October 23, 2011 GMT
Episode VI: San Pedro de Atacama part one

San Pedro, the most touristy place we´ve been so far. We show up from the mountains, having cycled 300 km in four days and climbed over a 3400m pass, so we´re not quite prepared for the surreal "quaintness" of the place. Even the bank has its logo engraved in a wooden sign. Bobos everywhere, hiking gear galore, touts for restaurants, extortionate prices, the lot.

We even have trouble ordering food - we order "chorillana for two" and are impressed by the amount of food we get...


...only to be defeated, realising that ONE chorillana is for two people and our waitress is probably on drugs for having interpreted our sign language as "yes, please, bring us food for 4 people".


We find a campsite for a decent price not too close to the centre of the village, the only glitch being the annoying hostess looking at us with dollar signs in her eyes (e.g. trying to squeeze 500 pesos for the privilege of using a power socket for a few hours)

We have problems to solve. Our petrol stove is broken, we have come to realise we really do need a windscreen for it (as it gets windy around here and then cooking is an ordeal), and I have recently killed the Camelbak by dropping it off a speeding bike. We order parts for the stove and a 10Lt water bag to replace the Camelbak. The clock starts ticking, the most critical delivery being only "5 working days" away. Having time to kill, being unable to cook and therefore to travel, we start exploring around the village of San Pedro de Atacama.

First trip was to the north, Devil´s Canyon...


... a tunnel, archaelogical ruins we never quite found but good practice for our sand riding skills.


There has always been something about sand that freaked me out, particularly since I´ve been riding heavy motorcycles, but on a bicycle things are simpler - just keep the handlebars as straight as possible and pedal like your life depended on it.


We explore, perhaps a little bit too much, trying to make the best of the place and our time.


We get tired, we push, we get lost, a bit grumpy, but we get there... wherever "there" happens to be.


There is a little pushing and pulling involved, but the canyons are good fun to explore.



A river crossing that we did not attempt on the bikes, following the traditional method instead:


Somewhere along our meanderings we checked the odometer...


2000km on the saddle, and still no saddle sores. We must be taking our time, or have fantastic saddles! (My vote goes in for the former)

We take a day off to read in the tent and catch up on sleep (we really don´t sleep enough when we travel - less than 11 hours a day - you can´t really call this "vacation").

Next day we explore the Valley of Death (catchy names around here...) where we again negotiate sandy tracks and do some serious pushing to get to a vantage point to enjoy a solitary, peaceful sunset over the canyon... when a van full of tourists show up. Trying to see the positive side of this I should say it feels good that we are here with our bikes and had made it on our own, and not paid to be chauffered there.


Next day we visit Laguna de Cejar, 35km south of San Pedro de Atacama, which is a complex of 2-3 small lakes which, judging by the screams of people swimming in them, are quite cold. The approach is nice and sandy and keeps us entertained.




We lie next to the lake (there are shady spots) and read our Kindles, befriending lizards


... enjoying the beauty


...and wait for the afternoon wind to properly pick up. When a proper sandstorm breaks out, we hop onto the bikes and merrily pedal the 35km back, with our eyes, nostrils and mouths full of sand.


Oh the fun. We are rewarded with bizarre cloud formations


and receive the 10Lt Ortlieb water bag we had ordered from Santiago three days ago, which pushes our water carrying capacity to over 20Lt.


(of course water is heavy, hence Ping is scratching her head wondering who the heck is going to carry all this)

Another day off (we have the perfect excuse to be lazy: "We´re waiting for stuff to arrive by post") and then a trek (hiking, walking, call it what you like) in the Valley of the Moon. This one is slightly more adventurous than we expect - we get a bit lost in the maze of salt hills and sand dunes...


we listen to the slow creaking of the salt rocks...


... do some leap-of-faith climbing (some of us merrier than others)


find ourselves in caves that after crawling through pitch black passages prove to be dead ends


...so we have to climb back out...


...a little bit exhausted after 6 hours of all this


...but in the end, we make it out of there with a feeling of accomplishment.


Generally, excellent fun (in retrospect).

By this point we start running out of close range options so we bite the bullet and book a tourist tour to the El Tatio geysers. I hope you like this photo because I got up at 3:30am to take it.


Now, geysers are supposed to be volcanic phenomena: an underground water stream is met with volcanic super-hot elements which both put pressure on the soil and water and lead to extreme temperature differences, creating a supposedly spectacular natural phenomenon - natural steaming water fountains. This is not a scientific explanation, just my layman´s interpretation of what´s going on.

The reason I don´t have a scientific explanation, is that our guide doesn´t speak English - annoying, that, when we´ve paid a good amount of money for a tour in English... So after yawning with excitement at the geysers, marvelling at the local flora at a microscopic level


... piling on top of each other in a small cold puddle they call a "thermal bath", being taken to a village-that-would-not-be-there-were-it-not-for-the-tourists-paying-$4-for-a-chewy-llama-kebab we are driven back to San Pedro, over another 200km of bone-jittering unpaved roads that limit our poor driver to only 90km/h.

At least the cacti are pretty.


Bizarre how some people balance stones.


It all feels a little bit better after getting a partial refund without too much hassle.

At this point we are quite fed up with San Pedro de Atacama and decide to move out and spend a few days out in the Salar de Atacama - the part of the desert that is designated as a "Salt Lake". We combine this with a visit to Laguna Chaxa, a lake some 60km south of San Pedro de Atacama that is rumoured to attract many flamingos.

So we pedal via Toconao south and then the wind picks up and then we enter the Salar de Atacama and then we pedal west and then the wind picks up some more and at some point Ping politely suggests we stop and camp if I still value my life. So we stop.


It is not the most hospitable of terrains; even getting the bikes and all the equipment to a spot that is actually campable (i.e. we can set up the tent without it being shredded to pieces) is a small struggle.

In any case we set up our tent and call it a night.

Next morning we get up late (after all the effort of the previous day...) and pretty much spend the entire day reading in the tent. We manage to venture about 2km away to the lake to ask the ranger what the best time to visit is - he says 8am and warns us it is very cold. We say "fine" and turn to leave, which somehow distresses him - he stops us to ask why are we not visiting now, and we say "we'll come tomorrow, too much sun now". Disbelieving us, he says goodbye.

The following morning we get there at 08:45. The ranger is so impressed to see us there with the bikes that he does not take our money and instead conspiratorily waves us in.

O Laguna Chaxa, with your fleeting pink flamingos


(which we would need serious zoom lens to capture)


...and your much less fleeting (but also cute) mice.

No shade though, so we walk around, fill our water bag and leave.


Camping out there on the Salar de Atacama is less hospitable than you might think. Forget the lunar landscape and the fact the ground is salt rock. Temperatures INSIDE the tent range from -1 Celcious at 8am in the morning to +43 Celcious around 4pm. Inside the tent, the sun is so strong that we have to have our hats on. And the unrelenting wind does us no good, as it brings so much sand with it that we have to have the tent fly shut, lest we lose all our equipment under a layer of sand...

As usual with these things, the beauty of the landscape and the calm of the early morning are a partial compensation, but we still decide to move out.


That´s it for the Salar de Atacama.

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Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at October 23, 2011 09:28 PM GMT

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