Sustainable Travel Tree Planting Meets Mega Adventure in the Mountains of Peru

In the past 5 days I’ve soaked in the Lares Hot Springs cradled in a deep river canyon in the Lares Valley, planted trees with local rural communities between 13,000 and 15,000ft under towering glaciated Andean peaks, and ridden the Megavalanche downhill course: the steepest, fastest, most technical single track I’ve ever attempted.  So, overall, it’s been a pretty good week, minor case of food-related illness aside.  (note: you will occasionally pay a pretty steep price for “food adventurism” in Peru. It’s part of the learning curve).

My week of glory was courtesy of Paul and Carol of Amazonas Explorer and the NGO Ecoan Peru. The cutting of native Queunas trees for firewood, etc was leading to a loss of native bird habitat in the Andean highlands.  Consequently, Ecoan Peru started the Vilcanota Project.   Local communities are funded to grow the Queunas trees in a nursery, and paid for each tree that is eventually planted on the high mountain slopes near their village.

Last Friday we drove to the Lares Valley for a soak in the hot springs and some relaxation prior to planting trees with the community of Pampa Corral on Saturday.  On planting day the community and volunteers assembled at the nursery to pack the small trees up to the site.  The locals pick their trees first and load them, generally, in cloths strapped across their backs.  It was humbling to say the least to watch them passing me on the trail carrying twice as many trees and/or a small child up the mountain in sandals and traditional clothing, while I struggled to catch my breath, silently wondering how we were possibly going to plant trees on such steep terrain. The planting site was on a steep grassy slope 13,000ft in the sky overlooking a wide valley and towering peaks bisected by the fast moving river we were following earlier on the trail.  On that day, 200 or so people planted 10,000 trees

On Saturday I kept thinking that it doesn’t get much better than this: hands in the dirt, planting trees with a view of the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen, having an experience I never considered would be part of my time in Peru.  Well, it does get better.  How?  You add 12.5 miles and 5,000ft of downhill single track to the half day of tree planting.
Tree planting at altitude and downhill riding may be the ultimate multi-sport adventure in Peru; it’s definitely a full-body work out. On Wednesday we met at Paul and Carol’s and loaded our bikes up for a 3 hour drive to the Abra Malaga Pass (elev approx 14,000ft) to meet with the community we’d be planting with, load up with our trees and picks, and hike to our planting site.
We were hiking directly under the 18,000ft Mt. Veronica , and were lucky enough to arrive while the weather was still sunny enough for a clear view of the massive peak.  Planting at 14,000 ft and change in rocky soil was tough work.  My planting partner Carlos and I planted 55 trees; I think I dug maybe 5 of those holes.  When we finished a few hours later another 5,000 trees had been planted, and the weather had become significantly wetter.  Now it was time to reap the rewards of our hard work:  a big, long, muddy downhill ride!!
The Megavalanche course started (conveniently) from where we were parked on the Pass and descends approx 5,000ft over 12 miles of really fun, really fast single track.  There are a few short sections of trail and some road where you can catch your breath and enjoy the absolutely amazing place you’re riding through.  Otherwise, (if you’re me) you’re white knuckling it the whole time, reminding yourself to let it roll and lay off the breaks to keep from going over the handlebars into the abyss.  OK, that was a dramatic overstatement, but it wouldn’t have been a soft fall.
When were back at the vehicles near the town of Ollantaytambo, everyone was soaked, muddy, and smiling.  The consensus was that you can’t really beat a day of tree planting and downhill riding for the feel-good sense of contributing environmentally and socially, and going home with enough adrenaline to keep you going – until you pass out, completely spent, with visions of single track dancing on your eye lids.

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