Back in the mountains. Proper mountains: Salta to San Pedro de Atacama (Paso Sico)

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Getting the bus to Salta meant that we had gained a couple of weeks of riding in the mountains that we wouldn’t have had if we had ridden back across Argentina. Previously we had ruled out returning to Chile and had planned on entering Bolivia straight from Argentina. However, there are several remote high-altitude passes across the Andes back into Chile, and after some research we couldn’t resist. We had set our sights on the most remote Paso Socompa, but after learning it was closed due to snow we opted instead for the next most remote, Paso Sico. The main vehicular route is over Paso Jama, even though it climbs higher it didn’t appeal to us as much as the less populated options.

After much research into what we might come up against while riding at 4000m+ in early June (winter) we made a plan. Ben plotted on the map everywhere we might find water, food and shelter. As the route is predominantly through the desert water was the biggest concern. Anticipating 3 days to San Antonio de Los Cobres, our last chance to buy food supplies, and another 7 days to cross the actual pass we stocked up on food and water and we were off!

Crossing Paso Sico was to be our most challenging section of riding so far, and our first real wilderness experience.

Day 1 – Leaving Salta:

Our first glimpses of the mountains we would soon be cycling over came as we rode out of the city. You know they are fairly high when to see the tops you look not at the horizon, but up in the clouds. Also on the way out of the city we saw something that surprised us both, toucans!

Full of nervous excitement we eventually found ourselves at the base of the Andean giants, though it was with a touch of sadness that we realised that the road we were following, RN51 would be the last road we would cycle in Argentina. After so many months and countless great experiences saying goodbye to Argentina felt very strange.

The climb itself wasn’t too arduous, the road was paved (apart from a 10km stretch near the bottom) and in a surprising turn of events we had a tailwind! While revelling in the scenery we steadily wound our way up, and up.

It was only when we stopped for lunch at an abandoned train station that we realised quite how strong the tailwind was, no wonder progress had been so swift. A few more hours of pedalling and the kiwi family we met in Salta over took us on their motorbikes with sidecars. It was funny to think that the distance we had covered in most of a day had taken them just a couple of hours.

Between our reluctance to stop early due to the tailwind and our normal problem of not knowing when enough is enough we carried on riding until sunset was approaching. Thankfully we found a gravel pit just off the road that had a track leading into the hills and to a flat place for the tent. We did have to push the bikes up quite a steep track but then the best wild camp spots are the ones that you have to work for!

With temperatures dropping quickly we got the tent up, cooked some food and got inside to shelter from the now freezing wind. Despite having a tailwind our legs were definitely feeling the effort of the day’s ride and we briefly wondered if we had pushed too hard for our first day in the mountains.

Day 2 – Onwards to Las Cuevas:

The day got off to a bad start, Ben woke at 4am and was promptly sick, thankfully outside the tent. Convinced it was something he ate before leaving Salta and not due to the altitude he went back to sleep. Morning arrived and he was not feeling good, no more nausea but a banging headache and general lethargy. We put it down to a combination of things; whatever he ate that caused him to be sick, overdoing it the day before, the altitude, but predominantly dehydration. They say you should drink considerably more when at altitude, but in the last 24 hours Ben had drunk no more than 2L. Idiot.

With the help of some lovely painkillers and lots of water we stubbornly pressed on up the unrelenting climb. The riding conditions couldn’t have been different to the previous day, after just 8km we entered a valley and the wind was like a punch in the face. Thinking we had left the worst of the wind behind in Tierra del Fuego it was disheartening to find such a ferocious headwind here too. We struggled on up the seemingly unending valley, moving at barely 5km/h, thoughts turning to the prospect of this climb taking longer than we expected.

After several more gruelling hours and with morale at an all time low we were grateful to find an abandoned building that completely sheltered us for the night. Four walls, a roof and a hot meal were a good antidote to the day’s struggles. Again the temperature headed towards sub-zero and we were in the tent long before dark, hoping the next day would be better.

(Today was such hard work that neither of us took any photos! Soz)

Day 3 – Arriving at San Antonio de Los Cobres:

Ben was feeling a bit better this morning, but still had no appetite for food, a rarity among cyclists! The wind also seemed to have calmed down a little so we set off as quickly as possible to make some progress. Knowing we had 15km more uphill to the high point of the climb, Abra Blanco, we endeavoured to get as much as possible done without the terrible headwind. It mostly worked. The wind was present but not too bad and we reached the top in reasonable time and back in good spirits again. The following ~30km of descent was amazing after so much climbing and for the first time we could really appreciate the landscape we had ventured into. The Puna de Atacama is a wild and barren place, but it is stunningly beautiful.

After riding past herds of llamas and distant views of the Salinas Grande we arrived in the mining town of San Antonio de Los Cobres. Wasting no time we checked into the same hostel that Liam had stayed in a couple of months earlier and made full use of the hot showers. Despite only being on he road for 3 days we were both grateful for somewhere warm to sleep. But better than all of that, Ben’s appetite had returned so we went out to eat the only thing he fancied, lomitos! (An Argentinian sandwich with steak, ham, cheese, egg and salad – they’re amazing).

San Antonio de Los Cobres:

As is seemingly quite common, our plans changed today. Ben woke up with another banging headache despite increasing his water intake over the past 2 days. Being at 3600m the chance of altitude sickness is pretty high and after a chat with the hostel owner he suggested we go to the hospital for some oxygen. So we did just that. A friendly doctor checked Ben’s blood pressure and gave him 15 minutes of oxygen. The doctor recommended to drink more, lots more, and only eat light meals. When we asked him about the benefit of coca leaves he said they predominantly help with digestion and nausea, which was a surprise to us. The oxygen did its job though and Ben’s headache had disappeared before we left the hospital. We bought some coca leaves anyway as seemingly everyone at these altitudes chews on them, and anything that might help is a good thing.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing, drinking copious amounts of fluids and looking again at the next leg of the pass. Our plan to leave the following day was shelved in favour of having one more full day of rest to ensure Ben was totally acclimatised and feeling better. Steph was totally unaffected so enjoyed a couple of days of relaxing.

The night before we were due to leave San Antonio another cyclist arrived at the hostel. Vincent was the first cyclist we had seen on the road since Melo in Uruguay (not counting the Casa de Ciclista in Brazil). He said he was exhausted after riding to San Antonio via Abra del Acay (~4900m), but upon learning we were leaving for Paso Sico the next day he decided to come with us, company in the mountains is always a sensible idea. Vincent’s setup was pretty interesting, all of his luggage was in a fibreglass trailer. Definitely a different way of carrying your stuff but we would soon learn there are several advantages to it.

Day 4 – San Antonio to Olacapato Grande:

The morning was bitterly cold, but Ben was feeling better and we were excited to get underway. Now as a trio we rolled through town and headed for the imposing peaks that loom above San Antonio. Straight away the road was fairly bad, lots of washboard corrugations and sandy patches, it was quite hard going. The road quickly pointed towards the sky and our first of three passes that would take us above 4500m. It also became apparent that Vincent was a very strong rider and despite not having a rest day for a while he lead us up the twists and turns towards Alto Chorrillos, waiting patiently for us to catch up and having a flask of tea waiting when we did. He was a great riding buddy.

The climb to the top was a tough 30km, mostly due to the road conditions, thankfully the wind wasn’t too awful. After a quick photo stop at the pass we headed for the downhill, which was when the wind really started. On anything with a negative gradient it was tolerable as gravity was on our side, but as the road levelled off it became very hard work. The last couple of hours into Olacapato Grande were spent grinding the pedals and juddering over all the corrugations in the now terrible road. Many trucks going to and from the mines passed us, making it obvious why the roads are in such a condition.

The riding was hard, but the scenery was awesome. It felt like the middle of nowhere. Wide barren plains surrounded by mountains, but now the peaks didn’t seem very far above us, like we were already on top of the world.

Olacapato Grande is a pretty desolate mining town, only ~60 families live there and there are no real facilities. The nearest shop is back in San Antonio. There is a police station though and Francisco the officer stationed there allowed us to camp in the back yard which was sheltered from the wind. He shared tea and bread with us and told us there was one restaurant in town, it seemed like a good plan to spend our last Argentinian pesos on a hot meal in a heated building.

Upon returning to the police station Francisco offered a room inside for us to sleep as no other officers were arriving that night. Despite the tents already being pitched we gratefully accepted a mattress on the floor.

Day 5 – From Police Station to Border Control:

Without a big pass to cross today the riding was far easier. Leaving Olacapato we had a gentle climb for roughly 20km, but after the junction at Cauchari (where all the lorries turn to go to the mines) the road got a lot smoother. The persistent headwind slowed progress slightly but it was more than manageable.

By mid morning we reached a bend in the road that dropped us into the valley that we would follow for the rest of the day. The wind was now behind us, the road pointed downhill and the views across Salar del Rincon lying below us on the valley floor were spectacular. We stopped for some snacks and photos then we set off down the now quite sandy track.

Riding with the wind and with the sun on our faces meant it no longer seemed half as cold so there were frequent ‘costume changes’ to remove layers as we descended. As lunch time got close I pulled over, Steph soon caught me up, but no sign of Vincent. We waited for a while, our thoughts going steadily from, ‘He’s just changing clothes’ to, ‘Maybe he’s punctured’ and eventually, ‘It’s been too long we need to go see if everything is ok’. Leaving all his luggage with Steph, Ben turned back up the hill to find Vincent. After 5km and no sign of him nerves set in. But just as Ben decided to head back to where Steph was waiting he noticed Vincent’s tyre tracks in the dust turning around and heading back up the hill further. His tyre tracks were obvious as he has a trailer! Realising that Vincent made a conscious decision to turn back, and assuming he must have lost something earlier Ben turned around and pedalled back towards Steph.

Thinking the best thing we could do was get to the border post and see if they had a pickup that they could use to go and find Vincent we cracked on. What should have been a flat straightforward ride was once again turned into a slog by the afternoon wind changing direction into our faces. Arriving at the border post made it worthwhile though as they have a really nice dorm for travellers to stay in. With a hot shower, kitchen and new comfy mattresses it was nicer than a lot of hostels we have stayed at!

The bad news was that they had no vehicle to go and look for Vincent, but they said one was coming later and we could ask them. We needn’t have worried, as within an hour Vincent arrived anyway. He had lost his phone and ended up riding an extra 27km to find it! Relieved he was ok we spent the evening relaxing in the dorm.

Day 6 – The final two big passes:

Border control didn’t open until 9am so we all had a reasonable lie in. Customs went without any issues, the staff were really friendly and they didn’t search our bags, meaning our last bits of cheese and salami weren’t disposed of. Lunch would be good today. Also, this was it, leaving Argentina. Sad face. We had officially left the country but we had 12km of ripio road left until the geographical border. At that point the road turned to perfect tarmac, welcome to Chile.

A paved road means it’s easy, right? Not today. Climbing to our next high point, Abra Sico the road was very steep and as had become normal the wind was hampering us. Cycling for a couple of hours through lunar landscapes, with only the ribbon of tarmac to distinguish this place as being somewhere on earth, we finally reached the top of the pass.

Looking down onto another stunning Salar was inspiring, but seeing the road climb the next pass on the opposite side of the valley made us realise how much we still had to do that day.

After a downhill that didn’t last long enough we again started climbing. It was only 5km of uphill but it took us to the highest point on this route and after already clearing one pass the legs were feeling like lead. Just like the first pass of the day the road was incredibly steep and the wind was howling. For the first time in a long time we were reduced to pushing the bikes for several km.

Vincent disappeared over the pass a little while before us and we assumed he would head to the mining camp where we had read that cyclists can stay. But when we arrived there was no sign of him, or anyone else. We had to decide whether to stay at the camp, at 4400m, or carry on and see if we could find Vincent. The wind had turned to be slightly in our favour and the road was downhill, so we went for it. With 1.5 hours until dark we rode for 45mins and covered a further 15km, good progress in comparison to going up the hill!

We hadn’t found Vincent but studying the map showed that if we went further there was a plateau and a lake which would offer no shelter from the bitingly cold wind. Instead we stopped and pitched camp behind a wall of rocks that provided great shelter. The plummeting temperatures didn’t detract from the incredible sunset over Laguna Tuyaito and the amazing display of stars in the night sky that followed.

Once in the tent we wrapped our remaining water bottles in some spare clothes in an attempt to stop them freezing overnight, then settled into our sleeping bags, also fully clothed. We were at 4140m altitude and the temperature gauge on our bike computer read -5.5 degrees in the tent. Our coldest night in the tent by a long way.

Day 7 – The last of the climbing:

Our water partially froze anyway, we woke up with something resembling a slush puppy in our bottles. We’ve never been more grateful for a thermos flask, the water inside was still just about hot enough for a decent brew and some not-freezing granola. Even though we packed up fast and were on the road by 8:30, we didn’t even have one hour of easy pedalling before the wind started. Our research had told us the wind was bad over this pass, but it was starting to get ridiculous.

Cycling around Laguna Tuyaito we were glad we camped where we did, there really was no shelter. It was stunning with the sun rising above it, but not as beautiful as the next Salar we rode past, Aguas Calientes. So many strange colours caused by the different minerals present, we had never seen anything like it.

By this point we realised we had made a mistake, by not stopping to fill our water bottles at the mining camp or the Carabineros station just before it when we passed by yesterday we only had enough water to last the day, but we wouldn’t reach any civilisation until tomorrow. Incredibly fortuitously there was a military camp not far from Aguas Calientes and easily visible from the road. They were more than happy to give us as much water as we needed and were on our way again.

Without any big passes to climb we made steady progress into the wind, all the time keeping our eyes open for Vincent but not seeing any sign of him. We reached the turn off for the optional detour to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques and had a decision to make. The lagunas are renowned for being beautiful and flamingoes live there, but we were low on food, pretty exhausted and “technically” you’re not allowed to enter the lagunas from this way as it avoids paying the entry fee to the National Park. With a hint of regret we carried on along the main road. But to lift our spirits the wind was now behind us and the road started descending. We were flying along with the Andes now on our right hand side, a sign that we had successfully crossed the enormous mountain range. As the valley opened up below us the views of the mountains and the Salar Atacama were mind blowing.

A gravel pit just off the road provided us the perfect place to camp for the night, shelter from the wind and awesome views over the Salar. We could even see geysers in the distance. Knowing that the difficult bit of the pass was done coupled with the fact we were lower down and it was slightly warmer meant we had a relaxed evening watching the sun set.

Day 8 – The final push to San Pedro:

With 100km to ride until we reached San Pedro de Atacama, but with a lot of descending and then flat terrain it would be achievable in a day. But our plan was to camp somewhere just out of the town itself, to see the incredible night sky that this area of the world is famous for.

After 10km we reached our first civilisation in days, the village of Socaire. Fresh bread and fruit was truly welcome! The road continued to descend and we had ridden 60km by lunchtime to reach the next town, Toconao.

While sitting in the plaza eating lunch a tour bus arrived and Lorenzo got off it! We had met Lorenzo in Foz do Iguacu, he had arrived at the Casa de Ciclista the day before we left. We knew he was heading the same direction as we were but it was so random to meet him in a tiny town in the middle of the desert. After agreeing to catch up once we got into San Pedro we hit the road again. The dead straight and flat road went on and on. Our tired legs were motivated by being so close to somewhere to have some rest and the glorious sunshine that now beat down on us. We had now come far enough north to be in the tropic of Capricorn and it was the first time in days we had felt genuinely warm.

You might notice a theme here but by mid afternoon the wind had reared it’s ugly head. Today was different though, huge black clouds were building in the desert and the wind was whipping up the sand into a permanent haze on the road ahead. We got our heads down and really pushed on, all thoughts of camping going out of the window. The only goal was to reach sanctuary in San Pedro. Lorenzo had told us where he was staying, so that’s where we would be tonight.

A couple of hours later, knackered and covered in sand we rolled into town. The hostel was basic but it had hot showers and comfy beds (with sprung mattresses!), we didn’t need anything more luxurious. After a well deserved meal out our bodies were replenished and back at the hostel we had some celebratory beers while hanging out with Lorenzo. We also caught up with Vincent to hear how his ride had gone after the point where we had separated. It turns out he had been just a few km ahead of us the day we lost him, but being a faster rider he had pressed on and arrived in San Pedro the day before we did.

The wind didn’t stop howling that evening and just before we hit the hay it started raining… in the driest place on earth.

Hanging out in San Pedro de Atacama, Atacama Desert, Chile: Is this really the driest place in the world?!

The weather was fairly ridiculous the entire time we were in town, stormy winds and ominous clouds were the norm. We had thought that being in the desert it might be warm but even in the middle of the day everyone remained wrapped up. Even the 6000m+ mountains that form the incredible vistas normally visible from San Pedro were lost in the clouds. This was disappointing, but knowing that at those altitudes the clouds meant snow in the hills and the possibility of passes becoming impassable was really depressing.

All talk in the hostel revolved around the weather and how plans were being affected by it. By now it was confirmed that all the passes back to Argentina were closed, and Paso Hito Cajon into Bolivia was too (it shares a large portion of road with Paso Jama into Argentina). Even though we were enjoying a couple of rest days hanging out with Vincent and Lorenzo we now had to think carefully about our next moves. Our plan had been to enter Bolivia at Hito Cajon and ride through the South Lipez Region, taking a detour to ride the worlds highest road and climb a 6008m volcano, Uturuncu. Sadly this was all off the table now.

We had previously been in touch with a hostel in Sucre, Bolivia with the intention of doing another Workaway there while we took some Spanish lessons. Mid-July had been our timescale for that, but nothing had been confirmed. Coincidentally they got in touch again while we were in San Pedro to say they have definite availability for volunteers starting on June 21st. So now we had some options:

1. Wait in San Pedro, pray the weather would clear and the South Lipez would become accessible again. This seemed highly unlikely.

2. Ride north, cross into Bolivia at Ollague, and make our own progress across the country. Possibly see if by then we could access the South Lipez from the northern end. Again unlikely, and it would mean missing out on the definite option of a Workaway in Sucre.

3. Get a bus to Uyuni, Bolivia and then ride to Sucre in time to start the Workaway when they definitely want us. It would mean another bus ride, and a fairly swift ride through 360km of Bolivian Altiplano but it would be doable.

After agonising over the options for the best part of a day we finally decided for option 3. Both of us were really keen to get Spanish lessons, and having some free accommodation while we study would be the ideal situation. Also it had been over 6 months since we had stayed anywhere longer than a handful of days and the prospect of having a base camp for a while seemed really appealing. In true optimistic fashion we also thought that in several weeks time the weather in this area may have stabilised and we might have another chance to return and ride some of the South Lipez as planned. It’s a long shot, but we’re staying hopeful.

But for now, onwards to Bolivia, country number 6.

Ben and Steph

4 Responses

  1. Julie
    | Reply

    Hi Steph & Ben,

    Enjoyed reading this blog entry. It sounds like you enjoyed the remote riding, despite the challenges and altitude sickness! You are certainly not shy of a challenge or two… Some very impressive scenery and wildlife too. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Bolivia. It has a very different feel about it again, and definitely not as rich a country as Argentina or Chile (partly thanks to having all of its coastline, hence trading options, stolen historically, we learned). Go to see the dinosaur fossil area just outside Sucre if you get chance – very impressive.

    Solana had her first school sports day this week. She really enjoyed it (despite not being overly adept at the events!). She has now lost 2 teeth and is very proud of being “five and a half”! We’re going camping this weekend – our first camping trip of he year,and amazingly for Britain the weather forecast is actually very good.

    Enjoy Bolivia,
    Julie, Laura & Solana x

    • unscriptedride
      | Reply

      Thanks, yeah we really enjoyed this part of the ride and the remoteness, the stunning scenery helped too. We’ll definitely be trying for more of this again.
      We’ve already noticed Bolivia is a bit different to everywhere we’ve been so far, in a good way, we’re loving it! (We saw the dinosaur footprints yesterday, you are right that they are impressive.)
      Aww yeah, it’s summer now there so sports day and such. Enjoy the camping, it should be warmer there than here, even with a British summer! Steph and Ben x

  2. Stephen
    | Reply

    What wonderful scenery, not to mention those high passes!

  3. Stephen Whyatt
    | Reply

    At Olacapato in 2010 there was a hotel run by a lady called Emma, together with a shop. It was great accommodation and meals after a full day cycling from the Agentina boarder. No guide book mentions this hotel, which is a god send in such a remote area.

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