Cycling days 209 to 215: San Juan to San Pedro
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
120Trip End Jan 19, 2012
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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.