#127: The driest place on Earth

CHILE, 9th-21st January 2020

The descent was as amazing as we’d hoped. 3,200 metres of altitude in all, first through a fairly narrow canyon but then opening up into the most extraordinary vast landscape as the mountains fell away behind us. We glided down on the smooth asphalt road, its perfect surface making the free ride even more glorious. To our left the land fell away into a canyon of such spectacular dimensions that it brought memories of the Grand Canyon to mind, to the right was a similar gouge in the Earth, and we rode down upon a descending ridge between these two chasms. It was a truly breathtaking ride. We passed briefly through an area of cactuses and I hoped that the Atacama ahead of us was going to be as interesting a desert as Baja California had been, but as we lost altitude the cactuses stopped, and indeed so did practically all other vegetation. The landscape was bare, coloured only by various shades of brown and grey, and yet, still, it was truly awesome. We could see inconceivable distances down across the desert. Far below us the land finally flattened out into the true Atacama, a pancake flat, nearly featureless land. Beyond that a mountain range of shimmering blue was the only thing that stopped us seeing all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We descended for hours. It was such a long way down that we didn’t even complete it all in one day, stopping when we found a little shelter to hide from the desert winds.

The next morning we completed our descent and reached the flat desert, the true Atacama. We’d been able to see the towns of Huara and Pozo Almonte from more than forty kilometres away, and gradually we made our way to them. First came Huara, a small town where we stopped to eat our lunch in a park. The streets, arranged in a grid pattern, were eerily reminiscent of the United States. It really was strange, and we agreed that the small park we sat in felt just like we were back in Arizona, sprinklers keeping the grass unnaturally green in the desert. But Pozo Almonte was even more strange. It was another 32 kilometres to get there, ridden on the main highway south, a much busier road than we were used to but with a good shoulder. It was fine until the winds picked up in the afternoon and blew us about a bit. We were therefore relieved to get to Pozo Almonte, but it was sure a strange town. The American influence was also overwhelming here too, but it also felt like it was from a different time, with a real wild west flavour to its covered sidewalks and dusty sidestreets. It was still Latin America but very different from anywhere else we’d been in Latin America. Chile was undoubtedly more developed than many of its neighbours in South America, and yet at the same time there was clearly a lot of struggling people here too. It wasn’t really the kind of place we liked, but we still stopped for a couple of rest days in order to prepare ourselves physically and mentally for the long stretch of empty desert we had ahead of us.

The Atacama desert is often described as the driest place on Earth, with some weather stations apparently having never recorded any rain. Before I arrived I had taken that information with a pinch of salt. Maybe there was just something wrong with the weather stations. Who made them? I mean, if I made a weather station I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t record any rain either. But the truth is once we got there it was obvious that the Atacama desert really was a very dry place indeed. There was absolutely nothing living out there most of the time. The land just stretched away endlessly in all directions, absolutely devoid of any life, devoid of any features to break up the emptiness. It was actually pretty awe-inspiring, but as you can imagine we were keen to make sure we had plenty of water with us. We carried us much as we could on our bikes heading out of Pozo Almonte, and we would need it, for it was very, very hot and very, very dry.

We set out at eight and rode hard through the early part of the day, before stopping in the mid-afternoon when the winds began to pick up. We camped in amongst some old dry lava fields, an unusual and interesting geological relic that was particularly useful now as a wind block. The next day we again started early, and made it to Quillagua by two in the afternoon, a most welcome oasis in the desert. It was very strange after two days of nothing to see the lush green trees that suddenly appeared around the oasis, the sight of water a beautiful one. We had lunch and refilled our bottles, and struck out once more. The wind was in our favour and it made sense to take advantage while we could, for we would soon have to turn east again and begin to climb. Our end goal was Buenos Aires, and to get there we would have to summit the Andes one more time, for we had come down on the wrong side of them and would need to go up and over them to reach Argentina. It was a climb of around 4,000 metres, by far the most either of us had ever done.

I think we both really enjoyed our time in the Atacama, as we did in all the deserts we passed through on our journey. The flat cycling made for some fast progress south, and it was certainly a nice change from the wet mountains. And there is something awesome about the big empty spaces of deserts that we both love, even when they are being traversed, as in this case, on a fairly busy highway. It’s just an incredible feeling to be surrounded by all that nothingness, a sense of achievement in plodding on through it on a bicycle.

Eventually we reached our turn and began to ride inland again. Now it still looked like we were on a flat, straight road, but we were in fact climbing at a fair gradient, and our progress became painfully slow. But I reminded myself that we always got where we were going eventually, it was just a case of turning the pedals, over and over again. As long as you make progress, you will get there, no matter how long it takes.

After five days of continuous cycling in the desert we decided to take a couple more rest days when we reached the big town of Calama, which took us pleasantly by surprise with its bike paths and well-stocked supermarkets. We rented a comfortable little apartment and made the most of being in civilisation, eating good food and resting up for the rest of the climb. It also gave us a chance to catch up with what was going on in the world, and I noticed some news stories about a new virus emerging in China, but I didn’t give it much thought. It was surely not going to affect us anyway.

We left Calama a little reluctantly after our nice stay, but we knew that there was another town, San Pedro, barely one hundred kilometres away, where we could catch our breath again. We were still ascending though, so we decided to break it up into two days and left Calama quite late. It was a big place to ride out of, and we stopped for our first rest break at a bus shelter on the edge of town. We’d just about finished up and were preparing to get moving again when a motorcyclist came along beeping madly. It was our old friend Jonas who we’d met in Cusco (and I’m pretty sure had told not to beep at cyclists.) He was his usual happy, enthusiastic self as he sat down with us and we caught up on what had been happening. His broken ankle was now healed and he was still hoping to get all the way down to Ushuaia and back up to Buenos Aires by about the same time we would be getting there (faster on a motorbike, I suppose). But first he planned to spend a couple of nights in San Pedro, so we made arrangements to meet there the following day.

It was only an hour on the bike for him, but a tough couple of days for us. The long climb was broken up by a 1,000 metre descent, which was most unwelcome as it was all altitude that we would need to regain again. But at least the scenery grew more interesting as we left the Atacama behind and began to slowly transition back towards the mountainous environments. We eventually struggled our way to San Pedro, where we were surprised by a sudden rain shower (apparently it only rains a few times a year in San Pedro) and found Jonas waiting for us at a hostel.

He was good company, was Jonas, and it was great to sit and chat with him for an evening. I particularly enjoyed his story about how earlier in his trip in North America he’d been unorthodoxly trying to use the dating app Tinder to find places to stay.

“Nobody was replying to my requests on Couchsurfing,” he offered, by way of explanation. “So I thought I’d try asking on Tinder.”

Perfectly logical, so far.

“But I was writing to girls, saying that I just want somewhere to pitch my tent, and they were all just deleting me. I didn’t know why. Then someone explained to me that pitching your tent is a euphemism for sex. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know!”

Ah, Jonas, how could you know that? We were joined at the hostel by Katarina, a solo motorcycling female from Belarus who apparently had quite a following on social media, particularly among other motorcyclists, perhaps because she posted pictures of her trip wearing make-up and pretty dresses with her bike in various locations, and because most motorcyclists are not like that, but probably do, in fact, like that. The four of us went out to see a bit of San Pedro, which is a nice old town in the middle of nowhere which has become rather overrun with tourists using it as a launching point for seeing the Andes, and where Jonas entertained us with more precious gems such as, “I love how you can go into a shop here and be served by a woman who is breastfeeding. No, no not like that!”

Dea and I rode on together the next day, choosing to take the more tricky southern pass from here into Argentina. Jonas preferred to take the more northern main highway because it didn’t turn to gravel on the Argentinian side and the weather was potentially getting bad. We hardcore cyclists don’t worry about things like that, though. And the first day things went pretty okay, with a flat southbound road taking us across more desert, but desert with scrubs and a bit of green on it, and beautiful snowy volcanoes as a backdrop. Things got a bit tricky in the afternoon when a big gale blew in and a sandstorm was whipped up, but luckily we were taking a break in the rare town of Toconao at the time and escaped into a restaurant. We considered stopping for the night, but the only hotel was too pricey, and once the wind died down we actually had an extremely pleasant cycle that evening. The road was almost completely empty, and the landscape was just incredible in that last hour before sunset. We made a fantastic campsite out in the middle of nowhere and agreed that this really was the life.

The next day there was a bit more flat and then we started climbing once more towards the really high altitudes. After 32 kilometres we found ourselves in Socaire, which was a tiny little town really, but the last we would see for a couple of days. Just like the day before, a sandstorm developed while we were in town and we escaped into a restaurant to sit it out. We’d been so lucky that these had come when we’d had shelter, for most of the time there would have been absolutely nowhere to hide, and it looked like it would have been truly horrible to be stuck out in such weather. But it served as a serious warning of what lay ahead, for there would be no shelter from this point on, and we would have to climb up so much higher now into the mountains. The dark clouds that formed in those every night, along with the loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightning, rightly had us worried. There was no way we could ride all the way through them in a day, we would need to camp up there, and we knew it would be awfully cold and miserable if we got wet, with no one around to help if things went wrong. After her struggles on the Vicunas Route, Dea was worried about whether she could do this, whether she wanted to do this. I was similarly worried about her. I was confident that we could both do it, but I worried that if we did get into a bad situation it would be really very hard for Dea to cope, and I didn’t want to put her though that.

The problem was we didn’t have much alternative. There were no other ways over the mountains other than the main highway, but that would mean a long ride back, as well as the fact that that pass went even higher and would still involve the same problems of riding up through potential bad weather and needing to camp. Dea did seem to be considering taking a lift over, but there was so little traffic and for sure she hadn’t cycled all this way to give up so close to the end. So instead we came up with a plan to ride a bit out of Socaire to camp and then start very early the next morning. The weather seemed to always follow a similar pattern, of being sunny and clear in the mornings and then becoming wet and wild in the afternoon. So we’d cycle as far as we could by one or two o’clock, and then find the best possible place to shelter our tent and get in it before the rains came, then repeat the trick of an early start the next morning.

It seemed like a good plan, but involved riding the first little bit in light rain that still lingered after the worst of the storm had passed through. We were in a very remote location, and the mountains ahead looked dark and ominous. One single car came down the road, an American tourist who couldn’t believe we were going up there on our bikes. She told us that it was raining hard higher up there, hailing even, as it seemed to do every afternoon. We stopped soon after and made camp.

We were awake before four and on the road not much later, cycling by our headlights. The wind and rain was gone and it was nice to be out adventuring at such an hour. By the time the sun rose we had made it up to a bit of a plateau, and the dawn light revealed the most spectacular snowy peaks all around us. It was so beautiful and we both felt great to be riding in such a special place. As we’d hoped the weather was great and we soon came to some stunning salt lakes. It was a fantastic road, a great place to cycle, and we were both so glad we were doing it together.

Around midday dark clouds began to form in the previously clear skies and we decided that it was time to stop, especially as we could hear thunder in the mountains. We found a decent spot and put up the tent, pegging it out better than we ever did before with heavy rocks, and digging channels in the dirt to divert flowing rainwater away from the tent. I even went to the effort of putting a metal pole up between some rocks a little away from the tent to try and keep lightning from hitting us. We’d done all we could to prepare for the wild afternoon storms, and got in the tent to await our fate. And we waited. And waited. It never rained a drop all afternoon.

It did rain a bit overnight, though, so I slept badly, and felt tired when the alarm went off at five the next morning. We wanted to make another early start to get over the border and into Argentina, so we once again were on the bikes before the sun came up. But as it grew light we reached another salt lake, and this one just looked ridiculous in such light. We went down to the edge and stared out at the wondrous sight. The mountains behind the lake made perfect reflections and all was silent except for a few birds singing and I once again could not believe how beautiful this world can be sometimes.

From there we had to cycle up towards the highest point of the crossing, some 4,500 metres above sea level. It had been a long climb up from the Atacama, true, but actually it hadn’t been nearly as bad as we expected. It was actually just a strange feeling to think that this was the last real pass of the Andes, the mountain range we’d been following for much of the past six months. This route in Chile had been an exceptional final climb, really so very beautiful, and I felt very lucky that we’d got to do it, and in such good weather. Chile had actually been one of the real highlights of our time in South America. We had not expected that at all, but the mountain routes had been stunning, and the Atacama desert awesome too. It also helped a bit that the country was developed enough to have good roads. Even this one, a road through the mountains that almost nobody used, was perfectly smooth asphalt and had a good shoulder too. It always made it easier to have such a nice road, and we enjoyed it very much as we descended down the other side of the pass, right up until we came to a battered old sign with faded paint that looked like it might have once read ‘Argentina’, where the asphalt abruptly stopped, and ahead of us lay the most hideously un-bicycle-friendly-looking washboard dirt road I’d ever seen. A whole new adventure was about to begin.


One thought on “#127: The driest place on Earth

  1. OMG – THE PHOTOS! What a stunning country. I met a chap from Chile (whist studying in Germany) and he raved about the landscapes and variety. He had travelled, hiked and camped a lot in his own country. I can see why.
    Fantastic seeing the final stages of the journey – thanks for continuing to update after you are comfortably home. I have always struggled with that!
    Catherine (Sydney).

    Like

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