Machu Picchu was built without mortar. We're able to abandon our doubts at visiting and possibly contributing to erosion - in wonderment
Here and there more of the locals have a foothold
Evening is closing in, together with oncoming rain - a play of light gives me the classic shot

The intended train (this time) to Ollantaytambo drops us off at coffee and brownies.  Some market indulgence for lunch provisions, a few km of highway and we’ve turned off to follow the railway-line gorge.

We catch the 5.30 am PeruRail train to Ollantaytambo with our bikes - later trains don't have a baggage carriage
Unloading - trekking porters crowd to collect their packs - our bikes, having been packed first, are last
A few km after Ollantaytambo, the railway ducks into a gorge - we follow. Steady rising dirt to Huarocondo results

As we’re making kms into Cusco we meet Percy, a local bike-guide.  He thinks I’m very lucky to have a wife who wants adventures.

Percy passes on the final, busy stretch into Cusco, then drops back to accompany us. A while later, he's guided us in via a shortcut and given us the lowdown on the local bike shops. ¡Muchas Gracias!
Estrellita, a hostal in Cusco, has become a meeting point for cyclists passing through. They do things in style, complete with ramp to making getting your loaded bike through the door easier!

One comment

  1. Hola!
    thanks to your routenotes and joe cruz’ blog we cycled to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Pass in August 2014. A beautifully rough way to Machu Picchu.
    Thanks for the inspiration!
    Robin & Daina

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