#126: A challenging time on Ruta de las Vicunas

CHILE, 1st-5th January 2020

Looking back now, 2020 began as it meant to go, with a pretty miserable rainy first few days for us. We were high up in the Chilean Andes on the Vicunas Route, a challenging and very remote dirt-road route that was made a lot more difficult by the rain. On the first day we managed fifty kilometres, during which we saw a grand total of zero cars. We did see plenty of vicunas, the wild relatives of llamas and alpacas that the route is named after, as well as a couple of fox-like animals that could well have been pumas, but were probably foxes, and an ostrich-like bird.

By the second morning the rain had eased, but the road was sufficiently saturated to make cycling very difficult on the soft surface. We battled on, but soon came upon a river crossing that looked difficult to ford. Dea’s mood was beginning to drop and there was a sorry look on her face at the sight of this wide river as she sat down and informed me that the water was very cold. I thought it looked like we could probably find a way across though and waded out to see if it would be possible. The water wasn’t that deep, but it was indeed freezing cold on my bare feet and the current was strong. By the time I’d gone across once my feet were numb, but I knew now it was possible so I returned, collected my bike, and braved the waters once again. I planned to go back and get Dea’s bike afterwards too, but by the time I’d got myself over she had picked herself up and begun to push her bikes across herself. Unlike me she had elected to wear flip-flops, and halfway across one slipped off her foot and was carried away by the current, never to be seen again. She made it across the river, then sat herself back down again and declared that she really didn’t want to be here. “I’ve had enough of all this struggling,” she said.

But there was no way out, not even any cars to give her a lift if she’d wanted it, and she soon picked herself up and carried on. Unfortunately the day did not get any easier. There was a fair bit of climbing and a lot of difficult sections, sometimes mud or puddles stretched across the road and navigating around them was tricky. At one of these I chose to take the inside lane around an extremely wet and muddy corner as Dea took the outside. The mud was wetter and stickier than I had anticipated and I soon ground to a halt and had to jump off the bike into the mire. I did my best to push my bike forwards, but it was impossible, and to my horror both my bike and I began to sink into the gloopy mess. It was the mud equivalent of quicksand and my bike and I were in real danger of being swallowed whole. Luckily Dea saw the danger and ran around behind to offer her help, and together we managed to haul my bike and me backwards out of the murky depths.

I’d hoped this might give Dea a lift, a morale boost to know we were in this together, but her mood soon dropped again. After another puddle she even threw her bike to the ground, kicked it, and started swearing in Danish. I don’t know why, she’d got around the puddle very well. I picked her bike up and did my best to console her, but it was clear she was having a very tough time. For all her protestations though, I knew she could do this and I knew she would do this. She had proved time and again how tough she was, how she could do anything, and I was confident this wouldn’t beat her either.

We ended the day after just thirty-seven kilometres at a salt lake, although it was initially a little disappointing. It had a grey colour to it and half of it was taken over by a mine, with diggers all over mining the salt. It was a far cry from the massive salt flats of Bolivia we’d missed out on due to the wet season. But we at least had a good place to stay, at a remote police station that sits close to the salt lake. We needed to stop here to ask for water, and the friendly officers not only filled up our bottles but also gave us delicious mangoes and a place to pitch our tent out of the wind. It was a nice way to end the day, eating dinner looking out over the flats and the snowy mountains beyond, but with a high pass through those mountains still to come, we had to hope the morning would bring brighter weather.

We awoke to blue skies. As Dea snoozed I rose early and went for a walk along the edge of the lake, away from the mine. It looked more beautiful in the early morning light, making reflections of the mountains, and I felt like I was in a very special place. There were hundreds of flamingos on the watery edges of the lake, and even vicunas walking out on the salt. I returned to the police station and told Dea about how nice it was to walk along the shore now, and she did the same as I ate my breakfast. I was pleased to see she was in a brighter mood herself now that the skies had cleared.

The road, now drier and easier than before, took us around the edge of the lake. At one point we parked our bikes and walked out onto the salt. It might not have been anything like the salt flats of Bolivia, but it was still a cool experience. And the going remained good as we reached the other side of the lake and looked back down on it as we turned up towards the snowy peaks. The weather was still good and when we stopped at a river to wash it was even warm and sunny enough for me to cycle on in a wet T-shirt and shorts. But ahead of us we could see the skies darkening over the mountains.

Halfway up the climb our luck ran out. The rain returned and the road quickly became wet and difficult, with the road cut out of the earth in such a way that it inevitably became a stream in such weather. We had little choice other than to press on, higher and higher, further and further into the worsening weather. Dea was ahead of me and she was clearly growing agitated again. She cried out loudly in frustration every time her bike got stuck in the sticky road. But she somehow kept on moving. In fact I couldn’t even catch up with her, until three kilometres from the summit when she suddenly stopped. She was complaining of being cold, that her jacket was not waterproof. I made her take mine and tried to calm her, but she was growing ever more hysterical. It was obvious that she really had had enough of these extreme challenges. But there was worse to come.

As we kept moving higher and higher the weather got even worse, and by the time we reached the snow-covered summit plateau there was thunder and lightning crashing loudly very close to us. This was a genuinely dangerous place to be now, with us completely exposed at a high point with absolutely nowhere to provide us with safe cover. The only thing to do was to keep moving and to try to get down the other side of the pass quickly. If I’m being honest I actually found a secret pleasure in being in such a place, it was exciting and thrilling, and yet my overriding feeling was one of concern for Dea for I knew she was suffering terribly. Still, she bravely pressed on and even raced away from me again on the descent, despite the freezing fingers and toes this brought with it.

We made it through the ordeal of the pass and down to a plateau where the weather was fine and the road dry. A relieved smile returned to Dea’s face and after riding for a few kilometres across this flat land we decided it was time to stop and make camp. The evening then became very pleasant, with the snowy mountains emerging from the clouds and the sky turning beautiful shades of blue and purple. We shared the wide plains with great herds of llamas and/or alpacas, and as the day drew to a close I walked away from our camp and lay down beside some of them. They were themselves lying down, preparing to sleep, and they allowed me to come quite close and lie down nearby without fretting. It was a very special moment for me to lie there with these beautiful animals, the snowy mountains and the indigo sky a perfect backdrop. I knew our days on the altiplano were coming to an end, that our days of travelling were not too far from being over, and I wanted to savour these moments.

The next morning the weather was good and the road improved as we headed back towards something like civilization. We passed through some little villages with old churches, and saw ostriches out in a field. I decided to try and get a good photo, and got off my bike to try and get close to them. They were not quite so welcoming of my presence as the llamas had been, but I managed to get close enough to get some decent photos before they sprinted away from me.

I felt a bit sad when we reached the end of the gravel road and hit a tarmac highway again. I thought it might well be the last such route we do, but my sadness about this was not shared by Dea, who I think was much more on the relieved side of things to have asphalt under her wheels again. Unfortunately our reaching the highway also meant we had to turn west, which brought us into a mighty strong headwind. The challenges were not over, and as well as the unfavourable wind we also had quite some steep climbs to get over. Dea even chose to get off and walk up some of these as the wind was so strong, and I feared how she would react, but she kept her composure and got the job done. We made camp by an unused llama pen, the rock walls of which offered us some protection from the winds, and made a plan to get up early in the morning when things would hopefully be calmer.

We awoke at five-thirty and were on the bikes before sunrise. We watched the skies become light behind the silhouette of a volcano, enjoying the early morning cycling immensely without the wind. However, about thirty seconds after the sun had breached the horizon the winds returned. Dea was still not in the best of moods, but she blasted onwards with determination etched in her face. Altogether we had fifty kilometres of steep ups and downs to get through before we would reach the summit, from which point it would be the biggest downhill of our lives, 3,200 metres straight down. It was a reward we really had to earn though, as the climbs kept on coming, one after another, into that unforgiving wind, this final challenge made only slightly more bearable by the stunning mountain scenery.

And then finally it was the last climb, finally we had made it up to the real summit, and that glorious long descent beckoned. I was first to the top and stopped to take Dea’s photo as she reached the peak. She had a smile as big as I’d ever seen it as she punched the air in celebration. The past few days had tested her in the most extremely challenging way, but she had kept on going through it all. She had persevered through everything, all the rain and wind and thunder and lightening, up every steep climb, through every puddle, and now here was her reward, and the look on her face, the look of relief and joy to have succeeded, was a wonderful sight.

And now there was a 3,200 metre descent to look forward to, and no more worries about rain for a while, for we were heading down to the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth.


3 thoughts on “#126: A challenging time on Ruta de las Vicunas

  1. Those photos are some of the best you’ve posted on this blog. I hope that’s some consolation for the misery you described.

    BTW if there is such a thing as a South American Cycle Tourism Bureau, you should ask how much they’d pay for you to take this blog offline…

    Like

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