The vast and desolate beauty of the desert has inspired some of the greatest writers and thinkers of all time. Or, if you’re me, it inspires the corruption of some very catchy song lyrics …”I’m riding through the desert on a bike with no chain….”
Chilean Adventures Part 1:
Having arrived in Chile just a few days ago and with the briefest of nods to Santiago I was eager to catch a flight northwards to stay in the heart of the Atacama desert in the dusty little town of San Pedro.
San Pedro de Atacama has undergone a bit of a tourist boom in the preceding years, evident in the overwhelming number of hostels and travel agencies jostling for position in its narrow, dirt streets. Tourism is most definitely the main currency of the area, bombarding the mass of dread-locked twenty-something back-packers with excursions to the local salt flats, horse riding, sand-boarding, star gazing or trekking, providing year round income to this once sleepy little town.
Forming part of the non-gap-year minority myself, and my partner in crime (PIC), are also there to swell the population and to check out the mountain biking. Happily there’s no shortage of mountain bikes for rent although after a hot and weary few hours checking out the myriad of hire-centres it seems like finding one in any fit state to be ridden isn’t going to be so easy. These are obviously well-used bikes and I’ve long since stopped looking for immaculate, lowering my sights to something which has either tread left on the tyres, functioning forks/brakes or non-buckled wheels. More than one of the above will be a bonus.
We finally find a couple of serviceable red Trek hardtail bikes in reasonable condition with 27.5inch wheels, disc brakes and passable forks – their dubious functionality being demonstrated by the 100kg shop owner whose entire weight it took to compress them.
We’re ready to go though and for the next 4 days PIC, myself and the Trek (whom I’ve very originally nicknamed Red) will be exploring some of the finest sand and dirt this little part of the Atacama has to offer.
The first day we plan small and head off for what’s anticipated to be an easy, acclimatizing ride across the desert to a salt water lake – Laguna Cejar.
What I hadn’t taken into account was the altitude which, at nearly 2500 metres above sea level, meant that I was feeling the effects.
A fairly flat looking 20 km on the map soon turned out to be harder work than anticipated. Being surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes of the Andes did help to draw focus away from my rather grumpy legs as did the more immediate scenery.
Having failed to read any of the guidebooks I was less than clued up about the area. At first I genuinely thought I was seeing snow as the ground around me starting turning white, that or I was hallucinating but no, these we salt-flats (the start of the Salar de Atacama) the like of which I have never seen before. Everywhere you looked a thin crust of white covered the sandy earth, like cake frosting which has started to melt.
I was entranced for the first few kilometres although after a while the glare from the flats reflected the sun even more intensely, that combined with a strong wind which whipped up dust devils, spectacular in the distance like mini-tornadoes but blinding up close. This was distinctly hard work.
As well as the altitude, other things I also hadn’t taken in to account:
That the desert is hot. At 8:00 in the morning it’s deceptively and beautifully cool, but an hour later when the sun has lazily yawned over the tops of the mountains the air becomes super-charged reaching temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius. There is no shade as nothing is stupid enough to grow here so the sun is relentless
If you ever want to know what a roasting chicken feels like my advice would be to try cycling in the Atacama.
It was with some sense of relief that we reached the salt lakes, the thought of a refreshing swim managing to push out thoughts of the long slog back.
Laguna Cejar is managed as a national park and swimming is permitted but in only one of the three lagoons there. These startlingly blue lakes are surrounded by desert grass and white salt-sand against a back drop of volcanoes and made every effort of the ride worthwhile.
What also greeted me were stern warning signs not to put my face in the water. Slightly disturbed but longing for a swim I practically ran across the salty-sand surface and waded straight in to the strangest water I have ever been in as it tried to spit me straight back out.
It was literally anti-swim water. Every time I tried to submerge a limb it would float right back to the surface. Trying to swim on my front was almost comical as arms and legs popped out the water leaving me looking like an extreme sky-diver. In the end, the only way to move about in this viscose liquid was to paddle bolt upright in a funny kind of swim walk. It was hilarious and surreal.
Jumping out to dry off any refreshment offered by the liquid evaporated immediately leaving skin coated in a crust of prickly salt. Fortunately the on-site showers dealt with the worst before facing the sticky, salty, wind-blown ride back to town. Never have 40km felt so long. Fortunately, back in San Pedro, the influx of backpackers means that beer is plentiful supply and comfortingly cheap. It felt well deserved that night.
Back on Red the next day and we were aiming to explore the valleys and mountains beyond the native settlement of Catarpe, a short 8km ride up the trail.
The area had been recommended both for its stunning views and excellent mountain biking. As it turns out we weren’t going to be disappointed.
Heading out of San Pedro’s dirt roads we quickly headed uphill on stony, sandy trails punctuated by the odd river crossing and the odd large herd of goats
2500 pesos (or roughly £3.00) per person gave entry to the national park and a veritable mountain biker’s paradise.
First climb of the day was up to ‘El Tunel’ (The Tunnel), what it says on the tin, a tunnel built in the 1930’s through the mountain which tops out a once much-used pass. Now however a crumbling dirt track of barely or less than a car’s width winds up the side of the mountain. The trail is only a 4km detour from the main valley track but they were 4 hard, vertical km up sandy, rocky terrain. It also necessitated much weaving around on the bike to avoid disconcertingly large potholes, potholes in which you couldn’t see the bottom, or worse still you could see daylight, revealing both the drop below and the overhang on which you were riding.
The road itself used to connect San Pedro with the city of Calama over 100km away until sensibly replaced by a tarmac alternative in a not too dim and distant past!
As the tiny, crumbling road rose through the mountains, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person navigating a car around its decaying narrow edges.
The tunnel itself was cool respite and perched so high up offered fantastic views to the river valley below, a startling green amidst the arid landscape.
A quick obligatory out and back through the sand-filled tunnel where the road peters out and then time to make up for all that climbing with a rapid, thrilling descent, also trying to avoid the worst of the abyss-like potholes.
Picking up the main (and only) track through the park we crash through a river crossing. My heart picks up speed when, in gung-ho mood, I offer to go first and it turns out to be much deeper than anticipated. Pedaling madly and breathlessly out of the flow, I’m drenched, exhilarated and laughing like a loon.
The plan now is to take the main 4×4 dirt road to the church. It’s an easy ride alongside the river valley and the scattering of green farms that sprout along it making a pleasant ride, all encapsulated by high red mountains. The day is hot but, cooled by the river soaking, it feels good. Twice we park up the bikes and go exploring on foot, tempted by signs to Inca ruins and burial grounds a short (but hair-raising climb) from the main track.
The final short, steep climb to the pretty white church of San Isidro at the base of the valley reminds me of the altitude as my lungs struggle to gain oxygen in the depleted air.
We’ve been told of a well-used mountain biking route from here which makes a circuit back to the river crossing only, having reached the church, there are a distinct lack of signs.
In fact the only thing we find are intermittent little man-made piles of stones and the ghost of tracks that could belong to humans or goats leading off into the jagged teeth of mud moraine-like flows, some hundreds of feet high.
I’m a bit uncertain about heading off in to the moraine-field but the thing that decides it is spotting some tyre tracks. We head off. Over the next hour or so it feels like we are riding round in circles, we may very well have been. The bike tracks and the stone piles come and go intermittently leading us deeper into the mud-moraines. Every time they run out we debate turning back and then we spot another – possible-looking tail, and we head off with renewed confidence, albeit in a different direction.
Scaling and descending the moraines there are some amazing natural trails with berms, loose sand and drop offs, it’s exhilarating riding but also concerning.
Forming the side of the valley the mud is hardened but still soft and crumbly in places, with salt deposits crusting its surfaces. Cycling across its surface is surreal, especially when the crumbly mud cracks into soft sand. I constantly have the feeling if I stray too far off-piste I will disappear under the quick-sand like surface.
The moraines too, tower above us forming a crumbling maze. It’s hard to tell anymore which way we should be heading. In fact we can only head where the trails lead us, forcing unwanted turns and constantly throwing up walls which force us to lift the bikes over or dead-end after following promisingly wide paths.
We could be feet from the road for all we know but the 100 foot crumbling mud walls deny any access. It’s hot too, the stifling air being trapped within this maze and broiling us. With water running low and a tinge of anxiety starting to take hold we make the decision to retrace our steps. Not as easy as it sounds in a landscape where everything looks the same. After what seems like too long we finally stumble out onto one of the open flats and see the ragged stand of trees which marks one of the farm properties, beyond which is the road.
I apologies in my rough and ready Spanish as we haul ourselves and the bikes past 2 surprised farm workers, through the dense scrub-land and back to the main track. Never have I been so pleased to see a dirt road before.
You may be thinking that now would be a good time to find another place to ride next but the mud-moraines, and the promise of this circular route have taken hold. Despite the scare of getting lost the terrain is addictive.
We return a day a couple of days later to tackle the route from the other end by the river crossing. This time PIC’s done some more scouting whilst I’ve been off horse riding and, after a check on Google maps we’re pretty confident!
The track is definitely easier to find from this direction, winding up past Garganta del Diablo (either the Devil’s throat or his shaft, depending on how you translate it!), a cave mouth high in the cliffs.
After that, although a little elusive in parts, the route is much more clearly visible and so worth it.
Sandy berms (corners) and single track wind up and down through the mud-moraines, we squeeze through narrow gaps, around rock falls and climb and swoop before ascending high on to a plateau. Skidding and sliding down this sandy trail we come across the salt flats where we took our exit from the previous ride. How close we were had we but realised it.
Helpful stone arrows also point out the trail in this direction, in fact we even meet a volunteer out there repairing them.
It’s become noticeable that both of the chains on our less that road-worthy bikes are now complaining vociferously, the combination of many kilometers in sand and water having nearly seized them. With no oil and no spares there’s little we can do except spin on in a low gear whilst helpfully humming the America song from the title…”riding through the desert ….mmm… bike with no chain…mmm” crossing my fingers they don’t break entirely!
The final climb up towards the church is a lung-busting push up near vertical terrain followed by the most amazing natural single track descent sweeping through gullies and rock gardens until we arrive breathless, high on adrenaline at the little white chapel. We did it! And the only thing that could top that ride……is to reverse the route and go back again. So we do. Whooping and sailing up and down the moraines, taking the berms at breakneck speed, the muddy walls now feeling friendly as they speed past.
The river crossing arrives all too soon and the ride back is a welcome cool down and a calm down.
I’m sure I could ride here for a long time and not get bored, with terrain that tests both fitness, navigational skill and technical ability, what’s not to like? The surface, the features and the natural trails providing endless variety. I also learn later that this trail forms part of the route of the infamous Atacama Crossing a 7 day desert marathon which sees runner tackling 250 km through just this terrain.
Sadly though it’s time to say goodbye to the desert as there are other parts of Chile to explore and other cycling adventures planned but I leave wanting more and who knows…..