Elsewhere Observed: Cycling in Peru

Machu PicchuOver two spectacular weeks, my girlfriend and I traveled through Peru. From Spanish Colonial churches perched upon Inca ruins to winding dirt roads connecting tour groups and local farmers, Peru is both modern and firmly rooted in history.

While two weeks isn’t long enough to truly capture and understand how Peruvians use bicycles, evidence of their use is around every corner.

Narrow, cobblestone roads, pushy drivers and plenty of hills in Arequipa and Cusco meant that not many locals used a bicycle as primary transportation.

Independent mini bus companies and low-priced taxi services (at least for tourists) carry office workers, school children and anyone in between to and from work and school.

While we did see quite a few personal vehicles, the city streets are dominated by mini taxis, mini buses, massive tour buses, delivery vehicles and motorcycles. Stop signs are almost always optional, street lights are few and far between and the pedestrian never has the right of way. More often than not I’d encounter tourists stranded at intersections, watching on as locals quickly jumped and ducked around whizzing cabs. Young and old, you have to be aware of your surroundings on the streets of Arequipa and Cusco. While this felt exceptionally dangerous, I never did see a collision, but as I said, two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to truly understand how this traffic situation works.

Lima, Peru’s capital and largest city, was our flight hub to and from the country. We spent just a few hours here and it was our first encounter with non-stop rushing Peruvian traffic. Our taxi from the airport took us along a developing portion of Lima’s shoreline. Amidst piles of dirt, soccer fields, a long bicycle and pedestrian path and other public spaces are slowly taking shape.

In the neighbourhood of Miraflores, we encountered one piece of urban cycling infrastructure, a coloured portion of sidewalk for cyclists. This was the first and last time we’d find cycling infrastructure in Peru:

Lima Bike Path

From Lima we flew to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city:

Taxi Arequipa

The streets here are simply swarming with small taxis like the Daewoo pictured above. However, being Peru’s second largest city and a major tourist hub connecting to nearby volcanoes and the stunning Colca Canyon, there’s also a pedestrian-only street lined with shops and restaurants (don’t let the Scotiabank fool you, this is Arequipa, Peru):

Arequipa Pedestrian Boulevard

The majority of bicycles we saw here were to promote downhill cycling trips down nearby Misti volcano. The few we did see were always mountain bikes. This makes great sense when you see the road conditions here. In a matter of only metres you could travel bouncy dirt roads, washboard cobblestones and a smoothly paved street or two.

Bicycle Parking Arequipa

Other than the mountain bike, there is another bicycle that you’ll find in every market throughout Peru. Three-wheeled cargo bikes, or bakfiets, transport tourist tchotchkes, local produce, children and most anything else you could buy. These two were spotted in the busy market in Chivay:

Cargo Tricycles Chivay

And this one in use in Ollantaytambo:

Unloading Cargo Trike Ollantaytambo

While I was often tempted to take one of these cargo bikes for a spin, we had something else planned. The journey to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu can be made in many ways. You can sit for hours on a bumpy bus and then slow moving train. You can trek along the popular Inca Trail, camping under the stars and follow a path used hundreds of years ago. Or, you can save yourself a little money and take an alternate route through small villages. We joined Lorenzo Expeditions (Inka Jungle Trail with a “K”) for 4 days and 3 nights starting with a bike ride down a winding mountain road.

Mountain Bikes

Buses delivered our groups to the Abra de Malaga Pass, 4317m above sea level.

Abra de Malaga Pass

Our destination, accessible by winding roads, was the village of Santa Maria, 1,430m above sea level.

The Way Down

The ride is disarmingly calm, except when transport trucks and tour buses scream past you in either direction. Safety gear on this trip is required, including helmet, full gloves, shin and elbow pads and neon visibility vest:

Safety Gear and Sunshine

Glaciers nearby and a bit of clouds meant the start of this ride was pretty chilly:

Clouds Glacier Bicycle

Winding Road Down

The end, however, nearly 3 km straight down was in the jungle, which required the immediate shedding of layers:

At Rest in the Jungle

In the end, after you’ve hiked up and down mountains and followed a riverbed before reaching Machu Picchu, you’ll to find a refreshing ice cream treat, delivered by bicycle:

Ice Cream Bicycle Cusco