The Rainbow Mountains of Peru (or Vinicunca to the Quechua) are one of Peru's most sought after sights. They were created over thousands of years as sediment layers laced with different mineral deposits that were tossed and turned by tectonics, uplifted, and exposed to atmospheric chemistry. National Geographic placed them on the list of 100 must-see places on the planet.
Their vibrant colours and other-worldly appearance called to us so strongly that we had to convene a plan to reach them via mountain bike over the undulating high-alpine of the Andes. Research turned up ancient Inca trekking routes, allowing us to map out a course around southern Peru’s highest peak, Ausangate, with an out-and-back option to Vinicunca from the last camp.
It would be an ambitious journey of 90 kilometres over eight days, requiring the crossing of seven passes between 4,750–5,250 metres. We’d originally planned for an unsupported trip, but after calculating how much food and shelter we’d need to carry on top of camera gear, that seemed unrealistic. We played it safe, hiring a pair of local Quechua horsemen to help carry gear. We would be moving slowly, shooting various lines and trails along the way while the horsemen headed directly to each next camp.
Each day became more physically demanding. As the difficulty grew, so did the wear on our bodies. Faces succumbed to sun, wind, and biting rain. With lips chapping and noses peeling, we began to bear the look of our harsh surroundings.
We gasped for air with each pedal stroke, and hike-a-bike’s felt like death marches. But we were rewarded two-fold for any discomforts: every climb was followed by a high-speed descent through a vast alpine bowl. Ridges and rollers of perfect red volcanic dirt stretched ahead like a massive playground in which we could freeride where we pleased. If there was a mountain bike version of skiing powder, this was it.
Our horse packers were men of few words. They took great pride in their animals and work, and a lifetime living at altitude had delivered the ability to survive in the thinner oxygen levels. Since they moved ahead of us so quickly, they didn’t witness any of our descents over the first few days and we could tell they were wondering what the hell we were up to with our bikes. When they saw their first descent—us navigating our way down a steep, boulder-strewn bowl to camp—they seemed impressed and offered up a round of applause.
With three gruelling days behind us, we reached our last camp before the out-and-back to Vinicunca. Along the way, we’d rushed through incredible terrain past stunning vistas in order to stay on schedule, the excitement of making it to our goal overshadowing any momentary regrets about not lingering in the landscape. Our biggest day would be a 20-kilometre roundtrip with three passes over 5,000 metres—we planned on waking well before sunrise to allow enough time to make the return trip before dark.
Being at an altitude where humans can’t survive for extended periods was humbling. Reaching it on bikes, then racing downhill for what seemed an eternity, was nothing short of magnificent. We traversed back and forth along the mountainside through herds of alpacas, stopping every so often to look around in gratitude. It didn’t hurt that the alpacas had created singletrack as fun as anything we’d ridden anywhere in the world.
A final day saw us greeted by the local children with hugs and high fives, we watched as they rode our bikes in endless circles, providing a soundtrack of laughter while we celebrated with our first beers in nine days.If the altitude of Salkatay didn't give us a hard time catching our breath, the view sure did.
Now that we had survived the difficult Rainbow chapter of our travels, we asked our Cusco mountain biker hosts Nicole and Bill of Haku Expeditions, about the staple rides of the area. Nicole advised that if we plan to visit Machu Picchu we should enter the area via the Salkantay trek. A less frequented trek that is rideable by bike and would lead us to Santa Teresa just outside of Machu Picchu.
The Salcantay trek starts at about 3000m where we stayed in a rustic hut in Soraypampa with a very dramatic view of the mountain peaks we would soon summit. A hike up to 4580m got us to Salcantay Pass. This was the start of what would become the longest uninterrupted descent of the entire trip. After traversing amidst some remarkable glacier views from this pass, we dropped in on a magnificent view of the valley that eventually drops us into Santa Teresa. We rode down some difficult rocky technical trail not often ridden by bicycles but mostly used as a path for trekkers and local farmers and incas of the area.
This offered quite the challenge but still a enjoyable experience to be able to essentially ride all downhill all the way to Machu Picchu. We continued further down the mountain to witness a dramatic change in scenery from barren alpine tundra to the upper reaches of the lush cloud forest After an enormous 5640m descent, we lodged for the night in a tiny village in Cloud Forest. Our shuttle driver was more than accommodating even if his rig was rather dated and underpowered it still got the job done!
After a long and satisfying rest we spent the following day traversing along a very long narrow bench trail parallel to the Urubamba River to eventually arrive a family owned organic coffee plantation.
Finally, we arrived at Machu Picchu and picked up our jams off the ground as many do upon this most extraordinary sight. From here, we wandered town, took photos and planned the next leg of our trip.
With some word of good riding in Lima, we planned our bus ride out to the west coast. It was such a long way to go, we looked for ideal stopover towns to split the journey. It was then that we found Paracas, a town that delivered visitors great beaches, and promise of diverse amounts of unique bird and sea-life. Coined the "Poor man's Galapagos", this area is home to an amazing amount of sea lions, birds, penguins and more. (Top) Sousa rides down to get into camera position under the beautiful coastal sunset in Lima. (Bottom) The desert dunes of Paracas made for some very unique backdrops.
This stop was not at first expected to be a ride stop but rather a chance to relax and enjoy the beach and sand dune sea-life sights before we get riding and filming again in Lima. It was during our wandering of the Paracas sand dunes, we discovered generations of high winds and the proximity to the salty sea the sand dunes that were expected to certainly be unrideable (at least without the aid of fat bikes) turned out to be a very unique layer of loose, soft sand sitting over a harder crust just below. This created a riding surface that paralleled that all too familiar feeling of powder skiing. Coincidentally it was opening day for our home ski resort in Whistler, Canada. So while we watched friends share their excitement for riding fresh snow on social media we did the same with fresh lines of a different kind.
After an unforgettable few days in the desert, we shipped out to Lima. It was here we met Alejandro Paz. A local rider who made a bit of a name for himself after one of his YouTube GoPro videos went viral cracking over 4M views.
Alejandro was more than happy to share the riding gems around the city of Lima. He took us out to a peak where many of the city's radio and television towers are stationed. Up there fantastic cityscapes as well as the ocean can be seen below many different little freeride lines and even a few garage build stunts. The most fascinating section was a ridge sat just over the beach riding right down to the ocean. We descended along the ridge on a sandy but rideable ridgeline not too different from the riding of Paracas. Halfway down the ridge a tremendous amount of exposure reveals itself. Several seconds of trail runs parallel to a cliff here that sits over 100 feet above the rocks and crashing ocean. No right turn here.
Overall this entire trip was filled with an unbelievable amount of excellent riding, lovely people, and breathtaking scenery. The lands made us work hard and many times nearly broke us. Persisting on we we manifested a truly once in a lifetime experience and even still it was only a small slice of what the country has too offer. Above all however our trip to find Vinicunca stood alone as our most challenging and rewarding ride.
Our feet and hands had been perpetually cold and wet, our skin burnt and cracked, our heads pounding and swollen. But none of it seemed to matter in the face of climbing those magnificent passes, railing forever downhills, or witnessing Earth’s alpine tantrums—crumbling glaciers and ground-rumbling rock slides. Had we chosen the easier way to the Rainbow Mountains, we would not have experienced any hardship at all. In the end, taking the time to do so left us feeling both fulfilled and enriched.