Our last stop in Chile before crossing the Andes to get to Bolivia was the small, dusty, rather dishevelled tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama on the edge of the driest desert in the world. Upon arrival we started checking out the campgrounds. The first two (5,000 peso/pers/night) were packed with young travellers on tight budgets, tents cheek to jowl, dusty and dirty, so when we found quiet and clean Casa Campestre (8,000 pesos) we jumped on it. Regrettably they ‘forgot’ to inform us we were on the road leading to an ALL night rave that happened EVERY night of our three day stay. The town was full of young Latinos and I’m sure the rave was a big draw.
Rave aside, the attraction of San Pedro is certainly not the town but the surrounding nature. Our first day we pedalled out to Laguna Celar, a lake with similar density as the Dead Sea. For me to swim with such buoyancy was a first (Claire has been to the Dead Sea) and an absolute hoot. That afternoon we rode to the Valley of the Moon to experience that aptly named, otherworldly environment. In total it was an 80 km ride, in the heat and at 2400+ M so we were bagged by the time we got back to town. The following day we opted for a tour (just the two of us, two young Germans and our driver/guide – the vehicle had capacity for 16 so it was like we had a private tour). We walked salt flats, visited flamingo reserves and high alpine lakes at 4500 M. We saw wild donkeys, foxes and got close to vicuñas (the wild version of the domesticated alpaca), among other attractions. I’m not big on organized tours but the good company, excellent guide and special landscapes made for an awesome day.
The next morning we rode to the bus station early to catch our bus to Salta, Argentina. As I explained in our last blog, there was no way we would be able to ride any of the 4500+ M passes to either Bolivia or northern Argentina so we opted for the bus over 4840 M Paso de Jama to Salta from where we could do a longer, more gradual ride up to the altiplano of Bolivia. Well, things didn’t work out as planned.
To our dismay, despite having been promised that there would be room for our bikes, there wasn’t any, and clearly, in high season, with all the ‘mochileros’ (backpackers) it was unlikely there would be, any time soon. Realizing the only way over the pass would be to hitchhike we got out on the shadeless highway and stuck out our thumbs. An hour later with very little potential traffic for us and our bikes, we rode off with fingers crossed, to some distant parked trucks (18 wheelers) one of whom immediately offered us a lift. We waited another hour in the diminishing shade (it was a lot cooler for me under the truck!) for the drivers to finish their lunch break and we were off for the slow and spectacular 6 hr drive over the pass to the tiny, uniformly brown, dusty, adobe, border town of Jama at 4100 M. Regrettably, en route, a truck behind us had a flat and our driver who heard the tire blow (!) stopped to help with the change. I pitched in but working at 3500 M was exhausting. The spare tire was completely bald with under layers showing! We found a humble hospedaje ($20/night double occupancy) in Jama but I had a poor nights sleep with an elevation induced headache. We tried coca leaves for the first time upon arrival in Jama. Coca, from which cocaine is derived, is widely used throughout the Altiplano, despite US efforts to suppress the crop. We used them to help with altitude adaption but they are also a stimulant which surely didn’t help my sleep. We had stuck only modest amounts in our cheeks (one doesn’t actually chew the leaves) but the taste was not to our liking. We have since moved on to coca leaf tea and ‘caramelos de coca’, both more to our liking and hopefully helpful for the acclimatization process. Locals walk around with great wads of leaves in their cheeks.(Reminds me of ghat in Djibouti – CH)
The following day we had to find another truck as our previous lift was leaving the highway in the middle of nowhere to bring supplies to a massive, high altitude solar power installation (he was one of 9,000 container loads destined for the site!). Getting a lift from a truck parked at customs control in Jama was easier said than done. Only after a couple of hours, lots of talking plus an incentive payment did two brothers returning from this year’s Dakar rally in Peru give us a ride over the remaining two big climbs. Once again it was stunning scenery and the cab of a big semi truck, with built-in guides (the brothers), was a great way to travel. We had a bit of a fright when a pickup truck loaded with heavily armed police suddenly swept in front of us demanding we pull over. They jumped out, waving their automatic rifles, approaching the truck aggressively. Our driver wasn’t exactly diplomatic but things calmed down after the proper paperwork was produced and the cops realized we were not the ‘fugitive’ truck they were after. To top things off we asked to be let off at the summit of the last pass (4150 M) for a beautifully scenic, 35 km descent, all the way to our destination of Purmamarca with barely a pedal stroke.
We had chosen, at least for us, the perfect way to get to Bolivia. Ruta 9 from Purmamarca to the border follows the important, historic Spanish trade route between Lima and Rio de la Plata (Buenos Aires). There is a strong indigenous presence, small, market gardens lining the valley bottom, towns full of ‘artesania’, fascinating geology in the surrounding hills, archeological sites and, most importantly for us, a steady but mellow grade on good asphalt. There is a big tourist presence in the region, primarily young Argentinians, which has been great. Once prompted, they enjoy engaging with these two, older, foreign cyclists who speak their language, albeit mediocrely. The road is in good shape but the shoulder isn’t paved and though the traffic hasn’t been heavy we still freak out as the buses blow by without warning, 70 cm distant! We both have rear view mirrors and try to keep each other warned as to what’s coming but we often zone out and forget. Despite the mellow grade the riding above 3,000 M has been tough. I think we are doing everything right in terms of acclimating but we had a couple of days with either hills (gentle) or elevation gain (only 700 M) that left us pretty well wasted (see video below). I must admit I’m both surprised and disappointed in how slowly I’m adjusting to the elevation.
We are posting this from the Argentinian border town of La Quiaca. We are excited to ride into Bolivia tomorrow but not without some trepidation as to what lies ahead. Vamos ver! (We will see).