Northeastern Chile: Stunning beauty

Route: Paso Sico – San Pedro de Atacama – Ge!seres El Tatio – Inacaliri – San Pedro – Ollague

After our windy night a few kilometer passed the Argentinean border, the road kept going up and up. Paso Sico is not the highest point. We, Frederic and I, keep climbing to a first pas at 4.450 meter. The good news is that right at the Chilean side of the border, the gravel road turned into smooth asphalt. And no traffic. After a welcome descent, we climb to another pass at 4.570 meter, yet another record for me. In the distance we see several smaller salt lakes.

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As the customs wanted give me only 1,5 liter of water, and nothing to Frederic, we were running low. Luckily, there’s a Chilean police post as well further down the road and they are more accommodating.

The scenery is definitely the most stunning I’v seen so far in South-America. Colorful mountains, electric blue sky, white salt flats and then … the first laguna appears. With that also the first tourist bus that seems to come up all the way from San Pedro de Atacama, still three days away for us on the bike. Luckily, they don’t stay too long. They have a busy schedule to follow, I reckon 🙂

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In an old mining post, still manned buy two friendly guys, we manage to get a warm meal and a shower for a very decent price. We could even stay for the night, but there are still a couple of hours daylight left, and we choose to carry on. We end up spending the night at an army camp. A team of about 30 guys, and a medic, goes out every day to clean up the anti personnel mines, which apparently still lay around in abundance along the Chilean / Argentinean border. And even more along the Chilean / Bolivian border, the soldiers tell me. I don’t know whether that’s a Pinochet thing ?
But I cycled along huge mine fields near the Strait of Magellan as well. All these countries here don’t have a very friendly past with one another.

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Passing the Tropic of Capricorn in the Atacama desert, a few kilometer before entering San Pedro de Atacama, I enter the tropics.

Next day, the wind blows like hell. We have to take turns riding in the front so the other can have a small break. The going is tough, but we are rewarded with more snowcapped volcanos and another laguna.

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After the Toconao, the road gets bussier.
I stayed for six nights in San Pedro de Atacama in a nice room to get a good rest, do some bicycle maintenance, update the website and prepare my route into Bolivia.
Many cyclists take the so called ‘Laguna Route’ towards Uyuni in Bolivia, but I read, and heard horror stories about how sandy that stretch is, and the numerous tourist Jeeps that pass you all day long at high speed, covering you in dust.  I say goodbye to Frederic, who will ride this route.

One of my last days in San Pedro de Atacama, I cycled towards the Valle de Luna. I went around noon-time, which is ideal. You have the place almost to yourself. All toursits do the same thing, and one of these things is ‘sunset at Valle de Luna’.
If the scenery coming down from Paso Sico was so beautiful already, this Vale de Luna is even more spectacular. I can imagine astronauts would come here to practice. It really looks like the moon or Mars.
On my way back to the hotel, later that afternoon, I count 32 minibuses driving to the Val de Luna, plus Jeeps and cars.
They must be sitting on that hill with close to a thousand people, watching the sunset.
Charming.

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From San Pedro de Atacama, I headed straight north towards the El Tatio Geysers. Back from 2.600 meter, up to the ‘Altiplano’ above 4.000 meter. The climb isn’t very steep, but the road is some sort of destroyed asphalt.

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The church in San Pedro de Atacama.

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Flamenco’s, from north to south in Chile & Argentina, at sea level and at + 4.000 meter, always with their head under water.
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On my way up the altiplano, I passed a small hamlet where I could buy some empanadas with Lama meat. They were delicious, and I reckon that meat is pretty healthy.

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Behind those mountains is Bolivia.
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The whole border is lined with volcanos, this one releasing some yellow smoke.

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Late in the afternoon on my second day out of San Pedro de Atacama I arrive at the El Tatio Geyser. The park rangers say it is closed for the day and I should camp at the parking lot.
I tell them I’m not here for the geyser, that I’m on my way to Ollague, at the Bolivian border. They look stunned at me.
“You have to go via Calama”, they say.
I’m not very pleased with that answer. I tell them it took me two days to cycle up here, and there is no way I will go back. “Look, here is my map, and there’s a little road going further north from here towards Inacaliri. I can even see the track going up over there, behind the geysers”.

They don’t really know what to do with this information.  One of the guys tells me that sometimes they have a cyclist coming up to the geyser, but never one that wanted to go beyond here.
They consult another guy who just arrived from San Pedro de Atacama in a Jeep with some supplies.
Luckily for me, he says that it might be possible with a bicycle.
There is a German couple with an off-road camper on the parking lot, and they are not allowed through. The track seems to be out of use.

After a while, and after filling up my water bootles, they let me go through.
I pitch my tent at the far end of they geyser field. It will be a bad night.
I’m camping at 4.30O meter, it is freezing at night and …. I have mice in my tent ! I take all my bags in the inner tent, because these little bastards are famous for biting holes in your panniers. But I’m also afraid they will damage my tent. Several times a minute I have to chase them away, but they keep coming back, all night long. Why aren’t they going down to San Pedro de Atacama, where it’s warm and where there’s a lot of food ?
Mice at 4.300 meter …. 😦

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Camping just above the geyser field.
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The friendly German Couple gave me a beer for the night. For Belgians, Heineken is the worst beer in the world, but still it tasted wonderful and at 4.300 m, it was nicely chilled.

Next morning, I hear all the tourist buses, Jeeps, cars arriving before the sunrise.
As they all go to the sunset together, they come here for the sunrise.
The Jeeps and buses leave San Pedro de Atacama at 4:30 am.
And … I find it all a bit disappointing. No spectacular geysers like you see them in Iceland, Yellowstone or Rotorua, New-Zealand. Just a bit of smoking coming from the earth at several place and some water bubbling up.
If I had to get out of bed before 4 am to see that ….
The reason they come that early is that later in the day it warms up and you even don’t see the smoke anymore.
It’s a tourist trap, don’t do it when you’re here.

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This is just one of the parking lots. There are several, all packed. By 9:30 am, they’re all gone again and the place is deserted.

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Yesterday, late evening two military vehicles passed my tent. Probably this ‘road’, skirting the border, is only used by them.
The Germans with the camper tried to sneak through this morning, but had to turn back as there were too many big rocks on the road.

On the bike, it’s a fine trail.
It’s hard. The road climbs again over 4.500 meter and has a section with deep sand where I have to push for a few hours. It gets cold here at night, there’s no water (hey, you’re in the Atacama, driest place on earth) and I haven’t seen a single soul in 48 hours. You’re on your own here.  Nobody will come to rescue you when things go wrong.
And that’s fine.

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I hit the pavement again at San Pedro, which is basically a train station with some slums around it. There’s a big white water tank at the other side of the railway line, which has potable water. I didn’t see any place to eat, or to buy food. Which is no problem, I still carry enough from San Pedro de Atacama.

From here, the road is paved all the way to the border.  I’m passing several other salt flats and have to be creative in finding places to pitch the tent. The wind blows here, and there’s not much shelter.

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Had to rebuilt the walls a bit here in order to fit the tent.

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Camping near Cebollar, a train station and some sheds next to one of the salars. It looks like camping in Beirut, but at least it has good shelter from the wind. And for the second time in four nights… mice in the tent 😦

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At Ollague I finish wat you could call the first part of this trip. The last seven months I spend in Argentinië and Chile, where I cycled 10.132 kilometer.
Total since I’ve started this trip in April 2016: 30.843 km.

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The gps-track can be downloaded from Wikiloc

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