Saturday, 5 November 2011

What does one do on a rest day in San Pedro - a trek and hot springs perhaps?

Sometimes on tour rest days can be more stressful than cycling days.  On cycling days the routine is clear - get up, pack up your things, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, put up your tent, sleep.  On rest days people don't want to miss out on a trick, and in a place like San Pedro where there are so many things to do it can be a headache trying to sort out what to do, trying to pack in as much as possible, but not so much that you finish the rest day needing a rest day to recover.

Ten of us decided today to do a hike up a river followed by a few hours of R+R in the hot springs at the source of the river as our main activity.  The Guatin Punta del Inca hike was recommended by Ricardo.  We found a tour operator willing to take us at extremely short notice and left at around midday.  The driver dropped us off in Guatin and the hike commenced.  Most of the group were wearing shorts, tshirt and sandals, and drinking beer the whole way there.  Based on what we soon found it wasn't perhaps the best attire/ choice of beverage.  Firstly it was baking hot and we would end up spending 3 hours working our way up the river canyon, and secondly the canyon bottom was covered in pampas grasses.  Anyone who is familiar with pampas grasses knows that they cut you badly.  Hundreds of tiny paper cuts would soon adorn our bodies, more so the ones wearing shorts.

In places it wasn't clear how to proceed.  The choice was often get wet or try to climb up the rocks and risk falling in to the water anyway.  Some of the group were like mountain goats and others were not quite so comfortable on rougher terrain.  I went ahead and tried to find my own path up the canyon.  I reached a point where I didn't know how to proceed.  On my left hand side was a sheer rock face and on my right hand side were scores of 2m high pampass grasses to contend with.  I decided the sheer rock face was impossible and I either had to retrace my steps or try and fight my way through the pampas grasses.  I did my best to beat down the leaves before pushing through them, but I still got cut to hell.  When I emerged after 10 minutes of fighting my way through this veritable jungle of pampas I saw some familiar faces.  The rest of the group had found a nice footpath on the other side of the canyon and had managed to catch me up.  They laughed and said I looked like Indiana Jones fighting my way through the pampas.  I was not so amused, nursing my badly cut arms.

When we reached the hot springs it was not quite what we had expected.  The hot springs were pools of water in the river we had been following the whole way.  We had remarked earlier that the river had been pretty warm.  Well that is because the water originates in Tatio, where there are geysers and it is geothermally heated water that then travels underground before re-emerging in the hot springs at Punta del Inca.  The water in the hot springs at Punta del Inca is a comfortable 33 degrees Celsius.  We bathed in the water for several hours and the large majority of the group continued downing beers whilst in the water.  Some also decided to smoke a joint but for obvious legal reasons I can't name any names.  By the time the hot springs closed we were all throughly relaxed and everyone was happy.

The minibus couldn't make it up the hill with all of us inside, so we had to get out and walk several hundred metres.  A few people were only too happy to walk as sheer drops greeted us on one side of the minibus.  We arrived back in San Pedro sometime around 7pm and then we immediately went out to eat - I mean we are calories burning machines after all.  With a nice full belly I can now chill and write this post, catch up on the news and then retire early to my bed, ready for another "rest day" tomorrow.  Night folks.

Start of the day's hiking

Some take the high road and others take the low road

Climb the rock face or fight through the pampas grasses?

Hot springs

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.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Riding Jock

Hello everybody.  It's me again, checking in from Antofagsta, Chile. 

Jock in case you were wondering (and no I have not changed my sexual persuasion) is the name of the big yellow truck that is accompanying us throughout the Vuelta Sudamerica tour, and transports our food and equipment.  When necessary it also transports sick or tired out riders.  I unfortunately fell into the category of the former after the mystery bug I mentioned in a previous post decided I was its next victim.  The last rest day was in Bahia Inglesa and since then there have been 4 cycling days till here (Antofagasta).  Of those 4 cycling days I was only able to complete 2 due to the bug.  I am still not 100% but I am getting there, and tomorrow is a rest day, so very good news for me (not wanting to miss any more riding days).

Jock in desert camp

Someone adding their touch of humour to poor Jock

I know most folks prefer reading tales of misery and woe and overcoming obstacles rather than tales of joy and easy sailing (I blame the press for that), so I will start with the tale of my misery the last few days.  It all started on the night we stayed in Taltal.  That day I had decided (for a change) to ride with the slowest riders rather than being out alone upfront, or with the "same old same old" crowd.  Strangely enough it didn't feel any easier than when I cycled upfront so I figured I wasn't quite in tip top condition, and that maybe I was slightly under the weather.  Other than that I was eating and drinking fine.  Then in the nighttime my stomach started to protest and I knew that it was going to be a rough night.  At first it was just vomiting, but as the night progressed liquid was coming out of both ends of my body.  I didn't get a wink of sleep and neither did those in the tents around me.  In the morning I was completely dehydrated and just knew that riding would be a big mistake and would have made thing much worse, especially as the day involved a 2,000m climb.  So I did what I had not imagined I would be doing on this tour, and I took the truck.  Most of the day I slept and then when we arrived to the desert camp at 2,000m I found some shade and continued sleeping.  Later in the day all my joints began to ache and I was feeling weaker and weaker, the latter most likely exaserbated by the hot desert sun, with the temp being in the high 30s.  By dinner time however I felt slightly better and managed to eat and drink a little.

I slept very well in my tent last night in desert camp, but when I woke up I still didn't feel good.  My joints were aching more than the previous night, this time most likely exaserbated by the cold desert morning (deserts have such crazy temperature variations between night and day it seems), and I knew that riding would have been a bad idea.  So I did the unimaginable again, and took the truck for a second day.  When we arrived at the hotel in Antofagasta I went straight to bed and slept for quite some hours.  Now it is evening here, and I am out in the city and feeling much perkier.  With a lie in tomorrow I may be back to my usual self.

The 2 riding days before I got sick were very nice ones.  The first day from Bahia Ingelesa to the Pan de Azuchar national park was a fast 130km ride due to a tailwind for most of the day.  There were some rolling hills but they were usually low enough that momentum could carry you up most of the climb.  The morning was not quite so nice as the afternoon, as we were cycling on the Pan American highway (or route 5 as it is called here) and in some places the hard shoulder became narrow and it was a tough choice between braving the speeding trucks or having a rough ride in the gravel at the edge of the road.  I tried to cycle on the smoother road but then hop onto the verge everytime I heard a truck behind me.  These are the times when I try to make sure I am not riding alone and that I am neither riding at the front nor the back, so that all I have to do is make sure I am sticking out less than the others.  In the afternoon we left route 5 and went onto a silt road that was pretty smooth for most of its duration.  The route passed through the Pan de Azuchar national park and the scenery although desert like was very stunning.  That night we got yet another chance to camp on the beach and we were the only people staying at the beach that night despite it being a long holiday weekend here.

The Pan de Azuchar national park

In the afternoon Eric and I (who had arrived first and so had plenty of spare time on our hands) wandered into the nearby fishing village to see if there were any boat tours on offer, as apparently there are quite a few dolphins and penguins in the region.  We were in luck and a local fisherman said we could hire him and his boat for the equivalent of 100USD.  He said that he could take up to 19 people, so we went back to the group who by now had mostly arrived, and rounded up 8 other willing volunteers, making 10 of us in total.  When we arrived back at the village we donned our lifejackets and eagerly awaited our departure.  After an interesting embarkment where one passenger was left stranded on the beach with the boat heading out to sea with the rest of us onboard, we went back and picked her up and then we headed out again.  Just round the corner from the port we saw a group of pelicans and then a pimpernel (so called because it has a red beak) and then a whole host of other sea birds whose names I don't recall.  Then it was off to the island that hosts 5,000 Humboldt penguins.  We could see the poo long before we saw the penguins but once we got closer to shore there were plenty of penguins to be seen too.  And the skipper informed us that we had chosen the best time of day to do the tour as during the day the penguins are out at sea catching fish and you don't see so many.  After seeing enough penguins that you might feel you are sick of penguins, if you were not a penguin lover like myself, we saw the next gem, a group of sea lions lounging around on top of some rocks.  Then it was full speed back to port ready so that a group of hungry cyclists could get their evening supper.

The following day the ride started off on the same silt road that we had been on the previous day, and there was almost no traffic.  Not far from the camp we were lucky enough to spot a family of 3 vicuñas.  They are a relative of the llama and were once considered endangered animals.  They didn't seem scared of us at all, and I was able to approach one on my bike to within 15m before he casually walked off.  What a treat that was for the day.  After that we continued our ride on the silt road towards higway 5, which by now has became our good old friend.  The first half of the ride was uphill, the middle part rolling, and the final section downhill to Taltal.  Once again the hard shoulder became very narrow in places, and I chose this time to cycle continuously in the gravel verge as despite being gravel it was not that rough a ride.  Taltal was also a beach camp, but this time there were lots of other people on the beach, most of whom left once it was dark.  We did get some new vistors in the night though, a couple of cars that decided to come down to the beach and park near our tents and play the same reggaeton song over and over again all night.  I was too busy throwing up to be bothered by them, but I am amazed the rest of the group was able to sleep through it or abstain from going over to them and asking them to turn it down.

From Antofagasta we now have 3 more riding days before we get to San Pedro de Atacama, where we will spend 2 full rest days.  There will be quite some climbing to be done before then though.  Then one of the highlights of the trip awaits us, cycling on the salt flats where apparently you can close your eyes and cycle for one hour if you are brave enough to try it.  The problem there will be navigation more than anything else.  And if it rains our bikes will be write offs from all the salty water that will get on them.  So lets pray for no rain when we are there.