Written by Elladee Brown
I recently traveled to Peru to go mountain biking and this is my story...
My dear friend James and his buddy Jeff found themselves in Peru over 20 years ago on hardtail mountain bikes. Bonded by adventure and questionable decisions they set off to seek out the massive terrain and trails of the Andes. Three years prior to their trip James read a story about Hans Rey mountain biking on Inca trails in Peru. Blown away by what he saw, it looked like a place he and Jeff needed to get to, quickly. The trip starting coming to life when James’ friend, Canadian mountain bike legend, the late great Dave Swetland, told him about a town 400 km north of Lima called Huaraz.
Dave Swetland had climbed and snowboarded several aspects of Mount Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru and one you can easily see from Huaraz. This ‘town’ of 120,000 people and 13,000 dogs sits at almost 10,000 ft above sea level and is beautifully endowed with massive mountain ranges on it's east and west sides. He suggested to James that they check it out on their upcoming South American mountain bike adventure two decades ago.
James is obsessed. So much so that he named his bike shop ‘Obsession’. The name came to be through his passionate (obsessive) love of bicycles, primarily mountain, and in particular when he was looking to rebrand his store many years ago. His red hair adds visual volume to his fiery personality - when he asks you to go riding you make sure it’s on a good day.
James has been celebrating his 5th decade of life for a while now, it wasn’t a one-off day-of event. In honor of that, and as he was planning his 6th trip to Peru, he asked me to join the party this past September. The crew rounded out at seven, an awkward and uneven number but usually associated with jackpots and good luck. The final tally was James, Deniz, Dean, Kurt, Jeff, Joe and myself…six Canadians and one American…as long as they act Canadian in public, we love to have Americans around. (I kid, I joke, this is one of those times.)
Joe Murray is a mountain bike Hall of Famer and true legend of the sport who still loves riding as much as he did 35 years ago. He’d be in good company with this Canadian contingent.
Deniz Merdano is originally from Istanbul, Turkey spending half his year in Canada and the other in Europe. Flatland BMX is part of his riding history and it’s parlayed well into being one hell of a bike handler. Between photography, filmmaking and story-telling, he also works with James at Obsession.
Jeff Boeda is a longtime North Vancouver resident and local legend on the trails of the Shore. He loves technical challenges – the rougher the better the steeper the deeper - the raw and rugged nature of these mountains is a little bit like Jeff, and it keeps him coming back.
Dean Payne is the founder and owner of BC Bike Race - obviously he lives and breathes mountain biking, personally and professionally. Peru was on his hit list for years, and as the second fiery red head on the trip, no beats were skipped no beers left half-full.
Kurt Flaman’s bike store in Penticton, BC is called Freedom. Kurt’s been spreading that freedom around for years building trails and promoting mountain biking across the Province, mostly in his local area. He’d been to Peru a few years ago with James and Jeff and couldn’t wait to get back.
I’ve known all of these guys through mountain biking at various times of my life - paths crisscrossing and then sometimes not at all. It would be an excellent collection of funny people in a unique and ancient place like Peru. I knew the riding would be everything James said it would be, and of course the people and the Peruvian way of life would be equally eye opening. Hanging out with middle-aged world travelers - endless stories and plenty of ‘ha ha’ and ‘ah ha’ moments.
When Jeff and James made that initial tour into Huaraz 20 years ago they rolled into a community of kindred spirits and serendipitous events. While at the grocery store in Huaraz on that first trip, they happened upon a local Peruvian by the name of Julio Olaza. Julio spotted them in the store and quickly noted by their appearance that they were mountain bikers, probably a bit dirty and smelly, but definitely smiley. He approached them about taking a tour with him to the best ‘secret’ trails in the area, the ‘Chakinanis’. Jeff and James were totally in.
Mountain biking in Peru at that time was almost unheard of - it was just gaining momentum in North America and Europe. Since that chance meeting at the local market both James and Jeff have been back numerous times to see Julio, now a dear friend, and to ride the wild, and mostly unknown trails of Huaraz. With every subsequent visit came new places to ride, new emerging mountain bike technology and a better understanding of the area. Mountain bikes have improved exponentially over the past two decades and going back to ride the gnarly steeps of the Andes became more fun, and definitely faster. Thankfully, bike technology has been progressing, helping the learning curve to keep curving in the upward direction through better engineering and science.
Due to a domino effect of delays out of Vancouver, Deniz and I were the last to show up at the Olaza’s Guesthouse in downtown Huaraz. Julio and his brother Mauro picked us up at the bus station in their little gold van named ‘Rebel without a Clue’. Right away I liked these guys, and I especially liked the tunes cranked in the van. Julio’s head was bobbing with the rhythm and stress didn’t seem to have any grips on this guy. These and other subtle signs reinforced a mantra I live by…’you can tell a lot about a person, not by what they say, but how they make you feel.’
We pulled up to the Guesthouse just minutes after leaving the bus station. The location was perfect - a short walk to restaurants and shops and the main square of town. Town squares in Peru are lively hubs of locals, tourists, kids, dogs and students all interacting with each other in one way or another. They’re great meeting spots, too, and are usually always packed.
The quaint four-story building of the guesthouse had an inner courtyard and rooftop deck. Needless to say, morning coffee views were phenomenal. A local woman named Rosie was our breakfast maker and host in the morning. She delivered all things good from her kitchen on the top floor; fresh squeezed orange juice, eggs, fruit bowls, bread, coffee and delicious coca tea.
Julio and Mauro are from a family of seven boys, they grew up in the town of Huaraz and survived the devastating 1970 earthquake that virtually leveled this town. It was the most catastrophic natural disaster in the history of Peru, almost 70,000 people were killed. The most destructive landslide, from Mount Huascarán, the peak you can see from town, slid down in an enormous tidal wave of dirt and snow burying many small villages along the way. The Olazas have also been through turbulent political times; one of which was so dire that Julio left Peru to the US until the corruption and conflict subsided. He’s full of stories, real life ones, that at 57, have made him the character he is.
For the bulk of his life Julio’s been guiding foreigners from all over the world into his local mountains, mountain biking and trekking. After he returned from the States he decided to start his own guiding company, Chakinani Peru, which essentially means ‘single-track’ in the native pre-Hispanic language, Quechuan.
He’s been exploring these Inca networks and villages since the early 80’s. Not only does Julio understand the trail network, he’s also part of the local Peruvian people network of other guesthouse owners and guides that have intimate knowledge of their regions. We were exposed to his incredible collection of friends, family, locals and music. The proverbial ‘inside line’ both on and off the bike were made possible because of the access we had through Julio. Most people that come to ride mountain bikes in Peru find themselves in Cusco, near the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. It has more established and mapped mountain bike routes while Huaraz is relatively unknown in comparison.
Huaraz is slotted in between two massive mountain ranges, the Cordillera Blanca (Spanish for ‘white range’) to the east and the Cordillera Negra to the west. The Blanca side has permanent white snowcaps and glaciers, and as one might guess, the Negra side does not. Slightly southeast from Huaraz is the Cordillera Huayhuash, another impressive mountainous region but steeper and narrower than the Blanca and Negra zones. It’s over 30km long north to south with seven peaks over 19,800 ft.
There’s a major paradox in travelling to a place like Peru to go mountain biking. We’re making things harder for ourselves by getting deeper into bigger mountains with less air - risk has this rapturous appeal that our comfortable and privileged lives seemed to have stolen from us. Meanwhile, the locals are trying to make it easier for themselves, finding the paths of least resistance and traveling for necessity, purpose and survival.
The Campesinos of Peru…some might call them ‘peasants’ but their true and important association is with the land, the animals and the harvest, essentially sustaining life. We’d become familiar with their world and ride their intricate foot paths daily. Over time we all agreed that it’s actually their sheep that make the best trails; the width, their lines, even their poo is fun to ride through! The dogs that herd and protect them, not so much…the first few times you get chased it’s unnerving. You quickly learn that sprinting is not the answer, stopping is. Hold your ground and they suddenly become disinterested. This took me a few days to learn. My instinct was to pedal my ass off. It can work if the hill is sloped in your favor, if not, you feel like you’re in a scene from Cujo, but with much smaller and cuter dogs. Beyond the bark and chase routine, the dogs in Peru were fantastic. Several followed along on our rides as though we were another pack of animal to be herded and protected.
Many of our rides would be untamed, unmapped and first-tracked. We utilized Julio’s local knowledge along with maps and Google Earth to link old Inca trails to each other. There were certain zones that James and Jeff had been mulling over for years from previous trips. This meant traversing enormous valleys, ridges and bowls to get up and over hopefully passable passes…and ideally down the other side. Usually you don’t know until you get there, and often hikers and locals don’t know the capabilities of the modern-day mountain bike and/or rider. What they thought might not be possible to ride might just be the best trail we ever rode.
Julio had us ease into the altitude on the first few days. We’d shuttle up to almost 14,000 ft from town on the Cordillera Negra side, west of Huaraz, for some of our first rides and land back at the Olaza Guesthouse where we based ourselves for the duration of our trip.
Mauro would drop us off to the start our rides, either by van or Toyota Hilux, and somehow find us at the end, always in the middle of nowhere. Often the zig-zagging dirt roads we drove up to start of the rides were hairier than the trails we rode down. Couple that with having to pass other vehicles at the precipice of what seemed like the edge of the earth had us closing our eyes and holding our breath a number of times. Having faith in your driver is key.
There are endless ‘Chakinani’ routes surrounding the town…nothing you’d find on a map, just Julio guiding us in a general direction and pointing below to where we should all meet once we found the best line. The terrain ranged from deep grassy clumpy fields to brain looking rock formations to ball bearing chutes to the stair-step steeps that dropped into back yards and small villages where Campesino life was in full effect; herding, laundry, cooking, sweeping and farming to name a few of the chores they’re tasked with on the daily.
Some of the trails went straight up the side of a mountain with tiny steps cut in for foot holds. Campesino women wear several layers of clothing, always wrapped up with a skirt and topped off with an eloquent tall hat called a ‘chullo’, made out of alpaca, llama or sheep wool. Young children and senior citizens frequent these straight up and down foot paths on a regular basis, usually with ease, and almost always with some sort of load. Peruvians are fit, hearty people that are built for the harsh climate and high altitude living.
Every day was epic and seemingly unbeatable but a couple in particular were highlights. Our trip to Chavin de Huantar, the original site of the Andean mother culture and an area that flourished between 900 – 200 BCE was a ride through ancient history. ‘Archeological’ Chavin has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most impressive ancient civilizations of South America. Its’ architecture had a complex labyrinth of internal galleries and irrigation systems and a cult-like society that is proven through the stone head carvings recovered at the site.
It was a big day for us in the Huascaran National Park as we made the point-to-point 40 km ride into Chavin. We left early in the morning and drove about 2 hrs from Huaraz to Olleros where Julio had arranged four burros and their owners to meet us in the valley. It would be rocky and miserable to ride in most places on the way up, perfect for hiking though. Tough and rugged creatures those donkeys are - no doubt they appreciated the light load of carbon mountain bikes. It was two bikes to a donkey, wheels off. We carried ourselves and the rest of our gear as we hiked behind them and struggled to keep up. We crested the pass after a few hours and gave the guides a hand unloading our bikes at the top.
Next up was a huge breathtaking valley that winded its way down the range towards Chavin. The terrain to start was wet with steep slippery staircases and switchbacks with ample exposure to keep you alert. Not a big deal on foot, but on wheels much more attention was needed. Once we descended the dozen or so switchbacks the terrain started to open up. A herd of Alpacas passed us as we headed down. You can’t plan for these scenes that seem to be around every corner in Peru’s backcountry.
The final Chakinani into the town of Chavin was a steep one with locals sitting on the sidelines just doing life and cheering us on. We stayed the night at Hotel Inca in the ‘new’ part of town, across from the main town square.
The original location of Chavin was used as a large ceremonial center with a perfect symmetrical field out front of a U-shaped headquarters built of large stones and carved statues and pillars. This site, where the Mosna and Huachecsa River merge, was a center of power for the Chavín culture. There were around 100 stone head carvings recovered from this area. These heads formed a series of transformational events, one of which was a human head that eventually became a jaguar.
An accompaniment to the religious ceremonies was the use of San Pedro or ‘achuma’ – a local cactus used for thousands of years in the Andes as a ceremonial hallucinogen. Its’ effect is similar to Peyote and contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline. The stone headed creatures mounted around the buildings in combination with the gurgling sound of the underground irrigation made for quite the event. The art of this area and era influenced almost all subsequent Andean civilizations. While nobody knows exactly what every detail looked like, the remnants that have been found depict a life of agriculture, art, metallurgy, trading, religious ceremonies and tripping out.
Another one of our big days would be through the Huayhuash - home to the infamous 21,000 ft Siula Grande, a mountain that became well-known through a story called Touching the Void. Two US climbers, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, made a miraculous attempt of the west side of the peak with an unbelievable ending to their story that almost claimed both their lives. We planned to make an unknown passage through the Huayhuash by mountain bike but hoped not to write a harrowing story about a near death experience. Julio reminded us to think of Joe Simpson when we were suffering up the climbs and imagine him dragging his broken body over rocks and snow that led to his unlikely but eventual survival
The enormity of the terrain with angry looking clouds made our way ahead into the Huayhuash and Rondoy Pass look bleak. I could tell the burro guides were skeptical yet excited to see how this was gonna go down. It was a solid 3-hr hike up to where we’d unload. Once the bikes were together and food consumed we got into riding mode. Our main guide, Alejandro, would periodically point in the direction we needed to go. We chose our own lines down the scree towards Solteracocha Lake, with the donkeys and horses bringing up the rear. Within minutes we dove-tailed back together again into a tight, rutted rocky main trail all the way to the lake.
Descending this slope with large hoofed animals in tow was something I hadn’t experienced before. All primal hormones were firing in this grandiose setting of natural wonder. Such an epic ride down to the valley below, and eventually to the town of Llamac. The last 4 miles of Chakinanis were steep and rocky…sometimes the trail sunk below the ground in a deep trough from foot and animal traffic over the hundreds of years. There were some spicy steep chutes to finish off the ride, and I think an overall sense of relief that we all rolled back to town in one piece.
Our day ended with a wonderful home-cooked dinner inside Alejandro’s home. His baby was sleeping on a bed next to our table while his 10-ish year old daughter kept peeking in from another room as though we’d been dropped down into her house from outer space. Alejandro brought our meals to the table while his wife prepared each course in their modest backroom kitchen. We ate a delicious meal of soup with sheep cheese, stir fried rice with chicken, veggies and egg, tea, coffee and crackers. Short in stature but tall in hospitality Alejandro ran a super tight tip-to-tail operation. Hard working and genuine I’d take another jaunt into the Huayhuash with him and his competent crew anytime.
The ancient Inca or ‘Qhapaq Nan’ Andean road infrastructure was about linking existing trails and towns to each other, an extensive networking project that connected people and expanded trading routes from the basin of the Amazon to high remote villages and ceremonial sites from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile.
The discussions we had as a group about global travel and the irony of flying to far-away places to enjoy and appreciate the environment while at the same time destroying it to get there. How can we weigh the cost of not going? There’s power in connecting with people and places first hand not 3rd party. Maybe it’s push-back against the guilt of privilege but immersing oneself into another way of life outside of our own expands horizons and builds networks of another kind. I like to think that mountain bikers are a unique group of conscientious and curious travelers searching for much more than the ‘touristy’ areas.
While we laid tire tracks on some new terrain for MTB’s we were far from the first to discover the area. Exploration has a different meaning in the 21st century – even 20 years ago James and Jeff weren’t on iPhones, Google mapping and earthing their way through the backcountry of Peru. It was word of mouth, talking to locals, chance meetings and reading books that provided them with the crucial details.
As for our group of seven…we kept talking about how hard it would be to explain this trip to our people and friends back home. What would we say when someone asked…‘so, how was your trip?’ Cresting passes, descending into ancient villages, endless miles of grassy flow trails, eating at local restaurants, meeting locals over afternoon beers…experiencing this collectively as a group was straight up magic.
Our celebratory glass clinking at dinner each night, ‘Cheers to Us’, came to be a bit of a self-centered act, but it made us laugh, and hell, we were doing it - 13 straight days of mind-blowing mountain biking amongst some of the biggest and highest peaks in the world, not always on a trail but usually headed in the right direction, thanks to Julio and Mauro Olaza.
I know I’ll go to Peru again soon - a plan has already been set in motion. It’s become a very popular place to ride mountain bikes, and for good reason. The trails are incredible, there’s that, but the people have a warmth that we don’t see in the Northern half of America to the same extent. Humans thrive on connection – it breeds empathy, cooperation and collaboration. No wonder the Inca trail network is so profound; physically bringing people together and connecting them for hundreds of miles in every direction.
I thank James every time I see him, for inviting me on this trip, and for the opportunity to experience that same feeling he had when he rolled into Huaraz way back when. I’ve met so many people through mountain biking; all walks of life, every age and nationality. The ability to travel to a place like Peru and ride with local guides, other mountain bikers, is an extension of the giant connected family that I’m a part of.
When James and Jeff reminisced about their first trip here compared to this year’s ride, they didn’t have words, they just laughed…and then James asked the question, ‘What were we thinking?’?! It was a lot of grueling days on the bike and political strife at the time, but also the start of an incredible journey that continues to this day…trails, like friendships, interconnecting and bringing people together, just like the ancient Incas. Almost anywhere in the world you go you’ll find a mountain bike scene - sometimes all you have to do is go to the local grocery store to find it!