Cycling to Machu Picchu

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In a splendid fiction one could easily pedal to the edge of the ruins at Machu Picchu and circle and photograph its majesty by bike, just as one might at Angkor Wat or Palmyra. In reality the tourist town that supports MP — Aguas Calientes — is so remote and small, and the concentration of visitors to it is so great that access is highly controlled. Indeed, there are no roads to AC. Many cycletourists simply ride to Cusco and leave their bicycles there, getting to MP the usual way by bus then train. I did not want to go to Cusco and backtrack, nor did I find the usual way aesthetically appealing at all. I contemplated skipping it altogether.

But there is an alternative that includes high mountain pass bikepacking, weather, minor drama, and a bit of cycletouring nostalgic history in that a fair bit of it is on train tracks. Thus, it echoes in a tiny way the style that the likes of Sachtleben & Allen or Frank Lenz traveled in when a railway link was the only path between cities.

The plan assumes travel from the west, i.e., headed south through South America. It is possible to do what is described here backwards, but it appears to me that starting from Cusco likely offers different options. The route is substantially based on a trek that has been adapted into a multisport multimodal trip involving hiking, biking, luxury eco lodges, donkey porters, vans and trains. Obviously, Pfft! on all that. This is how to do it all by big pedaling. A very capable off-road bike and minimal weight are essential.

Firstly consult this overview map to get a sense for the clockwise route.

sakantaytrekmap

The road off the lower left edge (PE-30A) comes from Abancay and continues off the lower right edge to Cusco (PE-35).

1. Abancay to Mollepata

The network of roads down the spine of central Peru from Huaraz through Ayacucho and Andahuaylas point eventually to Abancay, a busy and somewhat unattractive town with substantial resupply resources. Headed east from Abancay there is immediately a stiff half day climb on a paved highway, and then 30k of descending on the other side. Your goal is Mollepata, itself up a couple hour dirt climb off of the Abancay-Cusco highway. If you pushed you could make it to Mollepata from Abancay in a day, but I started the climb late and took it easy, camping and getting to Mollepata at midday the second day out.

Mollepata is a modest village with a few set meal restaurants and small stores. There is a simple hospedaje there.

2. Mollepata to Soraypampa

From Mollepata you’ll climb to Soraypampa. The reasonable dirt road is straightforward and is probably somewhere around three hours to the camp. But there’s also a wonderful more or less parallel donkey track that requires some pushing. To get to it, take the well used road going up from the north side of the plaza and always bear left. After an hour of steep climbing, you’ll reach a new concrete lined aqueduct. Take the very steep track just before the aqueduct. Follow the most well used path and keep asking locals whether you can get to Soraypampa on it.

The donkey track takes a half day or so. Throughout, the textures are of Colorado and Utah.

At Soraypampa there’s a camp with water and toilets; this is where morning climbs up to the pass are staged. There are several very large enclosures — tarps over frames — here. You are welcome to pitch your tent in these enclosures or simply unroll your bag on the covered ground.

In the low season, there is no food available at Soraypampa. In the high season there may be a simple store with crackers and cola here.

Obviously, if you’ve taken the road you can easily push on up the pass on the same day, and probably easily get over the top. You might then camp anywhere on the trail on the other side on the way to Collpapampa.

3. Soraypampa to Santa Teresa

Soraypampa to the top of the pass is a lot of pushing and bike lifting. The seven snakes are certainly painful, but they take less than an hour. In total the ascent to the pass is about three hours.

The real issue is that the trail on the other side down to Collpapampa is very technical and rocky. Rocks first big then little make it a jolting, jarring, bumping affair that takes constant vigilance and an experienced hand. Some of the higher sections are ridable and more of the lower sections are, but tires and courage will be limiters. This is 140mm dual suspension rig territory, but you are unlikely to be touring on such a machine. From the pass to the river just before Collpapampa will be from three to five hours.

There are tiny very overpriced stores with little selection in the settlements right around the river.

One does not need to ascend to Collpapampa, though there is apparently a nice campsite there. (Bug repellent is handy at this point.) Instead, after pushing out of the river cut, stay right where the road forks and follow it as it drops down again and hugs the south side of the river. This is mostly a fast ripping descent down to Santa Teresa, doable in an hour and a half. ST has lots of restaurants and several hostals.

My short account appeared here a few days ago.

4. Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes

The official story is that bicycles are not allowed alongside the tracks from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes. Numerous credible people told me that I would be politely but firmly stopped by security at the hydroelectric plant, and my friends Tom and Sarah were forced to get on the train at this point three weeks after I came through. That’s why I did it in the middle of the night.

The dirt road from Santa Teresa to Hidroelectrica is in decent condition and rises steadily alongside the river for just over an hour. There is one fork where the main road descends right and crosses the river. Follow that.

Once at the hydroelectric plant, your goal is the upper set of tracks heading east. Here is a map by yours truly (feel welcome to distribute this quality cartography widely):

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Once on the upper tracks you’re off to Aguas Calientes, a trip that will take about an hour. There is a footpath alongside the crushed gravel track bed for most of the way, so it is straightforward riding even if you frequently have to lift the bike over gaps as the tracks cross small streams.

You arrive at a depot and the tracks continue. Take the dirt road at the depot and you will be in center AC in ten minutes. It is a tourist shitshow of the highest order with every cheesy inca t-shirt or bauble you could want, plus crappy pizza/burger/everything restaurants every 3 meters. Lodging of every quality, including the nice municipal campground, is available.

Buy your tickets to Machu Picchu at the ticket office next to the church in the main plaza.

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The ruins are magical.

5. Aguas Calientes to Cusco

Many people advised that, to leave Aguas, I should just backtrack and then ride the rough road from Santa Teresa through Santa Maria and ultimately around to Cusco. Yeah, that’d work.

Instead, I ate a leisurely breakfast, checked out of my hostal, and arrived at the east edge of town at around 9am. I was operating under the theory that, if there’s a place you’re not allowed to go to, it’s less of a big deal to leave from it. It’s apparently definitely illegal to walk or ride the train tracks from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo. In the actual event, I chatted with the amiable security guys and a bunch of railway workers including a foreman type, and they all seemed as psyched about the Fat Bike on the tracks as I was. As I bid them farewell they wished me luck and said to be careful with trains. Luckily, they don’t usually sneak up on you.

Frankly, I’m not certain what to say about the wisdom of this leg. For much of the way there is not a footpath: you’re riding either between the rails on the ties or right alongside one or the other rail in the crushed rock. Unless your setup can tolerate this, you’ll be miserable.

To check, go to your local train tracks and ride on them for five miles or so. If that’s fine, you’re good to go. If not, get a Fat Bike, which is great on that stuff, to tour on.

The track section is about three and a half hours. At points there is a dirt path alongside the tracks, but it ascends and descends in a way that isn’t much easier than just staying with the rails. At Chilca you can get on a good dirt road and ride to Ollantaytambo. This is where buses drop off tourists to make the train transfer to Aguas Calientes. It’s a pleasant place in spite of that.

And then there is the final section from Ollantaytambo to Cusco. There are several ways to do it. A scenic one is to ride the highway to marker 84 or so, then turn off (at the “13,” below) to follow a dirt road south across the river, staying with the rail route:

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This takes you over the mountain and ultimately to the Abancay-Cusco highway, where you have 25k of easy riding east to Cusco.

I was ecstatic when this all worked. If you have further questions about doing this route, feel welcome to email me.

6 thoughts on “Cycling to Machu Picchu

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