October 28, 2011 GMT
Episode VII: San Pedro de Atacama part deux

(Part deux of the San Pedro de Atacama installment - big one since we spent one full month there)

Leaving the freezing cold, scorching hot, extremely windy and dusty Salar de Atacama behind we locate a patch of trees that look like they would make a good campsite.

This patch is less than 15km away from the village of Toconao, so there is scant cellphone coverage. Here, Ping is demonstrating wireless signal optimisation techniques:

Improving the Kindle´s wireless signal

The patch of trees is indeed lovely, but we don´t pay enough attention to the prevalence of thorns before too late. Even though the deep sand means that riding is impossible and we have to push the bikes to get to a camping spot in the shade, we still manage to get a puncture (our first) in Ping´s front wheel.

Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tyres... also known as "puncture-free" - sporting in their product literature an image of the tyre running over a vicious looking thorn and devastating it. Well... they're good, but not that good. After patching the tube 3 times (as it kept losing air and I assume that we are not patching the hole properly) Ping suggests that we look for a second puncture. It hadn't even occurred to me.

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So taken in by the product propaganda was I, that one puncture was improbable, surely two simultaneous punctures with no rider on the bike must be impossible!

Sure enough after two minutes I find the other hole, patch it, and all is well.

We spend a good 3 hours de-thorning

Thorns everywhere... not ideal campsite

and de-pooping (damn goats!) our camping site


...then set up the tent, then dethorn some more. We have inflatable mattresses, and if a thorn went through the 4 layers of plastic we have under the tent, it would be very easy for it to pierce the tent floor and our mattresses too, rendering them useless. After a painful session of taking out thorns from under an already erect tent (which I suppose would have looked quite amusing to an external observer) we are ready to go to bed.

After waking up on the inflated mattress (and not on the floor) we know that we did a good job, which automatically qualifies the place for staying there for a few days. We cycle the 55km round trip to San Pedro whenever we need supplies or to use the Internet and get back before sundown.

Returning to our campsite, at the end of the day

Otherwise, we spend lazy days in our little patch of trees, reading, waiting for the stove valve to arrive, observing the llamas and wild asses roaming about...

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generally following a very fast and anxious pace...

We spend a week out there. By the end of it, we are sufficiently bored to get down to downright dangerous activities. I cut Ping's hair

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and she trims my beard in revenge

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We get back to civilisation to see a truck carrying four trucks

A truck carrying 4 trucks

... to have a shower, wash our clothes and remove all the thorns from our shoes.

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After decamping and riding back to San Pedro, we´re told the village is out of water because of a pipe problem. Our regular camping site is closed due to lack of water. Great!

So we check in to an expensive (by our standards - 25 quid per night) hostel because it has running water (o, wonderful water tanks).

After spending some quality time with Judit and Cesar, and since we have now given up waiting for the stove replacement parts and have ordered a brand new stove from the USA (this time to be delivered by courier), we decide to not idle by and set off to visit the so called "Altiplanic Lakes" - Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques.

These lakes are 110km away from San Pedro de Atacama, at an altitude of 4300m. San Pedro is at 2500m.

Things don't start out too well - Ping feels rather unwell right by the outset

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but subsequently carries on to cross the desert on day one and then reach the beautiful altiplano by day 2

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The last stretch of the road to the lakes is very difficult, not the least because it is steep, quite loose and sandy

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...and we have already climbed 1800 vertical meters that day, reaching 4300m of elevation!

(this is our elevation profile for the second day - we decamp at 2550m and pedal 43km up to 4300m)

111025 climb profile 2500 to 4300 meters in one day

We reach the entrance to the lakes reserve (marked by a rangers' hut) at the border of the two lagunas by 6pm of day 2.

At this point we are informed by the ranger that we are not allowed to camp anywhere around there and we have to go down to the valley (300 vertical meters down, the last stretch has taken us a few hours to push through...) to camp. We plead, negotiate, used the silent approach, use the "I'm just eating my cookies and stonewalling you" approach... in the end we reach an agreement. We will get a lift with the rangers' pickup truck down to the valley, where we can camp for the night, and they will give us another lift up to the lakes at 8am next morning.

Attempting to load the bikes onto the pickup truck make us realise this isn't going to work because the bikes do not fit onto the truck... so we lock them inside the ranger's hut, unload all our gear, throw it onto the truck

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and are dropped off outside the limits of the national reserve, where we camp in full accordance to the letter of the law.

Phew. What a pallava.

After they drop us off my heart sinks to my proverbial boots as I realise I am beyond the point of tiredness where back home I would say "shower? nah, tomorrow" and just crash in bed, but we still have to find a camping spot, put up the tent, inflate the mattresses, put everything in the tent, get our sleeping clothes/gear out, prepare and eat food, purify water, do our teeth...

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Somehow we manage to do everything. But we are quite silent. Too tired for chit-chat.

I don't sleep well at all that night - even though we are down at 4000 meters it is still quite cold, we have to get up at 6:30am to be ready to be picked up before 8am next morning and I am so tired I keep waking up with achy legs.

Next morning we are ready at 7:30 am and get a lift back up to the lakes as agreed.

Ping patiently waiting for our lift at 8am outside the Los Flamengos Natural Reserve limit

We visit the lakes properly (quite pretty I have to say but without the sense of achievement of having pedalled to 4300 vertical meters I wouldn't have been too fussed)

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...have a second breakfast with this view...

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...then commence the 40km downhill that would take us back into the desert.

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Alas, we underestimate the difficulty of the downhill - all the sandy patches we could barely pedal through (or not) on our way up are now prime traps for our wheels, making the bikes skid and swerve like crazy, making our fingers ache with constant braking.

Ping has a small spill just before getting into Socaire (the first village on the way back). Luckily she is unhurt, so we just have a proper rest break for lunch in Socaire before carrying on down the mountain, to the usual 2500 meters of the Salar de Atacama.

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Ping is quite unimpressed.

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...but, with a decent meal it's all alright once more.

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We carry on pedalling, admiring the desert flowers that manage to flourish through grit, salt and occassionally tarmac:

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Pedalling along the side of the Salar de Atacama:

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We don't manage to reach San Pedro that night so we camp in our usual spot in a line of trees 25km out of the village.

We had been told by DHL that our package (the new stove from Amazon!) would be delivered the next day, so we rush into the village and accept extortion from the hostel we used for the delivery address ("but señor, the price 3 days ago was 8000 pesos per person" - "yeah, well today it's 10000 pesos per person, prices just went up"). Of course we are subsequently told by DHL that the package will be delivered "tomorrow".

In the meantime, out of pure habit we drop by the Post Office to say hello and ask whether we have a package from England and as usual leave them sniggering while we drag our feet out... BUT WAIT! This time, oh the surprise, they actually do have something for us. It's the spare part we had ordered 3 weeks ago.

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Quelling our enthusiasm is the fact that we need to remove the old valve to install the new one, and after touring a couple of metal shops and three car mechanics it's obvious that the thing is stuck. So the stove is as good as a brick, we have the part in hand but we can't use it...

Add to that the fact that we left our shoes out of the hostel room one night and the next morning one of my shoes was gone (presumably nicked by a dog), and you can imagine my high spirits.

Here, making do with sandals since I'm left with only one real shoe.

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DHL is being difficult, they keep promising delivery dates and then missing them, they don´t appear to know how to do their job, they ask us for more money, then they say no, and are generally being a nightmare to deal with. For some reason we will probably never know they decide to delay a lot, so we realise we'll need to hang around for another week, so we move out of expensive San Pedro and into the woods, this time in a place closer to the village.

This time I get the customary double puncture while pushing the bike through a thorn field.


Once more we have time to kill so other than reading we get busy building a wind breaker / heat reflector for our stove (assuming the new one will get there someday...) using cheap disposable baking trays.

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For the result in action you will have to bear with us. We need a working stove, innit!

We hibernate as per usual, waiting for so called "professionals" to do their job and deliver the new stove.

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We are lucky enough to meet Martin and Marilli, bicycle travellers extraordinaire, with whom we hang out for a day or two.

As if it is not enough to hang on tenterhooks whilst DHL change the dates of the stove delivery daily, one night we check our emails and find that our previous hostel owners have found my shoe! The one-shoed-cyclist, with a short-lived life of only 3 days, returns to the closet. Just in time for us to visit Valle de la Luna with Martin and Marilli.

Oh, and the dogs.



These dogs decided to follow us as we were leaving San Pedro de Atacama. We never looked at them, winked at them, fed them or anything. They just came along for the ride (run?).

They enjoyed the cave-like passages...

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and followed us for over 50km throughout our exploratory meanderings.

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We get back to the village anxious to see if there has been any update on the delivery of our stove, only to find a rather cryptic message from the company DHL has offloaded our package to:

Cryptic translation

Not having lost hope for the day, we hang out in the main square, keeping a beady eye on the post office and all van traffic through the village, periodically checking the hostel as well. The reason is nobody had managed to inform us WHERE the package would be delivered to. Minor details, eh?

I see it. It's a van, and it says BlueExpress on the side. I know they have our package. I spring up from the bench and scramble. I am outside the driver's door before he's out. He's slightly taken aback, but I don't let him think twice - I say something to the effect of "GIMME MY PACKAGE NOW!" (in really bad Spanish). Amazingly, he does.

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And with that, we have a stove again.

The end of the big wait. Stove finally in our hands.

We are mobile again.

We are travellers, and not fools hanging around for an entire month in a touristy place where most people look at them with dollar signs in their eyes. (It's late and we need to pack for Bolivia. Otherwise I'd ramble on about the treatment we got from some business owners around San Pedro de Atacama...)

The world is back in balance. (Well, my country back home is in serious international turmoil but let's focus on the trip for now)

In the words of the great Peter Allen from All That Jazz - "Everything Old is New Again"

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End of story. We are out of San Pedro de Atacama ASAP - i.e. tomorrow morning.

Next stop: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

--

Something we´ve been wanting to do for a while is share our reading lists. So here goes:

Alex

- 2 B R 0 2 B - Kurt Vonnegut
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
- The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
- Various short stories by H.P. Lovecraft
- The Art of Deception - Kevin Mitnick
- The daily UK newspaper the Independent, which we got a paid subscription for and it has since been wirelessly delivered to our Kindles. Two gripes with this: One, the Kindle edition has very few pictures (and sometimes the article refers to the picture that's not there). And two, they buried a letter I sent them (you will have to scroll down for "The myth of big, fat Greek wages") complaining for the patently false claim of one of their staff (Patrick Cockburn) who had the nerve to write that the Greek crisis is happening partially due to "wages ballooning" after the country joined the Euro. Honestly.
- The Greatest Show on Earth - Richard Dawkins
- Walking - Henry David Thoreau
- The Cloud Garden - Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder
- Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
- The Goulag Archipelago - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- Human Error - James Reason
- Lots and lots of Wikileaks-related material
- Why I write - George Orwell
- The Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman
- Approaching Zero - Paul Mungo & Bryan Glough
- Mr Tompkins in Wonderland, Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom - George Gamow

Ping:

- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
- The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere´s Fan by Oscar Wilde
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
- Just Patty, When Patty Went to College, Jerry Junior, Daddy-Long-Legs, Dear Enemy, The Four-Pools Mystery by Jean Webster
- My Man Jeeves, Right Ho Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
- What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge
- Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne's House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside by LM Montgomery
- A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
- Unauthorised Autobiography by Julian Assange
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
- Once on a Time by AA Milne
- Chile - Culture Smart! by Caterina Perrone
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

==
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Posted by Ping-Yi at October 28, 2011 01:53 AM GMT
 


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