Biking Through The Sacred Valley

Touring the Sacred Valley by bike, rather than by tourist bus, is not the usual way to see the ancient archaeological sites of Maras and Moray.

Of course, watching your guide get thrown over his handlebars and into a cactus on a steep slope is probably not what tourists usually come to see in the Sacred Valley either. The usual tourist thing doesn’t involve pulling spines out of the seat of your guide’s pants and the backs of his arms. Nor is averting your eyes while your guide drops his drawers to have your husband check out his cheeks a typical occurrence! THAT is what I’ll always think of when I think of the Sacred Valley. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley and Urubamba River as seen from above.

We spent a fair bit of time going in and out of the Sacred Valley, touring its incredible archaeological sites during our time in Peru. The Sacred Valley is a long valley that follows the course of the Urubamba River, near Cusco.

The Incas revered this area not just because it was incredibly fertile land, capable of producing a wealth of food, but because the Incas felt it looked like the Milky Way. Anything on earth that could be interpreted or read from the sun, moon, stars and constellations was considered very sacred by the Incas.

Our Biking Adventure Begins

We were pretty psyched to explore this landscape on two wheels and started our riding adventure in a small town called Cruspata (literally, “crossroads,” named for the two roads that cross each other there) with a guide we’d hired through a company that came highly recommended on Trip Advisor.

Now here’s the thing with Trip Advisor... no matter how many different kinds of tours a company offers, it only gets one listing on their site. This is something that most people do not know. So, if a very reputable company does top quality hiking/camping treks or terrific archaeological tours, their biking tours, perhaps only done by a handful of tourists a year, still get the rating of the company and its treks. The outfit we went through had bikes that were in lousy shape. We had 3 breakdowns and ultimately I gave my bike up so that parts could be salvaged to make 2 workable bikes so that Bill and our guide could finish the ride. And our guide was a rider who was not quite skilled enough to ride the tougher, rougher, more aggressive parts of the trail, which begs the question, “why are they taking tourists on such a technical trail without asking them their skill level first or having a guide who can stay safe there, himself?” But again, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Biking through the area was not easy, despite the fact that our day started out on flat roads with only the merest hint of hills. The altitude wreaked havoc with your stamina, that’s for sure. But rolling through it on two wheels was a really interesting way to see and experience the spectacularly beautiful landscape.

The small farmland plots we passed practiced crop rotation: they planted alfalfa (for guinea pigs), cereals like wheat, barley and quinoa, and vegetables like pumpkins and squash in cycles. Most plots lay fallow as we were there in very early spring, before the planting had begun. There were no fences, so animals were either tethered to stakes driven into the ground, or watched over by shepherds or very young children.

The day started out with us riding red dirt farm roads with only the merest hint of hills on a wide open, high altitude plain.
The small plots of farmland spread out like a patchwork quilt as far as the eye could see.
We passed people watching their herds of sheep.
We passed animals tethered to long ropes that defined their grazing areas, and biked past a scattering of adobe brick homes like these.
We passed small children, playing in the dirt while watching their flock of sheep, out in the middle of nowhere, with not an adult in sight.
We biked through herds of cattle.
We biked past farmers going about their chores.
We hung out with the pigs and got a good look at the irrigation canals (left over from the time of the Incas) while we repaired our bikes.
We got help from local kids who eagerly took the first of 3 punctured inner tubes of the day, to play with.
We biked and we biked.

The Moray Terraces

Late in the morning, we arrived at the first of two fantastic archaeological sites we’d see that day: the experimental agricultural terraces of Moray.

Here is one of 3 circular agricultural terraces built into natural sink holes in the landscape that make up Moray. You lose all sense of perspective looking at them from above like this, but each of the stone terrace retaining walls is about four feet high.

Moray is a Quechua word, based on moralla, the white dehydrated potato that you can find in any market and practically any household in Peru. The name seems fitting, as these terraces were all about growing food, and improving growing practices to make more food, with the potato being an extremely wide spread and important food crop in ancient and modern day Peru.

The Incas built their terraces here in natural sinkholes in the landscape, spending a lot of effort to build significant drainage using layers of deep pumice at their base. To this day, even in the rainy season, these terraced areas do not flood.

IMG_7466.jpgEvery three terraces, you enter a different microclimate, a different set of growing conditions. Coca leaves and a wide variety of bean seeds have been found here, and it is estimated that many of the 400 types of corn and 2500 types of potatoes in Peru today were experimented on and developed here.

It was fun going up and down the steps that are built into the walls of the terraces (everywhere we saw terraces in Peru, including in the back of our Cusco hotel’s grounds, we saw steps like these). Called sarunas, they make for easy watering, harvesting and tending of the crops on their terraces.
Another of the Moray terraces, this one is in the process of being restored.

The terraces were never destroyed by the Spanish because they did not have any gold in or on them, and so they possessed no allure to the Spanish. The irony is that the wealth of food was the source of the Inca’s power over its populace… had the Spanish realized that the Inca’s power lay in food and not gold, things might look a little different here today.

Riding from Moray to Maras (or Man Meets Cactus)

The next part of our adventure took us on some fun, swift, and at times, extreme (even for this Rocky Mountain mountain biker) single track riding down from the heights of Moray to the walls of the Sacred Valley’s cliffs, down at Maras.

We rode from Moray downhill to the Maras Salt Mines. They were quite a sight as we descended at a super-fun, fast pace down the steep incline of the valley to the parking lot of the mine.
THIS was the section of single track, steep, dry, loose and rocky, that unseated our guide into a cactus!!! Even his cell phone’s protective cover has a cactus spine permanently embedded in it. Can you make out the size and length of those spines? Ouch!

We had so many mechanical issues on this trip! Bill had 3 flats, I had a jamming chain, we both had bikes that wouldn’t stay in gear, and our guide had a bike that leaked so much hydraulic fluid that within the first half hour, he had no rear brakes at all! For those of you who don’t ride single track trails… you can ride without front brakes safely enough, but rear brakes are essential. If you rely on only the front wheel to brake, and you don’t come off your seat and hang the bulk of your body’s weight behind the seat, over the back wheel, your momentum will propel you over your handlebars if you squeeze your brakes too aggressively (as you do when you’re afraid, or out of control, on a very steep section or if you stay seated on your seat).

It all came to a head when we switched from farm track roads to the steep, rocky, dry & loose single track trails down to the Maras Salt Mines. Our poor guide wore a hole in the bottom of his shoe trying to use the resistance of his foot on his rear wheel as a rear brake. On the first steep section, he was thrown off his bike, over his handlebars and into a cactus! Thank goodness he landed on his back (he was wearing a backpack), and not face-first!

We must have pulled 20 cactus spines out of the back of his legs, his butt and his arms, poor guy! He was such a trooper! We offered to stop & call the support van for a pick up, but he was determined to walk steep sections from there on in, and ride the flatter parts, slowly. Somehow, we made it to Maras safely, without further incident.

The Salt Mines of Maras

The salt mines of Maras were really something neat to see! Run as a collective, that Minka principle of the chacana symbol that I have spoken about before in this blog, workers are not paid to work here. They do it as a community effort, and reap the benefits of what they harvest (which might explain why there were just so many salt sellers on the way down the hillside from the entrance gate to the salt pan terraces of the mine itself).

Nestled into the steeply cut wall of the Sacred Valley, this salt mine was quite a sight (and site)!

A warm, briny stream flows out of the cliff that we rode down and then into the man-made dehydration pools that filter down the valley’s slope. According to our guide, there are 4,500 pools (some guidebooks and blogs say there are as many as 5,700), formed with clay walls (using the adobo bricks we’d seen farm houses built out of on our ride through the region). Built much like the Incan agricultural terraces that we saw earlier in the day, they were designed to have water flow through them.

Water is diverted into the pools which take 1-2 hours to fill. Then the pools are closed off, and dry out for 3 days, baking in the sun. The white sacks in this photo are filled with harvested salt.
The pools are then refilled, and baked for another three days. This photo shows the salt crystals, the salt flowers as they call them, growing on the surface and around the edge of one of the pools.
Dehydration is what the Incas do best, and the tradition of collecting salt this way has been passed down through the generations.
Workers carry off the dried salt, scraped from the sides of the pools.The first crop of salt is called Flower Salt and demands the highest price. The second crop is Pink Salt. And the third crop of salt is simply used, like epsom salts, in soothing bath mixtures and for medicinal purposes.
4,500 pools… seen on my way out, without a bike, in the support van. If you look closely, you can see Bill & our guide riding on the road above the pools in the far right of this photo, heading toward the section of seriously fun and challenging downhill riding.

In the parking lot of the mine, our guide and the support van driver fixed up my bike for the guide to ride, repaired another flat tire on Bill’s bike with the inner tube from the front  wheel of the guide’s bike, and with two working bikes cobbled together, headed off to ride the most technical part of the trail. I was quite tired at this point, so I actually welcomed riding in the support van. It took them about 25 minutes to ride to the pick up point, and our driver and myself about an hour to do the journey by car! Clearly, their aggressive downhill dirt track was the faster way out of the area.

At the End of the Day….

It’s nice to be able to slow things down when you travel. This wasn’t hiking, but it also wasn’t blasting past in busses and vans. (Ok… if truth be told, some of the fun sections were fast and blasting, but you get my drift.) Despite the bike issues, which provided, in their own way, little slice of life moments, this was a fun day. An exhausting day, and certainly hours longer than it needed to have been, but an eye opening, full-of-adventure-experiences day. No regrets.

8 Comments on “Biking Through The Sacred Valley

    • There are so many different ways to see the world now. Sometimes the time it takes to plan a trip (when you travel independently & have to research & co-ordinate all the elements) is half the fun. You get to learn a bit about where you’ll be travelling… and the more you learn, the more you want to go. I think the world at large is getting more and more accessible. There are certainly far more people travelling now than there was 20 years ago. So searching out some of these unique ways to tour the landscape has become a welcome challenge.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Sometimes the days with dramas are the ones that prove the most memorable, maybe for the wrong reasons. The days with tears are usually the most laughed at afterwards.
    I will have to “book mark” these pages for re-visiting as my husband has been talking about exploring South America. in the next few years. Louise


    • I couldn’t agree with you more… about the drama & tears! And I’m laughing with you from the comfort of home now!

      I haven’t blogged about it yet, but so far, of the places we’ve been to in South America, I like Chile the best. There are so many adventurous things to do there from the rafting and canyoning (my hands down FAVOURITE way to explore a country’s natural beauty), to hiking up the sides of volcanoes, doing mountain treks and exploring the high Atacama Desert.

      From the wee look I’ve had at your blog, you are definitely into the adventurous things and the big landscapes too. You will find them, even at the northern most tip of Patagonia. We want to return some day and explore southern Patagonia.

      And thank-you for the bookmarking compliment! I hope he enjoys them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We were lucky enough to spend four beautiful days in Patagonia, Callafate to be precise and see the Gran Moreno Glacier with our two daughters then 6 and 8 in tow. The girls and I were in Buenos Aires for four of the six months my husband was working there in the late 90s.He speaks Spanish quite well and has travelled over a lot of South and Central America in the 80s before we met, so he is keen to get back. Re the adventurous comment – he is the more adventurous type I just get dragged along hoping I am not going to die in the process. 🙂 Though I admit trekking in Nepal was the best and I’m addicted, I want to go again. Louise

        Liked by 1 person

      • Your trekking in Nepal looked really amazing. There’s something very special about that high altitude trekking, isn’t there? I loved being up as high as we were in Peru, doing the Salkantay trek. Somehow the mountains seem different way up there.

        Liked by 1 person

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