The Santa Valley is Peru’s new mountain bike frontier. Outside of a handful of Peruvian riders who know the area, most of the valley’s trails go unridden and are begging for some rubber! This is a place that is emerging as one of Peru’s top mountain bike destinations – and that says a lot for a country that already boasts world-class singletrack riding in other regions.
The trip from Lima to Huaraz seems far shorter than the eight-our truck ride that it is; the first stretch north winds along the Pacific Coast through massive sand dunes and sugarcane fields and, later, after a stop for seco a la norteña – one of the region’s most iconic and unmissable dishes, the final stretch winds inland along a serpentine highway that climbs into the Andes across arid mountains. As a driver, it’s difficult to focus on the road, as the captivating landscapes change so drastically. The city of Huaraz is the gateway to the Santa Valley – and to a world of phenomenal mountain biking.
The Santa Valley is shaped by two parallel mountain ranges with a seeming distaste for each other. On one side of the valley there’s the Cordillera Blanca, a mystically beautiful range characterized by glacial peaks, turquoise lakes and native forests. The Cordillera Blanca is home to Peru’s tallest peak, Nevado Huascarán, a 6,768-meter tall giant that is visible from nearly every angle along The Santa Valley; it draws experienced mountaineers from all over the world and makes for an enchanting mountain biking backdrop. It’s not uncommon to peer upwards and spot climbers like specks of color dangling from the granite walls. On the other side of the valley, the Cordillera Negra is far more hostile. Cacti, dry grass and sagebrush characterize the range, a contrast that almost mocks the Cordillera Blanca. The Blanca divides The Santa Valley from Peru’s more humid and tropical inland climates while the Negra divides the Andean sierra from the arid Pacific Coast. The two sides couldn’t be more different, which makes for surprisingly diverse trail conditions within a narrow geographic area.
Over two years ago, on our first exploration of The Santa Valley, we expected the massive glaciers, the surreal mountain lakes and everything else that we’d been promised by a few Google searches and from hearsay. What we hadn’t expected to find was some of our favorite riding in the Peruvian Andes. But there it was. What we had planned as a week-long exploration turned into a two-year quest to ride as much of the Cordillera Blanca and Negra as humanly possible. We found the raw trail-riding that reminds us of our Cusco backyard, but with even more vertical drop and rock gardens on steroids.
From the town of Yungay, we shuttled over 2,300 meters up to Portachuelo Pass, one of few mountain passes that allows a vehicle to cross the Cordillera Blanca (when it’s not covered in snow). From there, deep in the heart of Huascarán National Park, you find a trailhead that springs a massive descent. Asking around for a trail name, few riders can respond with anything definitive; some name the pass, others Llanganuco Lake, and others are kind of curious as to why it would need a name. Consensus is lacking, I guess. Starting literally a few hundred meters from the nearest glaciers and with Huascarán firmly in sight, the full-day descent begins. This is no flow trail; the trail winds its way down the mountain across rock slabs and ruts and navigates through extended limbs and other obstacles. For some of us, it’s perfect – wild and raw, the type of adventure trail that improves your technical riding. With a stop at Llanganuco Lake for lunch, the trail just gets better. It alternates between native queñua forest and technical rock channels. Later, emerging from the forest, we track towards Yungay. After a brief stop at the Sierra Andina taphouse (a container with cold craft beer that has been brilliantly located at the entrance to Huascaran National Park!), we followed the path of a 1970 avalanche that reshaped the entire valley and the history of the region – definitely worth a Google if you get a chance. We were back the next day to repeat it!
For what the Blanca avails in fairytale beauty, The Santa Valley’s less glamorous Black responds in raw and rugged, no-excuses-allowed riding. Some of the rides around Huaraz City are relatively clean and ridden, but as you distance yourself from the city and head north (downriver along the Santa Valley), the true gems of the region start to surface. It wasn’t until my third trip back to the Santa Valley that I could fully appreciate the Negra’s terrain. These aren’t bikepark-style trails. They are largely lost or rarely used footpaths that connected the sierra to the coast from an age when walking was the only option. With the help of Google and a handheld GPS, some hard work and a bit of hike-a-bike paid off.
Las Puyas trail, named after a towering cactus endemic to the area, starts along a non-transited roadside and shows no sign of a trailhead. Before our first drop I was disappointedly sure that we’d shuttled two hours into the mountains for a quick piss and to enjoy the view. But then, after traipsing through knee-high grass for 10 minutes, there it was: a ribbon of trail delgado, but, yes, stellar. Fourteen kilometers of trail and two-thousand vertical meters later, we’re all smiles. Well…thorns and smiles, but it was worth it!
After dedicating two years of trail-vetting, mapping, and logistics mining, we’re ready to offer this phenomenal destination to our clients as the Cordillera Blanca Mountain Bike Adventure. In 2020, we’ll only offer one trip to the region for eight riders. Afterall, a unique riding destination deserves a unique group of riders!