14 December 2014

San Pedro de Atacama to San Antonio de los Cobres: riding into the winds of Argentina through the Puna

Getting to Chile, but specifically San Pedro de Atacama, was quite a shock to the system. After more than four months in the thin air of PerĂº and Bolivia, coming to the heat of the desert was a novelty. After almost a year in the ´developing´world, we felt like we were back in Europe. Recklessly drinking tap water without asking its provenance, buying fancy foods from stores where everything isn´t behind the counter, taking advantage of the fast internet, and the beer and wine that cost less than an almuerzo. It definitely felt strange. 

Our days in San Pedro were not like most of the tourists that travel so far to get there and see the sights that abound in the area. We were lucky to spend a few relaxing days in the good company of other cyclists and our Warmshowers host Carlos, just on the outskirts of town, almost ignoring the hustle and bustle of San Pedro. 

But our time in the desert was short-lived. Before long it would be time again to head to higher altitudes, this time in the form of the Puna that forms the geographic barrier between Chile and Argentina. Crossing into Argentina via the mostly unpaved Paso Sico, we savored the remote landscapes of the high Andes one last time, before descending to San Antonio de los Cobres, knowing it would be quite a while before we are up that high again. So, we loaded up with five days of food and left the oasis...

In San Pedro there was plenty of time for map-gazing... giving us far more ideas than we will ever have time to carry out.
The Valle de la Luna is within easy reach of San Pedro, and so Alberto took a day off to go visit. Despite it being potentially touristy, if you avoid the morning and evening hours, you have it to yourself. If you can cope with the desert sun, that is!
Some of the landscapes were simply incredible

After a wonderful few days with Carlos, it was time to say goodbye, cut Alberto´s high altitude beard, and make a break for Argentina. We also said goodbye to Quique, Alicia, and Julien who took the main pass, Paso Jama.
Leaving San Pedro we pick up fellow cyclist Lee, and together made fast progress on the best paved road we´ve enjoyed for months...despite the bleak scenery.
But as the road turns East towards Argentina, the scenery changes and the the gradient steepens
We stayed the night in Socaire, the last proper village in a few days. The adobe church is a tourist sight, but for us, this town will be remembered as the one where two rude carabineros (Chilean police) wake us up abruptly with a tent shake, in the middle of the night, to enquire about who we were, where we were headed and why we camped in town (and when they were satisfied with our account, left without so much as a ´good night´).

The following morning we reached the first plateau, and get back to enjoying the magnificent views of the Puna
Then kept going round beautiful Cerro Miscanti (5622 m)

After another short climb we hit the salar de aguas calientes, one of the most beautiful we´ve seen

And as usual, our priority becomes to find a sheltered place to spend the night due to the wind. Check out the plants, which are permanently bent because of it

Luckily, we knew of a good sheltered camp place right by the salar, on its NW side. 

In the morning we ride to the last pass before leaving Chile. The kind gentlemen looking after the copper mine (to be opened in 2025 they reckoned) not only refilled our water bottles, but gave us a huge pasta and steak lunch that we struggled to finish. 

And then, after reaching the top of the last pass with the powerful help of the Puna winds (which literally pushed us up 15% hills without a single pedal stroke), we enter another new country. Note the change in the road´s condition quality as you cross the border line!

Not much movimiento at the argentian border. Only a car every few days. Once we cleared customs, the gendarmes at the border crossing gave us a whole apartment in which we spent the night. Luxurious, and with free wifi. Welcome to Argentina!

The following morning we leave the aduana on the main road towards Salta - in much better condition that the suggested left turn by the Pikes´ that leads to Catua

After spending the night with the local policeman in Olacapato (again, fast wifi and argentinian hospitality, all for free). At midday we topped the last high altitude pass in a while. And with this one, we reckoned it must´ve been more than 25 passes above 4500 m! Catch ya later, Puna..

The final descent into San Antonio was kinda fun. We had a stiff headwind that saw us precariously pedalling downhill, and only managing 12 km/h. Luckily for us though, we had strong tailwinds the whole rest of the route, and could not really imagine how hard it is to do it the other way...
Not much happening in the warm air of San Antonio, other than being a base for the high altitude army folks, and for having a great municipal campsite for free, just behind the church.

And of course, a new country means new currency. All tourists must get used to the high-tech argentinian pesos, not quite as fancy as their chilean neighours.

And at long last, empanadas!
Route notes:

As always, our thanks to the Pikes and other fellow cyclists for their excellent route notes and comments on the Paso Sico. A few other points worth adding:

- The road on the Chilean side is paved and when not is hard-packed and of excellent quality. Once in Argentina, there´s lots of corrugation and sand, but we did not push at all.

- The wind was blowing from Argentina to Chile all the time while we were doing the route. From other peoples´comments and those collected from the people we met en-route, it´s almost always the same. So, allow more days and suffering if cycling it from Argentina.

- We carried five days worth of food from San Pedro, mostly because we are picky with what we eat and there´s more choice there. But there´s shops in Socaire (well-stocked) and Olacapato on the Argentinian side.

- We slept at the Argentinian border and then again in Olacapato with the police both times. The water at the Argentian border is not drinkable out of the ta but they can give you drinking water. 

1 comment:

  1. Who knew salares came in so many colors. Hope you guys treat yourselves to more delicious Argentinian steaks!