Cycling days 209 to 215: San Juan to San Pedro

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Flag of Chile  ,
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Southwest Bolivia was the hardest riding so far. With daily hurricane force winds, double digit negative temperatures, hundreds of kilometers of washboard and sandy roads, we could barely cover 50km per day. After 2 weeks of this, we were glad to arrive in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and drop to more enjoyable elevation.

Day 209 (10/13/11): 32km

Our group of five is splitting up, boohoo. Shirley and Yannick are heading South to Laguna Colorada through more sandy washboard roads, Wisconson Matt is doing the same, but taking a rest day before taking off. Canadian Matt is taking the shorter route to Chile and Steve is trying to hitch a ride to Uyuni to make his way home to Lima, Peru where he can finally enjoy some Dominos pizza and reunite with his doggie (Plan B is to ride with Canadian Matt).

We pack up our things, say goodbye to our riding buddies, and hit the road at 10:30am. As we exit town, we immediately hit rotten jeep tracks and push the bicycles half of the time until we reach the edge of more salt flats where the ground is more compact. We would enjoy the riding except that the wind has gradually increasing and is now blowing so hard it is almost throws us over at times. So much hard work and wasted energy! We count down the kilometers to Chiguana, where we plan to stop for the day even though it means we will have covered only 30 or so kilometers for the day. There is just no point in trying to push on in these conditions. At 2:30pm, we arrive at the boom gate of the military post – the place looks really cool with its mini fortress walls and camouflage domes. No one is at the gate, and we aren't sure if the base has been abandoned, so we push our bicycles to one of the domes and knock on the door. A lieutenant answers and welcomes us to stay inside one of the buildings for the night. He also mentions that there were two cyclists who stopped for shelter yesterday and left around noon today. We askif the wind is always this relentless, but he says that it isn’t usually this bad and that the wind storm started about a week ago. As we take refuge inside our dome and things get worse outside, we hope that the storm doesn’t last much longer. In any case, the trend is worsening winds in the afternoon, so we plan on shifting our sleep cycle to wake up at pre-dawn and getting on the move at first light. For now, we have a late lunch and do some gear maintenance before going to bed early.

Day 2010 (10/14/11): 58km

The winds continued through the night, so there is no point in getting a super early start.We leave our refuge a little before 7am and we immediately start freezing with the 1⁰C temperature plus windchill. We push hard to try to create some body heat to warm up, but going faster creates our own wind – our body’s core heats up, but our feet and hands feel like icicles. Soon, we come to the start of today’s major climb. The hard work is great for generating body heat, but trying to scend a jeep trail full of loose sand and rocks really sucks. We reach the pass after 10km of half pushing the bikes and "cycling," and we are exhausted. We would like to take more breaks, but the wind is horrible and keeps switching directions, making it difficult to find a windbreak. There is not much around to hind beind anyway, so we push on. The road is so rotten Shirley takes two falls and Yannick deops his bike once. Shirley also snaps another rear brake cable; fortunately it happens on a relatively flat section and she is able to continue riding without the rear brakes until we round a hill that protects us from the worst of the wind. By 5pm, Shirley is dead tired and too banged up to continue much further. We set camp by the remains of a mud brick structure next to a laguna. This is the first sign of any kind of settlement we’ve seen all day and nowhere to refill water yet. As we set up the tent, we see flamingos  out on the lagoon and a fox stops by for a visit. A nice ending to a really tough day.

Day 211 (10/15/11): 55km

It is -11⁰C at 7am and all of our water is frozen. Thank goodness the wind has dwindled down to an annoyingly cold breeze. As we leave camp and round the laguna, we find that the water there has also frozen solid. The flamingos’ brilliant pink is a beautiful contrast againse the ice. We pedal by a couple aother lagunas and are able to refill our water at a hotel in the middle of the desert. At the last laguna, we see a line of about a dozen jeeps full of tourists getting out to take pictures – this is the most people we’ve seen in a while…and they all stare at us and take photos as we struggle up the sandy hill.

By noon, we’ve covered about 30km, much better than we expected considering the terrible terrain and elevation gain we hae today. We just wish we had more energy – we have to ration our food and are burning way more calories than we are consuming. For breakfast, we each had a piece of break with jam and for lunch, we are having one boiled egg with mayo on a piece of bread. At least the scenery we pass by is much more interesting than yesterday: rocky outcroppings, colored sand dunes, snowy peaks, and penitents along the jeep trail. And at least the gale force winds are blwing at our backs and to our sides most of the day.

By 4pm, Shirley is exhausted and takes another crash right in front of Yannick. Like the gentleman he is, he says, “I’ll help you up, but hold on, after I take a picture.” Falling down is an indication that it’s been a laong, hard day. With the winds increasing and the temperature dropping, it sounds like a good time to start searching for a place to rest for the night. We end up next to some icebergs next to a 3m high rock wall and struggle to put up the tent before our fingers and toes freeze. It’s only 5pm and the temperature in the sun is already back down to 1⁰C. It’s going to be a coooold night.

Day 212 (10/16/11): 53km

Yannick steps out of the tent and checks the thermometer…it reads -14⁰C! No wonder it was so cold last night, our sleeping bags aren’t rated for such a cold temperature. Even the water bottles that we kept next to us inside the tent are full of ice…brrr. We start packing up when the first rays of sun hit the tent and begins to thaw us out. Oh, the power of the sun! Thankfully, there is no wind this morning and it feels relatively warm despite our frosty awakening.

Some loose sand and rocky roads later, we arrive at Arbol de Piedra, a giant sandstone boulder carved into the shape of a tree by the wind and sand. It’s strange that these huge pieces of sandstone just appear out of nowhere in the middle of the desert. A few kilometers later, we pass a sign indicating that we are entering a National Reserve, but we don’t arrive at the fee station until hours later. The guide we are using says the fee was 30Bs, but we are surprised to find out that the fee has increased to 150Bs…five-fold! We don’t have enough money on us, just over 100Bs total, and ask if there are any options around paying the entire fee. We just things as trading in our Bolivia Lonely Planet, working for a couple days at the park, or taking a detour around the fee station. The answers is, “Nope, nope, and nope…the fee is 150Bs each.” We say we can clean up the park and show him the large bag of roadside litter that we had collected this morning. “Nope.” He wasn’t even the least bit appreciative of the job we had already done. He leaves to attend to some tourists arriving in a jeep. In the meantime, we pull out our map and find several other dirt roads we could take to avoid the fee station. Yannick goes inside after the tourists are gone to talk to the guy who says that passing through this gate is the only way South to get to Chile (a flat out lie!). In total, we spend over an hour at the fee station trying to come up with an alternative to paying the fee in its entirety, but the dude is completely uninterested. We figure that he must not really care if we pay or not because he’s left us outside alone with no options other than going back 300km from where we came from to take another road to Chile (completely out of the question considering our low food supply). Due to his neglect, we figure we are just wasting our time and enter the park without paying. Sorry dude, we see jeeps bypassing your fee station by going around the lagoon and we could do the same, but we just don’t want to pedal that far. Once we leave the fee station, no one chases us, yells at us, or tries to stop us. We just continue on our way and enjoy the views of Laguna Colorada.

Soon, the road deteriorates, Shirley falls down again, we are in excruciating pain from the chafing caused by bouncing on our seats all day long, the wind gets super cold, and Shirley is running out of energy. On top of all that, we begin to run low on water (but still enough to last tonight and tomorrow morning) and start taking out our aggravation on each other. Miraculously, we cross a fresh water stream…whoa…the first fresh water source we’ve seen in ages. What perfect timing! We drink up and fill up, then continue down the road until we see the entrance to a canyon. It’s only 4:30pm, but Shirley’s had enough bicycling for the day. We push our bikes through the sand and shelter behind some sandstone walls, calling it a day.

Day 213 (10/17/11): 46km

Incredibly, last night felt much warmer even though it is only -11⁰C this morning. Pitching our tent in an alcove that protected us completely from the wind probably helped keep us toasty – our tent barely fluttered in the wind even though we could hear it howling around us. The convenient thing about the wind blowing from the West each evening is that we are situated to get the first rays of sunlight each morning. And now that the air is still as we wake up, it feels like the most perfect morning we can remember. Starting the day with a long, gradual climb also gets our blood flowing and for the first time in a week, we take off our windbreakers and ride with only a fleece on.

As we take a break, we see a solo cyclist coming up the hill behind us. We meet Lucas from Switzerland, riding from Quito, Ecuador to Ushuaia, Argentina. Just before noon, we make it to the top of the 4,926m pass and have lunch by Sol de Manana geysers. From here, it is mostly downhill to our destination for the day. The loose sand and rocks make us go heavy on the brakes over the next 20km and we have to make many stops just to rest our hands and let the brakes cool down. At 3pm, we make it to the Restaurant by the aguas termales (hot springs). We heard of other cyclists stopping for the night here and we get an even better deal than we expected: 30Bs for dinner, a space on the floor to sleep, and breakfast in the morning. As we wait for dinner, we hit the hot spring – Yannick is the first one to get in and Shirley can’t remember the last time she has ever heard him this happy. Lucas climbs in and he immediately starts gushing as well. Okay, enough of this…time for the real test! Shirley immerses herself in the 35⁰C water and oh yesss…this is heaven! She has always been critical of hot tubs and hot springs, never having had a pleasurable moment in one, but it seems as though two weeks without a shower and being chilled to the bone for so long has finally made her appreciate this natural wonder. We all spend about an hour soaking ourselves to utter satisfaction, then head back into the restaurant and chit chat with the co-owner.

Dinner is served at 6pm and we are the only three eating. We start with steaming hot vegetable soup…oh, it’s been too long since we’ve had this and it tastes so good! Next, they bring out a big plate spilling over with pasta and potatoes, topped off with a nice chunk of llama steak. And on the side, we are served a giant plate filled with cucumber and tomatoes. We are in PARADISE!!! For the first time in a very long time, we eat until we are full. Oh, what a wonderful feeling. Coffee and hot milk finish things off to complete the most satisfying meal in the history of mankind. All those days of suffering have been forgotten and we sit there with the biggest smiles on our faces. At 7pm, two Russian touring motorcyclists stumble in from the cold nd they are welcomed in as well. We can tell that although they appreciate everything, we most certainly enjoyed it more. One of the best evenings of our bicycle tour!

Day 214 (10/18/11): 34km

We wake up to the sounds of pots clanking, knives sharpening, and women getting busy in the kitchen. It’s only 4:15am, but they’re beginning to prepare breakfast for the jeep tours that will start arriving at 6:30am. We lie in our sleeping bags on the ground, hesitant to move – we didn’t sleep much at all last night – what a mistake to indulge in so much coffee after dinner! We pack our things, load the bikes, change one of Shirley’s front brake pads, talk to some tourists, and give the restaurant some bottles of drinking water a jeep had insisted on giving us yesterday. We don’t drink purified bottled water and figure the restaurant can make a better profit out of it by selling them to tourists.

At 8am, we are ready to have breakfast: bread and pancakes with margarine, jam, and dulce de leche (caramel)…and more coffee. As we prepare to leave and pay the bill, it turns out there was a misunderstanding. The guy wants to charge us 30Bs for dinner plus another 15Bs for breakfast. We talk it over with him because we know we made it abundantly clear several times yesterday that 30Bs included everything. The guy immediately drops the price to 40Bs each. It’s not much money at all and the service we got was definitely worth it, but we just don’t have much money left. He notices the look of despair on our faces as we sift through the wallet counting our change and eventually says, “Todo bien, amigos, 30 Bolivianos” (It’s all good, my friends, 30Bs). We feel really bad about it and profusely thank him for being so nice.

We depart from the restaurant a little after 9am and start crawling our way up the dirt road. It’s the last big climb in our SW Bolivia section of the tirp and boy is it making us savor ever pedal stroke. It doesn’t help that a multitude of jeeps race by us and each time one passes, we have to move over  to the side of the road full of looser sand and rocks. The wind is strong and biting cold this morning, making us wonder why we aren’t soaking in the hot springs instead of freezing out here. We finally make it up the pass just after Noon and start bumping our way down theater side. We would love to stop for a break, but pausing for more than a couple minutes makes us numb from the cold wind. We push on until we eventually find a boulder to huddle behind and have a late 1pm lunch.

We only ride for about another hour and arrive at the last good camping spot mentioned in our guide. Lucas says he’s going to stop here for the day even though it is still early (and he has a couple weeks of time to kill before he buses to Santiago, Chile). Yannick and Shirley debate whether we should keep going to exit the part and cross the border to Chile. Yannick’s shoulder pinch has been getting really painful lately, so we stop for a break and take a look at the map and description more carefully. We sit behind the wall of an abandoned building, soaking up the sun and start getting lazy. We come up with too many better reasons just to stop here for the day (i.e., cold wind picking up, Yannick’s shoulder, Shirley’s chaffing getting worse, good camp, not crossing the border too late, we are tired from last night’s lack of sleep, Laguna Verde is supposed to be greener in the morning, etc.) as opposed to the one reason to keep going (an earlier arrival in San Pedro tomorrow). We settle inside one of the ruined buildings, pitch the tent, and start planning our route through Chile and Argentina.

Day 215 (10/19/11): 66km

Again, it is really cold this morning; not unusually cold, but this time Yannick is shivering. As we pack up the gear, we frequently pause to go outside of the building to stand in the sun to warm up our digits. We take off before Lucas and head for the Laguna Verde viewpoint. There are plenty of Jeeps already there with groups taking photos of each other with the laguna and mountains in the background. The shallow, pale green water and it’s perfect reflective surface makes a beautiful mirror image of the peaks in the distance. After taking in the views, we pedal down to the lagunas and cross the icy stream connecting Laguna Blanca to Verde. One slip on the unstable, frozen rocks could very well lead to frostbite, so we are very careful not to mess up now! We make it across just fine and stand there watching tiny birds walking through the water and wonder how that is possible – it is amazing how adaptive animals are.

As we pedal towards the exit of the park, we can see the pay station in the distance. Rather than having to deal with another confrontation with and ending that we already know, we decide to take a 2km cross country detour and push our bicycles far around the buildings. We join back to the dirt road with no problems from any park employees and slowly ride up the bill to Bolivian immigration. What a horribly boring and lonely job it must be to sit here in this dilapidated building in the cold, windy desert for 30-day shifts. At least the guy has a wild fox to keep him a little entertained. We pay a fee of 15Bs each and get our exit stamps, have a snack, and watch Lucas arriving in the distance. We joke with him and tell him the fee here has increased five-fold as well – he just curses in defeat. We feel a little bad, so we tell him the truth a few minutes later, making his spirits perk up again.

A photo op at the Chilean border sign and we finish the last of our climb uphill…and the last of the dirt road as well! We have arrived at a beautifully smooth paved road…yaaah! We FLY down the 40km to San Pedro de Atacama, feeling the temperature slowly increase as we plummet from 4,600m to 2,500m. The wind down at this altitude is warm and we are enjoying the heat on our bodies. We go to immigration and get our bags scanned at customs, and marvel over how modern and civilized this country is. We feel like we are pedaling through a small city in Arizona as we make our way to the town’s plaza. The place is crawling with tourists (we are told), but we can’t really tell them apart from the locals. We sit there with free wi-fi, warm-baked bread, deli-sliced ham, cold butter, and fresh milk as we watch people passing by on bicycles that are more expensive than ours. Ah, we feel like hobos again! (In a way, it’s a nice feeling to seem poorer than the people around us because it means they won’t be tempted to rob us! :)

Canadian Matt finds us in the plaza and tells us that Steve couldn’t resist riding with him into Chile instead of heading home from San Juan; they rode together until they reached Calama yesterday. We are happy to hear this news because it means the now the wiser and more street cycling savvy Steve got to experience one more country before finally heading home. Matt also informs us that this little city of SP Atacama looks like a dump compared to some of the other “really modern” ones that make you feel as though you’re back in Vancouver, Canada. Crazy, dude. Next, we meet Gerhardt again, a German motorcycle tourist Yannick met back at Joe’s Place in Huaraz, Peru. We hang out with him, then go have a dinner of rotisserie chicken and French fries. The portions are so huge that Shirley can’t finish her plate!

We’ve spent $20 USD today just on food – we still need to get used to the exchange rate and higher prices in this country, which is about three times as expensive as Bolivia. At this point, we don’t feel like spending more money on a hotel room (minimum 8,000 pesos [$16] per person for a dorm room) or pay to camp in the city (3,000pesos [$6] per person), so we ride a couple kilometers outside of the city to camp in the quiet desert.

Day 216 (10/20/11): 0km

Rest day in San Pedro de Atacama. We work on the bicycles and on the blog. The laptop runs out of batteries and we find out they use a different shaped electric outlet in this country. Yannick buys an adaptor and Shirley goes to sit in a coffee shop to finish typing the blog, feeling like she’s back in the USA. Tomorrow, we start making our way to Argentina.

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Terrance on

Nice to see you made it back to civilization.

Steve Ammann on

Hi Yannick and Shirley- Henry and I just returned from the baja and we see you might be headed to Salta Argentina. Henry's grandma is from there I think is there now. if you want to meet some of the family in Salta let us know!
Steve and Henry

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