The following is an article written for Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine about my recent trip to Peru, where I rode the Inca Trail from Andahuaylas to Cusco. For more information about this trip, visit www.ferniefattire.com
Livin’ La Vida Coca
Mountain Biking the Inka Trail
By Mike Brcic
DAY I – Lima to Andahuaylas
“OK, gringos. It’s time for your initiation into Inka culture.”
Our guide Wayo is at the door of our van, having returned from a nearby tienda with an inocous pink bag in his hand. He hands over the bag and invites me to take a look at its contents. I slowly uncurl it and look at the small green leaves within, each about the size of my thumb.
“With these leaves,” he states emphatically, “you will have the energy of the Inkas. You will ride all the way to the ends of the empire, like the chasquis who ran these trails hundreds of years ago.” He is as giddy as a schoolboy. I suspect he has already been into the bag.
In my hand is a healthy portion of coca leaf, enough to land me seven hard years in a Canadian penitentiary. I am holding a plant with one of the most illustrious and sordid histories in the botanical world; a plant that the inhabitants of this region have held sacred for thousands of years, and one that the Canadian and U.S. governments would like to see eradicated from the face of the planet.
Unslept and unshaven, a 30-hour journey behind me and a 3-hour climb ahead of me, I need all the help I can get, George Bush and Stephen Harper be damned. I take a wad of leaves, give a short prayer of thanks as is Inka custom, and wrap the leaves around a small wad of llipta – the ash of the quinoa plant. The whole thing takes up an uncomfortable and intrusive residence in my cheek.
The juice seeping into my mouth is pungent and pleasing. My tongue is buzzing and my cheek is rapidly going numb, but I can feel a small surge of energy accompanying the juices of this little plant. My 3 riding companions tentatively follow suit.
“Welcome to Peru!” smiles Wayo enthusiastically when we are done.
“Now we are ready to ride.”
When the Spanish conquistadores, early in the sixteenth century, first encountered the empire of the Inkas, they found that the Emperor himself - the Inka - controlled the use of a remarkable drug contained in the leaves of a mountain shrub now known as Erythroxylon coca. When these leaves were chewed, euphoria and other desirable effects soon followed. Priests and supplicants were allowed to approach the Altar of the Inka only if they had coca leaf in their mouths. Even at the moment of death it was, and still is, believed by the natives that, if the dying person was able to perceive the taste of the coca leaves pressed against his mouth, his soul would go to paradise. A plentiful supply of the divine drug was buried with each Inka nobleman.
From ‘Cocaine – the Legend’ by Jorge Hurtado
We are 6 mountain bikers high – literally and figuratively – in the Andes of Peru, intent on reaching the sanctuary of Machu Picchu via the system of trails laid out by the Inkas centuries ago. I’d heard rumours of thousands of kilometres of singletrack criscrossing the verdant slopes of the Peruvian Andes and had vowed to check it out for myself. A few e-mails to my friend Wayo in Lima and friends in Canada and the U.S. sealed the deal.
Despite living in the Canadian Rockies for a good portion of my life, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of the Andes. These are mountains, in the most imposing sense of the word. The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, and Peru contains more than a thousand mountains over 5,000 m. In contrast, Canada has five.
We are at 3,200 m above sea level – 2 Canadians, an American, a Chilean, and 2 Peruvian guides - 350 km from Machu Pichu, breathing the rarefied air of the Andes, and chewing on a sacred leaf that has been revered for thousands of years. We are in Andahuaylas province – the pradera de los celajes, or prairie of coloured clouds. I have a big wad of illicit drugs in my mouth, and I couldn’t be happier.
Within a few years, the Spanish conquistadores took over the Inka's coca leaves along with his empire. Although superstitiously afraid to use the drug themselves, they gave coca freely to the Indians to control them and hold them more tightly as virtual slaves. Under the effects of the coca leaf the Indians worked harder, longer, and with less food.
Our first day turns out to be a fairly easy climb up to a scenic lookout over the valley of Andahuaylas, with a thrilling singletrack descent into the town. We pass farmers harvesting potatoes from their fields and singing in the midday sun. They are attired in the colourful clothing typical of the Andes. Within half an hour I am lost in the rhythms of the Andes and sunburnt, forgetting that we are almost at the equator.
The singletrack isn’t singletrack in the usual sense of the word – mountain biking is still fairly new and undeveloped here – but more like a giant choose-your-own adventure of footpaths and animal trails. Don’t like this trail? Hop over to the next one and keep riding. The trails pass through villages where inhabitants speak Quechua, the language of the Inkas, and wave enthusiastically at the strangers in their midst.
We pull into Andahuaylas in the late afternoon exhausted and satiated. I fall asleep immediately and dream musical dreams of warriors beating on drums.
DAY II Andahuaylas to Huancarama
Meanwhile, high in the Andes Mountains, where the coca shrub has been cultivated since time immemorial, natives beyond the reach of the Spanish occupation continued to chew coca leaves, as no doubt they had chewed them before the days of the Inkas, and as they continue to chew them today. Far from suffering disaster, they have managed through the centuries to survive the rigors of an incredibly harsh mountain environment.
Our second day begins with a massive breakfast of fruit salad, eggs, homemade pan, and generous doses of maté de coca, or coca tea. The tea arrives without asking; it is ritual in Peru, as normal as coffee is in North America. After two cups of the pungent liquid, I am buzzing, quickly forgetting my altitude sickness. Today we are to get our first taste of the main Inka trail – the Camino Real, or Royal Road.
Among the many roads and trails constructed in pre-columbian South America, the Inka road system of Peru was the most extensive. Traversing the Andes and reaching heights of over 5,000 m above sea level, the trails connected the regions of the Inka empire, covering approximately 22,500 km and providing access to over three million km2 of territory. The Camino Real was the most important of these ‘roads’, with a length of 5,200 km (3,230 mi). It began in Quito, Ecuador, passed through Cusco, the capital of the empire, and ended in what is now Tucumán, Argentina. Because the Inkas didn’t make use of the wheel and didn’t have horses until the arrival of the Spanish, the trails were used almost exclusively for walking, sometimes accompanied by pack animals, usually the llama or its smaller cousin, the alpaca.
The road system was so efficient that a relay system of chasquis, or runners, could deliver fresh ocean fish to royalty in Cusco, over 250 km away. Their fuel? Coca, of course.
The Inkas could not have foreseen the sport of mountain biking but nevertheless, the Camino Real is made for two-wheeled thrills. The singletrack is beautiful, challenging, twisting, sublime. As my tires spray dirt around the tight corners, I can almost hear the footsteps of the Inkas as they ascended these narrow trails: hundreds of years of history, glory and hardship.
The 1,500 m descent is as challenging as anything I’ve ridden in British Columbia, with heart-stopping exposure at every turn. Falling here, hundreds of miles from medical help, is not an option. I enter a Zenlike state as my focus narrows to the few metres of trail in front of me. Every so often we stop and I allow myself to be blown away by the scenery. In these instants, I never need to question why I ride.
We race against the fading sun, grinning, laughing and shouting as we pull into the remote town of Huancarama in total darkness. The rock-hard mattresses of the El Gordito (Little Fat Man) hotel are as welcoming as waterbeds.
DAY III – Huancarama to Cusco
"To speak truthfully, I… am rather inclined to believe that there is, in fact, another force and spirit in the natives because there are no effects that can be attributed to imagination, which is how, with the help of a handful of coca leaves, they can walk for days without food, at times other such things and other similar works.
-Father José de Acosta, 1558
We wake at 6:30 am to the sound of traditional Peruvian music on an old record player in our room. Raul Garcia’s nebulous gitarra sounds as if it is coming from the highest reaches of the Andes, blending gently with the rain outside.
“Today is going to be a big day,” our driver Josélo informs us. My muscles tense up in protest. After the day we just had, I wonder what a ‘big’ day in the Andes entails.
Breakfast consists of generous servings of maté de coca and a wad of leaves before I hop on my trusty steed. I check my backpack to ensure I have a full day’s supply of leaves before I set out.
Everywhere along the way locals stop us, wanting to speak to the fair-haired gringos. Russo, our Quechua-speaking guide, informs us that in this area foreigners are rarely seen. We are novelties, and the locals like novelty.
Much to our chagrin, their curiosity is often accompanied with an offering of chicha. Chicha is a fermented, milky beverage made of corn and quite vile, at least to our North-American sugar-loving palates. Adding to its vileness is the knowledge that the locals often make chicha by chewing the corn and forming the resulting spit-and-corn paste into little balls which are allowed to dry in the sun.
I learn to politely decline by stating that I had my fill of chicha for breakfast. This seems to placate the locals and brings on hearty smiles of approval.
In the hilltop town of Sotapa, we are greeted by what must be the entire village. As we begin the 1,300 m descent dozens of little boys race down the camino real with us; the spirit of the Inkas is with us as we push our full-suspension bikes to their absolute limits.
Halfway down, we split up, Russo and California Christa heading down the road, while Wayo grins and informs the rest of us that he has a special treat in store. This ‘special treat’ consists of a 5-km descent of some of the gnarliest singletrack I have ever ridden. If the boulder-strewn trail, tight switchbacks and exposure weren’t enough, then the cacti and roq’e plants with 2-inch spikes tearing at our skin and clothes definitely push this trail into the realm of the epic. Halfway down I fly over the handlebars into the awaiting arms of a cactus. It will later take twenty minutes for Christa to pull all the needles from my right ear.
I reach the bottom of the trail and find Steve – our Winnipeg contingent - sitting on the side of a bridge overlooking the Pachachacu river, with blood on his legs and a weary look on his face.
“That was…” he says, his voice trailing off into the distant peaks, “the craziest thing I have ever ridden.”
“Yeah,” I respond. “That was awesome.”
DAY IV – Cusco
“Then the Governor, with the concurrence of the officers of his Majesty, and of the captains and persons of experience, sentenced Atahualpa- emperor of the Inkas - to death. His sentence was that, for the treason he had committed, he should die by burning, unless he became a Christian . . .They brought out Atahualpa to execution; and, when he came into the square, he said he would become a Christian. The Governor was informed, and ordered him to be baptized. The ceremony was performed by the very reverend Father Friar Vicente de Valverde. The Governor then ordered that he should not be burned, but that he should be fastened to a pole in the open space and strangled. This was done, and the body was left until the morning of the next day, when the monks, and the Governor with the other Spaniards, conveyed it into the church, where it was interred with much solemnity, and with all the honors that could be shown it. Such was the end of this man, who had been so cruel. He died with great fortitude, and without showing any feeling . . .”
-Francisco de Xeres, secretary of Francisco Pisarro, the man who conquered the Inkas.
I awake under a spectacular stone wall – the Inka were renowned masons whose stonework still defies explanation - with a splitting headache. I look up and try to get my bearings. Last night - Cusco? Discos? Cervezas?
Did I pass out in one of Cusco’s narrow stone alleyways?
I steal another glance around. No, I am under three inches of warm blankets in a cozy hotel room. A hotel room with a 10-foot-high Inka wall.
Welcome to Cusco, the capital of the Inka empire.
Altitude and booze definitely do not mix – my five-alarm hangover can attest to that - so I take a trip to the store for some coca candy. “For altitude sickness,” the wrapper explains.
Wayo informs me that I am becoming a true pichicatero. I smile until Russo later explains that pichicatero is slang for drug addict.
I spend the day wandering the narrow streets of this Spanish colonial town. I cannot help but feel a sense of tragedy, knowing this city was built upon the ruins of an empire. I eschew the grand cathedrals, my own small protest against colonialism, and instead awe myself with the stonework weaving throughout this city like an intricate quilt. That night, the city’s discos throb with electronica and pasty British youngsters in search of the next great party. We not-so-reluctantly take part in the movable feast.
DAY V – Cusco to Ollantaytambo
At the top was the Inka who exercised, theoretically, absolute power. Below the Inka was the royal family which consisted of the Inka's immediate family, concubines, and all his children. Each tribe had tribal heads; each clan in each tribe had clan heads. At the very bottom were the common people who were all grouped in squads of ten people each with a single "boss." The social unit, then, was primarily based on cooperation and communality. This guaranteed that there would always be enough for everyone; but the centralization of authority meant that there was no chance of individual advancement. It also meant that the system depended too much on the centralized authority; once the invading Spanish seized the Inka and the ruling family, they were able to conquer the Inka territories with lightning speed.
More maté and we are on our bikes, riding alongside the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley follows the Urubamba river and was one of the most resource-rich areas of the Inka empire. Riding through this valley today, it is not hard to see why. The earth is a deep crimson red; the crops here are bountiful, unlike the hardscrabble terraced agriculture we’d seen elsewhere. Livestock are everywhere and jump in front of our caravan frequently.
We reach the Inka agricultural site of Moray, a series of concentric rings, the largest of which is almost half a kilometre wide. We descend into the lowermost ring and lie down, according to Russo’s instructions. This is a sacred place, he states, good for a spiritual fill-up. After Cusco I could use a top-up, so I stretch my arms out and bask in the midday sun…
I awake to Russo’s gentle nudging. It is time for mas singletracks. We hop on the bikes and dive into a perfect trail cut into the side of a steep mountain. Along the way we pass Inka salt mines, still mined today the same way they were hundreds of years ago.
The trail descends almost forever, eventually dropping into the Sacred Valley itself and the Urubamba River. To protect the wealth of this valley, the Inka built a series of fortresses, most of which survive to this day.
One of these fortresses is Ollantaytambo, now a quaint village of 2,000 surrounded by ruins that we enter via cobblestone road. Ollantaytambo is one of the main jumping points for the journey to Machu Picchu and host to hordes of adventure-seeking tourists.
Fingering the bag of sacred leaves in my pocket, I can feel the cosmic pull of the ancient citadel.
Tomorrow we go to Machu Picchu.
DAY VI – Machu Picchu
“Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos, there we feel our own fragility. A resting place of butterflies at the epicenter of the great circle of life. One more miracle.”
We wake early in the morning after a fitful sleep. I dreamed of beetles invading my home by the millions. At breakfast we all admit to having slept poorly. The anxiety and anticipation of visiting the iconic city of Machu Picchu precluded the possibility of true rest.
We head down to the train station early. It is a typical developing-country scene: line-ups, hawkers flouting all manner of crafts and foods, police ordering people to and fro. Wayo buys us a bag of leaves for the trip and we dig in eagerly.
The train ride through the Sacred Valley is both sublime and sordid. Spectacular lush green mountains line both sides of the Urubamba river; meanwhile, hordes of trekkers, guides and porters line the tracks, all part of the crazy caravan known as the Inka Trail, a classic four-day trek that is in serious danger of shutting down due to overcrowding and pollution. After the peace and serenity of the past 5 days, this is a sorry reminder that tourism can bring many problems along with its dollars.
Tourists crane their necks out of the train, trying in vain to take pictures of the scenery speeding by. We arrive in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu, in a heightened state of anticipation. The energy is palpable.
“Machu f@#$in’ Picchu,” I yell at Christa. “We’re going to Machu f@#$in’ Picchu!” Having seen hundreds of postcards and picturebooks of the storied city, I can hardly believe that I’m actually going to the Lost City of the Inkas.
We crowd into the bus with a group of Russian tourists who are leaving their country for the first time. They are from Siberia, which I figure must the literal and figurative antipode of Machu Picchu. The bus winds its way up a series of tight switchbacks. The surrounding mountains protrude from the ground like giant green stalagmites. This is the deep jungle, and it looks like it belongs in an Indiana Jones movie.
We arrive at the gates of Machu Picchu in a crush of tourists. Leaving our guide behind, we lose ourselves in the mazes of this ancient city. Despite the tourists and the cost of getting here, it is worth every cent. No words can do justice to the majesty of this place. We climb the nearby peak of Huayna Picchu in the pouring rain – typical weather for this area – and let out the standard whoops and yells.
Theories abound as to Machu Picchu’s purpose. What is certain is that the city was abandoned for over 400 years when American Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’ it in 1911. I look out over the walls of the city and imagine how Bingham must have felt after hacking his way through the jungle to discover this other-worldly place.
“Machu f@#$in’ Picchu,” I whisper silently to myself.
DAY VII – Ollantaytambo
For the Inkas, the mountains were gods, apus who could kill by a variety of means: volcanic eruptions, avalanches, climactic catastrophes.
Today, these violent deities are angry with me. Perhaps I did not show Machu Picchu the proper reverence. Perhaps the gods are angry with my pichicatero ways. Whatever the reason, I have come down with the mother of all flus: I can barely swallow, my right ear is throbbing, and my lungs are at what seems to be 10% capacity.
I decide to take the day off my bike and take in the beauty of the Andes. Coca tea gives me a brief respite from my symptoms, and I lunch on roasted alpaca and vegetable soup.
I’ve developed the gourmand’s taste for coca. I can distinguish between the different varieties of leaf and the different styles of llipta. I know the best variety of tea to ask for (Huaray), and which candies work best. Unable to contemplate life without coca, I consider sending myself a bag of leaves in Canada before thoughts of Kingston penitentiary bring me back to earth.
I spend the day drinking maté and watching life amble by in Ollantaytambo. It always amazes me that even in the rainiest climates and muddiest regions, schoolchildren manage to maintain blindingly white uniforms while I struggle to keep my clothing from turning a consistent brown.
DAY VIII – Lares to Cusco
Coca will always be present in all important moments of their life because it is not only a product, but heritage as well. It is not only their most important element of their survival, but it also represents what is sacred to them, their culture, traditions and their endurance against abuse and exploitation.
-Cocaine, the Legend
It is our final day in Peru, and we are all weak, beaten down by the altitude, the late nights in Cusco, the pichicatero lifestyle, and long days of riding. None of us feel like climbing, so a consensus forms that we should drive to the top of our last day’s ride. We file into the van for the last time as Josélo straps down the bikes. This, Wayo assures us, will be the icing on the cake, our Homerean epic to cap off our Inka journey.
And we climb. We climb, on and on and on. I feel as if we are ascending to the very roof of the world. We pass through countless villages, past pre-Inka ruins, up to the clouds, past alpacas and llamas, farmers offering bottles of chicha to our open windows. The air is getting thin; I take a coca candy out of its wrapper and place it in the corner of my mouth.
As we arrive at the start of the trail, I check Wayo’s altimeter: 13,945 feet, over 4,270 m. I feel lightheaded and instinctively reach for the bag of leaves. By now the ritual is second nature, the llipta is already wrapped in the leaves and the wad is in place, the sweet juices filling my mouth. It is going to be an long ride, Wayo informs us. Steve looks pale. He is nervous, he says. It feels as if we are at the end of the earth; the scenery is barren, grey, forbidding. A few alpacas and a motley ‘road crew’ of three old men and one woman dressed in traditional clothes are the only other living beings in sight. I chew a little harder on my coca and swallow a big mouthful of juice. I am nervous too.
The trail is epic, all right: rocks the size of grapefruits litter the trail, alpacas scurry out of the way as we push our bodies and bikes to their limits; the locals are once again curious at these armored warriors in their valley.
It is by far the longest trail of the week. We pass through narrow canyons, along old irrigation canals, through villages virtually untouched by the 21st century.
We arrive in the town of Calca soaking wet, covered in mud and thoroughly spent. Women in traditional garb walk by and stare. I smile and reflect on the ride I just did. It is, without a doubt, the best ride of my life, capping one of the best trips of my life.
Today the apus are not angry. They have welcomed us into their valleys, their canyons, and their mountains.
While changing into dry clothes in the comfort of our van, I look at a nearby wall and see a campaign poster for for the upcoming municipal elections. The candidate is dressed in traditional Inka garb and holding a leaf up to the sky, an offering to the apus. The headline reads “Defendamos la hoja de coca legal.” Let us defend the legal cocaine leaf.
I reach into my bag, roll some llipta into a wad of leaves, and make my own offering to the apus.
Yes, today the apus are not angry. Praise be to coca.
Mike Brcic is a Toronto and Fernie-based writer and photographer, and owner of Fernie Fat-Tire Adventures, a Fernie-based mountain bike tour company. They will be offering guided XC and DH holidays in Peru beginning in May of 2007. For more information, visit www.ferniefattire.com
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