Chile

Sand, Wind And Solitude – Part 2

I have rolled into San Juan in the early afternoon. Look for a cheap place to sleep, park Lou and then visit all the local shops to find supplies for more than a week. Not counting parking Lou, the tasks were not as simple as they might have appeared at first glance. The fact is that in these small, remote towns it’s not that easy to find an open cheap accommodation in the middle of the day. The owner normally work on fields during the day and only return to their home about an hour before the sunset when all the tourist jeeps stopping for the night arrive.
Still I did manage to find an open “hotel” where could stay for the night. Then shopping. The prices around here are about double what I was paying in the rest of Bolivia. Reason – remoteness of these places. Uyuni, the first decent town is more than 150km away. And all the merchandise comes from there.
I find a shop that has a bit more on offer than the others. I stock up on rice, pasta, instant soups, biscuits and similar. Then I go back to my “hotel”. Tomorrow the second part of this high-altitude tour begins.

For my first day I have chosen a bit longer route that takes me all the way to the border with Chile. But based on the info I managed to collect, this way I can avoid climbing a pass with a bad road leading over it. On the other hand, the road to the border is almost completely flat. The only problem I can see with my plan is, that I’m going west. And the prevailing winds around here are westerly, south-westerly. But they should not be too much of a problem, since they normally pick up only in the afternoon.
Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately nobody told the winds about my plan. On the day of my departure their afternoon started sometime before 9 a.m. That meant it took me more than 10hours (including short stops along the way) to cycle 65km to Avaroa, the border town. There I found refuge for the night in a house under construction. The workers there allowed me to set up my tent in one of the rooms.
Here in Avaroa I had the last chance to opt for an easier way out. Cross the border and descend down in Chile on a paved road. But I have opted out of this option. I turned away from the border and started to climb on a surprisingly nice, well maintained gravel road towards the interior. Towards the junction for the lagoons.

One last look back – Here goes nothing!

After about 30km I came to the point where the route towards the lagoons splits off. Courageously I took the route of dubious quality.

Signpost for cyclists – Seeing this means you are on the right path

The road confirms the signpost

Managing the first pass. Steep, rocky road was done with a lot of pushing. On the other side I’m again faced with the lottery of tracks. Which one to choose?!

Decisons, decisions…

At the end of the day I manage to haul my ass to the shores of the first lagoon. There I’m greeted by Severino, man responsible for maintaining the road. Well, a small stretch of it. The last 5, 10 km and the 10 that are ahead. But more than in his care of the road I’m currently interested if I could use his house as a shelter from the wind to pitch my tent. No problem, but if I want, I can sleep inside his house. His “roommate” has gone today to Uyuni since then ran out of bread and vegetables. He will not be coming back until tomorrow. This has left him with a spare mattresses next to a warm stove inside the house. It didn’t took him long to change my plans!
I park Lou outside and move myself inside. Our supper is a delicious stew that has been brewing on his stove all day long. We finish the day with a nice conversation. It’s nice and warm being inside!

Severino and me

Saying goodbye to Severino, I set off the next day. It’s about 10km to the next lagoons. Takes me more than 2 hours to reach it. Enjoying the shade of an eco-hotel “Los Flamingos” I decide to stay here for the night. It another 40km of mostly sand to the next populated place. That’s a bit too much for today.

Laguna Hedionda

Flamingo

So I befriend Samuel, manager of the hotel. I do ask about the price of a room, but when he mentions 140 USD/night, I only kindly ask if I can pitch my tent in the nearby house under construction. And that’s how the future toilets become my home for the night. I share it with an elderly Australian couple that arrive a bit later on their bicycles.
In the morning the Aussies are in a rush so they roll out at 7h. I take it a bit more easily and so I receive an invitation by the cook to a breakfast. Pancakes, toast, fruits, yoghurt,… Luxury!

Breakfast at Laguna Hedionda

After about 10km I leave the last lagoon behind and the road disappears. What I’m left with is more like a field of 4×4 tracks all leading in the same direction. Some are sandier, others less, but non suitable for cycling. Most of the day I’m left to pushing Lou up a gentle uphill and into headwind. Until I had enough of it a bit past 3 p.m. I head towards a nearby rock formation that should provide me with some shelter. Hopefully this way I will not be blown away, tent and all, during the night. The wind up here is ferocious.

Campsite at 4.600 metres

I sleep with a bottle of water next to me inside the sleeping bag. The rest of the water that I have left outside overnight has turned to ice.
I start day five of the “Ruta de las Lagunas” where I have left off the day before. In sand! Pushing and pushing, seemingly not moving at all.

Sand, sand and more sand

Common sight – Simon pushing his bike

After about 5km the sand is replaced by rocks. Not yet cyclable, but easier to push the bike. That’s how I make it atop another pass. I’m about 10km from Hotel del Desierto, the nearest building that also promises water and shelter for pitching the tent. Maybe even sleeping inside. I will anyhow reach it only by the end of the afternoon, maybe early evening. As it turns out, I have to push Lou even on the downhill as the sand is so deep that even the gravity is left helpless.
I reach Hotel del Desierto about an hour before the sunset. Price of the room – not even worth mentioning – 150 USD/night. But the kind lady at the reception mentions that they make an exception for cyclists and they allow us to sleep in the rooms reserved for the drivers of the tour jeeps. The promise of a hot shower, warm bed and a breakfast that is included in the price, help to convince me that I do not feel like setting up my tent. It looks like that I will anyhow camp tomorrow evening.
So I say goodbye to the day nicely showered, covered with a warm blanket and a few wet clothes drying on the heater. Making the most out of the situation, I use the opportunity of having running water to do some laundry.

High altitude desert

I make the first 10km from Hotel del Desierto half cycling, half walking. Initially my morning choice of the 4×4 tracks looked very promising. But after about 5km they turned into sand and I was returned to the reality of the past 2 days. Off of the bike and pushing towards the horizon that can never be reached. Eventually, after about 3 hours of this torture, I was greeted by a maintained gravel road. For the next 20km I was able to enjoy the fact that I only had to get off the bike sporadically when I came across a sandier patch. Or I was pushed into it by a sudden stronger gust of wind. The road might have been a maintained one, but it has been a while since the maintenance guys have pasted by here.
By the evening I find shelter behind a house of some caretaker who today is not at home. Watching the sunset and observing the game of hide and seek by the shadows and the fading light. The hardest part of the route should be behind me as I have reached the maintained road.

Another day is ending

New day, new curves. After about 5km the descend to Laguna Colorada begins. And again sand, deep sand. At least 80% of the descend I have to push. Lou just sinks in too much. And no, the headwind, that has started again early today, does not help at all. By mid-afternoon I manage do make it to the entrance to the national park. I pay the entrance fee and decide to spend the night in one of the refugios here. A bed for 4 EUR/night, cheap dinner of pasta with tomato sauce. Easy life!

I have decided already yesterday that I will not be climbing almost 5.000 metres high pass laying ahead on this kind of road. True that the actual altitude difference is only about 600 metres since I’m sleeping at 4.400. But based on the info I’m getting from the local drivers, the road to the top is same or very similar shit. Nope, that’s not for me!
So I move towards the entry to the national park and I wait for some tour jeep that could take me at least to the top if not all the way to the first house on the other side. I wait all day in the company of Reynaldo, the park ranger. There is no traffic passing by, so I have time to enjoy a tasty lunch that Reynaldo offers me. And I watch how the wind plays with sand.

Sandstorm over Laguna Colorada

In the late afternoon several jeeps arrive but they are all full and cannot give me a lift. All up until when Omar and Gonzalo come with their tour of 4 backpackers. Since they are not full there is a space for me. Lou and all my equipment go on the roof.
While driving to the summit and chatting with the guys, I manage to find time to look at the road. I’m even happier that they are giving me a lift.
They take me with them all the way to a refugio by the lagoon on the other side where they plan to spend the night. The refugio itself is full so I say goodbye to the company. I manage to persuade Damian, manager of a nearby restaurant, to allow me to unroll my sleeping bag in one corner of the restaurant. I have a headache and I’m feeling sick. After so many kilometres I have done cycling on these altitudes, my body somehow could not accept the fact I have climbed to 5.000 metres that fast. But I’m too tired to be bothered by this. I have a quick dinner, roll into my sleeping bag and fall asleep. Tomorrow is a new day!
In the morning I have all packed up and Lou is ready to depart already by 6 a.m. That is when the first tour jeeps arrive for breakfast. But I do not set off that early. Yesterday Damian told me that if I wait a bit in the morning, I can even get a breakfast. Food that is left over by the tours is worth a fortune to a touring cyclist in these parts. Before setting off Damian and one of the employees give me even more extra food for the road. Time to say goodbye.
Taking into account the local conditions, the road on this side feels like highway. I slowly climb from 4.400 to almost 4.750 metres while constantly turning my head left and right. Every mountain that comes into view seems to be of a different, immensely intensive colour. I did try to take photos, but somehow it seems that the colours and the contrasts on the photos just cannot capture the reality.

Morning mountains 1

Morning mountains 2

Morning mountains 3

Morning mountains 4

After the climb, there is a descend of about 20km. To the other side and the last of the lagoons and a refugio on its shores. Give it is already afternoon, I’m again greeted by the headwind. And not to have it too easy today since I practically have not pushed the bike, I take a “shortcut”. This way I get the chance to again push Lou uphill. As not to forget.
Well tired I make it to the refugio where I get a bed and food. The last port of call before the border. I’m just a gentle 6km uphill away from it. That I leave for tomorrow.
My last day in Bolivia I start easy. Also because while I was yesterday fighting with the wind, I have decided that I will turn right and not left as initially planned at the first junction in Chile. Left would continue to take me through the high mountains to Argentina. And the first sort of decent town in Argentina is about 4-5 days cycling away. Going right, well going right I have about 40km descend to San Pedro de Atacama. Another tourist Disneyland, but exactly because of this even more appealing to me right now. Since if it is a tourist destination, that means there is all the commodity that I have been missing for the past 14 days. Running water, electricity, internet, comfy, cosy bed,… And let’s not to forget to mention, San Pedro is more than 2.000 metres lower and that is well reflected on the temperatures. About 30 degrees during daytime. Isn’t that nice?!
Saying goodbye to Bolivia I roll into Chile. Tarmac! What a luxury!

Goodbye Bolivia

One foot in Chile – Asphalt!

Nice sight – Paved road

After more than 40km downhill into headwind that this time around I’m glad I had since it helped me brake, I make it to Disneyland. Clearing the immigrations I head straight to Sonchek where the owner Mojca, a Slovenian living here for more than 23 years, opens the door.

I’m saved! Well at least for a few days. Argentina is still on the other side of the Andes and it is still where I’m heading to. Let me just first take in the abundance of oxygen and indulge myself in all the comfort.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

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Paso Agua Negra

I have stayed one week in La Serena. Desperatly needed rest after kilometres and kilometres of desert. In my mind I was already flirting with vacations at the end of March thou it was not even the end of Januray. But it was not only the two months that were separating me from the vacation, there was another little detail. I was on the wrong side of the Andes. When I will return to these parts of the World, automn will be already saying its’ goodbye. And this means that crossing a 4.000 and more metres high mountain passes will not be sometthing that is recomended on a bicycle without chains for the tires.
So I have headed east from La Serena towards 250 km distant mountain pass of Agua Negra. With its’ 4.780 metres above sea level it is the highest mountain pass between Chile and Argentina, just so that my job would not be too simple. And to make it a bit less easy, 120 kilometres of the road crossing it is gravel.
But the motivation was there as well as the desire to get it over with the task that separates me from my vacations.
Three days of pedalling through a narrower and narrower valley pass the Chilean border post, all the way to the beginning of the gravel. Menacing clouds and a few rain drops force me to seek shelter under the roof of a solitary shelter the original function of which is still unknown to me. My first night on a, one could say, no mans’ land. I’m on Chilean side of the pass, but officially I have left Chile about 20km ago when the border police stamped my passport.
The next day I’m dealing with a loose gravel road, the result of road works being done by the Chileans. The progress is difficult. Lou sinks into the loose gravel on more than one occasion and leaves me no choice but to push it along.
The countryside is stunning. Mountains changing colours, the intense blue of the sky, a tranquil lake, first snow-capped peaks beyond which lies Argentina start to appear.
Around 16h heavy storm clouds start to appear again. Today I’m not as lucky with the shelter, some grains of hail and a bit of rain catch me. However I do get lucky meeting an Argentinian family traveling with a van. They stop by my side and give me water. This way I do not have to fill it up and filter it from the nearby turbid stream.
The third day in the mountains I pedal until just after noon when I come to a point where the road continues in a zig-zag up the slope. This means that some flat areas to pitch my tent are probably non-existent all the way to the summit. And I need more than just half a day to the top. So I decide to stop and pitch my tent for one more night on this side of the pass.
I spent the afternoon in a shade of a rock. Observing the landscape and searching for molecules of oxygen in my inhales. I’m at 4.100 metres. A condor comes to say hello (flies over me at a safe distance).
Waking up into a fresh new morning. The day is going to be long and difficult, that much I can tell. The higher I am, the more times I need to get of Lou and push it. Every a bit more steep inclination stops me. At one point I have to push Lou in a zig-zag as doing it in a straight line is just impossible.
Gravel road, the wind and the altitude take their price. I’m moving at about 3 km/h, little break frequent, summit still far. I catch a glimpse of it turn one corner. Still missing about 7 km. But this is a distance that I can do and I can do it before the afternoon clouds roll in with a good chance of precipitation that follows. Slowly but surely I make my way towards the top. The last 2km I walk, the wind coming across the pass forces me into it. Just one curve and I’ll be at the top. Gathering my strengths I mount on Lou and the last 200 metres I cycle. I pass under a sign “Paso de Agua Negra – Limite Internacional”, I stop and I cry. Joy, relief, end of exertion, a flood of emotions.
After a short break I descend on the other side. The battle with the gravel road and the wind is still not over. After two hours of going downhill I’m rattled to the bone, hands are numb. I make camp among the ruins of an unfinished house. At least I have some shelter from the wind.
The next day another 15 km of gravel road before I hit brand new asphalt. Descend towards the gendarmes and then to the border post. New stamp, I’m officially in Argentina.
2km down the road is a small town, Las Flores. In the park in front of a gas station a young family on their way back from vacations in Chile is waiting for me. A while ago they passed me by and invited me to join them in Las Flores. Cold water and a meat sandwich (well lots of meat covered by a bit of bread) – Welcome to Argentina!
After about an hour we say goodbye to each other. They go on on their way home, me … Actually I don’t know, I feel lost, without a goal. The task that I had to do before my vacation, that is to cross the Andes, is done. It was tough, probably the toughest mountain pass that I have ever cycled, but now that is all behind me. So what do I do now?
I wander for a while through the small town. Just enough that the feeling of being lost fades away and a more rational thinking can prevail.
The date on my plane ticket is fix and it will not happen sooner nor later regardless of what I do. Besides there is one more little, pleasant task to do. I have promised Andres I will visit him at his home in Santa Rosa, La Pampa. Still missing about 1.200 kilometres. Since I cannot teleport myself over there I climb on Lou and together we hit the Road.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

Desert Solitude

About two months ago I descended from the Peruvian Andes down to the coast and started my »romance« with the desert. After almost 3.000 km I have reached La Serena, Chile a few days ago. Here is where Atacama, the World dries desert, ends. On average there is only 15mm of rainfall per year and there are some weather stations that have never received any rain. In some areas they were even unable to find any signs of life, not even bacteria.
On the outskirts thou, first signs of life do start to appear. So in the days approaching La Serena I have started to see more vegetation around me. Small shrubs and cactuses were gradually winning the battle with sand and rocks. My eyes are starting to get used to greenery.

Regardless how much I love deserts, I do have to admit that the past two months were tough. Desert is an extreme environment. Kilometres and kilometres of nothing, emptiness. The sun is already high in the sky at 8h and it doesn’t get weaker until about 19h. The wind picks up around noon and doesn’t rest until sunset or it keeps on howling into the night all the way until morning. And all the time without any possibility of running away from the elements. No shade, no shelter from the wind. All that you have is a bicycle and turning the pedals hoping you make it to a shade that can be 60-70 or even more kilometres away. A lonely house of a roadside inn which around here is called posada. A location where you can stock up on water, refresh yourself with a cold drink and treat your body with some rest in a shade. Providing of course the posada is open. But if you go into this adventure with some of my trademark brightness, then you leave the comfortable and cosy city environment of Antofagasta on January 1st and you make sure that you will go through the most empty stretch exactly when everything is closed for two days. I did stock up on water before leaving Antofagasta but the next day I made it to a posada that was closed. Normally in Chile only January 1st is a holiday, but this year the president of Chile probably knew that I will be wandering around so she made January 2nd also a holiday. How lucky am I?! This meant I could only use the shade of the posada. Surely welcome but it doesn’t quench my thirst. Fortunately there was a camp for workers building a new power line about 30km further ahead. There I was able fill up my water bag. One of the workers caught up with me on the road about an hour later and he gave me an extra bottle of water. Also Chileans proved to be a hospitable and friendly nation. The way they have been on many occasions in this month that I have spent in Chile. Sometimes I was given a cold drink somewhere beside the road when a car has stopped and waited for me to drag myself to it and they were able to give me a cold drink. Once it happened that a car was unable to stop so they just slowed down to throw a bottle of water into the desert. I have stopped, picked it up and drank it.

At the same time, this is an area of the clearest night skies. After the wind calms down, when the Sun is saying goodbye and with its last rays escorts the da into night, small lights start to light up on the sky. Usually this is the time when I have already finished my first dinner and with a cup of coffee in my hand, speechless, I watch the Universe and this magic transformation of light into dark. All the effort I have invested during the day to reach this magic place is gone, like it has never existed.
The show actually never stops, but at some point you find yourself surrounded by silence and the starry carpet. Its clearness and immensity have always enchanted me. And so I have, in moments of infinity, where Time and Space do not exists, often just sat there until my neck started to ache. At the same time I was there, anywhere in the World and nowhere all at the same time.

Most of my time I have spent in kilometres and kilometres of emptiness, solitude. The only sign of life were spars trucks and buses overtaking me. In their absence I’ve listened to the sound of silence, only a hushed buzzing of the tires being bitten by the tarmac. Nobody in sight, just me and Lou.
In all this solitude I never felt lonely. I just was and I was alone. Alone with my thoughts and feelings. Hours and hours “walking” through the remotest parts of your own consciousness (or thinking about more practical stuff like how to repair a big hole in your front pannier). There is no society that would force you to put on a mask that is more socially acceptable. The kind that slowly, bit by bit robs you of your own identity, of your own Being. No need for that and the immensity and roughness of the surroundings in a way also do not allow you to waist your energy on these kind of things. You just are the way you are and you have to accept yourself like that. Sometimes I like myself more, sometimes less, but all of this is Me.

Andres and I went our separate ways just before entering Antofagasta. I wanted to go into the city, nothing urgent, just profiting for a while the benefits of civilization like running water, supermarket and the option to connect with the World. This meant about 25km of a detour and also one not so nice climb on exiting the city. He wanted to avoid all this. After months and thousands of kilometres he had behind him, he felt that home is practically within reach (true, still about 2.000 km away, but at the same time so close). So close to home he did not want to make an unnecessary stop and additional kilometres and climbs. He stayed on the by-pass road and continued south towards his family and friends waiting for him in Argentina. I on the other hand turned off and descended into Antofagasta and only virtually connected myself with my family. But the goodbye was “Hasta la proxima vez!” (Until we meet again).

Not only the separation but also all the kilometres of emptiness, solitude, brought to the surface the sentiment of homesickness in me. I miss my family, friends, familiar surroundings, I have never denied that. The down side of travelling is that I’m not home with familiar, dear people. That I cannot have a cup of coffee on a balcony with my brother, that I cannot go to my mother for a lunch, that I cannot go for a beer (well, two since it’s never just one) with a friend.
Since a few months ago I have decided to prolong my wandering in South America for about a year, my reunion with my dear ones has been postponed for the same period of time. And this aspect of my otherwise brilliant plan of discovering what lies behind a corner is something I have never really liked. So in the kilometres of desert solitude I have decided that I’ll return home, temporarily, just for a visit. With the help of internet I managed to find an affordable plane ticket and with some help from my family I have also bought it and am now ready to return to Slovenia end of March to enjoy the springtime over there.
With this I’m officially announcing that from the end of March until mid-May I’m open for invitations for a cup of coffee, a beer or straight to a picnic. Just let me know where and when.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon