Friday, 13 February 2015

The Atacama Desert (Antofagasta to San Pedro)

(next post: San Pedro to Uyuni)

If you looking at this post for the photos, scroll down as the landscape gets exponentially more spectacular.

Ever since hatching a plan to come and cycle in South America, the Atacama desert has rated high on my list of places to hit up. Why? I suppose it's because the desert is about the least British environment I could think of. I lived in South Korea for a long time, which is incredibly humid in the summer, whereas the Atacama desert would be bone dry. It is an environment that is way out of my comfort zone and I do like a challenge. I was not necessarily expecting it to be a fun experience. In fact I anticipated a lot of boredom and nasty winds. So why bother? Because the destination is so much more rewarding when you have worked for it, much like food tasting better when you have developed real hunger, or a drink when you are parched. It seems to me that you appreciate places a lot more when you have put in an effort to get there. So frequently I speak to underwhelmed tourists who have just hopped off a bus. When you are tired and exhausted, your desire to just stop and soak everything up is far greater.

The Atacama desert is huge, but I chose to ride a relatively short route from Antofagasta, on the coast, to San Pedro de Atacama, at the foot of the Andes. The total distance is around 331 kilometres. I thought I would be able to do it in two or three days. San Pedro de Atacama is located at around 2,400 metres above sea level, so it would be a slow, gradual climb. I figured that it would be a relatively fast ride.

Ignore the arrows on the map. I'm not doing that route. I went from Antofagasta to San Pedro via Calama.

Way back in the Lake District I made the decision to take the bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, the reason being that Chile is a pretty expensive country to visit and your money vanishes really quickly. The cycling in Chile has been amazing, but for the most part it has been very comfortable and pretty easy. Bolivia is where the paved roads stop and the adventure really begins. It also happens to be a really cheap country which means I can make this trip last longer. As I am unemployed at the moment I have complete freedom where time is concerned, but when my money runs out, it's game over. So, it made sense to skip to the places I really want to cycle and the final section that I wanted to cycle was the Atacama desert. From San Pedro it is a day of cycling before you get to Bolivia on the Altiplano.

Antofagasta to Carmen Alto (104km)
I got stuck in Antofagasta for five days waiting for my bicycle to arrive from Santiago. To say I was keen to leave would be a massive understatement. I was dying to leave! Hanging around a city when I wanted to be riding a bicycle was intensely frustrating, so when the opportunity to leave came along I shot of of there like a greyhound...for about 2 kilometres.

Antofagasta is trapped between the mountains and the sea and there is only one way out. You guessed right, OVER THE MOUNTAIN! I knew there would be a climb, but I had no idea how bad it would be. I think it was a 9km climb with an elevation of around 550 metres and it destroyed me. My bike was heavier than ever. I had just stocked up on food supplies and was carrying eight litres of water. I had also been a lazy bastard for the best part of two weeks, so I was not in good shape.
Heading out over the mountains there was rubbish scattered all over the desert landscape. Seeing this cross amongst it all made me wonder if Jesus would approve, haha. Come on guys, sort your mess out!

I had no idea how long the ascent would take and it ruined my legs. My right knee, which has been fine for this entire trip, suddenly started to ache nastily. My left calf muscle became tight and knotted.

Once over the hill there was a little descent that did not make up for the climb. As I stopped to take some photos a pack of stray desert dogs spotted me from about 100 metres away and came in hot pursuit. I bricked my pants and started pedalling like a lunatic to get away from them. It was not what my legs wanted at that point in time.

I headed north east along route five in the direction of Calama. Being in the desert landscape felt surreal to me. I have visited several deserts before and lived in Saudi Arabia for a short while before coming to South America, but I have never cycled in one. It felt surreal to be in this environment and it was invigorating.
An humongous work of art on the desert hillside near Baquedano.
"El corazon del desierto" - The heart of the desert.

The Atacama - How was the desert heat? 
All over Chile people kept telling me how roasting it would be in the desert and especially in the city Calama. Obviously I'm not going to head into a desert without doing some research. I checked the average temperatures in the summer and the average high is only around 25ºC. I was pretty skeptical of this. It surely has to be hotter than that. If all those Chileans say it is sweltering, then it must be! Well, the sun is incredibly strong in the desert - I won't deny that - but it is not very hot. When you are pedalling under the intense rays you do feel like you are cooking a little, but it really is not so bad. The temperatures I experienced down south in the wine region around Talca were far greater. However, it was very humid by the coast in Antofagasta.

I took a couple of hours off at the height of the day to escape the sunshine and get some lunch in Baquedano. I saw this PEE sign which made me chuckle. I am pretty juvenile after all. I regret not putting my camera on self timer and taking an action shot of myself pissing all over it. Opportunity lost!

I ended the day camping out by a remote petrol station at the junction of routes 5 and 25. There were quite a few people trying to hitch hike from there, so we formed a little campsite together.

Carmen Alto to Calama (118km)
I slept pretty badly at Carmen Alto. During the night my bowels got nasty. I came down with a vicious bout of diarrhoea. I put it down to the ceviche I ate in Antofagasta, but in truth it could have been anything. It would be an interesting ride!

I was awoken by an employee at around 6am, so I slowly got my stuff together. Having a tender stomach I chose to eat a bunch of fruit for breakfast. I was also feeling pretty lazy and couldn't be bothered to set up my stove and cook anything.

It was cloudy and pretty cold when I set off. My legs were still pretty screwed from the climb out of Antofagasta the day before. I found this pretty worrying. I also had a bit of a headache. I was aiming to get to Sierra Gorda which was only 46km away. It took much longer than anticipated. As you can see from the photo above it looks completely flat to the eye, but it is a slight uphill. I find these types of climbs the most frustrating. There was a slight headwind, so my average speed was low. It was an overcast day and it really increased the monotony of the ride. It was not all that enjoyable. I think the grey sky was affecting my mindset.

The stretch between Carmen Alto and Sierra Gorda had a lot of crumbling old buildings, the remnants of old industry.

Away off from the road I spotted this eery graveyard.

I stopped off at Sierra Gorda. It's a small village close to Spence Mine. A lot of the buses passing through to San Pedro stop here. I saw some women hold up some signs for empanadas at a cafe, so I went for a closer inspection. I had a spot of lunch there, then fell asleep sat upright in my chair. One of the women spotted me dozing off and said that I could take a nap inside the building. It must have doubled as a hotel. I was pretty happy to get some sleep in a comfortable bed. I was about to go to the plaza and nap in the shade, but this was far better. I ended up sleeping for a couple of hours.

After waking up I got back on the bike and headed towards Spence mine. The sleep had done me the world of good. I felt so much better. My legs had completely stopped aching. My knee was fine. The sun was shining. I was really in the mood for cycling.

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The slow climb continued. There was a brief spell after Sierra Gorda where I picked up a bit of speed, but it didn't last long. The road weaved around Spence Mine and stretched out into the distance. I was simply chasing the horizon a lot of the time.

Plants! This desert is really dry and there isn't much life, but it can be found, especially by the side of the road. I also so a few dragonflies way out in the middle of nowhere.

Pretty much the only things you see out there are related to the mining industry.

I finally reached a pass late in the afternoon. I thought I might get a little respite, but the downhill was shortlived. After this spot the road veered left then shot directly to Calama. When the city came into vision it was a huge relief. It hadn't been a difficult day of cycling, but it was slow and unexciting. My guts were giving me some serious grief too. Throughout the course of the day I had to take about five roadside dumps. In a few spots I was fortunate to find some mounds of dirt to do the business behind, but in a couple of places there was nowhere to hide, so I just propped up my bicycle on its kickstand and dropped the kids off in full view of the passing traffic. What can you do? So you can imagine how happy I was to see the city. Soon I would have the luxury of a real toilet!

One of the things I love about the landscape is how close things appear when they are actually miles away. Calama was probably about a further 20km away when I spotted it, so it took over an hour and at least another roadside poop before I finally got there. The desert makes the city looks so small.

First priority, diarrhoea medicine.

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I stayed two nights in Calama. It's not a particularly interesting town. Most people are here to work at the mines. I just wanted to rest up and hoped that my guts would clear up before I went on my final leg to San Pedro de Atacama.

When I was in Punta Arenas I spent Christmas in a hostel with a bunch of Chileans from Santiago. I knew that they were not going to be in Santiago when I visited, but I had no idea that they were doing an internship in Calama working at some of the mines here. It was a nice surprise, so I got to meet up with them and have a spot of food and some beer on my second night.

Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (109km)
Day three promised to be a much more interesting ride. I had been told that the landscape would be much more interesting as I approached San Pedro. Calama is 2,200 metres above sea level and San Pedro is at 2,450 metres above sea level, but they are separated by a 3,400 metre pass which is easily the highest altitude that I have been on this trip so far.

I made a pretty late start to the day. I met a 60 year old Korean man who was travelling around South America by himself. He was a Vipassana meditation instructor. That's not what you expect an ajossi to tell you, so we chatted for a little while.
The roadside shrines start to incorporate vehicles after Calama.

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Leaving Calama you head towards a wind farm on the horizon. Seemingly close, it's actually 20km
away. Even several hours after passing it you can still see it.
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After 50km I took a lunch break. There was no shelter, so I got away from the road and cooked up some noodles.

After lunch I was in hot pursuit of Paso Barros Arana (3,400 metres) on the horizon. The climb was not steep, but at that altitude I started to get tired really quickly. I actually had no idea that the pass was so high until afterwards and explained a lot. I got really out of breath.

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Paso Barros Arana (3,400 metres)
After three days of cycling up hill everything changes very suddenly. Sure, it was just a gentle incline most of the way, but never really have any opportunity to freewheel, so what was about to come felt simply amazing. An unbelievable descent of around 1,000 metres down to the valley. The views on display were astounding.
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Suddenly, the Andes were back in view. Snow capped volcanoes everywhere.
The clouds hover over the Altiplano on the other side of the valley.

Bombing down the hill you practically get a birds eye view of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountains).

But it was cold and cloudy up there. I got rained on! Fortunately the storm brewing whipped up some tailwinds which kept me ahead of the bad weather.

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More car wrecks and roadside shrines.

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After the massive hillbomb you have to climb over the Cordillera de la sal. I spotted some mountains bikers riding off road, so I decided to pursue them and see what they were going to check out. I was not expecting these views. The mirador had a spectacular vista over the most magnificent valley with some otherworldly rock formations. This felt like more than ample reward for three days of cycling over a monotonous barren landscape. I was being spoiled! I knew it would be picturesque in these parts, but had no idea how much.

From here I got spoiled even more. The landscape rolled out the red carpet as I rode down the winding highway towards San Pedro.
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San Pedro is a very small town. It is extremely popular with tourist and it is understandable why. The region is full of things to do and see. The only downside is that it is packed with tourists, but that doesn't bother me. It is popular for a reason. I decided that I would stay in San Pedro for a few days, take a couple of tours and prepare for the next stage of my journey.

Valle de la Luna
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Valle de La Muerte
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El Mirador
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Tatio Geysers
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Andean Flamingos

Vicuña grazing.

Giant Coot

Viscacha. Weird rodents that are related to chinhillas, but look like rabbits with strangre platypus tails.

Llamas. Not to be confused with guanacos and vicuñas. We had llama kebabs shortly after this in Machuca village.


I am going to spend another day in San Pedro de Atacama preparing for my ride onto the Bolivian Altiplano. I will be taking the Lagunas route. It is going to be a very tough ten day ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni on the salt flats. As usual when you mention it to people you have to listen to a tidal wave of pessimism. It's not possible. It's snowing. There will be storms. You will die of dehydration. Typical reaction from non cyclists who have done no research on the matter. Lots of people cycle this route and it is notoriously brutal, but stunning. I anticipate high winds, rain, sub zero nights, lots of sand, dirt, gravel and rocks, and plenty of pushing the bike. It probably won't be fun, but it will be memorable. Also, everything will feel easy afterwards! It's a very remote road and I won't be in much company, but the tours from San Pedro to Uyuni take this route, so worst case scenario I will always be able to get help when the 4x4s roll by once a day.

There is a wealth of information online about it. I downloaded a great little pdf with lots of information about the route. Here's the link:

Cycling Southwest Bolivia

This will be my last post for a while as I will be off the grid.

(next post: San Pedro to Uyuni)

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