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How to choose your guides, bikes and mules in Peru's Sacred Valley

Will Janecek, for several years an adventure tour guide and hotelier in Ollantaytambo, Peru, shares his advice on the best way to go walking, biking or trekking – on foot or by bike – in the Sacred Valley, whether you want to go it alone or with a group, and how to choose your guides, bikes and mules!

So you’ve decided to go trekking in the magical Sacred Valley of the Incas, nestled in the Andes of Peru – the trip of a lifetime. Trekking in the Andes is one of the most amazing experiences life has to offer; however, it also can be challenging both physically and logistically. One of the first and biggest decisions you need to make is whether to travel alone or with local assistance. You have three options: to hire an agency specialising in treks, to hire a single local guide to go along with you, or to travel alone.

My recommendation would be to do a little research and then hire an agency or a guide. They have local expertise and knowledge that you simply cannot have from the internet or a guidebook (even a Cicerone guidebook!). The amount of time you will save and the frustration you will avoid are invaluable. Local people know where the hidden hot springs and little ruins are, they know where the best campsites are and they know how to solve the transport and logistics issues that will frequently arise. They will also speak both local languages, Spanish and Quechua, and in the end can make sure that you have a much better experience for little extra cost. That said, the choice is yours. Here are the pros and cons of each option and how to go about them.

Climbing down a ridgeline of Mount Veronica with Ollantaytambo in the background

Hiring an agency or organised tour

This option is certainly ideal for those travelling alone or with just one other person, as the fixed costs (such as transport to trailhead and guide) are shared between more people. Even if only two or three people book an organised tour it will be less expensive than going it alone. There are many advantages, too, including the fact their guides and cooks are likely to speak fluent Quechua and Spanish. They also will have a great deal of local knowledge and better contacts for what is often the most difficult part of a multi-day trek in the Andes: the logistics of hiring mules and horses.

Other advantages include the benefit of varied company on long walks, better food (and someone to cook it, serve it and then clean up afterwards!) and probably most importantly, the knowledge of the guide. They can help immensely with the logistics of where and when to camp, having the right gear ready before you climb/descend in the heat/cold, smoothing out problems with the mule guides (arrieros) or campsite hosts, and a variety of often unseen activities, all which will optimise your enjoyment.

When taking an organised tour you can expect to have transport to and from the trailhead and horses prearranged, camping equipment (tent, pad and sleeping bag) supplied, nightly meals and snacks provided (including the always-important early morning hot tea or coffee), and of course local knowledge of both the route and the culture along the way. For most travellers, these advantages considerably outweigh any cost savings.

A group of trekkers near the pass of Aobamba

Hiring a local guide

This is sort of a middle ground solution between hiring an agency and going it alone. Essentially it involves contacting the local people directly, at the village of departure, for their services as a muleteer/guide. It certainly sounds ideal at first: bypassing the middleman to benefit the local people on the ground. However, there are several things to consider. The most important is time, and how much of it you have to spare. One of the things a guide or agency does best is save you the time and headache of organising the logistics.

If this is your first trip to Peru, that service is much more valuable than it may seem at first. Most of the multiday trips described in this book leave from small mountain villages, where few services are available. Even in Ollantaytambo, you can rarely expect to show up and acquire horses or mules the same day. These arrieros don’t advertise and most do not even have a phone. It’s a question of phoning someone who knows them, who will then pass on the message.

Other factors involved in hiring a local guide are the often-considerable difficulties in communicating – even if you speak Spanish, most of the mountain arrieros speak more Quechua than Spanish, and have a culture and language all their own. They are wonderful people but are accustomed to doing things a certain way and may not look at things the way you do, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Independent travelling

For reasons that usually centre around language and cultural concerns, as well as the practical problem of taking the correct route, the vast majority of visitors to Peru hire a guide for any serious outing. Even people who normally do everything on their own prefer to have someone handle the details while adventure travelling in the Sacred Valley. That said, it is quite possible to go it alone on many routes (including most of those described in Cicerone’s Hiking and Biking in the Sacred Valley).

One thing to remember is that a guide’s primary job is not so much finding the trail – surprisingly often that is fairly straightforward. It is rather the constant problem-solving required to overcome obstacles such as landslides, roadblocks, mutiny among the porter or arriero ranks and vehicle breakdowns. If you are going it alone you should possess a lot of confidence, a good mastery of the Spanish language and excellent improvisation skills. If all three of these traits are found in the leader of the group, there should be no problems at all travelling on your own.

Catching some air near the route to Urquillos

The walking and trekking in the Sacred Valley is amazing, but the mountain biking in the Peruvian Andes is some of the best to be found anywhere in the world. The area features a dizzying mix of high-altitude trails, Inca roads, different cultures, and of course lots of Inca sites. Mountain biking as a sport is still fairly new in the Sacred Valley. As recently as 2003, there were few, if any, agencies offering mountain bike tours, and quality bikes of any type were very hard to come by.

Slowly, though, the word spread that perhaps the best way to enjoy the stunning mountain scenery and Inca sites was on two wheels. Then an international downhill mountain bike race known as the ‘Inca Avalanche’ came to Ollantaytambo. ‘Downhill mountain biking’ refers to riding almost exclusively downhill. Full-face helmets and body armour, heavy-duty bikes with long travel suspension both front and back, and riders without fear are the hallmarks of this discipline. Generally too cumbersome to ride uphill, these bikes must be brought up to the top of a mountain before plunging back down at high speeds. Ollantaytambo, Cusco and the areas around them are perfectly suited for this type of mountain biking and the sport has really taken off today.

But this isn’t the only form of mountain biking available – countless dirt roads cross the countryside, offering the opportunity to experience the culture and beauty of the Andes from the seat of a bicycle to just about anyone: novice, intermediate riders or experts alike. Now, there are mountain bikes (albeit cheap ones) on nearly every street corner in Cusco and Ollantaytambo, and it has also become a popular way to travel to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu itself.

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A group of mountain bikers with the Chicón glacier in the background

Hiring a bicycle and guide

Most visitors choose to hire a bike and guide in Cusco or Ollantaytambo rather than bring their own bike from home. The biking in the Sacred Valley is some of the best in the world, but there is one thing to remember: if you are renting a bike, be sure to check the quality. Disc brakes are nearly essential in the steep and rocky conditions of nearly all the local rides: if the bike you are offered doesn’t have them, don’t take it. Also the bike should have double suspension to cope with the rugged terrain. There are currently only a small handful of agencies in Cusco and Ollantaytambo that offer quality mountain bikes.

Finally, many mountain bikers inquire about the availability of clipless pedals and shoes. These are generally not available in the Sacred Valley. The steep and unforgiving terrain means frequent dismounts and hike-a-bikes, for which the clipless system is not well suited. Wide pedals and flat shoes are the standard equipment used in the Sacred Valley. If you are uncomfortable riding without the clipless system, bring your cleated shoes and pedals from home – they take up very little space or weight and can quickly and easily be put onto your rental bike.

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The route up to Abra Malaga, on the way to Quillabamba

Enjoy your hiking and biking in the Sacred Valley, but make sure you don’t underestimate the sun and insects. Both are a constant in this environment. For these two reasons, wearing shorts is not recommended. Take a tip from the locals and wear lightweight long-sleeved shirts and trousers and a wide-brimmed hat. It’s the best protection from the legendary Andean sun and its concomitant beasties.

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