Friday, 4 November 2011

Cycling through the Salar de Atacama

I am checking in today from San Pedro de Atacama, after one of the most amazing cycling days of the trip.  It was like cycling on another planet or on the surface of the moon, but more on that later in this post.  We now have 2 rest days (tomorrow and the day after) to explore the surroundings.  The night before leaving Antofagasta I had yet more diarrhoea and I was debating whether or not to ride, but I did ride and have done so for the 3 riding days since.  I am taking antibiotics until tomorrow morning but I am riding again at full capacity.

The first day after leaving Antofagasta the scenery was not that great.  We cycled up a large hill and lining the roads were piles and piles of rubbish.  The signs against littering hadn't had the desired effect.  I felt pretty weak climbing the hill and the people I normally pass easily passed me easily.  I decided I just needed to keep plodding on and to make it through the day, which I did.  For a lot of the day we were on Highway 5 (Pan American highway) and the trucks as usual were relentless.  Once we got off the main highway we were cycling on a sealed road used by the miners.  Although there were lots of trucks going to and from the mines, on the sealed road the truckers were pretty friendly and gave us ample space, many of them honking their horns to say hello.  Probably they dont see that many cyclists heading towards the mining areas.  We camped at around 1,500m altitude at the side of the road.  Most of the mining trucks ceased in the early evening but a few steamed along the road near the camp in the early hours of the morning, and some of us were not that impressed that one decided to honk his horn at 3am.  It had been very hot in the day but at night it got pretty cold again, very typical of a desert environment.  In total there were around 2,000 vertical metres of climbing.

The day after leaving mining camp we climbed another 2,000 vertical metres throughout the course of the day.  The steepest part was before lunch and after lunch it was a very gentle climb until the summit at just under 3,000m above sea level, after which we descended to 2,500m above sea level over the course of 10km.  Some of the people in the group went at crazy speeds down the hill and didnt touch their brakes apparently, but as the road was not paved and was a little bumpy I took things more steadily.  We had chosen a location for the camp in an old quarry so that we would be sheltered partly from the strong winds that sweep the desert highlands.  Despite this the wind was without let up until 4.30am, causing many a sleepless night, worried that their tents would not stand up to the onslaught.  I heard from one of the staff members that the wind had broken something on one of their tents, but other than that I heard of no problems.

When we woke up from "Moon camp" as the notes called it, the temperature was not too low compared to the previous day.  We only had a short ride before entering the Salar de Atacama and this is the part I mentioned was like cycling on another planet.  Salt crust lines the rocks at the side of the road, and the crusty white rock formations look like a moonscape.  In the morning if you stopped and listened for a second it sounded like a bowl of rice crispies crackling as the crusts expanded in the heat of the rising sun .  I stopped at the side of the road to take a pee and when I walked on the salt formations they made a noise like hollow glass breaking.  When I put my hand down to touch the salt crust it was sharp to the touch, and I can tell you for sure that I wouldn't like to fall down on top of those.  Further on the ground surface changed from rocky protusions to pancake flat cracked earth.  Then there was a point when pools of water interrupted the desolate landscape and added an extra element of interest.  In the pools of water you could see the relections of the imposing mountains and volcanoes from the horizon.  I wondered where the water came from and Ricardo who is Chilean and a tour leader told me that there is plenty of water underground.  In the afternoon after we left the Salar de Atacama there were several small towns and the towns looked like little oases in the middle of sandy expanses on approach.  That is also what San Pedro looked like as I steamed in after giving it my all the last 40km.

Underground water finding its way to the surface

Strange crusty salt formations

The weirdest find of today was what appeared to be a gallows on the Salar de Atacama.  I have no idea why it was there, but it was just at the side of the road.  I hope noone was hanged on it.

A strange place to find a gallows

Ricardo has told us there are many things to see here in the surroundings of San Pedro, and it sounds as though 2 days will not be enough.  We have the choice between volcano treks at 5,000m and more gentle treks to oases, hot volcanic springs, geysers and horse rides to name but a few.  San Pedro is not a cheap place though, and I will have to open the purse strings a bit if I want to be able to do anything.

I wish you all a great evening and I am off now to check out San Pedro and most importantly to eat.  I will save the story of the dog biting me at the campsite for a later stage.  So for now, goodnight folks.

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